Whatever It Takes

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our texts for Sunday June 26 were Ruth 2:1-7 and I Thessalonians 4:11-12.

 

 

Let me invite you to do a little thinking as I begin this morning. Please complete this sentence, to yourselves: “I’d rather die than…”

What reality, what possibility, is so unattractive to you that you’d just as soon shuffle off this mortal coil as to go ahead and follow through on it?

I mean, all of us have preferences, right? I like to eat fish, you prefer a little tofu, and he won’t eat a salad. But if fish, or tofu, or a big old bowl of salad was all that stood between you and starvation, could you choke it down?

I guess what I’m asking is whether there is anything that you consider to be so far “beneath” you, so unattractive, that it is, in fact, impossible for you to even consider.

GoodLieThe film The Good Lie tells the story of a group of Sudanese children who are forced to leave their villages and wander through the wilderness in search of refuge. At one point, the youngest child in the group dies as a result of dehydration. When he realizes what has happened, the eldest boy urinates into a metal pot and says, “I want to live. I do not want to die.” He takes a drink, and passes it around to the surviving children, who each repeat that phrase before they sip. It is a powerful, powerful scene, as something that is abjectly horrible (children drinking their own urine) is transformed into something almost sacramental as the group’s leader acts with love and humility to preserve life.

Coal PickingIn contrast, there’s an equally moving scene in Angela’s Ashes in which a young Frank McCourt is ridiculed by his father for picking up lumps of coal that have fallen from a wagon. Malachy McCourt is too proud to do that, and so the family’s home is cold and damp and several children die as a result of the conditions there.

The first film gives us a glimpse of someone who did the unthinkable in order to survive, while the second demonstrates the ways that human pride or laziness or bitterness can literally kill.

Today’s reading from the book of Ruth allows us to focus on the character and behavior of Ruth for the first time. Last week, we saw the overwhelming nature of this family’s calamity from the perspective of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Her suffering was so great that there were several times when it appeared as though she was pretty much ready to lay down and die – she felt as though the grief was too real, and there was too much for her to do.

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

At this point, however, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, decides that if the family is going to be saved, it’s because she can take action. Here in the beginning of Ruth 2, this woman acts with courage, integrity, and humility. She does what it takes to ensure survival.

As we consider this text, pay attention to how she is known. She’s not just “Ruth.” She’s not “Mahlon’s wife” or “Naomi’s daughter-in-law.” She is “Ruth the Moabite”. “Ruth, the Outsider.” “Ruth, the One Who Doesn’t Belong Here.” In the wake of the global movement to demonize refugees and ostracize the foreigner, this is important for us to note this morning. Even while Naomi and at least some in her home village know the sacrifices that Ruth has made and the bravery she’s already displayed, they can’t resist reminding her and the rest of us that she’s really not that important. She’s just a Moabite. She’s nobody, at least in the eyes of that culture. They are not sure that she’s welcome.

And yet, as I’ve mentioned, she has chosen to do what she needs to do in order to stay alive. If Ruth and Naomi are to survive, it’ll be because Ruth is willing to become a gleaner.

I would imagine that if many of us were told today that our survival depended on our ability to “glean”, we’d be in trouble, simply because a lot of us aren’t exactly sure what that means. “Gleaning” is the act of going through a farmer’s fields to collect that portion of the crop that was not taken by the original harvesters. It might be unripe, or overripe, or damaged – but for whatever reason, a “gleaner” is someone who goes into a field from which almost all of the food has been removed in the hopes of finding something that will get her or him through the day. In reality, when you see a homeless person picking through the trash at the fast food restaurant, you’re looking at a form of 21st-Century gleaning.

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006  Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006
Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Whether we’re talking in Bible times or in our own, gleaning is hard and demeaning work. I don’t know whether Ruth thought of herself as a gleaner when she made all those flowery promises to Naomi about sticking together back in chapter 1. But now they’re in Bethlehem, and they are hungry. And so for Ruth, there is not much debate about it – she simply announces to her mother-in-law that she’s going and she works so hard that she catches the eye of the folks who are getting paid to bring in the crop.

As we consider wisdom of the Book of Ruth for our own day and age, it seems to me that one lesson might be simply that sometimes we have to do what we would prefer not to do in order to get to a future that is a better place than where we are now. Sometimes, we have to do that which we consider to be unappealing or menial or even humiliating if we are going to do our part in growing in faith and life.

Now, before I tell you what I do mean, let me emphasize what I do not mean by this. I am not suggesting that it is ever appropriate for someone with power to somehow bully you or anyone else into doing something that is immoral or unhealthy or destructive just because you may not have any better options. I was once asked by a thirteen-year-old girl if I thought that selling drugs was bad. When I mentioned that I did, she started to cry and said, “Well now I don’t know what to do. My daddy makes me help him put the stuff in little bags and weigh it, and when I told him that I didn’t want to, he said that the Bible said to ‘honor your parents’, so if I want to be a good Christian I have to help him.”

No. I can’t tell you how wrong that is. In the same way, it’s not appropriate to let someone use you – your body, your labor, your self – as a means to help them get to a place that is in opposition to God’s best. That is not what I mean when I say sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant or humiliating.

And similarly, I’m not talking about all those commercials that you’ll be seeing in the months to come about the Olympics, and about what makes a person special is the fact that she or he gets up at three a.m. and runs 37 miles and eats only raw eggs and locusts as he or she pushes towards being the best gymnast/swimmer/sprinter that has ever gone for the gold. There may be some valid lessons in self-discipline and motivation to be had there, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I am saying is that a huge part of the Christian life is rooted in doing what you can do to take responsibility for yourself as well as for other people. Lots of times, that will be unpleasant. Often, it will be difficult. Sometimes, it will even seem unfair. None of those are sufficient reasons not to act.

Sometimes, this kind of action is easy to recognize, but difficult to do. Paying your rent on time, for instance. Just do it. Getting out of bed and going to work or school, even on days when you don’t “feel like it”. Doing what you need to do in order to keep promises you made to someone, even when somehow that’s become inconvenient for you. I don’t think that you need me, or Ruth, or Jesus, to tell you that these things are right and good and appropriate ways to behave as a mature person in the world. If this was an internet meme, it would say something like “adulting is hard”.

My mother used to encourage me to “be the bigger person”. For a long time I hoped that meant eating two sandwiches a day and taking extra dessert, but it turns out that’s not what she was talking about. What she meant, of course, was that being in relationship with other people provides us with all kinds of opportunities to swallow our pride and take the risk and try to do what’s right, even when we’re afraid that it’s going to come back to bite us and lead us to more pain.

Years ago, I heard a version of this from a friend, who had gotten it from a friend, who had probably stolen it from someone else. Where it comes from doesn’t matter: the point my friend shared with me was this: Dave, you’ve got to keep your side of the street clean.

What she meant by this was the fact that people will do all sorts of things that are unfair or ill-advised, but that you can’t control all that they are doing. You can only be in charge of making sure that there’s no way in which you are contributing to the degradation or marginalization of another human being.

Ruth is a strong woman who knows who she is and is willing to go and do some difficult things for all the right reasons. I wonder if people might be able to say the same thing about me or about you? Have I gotten so tired of being burnt in relationships that I don’t extend myself the way that I ought? Are you so frustrated by the ways that nobody at your place of work seems to do anything that you’ve become a part of the problem, too? When you look at a relationship or a social problem, are you tempted to cry out, “Oh, what’s the use? I hate this and nothing is ever going to change anyway…”?

Paul writes to his friends in Thessalonica, and he says that they ought to work hard and be diligent and seek to “be respectable”. I’m pretty sure that he’s not saying this because there’s a great financial or social gain to come from it. I think he’s saying it because no matter what your neighbor does, who your pastor is, or what your brother did last week, the bottom line is that if you have the chance to do what’s right, you do it. End of story.

But you might object, and say, “look, this ‘doing it all like it depends on you’ business sounds an awful lot like we are supposed to excuse other people’s bad behavior and just get used to being the people who clean up other people’s messes. You might think that if people of faith walk around being humble and menial and deferential, that the powers that be will never be challenged and that real change won’t occur. I agree – we can’t be one-sided in any of this, and there are a lot of things that we need to say about people who have power (and we’ll say them next week). The truth this week is that Ruth isn’t in charge of, and can’t control Boaz, or Naomi, or the other reapers or gleaners. Ruth can only take responsibility for her own actions – which she must do on a daily basis.

As we consider the example of Ruth this morning, let’s remember that the story of our faith calls us to take responsibility for ourselves, to act with courage, humility, and grace in the areas where we can.

For you, that might mean taking responsibility to work towards reconciliation in a relationship, even if it’s not “your fault” that things went south. Or it might mean that you need to stand up for yourself in a place where you’ve been accepting poor treatment from someone else in the hopes that if you name the truth about the ways that you’ve been treated, others will be spared the pain that you’ve endured. And it might simply mean that you act as one who keeps the promises that you’ve made, even if such promises are now inconvenient or even costly to you.

In another part of the Bible this kind of living is held up for us to consider. Psalm 15 reads like this in The Message:

God, who gets invited to dinner at your place?

How do we get on your guest list?

“Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”

 

As I mentioned last week, the story of Ruth is the story of us. Starting with the actions that we can control, we have got to be people of integrity and reliability. Thanks be to God, that way is open to us. I hope that we are willing to go there, even when the road seems difficult. Amen.

When the World Falls Apart

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our text for Sunday June 19 was Ruth 1.  

 

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times last week as I shared vacation with my granddaughter: “Read me a story, Grampy.” And I did. You know I did.

Because we all love stories, don’t we? We like to hear them, read them, watch them, tell them… We use stories to entertain, instruct, inspire… we use stories to allow us to enter into a different reality – one that, if we’re lucky, allows us to understand our own a little better.

So this summer, we’re going to dive into one of my favorite stories of all time, a classic “once-upon-a-time” love story from the Old Testament that begins in tragedy and ends with “happily ever after”. It is, as you have heard, the story of Elimilech’s family – and more particularly, some of the women in that family.

Here’s a spoiler alert: if the story was really about Elimilech, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. If it was really about Naomi, or Ruth, or Boaz, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. Mostly, it’s in the Bible because of the ways that it points to the family that became King David’s family, and as you know, King David was a pretty big deal in the Bible.

More than that, though, it’s a story about the family that became Jesus’ family – also a pretty big deal in the Bible.

But as much as I’d like to tell you this story because it’s about Elimilech, or Naomi, or Ruth, or David, or Jesus… I think that the main reason we need to hear it today is because it’s about us. For the next five weeks, we’ll be listening to this old story and, I hope, being entertained, instructed, inspired, and challenged as we try to live lives of faith in 2016.

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

The story begins with some amazingly horrible events. There is a famine in the land of the Promise, the land of Israel – and so Elimilech and his family become refugees in the land of Moab. Once there, however, things go from bad to worse, because only three verses into the story, Elimilech dies. It only takes two more verses for his only children, Mahlon and Chilion, to succumb, and now Elimilech’s widow is left with two foreign daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The first five verses of our story are about death, decay, and devastation.

Sounds like page one of this morning’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Shootings in Orlando, or Wilkinsburg, or Crafton Heights. Refugees streaming across borders in Turkey or Greece or Ethiopia or Germany or Honduras or… Families, many of which we know and love, who have been displaced by untimely death, or job loss, or the arrest of someone in the family, or unsavory landlords…

We don’t know what it’s like to move from ancient Israel into ancient Moab, but we know something about pain and loss and times when it seems like the world is simply falling to pieces, don’t we?

And when that happens, well, it can be easy to think that we are alone in the world. Nobody has felt pain like our pain. Nobody knows the difficulties we’ve been through. We are alone in our struggle against the universe, or God, or fate. And so in our reading from this morning, Naomi responds to the famine in her native land and the deaths of her husband and sons by sending away her daughters-in-law. “Don’t waste your time with me,” she says, “I’m a broken down wretch of a creature.” She tries to bless these women as she sends them back to their homes, but her heart isn’t really in it. Eventually, Orpah is able to leave her mother-in-law, but Ruth won’t hear of it. Four times, the old widow looks Ruth in the eye and says, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m alone. Beat it. Go home.” Because that’s what pain does, doesn’t it: it isolates you.

In his  “Ted Talk” on depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eBUcBfkVCo), Andrew Solomon says,

Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

That’s what grief and pain and loss do to us, isn’t it? They make it seem impossible to grasp any kind of future. I’ve seen that in refugee camps in South Sudan. I heard it when my friend Kucho said, “the government of Sudan is bombing our villages in the Nuba mountains every week, and the world does not notice. Nobody cares. We are alone.” I have heard that in the plaintive cries of the lost and lonely and grief stricken here in our own community: “Go on home, Dave. You can’t do anything anyway. Nobody can.”

There are times, when like Naomi, we become convinced that not only is the world against us, but the Lord is too. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me”, she weeps. When the world is falling apart, it’s easy to think that you’re alone.

So our story tells us, so far, that horrible things happen and that when they do, we feel like we are alone. Another lesson from this chapter is that people who are in pain can be, well, unpleasant. Sometimes, people in pain act like real jerks. For instance, after Naomi is unsuccessful at getting her daughter-in-law to go back to her family, she returns to Bethlehem (accompanied by Ruth). Did you hear what she said when she got there? “My name isn’t ‘Naomi’ (meaning ‘pleasant’) anymore. Call me ‘Mara’ (which means ‘bitter’) from now on. When I left, I was full, but now I am empty and alone.”

Now when she says this, who’s there? The folks in Bethlehem, of course, but also Ruth. Here’s Naomi going on and on about how nobody loves her and all this horrible stuff has happened and she’s all alone in the world, and Ruth is standing there, helping to hold the old lady up, waiting to be introduced. The more that Naomi complains about being alone and bereft, the more Ruth has to be thinking, “Seriously? What am I, chopped liver? You know I can hear you, right Naomi?”

Remember Ruth had just made this amazingly beautiful speech about love and support and faithfulness – so beautiful, in fact, that some of you wanted to read it in your wedding services – and now Naomi is pretending that Ruth doesn’t even exist. What is up with that?

People in pain lash out – and often that winds up hurting those who choose to come close. I’ve seen that happen in a hundred ways: someone comes in to the church looking for a little help, and we go to the food pantry to pull a few things together. I come into the room where the person is waiting and explain that I’ve got some spaghetti and beans and peanut butter and whatnot and the person looks into the bag and says, “Strawberry jam? Seriously? I hate strawberry. Is this the best you’ve got?”

My first reaction is get defensive, and to proclaim, “Listen, Bub, you better check that attitude at the door because I’m only trying to help here… you’ve got no right to be angry with me.” And I realize, this person isn’t really angry with me. This person is ashamed at having to come to our food pantry, or devastated at the loss of a job, or otherwise incapacitated by the pain they’ve suffered, and I happen to be standing here at the time. That’s what happens when the world falls apart – we become people that we don’t want to be, at times.

So what do we do? We get it, Dave – the world is a hard place for lots of people on lots of days. What are we supposed to do about that?

The first and most important thing that we can do is to, pardon my language, give a damn. In a media cycle full of alligator attacks and celebrity divorces and gossip scandals and basketball finals… it’s easy to think of 49 people gunned down in Orlando as so “last week”, or to think that the nearly sixty million forcibly displaced people across the globe are someone else’s neighbor, not mine. You don’t like the news that’s in front of you? Change the channel. Turn the page. Play some Candy Crush or Trivia Crack. Who needs that negativity in your life, anyway?

I’m not asking you to care because it’s easy, or because it makes sense in your life right now. I’m asking you to give a rat’s ass about these kinds of things because I think that’s what the Gospel compels us to do. And if you are able to muster some discipline to care, at least a little bit, about the people whose lives are falling apart, then the next step is to look for a way to enter into some part of their story with them.

For the people who are close at hand, that’s a little easier. Our Cross Trainers Staff, for instance, will have the opportunity to brush up against some young people this summer whose worlds have been or are being turned upside down in all kinds of ways. You all will spend time with children who have been abused or neglected; you will engage with young people whom God loves dearly who carry incredible scars that might well be invisible. If someone opens up to you about some incredible pain, know that in all probability, you won’t be able to fix it. Fortunately, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job – it’s everyone’s job – to listen for it. To respect it. To enter into it. And then, perhaps in conversation with Brad or Jason or me or someone else, to help that child get to a place where she or he is able to envision a different reality for her or himself. The young people we’re hiring have the easiest way to respond to the message this morning.

stop-the-gun-violence-iconAnd if you’re not on Cross Trainers staff? Figure out a way to care. I don’t care if you are a gun owner or a pacifist, can we agree that it’s horrible when 50 young people are cut down while dancing in Florida? Can we agree that it’s not God’s intention for school children or office workers or worshippers to be mowed down by the blazing barrel of an assault weapon? Assuming we can agree on that, can we talk about creating some strategies for reducing the likelihood of that happening? This is a great week for that kind of discussion in all kinds of ways. There will be some discussion of action on a national level about legislation, and you might want to reach out to our senators or representatives. Offer your ideas as to what we can do to reduce the number of funerals at which we wring our hands and say “never again”.

But here’s the deal on that, from me, this week. If you are a Christian, you are not permitted to make this conversation about what you need to do to protect your rights and keep your options open. Frankly, as a follower of Jesus, you’ve already settled that: you’ve confessed that your rights are not the most important rights in the world – that you are here to serve others. I’m not saying you don’t have rights or shouldn’t value them – but that’s not the reason for this conversation. The reason for the conversation is to look for ways to staunch the flow of innocent blood. Talk about the people who will never experience another “right”, about the parents or spouses or children who sit across the breakfast table from an empty seat this morning. Obviously, any solution to gun violence will have to account for individual rights, yours included – but how about if we don’t start there? How about if we start by throwing around some ideas geared towards preventing gun violence?

REFUGEES-1And maybe, for some reason, you just can’t get your head wrapped around how to slow gun violence in our community or our world. Here’s another option. Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day? Every minute of every day, an average of 8 people are forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safer. On average, refugees spend seventeen years – seventeen stinking years! – waiting for whatever is going to come next: a return to their home, a resettlement somewhere else; seventeen years of uncertainty and vulnerability. Those people drowning in the Aegean Sea, or walking across borders in Hungary, or riding the trains north through Central America… they are children of God. They are our neighbors. We are called to do what we can do to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just us.

And again, please don’t come crowing to me about how we can’t really help these refugees because all they want to do is come here and take our stuff. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve already said that what’s yours isn’t the most important thing, but rather, living in the footsteps of Jesus is what you want to be about. Your stuff, my stuff – it’s important (hey, I have a fence to keep the deer out of my garden) – but it’s far from the most important thing, and it’s not where we’re beginning this conversation.

I’ve offered a Resource Document containing a number of websites for you to check out on your own time this week. Some are related to gun violence, while others have to do with refugees. Please understand, the only action that I am actively endorsing is that you take the time to care about this stuff. I’m not saying we are going to agree on strategies – but I am saying that Elimilech’s story, and Naomi’s story, and Ruth’s and David’s and Jesus’ story – that our story – ought to drive us to the place where we care about what happens; and that place of care can lead us to a means by which to get involved.

This is our story. We are created as people in and for community. Can we choose to care, and to act together as we stand against violence and hatred and death? Thanks be to God, who calls us from death to life through Jesus his Son, Amen.

The Baptism of Hope

On June 5, 2016 God’s people at the Crafton Heights Church were privileged to celebrate the baptism of three delightful young children, and to know that the embrace of God includes, enfolds, and changes us.  Prior to sprinkling my young friends, we read about our brother John the Baptist’s ministry as recorded in Mark 1:1-8.  Then I spun what I hope was an imaginative yarn about the power of baptism and the place of hope in our lives.

 

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

Do you remember that day, so many years ago? Do you remember the time that the angry young preacher came around? He was so . . . so different. He was so . .. . so appealing and repulsive at the same time. While most of the preachers we had ever known dressed in fine clothes and stayed in the city, the one they called John wore rags and lived in the desert. The ones that we were used to were polite to a fault, and called us “Sir” and “Ma’am” and acted like they appreciated the offerings we put in the basket, but John yelled at us. Everybody knew that people who had been in the church all their lives needed to be ceremonially washed every now and then, and only the pagans needed to be baptized, but John claimed that everyone needed to repent, and everyone needed to be forgiven. Why, it was just unheard of.

I know that you know a lot about that day that John stood by the banks of the Jordan and hollered about baptism. But here is something that you may not have known.

In the crowd on this particular day was a widow woman, whose name was Susanna. She had come to hear the preacher because her life was hard, and she was hoping for something to make it easier. In fact, she forced her three sons to come with her, even though none of these teenagers would have gone along if the choice were theirs to make. Today, I’ll tell you the story of what happened to Susanna and her sons as a result of meeting John they call “the baptizer”.

As I have said, Susanna was curious. Nothing more, really. She was just wondering if maybe there could be some real hope and substance in a religion. She had tried to believe, but it seemed so unreal. But what she saw and heard that day touched her in a way that nothing else had, and so Susanna waded into the murky waters of the Jordan and asked John to bring her to the “one who was to come”.

Her oldest son, Simon, was appalled to see his mother associating with such a religious lunatic, and he made no secret of his shame and scorn. Oh, she was his mother, and he continued to treat her with some measure of respect, but it was a respect of the hands and feet, not of the heart. Weeks and even months after they returned to the village, he was filled with disgust at the notion of his mother falling for such hucksterism. As soon as he could, he left the village and moved to the city of Antioch, where he became a cloth merchant. Because he was her son, and because she was his mother, she continued to receive packages from him, and twice he went to visit her — twice, in the course of the 27 years until she died — twice, he took her money and tolerated her religion . . . but he could never really accept her again.

 

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I'd appreciate knowing.

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I’d appreciate knowing.

Now, the middle boy, whose name was Jacob, that was a different story altogether. Although he was only 17 the day that he was dragged out into the wilderness, you could tell that it was a day he would never forget. Jacob had been running with a group of young men who were enraged by the presence of a Roman army in the Promised Land. While their parents and grandparents seemed to be happy waiting for some miraculous deliverance, Jacob and his friends knew that nothing would happen unless the faithful took charge.

So when he heard John preaching about someone to come, someone who would be great and who would deliver the power of the Holy Spirit, well, Jacob just about ran into that water. He glared at John and practically demanded baptism, and as he came out of the water, he raised both hands high in the air and gave a shout – I’m not sure even now if it was a shout of joy or a prayer, but it was a shout that matched the determination on his face.

It was only a week or two after the baptism that Jacob and his friends formed an alliance with a group known as the Zealots – a political party that urged radical steps to overthrow the Roman government. They looked and waited for an opportunity to shake off the yoke of oppression – and always Jacob was looking for this powerful deliverer. There was a teacher who came to town, a man they called Yshua, or Jesus, who was really quite captivating to Susanna and to Jacob’s younger brother, Nathaniel. But Jacob thought that he was soft on the Romans and could not be the Promised One.

About two years after meeting John, Jacob and several of his friends were caught trying to cut the bridge out from under a Roman Garrison passing through the gorge. They were executed on the spot and their bodies left for the vultures and the jackals. It was three weeks before Susanna knew what had happened.

 

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

And the youngest son, whose name was Nathaniel, he was the most thoughtful one. When their mother ran into the water for baptism, he was not ashamed, like Simon. Neither was he eager to follow, as had Jacob. Nathaniel just watched. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he went back the next day, and the next. Something about what the preacher was saying had him hooked – but he wasn’t sure what.

Finally, about three weeks after he had first seen John, Nathaniel asked to be baptized. And when he left, he went straight home and asked his mother to be released from his duties at home so that he might follow John and learn from him. Although Susanna was afraid, she knew that Nathaniel would do what Nathaniel would do, and so she gave him her blessing and off he went.

He had been gone for a few months when he returned home to report that John had been killed by Herod, but that he was now following a new rabbi, a teacher named Yshua – Jesus. He was the one, Nathaniel said. Jesus was the salvation of which John had spoken. He was sure of it.

After that, Susanna met with Nathaniel a few times, and even hosted Jesus and his friends once or twice. And, like her boy, she came to admire and even love the carpenter’s son. But after a few years, Jesus was killed, and instead of returning home, Nathaniel became more convinced than ever of his faith. He claimed to have eaten and spoken with Jesus after he had died. He left the country altogether, and was never heard from again. There were rumors that he was killed by a tribal council in Greece, but nobody knows. He just disappeared.

And so years later, in the twilight of her life, Susanna runs into an old man she thinks she recognizes. His name is Simon, called Peter. And he was a friend of Nathaniel’s. He was a friend of Jesus’. He was, in fact the leader of the group that was now called “The Way”.

And this old lady pours her heart out to the preacher. “What do I do now?” she asked. “How can I believe? What is there left for me to hope for, really? This baptism, this faith, this Jesus — it has alienated me from one son and killed my other sons. When will the promise come true? How many more sons will disappear?”

 

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

And Peter, grizzled, hot-tempered, smelly, old Peter responded to this woman. One translator words his statement this way:

God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change . . . since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down on that day, but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promise . . . So my dear friends, since this is what you have to look forward to, do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace. Interpret our Master’s patient restraint for what it is: salvation.[1]

At the end of the day, the old preacher said, really, all we can do is hope. And we’ve got to act like we have hope. He didn’t answer the old woman’s question, exactly. He just tried to encourage her, he tried to help her to see that she doesn’t see the whole picture, but that soon she will. “Hang on and keep trying” is what he essentially said.

Now why in the world would I spin this yarn for you on this baptism Sunday, the first Sunday in June, in the year of our Lord 2016? Because there’s a new preacher on the block who rants and raves? Because I suspect that there’s someone here who’s ready to join the rebellion?

No, that’s not it. I’m telling you what might have happened because I think that the world in which we live is a lot like the one in which Susanna and her sons lived. It’s a world that has lost hope. We live in a culture that can’t imagine what real health and healing and wholeness might look like, and so we spin our wheels. We are unsure about the future – we look at the coming election and we shake our heads; we think about terror attacks and gun violence and refugee crises and healthcare costs and… well, many of us don’t like to think of what will happen. It seems pretty out of control sometimes.

When we get lost in our fear about the future, we lose hope. And because we lose hope, we don’t have any reason for big changes in our lives. “Rather than make big moves, we relax, settle into present arrangements, old habits, circular movements. We cling tightly to what is rather than dare to dream about what we ought to be.”[2]

 

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Now listen to me, beloved. I am not John the Baptist. I am not the voice crying in the desert, eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair.

I am Dave Carver. I am a pastor. I tell stories. I walk with God’s people in Crafton Heights, and in Malawi, and in a few places in between. I am more apt to be eating wings and wearing khakis.

But today, today, let me play the part of John the Baptist. Let’s make this a grand production, and let me be the person who will yell about the One who is far greater than I! Let me tell you about the One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. Let me be the one to spread the waters of baptism on unsuspecting little girls this day…

And in a sense, let me even pretend that I am more than John the Baptist, because John could only look forward, dimly, to a time when a man would come and assume his ministry and lead the people forward. But where John had the sands of the Jordan river for his platform, I have the rough-hewn rock door of an empty tomb as mine; where John promised that God was coming, I can tell you that God has come — that Immanuel – that God is with us. John had words to say, and I have words to say, but Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of life, the message of love and hope from God the Father.

You see, that’s worth hoping about. That’s worth getting excited about. Because just as my made-up friend Susanna was not forgotten by God in the length of her days, neither have you nor I been forgotten by God in the stories that we have lived. We are not beyond him. We are not too far away. We have reason for hope.

 

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980's

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s

In 1987, I had the privilege to go to Germany. While there, I spent hours driving through East Germany to the city of West Berlin. Some of you may know that in those days, there were two Germanies: the free and democratic West and the poor and communist East. Two governments, two nations – separated by an ugly cement structure called the Berlin Wall. And I drove and walked along the Berlin wall. I saw “Checkpoint Charlie”, where visitors could gain access from one side to the other — if the guards felt like it. I saw markers indicating the spot where children had been shot trying to make it from one side of the wall to the other. I saw mile after mile of razor wire, I saw tanks and guns and ugliness. And I saw what hatred looked like.

And not 500 yards from the wall, in West Berlin, I saw several brand new office buildings going up. And I asked my German friend, “Why in the world would you want to build those things so close to this wall? Is it to show the people in the East that you are succeeding and that your way of life is better than theirs?”

She was quick to reply. “No, that’s not it at all. We are building these here now because when the wall comes down and we are once again a single country, then the office buildings will be in the middle of town.”

wall-1I saw years of hatred and razor wire and people being shot. She saw a nation healed. I laughed at her idealism. She had a party about two years later when the Berlin wall was removed. And now, how many Germanies are there? And what’s the capital of Germany?

Where are the walls in your life? Where is hope held hostage? People of God, beloved, will you let me play John the Baptist today? Will you let me rant and rave a little bit, as long as you feel the water of hope splashing on you?

Our God has not forgotten . Our God is gracious, and waiting even for me and for you. So hope. And act like you have hope. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message 2 Peter 3:8 ff.

[2] Will Willimon, Proclamation 5, Series B 1993, p. 21