Thoughts and Prayers

Like many of my peers, Ash Wednesday 2018 found me immersed in the quietness of my study.  I didn’t watch the news, and I wasn’t really all that active in social media.  I was preparing for worship at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights – one that centered on the age-old practices of the imposition of ashes (indicating repentance) and the sharing the Lord’s Supper (celebrating the community we’ve been given).  So when folks gathered for worship and I learned of the horror that was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I was caught off-guard.  In the aftermath of that horror, I have seen “thoughts and prayers” receive the derision that inaction deserves.  However, I thought that it might be important for me to go ahead and publish this message anyway – in spite of the fact that its very title might get it dismissed – because I firmly believe that people of faith ARE called to think and pray – and that if we do those things right – we’ll be led to action.  Our text for the evening was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Religious Studies 356, taught by Professor Justin McDaniel, is so popular that students who are interested in taking the course can only be admitted to it after passing an interview with the instructor. One recent seminar attracted 200 applicants, but only 26 students made the cut. The experiential learning course is subtitled, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life”, and there are no requirements for papers or exams.

There are some who would hear that and scoff, “Seriously? People are taking out student loans for classes like that? Come on, get real. If you’re going to college, you better be learning something.” Some of you, however, might be thinking, “Wow, why don’t they offer that at Duquesne or CCAC?

Students who have taken the class are quick to point out that they’ve learned a lot. Although there are no mid-terms or essays, the requirements are very stringent. Students agree to spend $50 or less each week; they are required to write in a journal every half hour while they are awake; they must go to bed at 10:30 each night and wake up at 5:30 each morning. In addition, students must practice celibacy, eat only raw vegetables or meat cooked without oil and give up all technology – including cell phones and computers – for a month. During that month, they are not allowed to speak to anyone unless it’s an extreme emergency; instead, they’ve got to write everything down by hand.

Can you imagine living that way? Can you imagine living that way on a college campus, while you are enrolled in other classes? Yet students who have completed the course say that it was an amazing experience. “A majority of the course’s former students noticed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance during the semester that they took the class. Although balancing other courses may seem impossible given the course’s restrictions, students have had surprisingly few problems. ‘I have a 100% success rate in the four times I’ve taught the course, not one student has ever gotten lower grades. And almost every student’s grades have shot up,’ Professor McDaniel shares.”

One student said it “was a good way to take a step back from life and just view it from the outside and get a clarity that you don’t get when you’re actively involved with everything all the time.”[1]

Not only does this class and its apparent impact on college students fly in the face of many of our preconceived notions about young adults, it also seems to be the precise opposite of much of our prevailing culture. Think about it: an entire course based on the wisdom and practice of, well, “thoughts and prayers.”

Are there three words in use today that are more vacuous than “thoughts and prayers”? According to the Wikipedia entry on that topic, this phrase, often used when expressing condolences after a natural disaster or violent episode, has received criticism because it “may be offered as a substitute for taking potentially materially corrective actions.” For example, after the Las Vegas shootings in 2017 the local hospitals released a statement saying that while “thoughts and prayers” are appreciated, it’d be more helpful if people gave blood.

In fact, if you visit the website called thoughtsandprayersthegame.com, you’ll be directed to a web-based video game that seeks to demonstrate the impact that “thoughts and prayers” have had on eliminating deaths due to mass shootings in the USA. Here’s a hint: it’s not an optimistic site…

So on the one hand, we have empirical evidence from a small group of motivated, committed people that seeking to be intentionally contemplative and centered does in fact change us. And on the other hand, a survey of current events would seem to indicate that most people’s expressions of “thoughts and prayers” are vacant and irrelevant.

Which kind of Lent will you observe?

At first glance, Jesus seems to play into the hands of most 21st century Americans – those who see “thoughts and prayers” as empty platitudes. It is entirely possible to hear his words in the Sermon on the Mount as “Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t let anyone else know that you are praying, or fasting, or giving. That stuff is between you and God and nobody else needs to know about it.” In other words – it probably won’t make a difference in the “real world”.

Of course, that’s not actually Jesus’ point. What he says is “don’t pray, fast, or give in such a way so that other people will be pretty darned impressed by the fact that you pray, give, and fast.” If we seek to engage in any act of piety or devotion because, first and foremost, we want to be seen as pious people – well, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of these or any acts of spiritual discipline is not to raise anyone’s estimation of ourselves. How dare we claim to be praising or worshiping God when in fact we are merely seeking to draw attention to ourselves and our kind-heartedness or faithfulness.

The great tradition of the church – and that in which Jesus himself rested – is the opposite: our acts of prayer and fasting and giving are effective and useful only insofar as they activate us on behalf of the world.

In fasting, praying, and giving, we seek to be in touch with the creative power that formed the universe so that we can do everything within our power to align our world with the Creator’s intent.

“Thoughts and prayers” is not some vague sentiment that we hold out to others when we feel guilty because we were not stricken by an earthquake or victimized in a mass shooting; it is not a political slogan which is a handy substitute for substantive action; and it is not a greeting card sentiment that we jot down when we’re not sure what else to say.

Instead, thoughts and prayers are the best tools for reshaping our own lives to the end that we are able to join with God and one another so that the love, justice, hope, and peace of Jesus Christ is more fully, more tangibly, and more palpably demonstrated in the world. Thoughts and prayers are not a hollow box you give to someone else: they are the hammers and chisels with which we fight selfishness, indifference, and feelings of irrelevance in our own lives.

My hope and prayer this Lent is that you will join me in seeking to gain experience in using these tools. Like the course at Penn, there are no exams and no one will be checking your work. But I can assure you that if you seek to be deliberate in this area, your life, and our world, will be changed. Thanks be to God for thoughts and prayers that bear fruit. Amen.

[1] Quotations from “The Sound of Silence”, http://www.34st.com/article/2016/03/the-sound-of-silence

Whaddya Call It?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 11 we considered three groups with whom Jesus was associated: disciples, “unclean spirits”, and apostles.  Our scriptures included Mark 3:7-19 and II Peter 1:16-18 To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Does what you call something affect what it really is? Do job titles matter? These are the things that I think about when you leave me alone for too long.

For instance, did you know that the BAI beverage corporation has a CFO – “Chief Flavor Officer”, and that position is held, I kid you not, by musician Justin Timberlake. Microsoft employs someone with the title of “Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence”. Google pays someone to be their “In-House Philosopher”, and a man named Richard Scheuerman has been featured on the Food Network as a “Shredded Cheese Authority”. Time Magazine recently hired a “Bacon Critic” and Mr. Bernie Paton of Oakland, CA, is a “Bear Biologist and Paper Folder”.

As I thought about that, I remembered the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain. That tells the mostly true story of Taff’s Well, a village near the border between England and Wales. They’d billed themselves as “the first mountain inside Wales”, and had a hospitality industry that catered to climbers from Britain. In 1910, a team of cartographers visited the town and discovered that their peak, Ffynnon Garw, is only 986 feet above sea level and therefore must be termed a “hill” and not a “mountain”. Enraged, and afraid of losing their tourist attraction, the locals conspire to strand the map-makers in the town until they can build a pile of rocks at the top of the hill. The scientists re-measure, and determine that the highest part of the structure is actually 1002 feet and therefore, officially, the first mountain inside Wales.

That matters because in today’s Gospel reading, Mark throws around a lot of labels and job titles, and I think that they have an implication for our lives today.

In Mark 3:9, we see that Jesus counts on a group of people known as “disciples” to get things done. The Greek word that we find there, mathétés, is used to describe one who is a “learner” or a “follower”. When Latin became the official language of the church, mathétés became discipulus, from the root word disco, meaning “to learn”. It also spawned one of the most awesome band names of the 1980’s: the Disco Disciples.

We read of disciples who listen, serve, worship, and generally clear the way for Jesus to do a lot of stuff. Like most Rabbis, Jesus relied on his disciples for a lot of things. In the Gospels, disciples prepare boats, ask fantastic set-up questions, bring friends, fix dinner, and (as we’ve already seen with Levi) throw amazing parties. We like the disciples, Jesus likes the disciples, and everyone agrees that Jesus’ ministry was really strengthened by the team of disciples that he gathered around him.

One of the Earliest Known Images of Jesus – Coptic Museum, Cairo (3rd century)

Because these folks were important to Jesus and to the world around him, we know some of them. So let me ask you, how many disciples did Jesus have? Some people might say 12; Luke mentions a group of either 70 or 72, and later in Acts he says that by that time the group numbered about 120. It seems that the number of disciples was fluid, and increased as Jesus’ ministry matured.

The role of disciple is crucial throughout the history of the church and even today, of course. In fact, if you look at the Annual Report of the congregation, you’ll find that this church has not one, but two groups of people who are officially termed “Discipleship Teams”. We need those who are committed to creating conditions whereby people can become hearers and listeners and learners and doers so that the way is cleared for Jesus’ message to get through. Disciples take care of kids in the church nursery and set up chairs, make copies, and track administrative data. The body of Christ, no less today than two thousand years ago, would be nowhere without faithful disciples.

The next group that Jesus encounters are termed “the unclean spirits”. Whereas most of the people around Jesus either have no clue who he is, or (like the disciples) are just beginning to get an idea about this, the unclean spirits are constantly shouting the truth: Jesus is the Son of God; they know Jesus to be the Holy One. Yet as soon as these spirits begin to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus is, he shuts them up and forbids them from speaking.

Think about that for a moment – he’s constantly gathering followers around him, trying to teach them, helping them to see something of who he is…and much of the time, they don’t get it. Yet as soon as he walks into the room, unclean spirits recognize him for who he is and announce it – and they are told to remain silent.

It seems to me that the implication here is that you don’t get to talk about Jesus until you show that you have listened to Jesus and been shaped by him. These spirits know the truth – but they don’t really know Jesus.

Similarly, our world today is filled with those who claim to speak for, or at least about, Jesus but who seem to be ignorant of what he really was. There are so-called authorities who are happy to yell out that Jesus wants you to be rich, happy, thin, and young. Spirits cry out that Jesus prefers a particular system of government or a political party. We’re told by “leading teachers” that Jesus wants you to protect yourself and your family from “those people” at all costs. Worst of all are the voices who cry out that Jesus hates the gays, the foreigners, those on the left or those on the right.

Before you invest any of your time and energy listening to these people, ask yourself, “Is that person actually spending time with Jesus? Does he or she look, or act, or think, like Jesus would?” When someone claims to tell me who Jesus would hate, or bomb, or ostracize, or destroy… I have to question the spirit that is driving that discussion, and often times it’s hard to believe that it is indeed a spirit of the Christ behind those sentiments.

Ethiopian Icon featuring the Twelve

The third group of folks with whom Jesus spends time in our Gospel reading for today are called apostles, from the Greek word apostolos. That word refers to a messenger, an ambassador, or a delegate: one who has been commissioned to convey a particular message or accomplish a specific task.

Let’s play a game that we’ve already played once this morning: how many apostles did Jesus have?

I know, the “gimme” answer seems to be twelve, because that’s what is listed here. But later on, after Judas abandons his post, the eleven believe that Matthias is called to join their number. Moreover, the New Testament refers to Barnabas, Paul, Andronicus, Junia (who happened to be a woman, by the way!), Timothy, Silas, and Apollos as apostolos.

Like disciples, the apostles were incredibly important to Jesus and to the later church. We should note that in today’s reading, all the apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

The apostles are called to be “with” Jesus. They are given authority to cast out those unclean spirits and demons and to proclaim the message of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles are taking trips on Jesus’ behalf; they are preaching and healing and generally speaking for Jesus (which sets them apart from both the unclean spirits and the disciples). In reflecting on this, Peter wrote to his friends, essentially, “Look, it’s not like we had a choice or anything: we saw it with our own eyes. You can’t make this stuff up! Jesus was the real deal, and we were compelled to share it with you all.”

So what does all of that mean in our context?

Here’s a clue: when the language of the church transitioned from Greek to Latin, the Greek apostolos was sometimes simply shifted to the Latin apostolo; however, the preferred term was often the Latin word missio. As in “mission”, or, in this context, “missionary”.

How many of you here today are anticipating being a part of a Mission Trip this week? Can you believe it? We have seventeen adults who have some level of connection with this congregation who are preparing to leave next Sunday morning for Houston, Texas. When we get to the Pittsburgh Airport, we’ll be joined by another dozen from the John McMillan church in Bethel Park. Almost 30 people who are taking time away from their so-called “normal” lives in order to dwell with each other and the folks on the Gulf coast of Texas who have suffered through the horror of Hurricane Harvey.

And we are calling this a “Mission Trip”. Why? Because we believe that framing walls and cleaning out muck and removing moldy drywall and laying new sewage lines and helping people sift through generations of family mementos and memories are all a part of demonstrating and proclaiming the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. We use that terminology because we have gathered in this place and heard the call of Jesus and sought to follow – that is, we have become disciples; and now we understand that we are being given an opportunity to share in the purposes of God in the context of the Texas Gulf coast, and therefore we are sent as apostolos. The labels matter. If this is indeed a mission trip – and I am convinced that it is – then that makes the 29 of us missionaries, right? We are called to become that which we are sent to accomplish.

So, that takes care of a couple dozen of us… is that what we’re here to talk about? 29 people planning a mission trip this week? What about the rest of us? What are you planning to do?

Let me ask you this:

Is the healing power of Jesus Christ needed on the campus over at CCAC this week?

Are there people with whom you work who need to hear a word of grace, encouragement, or hope?

Would the scene at the grocery store, your family’s dinner table, a blind date, or a board meeting be improved by the presence, spirit, power, and love of Jesus of Nazareth?

In short, would our world be better if the stuff that we talked about while we’re in this room somehow managed to find its way out there? Would the lives of our neighbors be blessed if some of the life and ministry and teaching and love and hope and justice of Jesus was lived and shared and conveyed into the arenas in which those neighbors live and work and play?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… now that you mention it, Pastor, it would. But how is it going to get there? How?

If only there were people in this room today who were willing and able to hear from Jesus; someone who wanted to learn from him and follow him around as he does such amazing things in our world… if only there were people like that who would also be liable to show up on campus or at work or in relationships with neighbors and family later this week. But where could we possibly find people who are both here, with Jesus as followers, and out there in the world that he loves?

You might have come in here willing to be a disciple. And that’s great. It’s a fine job title. Yet I hope and pray that you will find in you a hunger to become an apostle. Next week a fraction of us will be going to Texas. My deep prayer is that each of us would recognize that we are being sent on a mission. Oh, that all of our trips would be mission trips.

Thanks be to God, they can be – because that is who you are.

Hear our prayer, O Lord.

Amen.

The Lord of the Sabbath

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 4 we joined with Peter in remembering the ways that Jesus confronted the power structures and pointed us towards practices that can restore our own lives.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:23-3:6.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

If you had come upon me in the college dining hall that evening and asked me how it was that I came to be wearing that lovely collage of mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate pudding, and coke, I might have said that I had no idea. But I’d have been lying.

A group of us were sitting around and, as often happens, began teasing one of our number. We fed on each other’s energy and wit, and failed to see that the more animated we became, the more sullen and withdrawn our victim was. I’m ashamed to say that I carried on more than most, and some of my peers were trying to get my attention – waving and gesturing to knock it off. During one interlude, the object of our jokes looked around and said, “One more time. Go ahead, say that one more time.” Would you believe me if I told you that four out of five college students were smart enough to shut up at that point?

But not me! I had to say it, one more time. And before I knew what was happening, my friend had flipped the trays off the table, covering me with the remains of his dinner, and walked out of the room.

My companions looked at me and laughed, and then said, “Come on, Dave, didn’t you see it? Man, he had the look. You gotta know that when he’s giving you that look, you better stop… or something messy could happen.”

None of you were there that day, but I think you know what I mean. Do you know someone who has “a look”? I know for a fact that some of you have “a look” – a way of glancing around the room and communicating that whatever is happening right now is serious stuff, and the rest of us had best pay attention…

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

According to one of the men who knew him best, Jesus had a “look”. We heard about it in the morning’s Gospel reading, where we’re told that Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

You may have been here the morning we started our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, where I suggested that even though we believe Mark to have been the writer, the source of this narrative is the Apostle Peter. When Peter is remembering this incident from Jesus’ life so many years before, he chooses a particular word. Where we have translated “look around”, the Greek uses periblepomai. It’s an unusual word, and we find that Mark uses it five times in his Gospel. Apart from one place where Luke is quoting this story, these are the only places in the New Testament where that word occurs.

My hunch is that the old fisherman didn’t remember everything, and he surely didn’t remember everything well (for instance, in our reading for today he mistakenly says that Abiathar was the High Priest, when in fact it was Ahimelek – and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the fact that all those Old Testament names were confusing to even one of the twelve apostles…) – but Peter would never forget the way that Jesus could hold a group with his eyes and give them the look that said so much more than words could ever say. To his dying day, the disciple remembered the searching, sweeping, examination that came from Jesus to those around him.

The Man With the Withered Hand (James Tissot, 1896)

The occasion for “the look” was a worship service. Jesus had begun to engage some of the religious and political leaders of his day about the appropriate ways to honor God and the commandments – especially the command to keep the Sabbath. I think that what really gets Jesus going here is the fact that these folks who claim to be on the side of holiness and righteousness are so willing to shamelessly use a man who would have been on the fringes of society to accomplish their ends.

They’ve invited “Lefty”, the fellow from down the street with a handicapped arm – a man whose ability to provide for his family would have been seriously limited in that day and age – and they use this man as bait to see whether or not Jesus will “break” the Sabbath again and try to heal this man’s hand. There is no hint of interest in actually making this poor guy’s life any better – he’s a tool they’re using to see whether their hatred for Jesus is “justified”.

Furthermore, Jesus calls these men out for pulling this stunt on the very day that they’re claiming to honor, saying, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”, knowing that they are, in fact, using the Sabbath to look for a way to destroy him (even though they’re cloaking everything in religious language).

So Jesus sees the trap that they’ve laid for him and simply glares at them, and then he goes ahead and brings healing to this man and his community. And now, these leaders have to make a choice. They could have celebrated that the man’s arm was now whole and he had a new kind of freedom. They could have asked Jesus how this sort of healing related to the Kingdom of which he spoke. They could have praised God. But you know what they did – verse six: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

I’m sure that you remember this really well, but for the sake of the person sitting next to you who’s a little fuzzy on all of these Bible names, let me remind you that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They oversaw worship and served as spiritual guides. The Herodians were a political party – they were people who were affiliated with and drew some benefit from their support of King Herod – the puppet governor that the Romans had set up to rule this part of the world.

It seems to me that this passage is just another reminder to us – and people of every age – that when the religious leaders and the political leaders get in bed with each other, it’s usually bad news for Jesus. Some things never change.

The broader context for this interchange has been set in the first part of our reading, the end of Mark 2. The disciples are walking through a field and as they do so, they grab a little fast food to munch as they walk. Immediately, the Pharisees point out that this is a violation of one of the rules – “everybody knows” that you can’t do that kind of work on the Sabbath. The “law” to which they refer isn’t found in the Bible, but rather a book of rules that humans had produced over the years to make sure that God’s rules weren’t being broken. You heard the commandment: God said to rest on the Sabbath, and use that day to remember God’s provision. This book to which the religious people point took that rule and broke it down. For instance, they said that you couldn’t walk on the grass on the Sabbath, because walking on the grass pressed it down, and pressing it down was like cutting it, and cutting it was work, and work was prohibited. A woman couldn’t look in the mirror on the Sabbath because if she did, she might see a grey hair, and then she might pluck it, and plucking a hair was work, which was not allowed. Pulling a stalk of grain and munching it as they walked was an example of this kind of violation, and the religious leaders are all over Jesus for being “soft” on the Sabbath.

Don’t we love doing that kind of thing? We take something that God has said and we put it in a box and wrap it up and say, “Well, of course, this is what God really meant to say… You know, God can be a little confusing sometimes, so don’t bother trying to figure it out on your own… just trust me. I know what God really meant – and you are wrong!”

God in a box is incredibly appealing for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we will never, ever get “the look” from a God we have gotten so well figured out that he’ll fit into our little box.

The truth is, of course, that a “god” who can fit into one of my little boxes isn’t really any kind of God at all. A god in a box is a god who will not surprise us, does not ask for anything from us, and ultimately has only as much power as we ourselves do.

Jesus modeled a life that was open to – and hopeful for – God’s intrusion. Jesus taught us to look for and to welcome God’s surprising appearances in our lives. While we want to say “yes” to that kind of faith the reality is that so often our existence is so crowded and so filled with work and obsessions and toys and screens and getting and spending that there is simply no room for God to interrupt. As a result, our lives themselves become increasingly difficult to interpret and decreasingly meaningful…

Here’s an example. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written late in the first century. It would have been written in Greek and on a scroll or a papyrus. Here’s an image of one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, called Papyrus 46:

A folio from
P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Can you make heads or tails of that? You say, “Of course not, Dave, it looks like Greek or something. I can’t read that.”

OK, so here’s the same text, translated into English. How’s this? Is that any better?

Maybe a little, but it’s tough, right? It’s all capitals, and there are no spaces or punctuation. Let’s try one more time.

Here’s the same passage, this time in English with punctuation and spaces. Does this make more sense?

Of course it does.

What’s different? The final version, in addition to being in English, has more “white space”. Although we would say that all of the heavy lifting in this image is being done by the dark print, the fact of the matter is that the message is actually conveyed because there is sufficient “white space” for our minds and eyes to be able to take in the content and process it. The white spaces on the pages of our books and magazines make it possible for us to glean meaning and purpose – we can get the message that the author intended in part because of the spaces that have been left blank.

Let me suggest that the practice of Sabbath as given by the Lord and upheld by Jesus is one of the best means by which we will be able to insert some “white space” into our own lives – a way in which we can reduce some of the clutter we encounter and therefore allow God some space that is out of the box in which to help us discern how best to honor him and serve our neighbor.

Choosing to honor God’s creational intent by setting aside some time for reflection and awareness will permit us to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity trusting that God can bring order out of chaos (it’s what he does, after all).

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century, said, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[1]

What I think that means for us is that we can get out of our own boxes by consciously setting aside some time to engage and be engaged by the Lord. Look for opportunities to wonder and to wander, and to lay down our insistence to be creating and making and spending and doing all the time.

If we do that, there’s a chance that we can get rid of our boxes as we recognize the truth that there is more to God than I can ever grasp, and there is more to life in God’s world than that of which I am currently aware.

You see, the fear that ruled the lives of the Pharisees and Herodians threatens each of us every day: what if God is bigger than we can imagine God to be?

The folks in the Synagogue that day had some idea of what God’s messiah would look like. They had it all figured out. But Jesus didn’t fit that image. And so Jesus had to die.

What about you? What about me? Am I open to God teaching me new things? I am willing to let Jesus shape me and change me? Or am I too comfortable with my own set of little beliefs and practices and I don’t really want to think about them too much, thanks all the same…

In Genesis, we learn that God created humanity in his own image. It was good. It was very good. The problem is that ever since then, we’ve been trying to create God in our own image – a god who fits in our own little boxes. And so we worship a god who has been, at times in the last couple of thousand years, a racist god, a violent god, a god who wants to make me rich, a god who tells me that I’m better than you…

Peter remembered Jesus giving “the look”. And while some of those present might have come to associate that only with the anger of Jesus, my sense is that Peter remembered it because it was so meaningful, so inviting, so searching that it changed him to his very core. May you and I this week seek to live and move and dwell in a rhythm that includes the Sabbath to the end that we might see and perceive the glance of the Savior as inviting us to new places of joy and participation. My charge for you this week is simple: find some time to sit still and allow Jesus to wrap you in his “look”. I suspect that you will be changed by that. Peter was. I know that I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 3)

The Life Of The Party

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

With Friends Like These…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

At Fever Pitch

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

Where to Next?

God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the church around the world in observing the Epiphany of Our Lord in our worship January 7 (a day late, perhaps, but the attendance was better than it would have been on Saturday…).   The readings for the day included Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi as well as Isaiah 60:1-6.

 

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

Let me start off by affirming that I like – no, I love – babies. I’ll hold babies. I’ll change babies. I’ll coo and ooh and ahh over babies. Some of my favorite people are babies. Heck, I was a baby. I like babies.

Having said that, I need to confess how deeply I hate baby showers. That whole process is painful to me… playing cute games…watching people unwrap gifts which are either profoundly practical, yet dull (ooooh, a dozen diapers!), or wildly entertaining but not necessarily helpful (like the baby poop alarm that slides into the diaper). I don’t like watching people pretend that they don’t already have four other Bumpo seats while they are unwrapping the one I got for them. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of the Baby Shower.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1500)

But imagine if you could have been a fly on the wall the day that the Magi came to visit the Holy Family. Can you imagine reading Mary and Joseph’s faces as they unwrap the presents that came in that day?

“Hmmmm… what could it be? Oh, look, Joseph! It’s gold! What a nice gift – I’m sure that will come in handy in the days ahead…” So far, so good.

“OK, Mary, what’s in that one? Frankincense? Um, thanks. I’m sure that, you know, when he’s older, he’ll really like burning this and smelling the, you know, good smell. When it’s on fire. So, we’ll just hold onto it for him for the next decade or so…”

And finally, “Ooooh, golly! Myrrh! What young family wouldn’t be thrilled to get the gift of embalming fluid at a time like this! Thank you so much…”

Frankincense and myrrh. Two of the least practical baby gifts in the history of baby gifts.

And yet, the Magi not only gave them to Jesus, but this is one of only two stories that Matthew chooses to tell us about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Why would that be so? Why did they give those gifts, and why do we need to know about them?

Willie Sutton was a notorious bank robber in the middle of the last century. According to legend, one reporter asked him, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” His answer was simply, “Because that’s where they keep the money.”

Why did the Magi leave gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Because that’s what they had. OK, but why did they have it?

Well, for starters, they had that stuff with them that day because they’d been intentional. They had brought it from home, hoping to meet a king, hoping for a chance to honor that king, and hoping for the opportunity to present gifts signifying wealth and power to that king.

More to my point, I would emphasize that they still had the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That is to say, they had it on the day that they met Jesus because they didn’t give it to anyone else along the way. Which is, when you stop to think about it, fairly remarkable. They’d come to Israel seeking a king. And they’d already met a king – his name was Herod. When they showed up in the country where they thought that the king would be, they did what you or I might do – they looked in the palace for the king. And yet when the got to that palace, and they met that king, they chose NOT to give Herod the gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They might have left a few other trinkets or hospitality gifts, but they opted not to leave the “real” gift with him.

Journey of the Magi, James Tissot (c. 1894)

And we might say, “OK, they gave the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they happened to have them on hand, but presumably they had a lot of other things on hand, too.” In all probability they had camels and servants and scrolls and granola bars and license plate bingo games (ok, I’m not sure about those last two; I’m just inferring from when my family takes long trips…). When they got to the house and they saw that the king was only a baby, why did they follow through on their plan to offer those things to Jesus?

On the one hand, we could say that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts that symbolized honor and worship. That’s why they left home; that’s what they came to do; and that’s what they did. The visit wasn’t so much about providing the new king with tools that would equip him for his reign as it was about making a statement as to what they thought of him and his role in the world.

And on the other hand, we could say that they really had no idea what they were doing in presenting those gifts to the child. The author of Matthew used this event, in a broad way, to symbolize the fact that in the years ahead, Jesus would be rejected by those who ought to have known better and at the same time his message would find widespread acceptance by those who for centuries had stood on the outside looking in. There’s no way that the Magi could have known the impact that their visit would have so many years after it occurred.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I will point out that there are, to my knowledge, no near-eastern mystics, astrologers, or potentates in the room this morning. And I will go out on a limb and predict that when it’s time to receive the morning offering, the plates will come back up front with some cash and a few checks inside, but there will be no bullion, no incense, and no embalming fluid in this morning’s collection.

[3]And yet, each of you is from somewhere, and you are someone, and you have something…which means that every person in this room faces some level of choice which is not altogether different from that with which the Magi dealt so many years ago. Each one of us left home on Monday carrying the promise of 168 hours in this week. Every single person in this room can choose to invest energy into relationships and the lives of other people. We all have some level of opportunity connected with our financial situation. I understand that nobody has unbridled control over every aspect of their lives, but I am here to suggest that how you decide to allocate those resources over which you do have control says a great deal about yourself and your value system.

I suspect that for the first wise men, and for us, the temptation might be to look at those items of value we’ve received – our treasure, our time, our skills – and be tempted to simply leave them at home. We don’t want to use them, we aren’t interested in giving them away, so why bother carting them around?

Then again, we could all simply hand that stuff over to whoever passes for Herod in our own lives. We could show up at the place that symbolizes power and majesty and fame and offer the best that we carry there.

But I am here to say that offering my self – time and energy and finances – in the service of Christ has been a source of deep blessing for me.

And I’m also here to say that some of the things that you and I have done in our lives that have had the deepest and longest-lasting impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and our world have been done in sheer ignorance of their impact. We had no idea that the little thing we did affected someone so profoundly. We couldn’t see it coming any more than the Magi saw themselves as agents of God’s working in and through different cultures in the world. We had a nudge, we felt a little prompting, and so we gave, or we served, or we acted like a friend to someone… and the world changed a little bit.

And all of that leads me to my absolute favorite aspect of the whole story from Matthew: the last phrase in this morning’s narrative. In the midst of all the details about the visit of the Magi, the author makes sure that we know that these travelers “…returned to their country by another route.”

Three Wise Men Watercolor 4, Niall Drew (2014) Used by permission. For more, see http://nialldrew.com

Now that could mean simply that they chose an alternate route home. They went by boat over the Sea of Galilee, or they took route 80 instead of the turnpike. It certainly means that they decided not to go back to Herod and fill him in on their visit to Bethlehem. While both of those things could be true, I choose to add my own interpretation as well: that these mystics returned to their point of departure having been changed by the travel they’d shared.

That is the power of a pilgrimage. They went on a trip, and the things that they saw, and did, and heard affected them to the core of their being. Coming up against the power of Herod, the act of giving gifts to the Holy Family, and their encounter with the Christ child all led them to redefine themselves in such a way as to ensure that none of the days that followed were as they might have been otherwise.

You know this. You’ve been on a pilgrimage, I suspect. I’m certain that when I use this word, some of you reflect immediately on that time when you had a huge, once-in-a-lifetime trip. It was a mission trip to somewhere far away, or you visited the Holy Land or the Vatican, and you knew, even as you were preparing for the journey, that it would be powerful. You hoped for it. You planned for it. And it changed you.

And others, I hope, will think a little deeper. You’ll remember the day that the pastor called you to go and visit the hospital, but the day that you got there, the patient asked you to help her die. You were invited to a Youth Group retreat, and while you were there, something just clicked. You asked a friend have a coffee or a beer with you, and you wound up hearing for the first time the story of his failed marriage. In other words, there have been times when you didn’t know something was going to happen, but you found that you were changed anyway. You thought you were doing something that required a few steps or a couple of minutes but discovered that you were in the midst of a journey that affected you in a profound way. You didn’t know it then, but you can point to it now.

That is the essence of a pilgrimage – whether you’re an astronomer 2000 years ago or a soccer mom today, a pilgrimage is accepting the invitation to a journey that results in change. My call for today, and the invitation I put forward this morning, is for each of us to consider 2018 as a year of pilgrimage. As you consider the year that lies ahead, can you ask yourself, “What next?”

Everybody in this room stands at the door right before you walk out of the house, and you say, “OK, do I have my wallet? My keys? My phone?” Let me encourage you to adopt this as more than a pragmatic ritual. Think about what you have when you answer the phone, or leave the house, or open your email. Think about how you steward the resources at your disposal, and what you think of as “yours” as opposed to what you think of as something to share.

Look for ways to engage with others in the pilgrimage that is worship, and ask for God to change you in and through that worship experience so that you, no less than the wise men of old, might be changed for having encountered the Christ – and that therefore you, too, can go home by another way.

The opportunity for such an encounter stands before you this day. Thanks be to God for the privilege of saying “yes”.  Amen.