And the Survey Says…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 24, 2019, we encountered something we have not seen before and will not see again in the Gospel of Mark: a “teacher of the Law” who is commended by Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:28-34.  The first reading (for both us and Jesus’ hearers) was a passage known very well to those who participated in and overheard the discussion between Jesus and the man: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the browser below…

Like many of you, my computer knows that I can be a little slow.  My trusty laptop is willing to help speed things along for me. As I was preparing for this message, I typed into my search bar, “what is the most important rule in” and before I could say “my faith” or “Christianity” or even “religion”, I was offered a whole host of suggestions…

It’s not really fair for you to answerafter you’ve already heard the Gospel, but if someone would have asked you an hour ago, “what is the heart of the message of scripture?  What is the Bible about?”, how might you have answered?

I thought recently about a neighbor that Sharon and I had when we lived on South Graham Street many years ago.  There was an elderly woman who lived nearby who had become, for some reason, quite embittered with the world. She knew that I was some sort of a professional Christian, however, and so one day as I washed my car she accosted me.  “Listen,” she said, “I see you spending all your time over there at the church, and I wonder if you really know what’s going on.  Tell me this, young man: what is the core message of the New Testament? What is it that we ought to take away from that document?”

I was a little taken aback by her frankness, and I felt put on the spot.  I hemmed and hawed a little bit about loving each other and loving God, and she interrupted me by saying, “No, no, no… Here’s the message of the New Testament: if you spend your whole life loving other people, if you forgive people when they hurt you and trust people with what’s important to you, and if you try to help other people with no expectation of what you might get in return, then don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

I think she is wrong, but the older I get, the more I can understand her.  What is the core of the Gospel, do you think?

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Jesus has been spending all day dealing with one religious expert after another.  If you’ve been here this month, you know what I mean: we’ve had scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and more, all having come to Jesus to test him in one way or another.  And, as you may recall, he replied to each challenge with distinction and wisdom.

He did so well, in fact, that near the end of this conversation, an apparently un-aligned teacher of the Law approached him, not with malicious intent, but with respect and curiosity.  He noticed that Jesus had answered well, and so he came to Jesus with a question that was not uncommon at the time.  When he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”, he was echoing a conversation attributed to the legendary Rabbi Hillel a generation earlier. A man asked the Rabbi, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”  The old man replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All else is commentary.  Go and learn.”

So this man is an earnest inquirer, and he asks Jesus a genuine question. Jesus does not exactly push the bounds of accepted teaching when he starts by quoting Deuteronomy.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is one…”  Any Jew would have recognized this immediately – it was the call to worship at the temple every morning and every evening.  If there was one verse that had been etched into the consciousness of the children of God, this was it…

“What is the most important commandment?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…”  You can almost feel the tension in the crowd melt away. His followers and friends might have thought he was going to say something unusual (he had a real knack for that); his critics and opponents might have hoped for a hint of impropriety, but there was nothing… It was the “safe” answer.  I mean, who’s going to argue with that one, right? There are affirmative nods all around, and then Jesus draws another breath and says, “And the second is this…”

“Wait, what? Come on, Jesus, there is no ‘second’.  There is only the Shema, there is only the Oneness of God.”

And in that moment, there was probably a little panic in the eyes of his closest friends.  You know that feeling of apprehension – when someone opens their mouth and you’re not at all sure what’s coming next… Maybe you’re the parent of a toddler who has declared, “Do you want to know what else mommy said?” Maybe you’ve run into someone you don’t know very well, or you haven’t seen in a while, and that person says, “Well, I just had surgery, and I was really surprised by how long the scar was… do you want to take a look at this—” and you scream “Noooooooo!”

“The second is like it…”

What is Jesus going to say?  I mean, there is only one…  Come on Jesus, don’t mess with us here…

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Seriously, Jesus? That’swhat you’re going to go with? A passage from Leviticus 19?

Look, if you’re at my house, and you say, “Dave, I need the best rolling pin you’ve got”, I’m gonna reach into the drawer and give you a great one.  No problem.  Because I have one really good rolling pin.  But if you say “I’d like a second…”, well, we’re gonna have some issues. Because there isn’t a second one.  I mean, I’ll root around in the drawer, and I might bring something out, but it would probably surprise you…

Look, the “greatest commandment” we all know.  Hear it all the time.  Sing it, in fact.  But when Jesus starts rooting through the scripture bin looking for the second one, it’s a little surprising.  He grabs hold of Leviticus 19:18 and holds it up: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Listen, folks, that’s a fine scripture, but it’s not exactly a pronounced emphasis in Leviticus.  I mean, the very next verse says, “Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of material.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  How different, how much less complicated would the world be today if Jesus had only said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength; and, oh, yes, don’t wear that cotton/polyester blend.  That has gotto go…  Seriously.”

That’s it? Love God? Wear wool?  All right! We can do that!

But he said it.  He chose, of all the things he could have chosen, to hold up Leviticus 19:18.  Why would he do that?

Because he could see that the religious leaders of his own day assumed that it was possible, acceptable, and maybe even desirable, to love God withoutloving one’s neighbor. As if we could divorce the two of those things somehow!

One of the great tragedies of religion is that professed followers of Jesus have not realized that these two commandments are inseparable.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who believe the same things as we do.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who have the same skin tone, or language, or orientation, or income level as we do.

Our primary response to the creation of the world and our place in it is to love God with everything that we have and are.  One of the ways that we demonstrate the sincerity of our love for God is by our willingness to show our neighbor the same respect and tenderness that we show ourselves.

In commenting on this passage, Dr. Ernest Thompson writes,

“Love to God finds its only adequate fulfillment in love to one’s neighbor.  Nonetheless this is the second command and not the first. Love to one’s neighbor must be rooted in love of God, if it is to be wise (not mere sentimentality), if it is to endure (even when we meet persistent unfriendliness, or sheer unloveliness), and if it is to be universal (excluding no race, no class, and no individual.”[1]

Golden Rule (detail), Norman Rockwell (1961).

It seems to me that there might be no challenge more difficult for the church of Jesus Christ in the United States of America in 2019 than to love everyone without exception. Not “agree” with your neighbor.  Not “tolerate” or “put up with” your neighbor.  Love them.  Love each of them. You, the brown-skinned person wearing a hoodie.  You, the old white guy in a MAGA hat. Her, the lady smoking with her kids at the bus stop. Him, the grumpy police officer, and her the screeching seven year old.  Those two over there, who you’re not even sure what to call because they don’t like any of the pronouns currently used by the English language. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew… The one who denies his creator, and the one who praises God every day. The veteran who is wearing her uniform proudly, and the one next to her who kneels during the anthem.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When Matthew is telling this story in his Gospel, he notes that Jesus concludes by adding, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

Listen, this scripture was chosen for this day a long time before I knew we’d be baptizing little Arya Jane this morning.  But isn’t this the goal? To raise a generation who live this way?  That’s what it says in Deuteronomy, right?  Tell this to your children.  Remind them.  Do something to remember it!  When Jesus and his friends were little boys they were given little boxes to put on their foreheads and wrists.  When Joe was younger he received a confirmation class cross.  Our lives are filled with symbols of that which we love and which we want to be.

May we be love.  May we desire to be love.

At the end of their conversation, Jesus commends the scribe.  Mark notes that “Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely…”  Do you know that this man is the only teacher of the law in the Gospel of Mark to be recognized and commended publicly in this fashion?  I think that matters…

And then, Jesus concludes the interaction by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Welcome home, friend.”  He didn’t say, “Now go away, son, you bother me.”  He didn’t even say, “Follow me.”

We are left wondering: what happened to this guy?  I’ll tell you this – this isn’t the first cliffhanger in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s not the last, and it’s certainly not the biggest.

But this man had a choice: would he walk in the way of love, welcome, service, and humility?  Or would he stay where he was?  He clearly had to decide.

And so do we.  Thanks be to God, we can decide today.  Let us follow in the way of the Christ and in the way of the Kingdom.  One of the most influential Christian minds in the last century was a writer named G. K. Chesterton.  He once said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  May be engage our faith, those around us, and indeed ourselves not only with a doctrine that is respectable, but with the holy, burning love of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] The Gospel According to Mark and Its Meaning for Today(John Knox Press, 1968), p. 198-199.

2019 Texas Mission #6

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Although we’ve been coming to Texas for ten years, the seer marks the first time that we’ve flown directly to the Rio Grande Valley. That means it’s also the first time that we didn’t have to drive north five or six hours in order to catch our flight, which means that it’s the first time that we were able to put in a full day’s worth of work on Friday.  It was good, in many ways, to do this.

In terms of construction, it meant that we could not only finish the painting and roofing we’d started, but we could add in a few extra touches to improve the home in small ways.

For some of us, the extra day meant that we could go and spend several hours volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities.  Here, members of our group served in whatever capacity we were needed; some emptied garbage cans and mopped floors while others assisted in the distribution of clothing and, believe it or not, shoelaces (which are confiscated by ICE at the detention centers where potential asylum seekers are held).  Once a person or family has been received by/apprehended by the Border Patrol, taken to a detention center, processed, and given a hearing date… they are bussed to the Respite Center where they receive a small kit of toiletries (such as we brought down), a change of clothes, and if there’s time, a hot meal, a shower, and maybe a nap.  They are then given a bus ticket to the place in the USA where they’ve got relatives/friends/sponsors and off they go.  It’s a whirlwind.

The thing about the refugee center that got me was this: there is a specific station where a volunteer stands with a jar of vaseline and a pile of Q-Tips.  Weary travelers present themselves in front of the desk, and each receives a swab of vaseline on their dry, parched lips.  How tragic, how compelling, how HUMAN is it to have lips that are cracked and burnt because of the sun’s dehydrating powers… and how pathetic to have that be a chronic issue.  The folks who visited this center did not use this word in reporting on their adventure, but as person after person described the experience, I heard compassion.

Compassion is an English word that combines two Latin roots: pati, or “suffer”, and cum, or “with”.  Learning compassion is the art of learning how to dwell with someone else in their suffering.  That’s what these trips are about.

Frederick Buechner defines compassion thusly: “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

While some were at the shelter, others had the privilege of walking Carmen and Felipe, our homeowners, into their “new” rooms. Carmen had been so excited to choose the color for he rooms, and it was the flip side of compassion – the joy – of sharing with her in the renewal and restoration of parts of that home.

I wish you’d have been there.  And, in a very important way, you were.  Or are.  Thanks be to God!

The policies at the Respite Center forbid posting of photos, but this is another of those sacred places about which I wrote earlier this week.

One of the things to which I look forward to every year is working with my dear friend Tim to make someone’s home better. We only had the chance to do so for about an hour or so, but it was a great joy. Here, we replaced the bottom few inches of a door frame that had rotted away. As I said to Carmen, it’s definitely not great, it might not even be good, but it’s surely better than it was. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Carmen seeing her “new” living room.

The roof behind our group represents the single biggest project on which our group was able to work this week.

Gathering for a prayer circle as the work portion of our week comes to a close.

A grateful “goodbye” between Carmen and Tina… And note the cake that Jessica is holding – Carmen made sure that our group was well-supplied with sweets!

 

2019 Texas Mission #5

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

There’s a couple of hundred yards of Crooked Creek shoreline in Erie County, PA.

There are my two black chairs right next to my fish tank.

There’s a spot on the road between Liwonde and Ntaja, Malawi.

There’s a room in the cardiac care wing of Presbyterian University Hospital.

I don’t know where they are for you, but I’m betting you’ve got one or two or more… spots from which you have glimpsed the Holy – places to which you have returned more than once because you have found that those are spots where you simply know that God abides, and because you have sensed it there, you think, it’s reasonable to assume that the Presence might be anywhere.  You have places where you have found belief that remind you that you can continue to carry belief even when it seems nonsensical, or wearisome, or simply too heavy.

Most people think that those spots are functional – fishing holes or furniture or paved road or a health care center –  but to me, it’s a place where I’ve fished and heard the voice of God, or the location of some of the most deeply personal and intimate conversations with which a pastor has been entrusted, or the place where I remember the beauty and wonder of the God with humor enough to create Baobab trees, or a spot where I’ve witnessed faith and family and healing that strengthens my soul.

Thursday evening I was privileged to be in one of those spots – a place to which we’ve returned several times over the past few years.  It’s a lovely tree next to a little purple home outside of Mission, Texas.  It’s a tree that has provided me with shade on some really hot days, conversation and friendship on many days, and incredible glimpses of the kingdom on a few occasions.

In 2015 our team worked on a home that afforded us the opportunity to strike up a wonderful relationship with the family who lived there. In the years since then, every single time we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley – every single time – we have been invited over for conversation and a meal.  Tonight, we visited that family again, and saw more chicken and sausage than anyone knew what to do with.  There was a bigger pot of beans than anyone from Pittsburgh had ever seen before.

We sat by the fire, we sat under the tree, and some of us who were there for the first time engaged in conversation with gracious people.  Others, who’d been there before, took the opportunity to hear and learn and share things that one does with friends in holy places like this.

I heard from one of the young adults in the home that when we were first there, they didn’t know what to make of us.  We sure laughed a lot, and we spilled a lot of paint.  But I was told of how it felt to go from having five people sleeping and living in a single room with a single bed to having a real house, where when it rains or storms, you are safe; of how it feels to be able to go to school and know you have an address; of what it means to be able to think about a future in service to others.

And I was reminded of those holy places in my life, and I thanked God for glimpses into the eternal.

All of the above was just AFTER dinner.  Before dinner, we did a lot of stuff that you’d expect from us this week: painting, roofing, drywalling, laughing, and spilling paint.  Here are a few images of our Thursday, as selected by our team’s primary photographer, Josie.  We appreciate your prayers.

Karren continues to conquer her discomfort with being on the roof by teaching that shingle who’s the boss…

Jon and Lindsay are taking care of the other side of the home…

Our hallway transitions from lime green to sunshine yellow…

Kayla, you really shouldn’t be having this much fun painting the house…

Jessica? Where’s Jessica? The last time I saw her, she went into the dining room with a paintbrush…

Every day we are here, the people of Mission Presbyterian Church offer us a hot lunch. Today, we were blessed to have homemade noodles from our friend Carol. She and her late husband Rog have been stalwart supporters of this mission.

Sacred conversation around the Lord’s table…

And here is the tree that reminds me that God is faithful, even when I doubt. I hope you can sit here one day.

 

2019 Texas Mission Trip #4

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Today was a great day to be on site as we continued our trip in the Rio Grande Valley.  The sun made an amazing appearance, and we had a lot of pink shoulders and faces around the discussion table this evening. The team that worked up on the roof (which, frankly, was most of our number) made some fantastic progress on the roof.  Meanwhile, a few of us remained inside – which felt increasingly like a cave as the sun shone more brightly. We were able to finish piecing in the drywall that we’d cut out due to flood damage and most of it has a second coat of mud on it already.

Following our work day, we were able to spend some time with Daniel Behrens, a Deacon in service to the Anglican Church through a mission called Trinity On The Border.  It was Daniel who gave us the idea to pack the hygiene kits for the Respite Center.  Daniel was eager to see some fellow Yinzers (he grew up in the South Hills) and to share his perspective on the nature and needs of the communities here.  We had a great discussion on the value and purpose of short-term trips like this (I might have said something like, “Seriously! Why should we spend all this money bringing us down here when we could send the money to someone local, who could hire roofers who probably need the work, and who would do it better than we would… because, frankly, we’re not very good roofers?”).  It was a rich time of conversation about the fact that the little house on Rhode Island Drive is not the only that’s getting worked on this week… We are all being shaped.

It’s late – so here are a few photos that will give you a glimpse of our day…

What IS that burning orange ball in the sky?

Jahn and David putting on the shingles…

Brian prepares our next piece of sheetrock…

The roof isn’t THAT pitched, but Josie is creative…

Phillippe, the homeowner, gives me some advice on cleaning the drywall equipment.

Daniel leads the conversation pertaining to Trinity on the Border

2019 Texas Mission #3

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

If you pray, how do you think that God answers prayer?

When do you know that it happens?

Have you ever been around to see it?

Today, we did a lot of work.  More about that in a moment.  I’d like to tell you about the fifteen most significant moments of my day.  If you saw Sunday’s entry to this sequence of updates, you know that in addition to coming to the Rio Grande Valley to do some housing rehabilitation, we came to seek to learn about the experiences of those who are here and those who arrive here each day.  To help us in this we prepared, and asked a lot of friends to prepare, “Respite Kits” for distribution to those who have entered the USA here in Texas and are seeking asylum or permanent residency.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been calling folks at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.  They didn’t return our calls, and someone suggested that we should just stop by and drop off the kits.

We arrived at the building and saw long lines snaking out in so many different directions. We took our donations to the side door where we were greeted by a volunteer who said, “Seriously? You have respite kits?  We ran out earlier today.  I didn’t know what we would do, but I told my wife, ‘God will get us some.’  And look, here you are!”  We discovered that the reason that they had not been answering their phones was because in the past 3 days this center has received more than 1500 individuals – mostly women with children.  They are at the center for a day at the most, hoping for a hot meal, a quick shower, a new set of clothes (including shoe laces which are taken from each individual at the detention centers), and a bus ticket to the home of a relative or friend while they await the hearings that will determine their eligibility to stay in the USA.

For me, the emotion was so palpable that I * might * have burst into tears whilst talking to a young mother whose children helped to pack similar bags several states away.  There is so much brokenness, so much that is wounded and wrong in our world. And here we are, with our baggies full of toothpaste and soap.  Talk about “the least of these.”  Sheesh.  I mentioned to someone earlier today that one of my favorite characters is Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I felt as though I were charging at windmills for much of the day.

And we worked – a lot – on the house as well.  And we had an amazing dinner with some good friends from the Valley.  And we enjoyed another hot lunch courtesy of our hosts.  We are overwhelmed with blessings.  I’d say more, but it’s nearly midnight and I’ll be up six hours from now ready to start it all again.  So here are a few photos.

Our Respite Bags having been transferred to the incredibly temporary storage bin at Catholic Charities.

Meeting with Scott, the volunteer at the Respite Center who prayed for supplies and then we showed up…

I’d say Gabe’s back is looking pretty great, thanks be to God!

Beginning the process of laying the new roof (yes, we can see it is raining…)

Bob Walters is an amazing person. That is all.

Just a couple of Daves, doing drywall. Nothing to see here…

Josie takes charge with the drywall gun!

Jessica hanging drywall with patience and precision.

Tina learning to tape drywall.

Amazing dinner with long-time friends in a wonder-filled atmosphere. We are indeed blessed.

2019 Texas Mission #2

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

The first day of a construction/service trip is often slow to get going, as we’ve got to get the lay of the land in terms of the tasks that are in front of us, the tools at our disposal, the personnel we have on hand, and the constraints or opportunities any of those afford to us.  Today it felt as though we launched with lightning speed!

We’ve been invited to help a homeowner recover from some pretty intense flooding that hit this area last year.  This part of Texas is flat – I mean, FLAT. And we are essentially at sea level, even though we are so far inland.  That means that when an area gets hit by a hard, heavy rain, it can take some time for the water to get anywhere. As a result, homes that are built on a slab are at risk of flooding.  Such was the case in the property we went to today.

The remedy for this kind of flooding is to remove the bottom two feet or so of drywall so as to reduce the likelihood of mold or mildew setting in and causing long-term damage to either the home or its inhabitants.  Some of our group spent much of the day measuring and cutting through drywall and trim in order to accomplish this.  The rest of the team was sent up top, to remove the shingles from the roof as we anticipate replacing it later in the week.

It was a great first day of labor, and a better first day of coming together as a team and a community.  There was a lot of laughter and encouragement; some of us (I’m looking at you, Karen!) faced our fears and scaled new heights – literally – in order to work on the roof.  All of us enjoyed a delicious lunch of “Grandma’s sloppy joe” and, my personal favorite, GRAPEFRUIT PIE!  We first had this southern delicacy years ago, and my friend Martha made TWO of these treats for the group, along with a couple of blackberry pies.  If I was on my game, you’d see a picture of us, and these pies, and there would be lots of smiling involved… but the truth is that I was so engaged with visiting, listening to stories, and, well, eating that I didn’t get any.  I’m sorry about that, because those are shots I’d like to have some day, and maybe you’d like to see them.

We are eager to get back out there tomorrow and discover what is waiting for us on site and in our lives.  Until then, we are deeply grateful for the chances we’ve been given to be here and to be together.  Here are a few images from our day…

Starting the day in conversation and prayer with our team and members of the community here who have rallied to support us.

Kayla and Jessica preparing to remove the trim on the lower part of the walls.

Lindsay making sure that the lines are straight and the surface is prepared for the new drywall.

Karen wasn’t sure she could get up on the roof – but once she got there, she was unstoppable!!! (Oh, yeah, Jon, Bob, Tim, and the rest of the crew were there too!).

Clearing the old shingles off the roof was tedious work, and we were glad for the cool (64°) temps.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the roof was in fundamentally good shape. We didn’t have to replace any of the wood, which was good for everyone!

There was a slight “wardrobe malfunction” as Kayla’s boot – practically new! – blew out. Fortunately, there’s duct tape for that…

2019 Texas Mission #1

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  In 2019 we have returned to the scene of most of those trips, the small city of Mission, Texas.  Here, as we enjoy the hospitality of our partners at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, we’ll join forces with other mission networks to work to rehab a home that has been damaged by recent flooding.

We were commissioned in worship on February 10 and left Pittsburgh on the 16.  We flew to Harlingen and drove the final 45 minutes to Mission, arriving after midnight on the 17th.  Today was a day to get acclimated in several ways.  We joined our friends in worship, and then we visited the small chapel called La Lomita.  This historic site offers us a chance to think about the Christian virtues of hospitality, welcome, and faithfulness in the small things that shape us in large ways.

Lunch was a sumptuous affair at a local Mexican restaurant and then the team divided.  Bob, Lindsay, and Jahn went to the grocery store to equip us for our first few meals at the church, while the rest of the team visited the Bentson-Rio Grande Valley State Park located just a few miles away.  This is a sprawling area of trails and scrub that offered us the chance to soak up some warmth, to stretch our legs, and to see a few birds.

The visits to La Lomita and the State Park were bittersweet in that both of these areas are destined to be closed to the public as a result of construction of the proposed border wall that is currently a matter of no small debate. It was difficult to be in these places and to think of the fact that in years to come such will be inaccessible for political reasons.

Our dinner back at the church was fantastic, and we ended the evening with a rousing game of “Codenames”.

We appreciate your prayers!  Check back tomorrow for a glimpse at what we shall encounter next!

Amongst all the luggage we brought were three large cases of “respite kits” to be distributed to those seeking asylum in the USA. These small hygiene kits were assembled by dozens of volunteers in Pittsburgh and will be distributed with love.

The Chapel of La Lomita

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

A Crested Caracara keeps a watchful eye on our group.

Walking through Bentson-Rio Grande Valley

If you don’t know this game, you should! Codenames!

Weaponizing the Gospel

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

What Were You Made For?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 3, 2019, we saw an unlikely group of “allies” come together in an attempt to entrap Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:13-17.  Our Old Testament reading was a vivid reminder from Genesis 1:26-28

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

As I begin this morning, I feel my affinity for the Professional Organization of English Majors compels me to acknowledge that the title of this message, and therefore the signboard outside of this church, consists of a phrase which includes a dangling preposition.

Most normal people will readily understand questions like “Where are you at?” or “What are you talking about?”.  Sticklers for some of the archaic “rules” in English, however, will cringe when they hear such construction, and even more annoyingly, will smugly correct you.

When faced with an editor who attempted to rebuke him for such a “crime”, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about the English language) is alleged to have scrawled in the margin this note: “This is the type of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put!”

As any speaker of any language knows, sometimes the most effective communication goes against the strictest rules of the grammarian.  In order to have clear and concise meaning, we sometimes have to be direct, even if it might make a 9thgrade English teacher (or Sharon Carver) cringe.

Today’s Gospel reading contains a number of very interesting points all of which center around the appropriate interpretation or application of a rule and the impact of that on one’s view of life and culture and faith.

As we mentioned last week, we are in the midst of reading through Mark’s account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  We have already seen several conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are clearly looking for a way to eliminate him as a threat to themselves. Mark informs us that on this day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to catch Jesus in his own words – they were trying to set a trap for him.

Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

A word about these men: we’ve seen the Pharisees many times in the Gospel; they were one of the three main sects of Judaism at the time.  Their name literally means “separated ones”.  They emerged as a distinct group about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and at first, they were men of the highest religious and moral character – by some accounts the best people in the nation. Yet as time went by, more and more people simply “inherited” membership in this group and the caliber of its witness suffered.  In Jesus day, the Pharisees talked a good game about separating oneself for God’s purposes, but did not always live that out.

The Herodians, on the other hand, are mentioned very infrequently in Scripture. As their name contains that of the civil ruler, it is assumed that this was a group of men who were far more secular in their approach to life.  Any power they had derived from the government established by Rome, and as such they were very vested in maintaining or even strengthening the status quo.  Whereas the Pharisees bristled at the claims of Herod and the rule of Rome, the Herodians sought to please their patrons by any means necessary.

And I hope it goes without saying that a quick examination of our (or any nation’s) history would indicate that these are not merely historical oddities.  We see time and time again in our own story the ways that people are willing to use faith to either prop up or bring down a rival political party.  We don’t call them Herodians anymore, but a glance at our headlines for the past generation reveals any number of religious leaders who are willing to contort the teachings of Christ so as to prop up the political empire that in return empowers or enriches them.

We can see, therefore, how much Jesus threatened both the religious and the political status quo when he manages to unite the Pharisees and the Herodians in a common task: that of eliminating him.  In our own day, it would be like walking into a Starbucks and seeing Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Kamala Harris sipping lattes.  I mean, it’s possible – but it would be very surprising.

They come together and they ask Jesus a question about the rules: is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans?  Should we do this?

In that day, there were three main taxes levied by the Romans.  The “ground tax” was paid by landowners, and it imposed a levy of 10% of the grain and 20% of the wine and fruit that the land produced. Obviously, this tax only applied to those who were wealthy enough to own property.

There was an income tax that applied to all wage-earners, and it was approximately 1% of a person’s income.

And finally, there was the “poll tax”.  Every male between the ages of 14 and 65, and every female between the ages of 12 and 65 was required to offer Caesar a single denarius every year simply for the privilege of existing.  A denarius was the daily wage for an agricultural worker in Jesus’ day.

It seems as though this last tax is the issue to which Jesus responds, because he asks them to show him a denarius coin.

But look at how Jesus engages these men: he calls “shenanigans” on them right away in several different ways.  Before we consider Jesus’ conversation, though, let’s think about why in the world he would ask for a coin.

Tell me – what do you know about a quarter?  Please describe the 25 cent coin that is in your pockets or on your nightstands today.  Whose likeness does it contain? What does it say? What are the symbols?

Similarly, think about the pennies that are cluttering up the top of your dresser.  Whose image is on the penny? What are the words or symbols contained on it?

The reason I ask those questions is to demonstrate that I don’t need to hold up a coin and walk you through an examination of that piece of metal in order to talk about it.  We all know what a quarter is, and what it says, and what it’s used for.

The “Tribute Penny” bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius

And yet Jesus had the Pharisees and the Herodians fetch a coin for him.  Why?  I would suggest at least two reasons. First, I think that his questions were intentional.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He wanted them to see the image, and to read the inscription.  The coin had the likeness of Caesar, and on the “heads” side, contained the phrase, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the august god”. The “tails” side read “Pontif Maxim”, or “the greatest high priest”.

I want you to imagine how compromised and embarrassed these lofty leaders of Judaism – especially the Pharisees – must have, or should have, felt when they were sitting in the Temple reading aloud about Tiberius’ claims to divinity.

Moreover, Jesus asked them “whose image” is on the coin.  Do you remember the 10 commandments? Number 2? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”

And do you remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Jesus clearing all the moneychangers out of the temple?  The moneychangers were there because the religious leaders like the Pharisees thought that it was sacrilegious to use coins containing the image of one who claimed to be divine in the worship of God.  Having a coin with the picture of Caesar on it was, in their ruling, a violation of the second commandment.  So they made their own temple coins that were to be used instead of the ones containing the Emperor’s image.  Yet here, when they are trying to eliminate Jesus, none of them seem to have a problem with pulling the offensive bit of metal out of whatever passed for pockets in their ancient robes.  Do you see? In asking them to produce a coin and describe it, Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy and exposes their shallowness.

Then he answers them. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The Greek word he uses is actually apodidomi, and it means, literally, “return”.  The old versions translate it as “render” – and it is usually used to convey the idea that one is to give up, give back, return, or restore.

Looking at the coin, he seems to say, “Well, that apparently has Caesar’s image on it.  So it belongs to Caesar.  You ought to give it back to him.  And anything with God’s image, well, give that back to God.”

On the surface, it’s a non-answer, but if you dig a little deeper, he is actually acknowledging that a civil government – even an unjust one – receives some sort of support from the population.  Taxes must be paid but, more importantly, God must be honored. Jesus’ answer here and the way that it was subsequently interpreted may have something to do with the fact that the crowd that had cheered him as a deliverer from Rome on Sunday would be crying for his death on Thursday and Friday.

I’d like to look for a moment at the unspoken question that Jesus’ answer implies. “Return to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s” begs the question: how much of what you have, who you are, belongs to the government or the culture?  And how much of that belongs to God?

And how you consider those questions might drive you back to the questions that the Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus.  When they came to him, they said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” and then followed that immediately with “Should we?”

This is a tacit confession of something that you already know: there is sometimes a deep and profound difference between that which is “legal” and that which is “right”.  I would suggest that in his answer to the leaders who were trying to trap him, Jesus is calling his followers to always take the high road and seek to honor God by doing what is right.

Think for a moment about these things: slavery, compulsory education, child labor, a forty-hour work week, the Holocaust, the right for women or people of color to vote, the incarceration of sexual minorities, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.  Each of those things has at one point been legal or illegal.  Obviously, declaring something to be “legal” does not make it “right” or “good”.

For instance, in the USA in 2019 it is perfectly legal for a payday loan company to charge an annual percentage rate of up to 800%  – the average is 400% – interest to a poor family looking to bridge a week or two between paychecks.

It is also currently a federal crime to leave food or water in the desert in order to assist those who need it. This week four women were convicted of doing this in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  Sharon and I have driven through there, and I want to tell you that you would not want to be there an hour without water.  And yet four women from a humanitarian aid group now face up to six months in Federal Prison for leaving jugs of water in places where migrants might find them.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we have many issues in our society, including usury and border protection.  But needing to borrow money to pay your bills is not a license to extort, and no one in the United States of America, no matter how they arrived here, should die of thirst because our government mandates it.

The coin in the Gospel reading is not the only image-bearer up for discussion this morning. I tried to tell at least some of you on the day you were born, and I seek to remind each of you every day that you are created in the Divine image.  God made you, and you carry God’s image.

Are you stewarding that image well?  Are you caring for it, and living into it?

I hope that I can say that I agree with Jesus when I say that our government and our culture has a claim on us.  We need to recognize and honor that in many ways.  And yet we must also acknowledge that both the nation and the self belong to God.

Great thinkers and believers throughout history have suggested that Christianity should make you a better citizen.  I mean this with my whole heart, and I gladly affirm the fact that we ought to be training our children to live in a world characterized by “liberty and justice for all.”

That has a cost, dear friends.  Some of you are old enough to know who Ruby Bridges is.  When she was six years old, a Federal Judge said that “liberty and justice for all” meant that this African – American child was entitled to be educated at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She would be the first, and the only, person of color in attendance there.  Before her first day at that school ended, every single white parent had collected their children, and all but one of the teachers walked out.  She remained the only student in the class, taught by the only teacher who remained. Every day, she was escorted through crowds of angry protesters calling her every name in the book and even shoving in front of her an open casket with a black baby doll inside.

Psychologist Robert Coles was studying children and desegregation in the American South, and he took a personal interest in Ruby.  He noticed that as she was walking through the crowds, her lips were moving.

Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?”

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”

Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”[2]

This six-year old daughter of impoverished parents who could neither read nor write absorbed enough of the truth of scripture that she was able to see the Divine image not only in herself, but in her tormentors.  And she changed the world.

Or maybe you saw the recent film Hacksaw Ridge.  It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who refused to carry a weapon or take the life of another, and yet received the US Medal of Honor for carrying 50 – 100 wounded soldiers to safety in the horrible battle of Okinawa during World War II.

The religious leaders asked the Lord two questions: Is it legal? And is it right?

When faced with that bit of trickery, Jesus provided a hugely complicated answer that is open ended and very difficult to live into.  He knew, and they knew, that that denarius was made specifically so that a subjugated people could offer – legally – a confession of faith and economic tribute to the occupying forces.  That’s what it was made for.

What about you?  What were you made for? Whose image do you bear?  How much does that mean to you?

You bear the image of the One who formed you.  You were made to show the heart of God to the world around you – to mirror the hope and justice and love of God every day. Thanks be to God for the people of God who are willing to do this.  Amen.

[1]Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

[2] A Child Leads”, in The Christian Century March 29, 2017.