Models and Mentors Matter

As we continue our exploration of some of the “call” stories in scripture, we also celebrated the baptisms of two children in worship on April 26.  With that in mind, it seemed wise to be attentive to the ways in which God’s call became apparent in the lives of Samuel and Timothy.  Scripture readings for the day included I Samuel 3:1-11 and II Timothy 1:1-7.

If you’ve been around church enough – at least, a certain kind of church – you’ve heard this question: when did you get saved? Some believers find it easy to put a date and time stamp on their spiritual awakening. “When did I get saved? Oh, well, let me tell you – I was twenty-two, and it was in the springtime. My life was a mess, and I was really heading in a bad direction. All of a sudden, I had this amazing encounter, and BOOM! – my life changed forever. I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s amazing!”

monty_python_godWhen someone with a testimony like that hears a series of sermons on calls to faith, the accounts of the Apostle Paul, who was knocked onto his keister on the Damascus Road, or maybe Moses, who was stopped short by the burning bush, come to mind. Some of our favorite stories – whether in the movies or in real life – are experienced when a “bad” person comes clean and turns over a new leaf. There is powerful drama, to be sure, and also an encouragement for the people who love those who are in a hard way right now. The good news that comes from stories like that is that our God is an interrupting God. Nothing is finished – we see lives that are in progress, but always interruptible.

As we come into worship this morning, however, we are met with readings about Samuel and Timothy. In addition, we join the church of the ages in the practice of infant baptism. As we do these things, we point to the fact that while sometimes our calling from the Lord is sudden and dramatic, at other times it is gentle and continuing. Before we engage Makayla and Isaiah in the sacrament of baptism, let’s talk for a few moments about the scriptures that we’ve heard and the things that they teach us about God’s call and our role in it.

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli's House  John Singleton Copley (1780)

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli’s House
John Singleton Copley (1780)

I’d like to point out that there is an intentional, loving, non-biological connection between both Samuel and Eli and Timothy and Paul. In each of these cases, the mentors are brought into a young person’s life and choose to remain there. The earlier chapters of First Samuel describe the remarkable circumstances surrounding Samuel’s birth and how his mother, Hannah, brought him to the Temple as a child in the hopes that he would be instructed in the ways of the Lord. Timothy was a lot older when he first met Paul, although their initial meeting in Acts 16 makes it plain that Timothy was clearly the “Junior Partner” in this relationship.

In both narratives, however, it’s plain that the more mature believer makes it a priority to give some of his best time, energy, and wisdom to the younger. Undoubtedly, some of this was formal instruction. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that both Samuel and Timothy spent time simply being with these older people. Sure, they sat and looked at the scrolls together, but I bet they spent more time cleaning the Temple or walking on the road or engaging their communities together. In Mark 3 we read that Jesus “appointed twelve that they might be with him…” The best and most important thing that Eli and Paul did for Samuel and Timothy was to invite these younger men to simply be with them in the daily exercise of their faith in life.

I’m sure it wasn’t always convenient or efficient to operate in this way, and you know from your own experience that most of the time if you want it done right the first time, you better do it yourself…but much of what is truly important in life is transmitted while we are paying attention to other things. Who do you ask to be with you as you live the life that God has given you? Who comes alongside of you in your daily walk? I think that’s the most important question we can ask someone who says that they want to share the faith with the next generation: not, “who are you teaching, and what are you teaching them?”, but “to whom have you extended the invitation to come alongside you in a journey of faith?”

Another key aspect of mentoring that emerges from our readings is seen in the coaching that Eli gives to Samuel. Samuel’s hearing is fine – he’s not in need of any assistance in that department – but he needs Eli to train him to be a listener. Part of a mentoring relationship is helping another person to process information and experiences that are unfamiliar.

I love the fact that in this passage, Eli does not attempt to explain God to Samuel. Eli does not presume to know what God might say to the boy, and go ahead and save everybody a little time and effort. Instead, Eli shows Samuel how to put himself in a position so that when the Lord does choose to speak, Samuel can listen and respond to that call.

Effective mentors and role models know the joy of open-ended questions. I love to sit with someone and say, “Well, do you see anywhere in this situation where God might be moving?” One of the coolest parts of being a spiritual friend to someone is that you get to ask questions to which you don’t already know the answers.

Both Eli and Paul realize that God’s call and movement through history is linear. That is to say, God is not static. God does not call to everyone in the same way, asking them to be in the same place doing the same thing. Eli and Paul had received callings from God in the past, and they honored those calls. Now, they are charged with helping Timothy and Samuel discover meaning and purpose in their own callings.

In Eli’s case, it turned out that a part of Samuel’s call was to deliver difficult news about Eli’s own family. In Paul’s case, it turns out that Timothy was being formed to do something that Paul could not have done – whereas Paul’s life was spent on the road, wandering from one community to the next, Timothy became anchored to the church in Ephesus and apparently spent several decades leading that community. Like the best parents and friends, effective mentors and role models allow learners to become who they are called to be, rather than seeking to shape them into mere copies of themselves.

When we think about the ways in which generations interact in our world, one image that comes to mind is this: the parent or leader standing with an arm around the child or subordinate as they survey the home, the farm, the business, and saying, “Some day, all of this will be yours…” And when it comes to running the family business or keeping the family farm, there is a certain romantic appeal, or even nobility in that thought. But God forbid that the church raise up a generation of people who are nothing more than curators of the museum or custodians of the present. The task of the church is not to pass on the existence that we now have, but rather to equip God’s children for the future in which God is already at work.

We dare not spend our time and energy seeking to mentor young people who are so intent on preserving a memory that they spend their lives looking backward. Our call is not to leave a legacy of an unchanged church – but to raise up disciples who are able to be faithful in the days that are to come. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be…” is a sentence that refers to the unchanging goodness and presence of God, not a strategy for church structure and administration!

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

We are here today to say to Makayla and Isaiah, “Listen: there is a life ahead of you that is vastly different from the one in which we grew up. We would like to prepare you for this world that does not yet exist, and in doing so, we promise to do all that we can to teach you how to trust God, to trust yourself, and to trust God’s people so then when God speaks, you will be able to listen and to act.”

How do we do that? By being mentors and role models for them. By looking after them and looking out for them. There are a lot of things that these children need now and in the days to come, but I’d like to mention just three of them.

First, children need to be safe. When they are in our care, we have got to promise that we will do all that we can to ensure that no harm will come to them as a result of our negligence, passivity, or failure to create adequate supervision and protection. More than that, however, it means that we will do what we can to ensure that the children whom the church is willing to baptize are children who are fed, and bathed, and clothed, and housed with some dignity. It means that we will work as citizens of this community, this nation, and this world to see that justice is not merely a concept to which we pay lip service, but a reality in the lives of the children in this room, in this neighborhood, and indeed around the world.

In the context of that safety, it will one day become appropriate for us to make sure that these children are stretched. One of the most important thing that a spiritual friend or adult guide can say to a young learner is, “OK, now you do it.” Whether it’s running the power saw on a mission trip, learning to drive stick shift, praying out loud with a friend, or leading a devotion for the group, we let our children down if we continue to do everything for them, or if we expect that they will be interested in doing everything exactly the same way that we have done.

When children are safe and have been stretched, then we begin to think about the day when we will teach them to see themselves as sent. I do not mean to suggest that everyone will be called to a different geography, but it is important to understand, and to help them understand, that every time we get up from these pews and cross that threshold, we are being sent into the world that Christ is redeeming. The Church of Jesus Christ is not a voluntary assembly of those who are content to wander from fashion to scandal to amusement, but rather we are a company of saints who are invited to participate in the ongoing mission of God in Christ in the world.

If you’ve been around church very long, you know that there are a lot of programs designed to keep kids safe, to challenge them to be stretched, and to encourage them to think of themselves as sent. Some are produced out by insurance companies, others by curriculum publishers, and still others by great missional enterprises.

Wonderful.

But none of those programs means a rat’s patootie unless the safety, stretching, and sending of our children is anchored in relationships with real-life Elis and Pauls and mentors and role models who will help them to hear when God is speaking and to understand what that means.

SInkholeEarlier this week, the morning news featured a story describing a ravine that has opened up along the Delaware River in New Jersey. Apparently, a storm sewer drain beneath this property has been leaking for years, weakening the hillside until this week’s collapse. It sure looked like a sudden event, but it has been happening for years.

grand-canyon-colorado-riverAcross the country, there’s a little stream called the Colorado River. It’s been so dammed up and diverted for other purposes that it doesn’t even reach the ocean any more, but over the years, that water opened a stretch of the planet that we know as the Grand Canyon. In contrast to the sinkhole in New Jersey, the Canyon has been very visibly developing, very gradually for thousands of years. The same thing has happened in both New Jersey and in Arizona – water has eaten away at soil and rock and left a hole. It has happened in different ways, but it has happened.

In the same way, sometimes the call from God is experienced in a sudden and dramatic fashion, and other times it seems to be the result of an ongoing process. The root cause in either case is the same – we respond to the grace of God that is always at work in our lives and in the lives of those we love – even when it is not always easily apprehensible. We can’t control that call – how, or where, or when it comes. But we can promise to our children, ourselves, and each other that we will do all we can to teach our young people a thirst for the Holy so that when the call is heard, they will be in a position to respond to it to the glory of God and for the benefit of their neighbors. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Samuel

Uh-Oh

What happens when you hear your name being called?  This spring, the folk at Crafton Heights Church are examining the ways that God has called to God’s people in the past… in the hopes that we might be attuned to those calls as they come today.  The scripture for April 19 included the calls described in Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a fine young man named Nathaniel. There were lots of reasons to like him, and a few reasons to be envious. One of the silliest things of which I was a bit jealous was his name.

This is what I mean: growing up in the suburbs in the USA in the 1970’s, how often do you think I was in a crowd and heard someone yell, “Hey, Dave! Dave?” And how often do you think I turned and said, “Yep?” And then the person who had called my name looked at me with irritation and said, “No, not you. Please. I meant Dave Lock, or David Cummings, or Dave Tang, or…” Carver. Hmph.

WavingIf it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve seen it. Someone calls your name, or maybe even just points and waves, and you respond, and then it dawns on you that they are talking to or looking at the person over your right shoulder…And you feel like a complete loser.

I must have had fifteen people in my high school class named “David”. It got so I just pretended to never hear my name. I did not like to respond when it was called. But how often do you suppose my buddy heard, “Hey, Nat! Nat! – no, not you, the other Nat!”

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Last week, we began a series of messages that focus in on the call of God, and we said specifically that there are two things on which we can hang our hats: that God is a God who calls and that you are call-able. This morning, I’d like to explore the nature of the God who calls and, perhaps more centrally, our response to that call.

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to think with me for a moment of every single time in Scripture where God’s presence overshadows someone, or God’s Spirit calls out, or God’s angel appears and says, “Hey, you – yes, you…Look, you know that the world’s in a bit of a mess right now, but, hey, good news! I have an idea. Here’s my plan…”, and the person who is being called says, “Oh, hey, great! I was hoping that you’d ask! I love the concept, Lord, and as a matter of fact, let me show you a few ideas of my own that I’ve been working on…”

Um, Dave, we can’t think of any place in the Bible where that happens.

Of course you can’t. That stuff is not in the Bible!

Every call of which I’m aware features the same essential pattern. The Lord or an angel shows up, and when that presence is finally noted, the first thing that the divine messenger has to say is “Fear not!”, because people are always so unnerved by the fact that God is actually calling to them. Then, the plan is laid out and the call is extended and with a few notable exceptions, the response is generally, “Uh-oh. Me? Really? Have you thought this through, Lord? I’m not really sure you’ve got the right person here…” And often, the one who is called by God will go ahead and list the reasons why the plan that God has just can’t work in this situation.

And as the person is talking about why God’s idea is such a bad one, they are not usually listing excuses like, “Oh, Thursday’s no good for me, Lord. What about Tuesday? Sunday? Oh, no, Sunday is my only day to sleep in…” It’s not a conflict in scheduling that prevents the call from being heard.

No, the readings from Isaiah and Luke today are typical: when God invites someone to step more intentionally into God’s purposes for the world, there is almost always an immediate cry of confession. “Oh, woe is me! I am not worthy! I am a man of unclean lips! Get away from me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006).  Used by permission.  Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006). Used by permission. Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The call to serve begins in confession. It does so because when God shows up, the veil is lifted just for a moment, and the perfection and holiness of God is perceived a little more clearly. That’s what Isaiah saw, isn’t it? He was actually given a vision of the Lord, and of those who are in the presence of the Lord saying “Holy, holy, holy…”

I’m not aware as to whether you’ve ever been invited into the presence of God, but I am sure that you know something about the Lord. God is love. God is light. God is faithful, right? God is all of those things, and more besides.

But you won’t find anywhere in the Bible that says, “God is love, love, love” or “light, light, light”. God is those things, to be sure – but there is something about holiness that is at the root of God’s very nature and existence. We affirm that every week when we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

God is so holy that it is his name – or his name itself is holy because of its connection with the Lord. God is holy. God is not like us – “Holy” means “set apart”, or “separate”, and carries with it a sense of weightiness or heaviness. God is not on the same scale as we. One writer puts it this way: “This word applies to God because God Himself is totally other, separate, sacred, transcendent, reverend, and set apart from every created thing.”[1]

There is a sense in which I can think of myself as smart, funny, wise, moral, tall, old, or any other adjective. And when I do that, I always measure myself in relationship with the other people around me. I compare myself to the rest of the people in the room and think that I am or am not any of those things.

But when the creator of joy, of life, of good, of size and perspective makes himself known…well, then, I’ve got nothing. I am none of those things in comparison with Him.

To put it another way – I may be perfectly capable of and content to cruise around in my own mediocrity and general all-rightness, but when I am invited to stare unblinkingly into the Light of the World, then I become profoundly aware of my own failures, regrets, and general un-holiness. When I see some of who God is, and become more aware of who I am, then it is easier for me to get in line with Isaiah and Peter and say, “Uh-oh, um, no – I can’t. I’m not the right guy for this.”

When God calls to Isaiah, and when Christ summons Peter, and just about every other call in scripture all boils down to this: the Lord is saying, “Look, I know you. I made you. I love you. Of course you are my person. Of course you can do this…as long as you remember that it’s my plan, and not yours. My strength, not yours. My holiness, not yours.”

A calling from the Lord provides me with a grounding and an orientation as to who God is and who I am. When I am well aware of who I am, and the ways that I fall short, or am bent or twisted, and yet somehow in the midst of that am somehow useful to God, I can carry out the business with which I’ve been entrusted in a fashion that is marked by humility.

When I say humility, I not only mean approaching God with a sense of perspective about where I stand in relationship to God, but where I stand in relationship to you and other people who are also called and loved by God. When I remember that I am not “all that and a bag of chips”, I am more useful to actually accomplish the tasks that God has set before me in partnership with others.

Sports Illustrated...$1?  How old is this photo?

Sports Illustrated…$1? How old is this photo?

There was another Dave in Pittsburgh a few years back who said something that really struck me. Dave Parker was a superbly-fashioned specimen of humanity who was, as it turned out, really, really good at hitting a small ball with a large stick. He was so good at it, in fact, that he became the first person ever to be paid a million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick. When asked about it, Dave Parker said, “Every team needs a foundation, and I’m it. They ought to pay me just to walk around here.”[2] He told Sports Illustrated, “There’s only one thing bigger than me – and that’s my ego.”

Now, I’m not here to bash Dave Parker, or to take a few of his comments out of context. Rather, I want to use them as a reminder that those who have been called by God have a deep appreciation for the essential goodness, power, glory, and love of God as well as their own brokenness or failure. That leads them to a sense of humility and perspective that allows for growth.

I am not aware of a time when the world has ever been changed for the better when a group of high-minded, confident, self-assured, incredibly talented people who knew all the answers showed up and got to work on the rest of us.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

On the other hand, though, think of what Jesus did with a small group of broken-down, second-career people who had been given a glimpse of who he was and of the ministry to which he was inviting them. When we are humble, we are teachable; when we are humble, we are better able to see the gifts that others have brought.

I like the story of the man who had been looking for a church in his new community. After being disappointed in several congregations, he showed up at one a few moments late. As he walked into worship, the group was praying the unison prayer of confession, and they said, “we have done that which we ought not to have done, and have left undone that which we ought to have done…” As he found a seat, he beamed, “At last! These are my people!”

God is not calling you to be the star of anything. God is asking whether you will go in his power, with his agenda, into a world filled with people who are every bit as broken as you are. He’s asking if you can see them with his eyes and love them with his love. He wants to know if you can share with them the gift of forgiveness as a starving man shares a loaf with his friends, and to invite them to deepen their own walk with the Lord so that they might encounter God in all of God’s holiness.

God did not call me because in all of his wisdom he thought that the world would be blessed by how holy I am. He called me for the same reason that he has called you: so that we might remind people that they are already wrapped in God’s holy presence.

So you – yes, I’m talking to you – do you realize that this calling God is reaching out to you? That he knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and is still calling? That he is calling you now – not the you that you think might show up in four or five years once you get a little more this or a little better at that. He knows you, he loves you, and he’s reaching out. Can you find the voice to say, with Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”?

By God’s grace – with humility and thanksgiving, you can. Amen.

[1] Jack Wellman, writing at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/24/what-does-the-word-holy-mean-bible-definition-of-holy/

[2] Quoted in Randy Roberts, Pittsburgh Sports: Stories From the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), p. 206.

This Call’s For You

In the weeks between Easter and Pentecost, we will be spending some time considering the ways that God spoke to and summoned some of the folks in scripture…and what implications that has for God’s people today.  On April 12, we considered the calls extended to Jeremiah and Zechariah, found in Jeremiah 1:4-8 and Luke 1:5-20, respectively.

By most accounts, I was doing all right. I mean, no, I wasn’t earning enough money to ensure the complete trust of my wife’s parents, but we had three squares a day and a nice place to live. I was employed as a youth worker, and I was enmeshed in a network of solid and sincere relationships, and there was sure plenty to do. I was doing some writing for a number of magazines, speaking at some regional youth ministry events, and familiar with the national ones. I had a nice placement on a college campus, and was doing a fair amount of traveling. Life was good.

And then I got the call to the pastorate.

I wish I could say that one day I stepped out of the house and was blinded by the sight of an angel of the Lord, a beautiful creature surrounded by daisies and kittens and unicorns and rainbows. I wish I could say that I was struck dumb by beauty and deafened by majestic music and overwhelmed by a sense of awe. If I was going to be called by God, that’s how I would have liked to be called.

In real life, though, it was different. An older man, a fellow Christian who had sought to encourage me from time to time, had invited me to a little dive called Kim’s Diner in the beautiful community of McKees Rocks. I was pretty busy, but I went because I thought that he was going to offer some money for one of the youth programs. As we sat down to our breakfast (2 eggs, over easy, wheat toast, and floppy bacon), he said, “All right, let me cut right to the chase. What the hell’s it gonna take for me to get your ass into seminary where you belong?”

That was it. No “Fear not” or “Gloria in excelsis Deo…” Just a couple of guys in a greasy spoon trying to be honest with ourselves and each other.

I don’t remember what I said that day, other than sputtering out a few excuses about how I didn’t have the money or the time for graduate school and I wasn’t sure that being a pastor really fit me, anyway.

Yet here I stand, thirty years later, wearing a white dress, a gray beard, and a deep appreciation for God’s calling on my life through that man.

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of the Lord, and we pointed to the fact that God would not let even death stand in the way of extending the invitation to follow Jesus to a life that is fruitful and faithful. In the weeks following Easter, I’d like to suggest that we spend some time considering the nature of God’s calling to humanity.

Does God send out messages to people? If so, to whom? And how? And why?

Our scripture readings for this morning give us two pretty clear-cut descriptions of God’s calling to individuals. What can we learn from these readings?

The Prophet Jeremiah, Marc Chagall (1968)

The Prophet Jeremiah, Marc Chagall (1968)

Well, it would appear as though there is no age limit. Jeremiah is summoned to serve when he is just a child, and as he protests, he’s told that God knew him before he was born. While just a boy, Jeremiah is equipped for the task that God has in mind for him. On the other end of the spectrum, Zechariah is an old man when the angel Gabriel informs him that the last years of his life will be spent in a very different fashion than he might have imagined.

Not only that, but while Zechariah is playing in the big leagues – a priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, the first verse of the book of Jeremiah informs us that this kid is from the boondocks – Anathoth is really nowheresville when it comes to Israelite geography.

A quick glance at the people to whom God calls in the Bible will reveal that his invitation is not extended only to those who are particularly righteous. I was reminded of that some years ago when I heard a couple of the high school kids talking about their future. One of them said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about maybe being a minister.” His friend laughed and said, “Oh, no way! You are not anywhere near holy enough to be a pastor!” “What do you mean?”, the first kid said. “Look at Dave!”

The truth is that when God calls people, not everyone is called to do the same thing in the same place. The one thing for which you can be very grateful as you go to bed tonight is that you are not called to be me or the person sitting behind you. The call is extended to each person in his or her own life.

Another truth that comes out as we examine these call stories is this: saying “yes” to God can be very, well, inconvenient. It has often been said that the job of the church is to comfort the afflicted, and that’s true in many respects. Equally true, however, is the fact that when the Lord calls people, he often afflicts those who are comfortable!

Jeremiah, for instance, is probably pretty happy with his life. He gives absolutely no indication whatsoever that he is interested in being plucked from a lifetime of obscurity and thrust into the limelight that will wind up with him speaking before kings and generals, alternately loved and loathed by the people he is asked to serve.

And Zechariah, too, found the very cozy and predictable confines of his life to be drastically confounded when he was told to start building a nursery. I’m not saying that either one of these men would have wished for another experience – but the truth is that often the call to be God’s person is a call to a road that can be difficult and lonely, to say the least.

The good news in that regard, however, is that by its very nature the call implies some sort of companionship. One cannot be called into nothing. The fact that there is a call demonstrates that there is a caller. An invitation always comes from someone. Jeremiah heard this plainly when he was told, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

That, I think, is the essence of any call: The Lord, whose name is “I am”, invites us to be with him. To be for him. To be in him.

The Archangel Gabriel Announces the Birth of John the Baptist  Bonifazio Veronese, (c. 1550)

The Archangel Gabriel Announces the Birth of John the Baptist
Bonifazio Veronese, (c. 1550)

Even more than God’s calling Jeremiah to a career in prophecy, or Zechariah to the vocation of fatherhood, or smart-alecky Dave Carver to the office of the pastorate, we understand that God’s call is first and foremost from the place or station where we happen to be into closer company with him – and from there, to the next vocation or situation that God has for us.

As I have indicated, in the coming six weeks, we will be spending some time in worship considering various places in scripture and our world wherein God calls to God’s people.

There are two core truths that I would like you to anchor yourselves to in the time between now and Pentecost, then.

First, remember that God calls people. That is to say, we dare not think of a heavenly calling as something that used to happen, but does not occur any longer. We dare not lump the ongoing call of God into that category of things that we once experienced, but haven’t seen in a while:

  • remember when Pittsburgh was the “smoky city”?
  • Wasn’t it great before baseball had the designated hitter rule?
  • Didn’t church used to end at noon?

No, the call of God is ongoing – it is in God’s very nature to be inviting, summoning and sending; it is in our very nature to be perceiving and responding.

And that leads to the other truth on which I’d like you to hang your hat this season: you are call-able. Right now. Right here. At this season of your life. I understand that may fill some of you with joy and others of you with anxiety. Still others of you may greet that phrase with a certain amount of skepticism, but I’m unwavering in my belief that if God can call to me in the depths of a diner in McKees Rocks, God can call to you where you are right now.

With that in mind, then, I’d like to invite you to entertain a serious question. If the God of the universe, of all ages, the God who was, who is, and who is to come – if That God is a calling God; and if you – the you who sits in the pews and rides the bus to school and packs your lunch for work and sneaks in too much caffeine and probably should exercise a little more and frankly worries a little too much… that is to say, if your you right now is call-able…

…then what might that God be saying to this you?

God is not finished calling people.

You are clearly not where you’re going to end up.

My money is on the likelihood that God is calling out to you right now.

So what is he saying?

How can you hear him?

Here’s what I’ll suggest: I’d like to invite you to put yourself in a place where you can be quiet – absolutely and utterly quiet – for a few moments each day. Turn off the phone and the TV. Close your eyes. Don’t think that you have to be reading some incredible theological work or contemplating some amazingly giant idea. Just be.

Oh, come on, Dave, you’ve been alone in your study too much! Do you know what my life is like? I can’t even go into the bathroom alone! Do you know what it’s like to have four kids?

No, I don’t know what it’s like to be you. But I do know that if you seek it, you will find four or five moments during the day where you can just be. I often find mine just as I wake up, or while I’m waiting for sleep to come in the night.

And when you are in that alone and quiet place, breathe. Breathe in as much as you can, and then exhale as gently and as slowly as you can. When you breathe in, simply say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit.” And as you exhale, think “out with worry…away with fear or distraction…” That’s it. Don’t pray “for” anyone or anything. Just be. Every day, for a few moments, just be.

And once a week, be here. Zechariah found himself called in worship, and maybe you will be, too. Practice coming on Sunday morning as a means by which you can be available to the One who calls. I know, you’ve got softball practice coming up, and the dance recital, and graduation parties. But I bet that you can choose to be here if you want to. Want to. This is a way that you can shape yourself as one who is receptive to the call.

And lastly, I know that there are those present who have some sort of a call story already. If you have experienced something of being summoned by the one who rearranged Jeremiah and Zachariah’s lives, then please honor me by sharing that story with me.

So let’s be. Let’s be present. And let’s remember that we – each of us – is call-able. Thanks be to God. Amen.

What Will You Do When You Do Your Worst?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  Our second service on Easter Sunday included a reading from John 21:1-19, and we contrasted the ways that two of Jesus’ closest friends – Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot – returned to Jesus in the last week of his life.

As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to think about this: who has been the absolute worst person in the entire scope of human history?

Hitler? Pol Pot? Osama Bin Laden? Charles Manson? Joseph Stalin? Ted Bundy? Nero?

How would you go about measuring something like “absolute worstness”? There has to be a certain subjectivism involved, doesn’t there?

I did a little research this week, and have come to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler appears to be the current standard for absolute worstness. If you are really appalled by someone and want to really denigrate his character, you say, “Oh, that one? He’s another Hitler…” I mean, I don’t really want to say anything nice about any of these other folks, but how often do you hear someone referred to as “another Vlad the Impaler”?

Let’s focus it down a little bit. Who is the worst person in the entire Bible?

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot

Jezebel? Cain? Herod? Abimilech? Maybe. But my hunch is that most of us pretty much use Judas Iscariot as our go-to in this department, don’t we? I mean, not only did he coldly betray the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Life…but he did so after having shared supper with him and after having had his feet washed by Jesus. Judas? That’s messed up.

Was Peter on anyone’s list for “worst person in the Bible”? The immediate reaction, I’d think, would be, “Hey, no, Pastor Dave! Not Peter! He plays for our team. I mean, sure, he was a little sensitive. Kind of a blowhard, really. But He was an Apostle with a capital ‘A’! He practically started the church!”

So. What did Judas do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

And what did Peter do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

I mean, we can spin it any way we want to but the fact is that on the very same night nearly 2000 years ago, for all intents and purposes, these two men did the same thing.

And if you’ll give me that, then how is it that on the one hand, Judas is often reviled as the greatest scoundrel in history and his mere name is synonymous with treachery, while on the other hand, Peter is the Rock Star of the early Christian movement and even today the most important church in the world is named for him?

Let’s talk about what they did – and I’ll repeat my thesis that I believe they did pretty much the same thing. In fact, you could say that Judas was a little smarter than Peter. First of all, Judas at least got paid for his trouble. 30 pieces of silver was about half a year’s salary – not too bad for one little kiss. Beyond that, of course, it’s possible to make a case that there was some mistaken nobility in Judas’ gesture. Let’s say he really believed that Jesus was the coming Messiah who would destroy Rome and liberate Israel. If Judas had him arrested, that would back Jesus into a corner and then he’d have to unleash the masses and the heavenly host and bring about the kingdom, right? Because if he really is the Messiah, he won’t die, right? I’m not saying I buy that logic, but you have to admit that at least on one level, it holds together.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter

Peter, on the other hand, is just pathetic. And it’s not just one little kiss – it’s three times, yelling and cursing and crying and huddling pathetically there by the fire.

And yet…

Come Friday morning, both Peter and Judas were aware that they had been tragically wrong. At some point in that long, cold weekend, it must have dawned on each of them that they had just done the worst thing they’d ever done in their entire lives.

So if you can accept my thesis that each of these men hit the absolute bottom sometime on Thursday night, why do we remember them so differently?

I would suggest we remember them because of the choices that they made on Friday and Saturday.

The Kiss of Judas Giotto, c. 1305

The Kiss of Judas
Giotto, c. 1305

Judas, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw that Jesus refused to call in the big muscle in order to save himself; when he saw his friend being led like a lamb to the slaughter…well, something snapped. He was filled with shame and remorse and he allowed that to drive him into isolation. He reacted with anger and desperation. Lonely and embittered, he took his own life, believe the worst about himself – believing that he was unredeemable, unforgivable.

Peter’s Denial Robert Leinweber (1845-1915)

Peter, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw how Jesus was unwilling to save himself; when he got a glimpse of Jesus looking right at him through the crowds…when that rooster crowed, he was filled with shame and remorse. The pain was so great that he…that he was driven back to the rest of his friends. He returned to the other ten, and sought consolation not in self-destruction, but in the company of the community. And because he allowed his failure to drive him more deeply into the web of the community, he was in a position to encounter Jesus on that first Easter.

Don’t you think that Jesus would have greeted Judas, had Judas have been there? Or do you suppose that that’s the time Jesus would have chosen to get out the lightning bolts and mete out a little cosmic justice? I can’t see that happening. The only reason Jesus didn’t greet Judas is because Judas wasn’t there…he was hanging by the neck in his own personal hell somewhere.

But Peter was there, wasn’t he? And in the passage from John that you’ve just heard, we see the resurrected Jesus leading Peter gently through to the gift of forgiveness.

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles James Tissot, c. 1890

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles
James Tissot, c. 1890

You know the essence of the story, I think: Jesus goes out looking for Peter. He stands on the shore of Lake Galilee and he calls to him, exactly as he did on the day that they’d met. He welcomes Peter, and then he invites Peter to share what he has brought. He calls Peter by name – not once, but three times. And in the process, Jesus gives Peter the chance to embrace the forgiveness that Jesus has offered. He asks him three questions, and allows Peter to reaffirm the depth of his love three times.

Do you see? Christ wants Peter – Peter, who only days earlier had done his worst – to share in the power of resurrection. Jesus gives Peter a job – the same task he’d assigned Peter earlier in his ministry – to lead the church. For Peter, resurrection life began that day. Peter was brought back from the dead a long time before he was ever hung on a Roman Cross because he wouldn’t stop talking about the grace, love, and power of Jesus.

Judas could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him to hopelessness, despair, and death.

Peter could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him into the depths of the Christian community, who helped him to experience grace, forgiveness, and resurrection.

And what about you? What will you do when you do your worst?

Please note, I’m not asking what is the worst thing you’re liable to do. I mean, that would be a fascinating conversation and probably very interesting, but it’s not really germane to our worship this morning. What I want to know is, whenever you do whatever it is that is the worst thing you’ll do, what will you do next?

Oh, come on, Dave, you don’t mean to suggest that I am like Judas? I mean, seriously, I have my moments, but…

No. And I am serious. You will fail. Some of us have already failed. More than once. All of us will fail again.

I don’t know, and don’t particularly care right now, what will be your worst. I am simply here to guarantee your upcoming failure. And I’m not going to try to rank them as to which is worst – is it the affair or the addiction or the theft or the lying or the inability to treat other people well or selfishness or violence ? Is it interpersonal or academic, work-related or hidden on the internet? For crying out loud, it doesn’t matter. You are going to screw up. You will fail. You will hurt someone else, and you will be hurt.

The question I have for you is not how will you do your worst. The question I have is, in which direction will you turn when you find that you have, in fact, done your worst?

The Good News of Easter is this: Death is turned to life. Sin is forgiven. Your worst is no match for his best. There is therefore no reason to continue to live in that worst, and less reason to wander into isolation, pain, and death.

JesusonBeachYou know, don’t you, that the reason we’ve had this book for 2000 years is that Jesus was not simply having a conversation on the beach with an old friend. He was not only talking with Peter. He was talking with me. He was talking with you.

Take a look around the room right now (and I can tell you, this works in church and in bars and in the stadium and anywhere else…). Look at these people. Some of them would say that beyond a shadow of a doubt they are at the best place of their lives right now. And others are a red hot mess this morning. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks be to God, we can all know the gifts of hope and new life because of the fact that Jesus is alive, walking the beaches of our own lives, calling out our names, and inviting us to bring ourselves to him.

He is risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah. Amen.

Who’s Up?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  One of the people who did that time and time again was Mary of Magdala.  Our first service on Easter Sunday included a reading from Matthew 28:1-10.

If everything goes as planned, sometime after four p.m. tomorrow afternoon, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2015 Pirate season. It would seem as though thoughts of resurrection and hope are not limited to theological themes this week.
LineupCardAs I think about tomorrow’s game, I am struck by the notion that there are two kinds of ball players in the world. Some of you come in from the field and know exactly where we are in the batting order. Many of these folks not only remember the order, but are happy to issue a report as to how previous batters have fared against the current pitcher. And others of us, perhaps more focused on defense, strategy, or how good a burrito would taste right now, come to the bench and say, “Who’s up?” We have forgotten where we stand in the order.

Ever since my grandfather took me to a game in Connie Mack stadium nearly fifty years ago, baseball has been magical for me. I love it because it’s good to listen to on the radio, and it’s better in person. I appreciate how it is a wonderful blend of individual and team competition, and I love to see how choreographed it can be, such as when there are two men on base and the batter lays down a bunt. It is poetry.

And beyond the mechanics, there is a cerebral element. How will the manager construct his batting order? Speed up top and power in the middle, usually. Ask people down below to be smart, and don’t embarrass themselves or the team.

One by one, the procession of teammates goes out to stand at the plate and share in the common goal of advancing the runners and achieving victory. And I have noticed that there are two types of batters in a lineup. Some folks are chomping at the bit, and saying “whoo-hoo! I get to hit! Come on now, let me at ‘em.” And others are sitting in the on-deck circle silently pleading, “please, God, not me, not now, no with two outs and a man on third…”

Who’s up?

Believe it or not, that’s the question that came to mind as I pondered this morning’s scripture.

I know – believe you me, I know – that it’s dangerous to compare the arc of history and the message of salvation to a game. But bear with me on this, because I think that Matthew 28 reveals a significant shift in God’s dealings with humanity – and that has implications for us.

Think about it: for thousands of years, God’s promise was an idea. Every now and then, one of the prophets would pipe up and say, “Hey, don’t forget – God is moving. Things are going to happen. I’m not sure exactly how or when or where, but stay tuned. This will be big. Really big.”

Prophets

The Prophets

 

angelsicon

…and Angels

The prophets – God’s leadoff men, if you will, set the table, and then the heavy hitters come up. When the time is right, the angels appear. Angel, from the Greek word angelos, means messenger, and these messengers show up in droves. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all receive visitations with some real specificity. You will have a son. You will give him this name. You will find him here, wearing this. Who’s up? Well, mostly it’s Gabriel, it would seem. God had a message, and he sent messengers.

holy-apostles-icon

…then the Apostles

And then, about thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry and we quickly discover that he not only has a message, he is the message. For three years, Jesus works to transform human history and experience by raising up a small group of followers. The most prominent of these, of course, are the twelve apostles. Apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. It is fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the Gospels that Jesus is preparing the twelve for something. To follow my baseball analogy, for much of the Gospels, Jesus is “up” now, and they are “on deck”.

And then the unthinkable happens. He is betrayed by one of the twelve. There is an unjust trial, a cruel execution, and a hasty burial. In a twist, the Apostles are not sent anywhere. Instead, they scatter and hide.

But God is not through. Jesus is not through. We heard this morning about the ways that God has turned this unthinkable tragedy into an even more unthinkable victory. The next phase is set to begin.

How will it begin? Are we going to see Gabriel, Michael, or one of the other angels again? Not really.

When God started the whole Jesus thing, there were angels everywhere: in the Temple, in Joseph’s dreams, in Mary’s home, in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s the way that God chose to get the news out then.

Now, when the best news ever is unleashed, it comes in the quiet corner of a graveyard at dawn. And not only that, but the news comes to a woman who, if ever there was a person to say this, is saying, “Please God, not me. Not me. Not me…”

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The best news in the history of news is entrusted to a woman named Mary from the town of Magdala. We don’t know a great deal about her, although Luke tells us that at one point Jesus drove not one or two, but seven demons out of her. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what that life would be like – a life filled with uncertainty and shame. Mary evidently connected with Jesus fairly early in his ministry and after having experienced the transformation of his presence, she became totally devoted to him.

He treated her with love and respect and encouragement, while most of her peers no doubt continued to remember her as she had been.  You’ve been in high school – you know how long people remember (“you know, Mary, the woman who used to be… the chick who always had… You know, Mary?”).

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

When the Apostles all scattered, Mary was unable to leave his side. Even as he hung on the cross, she could not see herself anywhere else. After all he had done for her she only wanted to show a little respect. She was, as Frederick Buechner says, “one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified – she had more guts than most – and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him into the tomb.”[1] The least she could do was to make sure he got a decent burial, and so she arrives at the tomb at first light that Sunday morning.

When she arrives, however, she runs into an angel. Unlike the previous angels in the gospels, though, this one is not telling her something that God is going to do. He simply instructs her to get back to the disciples and tell them to make their way to Galilee, where they will meet the Lord. Not long after that, she runs into Jesus himself, who demonstrates the truth of the angel’s message of resurrection and reminds her to send the apostles to meet up with him.

This is far and away the most incredible bit of news that anyone, anywhere, has ever heard, and to whom is it entrusted? Her. That one. Mary of Magdala receives the promises of Jesus: I can be found. I will be seen.

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The only way this makes sense for me is for Mary to be crying out, saying, “No, Lord! Not me. Send Peter. Send John. Don’t make me carry this news. What if I blow it?”

“Don’t worry, Mary. I will give them their job. Right now, it’s your turn. You are up, Mary.”

Listen, if the resurrection is a fairy tale, then we’re just wasting our time.

If the resurrection is an allegory or a myth, then maybe it’s a harmless enough way to spend a few moments before breakfast.

If the resurrection is merely history – an event that happened once upon a time, a specific occasion in a particular place, then maybe someone ought to put up a plaque or historical marker.

But I believe that the resurrection is better and truer than any of that. I believe that the message still holds. I believe that the Message is still operative in our world.

God, in Christ, is moving in and through the world to bring sight where vision fails, to build up what has been torn down, and to heal what is wounded.

Jesus With Mary Magdalene Bruce Wolfe Contemporary Used by Permission http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus With Mary Magdalene
Bruce Wolfe – Contemporary
Used by Permission
http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus Christ, God’s own messenger and Message, said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

That is not yesterday’s news. Jesus is, in all of the most important ways, still visible. Apostles, like Mary and the twelve are still, in every significant way, being sent. Do you know this?

Are you aware of someone who needs to have vision restored, hope re-planted, sin forgiven, oppression lifted, enslavement ended?

Go and look for them. And show them Jesus.

The angels are not going to do it. Nor can Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Priscilla, or Aquila.

It’s you and me. Come on, church. You’re up. The world needs to see Jesus. Can we show him here and now? Can we be his body in this time and this place?

The Lord IS risen. He is risen indeed!

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 102.

An Improbable Convert

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Maundy Thursday, April 2,  came from various excerpts from Mark 14 and 15 and contrasted the actions of Judas Iscariot and the Roman Centurion who watched Jesus die on Good Friday.

Each week during Lent, we’ve been watching the interaction between Jesus and people who have had the opportunity to meet with him on more than one occasion. If you’ve been here in the past month or so, you’ve met John’s disciples, the man who was possessed, the blind man in John 9, and more. Tonight’s readings give us the opportunity to encounter two men who run into Jesus – maybe even on the same night – and they are men who are going in decidedly different directions.

The Kiss of Judas,  Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

The Kiss of Judas,
Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

Judas Iscariot has, of course, known Jesus for a while. As one of the twelve disciples, he’s traveled with the Lord for some years; he was one of the twelve who got sent out in Mark 6 and probably one of the seventy-two dispatched in Luke 10. Judas has, in fact, just finished celebrating the Passover Seder with Jesus, at which time his feet were washed by the Lord. For Judas, turning and re-turning to Jesus is something that has been second nature for two or three years. Now, however, Judas has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and so it’s time for him to cut his losses and move on. We’ll talk more about Judas on Sunday morning.

The other man who has captured my attention this evening is the unnamed centurion who watches Jesus die. We have no way of knowing how or when he first met Jesus or if, in fact, they had ever met before. Given the small size of the city of Jerusalem, however, and this man’s place in the Roman army of occupation, it’s hard for me to imagine that he would not have encountered the Lord during Holy Week. In tonight’s reading we see that the centurion, like Judas, has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and that leads this soldier to stake his claim to faith and see where God would lead him.

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

Who is this man that shows up in our reading this evening? A centurion was a member of a special class within the Roman military. The title does not reflect a specific rank (such as lieutenant or captain), but rather a place of honor. Historians believe that most centurions would have held ranks equivalent to anything between a major and a one star general in the modern military.

Centurions were men of significant prestige and power. Polybius, a second-century BC historian, said this about centurions: “In choosing their centurions the Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.”[1] Centurions were to be vigilant, strong, capable, and respectable.

Each centurion, in spite of what his title suggests, is thought to have led a group of 80 soldiers. In battle, they led from the front lines. They were easily identified by their distinctive helmets and other uniform features (which included a vitis, or “swagger stick”, a short stick made from rattan reeds), and perhaps as a result of this centurions suffered a disproportionate number of casualties during military engagements.

The centurion mentioned in Mark’s Gospel would almost certainly have been a Gentile – that is, a non-believer. One other item of note about this centurion – and all his compatriots, in fact – is that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is spoken of in a positive manner. That is surprising, given that these men represented the army of occupation and the power of Rome.

So that’s a little about our centurion. What, or who, did he see when he looked at the prisoner Jesus of Nazareth? Initially, there was probably little to draw his attention to this itinerant Rabbi. After all, there was little in Jesus’ resume to attract much attention from the imperial elite. Peasant messiahs were a dime a dozen (or maybe I should say they were a shekel an ephah?) in those days.

He would not have been impressed with the method of Jesus’ capture. The religious authorities, who challenged Jesus publicly, chose not to detain the man from Nazareth until the crowds died down and they could sneak up on him in the middle of the night. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend, an act of dishonor, would have added to the centurion’s belief that this Nazarean was of no concern to him. Initially, the only trial that Jesus was given was before a religious body that would have had no impact on any Roman soldier.

However, it’s reasonable to think that this soldier, or at least others like him, would have stood by as the Roman Governor, Pilate, questioned Jesus and then shipped him off to the Jewish leader, Herod. The centurion would have seen the crowd’s rejection of Jesus in favor of Barabbas, who was known to be a thug and a mercenary.

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest's home in Jerusalem

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest’s home in Jerusalem

The centurion might have been able to witness the mockery that Jesus endured from the soldiers as he sat in the dimness of his prison cell. Five years ago I was privileged to visit Jerusalem, and was humbled to visit a dungeon in the basement of a church that was built on the site of the high priest’s house. There is no evidence to suggest that the cell I visited actually housed Jesus, but the conditions would have to have been similar, if not identical. Surrounded by damp walls and hearing only echoes from the street, I was struck by how intensely lonely Jesus must have been. The centurion would have seen that, all right. And he may, in fact, have been there. Do you remember the vitis? And how we read that the Lord was struck by “a reed”?

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

And we know that he was there as Jesus hung on the cross. He would have watched the taunting and the mockery continue. One particularly gruesome aspect of that mockery became clear to me when I visited some ancient Roman colonies and discovered, of all things, public toilets. We saw a long row of latrines that were constructed over a channel of flowing water. Someone in my group asked about hygiene, and we were informed that in the absence of modern toilet paper, every latrine had a bucket of vinegar close by, and every Roman soldier was issued a sponge and a stick to use for his personal hygiene. Upon learning this, my first thought was of this passage where a soldier asks Jesus if he’s thirsty while holding a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick… The centurion watched as this kind of scorn was heaped upon the man from Galilee.

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

And, of course, the centurion saw Jesus breathe his last. It would not have been the first man he’d seen die, nor would it be the last. All we know for certain is that when this respected, powerful leader of the Roman army saw how Jesus conducted himself in his final hours, he was driven to worship the Lord.

Judas looked at Jesus and was disappointed. Jesus was not powerful enough, not strong enough, not gutsy enough, not aggressive enough to suit Judas’ ends. Jesus did not serve Judas’ purposes, and Judas moved on.

The centurion looked at Jesus and saw strength, power, and authority. This man, who served under governors and emperors and alongside of the most capable and fearsome troops that established Rome’s rule, was moved by what he saw in Jesus. The Romans, of course, had made a study of power. For them, power was a means to an end. The centurion and his colleagues were intensely pragmatic and not given much to theory or speculation. As he watched Jesus suffer and die without giving in to anger or self-pity, the centurion saw Jesus as the epitome of all that was good, righteous, and powerful – and therefore worthy of his worship.

Earlier this week, your church staff read the scriptures where the crowd chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus. As we talked about what would make a man like Judas turn his back on Jesus, and what would make the religious leaders incite the crowd to release a terrorist rather than a poor street preacher, we considered these words from James Harnish:

Is it possible that our world still knows better how to deal with a bandit, a murderer, an insurrectionist than it knows what to do with the Prince of Peace? There is a sense in which an assassin’s attempt on the pope’s life is less shocking to our world than the pope’s forgiveness of him. Is it possible that we would rather deal with raw power that rides on a stallion than with this one who comes on a donkey, with the weapons of love, patience, suffering, and peace? Given the choice, isn’t it possible that we would take Barabbas, too?[2]

The truth is, I’m afraid, that given half a chance, we – like Judas – are eager to call on our Jesus to serve our own ends. We seek Jesus on our own terms, and want him to come and take care of us.

Jesus, come on, Jesus, I really need to get an A on this test right now. Please, Jesus, just buy me that jet plane. Get me the job, Jesus. Heal my baby, Lord. Don’t forget, Jesus, the lottery drawing is tonight. Remember my dad in the hospital, Lord…

Listen – it’s not wrong to ask God about the things that are important to you. Jesus said that we were to go to God and open our hearts.

It’s important to remember, though, that we don’t follow Christ so that we get better stuff, or somehow receive better treatment from the Lord at the end of the day.

We come together as followers of the one who washed feet, who shared the loaf and the cup, and who laid down his life for his friends all while he was pointing to God’s eternal purposes of truth and reconciliation in the world. We follow Jesus not because we expect that somehow we will be treated better than he was treated, but so that the world, through us, will get a better glimpse of God’s intentions for healing and wholeness.

St. Longinus  Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

St. Longinus
Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

The ancient church liked to tell the story that this centurion who watched Jesus die was a Roman officer named Longinus, and that after bearing witness to the humble death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, he went on to be baptized, leave the army, and tell the world about the power that can be found in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t really know much about Longinus, and whether I trust that story.

The Confession of the Centurion James Tissot, c. 1890

The Confession of the Centurion
James Tissot, c. 1890

On this Maundy Thursday, however, I do know that I can be a selfish, broken, greedy, lonely, scared, violent, angry, suspicious, powerless little person, and that I am surrounded by people who are a lot like me. And like the centurion who watched Jesus die, I know that my best hope is to continue to look to Jesus to feed and clean me as I seek to follow him in humility, service, and love…which is, of course, the most significant power that the universe has ever seen. That’s the power that made the centurion stop in his tracks…and can re-arrange your life, and mine, this evening. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rise of the Roman Empire, Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, p.322

[2] from What Will You Do With King Jesus, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Reuben Job (Upper Room Books, 2006), p. 166.