The Waiting Game

I love to travel. Regular readers of this site will find that perhaps the greatest understatement of the week, if not longer.

But more than that, I love to travel as a missionary. Almost always, anyway. And I know, I know – on the one hand, I’m most definitely not a “real missionary”, because I get to do this a couple of weeks, or maybe a month each year. and I also know that in another sense, every believer is a missionary every day. But some days…well, some days it’s a little easier to feel holier than others. Let me explain.

Sometimes, the work that travelers get to do is simply amazing. You finally get face to face with some partners, or you are able to dig deeply into a project, and WOW! There is no greater feeling in the world than being dead tired because you have expended your body, mind, and spirit in some great cause. One of the things that draws me into this kind of trip is that feeling of exhilaration that comes from knowing you have committed yourself and all the best that is in you to some great cause, idea, or friendship and coming back to the guest house in the evening realizing that such an expenditure has paid off in some way. It doesn’t matter if the travel is to Malawi or Texas or to the North Side of Pittsburgh – there is something wonderful about leaving the normal pace of life and concentrating fully on a different work. It is one way in which I become more fully engaged in the whole of my life – that which I have temporarily left, and that which I am temporarily embraced. Going “all in” brings a certain freedom.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, mission travel is, well, boring. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, of course. One of the great mission travelers in history pointed this out in a passage that those of us in the 21st century would do well to remember. When the apostle Paul writes to his friends in Galatia about the early days of his work, he throws out a phrase that just about sneaks by.

“Fourteen years later…” (Galatians 2:1) Seriously? FOURTEEN YEARS LATER? Yes, that’s what the man said. Lots of times, you are sitting in meetings, dreaming dreams and casting vision with your mission partners, or you are in the field getting your hands dirty or teaching or worshiping.

But lots of time, to be honest, you are sitting. And waiting. And sitting some more. Just as Paul spent 14 years waiting in Tarsus before God equipped him to take the next step.

When you book a cruise or plan your trip to, say, the great capitals of Europe, you do so knowing that you have a certain amount of time and there are certain things that you’ll need to do. Itineraries are planned weeks, months, or years in advance. And while it takes a little fiddling around to get the pieces to fit perfectly, you can do that, because you know when the Eiffel Tower wills be open, what time the show starts at the theater, and how long you’ll be able to stay at the Coliseum. You pay a guide service or invest your own energies into making sure that not a moment of time is wasted.

But when we travel in mission, we are often exploring an itinerary, or waiting to see what develops. Rather than employing a guide, you are engaging a partner – one who may face a variety of challenges and other commitments. More than that, you are seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit in an ever-shifting landscape.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.

And so it was that Monday, January 28 found six deeply committed spirits doing, well, nothing for ten hours. We had had wonderful discussions about partnership and engaged deeply in worship and been immersed in the rhythm of life in South Sudan. But n Monday, our partners had a lot to do with their General Assembly. And it became apparent that they could do it better if they were not saddled with the additional burden of translating every aspect of the experience into English, or making sure that we were properly hydrated or knew where the toilets were. Sunday night, it had been the absolute right thing for us to be at the General Assembly. How I wish that I could have captured the enthusiasm and appreciation with which we were received. Our coming to stand with these partners who were trying to live into a new identity in a new place was received exactly as we had intended. In particular, seeing the way that the commissioners greeted the Rev. Mercy Chilupula was a gift! The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church does not ordain women, but they were blessed by the presence of a strong and faithful woman leader that night.

But the next morning, things were different. So we said, “Please, just let us rest somewhere for a few hours where we will not distract you.” Our hosts took us to a small inn along the western bank of the Nile River, where we expected to spend a few hours admiring the mighty river, using the Internet, and simply relaxing. That was the plan.

However, the wireless service was barely functional, the riverine view lost its appeal after five hours or so, and the heat was intense. I wish I could say that one of these six brilliant minds came up with a way to redeem that time – that we held an unanticipated council wherein we solved one or more of the world’s great problems. Yes, it would be nice to say that. Only it would be a lie.

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what...

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what…

We did see some beautiful birds, and revel in the historic river. For a time. We read, we chatted, and we exchanged faith stories. Some. But we also dozed, sighed, griped, and fretted – we hadn’t come to do this. But whatever fruit comes from this trip, I think, will have been made possible, perhaps, because we chose to wait on this day.

On Sunday evening, Mike Uko said that the CCAP Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery had been together for 21 years, and maybe it was time for that partnership to give birth to something new. Mike’s imagery was very helpful to me as I recalled long hours in hospital waiting rooms – time that I have spent, in some ways, enormously “inefficiently”. It just doesn’t make good sense to sit somewhere simply waiting, when there is often so much to DO. But some days, waiting is all you can do.

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!

The truth is, our Sudanese partners did have a great deal of DOING to do, and they didn’t need us at that moment any more than the OB/GYN needed me the day that my daughter was born. Yet on Tuesday morning, when Jeff Tindall prayed with the Sudanese assembly, and we shared our joy at what they had been able to do, the waiting of Monday was Paul into perspective.

Years ago, Desmond Tutu wrote, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving”. Sometimes that sharing looks a lot like hammering or sweating or praying or doing. And sometimes that sharing looks a lot like waiting. The Apostle knew that. The church has always known that. And I am learning that. Again.

Ironic post-script dept: two hours after completing this little missive, the vehicle in which we were to take the four hour drive from Lilongwe to Blantyre broke down, so the aforementioned humble and patient missionaries had the chance to live into its truth whilst waiting in the rain for plans B, C, or D to develop. It was tough to gripe after having just written this. I get it, Lord.

What Do You Say?

The Jebel Evangelical Church

The Jebel Evangelical Ch

So, what do you preach when you are asked to stand in front of a group of people you have never met, whose language you do not know, and whose culture and habits are unlike you own? Several of you have asked me that, either in preparation for this trip or in emails as we’ve been walking through it.

The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) is a “daughter” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), so it should not be a surprise that the worship is similar to ours in many respects. We open with a hymn (on 1/27 we stood up, stood up for Jesus in the Nuer language), and then we confess our sin. We share the apostle’s creed and there are a couple of anthems from the choir (our drummer, Ron, has nothing on some of these guys!). There was another hymn (Jesus loves me), and then the Clerk of Session shared the announcements. Scripture was read, the morning’s prayer was offered, and then I preached (more on that in a minute). After the sermon, a little more singing from both choir and congregation as the offering is collected, some more prayers, and then the benediction.

At the conclusion of worship, the preacher comes out and shakes hands. The first person out shakes the preacher’s hand and stands next to him. Everyone who comes out shakes the hands of those who are there, and then joins the line – so by the time we have all come out, we have all shaken each other’s hands. W are then standing in a curling line around the front of the church. When we are lined up like that, then the choir comes out and sings one more song in the middle of the circle. It was wonderful!

With the choir from Jebel Church

With the choir from Jebel Church

But to the question: what did I preach?

I chose as my texts Ephesians 4:14-21 (the call to live as Christ’s own) and Matthew 12:46-50 (Jesus’ mother and brothers). And then, because I am not sure I have any right to speak into this culture, I told a story about my own – my family, actually.

I had two great-aunts who lived in the same tiny town. Aunt Marian had 21 children, and she lived in a small house in town. 21 children! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met many of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them. By the time of her death, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered, and when I ate breakfast in a restaurant, I mentioned that I was a member of her family. Someone I never met exclaimed, “really? Me too!” In fact, every time I turned around, I was bumping into relatives that I had never known.

Of course, that has been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. People who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas – we are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

I had another great-Aunt – Aunt Mae. She and her husband lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. She never seemed particularly happy to see me, but if I was in town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry all the time.

As I grew up, I discovered a little about Aunt Mae, and I came to see that she wasn’t really mad at me. She was mad at the world, frustrated with God, disappointed in herself…because she never had any children. Here her sister-in-law had 21, and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

Which leads me to my second point: there are people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. I have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to one in my family who aches and ask our Father to bring the kind of healing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do.

And here is the third thing I told my brothers and sisters about my family in the USA: when mean, grouchy Aunt Mae died, every one of Aunt Marian’s children showed up for the funeral. I heard stories like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them.

And this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return. It seems to me that what my family at home has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other. When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “The one who does the will of my Father – that one is my mother, my sister, my brother.”

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

So my family is bigger than I can imagine. And it hurts in ways that I do not always understand. But my responsibility is to treat each one in love. To share kindness and grace as best I can. To ask them to put up with me where I fall short, and to try to offer them the same courtesy.

I told my family that I was glad to meet them, and that I would pray for them when they hurt and celebrate with them when they rejoiced, and that I would do my best to extend the love that Christ gave to me in the places where He sent me.

It was a good worship. And you have a beautiful family. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Re-membering Who(se) We Are

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…How can we sing the songs of the Lord while we are in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137)

This Psalm of lament came to me while in the midst of a very intense, very joy-filled worship service in a small community outside of Juba, South Sudan on Saturday.

Know this, my friends, about Juba: it is growing by leaps and bounds every day. In 2005 it was a tiny town, the regional capital of the southern district of Central Equatoria. When the terms of peace were won in the Sudanese civil war, and it appeared as though there would be a new nation of South Sudan, then the construction began in earnest. Hotels, an airport, an infrastructure, and public services are all needed for a place that is growing quickly. Much of the growth is fueled by those who have roots in the southern part of the country but who had chosen or been forced to return to the South by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. One of the results of this as amazing growth is the fact that one cannot buy much – the supply is far outstripped by the demand. Hence, the prices are high and the goods are spotty.

And as difficult as that is, some of the growth is fueled by even more difficult circumstances. We went on Saturday to participate in the ordination of five elders and two deacons in a community about an hour outside of Juba. As we arrived, I noticed that the style of homes was quite different that that which we had seen previously. The people were dressed slightly differently as well.
As we entered into worship I was informed that this was the meeting place of the Gorom congregation of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. This church is composed almost entirely of members of the Anuak people who are refugees from Ethiopia. They arrived in Southern Sudan in about 2003, and were resettled in this refugee camp about two years ago.

Let that sink in for a moment, beloved. Imagine things being so difficult, so frightening, so dangerous in your own home that fleeing to a neighboring country that is in the midst of a civil war of its own seems like a good idea! Yet that is what the Anuak have done. And they have made a home for themselves, somewhat, here in the harsh climate of the bush in Southern Sudan.

The worship was long. And it was conducted in 4 languages: English, Arabic, Anuak, and Nuer (a local language of the South Sudanese). And it was hot. Not Pittsburgh hot, or even Arizona hot. The temperature had to be 110 degrees and the humidity made it feel like 125.

And still the service went on. Laughing. Singing. Ululating women and clapping men. Giggling children who played and dozed and cried and sang.

Why? In one respect, it was unbearable.

But in another, deeper, more important respect, it may have been the only bearable thing. When I saw those people singing praises to The Lord in their own tongue and with their own songs, I saw them in a place that was NOT a mud building baking under a tin roof in the forgotten desert of one of the world’s port countries. No. I saw them at home.

Do you see? In their worship of God, they were able to re-member themselves. To put their members back in order. To recall, to re-establish, to enter once more into their identity as children of God. While we were there, we were not refugees or tourists or citizens or aliens. No, we were the family of God, coming home. We sang and ordained and prayed and preached so that we could finally remember who – and whose – we are.

Do you want to know how we ended this brutishly hot, amazingly wonderful day among the refugees who had welcomed us home? We sang a song in the Anuak language: “We give you thanks, O God, because you have blessed us.” And then we left the sanctuary, whereupon we formed a line in which each person greeted every other person in worship (yes, that took some time). Then our hosts invited us back into the building because they had “a little bread and water” to share.

Jeff shows us how to enjoy an amazing Ethiopian meal.

Jeff shows us how to enjoy an amazing Ethiopian meal.

And there, after singing the songs of home and remembering the reasons that we are who we are, these lovely people ate the food from home. Each of us was given a plate piled high with steaming njerwa flatbread, beef stewed in bere-bere sauce, lentils ground into a porridge, and sweet cabbage – Ethiopian delicacies that were prepared with love in South Sudan.

Oh, my friends, I know we are taught that when we die, we want to avoid the place that is hot. But I am here to tell you that I learned a lot about home, about heaven, about belonging, about re-membering the Body of Christ in a blistering building amid searing heat and oppressive humidity surrounded by people who were not wanted in their own country.

And I would go back tomorrow if they asked me.

Thanks be to God!

Progress in Partnership

What an amazingly refreshing day of work. It’s hard to remember a day when I worked so hard, and felt so tired, and felt so good! The teams of 3 Malawians, 3 Pittsburghers, and 3-6 South Sudanese made substantial progress in terms of talking about what it would mean for us to function more collegially in the years to come.

imageOur group started the day in worship, where we noted the interaction between Paul and Titus and the importance of relationship in ministry – even when there was fruit to be had, Paul could not take it because he missed Titus so much. Titus grew from a “project” to a student to a colleague to a coworker to a friend to one with his own call and commission. God used the partnership and relationship between these men to accomplish great ends in the first century.

With Mercy Chilipula (CCAP) and Tut Kony (SSPEC), I can clasp hands in partnership.

With Mercy Chilipula (CCAP) and Tut Kony (SSPEC), I can clasp hands in partnership.

A highlight of the morning included listening to the stories of each church. The South Sudanese told of how they have basically been driven from their homes in the north and forced to begin new lives in the South. People were left without employment or housing; most of our South Sudanese friends told of their wives and children who lived in another country because it was both safer and cheaper for them to do so.

We then considered issues such as the gifts with which each tradition has been blessed, the challenges and opportunities faced by current cultural contexts and the ways in which collaboration might help each church. Finally, we drafted a proposal to circulate amongst our respective traditions in the hopes that real and lasting fruit might develop from this time together. Make no mistake, there are long and serious questions to be considered in the months to come, but there was definitely a sense I which the upper room at the Aron Hotel in Juba was filled with the Holy Spirit today. The worship and prayer with which we ended was a refreshing conclusion to an exhausting day.

Our partnership teams celebrate the end of a long day - and the beginning of a long road.

Our partnership teams celebrate the end of a long day – and the beginning of a long road.

Safe arrival

The wonderful news is that both teams of traveling missionaries have arrived in South Sudan. Our colleagues from Malawi had a bit of a scare when the visa process was not quite what we expected, but as it turned out the Minister of Transportation for the South Sudanese government happened to be at the airport when the problem was discovered, so he gave a rather stern lecture about being prepared and then issued emergency paperwork. Praise The Lord for that!

The Malawian team consist of Revs Shadrach Njala and Mercy Chilupula, and elder Mike Uko.

We were greeted upon our arrival by the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA mission co-worker who has lived and worked in the Horn of Africa for nearly 20 years. his wife, Rachel, is from a family that has been in Africa for 100 years! Joining Michael were the Revs. Tut Kony (Moderator of the southern Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church) and Thomas Tut Pout (Deputy General Secretary).

Our accommodations are sufficient – an episcopal guest house that is not unlike the Grace Bandawe center in Blantyre (no cute little gazebos, though). At 5 pm this evening the 3 from Pittsburgh, 3 from Blantyre, and 4 from South Sudan will join with Weller and begin some guided conversations about partnering in ministry. These will focus on listening at first. We will continue to meet through tomorrow and into Saturday.

(For your information, Juba is 8 hours AHEAD of Eastern Standard Time)

Thank you for the prayers thus far and for those yet to be offered.

South Sudan/Malawi Journey 2013

On January 22, I will be leaving Pittsburgh for nearly three weeks in Africa so that I might take part in an historic mission trip to the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of Malawi.  The overall purpose of this journey will be to explore the possibility of formal partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA), Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian), and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.  In addition, I will visit Malawi to witness and encourage the implementation of the “A-MAIZE-ing Grace” Famine Relief program launched by Pittsburgh Presbytery and the Synod of Blantyre several months ago.

I have had the privilege to travel to many places in the world for a variety of reasons.  As I prepare to leave on this journey, my sense of CALL is stronger than it has ever been.  That is a little unusual, because my sense of WHAT I WILL ACTUALLY BE DOING is a little fuzzy.  I believe that I am supposed to go, and that I am supposed to concentrate on BEING more than on DOING in the next few weeks.

For those reasons and more, I ask my friends to join me in prayer.  Here is a little more about the journey.

South Sudan: 24 – 29 January, 2013

map-south-sudanThe Republic of South Sudan was created on July 9, 2011, when more than 98% of the population voted to leave their northern neighbor, Sudan.  This nation is about the size of the US State of Texas and has 36 miles of paved roads.  The population consists of approximately 8 million who earn their living primarily as rural subsistence farmers.  Life has been hard in this nation, which has only known peace for about ten of the last fifty-five years.  The result of this conflicted history has been serious neglect, lack of infrastructure development, and major destruction and displacement. More than 2 million people have died, and more than 4 million are internally displaced persons or became refugees as a result of the civil war and war-related impacts.

Despite more than 50 years of civil war and an infrastructure that is in ruins, a sense of hope now pervades the people of South Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan began nationhood as one of the world’s poorest countries, but it has a landscape with rich natural resources and churches with abundant faith. The PC(USA) is working with its partner churches and organizations to help craft a brighter tomorrow for the people in South Sudan.

During this visit, I will join Pastors Ken White (Southminster Presbyterian Church) and Jeff Tindall (Carnegie Presbyterian Church / Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery) will join PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker Michael Weller as we observe the General Assembly of the Southern Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church in the company of our Malawian partners.  Our hope is that this time of face-to-face conversation, worship, and prayer will lead to fruitful discernment as to the possibilities of a formal partnership between two or more of these bodies.  For more information about the Republic of South Sudan, check out the CIA Factbook entry.

Malawi: 29 January – 8 February, 2013Malawi Map

Malawi, a relatively small English-speaking country, is poor and has suffered from drought and floods as well as the spread of HIV/AIDS. Pittsburgh Presbytery, in Partnership with the Synod of Blantyre since 1991, has joined the PC(USA) in supporting the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s ministries. We have had a share in such things as include health and development programs focusing on women and children, activities for youth, care for orphans, leadership development, and water and sanitation.   Members of the CCAP were influential in standing up for oppressed minorities in 1994 and bringing about a multiparty democracy.

On January 29, Jeff and I will fly south to Malawi, where they will be welcomed by our long-time partners in the CCAP Blantyre Synod.  Here, we will spend a little more than a week engaged in a number of activities relating to the A-Maize-ing Grace Famine Relief Program.  We will visit the Mwanza district, which is the epicenter of the church’s food distribution program.  In addition, Jeff and I hope to take part in a ceremony at the Zomba Theological College, which has received an outpouring of support from the students and staff at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  While in Malawi, Dave also hopes to reconnect with friends in our partner church, the Mbenjere congregation in the town of Ntaja.  Our congregations have been twinned in ministry since 1995.

The A-Maize-ing Grace Famine Relief effort was launched when we learned that there were more than 2.1 million Malawians at risk for food insecurity in this year’s “hungry season”.  So far, this program has yielded more than $80,000 that will purchase food to supplement the diets of thousands of families in Malawi.  For more information on this program, click here.  For some of my own personal reflections on the origins, please refer to my earlier post on that subject.  If for some reason, you’re my friend and don’t know much about Malawi, you can view the CIA Factbook here.

A-MAIZE-ing Video

If you have not yet seen it, take a minute to watch this fantastic video put together by dear friend and brother Thad Ciechanowski.  And then, by all means, please share the link with anyone and everyone!  If you can’t see it here, the url is

Specific Prayer Requests include

  • Safe travel to and from these countries.  In addition to our intended destinations, we’ll be flying in and out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya; Lubumshasi, Democratic Republic of Congo; and Rome, Italy.  In addition to the complicated network of air travel, the team will be driving hundreds of miles across a variety of roads in the USA, South Sudan, and Malawi.
  • The ability to be fully present to the people to whom we are being sent.  This request would include prayers for the ability to be physically attentive, spiritually discerning, encouraging, and gracious in conversation.
  • The ability to represent Pittsburgh Presbytery and our home congregations well.
  • The ability to communicate as needed with those who are at home.
  • Growth in our own lives as we learn from these African brothers and sisters whose walk is different from our own.
  • The opportunity to model sound and wise partnership in ministry and mission to any who are observant.

On Friday, March 1, 2013, you are invited to come to a formal report presentation, including photos and stories, at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  The program will begin at 7 pm.  This will be in conjunction with our Youth Group’s spring FAMINE RELIEF FUNDRAISER.  If you show up, we will hit you up for money to support this effort.  You won’t have to give, but you’ll be asked.  Save your pennies!

There is No “Base”

God’s people in Crafton Heights continue to walk through Jeremiah in the hopes that this man, who was called to point to the light in a dark, dark place, can help us to learn something about what it means for us to testify to the light in the midst of our own darkness.  

The reading for this baptism service was Jeremiah 7:1-19.

You know, you go to church long enough and you think you’ve seen just about everything.  You know what to expect, when to expect it…until you get to a reading like this.

I want to thank Don and Glenn for being our greeters this morning.  I always appreciate the fact that folks are welcomed with a smile and a bulletin, and maybe even directions to the coffee pot or the bathroom.  But today I am especially grateful that you did not do as the prophet Jeremiah, who stood one day outside the Temple and cried out to all who entered, “Don’t believe a word that is said in there!  You’re wasting your time! Don’t trust that guy…”  Yeah, I appreciate that.

Why would Jeremiah do that?

Why was the Temple built in the first place? So that people could worship the Lord, right?  The Temple existed so that God’s people could commune with God.  In that most sacred place, the Creator and the created could meet in worship and reverence.

Only now, says Jeremiah, there is a problem.  God’s people are not worshiping God.  They are worshiping someone, or something else.  In verse 9, God lists the practices that are apparently widespread: the people are guilty of theft, murder, adultery, and idolatry.  More than that, God says, the people are engaging in these practices and then sprinting into the Temple and saying “We are God’s chosen!  No harm can come to us in here!”  They are behaving, says God, as though the Temple is “base” in a real-life game of tag – the Temple is the spot where no one can touch them – not the Assyrians, not the Babylonians – they are automatically “safe” because they are on “base” when they’re in the Temple.

And the Lord’s response is, “Yeah?  How about I touch you? How about I teach you a lesson.  Do you remember Shiloh? The place where I first met you in this land, and where we first enjoyed worship together?  That place was sacred.  That place was amazing.  That place was beautiful to me…until you ruined it by disrespecting me and my commands.  And so I wiped that place out.  And I can wipe this place out.  I invented ‘base’, and this place is not it.”

In this passage, God sends his prophet to remind the people that what we say, do, and the ways that we act, and the things that we worship – that those things matter.  Don’t come strolling into worship, says the prophet, pretending that everything is just honky-dory when you know for a fact it is not.

Marc ChagallJeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Marc Chagall
Jeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Right after God tells Jeremiah to tell the people not to believe a thing they hear in church, he does something even more uncharacteristic of an all-powerful, eternal, omniscient Diety: he looks at the prophet and he says, “And you! Don’t let me catch you praying for these people!  Don’t ask me to release them from the consequences of their own choices, or to spare them the suffering that they’ve invited.  Do not pray for them – I will not listen to you.”

I have thought about God’s command to Jeremiah a lot in the last month.  I have tried to pray for our nation.  And I am having a hard time doing that.  Frankly, I’m not sure God is all that interested in what I have to say now.

Ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our nation has been embroiled in a heated controversy over the issue of guns.  Guns and the power, the rights, and the violence that accompanies them.

And I am well aware that there are lots of you in the room right who are saying, “Oh, geez, don’t say it, Dave.  Don’t open your mouth on this one.  We really, really disagree.  Not on baptism Sunday.  We have company today.  There are idiots in this room, Dave, who don’t have the first idea about guns, and we think you might be one of them.”

Relax.  I’m not here to advocate for one position, or to suggest public policy changes.  I’m not stupid enough to make half of you mad at me this morning.  The way I figure it, I do this right, everyone will be angry by the time I shut up.  That’s all right.  George is preaching next week, and I’ll be gone.  You’re welcome.

What I feel compelled to do this morning is not to talk about the Second Amendment or gun control or other issues of policy.  I want to talk about what we see, and what we believe, and whether there are any areas in which we can agree before we talk about the Second Amendment or gun control.

Jeremiah 7:17: Do you not see what they are doing in the cities and in the streets?  Can’t we, the people of God, be aware of what is going on?  What is happening?  I see at least three emerging trends.

Too many people are getting shot.  Too many children are dying.  Is this not true?  Regardless of why you think that this is happening – whether it’s because guns are too easy to get or not enough people have guns or the laws are crummy or there’s too many of those people or whatever – can we agree that twenty children shot at an elementary school in a single day is too many?  Isn’t it true that 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States is too many gun deaths?  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are killing.  They are dying.

Another thing that I notice when I observe our culture is that any form of security that is based on a weapon – or the lack of a weapon – is idolatry.  I don’t care if we are talking about a handgun, an assault rifle, a pointy stick, or an unmanned military drone patrolling above your home.  When we entrust ourselves, our well-being, our security, to an implement that has been fashioned by human hands, are we not saying that our security is brought by that which is not God?  And if I am counting on not God to save or protect me, my home, my nation – then am I not an idolater?  No law, no weapon, no alarm system, no bank account, no thing can give me security.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets? They are trusting in idols.

And here is another: having power to use, or own, or possess, or do is not the same thing as having the moral right, or imperative, or obligation, or justification for using that power.  Sometimes we decide, don’t we, to not yell back.  Sometimes someone makes me angry and I don’t shoot them.  Sometimes someone hurts me and even though I could, I choose not to seek revenge.  Yet increasingly in our land, we see conflict being escalated because we use power indiscriminately simply because we can.  Someone has a gun, and they shoot it.  We have a fleet of drones, and so we rain death from the skies.  We are not obliged to do this.  We have choices.  And our choices are so often violent and murderous.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are reacting blindly.

I made a huge mistake earlier this week.  I was meeting with our Seminary student, Al, and in talking about the aspects and importance of preaching, I said, “You have to challenge the people, Al.  A good sermon always dares the people to do something great.  A good sermon challenges us to be better than we are.”

Listen: maybe I’m right.  Maybe I haven’t alienated everyone in the room yet.  Maybe, just maybe, we can agree that too many people are dead, and that trusting in things instead of trusting in God is a fool’s errand, and that being able to do something is not the same thing as needing to do that thing.  So what?  What do we do with all of these gun deaths, with all of this gunfire, with a society that seems to be increasingly violent in so many ways?

Jeremiah 7:5.  The way that we make what happens in church worth listening to is to repent.  To “amend our ways”.  To turn around.

I, Pastor Dave Carver, need to repent of deaths of kids in Newtown CT and of human trafficking in India and of Terrorism.

“See, now, there you go.  I wondered when you were going to go getting all liberal mushy wishy washy on us, Carver.  The moment you mentioned ‘guns’ I knew that you’d wind up saying something stupid.  News flash: it’s not my fault.  I didn’t kill kids in CT, I don’t trade in human beings, and I am not a terrorist.”

I know.  None of you are, or do.

But I hope that you will join me in repenting anyway.  “Amend your ways…do not oppress the widow or the alien or the orphan…do not shed innocent blood…do not go after other gods to your own hurt…”

This is the great, challenging thing that I want to ask of you this morning: I want to ask you to own your baptism.  To say that you have a stake in this culture, that you have a place on these streets, that you have a voice in this crowd.

In a few moments, I’ll be taking little Piper from her mother’s arms and I will confess to you now that the only hands I have to hold that baby with are selfish, idolatrous hands.  The only tongue I have to pray for that baby with is an arrogant, deceitful tongue that looks for ways to shape the truth according to my own benefit.

Ron and Jessalyn are not bringing Piper to the church so that she can be initiated into a club where everyone is perfect and each of us is heading for eternal bliss on the heavenly shores because we are chosen and special and God’s favorites.  No, Piper is being welcomed to God’s family through the sacrament of baptism because it is this sacrament more than anything else that reminds us that we are not who we are supposed to be!  We are a dangerous, unstable people who, if we are not attentive to the call of God on our lives, are capable of great evil.

m3-baptism-windowI know that some of you came this morning just to see me baptize that little girl, and I have to tell you that we’re not doing it because it’s cute.  We’re doing it because we remember that the only thing that keeps us in a place where we can hear the voice of God is God’s grace.  You give me half a minute, and I’ll walk away.  But my baptism keeps me coming back.

So Repent.  And Own your Baptism.  And when we do that, we can speak the truth, respectfully, to our neighbors.  Our culture is increasingly divided – about the what Second Amendment means and promises; about my responsibility for myself or for the weak and the marginalized; about when we need to use some of the tools that we have and about which tools we should resolve to never use.  We will disagree.

So you, sinful and forgiven people of God who remember your baptism, you will disagree too.  Fine.  But when someone says something that is misguided or untrue, challenge them on it.  When someone uses language that is racist or demeaning, point out to them the violence of their words.

Can you not see what they are doing on the streets? Yes, you can see it.  And you have the ability to affect it.  Not by hiding out in the Temple as if it were some sort of base that protects us, but by trusting that the One to whom this temple is dedicated is the One who calls out to each of his arrogant, violent, selfish, children.  Like me.  And like you.

If we can own who we are and claim the forgiveness that is offered in this sacrament, perhaps then we’ll be able to pray for the children and those at risk.  If in our lives and in our actions we can point consistently towards integrity and justice and God’s purposes for his creation, knowing that God alone can protect us from ultimate harm, then maybe our prayers will have an effect…on those of us who pray, and on those for whom we pray.  By the grace of God, Amen.