There’s a Storm A-Comin’

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 29 we had the 18th and final message in this series.  The text was Matthew 7:24-29 and our epistle reading was I Peter 3:12-18.

 

The pastor had all the kids up front for the children’s sermon. At one point, she asked if anyone could think of a name for a small grey creature that had a long bushy tail, gathered nuts for the winter, and lived in the trees. One little boy said to his sister, “Since we’re in church, I know that the right answer has got to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

jesus-crashed-25840-1250214387-56

 

Jesus.

Seriously – that’s the answer. I’m here to say that I love Jesus.

"Baptism of Christ" (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

“Baptism of Christ” (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

Whoa! No kidding! Last week, I started my message with “I love to talk”. This week, “I love Jesus.” Who could possibly see that coming? You may have seen in your bulletin the fact that next week is baptism Sunday at CHUP. Make sure you’re here for the 10 a.m. worship, where you might learn that water is wet!

But seriously – I love Jesus. And let me tell you more (because, you know, I love to talk, too…).

Late last summer I commenced with a plan to spend most of this past year studying the Sermon on the Mount. This is the eighteenth sermon I’ve preached in that series. When I said we were going to focus on Matthew chapters 5-7, I made the case by saying that we’d had a year wherein we considered the importance of hospitality and worship, and we’d emphasized mission and looked at a number of key Old Testament passages. And I wasn’t lying when I said any of that.

But the truth is that last summer, I was weary and dry.

Listen: I know a lot about running a church. If there’s a crisis, I can be a good guy to have in the room: I’m farily level-headed; I know some great scripture verses; I can pray up a storm on some days…

But here’s the deal: sometimes I think that I – and the rest of the Christian family – get so hung up on running the church, on having productive meetings and missional emphases and sustainable strategies that I – and we – miss the reason that we got into this in the first place. Jesus.

The church is important. The church needs to do stuff in the world, and the people in this room are the ones to make that happen. We have to talk about the heroin epidemic and gun violence and corporate greed and human sexuality and environmental issues and money and a thousand other things. I know that. I get it. And we do talk about those things.

Yet sometimes I get so hung up on my own ideas about those things that I lose sight of the one who called me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the church that I lose sight of Jesus.

And I was afraid that was happening last year, and so I said, “All right, CHUP, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount.”

When I did this, I hoped to explore some new insights about what Jesus had to say about the issues of his day and ours, but mostly, to be honest, I just wanted to be with him for a while.

JEsusIn the middle of all our churchiness and programming and policies, I just wanted to hang around with Jesus, and to remember who he has been for me and for us. I wanted to be like Peter and hold on to the testimony – “we ourselves have been eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the old apostle says. We’ve known Jesus. We’ve seen Jesus. We love Jesus.

And so for much of the year we’ve wandered through some familiar sayings. We’ve contemplated the logs in our own eyes, the wisdom of cutting off one’s right hand, and foolishness of making a show of our giving or praying. And we’ve liked being there to hear those things and to remember those things with Jesus.

But our walk through the Sermon on the Mount is not just about memory, or going into our spiritual “happy place”. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a series of dire warnings. Last week, we heard Jesus talk about false prophets. This week, we get a weather forecast – and according to Jesus, there’s a storm a-comin’, and we’d best be prepared for it.

Nothing I can find in the Gospels indicates that Jesus ever lost a lot of sleep over whether or not we would like what he had to say, or that we would get all warm and fuzzy when we heard the beatitudes. He didn’t do much opinion polling. His concern, as evinced here, is whether we and the other hearers of the word would be attentive to the message. The question is not, “Do I like it?”; the question is, “Will I obey?”

Does the message of the Sermon on the Mount shape me? Do I hear the words of Jesus and as a result of that hearing, am I less likely to become debilitated by worry, or falsely emboldened by a judgmental attitude, or less likely to be consumed by lust or anger? That is to say, am I building my life, am I experiencing reality, as defined by Jesus’ words? Or am I simply admiring them the way that I do a sunny day, a beautiful painting, or a fine meal?

In the conclusion to his own study of the Sermon on the Mount, German pastor and theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. But again he does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, he really means us to get on with it.[1]

And those who heard it first knew and understood that to which Bonhoeffer referred. Matthew tells us that they were amazed at his teaching – they knew right away that this was no mere wordsmithing; Jesus meant business.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

And the religious establishment and the Romans knew that a man who said things like this was something to be reckoned with – they came to realize that Jesus was dangerous to their cozy charade, and that he needed to be dealt with.

You see, that’s why I love him so much. Jesus, contrary to the understandings of him that are so prevalent today, was not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. He said it. He did it. And he offered to teach you and me how to do it, too.

So if you don’t know this already, let me tell you plainly: the storms are coming. It is a question of “when”, not “if”; a question of “how”, not “whether”.

Have you ever noticed how often we speak conditionally? It’s ridiculous. You hear it all the time. Someone says, “If I die…” or “Should something occur.” Seriously? Of course I’m going to die. There is no “if”, only a “when”. “Should something occur…” When in the history of history has something not occurred? You know that it’s going to happen… jobs will be lost, your spouse or parent or child will die, we will see floods; lives will be wracked by drug abuse or affairs; we’ll break legs and promises, we’ll suffer auto accidents and famine… It’s going to happen, people. And even if you say, “No, I’m good, I’ve already had that…”, well, think again – because this isn’t the mumps, people. The storm is coming. Again. And again. And again.

And when (not if) that storm comes, who will you be?

And when (not if) that storm comes, how will you get to the next step?

And when (not if) that storm comes, to whom will you turn?

Jesus.

Yes, that’s the right answer. Jesus.

When the first disciples hit a wall, and a lot of the crowd melted into the woodwork, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave, too?” And Peter replied– do you remember this? –

“Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

I’m with Peter. I don’t have any better ideas because Jesus is the best that there is.

I hope you’re not surprised to hear your pastor say this, but a lot of days, I don’t get it all. There are times when I look at God the Father and I think, “Holy smokes, what in the world is going on with this Guy?” There are, as Robert Capon says, some days where I look at the Father’s track record and I think that the best thing he’s got going for him is a Son like Jesus who is willing to vouch for him, ‘cause I sure can’t figure him out. And often the Holy Spirit isn’t much better – so much gets credited to him or blamed on him that I’m not sure what to believe – except that Jesus said he was sending the Spirit so I’ll be on the lookout.

But Jesus? Jesus I can love. Jesus does everything. I can do nothing on my own, but I can trust and follow him. It is a sweet deal, and the only deal that works for a knucklehead like me.[2]

I had a friend who lived with debilitating mental illness her entire adult life. Some of you knew her and would remember her. She suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia and four or five other conditions that landed her in the hospital for six or eight months at a time. But when she was lucid – wow, was she a woman of faith. And I can’t remember how many times she grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, Pastor Dave! Thank God for God! Thank God for Jesus! Right, Pastor Dave? I don’t know what’s happening, but thank God for Jesus.” And all I could do was hold her hand right back and say with conviction, “That’s right, Barb. Thank God for Jesus…”

Because, you know, he’s Jesus.

So we’re finished with the Sermon on the Mount. And because we’ve had it in bits and pieces for 18 weeks over the course of nine months, let me ask you to do this: go home and read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 today. And read the entire Sermon every day this week. And try it. Look for logs in your own eye. Give secretly. Let go of lust or anger. Remember Jesus. Listen for his laughter, heed his warnings, learn from his wisdom, and accept his grace.

And love him. Oh, for Christ’s sake, love him.

And follow him into the storm, knowing that you can’t control the ride, but you can control who you’re going to hold onto in the midst of it.

And thank God for Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 218-219).

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).

During the offering, I concluded the series of messages on The Sermon on the Mount by singing a Rich Mullins tune entitled “Heaven in His Eyes”.  You can hear this song (although, mercifully, not me!), by clicking on the link below or pasting this url into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCBOZVLfCco

Beware!

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 22 we listened to the words of Jesus as he warned about the dangers of, well, people who use words inappropriately.  The text was Matthew 7:15-23 and our epistle reading was I Corinthians 13:1-7.

 

Assorted Magnetic WordsI like to talk.

Wow! Tell us something we didn’t know, Dave! Wake the kids – call the neighbors! Dave likes to talk!

All right – this isn’t really news. You like to talk, too. At least some times, you recognize the value and the importance of the spoken word. You can get a lot done with words, can’t you?

You can ask for directions when you’re in a strange part of town. I can call my insurance agent when I’ve suffered a loss. Without words, we wouldn’t have the chance to share that great joke. And you can bet that I use words when my granddaughter calls me and shrieks, “Grampy’s available!”

In many, many situations, there is simply no substitute for talking. You just need a face to face conversation when you’re covering important relational ground, don’t you? Who wants to break up via text message, or hear second-hand about a friend’s plans to move? Sometimes, you have to just sit down and talk – use words to express what is really happening in and with your life. We have to talk.

And yet, as you well know, talk can be cheap, too. This is really easy to point to in this year of the primary elections. How many times have you heard someone say, “My opponent is the biggest nincompoop in the history of nincompoopery! I would not trust him to change the light bulb in the janitor’s closet! I could not warm up to her if we were cremated together…” You know what I mean, right? I mean, they are attacking each other. With words.

blahblahAnd then two or three weeks later, the same person will say, “My esteemed opponent has clearly demonstrated the kind of vigor that makes our community great, and I am happy to endorse her… I am honored to be considered as his running mate…”

Who are you?  What happened to the nincompoop? How easy is it to change our tune so quickly? The words are meaningless here.

Or consider when politicians or preachers rail against greed or pornography or some other wickedness, only to be caught six months later in some sordid affair or deep shame of their own. Their words say one thing, and yet they act in a manner that is the direct opposite. And we shake our heads and say, “Well, talk is cheap.”

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

This morning we near the completion of our study of some of the greatest words ever recorded: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For several chapters, the Lord has given some concrete instructions as to how to live as a faithful follower in difficult times. Several weeks ago, we heard him discuss the “Golden Rule” and talked about the fact that discipleship can be a tough row to hoe.

As he approaches his conclusion, he looks at the twelve disciples and, with increasing seriousness, continues to use words to point to a great truth. And the words today are those of warning. Beware! Watch out! Danger ahead!

The threat to which the Lord points most vividly here in Matthew 7 is that of false prophets. If we’re going to consider that today, we need to remember what a prophet is in the world of the Bible.

A prophet is someone who tells the truth; a speaker who uses words to reveal something of God’s intentions to the world or to a community. While we often think of the prophet’s job as to foretell the future, the reality is that more often than not prophets in scripture talk about the paths that God’s people ought to follow as well as the outcomes that our current behaviors and decisions are likely to produce.

In the bible, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah speak the truth of God in their prophecies, urging people to care for the poor, to stand up for the marginalized, to stay faithful to God, or risk the consequences. John the Baptist called people to turn their lives around and to embrace the reconciliation that God offers to those who seek it. The book of Acts tells of a man named Agabus who is called a prophet because he predicted a famine would encompass parts of the Middle East and he urged people to help those who would struggle.

Each of these men is revealed to be a “true prophet” because he tells it like it is and allows us to glimpse something of how our present behaviors intersect with future conditions and they offer us ideas as to how to plan our behaviors accordingly. That’s what prophets – true prophets – do. They tell the truth. And then they live the truth.

And as he nears the completion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions against a number of false prophets who will appear. Given our understanding of what makes someone a “true” prophet, then, I think we can understand that a falst prophet is one who does not reveal truth, or who provides horrible advice about dealing with the truth, or who speaks contrary to the intentions and purposes of God.

Think with me, for a moment, about the astounding number of false prophets at work in the world and in your life today.

  • What about the financial planner who takes it as a given that your number one priority in life is to take care of number one? Who insists that it is impossible to have “enough” and who encourages you to invest your money in schemes that will indeed amass wealth – but only as a result of unfair treatment of workers or risking the health of the environment? Isn’t that person a “false prophet?”
  • What about the so-called “friend” who sees you going through a tough time and shares your pain for a while, and then invites you to escape that pain with just one little rush of heroin?
  • What about the co-worker who insists that you have nothing to worry about – because “everybody cheats on their time cards”?

Each of these, and a thousand others that you could name, are indeed false prophets – that is, they are people who pretend to know something about how the world works and offer you advice as to how to engage that world with your life. But as bad as these people are, they are not the targets of Jesus’ warnings here.

Jesus calls for particular vigilance when it comes to those who claim to be religious, who seek to speak for God, and yet whose character reveals them to be disconnected with the intentions of God in the world. The church leader who advocates humility but who craves glory; the preacher who thunders on and on about “family values” but is revealed as an adulterer; the person who uses gossip and innuendo and fear to breed doubt and distrust and racism among the body of Christ…

This is a little awkward for me to talk about right now, but I think that Jesus is saying that while you are listening to me or anyone else ramble on and on about what Jesus might say or where the Holy Spirit is moving in your life, you need to be taking some time to think about whether I am a true or a false prophet.

When my mother was presented with a tidbit of information that she found to be either unsettling or implausible, she would simply say, “Well, consider the source…” She was not interested in taking advice on successful relationships from Elizabeth Taylor or Hugh Hefner, for instance (if you don’t know who those people are, think of Kim Kardashian or John Mayer). My mother taught me to look for evidence of character in the lives of people to whom I pay attention, and that advice has served me well over the years.

Who are the people to whom you listen when no one is looking at them? Do the things that they say line up with the things that they do? And if there is a consistency in their saying and doing, does that in fact point to the heart of God?

The bottom line is that, as you know, talk is cheap. Before you allow someone to influence you and your actions, pause to “consider the source”. Is that person someone with credibility and integrity? As that person speaks to you about what God wants you to do with your life, your energy, your money – is there any sign that he or she is being faithful with his or her life, energy, or money?

As he wraps up the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, I’m using words – a lot of them – to try to emphasize the way that life is, or should be. When we get up from this mountain, watch me. Look at the fruit in my life. See how I live this life. Am I someone who can be trusted? Do I live into this ethic that I’m asking you to follow? If I do, then don’t seek merely to follow me or to be attentive to me – seek to know me. Don’t just listen to me. Don’t just repeat what I say. Come with me. Be like me. Know me.  Love me.  Love like I do.”

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in the reading you’ve heard from his letter to the Corinthians. I know that when you hear this passage, it’s most often at a wedding, but it’s not about marriage, you know. It’s about the people who claim to be part of the body of Christ but who do not act that way at all. The mark of a true Christian, says Paul, is love. I may talk a good game; I might have a slew of impressive receipts listed on my tax returns; I may be the most gifted person in the history of gifts… but if I don’t live into any of that with love in my heart, then not only am I useless – I clearly know nothing of Jesus.

So by all means, beloved, consider the source as you listen to the ending of this week’s sermon. Look at my life and see if you can discover evidence of love or grace or faith or hope or – most importantly – Jesus. And do this, not only with me, but with everyone else that you listen to, so that you might avoid false prophets.

But know this, dear friends; beware and be alert! The people who listen to you talk about what you believe and who you worship… they’ll be doing the same thing. They’ll want to know, before they listen to a word you say, whether you are moving in the direction towards which you are pointing. Or is it just talk?

Listen. Follow. And love. For God’s sake, people, Love. Love Jesus. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Show the world that you – and the One whom we are here to worship – can be trusted. Thanks be to God. Amen.

How Can This Be?

May 15, 2016 brought God’s people in Crafton Heights the opportunity to celebrate the Day of Pentecost.  Instead of a traditional reading of Acts 2, we participated in the scripture visually by using a resource created by Dan Stevers.  You can watch it, either by using the icon below or pasting this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylrmhT6iGR8. Our second scripture for the morning was Romans 10:8-15

 

When we read Acts 2 in our day and age, it seems quaint, doesn’t it? I mean, while very few of us actually have fluency in another tongue, we are well acquainted with the fact that people use other languages all the time. Who hasn’t heard that chipper voice on the other end of the phone say, “To continue in English, press one; para Español, o prima dos”?
We know that language matters. Again, we see evidence of shoddy translations all the time. For instance, check out these signs from around the world:

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails...

Hikers in China must tell great stories about the disembodied foot that stalks the trails…

Keep this in mind if you're stuck at an airport in India

Keep this in mind if you’re stuck at an airport in India

I'm pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but...

I’m pretty sure that the owners of this country lane are opposed to equestrian traffic, but…

As the Captain of Road Prison #36 might say, “What we’ve got here… is a failure to communicate.”

Words are not the only way to communicate, but they are surely among the best, and the most tried and true means of conveying information and intent.

PentecostAnd Acts chapter two is about words, in a manner of speaking. As we read those words with our twenty-first century minds, we are fascinated with the linguistics of the situation on several levels.

First of all, this is the Sunday of the year when you are least likely to volunteer to be the lay reader, because you’re afraid that I’ll stick you with that nasty string of names: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” I know that those are words none of you want to read out loud in public.

And once we get past pronouncing those words, we tend to fall in love with the idea of all those different people speaking in all of those different languages. Have you ever been a part of a Pentecost service of worship where the congregation embraces different languages? Someone will read a verse in, say, Spanish or French, and then usually the pastor will trot out his or her Greek; depending on how resourceful and connected we are, maybe the church will hear some Swahili or Chichewa or Arabic or Mandarin… We love services like that. We are, sometimes, overly impressed with ourselves; we think about how gifted and creative and well-traveled we are; we admire those who can speak other languages and secretly wish that we’d have had the chance to travel a little bit more.

Have you seen services like that? Do you know what I mean?

Listen: none of that happened at the Pentecost about which we read this morning. That is to say, there is no record of the disciples pouring out into the streets and starting to preach, only to have Andrew go over to Matthew and say, “Dude, you speak Amharic? That is so cool!” We don’t see John interrupting his sermon by saying to James, “Since when did you speak Farsi? Give me a break, man!”

Notice this: there is no record of the disciples ever being impressed with their own ability to communicate in another language. Who is impressed? Those who cannot only hear, but who can understand the message.

Think for a moment about what it means to be able to hear something in your own language in a place where you do not expect it at all. I don’t know if you’ve every been in a place where you are the minority, linguistically speaking, but try to either recall from your own experience or imagine from something you’ve seen… What happens when you hear someone speaking your own language?

Years ago, several of us were privileged to visit a small congregation comprised of Seneca People at the Allegany Reservation near Salamanca, New York. We stayed with these Native American people, worked with Bible School, did a little painting, and so on. One night we met some of the tribal elders. Can I tell you how heartbreaking it was to hear these men and women weep as they remembered how the earliest leaders of their church – white missionaries – would beat them as children if they were caught speaking in their native Seneca tongue. “We were taught that our language was dirty,” they recalled. “We were forced to learn only the language of the whites.” Some of them remembered being unable to communicate with their grandparents as a result of this. Language matters.

I had a friend who died a horrible death as a result of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As she lost her ability to control her muscles, she was increasingly imprisoned in her own body, and when she died I was one of two people in the world to whom she could express her thoughts. On many occasions I got calls to go to the nursing home in the middle of the night because there was something clearly wrong, but nobody could understand her. Language matters.

My neighbor Jessalyn and I were visiting in her back yard and I noticed a man standing in the middle of the street, not moving at all. He looked odd, and out of place. I called to him to see if he needed help or would like a cold drink and in a heavily accented voice he explained, “No, no, no thank you. Three months ago I have moved to your country from Ghana in Africa. Everything is so different here. But I found that if I come to this place, I can hear chickens, and that is the only sound that is anything like the sounds of home. So when I miss my wife and my daughters I like to come here to listen to the chickens. Is that all right? I am lonely, and the chickens, well, they help.”

Do you see? When you hear something in your own language, it means that who you are and who you have grown to be – that it’s understood. It means that I don’t have to translate myself or try to figure out what you really mean – I am understood. When you speak to me in my own language, it means that you know me. You accept me. You validate me. My stories are worth something.

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

Pentecost: True Spiritual Unity and Fellowship in The Holy Spirit, by Rebecca Brogan (used by permission, more at http://jtbarts.com)

When the visitors to Jerusalem heard the followers of Jesus speaking in all those different languages, they couldn’t believe their ears. “How can this be?” they wondered. “Does this involve me? Am I included?”

You see, usually when I hear people speaking in another language, I automatically assume that it doesn’t involve me. I am excluded. I am not involved. And therefore, whatever they say does not matter to me.

Conversely, when you speak to me in words that I understand, you invite me to a greater level of relationship and maybe even embrace. When you take the time to learn my language, you welcome me and say that my stories matter to you, and you’d like to hear them. When you adapt your ears and your lips to my speech and my hearing, you show something of Christ to me in your welcome and affirmation.

So this week, I sat and I listened to the thousands of voices wondering, “How can this be?”. I thought about all of those communities that were blessed because followers of Jesus were open to the idea and practice of speaking another language, of engaging a different culture, of being open to those with different experiences. And I wondered what that meant to us today. What languages surround this community? And are we open to learning them?

A number of people who walk up and down that street every day connect with a culture that might be summarized by the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. Some are actually connected with the BLM activist movement that has a network and a membership and a webpage, while others are more interested in not only pointing out that there is a disparity in the apparent worth of human life and that disparity correlates to the tone of one’s skin, but in changing that reality.

Others who share that sidewalk throw up their hands and say, “Seriously? Listen, pal – Blue Lives Matter!” And again, some of these friends have joined the activist network, contributed to the Facebook page, and make ample use of their own hashtag in social media, while others simply plead for the public to respect officers of the law as they should.

I could go on… we could talk about groups formed around racial affinity, social causes, cultural heritage, political identity… You know these groups, right? And would you agree that to some extent, each of these groups has its own language? Each group to which we belong chooses vocabulary and structure and seeks to create meaning and purpose for those who ally with the group, right?

Jim Wallis is an activist and preacher who has written a book on racism in the United States that is framed around a simple question: what if white Christians acted more Christian than white?

I have only read excerpts, and I cannot comment on the book, but that question got me thinking about a number of parallel queries:

What if American Christians acted more Christian than American? What if Republican or Democratic Christians acted more Christian than Republican or Democratic? What about Christians who are rich, or black, or liberal, or Penguin fans, or women, or straight, or left-handed or… well, you get the idea… What if we sensed that our primary call, our first identity, our life-shaping affiliation was not political or cultural or racial but spiritual? What would happen if we really, truly, believed that?

I think we’d start learning new languages, is what. I think we’d be moving into a sea of people who think that black lives and blue lives and trans lives and straight lives and unborn children’s lives and Sudanese lives and who knows who elses’ lives matter and that we’d be loving and supporting and listening and pointing to God’s power in such a way as to engender a whole new series of conversations that begin with the phrases, “How can this be? Am I included?”

Many of you will remember the horrific genocide that occurred in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994. In a hundred days, close to a million lives were lost – mostly members of the Tutsi tribe who were brutally murdered by their Hutu neighbors as the world watched.

And maybe you remember that at the time of the genocide, more than 90% of the population of Rwanda claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. In 1994 Rwanda was regarded as one of the most “Christian” countries in the world… and yet hundreds of thousands of people were hacked to death… by machete-wielding Christians who apparently cared more about being Hutu or Tutsi than they did about following Jesus. The church failed in Rwanda.

And yet, in the southwest corner of the capitol city of Rwanda is an area called Nyamirambo. This community was home to both Tutsi and Hutu, and yet, according to researchers, there were were very few, if any atrocities there during the genocide. Following the devastation, researchers went to this village and asked why? The people there said it was because they were Muslim first, and Rwandan second, and Hutu or Tutsi third. One leader said,   “Because their identity as Muslims is so fundamental, so important to them, that they could not envision killing one another. Their commitment to Allah created their fundamental identity, more important than any tribal or national identity.”[2]

So I repeat my question (or Wallis’ question, if you want to be a stickler): what would happen in our neighborhood if we were more Christian than anything else?

Listen: week after week, we come into this building and we ask God to give us some direction for our lives. “Show us what you want”, we say. “Tell us where you are moving.”

And the only thing I can think is that God is simply shaking his head, saying “Seriously? What do I have to do to get you to want to learn a few new languages?”

When I travel to Malawi, I do my best with Chichewa. And I get it wrong. A lot. But that’s how I try to show the people there that I’m serious about hearing their stories. This Pentecost, I need to remember that my attempts to be multilingual do not require a passport. Just an open heart, and a willingness to step outside to the people with whom God is already engaged, and with whom God is passionately in love… even if they don’t sound, look, act, or think like me. Send me, God. Teach me, God. Use me, God. Help us to be the church that is willing to learn some new languages, God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] L. Gregory Jones, “Secret of Nyamirambo: A Haven in Rwanda” in The Christian Century, Dec 13, 2005.

Don Quixote and Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)

But…How???

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 1, we sat with Jesus as he revisited the topic of prayer in the Sermon.  Our readings included Matthew 7:7-12 as well as Paul’s discussion on “the law of love” in Romans 13:8-10.  A highlight of our worship was the confirmation of seven young people and the baptism of an eighth.  

 

How does prayer work?

I mean, what do you pray for? And how do you get it?

MoneyPrayerSome folks are pretty up front about what they think ought to occupy our prayer time. Joel Osteen writes in his best-selling book, “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity.”[1]

When Gloria Copeland was preaching to an audience in Texas, she said, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you.”   Televangelist Jerry Savelle told the same crowd, “While everybody else is having a famine his covenant people will be having the best of times.”[2]

Comedian Emo Philips has a different theology. He said, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”[3]

Again I’ll ask, how does prayer work? And what in the world are we supposed to make of this next section in the Sermon on the Mount? If we take these verses at face value without paying attention to the context, they sure sound like God is in a hurry to give out all kinds of great stuff – like prayer is a sort of a religious home shopping network. If you’re poor, hungry, or sick, it seems, it must be your own fault. Why didn’t you ask, seek, or knock? What’s wrong with you? Not enough faith?

I’ve known too many people who were poor, hungry, and sick whose faith put mine to shame… so I’m going to suggest that we take a look at the passage in its context and see what’s really going on here.

Sermon_505_396In the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, we are given a long list of seemingly impossible behaviors to master. Jesus tells his followers to let go of anger, to treat the vulnerable with respect and honor, to love the enemy, and to give generously to those who are in need, among other things. The sermon is verse after verse, point after point of what appear to be impossibly high standards.

By this point in the sermon, the disciples must have felt like throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Seriously? Come on, Jesus, how are we supposed to live like that? This is hard!”

After Jesus gives this string of amazingly high expectations, he returns to the topic of prayer. My sense is that Jesus is not urging his followers to pray for more stuff in these verses, but rather he is answering their eye-rolling, “how-in-the-world-are-we-gonna-do-this” questioning by saying, “If you’re going to be a follower of mine, and do the kinds of things that I do, you’re going to have to pray. A lot.”

One of my pet peeves is when people treat prayer as an add-on, a bit of wishful thinking, an insignificant verbal exercise that doesn’t really accomplish much. There has been more than one occasion, for instance, when I’ve been in the hospital praying with someone and a physician barges into the room interrupting me by saying, “All right, good, good, good, but we’ve got to get a move on, Pastor. We’ve got important things to do here.” You know, as if communication with the Lord of heaven and earth was a momentary distraction…

Many of you in this room have casually mentioned to me, “Hey, Dave, if you think of it, say a little prayer for…” And if you’ve done that, you know that my typical response is that I don’t waste my breath or my time on “little” prayers. Prayer is about reshaping me for God’s purposes in the world, and about equipping you and others to be agents of God’s presence and activity in that world. There’s nothing little about that.

And when I read these verses in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to ask, seek, and knock in response to the enormity of the task that he has laid before them, well, I think that Jesus has my back. Prayer is not “little”.

I’d like you to note the escalation of a sense of urgency in the words that Jesus chooses to use. Let’s say that you’re a fourteen year-old boy outside working in the yard, and you discover that you need something that your mother can provide. The windows are open, and what do you do?

You call to her. “Mom!”, you say. “Mom!” And you name the thing that you need. In other words, you ask.

After a moment, however, you notice that nothing has changed. She has not heard you, apparently. Your need is unmet. And so you stop doing whatever important thing it is that you are doing and you walk inside the house. In other words, you seek. Your “asking” has now taken on a little more energy and concentration, hasn’t it? You may still be wailing “Mom!” (OK, let’s be honest, if you’re a typical fourteen year-old boy, you haven’t stopped shouting…), but now you’ve put legs to your questioning, haven’t you? And you’ve changed the ways that you’re interacting with the rest of the world as you do so.

But as you wander through the house, still asking, now seeking, you don’t find your mother. You still need whatever it is that you needed, and so you put a little more of yourself into this exercise and you climb upstairs, where you see her bedroom door is closed. And what do you do? You knock. And in knocking, now, the equation is changed slightly because you’ve got to shut up for a moment and listen. Your level of expectancy changes as you wait to see how you will be answered.

OK, I know that no analogy is perfect, and most of you are not fourteen year-old boys and your mother isn’t God. But do you see what I mean about this progression or escalation? When we are faced with something as difficult as living up to the standards described in the Sermon on the Mount, our only response is to be diligent and motivated in our discipleship and prayer.

I want to be honest: if we had to engage in this level of activity or intensity at a restaurant, we’d never go to that place again. In the restaurant, the customer is always right and the wait-staff and kitchen help are at the beck and call.

But in the life of discipleship, it’s not all about you. It’s about you becoming the person that God made you to be so that the people around you will not be blown away by your anger, violated by your lust, dehumanized by your dishonesty, or marginalized by your selfishness. The Sermon on the Mount and the life of discipleship, with all apologies to Pastors Osteen, Copeland, and Savelle, is not a means by which to make us fatter, happier, richer, or better-looking.

Jesus calls his disciples, and the Spirit God is asking you, to live as Jesus does. To model the lifestyle we see in scripture. So this passage about prayer is not about you getting more shiny stuff, as cool as that sounds. It’s a strategy for you to use as you begin to look, act, and think more like Jesus each day.

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

And then to sum it up, Jesus gives us the headline – the Golden Rule, or as the Apostle Paul put it, the “law of love”. The result of our asking, seeking, and knocking should be that we are better able to respond to situations as Jesus would; that we are more apt to hear with his ears and to share from his heart.

How does this look in real life? Well, here are some ways I’ve seen it active in our community.

The “Law of love” looks like a six or eight year old who says to her parents, “You know, I’m pretty sure that I have enough stuff. Can we plan a birthday party where people come to have fun, but instead of giving me more toys, they bring things for us to take to the animal shelter or money we can use to help hungry people in Africa?”

It looks like an eighteen year-old man who goes out of his way to encourage and walk with some of his classmates who are physically or mentally challenged so that they have the opportunity to experience life in fullness and joy.

When a teacher donates some of her sick days to a colleague who requires surgery, yet has already exhausted his own benefits, it looks like love in action. He is able to care for his own family while fighting cancer, and has one less thing to worry about because someone has responded with Christ-like generosity.

Look, the way of life to which Jesus calls his followers is difficult, if not downright impossible at times. If we are going to be successful in our attempts to follow him, we’ve got to lean into God. We’ve got to be hungry for what only he can offer, and we’ve got to stick together.

I’d like to offer my deep and sincere congratulations to the young people who are making their confirmation today. You all are ready to begin the next phase of your discipleship. I know, I know, you have completed the Confirmation Class, but you need to remember that you are just getting started in so many ways. You probably know that in other places around Pittsburgh today they’re running the marathon. You probably also know that nobody got out of bed this morning and said, “You know what? I’ve got nothing better going on today. Maybe I’ll head on into town and get in on that race.” No, the marathon takes a lot of preparation and a long time to complete.

It’s the same with our lives of discipleship. Making your confirmation is great. It’s moving ahead with the journey that many of you began at a baptism you can’t remember. But being a Christian is not about just showing up and saying, “OK, I’m here, I’ve got this”. It’s about training and running the course and getting stronger; it’s about learning something more about the Jesus way every day; like the marathon, it requires growing, stretching, and even a little aching.

When we do it right, the world looks more the way God intends it to look. Welcome, confirmands. We are glad that you are with us. We need you and the gifts you bring as we share this journey.

I’ll close this sermon with a benediction I’ve used from time to time. My wife really likes it, and I think it fits for this morning – for the young new members and for everyone else who’s on the journey.

The way is long, let us go together.

The way is difficult, let us help each other.

The way is joyful, let us share it.

The way is Christ’s, for Christ is the Way, let us follow.

The way is open before us, let us go:

with the love of God,

the grace of Christ, and

the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner, 2004), p. 5.

[2] “Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich”, The New York Times August 16, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16gospel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/emophilips128947.html