It’s a Dog’s Life

This weekend I was asked to officiate the wedding of an amazing young couple.  I’ve known the bride for her entire life, and have really enjoyed spending the last year helping the two of them prepare for this big day.  It was the first time I’ve ever participated in a ceremony with someone whose role was to be “the dog handler”.  Rick and Megan’s faithful companion, Reese, preceded the bride down the aisle.  With their permission, I am sharing the sermon from the wedding.  The primary text for the ceremony was I Corinthians 13.  I hope that the format of this message does not impede its truth.

So for a couple of months I’ve wrestled with the task of trying to pull together a wedding sermon for Rick and Megan. If you’ve been to a wedding here before, you know that I often try to find a concept or an image to hang onto, or an example that will make the message real and more memorable. I have to admit that I was stumped so badly that one afternoon last week I sneaked over and had a few words with their dog, Reese.

“You’ve got to help, girl.  There’s a big problem!”

“What is it, Pastor Dave?  Is Timmy stuck in a well?”

“What? No! What is it with dogs and Timmy being stuck in a well?  No, this is serious. I need some help coming up with an idea for a wedding sermon for Megan and Rick.  I figured that you know their relationship better than anyone.  Can you help?”

At once Reese warmed to the invitation.  She smiled, and pulled out her reading glasses and lit her theologian’s pipe.  “Now, Dave, tell me: what’s the text from which you’re working.”

I started to say that the couple had chosen to sit with I Corinthians chapter 13, but was interrupted when Reese let out a growl and snapped off her glasses.  “Oh, for crying out loud,” she said.  “Paul? You’re listening to the Apostle Paul?”

I was flabbergasted.  “Um, Reese – is there a problem?”

She glared at me and said, “Philippians 3: ‘Beware the dogs. Beware the evil doers…’  Seriously, Dave, our kind has fought for centuries against that kind of species-ism, and this guy keeps putting it out there…  Words matter, Pastor Dave.  You should know that.”

I replied, “Yeah, I get that, but I didn’t pick this reading. They did.  And look, Reese, I’m not gonna lie.  I’m stuck here.  And Rick and Megan, well, they really look up to – um, they really love you a lot.”

That seemed to calm her down, and she got quiet for a moment. “Dave, you’ve known Megan longer than I have, and we both love Rick.  Come on – this isn’t rocket science.”

She continued, “I Corinthians 13 is about how we are called to treat each other in relationship.  Ever since these two have started sniffing each other, I’ve tried my best to show them, in my own example, what love requires.  Every day, I’ve tried to hammer some point of this home for them so that they could see it and maybe imitate it.”

I stared at the wise dog blankly.  “What are you talking about, Reese?”

She sighed, and said, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll break this down for you since your human minds move so slowly.  No wonder it takes you seven years to do what we can get done in one! Sheesh.”

“Every day, when Megan gets home, what am I doing, Dave?”

“Um, well, to tell you the truth, I have never thought about that.”

“Of course you haven’t. No human ever has.  But ask Megan: no matter what I might have been doing during the day, the minute I hear her car pull up I’m wagging, I’m jumping, I’m slobbering… Do you know why I do these things?  Because I love her.  Sure, I was taking a nap, dreaming about that basset hound over on Virginia Ave., but when she shows up – or Rick, for that matter – I put what I’m doing aside for a couple of moments and I pay attention to her.  And do you know what?”

“Tell me, Reese.”

“It’s working.  You should see it – they are paying attention to each other!  I’ve seen them put down those stupid little screens and talk to each other.  Sometimes they even slobber all over each other.”

“And even a guy as dense as the Apostle Paul would say that when you pay attention to someone, you notice things.  So when one of them shows up and seems to be upset, or sad, or needs – I don’t know – a little extra cuddle or something – I can do that. And if I can do that, surely they can do that for each other, right?”

I nodded pastorally.  “You’re making a lot of sense, Reese.  Especially for a talking dog.”

She wagged her tail and continued, “Here’s something else that I’ve noticed, Dave.  It ties in with Paul’s advice to keep on growing and keep moving in life and in faith. Sometimes when they come home, one or the other of them will say something about being tired and just wanting to rest.  They sit on the couch and they turn on the television, and then it’s like they’re just gone, you know?  They tune out, and it’s like they are not there anymore.    When that happens, it’s up to me to remind them that there’s a big world out there.  I mean, there are paths to hike, friends to meet, fire hydrants to smell… we can’t stay inside our homes or ourselves all the time…  I hate to say this, but if you ask Megan, she’ll tell you that sometimes she gets a little irritated by the fact that I’m always pulling on my leash when we’re out.  I think we all need someone to push (or pull) us along from time to time so we don’t get stuck.”

“Ah, I see.  Are you saying that a good relationship keeps you moving and growing into maturity? That all of us, sometimes, need each other to help us get into healthier patterns of life?”

“Yes!” she barked, and then she even licked my cheek. I tried not to notice.

“And there’s something else I should say, in case Rick mentions anything.”

I nodded, encouraging my canine friend to go on.

“Listen, when he takes me out and we run into a bunch of other dogs, well, sometimes… it’s just… Look – he’s likely to say that I don’t get along well with other dogs.  I think he’s got the wrong idea.  What I’m trying to say is that at this point in my life, I don’t needa lot of other dogs. I’ve got those two.  It seems to me that love and marriage is about identifying someone special who is a gift from God in your own life, and paying special attention to and cultivating that relationship.  Of opening up to that one in ways that you are not open to anyone else. I’m just showing him what it means for me to be faithful, that’s all.”

At this point the dog looked at the clock and said, “Listen, Dave, you’d better get out of here.  Megan’s liable to be home any moment, and I’ve got a couple of things to get done before I start fussing over her again.”

I thanked Reese, and as I made my way to the door, she said, “Dave – are you going to be using the traditional language for the declarations of intent and the vows and so on?”

“I think so,” I said. “I can’t see any reason not to.”

“Perfect!” she smiled.  “You’ll be using a word that describes what I’ve been trying to give them ever since we got together.  You’ll be asking them if they intend to pledge their troth to each other.”

“I will indeed,” I said.

She continued, “Most folks there will have no idea what that word ‘troth’ means.”

“Tell me about it,” I sighed.

“Troth is what I’ve been giving these two: unconditional love and acceptance, loyalty, faithfulness, and honesty.  Troth is about promising to give the best of yourself to someone else, and to grow the parts of you that aren’t the best.  Troth is what Paul wrote about to those folks in Corinth, and it’s what I’ve been trying to show Rick and Megan for years. Now, you and the folks at church can help confirm them in their vow to pledge and keep troth with each other forever. It’s what they want, it’s good for the world, and it is all rooted in the love of God for his people.”

I headed for the door and put on my hat.  With my hand on the knob, I turned, and there she was, waiting expectantly.  I felt like I should say something more than “thanks for the talk,” but I wasn’t sure what it was…

She gave a single bark, and said, “Go ahead Dave, you can say it. It’s all right.”

“Say what?” I replied, reaching in my mind for the right words.

“Who’s a good girl, Dave?”

“You are, Reese.  You are.”

Now, Megan and Rick, you can choose to believe that little story or not.  At the end of this eventful day, I’m not sure how much of it you’ll remember anyway. So let me just conclude my message with this thought: you know that people can treat each other poorly – sometimes so poorly that we use the expression, “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way that she treats him…”  Let me ask you, in the name of Christ, to reverse that.  Let me ask you to treat each other the way that your dog treats you. To make a daily, spiritual practice of honoring each other, accepting and loving each other unconditionally; be steadfast and loyal; keep troth.  If you do that, you will fulfill the will of Christ in your lives, enrich your marriage, and work toward the intentions of God in our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

2018 Youth Mission #5

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective. This is the final update from this year’s trip.

For as long as I can remember, if someone asks me “What is the purpose of Youth Group?”, one of my top three answers has been “making memories”.  When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that spiritual growth is not essential or that passing on the faith is unimportant.  To the contrary, I am deeply convinced that the Christian Faith is, in the words of the late Dale Milligan, “better ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.”  We help form the spiritual lives of the children we love by enculturation – by helping them not only to know the story, but to see how they can fit into the story.  And so each mission trip provides us with an amazing chance to create both individual and shared memories of sacred space, time, and stories.

One of the ways that we did this on Friday was to spend a few hours in the morning tending to some last-minute details on our work site and then taking advantage of our proximity to Niagara Falls by visiting one of the great wonders of the world together.  We drove through the heart of Buffalo (remembering several mission trips to that fair city in previous years) and then sailed on the “Maid of the Mist”, hiked up the steps, pondered our own insignificance as well as the amazing power and majesty of God (no surprise that Marla opted to read Psalm 29 in our devotion), and laughed an awful lot.  In the process, I trust, we added to our storehouse of shared experiences and celebrated the connections that place us in each other’s memories.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not convinced that too many of the young people at whose sleeping forms I’m now staring while I pen these lines will process this in this way – but I am sure that they will at some point.

The reason I’m sure of that is because of what happened after we got back from the Falls.  We enjoyed some wonderful tacos, and then sat together for our final debriefing time.  It is a tradition for us to invite the seniors to address the group at the end of each mission trip.  There are often a lot of tears, and Friday night was no exception.  It was wonderful and humbling to hear Tommy, McKenna, and Lindsay  talk about the ways in which connection with this group has been formative and life-giving over the years.  Each of them chose to speak of Youth Group as a place of safety and joy in a world that is often thin in both of those places; each pointed to stories of previous trips or experiences as evidence of God’s willingness to meet them in this context.  I was filled with pride and joy as I watched them share with their younger sisters and brothers – and as the younger ones soaked in the affirmation, challenge, and gratitude that was shared.

Each morning I wake up at the old-man-ish hour of six and write this.  This year, since we’re all in one room for our sleeping, eating, and recreation, I am watching them sleep each day.  It’s not creepy.  I look at the young person who was paralyzed with fright earlier this week, but worked through it; at a girl who found the bravery and the courage to step outside her comfort zone in service or speaking; at someone who is here for the first time but has, I hope, developed some bonds that will last during a difficult future; at several young people who go to great lengths to be a part of the youth group experience each week; at the one who has been told every day that she/he is insignificant and doesn’t matter; at the one who is always measured by what she/he achieves or does, but finds in Youth Group a chance just to be and be loved anyway…  I am filled with gratitude for my brother Tim Salinetro, who has come on more trips like this with me than I can even count, and I marvel at the ways that he opens path of joy for young people… I celebrate the gifts of Marla Barrett, who thinks, “why wouldn’t I spend a week with these kids two months before I get married” and does so with great humor and deep passion… I’m glad for Josie Miller and her willingness to dive into this craziness as she offers herself with joy and encouragement each day.

I say, not as often as I should, that it’s a good life, and we ought to be grateful.  Today, I am deeply grateful, and also hopeful.  Thanks for your prayers and support on behalf of these young people!

Maddy and Lindsay taping the drywall while sharing a smile…

Marla sealing the joints

Evan helping to supervise the clean-up at the church

Our team on the finished wheelchair ramp

One view from “The Maid of the Mist”

… and another…

We were told that “niagara” is derived from a native word meaning “the water thunders”. I believe it!

This is an inadequate photo of a sacred circle – a place of trust, confidence, joy, hope, gratitude – and now, for some – memory.

2018 Youth Mission #4

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

Have you ever planned a large meal and set out to cook four or five different things, hoping and planning for them to all be done around the same time, but then you discovered that your oven wasn’t large enough, or the fruit wasn’t quite ripe so you had to make another trip to the market, or whatever…and the end result was that the veggies were ready at 3 and the main dish was still in the oven at 7?

Welcome to the Youth Mission Trip, Thursday edition.

Yikes.  We started the day with a plan to divide and conquer – we’d finish up the railing, and then we’d hang a little drywall and even start to tape and mud it.  We’d do some cleaning and be ready to face our last day with a ton of energy and time.

uh-huh.

Some of the group went outside and worked hard to complete the deck construction.  The railings, steps, and a few other support pieces were installed and finished, and wow does it look good AND functional.

Some of the group stayed inside and discovered a few things:

  • rehabbing an old building is always harder and longer than starting from scratch
  • there is no such thing as a 90° angle in this building
  • Dave is not as good at electrical work as he might lead himself to believe
  • 4 x 8 sheets of drywall are really heavy when you’re trying to hold them over your head
  • You can step out of your comfort zone and live to tell the tale
  • even hard jobs are way better when you are working with people who demonstrate grace and encouragement

The end result was that some of our team finished up in the early afternoon, and they were able to get in some pool time or some nap time.  A few of us, however, were working until 6:30.  It was wonderful to see how the young people encouraged each other, and those who stayed were gracious in their sending off of those who swam, while those who swam were encouraging, realizing that you can only fit so many people into one bathroom at one time anyway…

I was really proud of all of our kids today.

We enjoyed a delicious meal of barbequed chicken and corn on the cob (thanks Josie!) and then Tim led us in a discussion about having the power to make choices for ourselves concerning the ways that we speak toward and treat each other.  It was particularly moving because he rooted that in a story of when he was on a Mission Trip and some key adults helped to shape his thinking.  Our day ended with a screening of the recently released Lake of Betrayal (trailer below), a documentary about the impact of the Kinzua Dam project on the Seneca people.

Here are a few images of our day.  Thanks for the prayers!

Tommy hangs the ceiling board

Lindsay and Maddy make sure we put the screws in the right place!

Marla trims the next piece

Wait, the black wire goes where?

This photo was taken at around 5:30 pm. Look at that smile!

This is what it looks like when the final piece is in place!

Setting the steps in place

Rachele and Karlena make the cut

Evan adds some finishing touches to a great project

Karlena and Josie making sure the railing is safe.

2018 Youth Mission #3

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

When I first started leading these trips with kids, we called them “Work Camps”.  We did that, well, because we thought that the most important thing we would do would be to “work”.  And so we bundled up the vans and we headed off to someplace exotic like Slippery Rock, PA or Tennessee or Maryland and we told the kids that they had a duty to work.  We scrubbed, we painted, we dug, we drywalled.  And, every now and then along the way, we studied the Bible, sang some songs, and worked on relationships within our group.

Gradually, though, we came to see that maybe it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to simply have a bunch of strangers show up in a place, work, and then leave – still as strangers.  We didn’t want to train ourselves to be “helpers” who took time out of our busy schedules to go and be nice to some poor soul who was down on his/her luck and lend a hand because we were so stinking nice.  We have been growing in our ability to see ourselves as partners, who have something to offer in terms of time and energy and relationship, and who are in a position to receive something in terms of knowledge or energy or skills or relationship.  And so we call them “Mission Trips”, because we assume that God is already at work in Slippery Rock, Tennessee, Maryland, or wherever… and it’s our job to get in on what God is already doing and offer who we are.

Wednesday would have been a spectacular “fail” had we been operating under the old “Work Camp” model.  We didn’t do a blessed thing (full truth: Lindsay and McKenna helped Tim and me to install TWO furring strips for drywall….) but it was a phenomenal day.  We took the morning easy, and then we traveled to the other part of the Seneca Reservation – the Allegany territory – and visited the brand-new-not-even-open-to-the-public-yet Tribal Museum and Cultural Center.  We had a private tour with a team of guides and really learned quite a lot of the Seneca story, and are deeply grateful to the folks within the tribe who helped us gain access to this experience.

We took some time off to wander through an Antique Mall in Salamanca, and then headed home to a phenomenal dinner cooked for us by members of the Wright Memorial church. Afterwards, we had an extensive and informational presentation on some of the Seneca experience by Mr. Rick Jemison, who serves as one of 16 Tribal Councilors for the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He brought along a number of items that helped us to grasp some of what these folks have been through, and he and some of the other elders who were here shared very moving personal testimony as to how they have been affected and shaped by both the adversity and the opportunities that life on the reservation has brought to them.  Some of us listened to a wonderful tribute to the Seneca as sung by the late Johnny Cash, entitled “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow.” You can hear that by clicking on the link below…

We ended our day with our typical debriefing session – singing, laughing, looking at photos… and we talked a little about the story of Daniel, who along with his countrymen was kidnapped and removed from his home.  Although Nebuchadnezzar tried to give these young people new identities (new name, new language, new food, etc.), Daniel refused to wear the labels that someone else had put on him.  He maintained that God alone had the right to name and shape and form him.  We talked about the fact that most of us have people who would be more than happy to tell us who we are and what we are about; that people will judge us for our worst mistake or try to tear us apart if we let them – but that each of us can choose to wear the identity that God is offering us as his beloved children.

Here are a few photos… and as always, thanks for the prayers.  Astute observers will note that there is one more participant on the trip: our friend Karlena, who was unable to join us when we departed on Sunday, met us in Salamanca, and we’re the better for it!

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

Listening to a story of the creation from the Seneca perspective – one that emphasizes community and the responsibility of all to participate.

Lacrosse is a game that originated with the Native Americans, and there is an entire display on the nature of that experience.

There were several cases full of items depicting Native Americans in unflattering and untrue ways. We talked about how it must feel to have other people attempt to describe you in words that aren’t true…

Doug is carving our turkey…

Eileen making the fry bread using corn flour, which is traditional here.

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

Rick shows us a wampum belt depicting the treaty between the Seneca and the Whites.

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

2018 Youth Mission #2

The young people from the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are engaged in our annual pilgrimage in mission and service.  This year, we are spending time with some friends in Western New York, particularly in the communities that comprise the territories belonging to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Our second day looked a lot like the first, at least to start: we got really dirty pulling down old drywall, digging in the mud, and doing what we can to help the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church become a little bit more structurally hospitable.  We continued to work on the wheelchair ramp as well as a few projects indoors.

Because this church building, like most, doesn’t have shower facilities, we had to go down the street to the Cattaraugus Community Center, a fantastic resource for the residents of this community.  In there we saw great recreational rooms (like an indoor lacrosse field, basketball, weight room, and more) and, most importantly – showers.  Some of us showered more quickly than others, which led to a certain amount of waiting around, which led to…well, photos below.

When we arrived on Sunday, one of the neighbors invited us to a “revival” that his church was conducting on the other portion of the reservation – in the town of Salamanca (about an hour away).  We assumed, naively, that it would be an opportunity to immerse ourselves more deeply in the Seneca community, customs, and religious outlook.  We were wrong. We arrived at the Central Street Baptist Church and we had an amazing cultural experience – just not the one we’d expected.

We’d been told to arrive at 6 for a community meal.  Being led by folks like me, we got there hungry at 5:58.  The church was locked up tighter than a drum.  As we wandered around, a car stopped, and it turned out that it was the Pastor of the church.  He was asking if we were lost.  No, I said, we were here for the revival.  He said, “Really? Are you sure?”  It turns out that it was not supposed to start until 7 and there was no meal.  So, off to Little Caesar’s for a quick bite of pizza, and then back to the church.  There was a yellow striped tent set up out back and a few dozen hardy souls gathered underneath it as we listened to the fiery (and, the kids would have me tell you, LOUD) message offered up by “Preacher Don”, a wiry Southern Baptist evangelist from Virginia (or maybe West Virginia).  I’m not kidding you, except for the fact that the music was done from an iPad via bluetooth – it was like a trip back 125 years.

I’m proud of the ways that our team not only dealt with the challenges and disappointment of seeing their proposed trip into Native American spirituality be transformed into an entirely different experience, but at the ways that they were able to thoughtfully reflect on which aspects of Preacher Don’s message resonated with their experience and which were foreign to them.  We gathered after the day for our time of de-brief and it was so encouraging to hear them be intentional and thoughtful about the things we’d said, heard, and done throughout the day.  Thanks for your prayers!

Here are a few images of our time thus far…

Greeting some of the members of Wright Memorial Church

McKenna gets dirty for the cause… ‘Cause there ain’t no way Pastor Dave was fitting under there to put that board on!!!!

The team gets a lesson in using a jigsaw

Lindsay trimming it up…

…and Christian…

Danielle tackles the jigsaw

Alyssa and Marla framing in the closet (note the manicure!)

Josie sizes things up

Tom discovers that working in churches can be, well, dirty business…

The ramp is coming together

One of us found waiting for the others to finish showering to be, well, a little bit boring…

Dinner time!

The Central St. Baptist Church, with the tent out back

Hearing a poem by a congregation member

Preacher Don lays it on us

2018 Youth Mission #1

On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

We arrived on Sunday and set up shop in the church, which is where we are going to be sleeping, eating, and working all week. We inflated our mattresses, set out our tools, and met our hosts.  Prior to bed, Marla led us in a devotional, we did some singing and talked about our hopes for the week.

Monday morning dawned clear and sunny, and it only got hotter as the day went on.  Half of our team began the work of demolishing some deteriorated walls on the inside of the building in preparation for a CHUP-esque makeover.  It was messy work to be sure, but our team tore down drywall and ceiling tile with vigor.  The rest of our group started work on a small porch and a wheelchair ramp in the rear of the building.  In both instances, we had the opportunity to learn new skills and practice some which have been dormant for a while.

The day got hotter and hotter, and by four pm we were delighted to be able to knock off work and drive a little further into the reservation to take advantage of the swimming pool operated by the Seneca Nation. In addition to providing us an opportunity cool off and play, this is the site where we’ll be showering all week as well.

Our evening included a delicious spaghetti dinner, an exploration of Ezekiel 37 with a discussion about the nature of hope, and some amazingly appropriate ice cream cones.  It was a great beginning to what we hope will be a great week!  Here are a few photos…

Removing old wallboard

Hey, Tim, that must weigh 80 pounds. Let me show you how to carry it…

Show us how it’s done, Evan…

Who ARE those people?

A refresher on the workings of the power saw…

These four young women installed the decking on our 6 x 8 platform essentially by themselves… Tim…um…”helped”.

Alyssa setting up the framing.

Making sure it’s all square…

Does this guy do ANY work?

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about…

What a great way to end the afternoon!

So thanks for all your prayers – we’ll keep you posted in the days to come!

Finder’s Keepers?

On August 5, the saints at Crafton Heights commissioned a group of young people for service and partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church, located in the territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.  That prompted me to want to explore the notion of “discovery”, and that of “privilege”, and how in the world these things were connected to our experience.  Our texts for the day included Luke 16:19-31 and Micah 2:1-10.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media browser below:

OK, let’s see who paid attention in school. Does the name Isaac Newton mean anything to anyone?  Sure! He is credited with the discovery of the Law of Gravity in 1666.

How about Joseph Priestly? This one may be a little tougher, but Priestly is one of the men acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. His findings were made public in 1774.

In the interest of gender equity, let me ask you about Marie Curie. Does anyone remember why she rose to prominence?  She is credited with the discovery of radiation and radioactivity in 1898.

Each of these people is listed as a “discoverer”.  In this context, the word “discover” means “to be the first to find or observe”.  And in these cases, it is arguably true.  Somehow, Newton, Priestly, and Curie quantified or pointed to some phenomenon that was not known or understood by the people of their times.  Of course, they didn’t “invent” gravity, or oxygen, or radiation – they simply pointed to them and described them.

Let’s try another: do you recognize this man? Christopher Columbus. And what is he famous for? Well, we were all taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and he “discovered” America, right?

But wait – how could he claim to be the discoverer of a place that had between 50 and 100 million people here already?  How can anyone say that he “found” this place, and thereby “claimed” it for a king in Europe when there were already hundreds of people groups and communities thriving here upon his arrival?

Let’s try that notion of “discovery” in other contexts.  How would it be if you left worship today and went outside and found that your car was missing?  Would your first reaction be, “Hey, golly! I guess someone ‘discovered’ my Chevy this morning!  Good for them…”  Have your purse, or wallet, or keys ever been “discovered” by someone else?  Doesn’t feel too good, does it?

A few years ago I saw a greeting card that read, “This year, I’m going to celebrate Columbus Day the old-fashioned way.  I’m going to take the bus across town, find a house that I like, kick the current owners out, move in, and take all their stuff.”

Common sense will tell you, “Hey, you can’t do that! People have rights!”

Of course they do. All people have rights.  So the only time when you can do things like is when you do them to those who are not really people.

That’s the justification that much of Western Civilization has used for the past five hundred years.  In 1452, as much of Europe was getting pretty excited about the idea of vast quantities of land and resources of which it had previously been unaware, Pope Nicholas V wrote that it was the sacred duty and obligation for Christians to

“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”[1]

The leader of the Christian church said that anyone who wasn’t a European Christian wasn’t really a person at all, and so it was important for Christian people to find ways to use their stuff that would make God happy.  That line of thinking became a part of our American story in many ways, not the least of which was a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which read, in part,

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness …

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory …

The potentates of the Old World … made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.[2]

Perhaps you are familiar with the portions of the US Constitution that spell this out – pun intended – in black and white, indicating that slaves and other persons of color were to be counted as 60% of a real person for the government’s purposes.

To put it plainly, the recognized policy of the church and law of the land for half a millennia, at least, was to say that anyone who didn’t look like me was in some way or another sub-human, and therefore did not really deserve the same treatment as a person such as me might expect.

I hope that when I state it so plainly that you say, “No way, Dave! That stands in complete opposition to the Bible!  Didn’t you hear what Micah said about taking the things that belonged to others, or expelling women and children from their homes?  We’re not supposed to do that!”

That’s the line of thinking taken up in St. Louis earlier this summer when the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially repudiated and condemned what has been called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.  In an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church denounced these and other statements that laid the groundwork for the suppression, oppression, and removal of Native American people and other persons of color.  We said that it was wrong to say that just because a place didn’t have anyone like me in it it was “empty” or “unknown” and therefore it was ours for the taking.

And some of my friends said, “Great.  It’s about time.  Now what are you going to do with those horrible parts of the Bible that claim the same thing?  Have you read Exodus, or Numbers, or Deuteronomy?  Isn’t that what the Jews did to the Canaanites?  They walked into someone else’s home and said, “God told me that this all belongs to me now, so, see you later…”

I can only say that I’m stumped by that.  I just don’t know.  I can say that those who were trying to follow God 4000 years ago did not have the whole story.  They had a few visions and a couple of great leaders, but they didn’t have access to the prophecy or the preaching of Jeremiah or Isaiah.  The person and work of Jesus and the witness of the early church was, of course, unknown to them.   It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery was based on an application of certain aspects of the Old Testament that categorically ignored the pleas of the prophets and the Passion of the Savior.

And as a 58 year old male with British heritage, there is something about all of this “Discovery” conversation that makes me feel uncomfortable.  I have a difficult time knowing what to do with decisions that were made hundreds of years before I was born.  Yes, what Columbus did was wrong.  And slavery was bad.  And so was the internment of American Citizens during World War II and on and on and on.  That was all horrible.

But really – it’s not my fault.  If I could undo it, I would.  But I can’t. So what am I supposed to do?

Can I learn from it?

Pittsburgh, March 18, 1936

Listen: in a couple of hours, we’re going to be taking a few carloads of kids from Western Pennsylvania up to the Seneca Nation reservation in New York.  Every single one of these young people has grown up in an area that was stabilized and enriched by the flood protections on the Allegheny River.  A hundred years ago, that river was cause for uncertainty. Lives and commerce were at risk as seasonal floods made development difficult and uncertain.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, a flood hit Pittsburgh and destroyed 100,000 buildings, closed the steel mills, and forced the layoffs of an estimated 60,000 mill workers.

That prompted the US Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to install a series of locks and dams on the Allegheny river.  The crowning achievement of this act was the creation of the Kinzua Dam on the northernmost part of the river.  As a result of that dam, Pittsburgh grew to achieve unparalleled success in industry and stability.

Demolition of Seneca property to make way for the Kinzua Dam

But there was a cost.  The Seneca Nation of Indians lost one-third of the land that had been granted to them by the treaty of 1794, signed by President Washington. The Seneca lost some of their best farmland, burial grounds, and hundreds of people lost their homes.

Nobody in this room voted for that.  But everyone here has benefitted from it.  And our young people need to be aware of some of this history as we go to listen to the stories of the Seneca this week.  It’s not our fault that those lands were taken seventy years ago.  But something of what is good in our lives is here because they were.  We can’t forget that.

Lazarus and Dives, illustration from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030 – 1050)

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the story of a man who was fantastically wealthy.  We’re told of his extravagance in that he wore purple every day, not just on holidays; he feasted every day, not just on special occasions.  This man was fantastically wealthy.

But his wealth was not his problem.  His sin was not that he was rich – his sin was rooted in something that he did not do.

At the gate of his home was a poor man whose name, Lazarus, means “God is my help”.  And, I suppose, it’s a good thing that God helped him because the rich man paid him no mind whatsoever. The rich man was simply unable to see Lazarus.

In fact, even after he died, the rich man could not bring himself to see Lazarus as a human being.  In his misery, the rich man cried out to Abraham, saying “send Lazarus on these errands to help me out…”  He didn’t get it!  Lazarus was fully human, but the rich man could only see him as a resource, an agent given to serve the whim of the rich man.  In reality, though, Abraham affirms Lazarus’ humanity and celebrates the fact that Lazarus’ life has purpose and meaning.

I hear the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and I remember the connections between the Seneca Nation and the people of Pittsburgh, and I wonder… have we gotten any better at recognizing the humanity of those around us?  Are there parts of our stories that continue to dehumanize others?

For the Youth Group kids who were a part of last year’s mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina and who will leave today for another, does it mean anything at all that the National Football League’s fifth-most valuable franchise – the one based in Washington DC – is named after a racist slur?

All of us live in an era of increasing polarization and a diminishment of our shared humanity.  In many of our lifetimes, we’ve watched as Nazis called Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals “rats” and called for their “extermination”.  Prior to the genocide in 1994, Rwandan Hutus called rival Tutsis “cockroaches.”  A few months ago comedian Roseann Barr lost her job for calling another woman the child of an ape, and that was only a few weeks after the President of the United States called immigrant gang members “animals”.  Just prior to that, the cover of the New YorkMagazine had a photo which depicted the President as a pig.

Are we so in love with our ideas and so afraid of the encounters we might have with others that we lose our ability to love those whose ideas and identities are different from our own?

The charge for this week – for the youth group team and for all of us – is to seek to learn from what has come before so that we can be better people in the days to come.  Can we dedicate ourselves to hearing the stories of the “other”, and to promise to look for the spark of the Divine Image in all people?  Can we refuse to demonize and dehumanize, and instead seek to honor and call forth our best selves?

Are we always going to agree? Of course not.  And there are some despicable actions done by those with horrific intent.  But nobody wins if we denigrate those with whom we disagree by calling them sub-human.

And, by the way, I didn’t discover this idea.  I didn’t invent it.  I found it when I started following a carpenter from Nazareth who invited those around him to love their neighbors, to break down walls, and to seek to bless those who are on the margins.  The thing is, he told me I couldn’t keep it.  He told me I had to give it away.  So…I just did.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]As quoted in “The Doctrine of Discovery”,  The Christian Century 4/20/15 (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-04/doctrine-discovery)

[2]From Johnson v. McIntosh, (1823), quoted in https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/because-the-bible-tells-me-so-manifest-destiny-and-american-indians-762x1fEsrky5-1Gq0pDj7w/