Who’s the New Guy?

God’s people in the community that comprises The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered for worship on May 19 to listen to stories of people who had been changed along the way.  Samuel and Peter helped us to understand that none of us is where we used to be, and nobody’s where they’re going to end up.  Rather, we are met on the way by a God who has helped us up till now.  This was a particularly meaningful worship service for me, as it marked the final opportunity for me to worship with these folks until September.  I am about to begin a season of Sabbatical – and I’m sure that the pastor who shows up at Crafton Heights in September won’t be the same guy who left.  And that’s a good thing.  Our scriptures included Acts 11:1-18 and I Samuel 7:5-13.

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

The children of Israel were in a tight spot.  In a series of unfortunate, and not-unrelated events…

  • They had allowed the quality of their worship of God and their commitment to follow and serve YHWH to diminish. They had no great expectations of either their leaders or themselves.
  • They were currently under attack from their neighbors, a nation known as Philistia, which was superior militarily, economically, and politically to their own.
  • This was symbolized by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and held hostage for some time, until the Philistines who were charged to secure this artifact developed tumors and illnesses that they interpreted as punishments from the God of Israel.
  • Even when the Philistines tried to return the Ark to Israel, the Israelites were scared to death; it’d been so long since they held worship that they weren’t sure they knew how to do it. So the Ark sat in someone’s garage for a while.

Meanwhile, the Philistines renewed their attacks on Israel.  Faced with the onslaught of this military invasion, the people of Israel called their leader, Samuel, and said, “Look, we’re not really great at this, but if youcry out to the Lord on our behalf, YHWH might save us.”

Samuel went one better and taught the people how to cry out to God for themselves, and lo and behold, the nation was in fact saved.  Our Old Testament reading for this morning describes the reaction to YHWH’s intervention in the lives of those people: Samuel drags a big stone into the median of the highway and names it “Ebenezer”, which can be roughly translated as “stone of help”.  He says that every time they see that stone, they should remember that so far, God has helped them. Up till now,God has been with them.  As he sets the stone in place there is a little dedication ceremony where the people are able to praise God for where they’ve already been helped and guided, and to look ahead at what’s coming down the pike.  This notion of pausing to remember that God has helped us along the way has been memorialized in the favorite hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

An “Ebenezer” is a physical symbol reminding us – and those around us – that we’re neither in the place where we began nor in the spot that is our final destination.  An Ebenezer is a testimony to the fact that God has met us on the way.

St. Peter Preaching, Masolina da Panicale, c. 1426

Now, about a thousand years later, a middle-aged man named Peter finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  Most of his life, he’d been a fisherman.  The complexities of his daily life consisted of dilemmas like, “should I fish, or cut bait? Am I going for perch or for bass today?”  For years, he concentrated on being a regular guy, doing regular things. He was eager to worship YHWH, but he was not interested in being a fanatic.

And then one day he was tapped on the shoulder by a traveling Rabbi named Jesus.  Little did he know how much that one day would screw up – or, more charitably, “affect” the rest of his life.

With a band of friends, Peter had watched the meteoric rise of Jesus’ ministry, only to see that same Jesus crushed by an unholy alliance of religious opposition and political fear.  In a surprising twist, three days after the Worst Thing Ever, Peter was greeted by the resurrected Christ and sent into the world to preach forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Last week we saw Peter visiting Joppa, where he restored the life of a beloved woman and then accepted the hospitality of an outcast, all the while wondering what in the world might come next.

Today’s reading from Acts finds Peter on trial before his friends and colleagues.  He’s been accused of being soft on the Jewish Law, of hanging around with Gentiles, of eating the wrong food, and of telling too many of “those people” about God’s love and care.  In short – Peter was on trial for acting a whole lot like Jesus acted.  And as Peter mounted his defense, he recalled how the fresh wind of God’s Spirit swept through that place so strongly that he was left with a question: “who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

Each of these narratives has become a favorite story for me – each of them describe a God who is always on the move, and always beckoning to us – or to anyone who will listen – to keep up.  These stories stand as warnings to God’s people of all times and places not to fall too deeply in love with how things are, or where things are, or the ways in which things are done, because God isn’t finished yet.

And sometimes those are hard words for us to hear.  We find it much easier to get into a place and stay there. Some of you will remember my dear friend, the late Art Parris, who said to me more than once, “Dave, I’m feeling all right.  Things are ok.  It’s like I’m in a real groove… but don’t say anything to my wife about that, because she thinks I’m in a rut…”  You know how that is – the difference between moving along in a groove and being stuck in a rut is often one of perception.  We don’t. like. change.  And if there is anywhere we really don’t like change, it’s here.  At church.

And yet, we are informed, guided, and inspired by a book that defines us as people who are on the move, worshiping and serving a God who calls, equips, and sends us out again and again and again.

I say all of this because the truth is that you are about to get a new pastor here in Crafton Heights.  Now, don’t get too excited – I’m not quitting.  But I won’t be here next week – or for the fourteen weeks after that. You’ll gather for worship on the Sundays in June, July, and August, and you’ll be mostly led by my friend Sonya-Marie Morley.  Along the way, Bill and Brian and Laura and Tony will be here.  This will be a season of new voices for you all.

I’ve got to tell you, you might not like all of it.  These folks are nice people, all right, but they’re not going to know your stories.  They won’t know who is related to whom.  I suspect that they won’t like all of the same music that you do.  On the other hand, they may have better jokes than I do.  But in the view of your Session, these are the people who are called to preach the Word of God to the people of God in this place and at this time.

And then, Lord willing, in September, you’ll get another new pastor. If things work out as planned, your new pastor be an old white guy named Dave.  If you’ll have me, I hope to be back as Pastor in a few months.

But here’s a warning: whoever shows up here in September wearing my clothes and hugging my wife… well, that won’t be the same person who’s standing up here right now.  I mean, I hope that you’ll be nice to him, and laugh at his jokes… but don’t pretend that it’s me.

Right now, I am a particular collection of strengths and weaknesses, bumps and bruises, anxieties and arrogance.  A lot of those will look familiar in three months, but some will be different.

To quote my old friend Jessalyn Gielarowski, “church is always better when Pastor Dave goes away.”  She said this about six years ago, and, to be fair, she went on to say something like, “he comes back changed, with new stories, and new perspectives, and that helps us to see ourselves and God’s world a little differently, too.”

So I’ll come back, Lord willing, in September.  And you better believe that one of the first things I’ll do when I return is to wander past all of the Ebenezers we’ve got set out in this place. I’ll look at the plaques downstairs that remember young people of great valor who started in this place.  I’ll walk down to the Open Door and feel the names of old friends etched into brick.  I’ll go up to the 3rdfloor and look at the handprints that fill the Youth Group room.  Each of these places, and a hundred more around this joint, are signs of encounters we’ve had with the living God and God’s presence in our lives.

But listen to this, beloved: no matter how deep our need and how great God’s salvation at that time and in that place, we dare not stay in any of those places too long – because God is on the move.  Again.  Still. Always.

So I have a charge for you, beloved, in the next few months.  Keep following the God who is moving in and through this place and your lives.  You’ll do this, in part, by learning new stories and new songs and maybe even new jokes. You will watch with, wait for, and be present to each other.  You will, Lord willing, keep searching for ways to include the children of this neighborhood – those who participate in our preschool and Cross Trainer programs and those who do not – in the grace and love that flows from Jesus Christ.

I’m not going to be in this room, but I hope and expect that you will. Come to worship, and listen to what “Pastor Not-Dave” has to say.  Encourage her or him, and each other.  And for crying out loud, when you come, bring your wallets with you.  Don’t neglect the financial support of this congregation in a time of change.  I can tell you that Sharon and I will be making our regular financial gifts, even when we are not able to be present in person.

And, Lord willing, come September we will have a few new Ebenezers to share with each other.  I hope that you’ll have a few new friends to whom you’ll introduce me.  And my deepest, most fervent, prayer is that we will each have a new openness to following God into whatever is next for the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Say Her Name

The community that formed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was marked by many distinctive.  On Sunday May 12, 2019, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the call to include those on the margins as one of those distinctives.  Our text was the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter as recorded in Acts 9:36-43.  We read that after having heard the promise of God as revealed in Hosea 1:10 – 2:1

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit

As we start, I’ll confess that I don’t usually select scripture readings or plan the worship experience at Crafton Heights in such a way that it mirrors the civil calendar.  Some of you know this, because you’ve been disappointed with or irritated by me on the Fourth of July, when we don’t sing a lot of patriotic songs, or on Labor Day, or on Veterans Day.  Maybe you know this because you were here on Mother’s Day in 2017, when the scripture for the day happened to be the heartwarming and “sit in church next to Grandma-friendly” tale of David and Bathsheba.  Typically, if you come to me with such disappointment, I will say that most of those are, indeed, important days, but that we gather in worship for a different and, I would add, more important reason.

But as I read the scripture chosen for today, and then I realized that today would be Mother’s Day, I thought to myself, “Jackpot!”  This is precisely the kind of story that we love, especially on Mother’s Day.  The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings used in a number of churches that is designed to help congregations encounter the full breadth of God’s Word.  And wouldn’t you know it: the Revised Common Lectionary calls the church of Jesus Christ on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter, to consider Acts 9:36-43 – the story of Tabitha and Peter.  It’s perfect! I mean, what’s not to like here?

Saint Tabitha, Byzantine Greek Orthodox Icon

The central figure in this passage appears to be Tabitha. Some translations refer to her by her Greek name, which is Dorcas, but either way it means “gazelle” or “deer”.  She is truly remarkable in many, many ways.

You are all familiar with people who have traditions of helping others at various times of the year: someone in your family may go serve a meal at the shelter every Thanksgiving, for instance; someone else raises money to fight world hunger each spring; heck, some of our friends are not here this morning because they alwaysparticipate in “the Race for the Cure”.  We know and we love those people, and we admire their regular commitment to charitable giving and living.

But with Tabitha, it’s more than just an annual fund drive. She is all in, all the time – 24/7/365.  This is who she is.  This is what she does.

Here is one of the ways that you know that Tabitha is remarkable.  There are 33 women named in the New Testament, and another 28 who are mentioned, but not named.  There are another 16 references to groups of unnamed women. And yet Tabitha is the only woman to be described as a mathetria – the feminine form of the word “disciple” in Greek.  Nobody else in the entire Bible has that form of that word used to describe her: I’m here to suggest that indicates something about her devotion to the Lord and her willingness to listen for God’s call in her life.

Tabitha, the disciple, has spent all of who she is serving the poor and the widows.  And then, one day, she is gone.  The one person on whom the most vulnerable in society could count  – she’s died.  What are we going to do now?

The most vulnerable ones – nearly always women and children – find themselves without an advocate.  These folks don’t have time or energy to argue about theology, or try to shape policy, or sit around listening to the promises of the future… they are simply trying to figure out, “how are we going to get through this day?”  And the one who has helped them find the answer to that question on every other day has died.  They are alone.  Tabitha, who meant everything to them, is gone.  There are many of you in this room who know how it feels to lose the person that held your world together; if you don’t know that yet, I suspect that you will. It is a horrible feeling.

So what do they do?  Well, they hear that Peter is in Lydda.  This apostle who has been rumored to have a great connection to God is not far – he’s about twelve miles away.  For the sake of reference, I’ll tell you that’s about as far as it is to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon, or to Kennywood.  So as soon as she’s died and her body’s been laid out, a couple of the fellas walkto Lydda so they can tell Peter.  They get there, and they tell him that she’s dead, and they say, “Hurry!  You’ve got to come!”

Why? What good would it do to have Peter show up now? That’s one of the frustrating things about this passage: there’s not very much explaining that goes on here.  The story is told, not explained.

And Peter goes with the unnamed followers of Jesus, walking all the way from Kennywood to Crafton Heights.  Peter must represent some sort of hope in Jesus; he’s been acquainted with the Power of the Spirit.  They want him there, but nobody says why. Nobody seems to have much of a plan, only that they want Peter to noticeTabitha.

Raising of Tabitha, Giovanni Francesco Guernico (1591-1666)

And that’s what happens.  They bring Peter into the house, and take him upstairs, and say, “Look at this stuff! Peter, you’ve got to know who she was to us.  Peter, say her name.  Know that she mattered!”

That happens doesn’t it?  This week, social media has been flooded with news of yet another school shooting, and many of you have posted photos of a young hero who saved lives, Kendrick Castillo. You’ve said, “Tell his story. Know his name!”  Similarly, following the death of Antwon Rose, there were protestors who cried out, “Say his name!”  Because these young men – and so many others – are not just statistics, they are not just news stories – they are real people with complex lives and vibrant hopes.

So there in the house, Tabitha’s friends say, “She was everything.  You have to know her, Peter.  You have to see who she was.”

And Peter does!  He notices, and the story now begins to revolve around Peter, and we see something of what he is like.

We learn that although Tabitha is the one who is called a “disciple” in this passage, Peter proves to be a quick learner too.  The Greek word mathetes, which is often translated as “disciple”, means “one who learns” or “follower”.  Watching Peter interact with Tabitha’s community should remind us of the ways that Jesus conducted himself with Jairus’ family back in Mark chapter 5. The first thing he does is to kick people out of the room – he can’t afford any distractions or negative energy. And then he does something else he learned from Jesus – he kneels to pray.  In his culture, most of the praying was done standing, arms spread toward the heavens, and eyes looking upwards.  But here, he kneels, as did his Master Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

After he clears the room, and after he kneels to pray, then Peter says her name – and in saying that, he calls her back to life.  Tabitha is restored.  The widows and the poor have their hope restored.  God’s name is honored. And, as the scripture says, “many people believed in the Lord.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a greatMother’s Day story.  A woman’s value is noted, her presence is missed, she is honored and even knelt before by a powerful man, and life comes to a community.  It’s perfect.

At this point, Peter has to be the Most Valuable Player in Joppa.  I mean, the guy has walked here, from Kennywood, and he’s restored the community.  What happens next?  Was there a parade?  Did he get the key to the city?  We don’t know how he was honored, but we know that he must have been, right?

Well there’s one more name in the scripture – one more verse in the chapter that was omitted when we told this story first.  Acts 9:43 reads, “Peter stayed in Joppa some time with a tanner named Simon.”

Well, so what?  That seems like an afterthought.  Maybe it is.

What’s a tanner?  A person who makes leather.

Why would first-century people in the Middle East need leather?  What would it be used for in that culture? Shoes, straps, saddles, reins, tents, books, drums, wineskins, water bottles, buckets… Leather was indispensable in that place. Tanners were very, very necessary.

And yet, tanners were also problematic.  Think about it.  Where do you get leather from?  Animals. Dead animals.  To make leather, people in that culture would start with a skin, and smear one side of it with lime, and let that stand for a few days as the lime worked its magic against the flesh and hair.  Then the tanner would scrape the skin, and soak it in a concoction made from dog feces.  After it sat there for a while, the skin would be soaked in another brew made from fermented bran.  After that, the skin was washed in salt water and dried in the sun.  Later, it would be doused with boiling vinegar mixed with copper, dried again, and finally rubbed with olive oil.

I suspect that on hearing that, you are not surprised to know that most Jews thought of tanners as “unclean”.  In fact, the rabbis taught that a tannery was to be equated with a bathhouse or a public urinal.  A tanner was to be treated as one with boils, polyps, or who collects dog excrement. Many localities had specific laws and ordinances mandating that tanneries were to be built outside of city limits and downwind from the local population.

Now, work with me here: Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this amazingly great Mother’s Day story of the day that Tabitha came back to life – with no explanation as to why or how it happened – and ends it by saying that when all of this had occurred, out of all the possible places he might have stayed in the midst of a very grateful populace… Peter chose to stay at the home of a tanner named Simon.

Peter was called to Joppa so that he could notice the problem that everyone could see – Tabitha was dead!  He noticed her.  He called her by name.  He noticed the condition of the poor and bereft in Joppa and in healing her, he equipped them to face the challenges of a new day.  But then he does something even more Jesus-y than raising a much-beloved saint from the dead…

St. Simon the Tanner, 10th c. Coptic Icon

Here, Peter demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and grace by reaching out, by showing up, by saying not only Tabitha’s but Simon’s name.  Simon – the guy whom everybody needed, but – unlike Tabitha – nobody wanted or even noticed.

Think about that… When the most important VIP to visit town in weeks decides to stay at Simon’s home – even though he is nothing more than an unclean tanner who ought to remain invisible, out of sight, and downwind… who else is going to visit Simon’s home?

Everybody.

In accepting this gift of hospitality, Peter validates Simon’s being here.  In a very visible, concrete way, Peter demonstrates the Gospel truth that when you feel most excluded, shamed, unloved, unwanted, or cast aside… that maybe at that very moment, the grace of God is moving toward you.

In this passage, the prophecy of Hosea has come true: the one who was called “not my people” is now recognized as a child of the Living God.  The one who was isolated and alone is called “My People.”  The one who was shamed and cast out is called “shown mercy”.

You know, beloved, that this is not just an old-timey Bible story, right? You know that this is what we are about right now, right here?  You have a name.  And God knows it.  You are God’s people.  You are children of the living God.

Let us say that to each other, and let us live in such a way that we validate those around us as well.  Let us say the names of those whom we see.  Let us notice who they are before God.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Are You Sure About This, God?

Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.

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

The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time.  Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.

Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water.  The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.

When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero.  He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time:  “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”[1]

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance.  As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning.  Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known.  Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.

My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers.  Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door.  And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.

Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible.  There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts.  Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful.  And God uses Ananias in a huge way.

When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision.  God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.”  What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name.  Any ideas on who that might be?  Who might hear their name?  “Abraham, Abraham.”  “Here I am, Lord.”  “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.”  “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.”  Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.

So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words.  In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone.  Not just anyone, but Saul.  Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus.  God spells it out pretty clearly.  And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news?  This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic.  All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me.  Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”

And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!”  God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.

And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians.  He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.

And look at how he does it!  Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude?  I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved.  And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now!  What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?”  After all, Saul was a bad guy.  Why is Ananias so nice to him?

Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him.  And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly.  “Brother Saul…” he said.  And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.

Whose eyes did the scales fall from?  Saul’s, right?  But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes?  Sure they could have.  It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear.  I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear.  It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight.    Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he?  He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children –  that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.

But it might have been more than that, too.  Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved.  And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change.  I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider.  But he didn’t.  He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.

Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today.  First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved.  Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe.  And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus.  God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience.  No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me.  I’ll take care of him.”

The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it.  The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering.  The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.  He delivered me from all my fears.”  The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.

What are you afraid of?  What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world?  Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do?  Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself?  Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?

There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”  In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way.  Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time.  Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.

The Baptism of St. Paul, mosaic from the Palatine Chapel (Sicily), c. 1140

The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept.  God’s power turns enemies into family.  When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.”  Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.”  The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.

Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one.  Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor.  I know that one.”  One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together.  You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that.  And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001.  And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001.  You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago.  You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to.  But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.

OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out.  When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well.  So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other.  And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet.  And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.

After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again.  He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him.  And then he disappears from our view.  But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes?  You know that he didn’t.  Who will remember you?  And why?

[1]  Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119

Who Is This Guy?

The first Sunday after Easter (April 28, 2019) provided the saints at the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights with the opportunity to consider what happened to the disciples in the weeks and months after the resurrection.  We saw them as people whose minds had changed – for the better… and we wondered whether we, too, have seen signs of such change and growth in our own lives.  Our texts included Luke 24:45-49 and Acts 5:27-32.

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Portrait of a Bearded Man as an Apostle (St. Peter), Pier Francesco Mola Coldrerio c. 1612-1666

Well, well, well.  Get a load of this guy!  Can you believe it?  Who does he think he is?  Did you catch what Ronald said in the reading from the Book of Acts?  Evidently, the followers of Jesus have been arrested, for what is apparently not the first time.  They have been hauled in front of the Council – the Sanhedrin – and the High Priest, because they keep talking about Jesus of Nazareth and preaching in his name.

And did you catch the name of the ringleader, the spokesperson, the only apostle named?  Peter. Yes, that Peter.  The last time we saw him in this room was just the other day, when we read from Mark 14, the night that Jesus himself was arrested.  Peter was close to the Council and the High Priest on that night, too. Do you remember?

Only on that night, he tried to hide.  When he couldn’t hide, he lied.  When he was found out in his lie, he ran away weeping into the darkness.  That’s the last we’ve heard from Peter in this room.  And you will recall that it was not, by any means, Peter’s best day. And yet it was Peter.  The same Peter who we heard speaking confidently and even defiantly to the religious hierarchy a moment ago.

What’s happening?  What’s gotten into him?

Some of you know my friend, Sophie, in Malawi.  She and her husband lived with us for several months many years ago, and she had a habit that confused me.  She often began a story by saying, “the other day…”  Now, I imagine that you’ve used this phrase yourself. You’ve said something like, “You’ll never believe who I saw in the market the other day!”  Perhaps you’ve asked me when my last dental exam was, and I responded, “Oh, it was the other day.  I’m good.”  When we use those words, we understand “the other day” to mean a date in the fairly recent past.

But for Sophie, “the other day” meant simply any day that is not “today”. She would start to tell me about the other day when she was learning to drive, and it would take me a while to catch on that we were talking about an event that took place decades ago.  As you know, the passage of time adds a lot to the meaning of a story.

So when I said that we saw Peter “the other day” as he was fleeing the courtyard of the High Priest’s home on the night of Jesus’ arrest… which “other day” was it?  How much time has elapsed between Peter’s running away in shame and his standing before the Council in such boldness.

This is a tricky thing for those of us who want to read the Bible.  I mean, we’ve just finished a study of Mark’s Gospel, which takes 240 verses to narrate the events of one week. Conversely, the book of Exodus sums up 400+ years in fewer than 8 verses. So what is the relationship between the stories we’ve heard from Mark in recent weeks and those in today’s reading from Luke and Acts?

Jesus’ ascended into heaven about six weeks after his resurrection. That’s the conversation that Carly shared with you from Luke.  The events described in Acts chapter 5 could be from the same year; if not, they are from the following year.  In other words, the amount of time that has elapsed between Peter’s denial and his sermon here is to be measured in weeks  or months, and certainly not in decades.

St. Peter Preaching, Masolina (c. 1400)

So I’ll ask again: what gives? Who is this guy?  What has gotten into Peter and the other apostles that they should be so bold and brash only weeks or months after having failed so miserably?

My hunch is that if we had the opportunity to ask the apostles themselves, they might point to Luke’s account, and say something like, “Well, things really began to change for us – to take shape – as we met with the risen Christ. Our minds were opened.  We understood that he was calling us to be witnessesto his resurrection, witnesses to his presence.

In the time between the burial of Jesus and this trial in Acts, these followers of Jesus came to see themselves as witnesses.  I’m here to suggest that this is a new understanding.  Think back to the day of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. On that day, they saw themselves as managersor maybe cheerleaders.  Jesus was coming in and was loudly proclaimed as the coming Messiah – it was unmistakable. And so it fell to the disciples to help facilitate the crowds and maybe even get themselves positioned as a kind of a “transition team” between the current religious and political establishment and that new order which Jesus would bring.

However, as the situation in Jerusalem devolved during Holy Week, things changed.  Jesus was betrayed, and then arrested.  If the dream of the Messianic Kingdom with Jesus as its head was going to come to pass, then those who were with him would have to take quick action.  We saw that in the Garden at least some of the disciples were ready to fight for Jesus, and for this new Kingdom, and to defend him. That’s not the first time that these folks saw themselves in that way – the Gospels are full of occasions when those who were closest to Jesus sought to protect him from others whom they deemed to be unworthy: children and foreigners, mostly.

When we interpret the disciples acting as protectors or defenders, then perhaps we can construe the running away in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the denials by the High Priest’s home not as acts of cowardice but rather as strategies for buying time.  After all, in this view, the arrest of Jesus is a horrible thing – but if everyone gets taken in there will be nobody to save him.  If all of them run away now, the disciples could have thought, they can break him out of jail and get back to plan “A” – Jesus coming in, bringing his Kingdom, and a new world order!  Here we go!

But then, of course, came the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. At that point it must have seemed to the followers of Jesus (and they said as much to the “stranger” on the road to Emmaus) that they were sadly mistaken. He was evidently not the Messiah.  He had evidently notcome to liberate the people of God.

And now we move ahead a few months or a year into the Book of Acts and we are re-introduced to these Christ-followers as men of purpose and vision. They’ve got multiple arrest records already for bearing witness to the presence and resurrection of Jesus.

And listen to what Peter says about his old friend and mentor, Jesus. He says that God has raised up Jesus as Israel’s “Leader”.  The Greek word there is archegos, and it means one who goes before, or is an example, or a pioneer, or a predecessor.  Jesus is the first of many – Jesus is the archetype of that which God intends for all humanity.

Not only is he “Leader”, but he is “Savior”.  Again, the Greek helps us understand: soter is a word that refers to a title that the Greeks gave to leaders who had conferred significant benefits on their country.  It was used to describe a military or political leader who had really brought about true and significant benefit or advantage for his people.  It is worth noting, too, that this is the first time in the New Testament that a Jewish person uses this word to refer to Jesus.  In recognizing him as archegos and soter– Leader and Savior – the disciples are acclaiming Jesus as one with supreme power and authority; one who can be relied on to get stuff done; Jesus can be trusted to do as he says he’s gonna do.

Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1310)

And if Jesus is in fact that kindof leader and savior, then the disciples’ understanding of themselves must also change.  If that’swho Jesus is, then they don’t need to be his agents, handlers, or managers.  If that’s the kind of person and presence that Jesus is, then he surely doesn’t need the kinds of protection that people like the disciples are likely to be able to provide.  And so instead of being any of those things, the apostles say plainly, “we are witnesses of these things – we are here to tell you about our experiences of these things, and to invite you to consider the Holy Spirit who is also here as a witness.”

This morning I’d like to reflect on Christ-followers who see themselves as witnesses – as persons who have seen, observed, or participated in an event and then testify to what they saw, heard, and felt.  I’m afraid that in the Church of Jesus Christ today, there are not enough witnesses.

I’m afraid that in the church of Jesus Christ today I know too many people who have abdicated the role of “witness” so that they could go back to being Jesus’ protectors.  I know too many people who seem to believe that the God whom they say created heaven and earth and the vastness of the cosmos – that thatGod somehow needs folks like me or you to protect God’s self.

We have friends who act as if Jesus needs us to stand between him and those who would harm him – he needs us to point out and call out and tear down the people that could somehow hurt Jesus or his cause – and so these folks lash out self-righteously against Muslims or atheists or feminists or gays.  Jesus needs us to have his back when it comes to outrages like the holiday cups used at Starbucks or the chicken sandwiches served by Chick Fil-A.  Some people act as though the one who turned water into wine and used a few loaves and fishes to feed 5000 people has now had a change of heart and turns to his followers and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… be careful.  Don’t be trying to feed or clothe everybody now.  You’ve got to take care of yourselves.  I’m not sure you can think about letting people like them get too close to your neighborhood…”  As if Jesus was somehow less ableor less sufficientor less powerfulnow than he was when Luke and Acts were written.[1]

If he is truly Leader and Savior – then he retains his power and authority, and he continues to expect that we are his witnesses, and not his handlers, agents, protection squad, or defense attorneys.

And that leads me to another question that is raised by this morning’s text. Clearly Peter and the other followers of Jesus grew in their understandings of who Jesus was and who they were called to be. Their minds were changed, and that led them to new understandings of themselves and their Lord.  So I wonder, has that happened to you?  Where are you growing?  How long has it been since you’ve seen Jesus in a new way?  Are there things about which you’ve experienced a change of mind or heart?

Careful now…  In so many parts of our culture, a changed mind is seen as a sign of weakness.  In discussions I’ve had recently of both a political and religious nature, I’ve heard comments like, “Her?  Seriously? You know, I’ve heard that she has become really soft on ________ (fill in the blank with some doctrine, cause, or political viewpoint).  I’m not sure she’s one of us anymore…”  When a politician changes their mind, they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. And if you didn’t know it, friends, that’s bad.  That is very bad for your political career – and, as friends of mine discovered it can hurt your theological career as well.

When someone engages you in conversation by asking you how your mind has changed, or how you see things differently… there’s a temptation to see that as an admission of having somehow departed from orthodoxy or having left the “true faith”, whatever that is.

But listen: we are called to growth!  We are built for growth!  We long for and anticipate growth in our physical selves, our mental selves, and therefore why not our spiritual selves as well?

There’s not a person in this room who thinks, looks, or acts exactly the same as you did five or ten or twenty years ago. Heck, if you want a laugh, walk into my study with some of the children as they scope out your wedding and baptismal photos and say, “Hey… is that my mom and dad?”, or “Who is that guy with all the hair?”  Because you’ve changed, beloved.  You’re not the same.

So I’ll ask again: Where are you growing?  How are you seeing Jesus these days?  And how are you bearing witness to that presence in your daily life?

Today, may we join Peter and the other apostles in looking back at where we were, and who we were, on the other day– and praying for growth, wisdom, discernment, and freedom to find Christ in new places on this day.  And as we find and experience the Christ, may we, too, fulfill our roles and thereby be witnesses to these things.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to pastor and writer John Pavlovitz, who has helped me to wrestle with this issue.  You can see some of his work on his blog in columns like this: https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/04/11/the-terribly-tiny-god-of-maga-christians/

There You Go Again…

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. At the later service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we concluded that study by looking at Mark 16:9-20, a passage missing from the earliest versions of this Gospel.  The first reading came from Isaiah 65:17-25,

To hear this message as preached in worship, please visit

I hope that not all of you have been in this situation before, but I’m sure that everyone can imagine it. Let’s say that you’re driving along, minding your own business, and another car suddenly swerves into your lane, cutting you off, and you wind up hitting the telephone pole.  The ambulance comes, you’re taken to the hospital where they set your broken leg, and then your family comes in to see you just as the doctor arrives to tell you how things look.

You tell your family what’s happened up to this point, but you don’t need to tell them what the doctor says, because, well, they’re here.  They see and know the doctor at this point. You’ve told them what they don’t know, and that’s good enough.

Now, two weeks later you’re at your uncle’s house for a holiday party. Someone asks you about the cast on your leg, and so you start to tell the story about the other driver and the telephone pole and the ambulance.  And when you’re finished, your brother-in-law – who wasn’t even there, by the way – adds details to your story: “The other car was an SUV, driven by some kid who was texting, I think.  And the city has now changed the traffic pattern on that stretch of the highway, which is a good thing.  That’s always been a dangerous road…”

And when that happens, you might be tempted to look at your brother-in-law and say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, there you go again…”  It’s irritating, sometimes, to have people add to or interpret your story.  But as you reflect on what he’s said, you also think that maybe his comments could be helpful for those who are a little more removed from the story.  They add some useful context to what happened.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

So it is with Mark chapter 16.  The Gospel writer pretty clearly ends his telling of the Jesus story in verse 8. In the face of the angelic announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead, the first community of Christ-followers were confused and afraid.  That first Easter morning, they didn’t know whatto do, and they didn’t know whoto believe.  The original ending of the Gospel shows us people running out of the cemetery, scared out of their minds.

And that ending, frankly, worked well enough for Mark’s original audience. Most of the community to whom Mark was written was living there in Rome and knew, or at least knew of, the Apostle Peter.  They had access to other witnesses to those early days of the church – and they were familiar with the things that happenedafterthe crucifixion.

But before long, there began to be more and more people who didn’t know all of the same people, and who were not familiar with the events that took place on that first Easter and the days that followed.

At that point, someone else in the community plays the role of Mark’s chatty brother-in-law and picks up the pen to add a few details to the story.

What I’m saying is this: that Mark 16:9-20 is almost certainly not the work of the author of the rest of the Gospel.  There are differences in style, vocabulary, and phrasing.  Most of the content in these verses is, in fact, simply reflective of other material that we’ve come to know in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts.  Most scholars see this part of the Gospel as an appendix that has been written by another hand, and therefore not so much a part of the second Gospel but rather a reflection on it, or an attestation of the truth to which the Gospel points. It’s as if a new generation of the church found a dog-eared copy of the Gospel and said, “Yes! This!  There you go again!  This is the truth!”

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to look with me at what this passage has to say.  How does this next generation reflect on the Gospel that it’s received?

I’m struck by the church’s characterization of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared.  There are no starry-eyed dreamers here, no wistful backward glances at the first followers of Jesus. When the author of these verses remembers those who gathered with the risen Lord, he or she does so with an acknowledgment that Jesus didn’t wait around for a perfect church to appear or be formed. Rather, this is a blunt description of the fact that the group that met with Jesus was comprised of people who struggled with their faith and who were above all else, stubborn. That is to say that while the three days in the tomb and the resurrection may have totally transformed Jesus, his followers were still the same people.  This is what they had to say about themselves: we’re not sure what to think, but we can be really obnoxious.

You can’t make this stuff up…

Can you imagine a church with a motto like that today?  Some years ago, my wife and I visited a little town in Texas with an unusual name.  We were surprised, however, when the congregation in that place took on the town’s name and became known as “The Church of Uncertain.”

I love that sign, and I love this affirmation at the end of Mark’s Gospel: it goes to show me that Jesus is willing to work with what he had – with who I am.  The Risen Lord is not hanging around beating the doubt out of his followers, waiting for them to become perfect; there’s no call for you or me to somehow get our acts together beforewe start living like Jesus asks us to. We are called to move forward with who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus will continue to work on, in, and through us.

The early church remembers that, as recalcitrant and doubtful as they were, they were given two primary charges by the Risen Lord.

First, they are called to preach.  That is, to point to God’s intentions for the world and those who live in it.  Preach the Gospel to all creation!  Celebrate the purposes of God as you live in the world and with others.  That community, like you, would be familiar with the descriptions of God’s intentions as described in places like Isaiah 65.

Les malades attendant le passage de Jésus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

And secondly, in addition to preaching, or proclaiming, the reign and rule of God, this group of stubborn doubters is called to participate in those intentions by becoming agents of healing in the creation.  It’s as if the Savior is saying, “Look, the longer we hang out together, the more you’re going to find that reality can, in fact, change. Be a part of that!  Engage your world on God’s terms, and invite your world to be more intentionally and fully aligned with God’s design for that world.

This “appendix” to the Gospel of Mark then ends with a surprising affirmation: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s another way of saying, “Hey! Everybody! It worked! Seriously – we did this – and we found that when we lived like Jesus told us to that some amazing things didhappen!”

Back toward the end of 2017, this congregation embarked on a study of the Gospel of Mark.  When we did so, we remarked that this second Gospel begins with a different quote from the book of Isaiah.  We watched a ragged prophet called John the Baptizer announce the coming of and presence of a new way of life and living, a new understanding of God’s purposes. John pointed us to Jesus of Nazareth, who called this new way of living “The Kingdom of God”, and who went on to say that this Kingdom is at hand – it is present, it is palpable today.

Calling Disciples, He Qi (contemporary)

For the past eighteen months or so we have affirmed that Mark’s Gospel is not centered on a system of belief.  Nowhere in this document is a series of intellectual suppositions that we must affirm in order to gain entry into some heavenly club. There is no list of right answers on which followers of Jesus must insist before extending grace, forgiveness, and kindness.  No, this little pamphlet is a call to a life of boldness centered on an acknowledgement that this reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God is present and accessible right now to people like us.  It is an encouragement for the people of God to live in a way that points to the reign and rule of God, that demonstrates God’s intentions, and fleshes out God’s hopes for creation.

To be sure, the Gospel is full of stories, including the events of Holy week, that demonstrate that this manner of life is not always easy and that there may be a cost.  The original hearers of Mark’s Gospel surely knew and appreciated that.

And yet, when the dust had settled, someone picked up Mark’s pen long after he himself had died.  That community recalled with joy that Christ had come, and suffered, and risen to rule the world.  Those folk celebrated that this Kingdom of God, this reign and rule of the Holy that echoes the landscape painted by Isaiah and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is in fact ours to live.

There was a certain roller coaster ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park that began with the announcement, “Hold onto your hats, please.  No repeat riders.”  I’m pretty sure that the mechanized voice that issued that warning hundreds of times a day didn’t think that it was making a theological affirmation, but I’m convinced that is the essence of the Gospel as received and transmitted by Mark’s community.  Brace yourselves for adventure – this is a good, good life that we’ve been given. Yes, we will encounter great pain and even death along the way – but pain and death are not the end of the story. The presence of the Risen Lord infuses our lives and all creation.

The Good News of the Gospel is that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We participate in this Gospel as we engage in grateful and hopeful lives and share that gratitude and hope with those we meet.  Along the way, we are given the opportunity – or the responsibility – of looking for, asking for, or waiting for the presence of the One who preached the Kingdom’s truth and then rose from the dead to affirm it’s nearness to the heart of God. So beloved, the call of the Gospel today is this: seek that presence today, and be a sign of it in the world. He has Risen.  He has risen indeed.  So show someone what that looks like!  Thanks be to God!  Amen. 

And Then What?

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. At the first service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we read through what most scholars consider to be the ending of this Gospel.  Like them, we were confused by the abrupt nature of the conclusion, and wondered how that form might impact the content.  The Gospel text was Mark 16:1-8; we also heard from the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:34-43?  

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

When is an ending not an ending?

The Gospel of Mark is puzzling, to say the least.  It’s confusing, at best.  Here we are, just a few hours away from the end of our multi-year study of what so far as we know is the first attempt at a written record of the life of Jesus, and it ends in the middle of a sentence.  Mark’s account of the life of Jesus ends with the word “for” – in Greek, it’s gar.  “They didn’t say anything to anyone, they were afraid for…”  Who ends a story with the word “for”?  It’s crazy talk, that’s what that is.  It can’t be right.

And for centuries, people agreed with that assessment.  Obviously, there’s a problem.  So if you look in your pew Bibles, you’ll see that the gospel of Mark goes all the way to verse 20.  But there’s a footnote saying that “most ancient authorities conclude the Gospel at the end of verse 8.”  People have argued for centuries – what happened here?  Did the original ending get lost?  You have all had old books laying around the house and pages just sort of fall out after a while…Is that the story?  Or did Mark somehow mean to walk out on the story so abruptly?  If you really want a nice, tidy, ending, you’ll have to come back for the 11:00 service, because at that time we’ll take up the “alternate ending” of the Gospel of Mark.

In the meantime, though, I’ll tell you that most recent scholars, and your pastor, believe that Mark knew exactly what he was doing – and he cut the story short.  After all, if you remember the beginning of the Gospel, you’ll recall that Jesus’ entry was pretty abrupt – there’s no infancy, no childhood – he just shows up. Well, here, he just leaves.  And then what?  It’s a mystery.

What do we know?  Well, on Thursday, we read a pretty conclusive passage indicating that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  We can know for sure that he was dead – the executioner, the women, Joseph of Arimathea, and even Pilate’s personal intelligence officer all agree that Jesus had died.  There was a corpse.  And we know that he was buried. A leader of the council put him in his own tomb.  The women followed and saw him buried.  There are witnesses to these things.

artist unknown

And then, a few days later, the women go back to do things right – they had been too rushed, and perhaps too afraid, on Friday.  So Sunday they stop by to visit the grave and take care of things.  All of a sudden, things look a little different.  The tomb is open.  And there’s a young man inside.  Matthew tells us that he’s an angel.  Luke and John say that he had a friend with him.  It doesn’t seem to matter to Mark.  The young man gives a message to the women.

Now I want you to pay attention here, because you’re seeing something in the Gospel of Mark that you haven’t seen before.  All through the Gospel, the people who follow Jesus seem to bounce around in their ability to be faithful.  Mostly, they’re consistent.  Sometimes they are able to hold onto the faith, other times they leave it. Even Peter denies Jesus.  In the garden, everyone, including the young man we think was Mark, flees.  But so far, there has been one group of people who have managed to do, more or less, what is asked of them: the women. No matter how much the other disciples screw things up, the faithful women seem to be there for Jesus.  They don’t always ask the right questions, as when the mother of James and John asked if they could sit next to Jesus in the kingdom – but they are consistently present, and invested, and willing.

But what does this young man say to them? “Go, and tell the disciples…” And what do they do? “They fled…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Finally, it comes to this.  Even the women – the ones who were willing to go to Hell and back for Jesus – bail out.  They can’t get their heads around the idea of resurrection.  It’s just too improbable, even for them.  Even for God.  And so they run away, silent and scared.

In Mark’s telling, the first Easter was characterized by confusion.  By people running around in the half-light of dawn, sure that something has happened, but not sure what.  Someone is lying – is it the Roman Guards, who are accusing the disciples of having stolen the body?  Or is it the disciples themselves?  What’s going on here?

Remember when we began this study, I mentioned that we think that Mark is the first Gospel to have been written.  Think about that, and then think about the ways that the other Gospels end.  Matthew has the angel I’ve already mentioned, and then Jesus himself is there.  There’s an incredible ending where the risen Christ is worshipped by his disciples, and then he gives them their final orders, and then he is taken into heaven as they watch.  And Luke, probably written about the same time as Matthew, ends with the risen Christ showing up on the road to Emmaus, spending quality time with his disciples, engaged in contemplative conversation and even having devotions over dinner with them, for crying out loud.  John, writing even later, can’t say enough about the resurrection.  We see the empty grave clothes; we walk around inside the empty tomb. John shows us Jesus and Mary in the garden, Thomas and Jesus meeting in the upper room; Jesus is having lunch with Peter and the fellas on the beach…

But Mark?  In Mark, we’ve got “a young man” – was he an angel?  Maybe? – who says, “Yes, I know, you’re looking for Jesus.  Well, good news.  He’s not dead anymore.  He’s been raised.”

That’s it, Mark? That’s the best you’ve got? An unidentified male of indeterminate ethnicity telling us that Jesus has been raised? Where’s Jesus?  Where’s the Lord?

Mark doesn’t show us the risen Christ – he shows us a witness telling us that Jesus is risen…and then he says, “And what do you think?  Can you believe this?”

And Mark doesn’t seem particularly eager to convince us himself…because as we’ve said, the women were afraid.  Our last hope for faithful witness has apparently failed.  They are told to go and tell people, and Mark says that they didn’t say anything.

But of course, eventually, they did, right?  I mean, if the only witnesses never said anything, then we’d never know anything about the resurrection, right?  Obviously, eventually, they said something to someone. Mark just stops telling his story before the women start telling theirs.  Because Mark knewthe story of the resurrection. Mark’s community in Rome knew the story of the resurrection.  They probably heard it from the same source as you did a few moments ago: Peter himself vouched for the fact that the story got through.

So that means – follow me here – that somehow, sometime, somewhere, after the women failed to tell, they eventually came around and said something. They testified.  In spite of their fear, in spite of their confusion, the first witnesses to the resurrection were able to find it in themselves to regain their courage and composure and to point to the best thing that has ever happened. This morning we can praise God for, and learn from, women whose faith overcame their fear

And that best thing was great news for Mark’s community. Because they were in fear.  They were unsure what was going to happen to them.  They were afraid of what their faith might cost them…and they, no less than the women, were able to hear the voice of a witness who said, “He has been raised from the dead.  Go and tell people about it.  And better yet, he is going before you.  You will see him – just like he promised.”

Mark’s readers didn’t have the luxury of walking around inside the empty tomb, or having dinner with Jesus, or getting all poetic about the good news of resurrection.  They were being eaten alive by wild animals or being burnt by the government as they tried to hold onto their faith.  All they had was the promise that Jesus will be ahead of them.  That they would see him.  That he would be waiting for them.  Isn’t that good news?

And if they fail to witness – if their fear gets the best of them, or anxiety shuts their mouths – there’s hope for them, just like there’s hope for every single follower of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  This ending is great news for Mark’s friends.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

And to be honest, it’s my favorite Easter story, too. The other Gospels all end with the disciples having figured it out, at least a little bit.  Look at Matthew, John, or Luke, and you’ll see that the disciples have found the resurrected Jesus, they have begun to understand something of what resurrection is about.  They’ve gotten it together, at least a bit.

My life is not usually like that.  I can’t usually identify with Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, who touches Jesus’ hands and side and falls down crying, “My Lord and my God!”  I mean, it looks swell in the painting and everything, but I’ve never touched him.

But Mark’s ending?  Grief? Fear?  Amazement?  I mean, I spend half my life asking, “And then what?  What am I going to do NOW?”  Disciples that are running around scared and confused and uncertain?  These are guys that I can relate to!

I don’t know everything about your life, and you sure don’t want to know all about mine.  But I know that there have been plenty of days in even the past few months where I’ve found myself scared and confused and uncertain.  There have been times when I wasn’t sure who I could trust, with what, and everything I looked at seemed to be blanketed with a thick gray fog. I am certain beyond a doubt that some of you know what that looks like.

And if, for some reason, you find yourself staring at the pastor this morning thinking, “what is that man going on about?  Fear? Uncertainty? Anxiety?  Here? In Church?  Why, never have I ever experienced anything close to that…” – well, all I have to say to you is what Penguins announcer Mike Lange says: “Get in the fast lane, grandma! The Bingo game is ready to roll!”  There’s a lot in this world I can’t be sure of, but of this I am completely and utterly convinced: you will be confused and afraid.  You will know doubt and anxiety.

The Good News from Mark is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We move forward in the sure and certain knowledge that we don’t have much sure and certain knowledge…only that he is going ahead of us.  In the confused and scary places.  In the celebratory places.  And we will see him.  And that will be enough.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

The Rashomon Effect (and does it matter?)

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 Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019), we looked at one of the few members of the community to be named in each of the four Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea.  Who was this man, what did he do, and why did it matter?  The Gospel text was Mark 15:42-47.  We also listened to selected verses from Hebrews 9

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

One of the best things that has happened to me in the past year or so is the “slow reading” of Mark’s Gospel that this sermon series has allowed. I find that especially true during this season, where we’ve had the privilege of notrushing through the last 100 verses of the story in just a sermon or two.

As I read and re-read the passage at hand this evening, I recalled a couple of films with which you may be familiar: Courage Under Firewith Denzel Washington and Vantage Pointwith Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker. Each of these films employs a device called the Rashomon Effect – this is a way of storytelling wherein we see the same events through different lenses.  In Vantage Point, for instance, there is an attempted assassination of the President, but just when we think that we know everything, we see the same occurrence from a different, well, vantage point.  And each different perspective adds to our understanding of what really happened in the plot line.

Joseph of Arimathea stained glass window in The Church of St. John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England

In fact, there are some folk who would say that the presence of four Gospels is itself a demonstration of the Rashomon Effect, as each author is selective about what to include, and therefore what to exclude, in the narratives about Jesus.  One character that shows up in each of the four Gospels, however, is this man called Joseph from Arimathea.

As I read the text slowly this week, I began to jump to different conclusions as to who Joseph might have been, and why it’s important to remember his presence.  Although Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark all note that he was there – each of them only mentions him on the day of Jesus’ death, and he doesn’t show up anywhere else. Who was he, and what is his function in the story?

Each of the gospel writers implies that he was some sort of a disciple.  Yet he was not a public disciple in the way that Peter, James and John were.  He was a secret follower – he lived in fear of his relationship with Jesus making the rest of his life more difficult (or in fear of the rest of his life making life more difficult for the disciples).  Mark tells us that he was a prominent member of the council.  If you’ve been paying attention the past few weeks, you’ll recall that there were precious few people in that group who might have aligned themselves with the Lord.

Does the Gospel include this story because we are to believe that Joseph’s secret fascination with Jesus was an example of “too little, too late”? I can’t believe that Mark’s original readers would have been impressed with a man of power and privilege who sought to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret.  These were people living in Rome who were experiencing persecution for having identified themselves as Christ-followers, and apparently Joseph of Arimathea was a leading member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. According to Mark himself, Joseph said nothing at Jesus’ trial (14:64 reads, “and they allcondemned him…”).  If that’s the case, then isn’t he worse than Peter, who simply denied knowing him?  Or maybe even worse than Judas, who simply told the authorities where Jesus might be found?

But there’s another way to look at this.  Joseph was, evidently, a wealthy man.  Maybe he was a member of the council who had a heart that matched his bank account. Sure, he had been a part of the body that ultimately executed Jesus, but he felt so badly about it that in order to assuage his guilt for his participation in this enterprise, he bankrolled the entire burial expense – thus ensuring that Jesus would not meet the fate of so many common criminals and have his body lay exposed to the elements. Joseph regretted his action with the Council, and as a way of making up for that, he sought to at least do right by Jesus after death.  Did Mark include him as a means of demonstrating that stewardship is important and it’s never too late to get on the right side of history?

Joseph of Arimathaea Seeks Pilate to Beg Permission to Remove the Body of Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

There are some who have argued that neither of these is the case, and in fact that Joseph is worthy of admiration because even after all of the original disciples run away, Joseph himself is the only person who actually actslike a disciple.  In chapter 6, Mark narrated the death of John the Baptist, and went out of his way to tell us that although John, too, was killed as an enemy of the state, John’sdisciples had the courage to go and get his body and give it a proper burial.  Maybe Joseph is included in this story to show Mark’s readers how a realdisciple acts.

In the past few chapters, Mark has shown us that the number of true friends that Jesus has appears to be in decline.  When he’s giving away lunch on the mountain top there are 5000+ willing followers; later at a Bible Study, only 72 show up.  There was a throng at Palm Sunday, but the number had dropped significantly by the time dinner on Thursday rolled around.  Later that same evening, they “all” fled, so that on Friday all we’ve got left is a group of women hanging around within earshot of the cross.  And yet Joseph emerges as the hero of this scene and actslike a true follower would act.

In fact, there are some critics of the New Testament who insist that Joseph is a little too perfectto be a real person.  The fact that he doesn’t show up in any other places of the Gospel, combined with the inability of any biblical scholar to point to a town called “Arimathea” on a map, added to the fact that the word “Arimathea” can be loosely translated as “ari” = “best” and “mathea” = “disciple-town” has led a few people to believe that Mark made up this character specifically to show his community what truedisciples do.

There’s one more angle, though: Frederick Buechner suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea might have been a nice and even generous man, his vision was limited and he is therefore remembered as the one person who apparently cared more for the dead Jesus than the living Christ.  Buechner writes, “It is important to give Joseph of his due for his mortuary solicitude, but at the same time it is hard not to see him as the first of many Christians who spend so much time stewing about the blood of the lamb that they lose sight of the fact that the lamb has long since gone on to greener pastures where he’s kicking up his heels in the sunshine and calling to others to come join the dance.”[1]

So there you have it.  What’s your take on this? Was Joseph of Arimathea a secret, and therefore a worthless follower of Jesus? One whose cowardice during Jesus’ trial could not be overcome by the donation of a prime cemetery plot after the inevitable outcome of that trial?  Or was he a wealthy benefactor who sought to cushion the blow to Jesus’ family and friends, and whose largesse was worthy of imitation in the centuries that followed?

Maybe you hold fast to the notion of Joseph as being bold, courageous, and a disciple’s disciple, doing that for Jesus which not a single other follower would do.  And, as I mentioned, it’s possible to maintain that he was an eminently sensible man who was just trying to put this whole affair to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible – as if he said, “Let’s just get this funeral over with so that life can get back to normal around here…”

St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the Staff that Flowered, by the hand of a Monk of the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Rashomon Effect suggests that there are multiple layers of interpretation of Joseph’s character, and each interpretation carries with it a moral lesson of something to embrace or to avoid. Perhaps you know that the Christian Tradition has fallen in love with the character of Joseph of Arimathea. Some have said that he was there to hold the chalice used at the Last Supper to catch some of the blood of the Christ, and thereby giving rise to the legend of the Holy Grail; some say that in AD 63 he went on a missionary trip to England and became known as Joseph of Glastonbury.  I think all that proves is that the church has always been in love with celebrities and rich, beautiful people.

And yet no matter where you think Joseph’s heart was, and what you think his motivation was, there is one incontrovertible fact in these few verses. More than anyone else, Joseph of Arimathea is the one responsible for ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth was provided with a death certificate.  Now Jesus’s family didn’t need one of those for the insurance company or the Social Security folks, but we have come to rely on Joseph’s assurance that Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is noteworthy that a man described as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin took it upon himself to march into Pilate’s office and request that the Roman Military attest to Jesus’ death.  This is seemingly unimpeachable evidence: a member of the Jewish Council, the Roman Procurate, and an officer of the army of the occupation are all convinced that on this day we have come to call Good Friday, the life was drained from Jesus’ veins.

Cristo con José de Arimatea, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1525)

Jesus was dead.  He wasn’t pretending to be dead.  They weren’t afraid he was going to die.  It didn’t seem as if he might be dead.  He was dead.  Whether this was Joseph’s aim or not I cannot know; but these six verses in the Gospel of Mark are enough to convince me that whatever happened next was the thing that happened after the worst thing possible.

To put it another way: Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate, and the Centurion all appeared to think that Mark 15 was the end of the story. The only two friends that Jesus had left, apparently, Mary and Mary, must’ve thought so too.  They came to make sure that things were done right.

The fact – not the appearance, but the factof Jesus’ death would appear to preclude anything of interest or hope in Mark 16.

And yet, beloved, there is a Mark 16.  That is a story for another day, and I hope you’ll be here to hear it.  For tonight, I just want to remind you of this, my friends: You have all stood at the grave.  You have all watched as the one you loved entered into that dark place.  You have each gone home and wondered, “Well, what in the heck am I supposed to do now?”  You have each come into a situation where you thought that all was lost.  Like Joseph, you have done what you thought might have been impossible and rolled that giant stone in place in an attempt to seal yourself off from the death that you thought might consume you.

Like Joseph, like you, and like me, Jesus was present at funerals. And yet he went, not as a mourner, but as the corpse. Make no mistake: Joseph, along with Mary and Mary, are here to point to the exact spot where Jesus’ corpse was laid.  The daylight flees, and the few friends that Jesus has left melt into the darkness, convinced that sin and death have won the day.

I have often been close to knowing how that feels, and I know that you have too.  In our zeal to get to all things Easter, let us not rush through this Good Friday and the day that follows it.  Let us hold on to the sure and certain knowledge that as Jesus was, so shall we be.  And let us remember that when we get to Sunday as well, for as he became, so shall we also become.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of hope and life.  Amen.

[1]Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 79-80.