Texas Mission 2016 #5

So, I had to go back and re-read what I wrote yesterday.

I had to do that because in many ways, today was a frustrating day for our team.  And it was frustrating, by and large, because we felt increasingly driven by the need to do and achieve and produce some great deal of work on the little house on Puffin Street in Edinburg, Texas.


Jon has spent some time this week apprenticing as an electrician. he may have a knack!

All that stuff I wrote yesterday about partnership and being together and allowing God to shape us?  Yeah, well, it turns out that it’s harder to remember some of that when you’re frustrated by using borrowed tools and working to finish a job someone else started and trying to figure out how in the world you are going to finish this job by the time the day is over.  So, one by one, we took a trip to the “bitter barn” today.  The flanges didn’t flange right, and the wire was too stiff, and the plumbing connections were for the other kind of plastic tubing and the paint dried on my brush in the sun and Jon fell into a hole and twisted his ankle (not apparently very seriously, but as he himself reminded us, we shoot horses for less) and the drywall might have fallen from the ceiling and crumbled into 73 pieces when the fellas thought it was up there pretty good…

This picture looks pretty cool, right? Guys working together... 4 minutes later the piece in question had crashed to the floor - a victim of late-day, late-week frustration.  And we all lived.

This picture looks pretty cool, right? Guys working together… 4 minutes later the piece in question had crashed to the floor – a victim of late-day, late-week frustration. And we all lived.

…and yet, as you read this, the world still turns on its axis.  Somewhere, the sun is shining, birds are singing, and a gentle breeze waves across the field.

Here I am painting about half as much as I'd hoped to today...

Here I am painting about half as much as I’d hoped to today…


Gabe managed to wrangle some recalcitrant wire into shape to provide service to the home.

Gabe managed to wrangle some recalcitrant wire into shape to provide service to the home.

We didn’t finish.  That was an unrealistic goal.  But this afternoon, we stopped.  And that was fine.  We did what we could with the energy and skill and tools and time that we had, and it’s good.  And when the next team steps up to the plate, it’ll be better.  And it’s fine.

Here's our team, along with Texas Bob, letting go of what we couldn't finish.

Here’s our team, along with Texas Bob, letting go of what we couldn’t finish.

Because after we stopped our work in Texas this year, we did something amazing.  We left Puffin St. in Edinburg and headed west about 45 minutes or so to visit the home on which we worked last year.  And it was amazing.

The little purple house to which we contributed our meager efforts is now a home.  We met our old friend Juani and her children again. We saw how they have taken the structure that was a house and have filled it with character and celebration and joy and hope… And it was simply beautiful to see.

With Juani and her family, celebrating God's gift of home.  We read Psalm 133 and prayed together, and it was good.  Very good.

With Juani and her family, celebrating God’s gift of home. We read Psalm 133 and prayed together, and it was good. Very good.

We didn’t finish that job either.  But it’s done now.  Thanks be to God, it’s done.

This is Vicky.  At her home.  Wearing a shirt that reads "Princess".  Everything about this is beautiful.

This is Vicky. At her home. Wearing a shirt that reads “Princess”. Everything about this is beautiful.

And, thanks be to God, there’s another one on the way.  And – no thanks to us, but to our colleagues in Texas – another and another and another.

Pray with us tonight for families who flee violence and who survive trauma; pray for those who need a home and those who can help to provide it; and take it easy on yourself when you’re feeling all that pressure to do and achieve and produce.  Take some time today to be.  Be thankful. Be hopeful. Be courteous. Be kind.

Texas Mission 2016 Update #4

IMG_3241As we worked this afternoon, one of our hosts brought a community leader to the site.  She had heard about the work that was being done and was interested in seeing what she could do to help encourage her congregation to invest in this type of mission.  We gave her a tour of the job site and talked about the kinds of work that we had done and that we had planned.  She was very impressed with the story of the family on whose home we were working and so glad that someone was doing something to help these people, and she said something to the effect of,

You see, this is exactly what I was talking to my son about the other day.  He goes to a church that sends people all over the planet, but I keep telling him that there are people who need help right here in the Valley!  There’s no sense in people trotting across the world to do work when there are people in our own back yards who need help.

Our host said, “Um, you know that these fellas are from Pittsburgh, right?  They came here from there to do work in the Valley.”

Bob continuing with the bathroom installation.

Bob continuing with the bathroom installation.

Crafton Heights is a church that sends people all over the world.  For the record, we do know that there are problems in Pittsburgh.  Our back yards are not, figuratively speaking, pristine.  And yet, for the seven years we’ve been coming to the Rio Grande Valley to work in neighborhoods like this one.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Our visitor today was right: there are all kinds of needs that surround us every day, and if we’re only talking about economics and the physical labor that gets done, it doesn’t add up.  It would be cheaper if everyone stayed home and worked in their own back yards.

If working on houses was all that mattered.

Because here’s the deal: the eight men who have gathered here in Texas this week would not be doing what we’re doing now if we were in Pittsburgh.  That’s true in terms of the physical work that we’re doing: it’s hard to imagine all of us taking time from our daily lives while we are in the midst of those lives and working to plumb, electrify, and paint someone else’s home.  It’s even more true in terms of the other work that we’re doing: there is no way that these eight men would spend hours each evening talking about the importance of grace or the need for us to develop forgiving spirits or the problems of sin or the nature of the church.  It just would not happen if we were in the 412… and yet, here, away, we have the chance to wander through some of these conversations.  And as important as all of those conversations are, I’m not even sure that they are the most important work that is getting done.  Tonight, Gabe talked about the fact that this group of men is getting to know each other in deep and rich ways and we can’t even begin to imagine the impact that will make once the trip ends and we all return to our “normal” lives.

Ed demonstrates the qualities of leadership that have gotten him to where he is today...

Ed demonstrates the qualities of leadership that have gotten him to where he is today…

The way I see it, we didn’t come here solely for the people who live in Texas.  And we didn’t even come here for the benefit of deepened friendships or heightened spiritual discussion.  We came here because we believe that something that happens here, this week, will allow us to make some slight (or not so slight) changes in our every day lives and patterns of relationship and thought that will, in turn, make the 412 (or wherever we are) a more Godly place.  We’re working on a house, but we are being changed.

The resource for our discussions is a relatively new volume entitled A Second Shot of Coffee With Jesus.  This online comic strip features simple artwork depicting Jesus’ interaction with a small community of adults – it’s snarky, it’s intelligent, and often, it’s spot on as we consider our own lives.  Here’s a sample strip:


The way that we use the book is simple.  As we left Pittsburgh, I held it up and said, “All you have to do is find one or two strips in this volume that strike a chord with you.  Maybe it’s a topic that you’ve thought about a lot.  Maybe it depicts something that really annoys you.  Maybe it seems really, really true to you.  At any rate, all you have to do is simply pick a strip, read it to the group, and say why it strikes you.

Several nights we’ve sat in the church kitchen and talked for more than an hour about the nature of God or the reason we have to follow Jesus.  These simple comics have opened us to a series of discussions that have been truthful, earnest, and fruitful.

We ought to be able to do that in Pittsburgh, but in my experience, it doesn’t often happen.

Which is why we come away.

One of the highlights of the day was a delicious meal at the Lone Star Barbecue - we were joined by Texas Bob and his wife Pam as well as Kathy and her mother, Martha.  The Food was amazing... and the conversation was even better.

One of the highlights of the day was a delicious meal at the Lone Star Barbecue – we were joined by Texas Bob and his wife Pam as well as Kathy and her mother, Martha. The Food was amazing… and the conversation was even better.

Texas Mission 2016 #3

It was hot in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, today.

The temperature at 5 p.m., according to our trusty Ford...

The temperature at 5 p.m., according to our trusty Ford…

This is a marked change from last year, where we all worried because we didn’t have enough warm weather clothes.  That was not a problem today, as we enjoyed the opportunity to dive deeply into the work at hand on the site selected for us by our partners.  The second day is always a great day, because we still have energy and zeal, and we know what we’re doing and why.  Today, in spite of the heat, was no exception.  In fact, we worked so hard that nobody took a lot of photos.  Here are a few images of our work.

Much of my day consisted of "augmenting" the drywall work done by the last crew. It involved a little fresh mud...

Much of my day consisted of “augmenting” the drywall work done by the last crew. It involved a little fresh mud…

...and a whole lot of sanding!

…and a whole lot of sanding!









Jonathan found that he enjoyed the electrical work... you could say he got a real charge out of it.

Jonathan found that he enjoyed the electrical work… you could say he got a real charge out of it.

Bob invents a plumbing solution out of a bucket of leftovers...

Bob invents a plumbing solution out of a bucket of leftovers…

Nemorio is a constant source of encouragement and joy!

By 10 a.m. the sun was blazing!

By 10 a.m. the sun was blazing!

In fact, it was so hot that we got worried when we couldn't find Tim. Eventually, we discovered him holed up under the house. He SAID he was helping with the plumbing, but he wasn't coming out...

In fact, it was so hot that we got worried when we couldn’t find Tim. Eventually, we discovered him holed up under the house. He SAID he was helping with the plumbing, but he wasn’t coming out…

... Eventually, however, Bob Walters and Texas Bob Sherwood managed to entice him by waving a can of cold Pepsi and a "Hot Pocket" under the house.

… Eventually, however, Bob Walters and Texas Bob Sherwood managed to entice him by waving a can of cold Pepsi and a “Hot Pocket” under the house.

All in all it was a great day to be together.  I need to mention that we were, once again, spoiled in the food department.  Our friend Martha served us sloppy joes and brought not one, not two, but THREE Grapefruit pies for lunch.  I had a slice of each one just to be fair.  Tomorrow I’ll write a little more about the things that we do in the evening and the ways that this time makes the trip so meaningful to all concerned.  In the meantime, thanks for your prayers, and keep the family for whom we’re working, as well as our own families, in your prayers.

Texas Mission 2016 #2

Our friend Roland (front left) begins our day by acquainting us with the story of this home, the family, and their land.

Our friend Roland (front left) begins our day by acquainting us with the story of this home, the family, and their land.

Your 2016 Crafton Heights Texas Mission Team has hit the ground running with a day of work in the Rio Grande Valley.  Our brothers and sisters here in the Valley have asked us to assist in the completion of a house for a family that has been through significant trauma.  Some years ago, a group of thugs invaded the home and did despicable things, culminating in the burning of the house.  For a while, the family was reeling – resulting in family members seeking refuge in various areas of the country as well as serving in the US Armed Forces.  The land remained, however, and in the last several years this family has sought to create a new beginning.  Several churches have come together in a variety of ways and made a wonderful beginning on a three bedroom home.  Progress was slowed when the area was flooded last year, but our hope is to go the last mile and make it as habitable as possible with four days of our labor.

Jon, Jack, Tim, and Ed complete the vinyl siding.

Jon, Jack, Tim, and Ed complete the vinyl siding.

Have you ever tried to weed someone else’s garden, or put together a puzzle that someone else has started?  Have you tried to cook in someone else’s kitchen, or find a tool in someone else’s cellar?  That’s what it’s like to come into a situation like this: you see a task done, or half-done, and say to yourself, “what were they thinking when they did THIS?”  Sooner or later you just dig in and say, “Decisions were made…how are we going to move this to the next place?”

Gabe working to sort out the electrical system.

Gabe working to sort out the electrical system.

To that end, today a few of us spent hours in the 91 degree heat completing the siding on the outside.  This involved some carpentry, some geometry, and some creative thinking.  Meanwhile, Gabe worked to establish an electrical system in the home while Bob and Nemorio took charge of the plumbing in the bathroom.  As has become customary in recent years, our friends from the First Presbyterian Church brought us lunch on site – some amazing 16 bean soup/Mulligan stew along with fresh bread, homemade jam, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Bob and Nemorio working to frame the shower stall.

Bob and Nemorio working to frame the shower stall.

We returned to “home base” around 5, where Nemorio whipped up some Salisbury Steaks and mashed potatoes for us, and then we dove into our evening conversation and devotional.  More about that later this week.

For now, we ask your prayers for the family that will use this home – pray for healing and reunion.  We ask your prayers for the congregations that support us here this week.  And we ask you to join us in gratitude and celebration for the opportunity to share this time with each other and these friends.

This may be the only evidence of me working all day.

This may be the only evidence of me working all day.

Texas Mission 2016 #1

For the past seven or eight years, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has sent a team of adults to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  In partnership with The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch, we have worked to understand issues surrounding migration and poverty as we join hands and hearts in rebuilding houses, worshiping the Lord, and seeking to find where God is on the move.  In 2016, we were sent out with six members from Crafton Heights as well as two friends from other Pittsburgh area churches.

The first day is really all about travel.  We boarded a flight in Pittsburgh at 5:40 a.m. on Saturday, and after a brief stop in Baltimore, found ourselves in Houston  about lunch time.  A six-hour drive later and we were reunited with our hosts in Mission, who had prepared an amazing meal of brisket, sausage, beans, cornbread, and more for us.  More than that, they opened their hearts to welcome and encourage us.  We laughed and talked for a long time, and then almost all of us were ready for bed.  I say “almost all” because my luggage was having such a good time in Baltimore that it decided to hang around there for an extra day – so when the airline called to tell me I was on my own for the night, I went to an all-night drugstore to get a toothbrush, at any rate.

The welcome meal at FPC Mission

The welcome meal at FPC Mission

There were not many leftovers from this crowd!

There were not many leftovers from this crowd!

Preaching at Solomon's Porch

Preaching at Solomon’s Porch, with Pastor Danny on the left.

Sunday morning brought us the opportunity to worship in two places.  We began at 8:30 at FPC Mission, a medium-size church with a population that is peppered with Winter Texans – retirees who spend 3 – 6 month each year in the Valley.  We always enjoy the chance to be in this place and appreciate the beautiful music and warm hospitality of this church.  At 11:30, we met with Solomon’s Porch, temporarily worshiping in Coco’s Restaurant as they await the completion of their new building.  This is a much smaller congregation, but it has a huge vision.  The service was multilingual, and my sermon was preached in English and translated into Spanish (and perhaps corrected, for all I know!) by my friend Pastor Danny.  After worship, we were treated to a meal of homemade tamales, beans, rice, ground meat, and cherry pie.  What a delight to visit these folks, who in addition to receiving us so kindly, have sent three teams to Pittsburgh in recent years.

A portion of the Solomon's Porch congregation

A portion of the Solomon’s Porch congregation

Jon (PA) and Homer (TX) share their stories.

Jon (PA) and Homer (TX) share their stories.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, where a few of us stalked the birds and wildlife while the rest of us walked through the many hiking trails in search of the Rio Grande, a few laughs, and the chance to soak in the 89 degree sunshine!  I was able to add a couple of birds to my life list and everyone was glad to be able to stretch after such a long travel day.  We ended with a delicious spaghetti dinner and a fascinating conversation about God’s grace, guardian angels, and the call to daily obedience.  There was a little personal celebration for me as I had the opportunity to embrace my long-lost luggage!

So now, after two days, we are really here.  We’re acclimated, we’re fed, and we’re ready to dive in.  More about that tomorrow.  Thanks for the prayers, and the privilege to be here!

A Green Jay

A Green Jay

A trio of Chachalacas

A trio of Chachalacas

We were delighted to be found by this little Javelina, a peccary similar to the pig.

We were delighted to be found by this little Javelina, a peccary similar to the pig.

Welcome to Texas, Men!

Welcome to Texas, Men!

We really, really enjoyed both the weather and time together!

We really, really enjoyed both the weather and time together!

Why Are People Good?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 14, we read the beginning of that work (Job 1:1-11) and wondered about what it means to be good, do good, and work for good.  


StarWarsA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

You know that story, right – at least some of it? So let me ask you: is it true? All that stuff about the rebels and the Empire and Luke and Leia and Yoda… Is it true?

Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by “true”, right? Am I asking, “Did it really happen?” Or am I asking, “Does it ever happen?”

Think about the message and content of the Star Wars saga:

  • Humans exist in a world in which good and evil are at war, and often it appears as though evil holds the upper hand.
  • There is a Force, and it is with you.
  • The old masters have a way of life and faith to which young followers are called
  • There is life beyond that which we can see

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes there is more to “truth” than simple history. I’m pretty sure that George Lucas made up the story about Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. But I’m equally certain that it’s true.

Which brings me to the scriptural text for this morning, the opening verses of the book of Job. In spite of the fact that it’s closer to the middle of the Old Testament, most scholars believe that this is the oldest book in the Bible. It is among the most ancient pieces of writing on the planet, in fact. We know this because of the style of the Hebrew in which the book is written. You know that all languages change and develop. If old William Shakespeare were writing in 2016 instead of 1592, he would not have Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, the troubled lover would say something like “O, Romeo! Why do you have to be called Romeo?” When you read Shakespeare, you know that you are reading something from an earlier age, right? It’s the same with Job. The language and expressions are all in a kind of writing we call “paleo-Hebrew”. This story of an amazingly good and upright man who is beset by all kinds of problems is very, very old.

But did the events described in this story actually happen? I don’t have a clue.

Do these things happen? Every single day.

It’s hard to imagine a person alive who is not familiar with the questions raised by Job – questions that we’ll consider throughout this Lenten season.

  • Is God really in charge?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • What do I do when someone I love is in pain?
  • Is it OK to question God?

In fact, if there is anyone here who has NOT wrestled with these questions, please speak to me immediately following the service, because I have some questions for you!

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

For now, let’s dive in to this ancient text and say hello to Job.

The first thing we learn about Job is that he is, by all accounts, an incredible guy. “The greatest man among all the people in the East,” in fact. How do we know that? What is the criteria for “greatness”?

For starters, Job is loaded. I mean, he is clearly the Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his age. Did you hear about all those camels and sheep and all the other stuff he’s got?

Moreover, he’s got ten children. Seven boys and three girls represent the Hebrew numbers of completeness. “Everybody knows” that children are a blessing from the Lord, and look at Job’s family! It’s perfect.

In addition to these tangible signs of wealth and blessedness, take a look at how Job conducts himself as a father. Right after the narrator tells us that Job is the greatest guy around, we learn that this Mr. Wonderful spends his time praying for his children. Dads, take note of this as you ascribe to greatness: pray for your children!

Job is such a great person, in fact, that he is the topic of conversation at the staff meeting between God and the angels in heaven. God points him out, and says, “Wow! What a wonderful human being! That Job is one of the best!”

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

And Satan hears God say this –

– Wait a second? Why is Satan at the board meeting in heaven? Great question. We’ll get to that one in two weeks.

– So Satan interrupts God and asks the first difficult question in the book of Job: Why is Job good? Satan does not argue with God as to whether or not Job is actually good, but rather he wants to know why this great man is so good.

Have you ever wondered that? Most of us, especially those of us who were raised in the church and who grew up believing in “the American Dream” have been taught that being “good” is important. But why?

What’s the purpose of being a good person? Why does Job – or any one of us – aspire to goodness? What’s in it for us?

Satan says to God, “Of course Job is good. You reward him for being good. Job is as good as he is because he knows that you will like him better because of it. And not only is he a little brown-noser who is just trying to impress you, you make it worse because you’ve built a wall around him. Don’t go trotting out Job’s goodness, God, as if it is something special, because it’s obvious to anyone that you’ve put him in a little box where nothing bad can happen to him.”

Well, that’s an interesting charge, Satan. Let’s take a look. Has God put a wall around Job?

The fact of the matter is, yes. Yes God has done that.

To be fair though, that’s what God does. Listen to this reading from the first (but not oldest) book in our Bible: Genesis 1:6-9 reads,

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.

There’s a word that shows up there a couple of times: “firmament”. In other translations it’s “dome” or “vault”. Here, in a description of who God is and what God does when God first starts out being God in our experience, we see that God spends God’s time bringing order out of chaos. It’s in other places throughout the Bible as well: Psalm 104:9 talks about the fact that God has set boundaries or borders for the chaos that is the sea; Isaiah 5:1-7 describes a hedge or protective border that God established around his people.

So, Satan, are you saying that God is a wall-building, hedge-planting, boundary-establishing God? That God intends protection and order and justice? You are right. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

And who is Job? Let’s look at Genesis again:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Job, like Adam and Eve, like you and me, is created in the divine image. That is to say, Job is created to be like God. As are you. As am I.

And if taking care of things, ensuring justice, shielding the vulnerable, and bringing order out of chaos is what God does, then perhaps those of us who are made to be like God are called to do them as well.

I am here to suggest that, contrary to Satan’s claim, Job does not do good in order to get God to like him any better. There is a wall around Job because it is in God’s nature to build walls around that which he loves. Nothing that Job does is going to get that wall to be any taller or thicker. And Job is good because that’s how he was made. In God’s image. We are designed for goodness; moreover, later on in the book when we hear more about Job’s goodness, one of the things that is mentioned is that he builds walls of protection around those who are poor, suffering, or vulnerable.

But wait – if God is so good, and if Job is so good, then why do really bad things happen to Job?

– Great question. We’ll get to that one in three weeks.

For today, let us hold to this truth – in some important way, Satan is correct. He says, “Does Job honor God for nothing? You’ve built a wall around him!” He’s right. Job does not fear God for no reason.

Job fears and honors God, not because he is afraid of what God will do to him if he messes up, but because of who God is and because of what God has done in the world. In other words, Job is good, not to try to get God to like him better, but because Job appreciates who God is. Job is thankful for the world God has made. Job’s goodness is a response to God’s goodness, not an attempt to appease God or to prevent God from being less than good in the future.

The oldest book in the Bible begins with a list of blessings: Job has received money, children, respect.

What are your blessings this day? In what ways has chaos been held at bay in your life? Where is the wall that is around you? Where has that wall been strong? How have you known God’s goodness and God’s protection in your life?

Can you think of ways in which God’s light has shone on your path?

Now – think very, very carefully about the answer to this next question: what did you do to deserve that blessing, that wall, that order, that protection, that light, this life? These are all gifts, and you have received them in different ways and at different times.

I would suggest that Lent is a time for us to think less about what I do or do not do to somehow deserve the love of God and more about how I choose to respond to the blessings and kindnesses and generosity that I have received.

Are there important questions ahead of us? You bet there are. But today, let us begin our Lenten walk in gratitude for what is and what has been; in thanksgiving for who God is and who God has made us to be; and in hope for the days that are to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.


I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.