The message presented here was shared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary celebration of my ministry with the good people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights. It was preached on November 10, 2013. Texts included Psalm 78:1-8 and Titus 1:5, 2:1-7.
Let’s pretend that I’ve asked you to write a booklet entitled “Great Heroes of the Old Testament”. Who do you include? Abraham? Joseph? Noah? David? Solomon? Deborah? Elijah? You can come up with quite a list, can’t you?
How long would that list have to be before you got around to including Asaph?
Asaph was a young man who was brought into the limelight by David when he was a little more than twenty years old. He started out in the percussion section, where he played the cymbals as the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles. Not long afterward, he was promoted to “Chief Musician.” King David appointed Asaph to be the worship leader in the “Tent of Meeting”.
How intimidating would that be? David, who was a skilled musician, a “man after God’s own heart”, asked Asaph to lead the music. That’d be like Sidney Crosby asking Ron Gielarowski to take a couple of his shifts while he was working on something else, or maybe Paul McCartney asking Jon to fill in on bass while he played the piano.
But that’s what Asaph did. For four decades, he was called to remind people of God’s grace; to lead them in giving thanks; and to help them express their grief when times got tough. He was there when they were meeting in the Tent and he was there when they dedicated Solomon’s temple. In many ways, Asaph became the consummate religious insider. He watched David’s rise from rebel leader to King; he saw him fall in the scandal that surrounded his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah; he was on hand for Absalom’s revolt and he witnessed the decay of the nation’s faith when David’s son Solomon started to worship false gods. Asaph is noted as the author of twelve Psalms, which means that he’s credited with writing more of the Bible than Abraham, Elijah, or most of the twelve apostles.
Asaph is not on anyone’s list of great Bible heroes. Well, he’s on mine. Because all he did was to keep pointing to the Lord. All he did was to remind people that it’s a good thing to give thanks. All he did was to pray fervently that the Story would live on in the hearts and minds of God’s people.
Psalm 78 is an amazing bit of truth-telling in the midst of the Bible. Asaph presents himself as a teacher who points to God’s amazing goodness…and to the ways that we, God’s people, have fallen short. He says, “Look, we have to keep saying the hard things to make sure that we don’t hide anything from the next generation – we want them to grow up knowing God. In fact, we want them to grow up being better than we are.”
I have to interrupt Asaph right there and say that’s not a very Christian attitude. Specifically, it’s not a very 21st-century American Christian attitude.
Here’s what I mean: in my experience, very few believers expect anything in the church to be better fifteen or twenty years in the future. The story of the American church in the last century is to think about how it was last year, or five or ten years ago, and then try to figure out a way to make what we’re doing this year almost as good. As if we’re stockpiling our supply of God’s grace and power, and we don’t want to blow it all at once. As if God can’t use our children more powerfully than God uses us. And so on our best days, we hope that our children are like us. Or, to be honest, almost as good as we are.
But Asaph reminds us that the call of God is to give the next generation all that we are and all that we have and all that we know so that they will not, in fact, be like us…but that they will be better. God’s call is that the next generation is not to be stubborn and rebellious, but that they might be more faithful than we. More generous than we. More obedient than we.
And because Asaph looks at my parents, and me, and then at my daughter and my unborn grandchild like that, and expects God to continue working in a family like mine…Asaph is one of my heroes.
Now, let’s pretend that the volume of Old Testament Heroes sold so well that you’ve been commissioned to write a sequel, which I’ll imaginatively call “Great Heroes of the New Testament”. Who do you include in that work? Jesus, of course. Mary? Peter? Paul? John? Zacchaeus? John the Baptist?
How long would it have to be before that list got around to including Titus?
I would imagine more people have heard of Titus than Asaph. Titus was a young follower of the Apostle Paul. They must have made an odd pair. Paul was a crusty old Pharisee who had been classically trained by one of the greatest minds in the first century, the Rabbi Gamaliel. His entire life was focused on preserving ancient truth and the traditions of the ancestors. Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He was a hothead. He was always on the go. And he wrote half of the New Testament.
And somehow Paul becomes involved in a life-changing relationship with Titus, a man who was much younger than he, who wasn’t even Jewish, never became a Jew, and didn’t write a single verse of the Bible. If Asaph was the consummate insider, Titus was the consummate outsider. He wasn’t even allowed into the Temple in which Asaph served for four decades. By the rules that Paul taught for most of his life, Titus wasn’t good enough to carry Paul’s lunchbox around for him – and definitely couldn’t share lunch with Paul.
And yet, somehow, Paul calls Titus “my true child in the faith”. How intimidating would that be? To have the guy who’s pictured in all the stained-glass windows and has his fingerprints all over the original copies of the New Testament point his finger at you and say, “You, son…you’re next. You’re amazing.” But that’s what it says. I mean, it’s my own translation, and a loose one, but that’s essentially what’s happening here.
Titus was Paul’s emissary on numerous trips to churches around Asia and Europe. He corrected the Corinthians. He took up offerings for the church in Jerusalem. And this morning we read of how he was sent to Crete to establish and nurture a Christian community there.
How did Titus do that? By employing the same methods that Asaph used. He met people where they were and valued them for who they were. He told the people the truth about who they were – good and bad – and he loved them. He trained them and he equipped them to grow. Titus expected those people to live into the fullness of their identity as Christ’s body on earth, the church.
OK, let’s imagine one more time. Our series of Biblical Heroes books has sold so well that we’ve been commissioned to do one further volume: “The Greatest Churches in North America Since 1900.”
I hate to break this to you, but just like Asaph and Titus aren’t on most people’s lists of Biblical heroes, you’re not going to find The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights included in any retrospective of significant developments in ecclesiology over the past century. And if you Google “most influential pastor in America” you get three quarters of a million “hits”. If you Google “most influential pastor in America” and “Dave Carver”, you get…um, zero “hits.”
We know the truth, don’t we, my friends? Who are we? We’re us. We know we’re not all that. Come on, if I walked into the room and said, “OK, we’re going to ‘CHUP it up’ a little bit”, most of you would know what I mean by that – we’re going to find a way to make the thing work – we’re going to look for God’s grace and celebrate his love…but it might not be pretty. Let’s CHUP it up.
We know that we are closer to Asaph and Titus than we are to the power of David, the glory of Solomon, or to the wisdom of Paul, aren’t we?
Isn’t that great? I can think of no better comrades for our journey in this time and this place than Asaph and Titus. Here’s why:
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that one of the defining characteristics of the Christian community is that we always want to compare ourselves to others – and that leads to the kind of intimidation I mentioned might have been present with Asaph and David or Titus and Paul. Bonhoeffer speaks of the passage where Luke records that “an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest”. According to Bonhoeffer, “…no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord.”
That tendency to compare – to think, “I’m not as holy as so and so, but man, am I better than you know who” is corrosive to our ability to be the kind of community that Asaph, Titus, and indeed Christ envision. When we can release that tendency, then we discover great freedoms.
One is the freedom to truly love each other. When we refuse to compare or judge, Bonhoeffer says, “…each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person…and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be…God did not make this person as I would have made him…God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image.” When I celebrate that image, then I love both God and the other.
Another freedom we gain from refusing to compare ourselves is the freedom to listen to each other. Again, turning to Bonhoeffer: “Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others…[that] they forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking…There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person…We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”
And when we refuse to compare ourselves with others, and therefore are free to love and to listen, we become free to proclaim the mystery of grace to one another. One more quote from Bonhoeffer on this: “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go…Why should we be afraid of each other, since both of us have only God to fear?…Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition? Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?”
Beloved, can you see some of us in those quotes? That when we are at our best, we acknowledge that we are not the most amazing faith community with the best structure and the greatest pastor in the world today. That’s OK, because we are not called to be those things. We are called to be loving and listening and proclaiming the Truth in this place with these people at this time so that the world will change.
One of my favorite examples of this truth is the time that one of the pastors from a very large, wealthy, and influential church sat with a small group of us back in the parlor and quizzed us for 45 minutes as to what we were doing and how we were doing it. At the end of the time he said, “Thank you so much for sharing this. This means a lot, because my church thinks that it can’t do very much, but what you are doing…and the way you are doing it. I mean, don’t be offended by this, but the truth is, if CHUP can do it, anybody can.”
EXACTLY! If Asaph and Titus teach us anything, it’s that with God’s help, anybody can do this!
Listen: this weekend we are having a good time celebrating two decades of shared ministry as pastor and people. We are aware of the fact that for 26 of the last 31 years we have been together. That is rare in the church in North America, and it should be noted.
But the reality is that although it is rare, things are as they should be. That is to say, what you are doing here is passing along the gifts of Asaph and Titus: one generation seeks to take its strength, its hope, its gifts, and hand them to the next. It’s God’s plan. It works.
As the committee came to me with the suggestion that this morning’s service include a time of celebration of shared ministry, the one thing that was clear to me was that this service is not about me, and it’s not about us. It is about the power of God to work in and through the Body of Christ.
As I have reflected in recent weeks, I am personally deeply humbled and profoundly grateful that I have been allowed to participate in these ministries. The stories you have told me…the trust you have placed in me…the horrors we have faced together…the babies we have buried…the children we have witnessed soaring above us…the games we have played…the sin that has been exposed and forgiven…the friends who have brought us here or joined us on the way…the mission trips and retreats that have changed us…the profoundly broken people who have been such amazing vessels of Christ’s love and grace to us…the photos that line my study and the memories that fill our heads – these are all reminders of the fact that we have never, ever been alone on this journey.
And so like Asaph and Titus, we echo and we do not forget the works of God. We name them. We celebrate them. We share them. We are blessed – and that is wonderful. But we never forget that we are blessed in order that we might become a blessing to others. Let’s celebrate where we are, and dream about where we are going, because there are amazing things ahead of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
To help celebrate this anniversary, my dear friend Adam Simcox composed an original song to be sung as a part of the worship experience on November 10. I have his permission to share the lyrics with you here, and if I can come up with a way to get the recording online, I’ll do that, too.
Out On The Water
Sidewalks don’t change but the faces come and go / having lost their own way some barely pulling through.
hands that reach out and pull us in tight / when we rest in your love on those long dark nights.
(you continue to fight)
all alone lost in the fray / accepting a lie we’ve gone too far away
I’m not worthy and clearly not worth it / My motives don’t always measure up
At times I feel so helpless they look to me for “holy” / Will my efforts ever be enough
On my own I am nothing / In you I’m made complete
CHORUS: But you’re already there out on the water calling my name
should I walk out in faith it’s so easy to falter / I hear your voice speaking to me
your hand reaching to the deep setting me free
we’re all in the same boat floating along / longing for the deeper in this life.
I’m just a man and they’re just someones / we hope for a glimpse with these crippled eyes
to your purpose to your plan / each small step your holding our hands
Each day I wake up help me to live / into your plan into your will
you see each one not for what they are / but for who you’ve meant them to be
who you’ve made us to be / won’t you please help us to see
During the Service, my beautiful bride presented me with a gift symbolizing twenty years of ministry in the congregation. It is a handmade stole, reflecting the artistry of our friend Jenny at Carrot Top Studio in Pittsburgh. It’s white, the color for celebration and resurrection. It has on it handprints from 25 children who have been baptized or dedicated over the years – an incomplete sample, to be sure – but an amazing symbol nonetheless. There is even a handprint for a little guy who has been born, but has yet to be baptized – my little friend Brogan (thus making 26 prints). Jon, at 25, is the oldest “child” represented; and Brogan is of course the youngest. It is simply amazing. Here are a couple of images:
Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954) p. 90
 Life Together pp. 92-93.
 Life Together pp. 97-99.
 Life Together p. 106.