The Dress Code: Compassion

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On September 15 we considered the need for compassion.  Scriptures were Colossians 3:12-17 as well as Zechariah 7:8-14.

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

A few years back, I was invited to a luncheon at a place called The Pittsburgh Athletic Association.  The invitation looked pretty fancy, and the speaker was one I’d been eager to hear. As I prepared, I was struck by a thought: what does one wear to lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association?  I know, I know – you’ve seen me around this neighborhood for decades and most days it doesn’t appear as though I give much thought to what I’m supposed to be wearing, but hey – it happens every now and then.  I’d never been inside the place, and I didn’t know anyone who had.  It came to this: do I dress according to the fanciness of the invitation, or in line with the fact that it’s an “athletic club”?  I couldn’t bring myself to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt, so I settled on khakis and a polo.

I had an inkling that I’d made a mistake when I arrived and the guy who held the door for me was wearing a suit and tie.  My suspicions were confirmed when, after asking for directions to the room where the luncheon was to be held, the host said, “Certainly, sir. But before we go to the dining room, would sir like a jacket and tie?”  Before I could think about it, I said, “No thanks, I’m good.”  The host was persistent.  “Sir”, he intoned, “The Association has a dress code.  It would appear as though sir was not aware of that. In order to enter the dining room, one must be suitably attired.  Therefore, would sir like to borrow a jacket and tie?”

Well, I did.  And here’s the deal: I don’t remember who spoke that day.  I don’t remember what was said.  I don’t remember who I sat with or what I ate.  But I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed because I didn’t choose to wear the right thing.

Maybe that’s never happened to you.  I hope it hasn’t.  But I would imagine that each of us, at some point, have wondered, “Am I doing this right? Does this look OK on me?”

Frieze of the Prophets, mural on the East Wall of Boston Public Library, John Singer c. 1893

On December 7, 518 BC[1]a delegation of visitors arrived in Jerusalem. Sharezer and Regem-melech, along with their entourage, represented a group of faithful Jews who were returning to Israel following decades of exile in Babylon.  They had a specific religious question, and they wanted a prophetic answer.  You see, ever since the fall of the Temple some seventy years or so previous, the people of faith had been observing four days of lamentation and fasting each year. There was a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem, another to mark the day that the city’s walls were destroyed, an observance of the destruction of the temple, and a final fast commemorating the murder of the governor.

But now, since the temple is being rebuilt, the visitors want someone to tell them: are we still expected to mourn the loss of the old temple?  What, exactly, are we supposed to do now?  It is a fair question.

The prophet Zechariah happens to be around on that day, and when he hears this request for a word from the Lord, he provides one – only, as it often happens in church, the question he answers is not really the question that was asked. The query brought by Sharezer and the boys is pretty narrow and specific, and the answer provided by the prophet is broad and far-reaching.  Instead of giving a simple “yes or no” answer (which is, by the way, insanely popular in religious circles), the prophet seizes upon the question of the returning exiles to launch into a class on ethics – and his answer lasts at least a chapter and a half.

Zechariah, in his response, encourages the people to give up on their robotic and nearly-meaningless ritual observances and instead live with an awareness of the fact that we live for and serve with a God who is always coming. We are not called to gather together for hallowed remembrances of something that God used to do, or some time when God showed up in our lives – we are called to live in hope that the God who came is the God who shows up and is always unveiling and revealing the Divine Self.  Because we are creatures of time and space, our worship – and everything else – is rooted in the present.  But we look forward in hope to the reality which continues to unfold.

And then Zechariah describes the kind of people who live in that kind of hope: in the present day, in the neighborhood and country where they live, they are to administer justice, to constantly display compassion and mercy, and to refuse to contribute toward the oppression of those who are marginalized, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, or the poor.  The call of God is not to remember that once upon a time God acted, but that every day, God calls us to transform the world around us with the power that we have.  Our faith drives us toward embracing a lifestyle, and not merely a specific list of dos and don’ts.  It is a masterful sermon, and I’d encourage you to read all of Zechariah 7 and 8.

Hundreds of years later, the small Christian community in the town of Colossae is faced by an insidious threat.  This group, formed by the teaching and power of those who had first followed Jesus, had been infiltrated by some teaching that could cause the congregation to abandon its calling and integrity.  The threat was both philosophical or theological as well as practical.

The theoretical danger was that apparently someone had come into the church teaching that while Jesus was by all accounts an incredible guy, he was more a symbolof what God was trying to do and not really an expressionof the depth of God’s self.  In fact, Christ was a sign that pointed to God, but, let’s be honest, just one of many signs.  In fact, similar insight into the Divine reality could be gained from the worship of stars, or spirits, or angels, or some other aspect of creation.  There was something amazing about Jesus, but it was not necessarily singular.

Apostle Paul, Anonymous, Italian 18th c.

The Apostle Paul’s response to that line of thought is unequivocal.  He reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the One through whom creation itself was accomplished.  In Christ, the old apostle wrote, we live and move and have our being. He is not an option on a religious menu – he is the one who holds all things together.

Now the practical danger to Christian community was felt in this way: if people came to accept that the power and presence of God was to be found through a personal revelation from the stars or angels, then each individual person should follow a process to prepare for her or his own true, authentic heavenly vision.  That led to a plethora of religious coaches teaching people to somehow mortify their bodies, to fast, to practice abstinence or celibacy or some sort of asceticism and self-denial because only in ignoring your worldly surroundings could the true, authentic God be found.

Paul addresses this by echoing not only Zechariah, but Isaiah and Deuteronomy in affirming that true worship of God is not primarily an escape to some other-worldly bliss but rather a full and rich engagement with those with whom we are connected. If you were to read through the entire letter to the Colossians, you might sense that chapters 1 and 2 are a grand theological grounding of who Jesus is, and they are followed by chapters 3 and 4 that contain a “so what”, or an ethical guideline for daily life.

In particular, Colossians 3:12 (the key text in our reading for today) contains specific guidelines for those who would follow Jesus.  Paul calls his friends “chosen by God, holy and dearly loved.” In this verse, he provides them with a “dress code” for the Christian community.  What should we wear when we come together, and when we encounter the world in our day-to-day lives?  Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Just as a jacket and tie are the marks that defined the proper male diner at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, so these characteristics are the marks of the Christian in the world.  And in the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at these qualities.

Today, I’d like to focus in on the practice of compassion.  In the original Greek, Paul tells his friends to put on splagxna oiktirmou. Literally, this means, “bowels of mercies”.  In Greek thought, the core of one’s being was centered in the bowels, or as we might say today, the “guts”.  If an ancient heard you described as “good-hearted”, he might be mystified, or think that you were really excited about your last EKG.  But if you were a person with strong bowels – well, she’d be impressed, she would…

Some of that language carries over into our use of the words having to do with “viscera”.  If someone has a “visceral” understanding of a concept, then we say that she really “gets” it, and she knows it in her innermost self.  If a person is “eviscerated”, then we understand that either figuratively or literally, the most important part of him – the guts – has been removed.

Paul, in writing to a congregation that appears to have been told that the best way to holiness is by focusing on your best self and looking for an other-worldly escape, says that the most important thing that we can wear as followers of Jesus is compassion.

I would suggest that a good definition of compassion is an ability and a willingness to fully enter into the experience of another, and in particular, the pain or suffering of another.  Our English word “compassion” comes from a pair of Latin roots: com, which means “with”, and pati,which means “to suffer”.  Compassion = “suffer with”.

A couple of the older translations of this verse use the word “pity” instead of “compassion”, but I think that is insufficient because when one “pities” someone one can maintain an emotional distance and stand over, or around, but not with someone else.  “Compassion” says, “Wow, this must be incredibly difficult right now.  I’m sorry that you’re in this place, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.”  “Pity” says, often, “Oh, you poor thing!” or even worse, “sucks to be you.”

Earlier this year I was the recipient of some amazing compassion.  I presented myself for my annual physical and must have looked a wreck because Dr. Hall sat and listened to me for forty minutes before he ever got around to touching me.  There was a set of situations and symptoms that gave me some real anxiety and that blessed man just sat there and encouraged me before he made the slightest suggestion of what I needed to do to “fix” anything.

You’ve seen compassion like that in action, and I want to encourage us to model it more and more as we continue through 2019 here at Crafton Heights church. Specifically, I want to challenge us to continue to grow in our ability to become a congregation of people who are willing to listen to each other.  Give each other the gift of your best time and your best attention – or be honest enough to admit that you can’t do that right now.  Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to. If you are going to say, “Hey! How are you doing?”, be ready to act like someone who cares what the answer to that question is.  If you don’t have time or energy to fully enter into someone’s day, simply say “Hello” or “I hope you are well today”.

Taking that a step further, let me challenge us to be known as a congregation that will stand with and for each other.  Can you seek to give yourself to someone else in such a way as to allow yourself to see the world from their perspective?

For instance, one of the best days of my 2019 Sabbatical (and there were a lot of them) was Monday, August 19.  It was a banner day at “Camp Grampy”, and Lucia and I spent time together doing puzzles, swimming, reading, and fishing.  As we prepared for our camp out on the boat, I took her photo.  She asked why I was doing that, and I said, “Because I always want to remember how you look today.”  A few moments later she asked for my phone and said, “Grampy, I’m going to take your picture.  Please send it to mama’s phone because I always want to remember how you look today.”

Here’s the photo she took.

 

Do you see?  That’s her perspective.  Often, that’s how the world looks to a five-year old.  A heart of compassion teaches us to seek to get an understanding of another’s perspective even if we do not share that perspective.  Perhaps you’ve never been widowed, or hungry, or abused, or addicted, or abandoned – but can you listen to someone else’s story intently enough to be able to sense at least a part of what that must feel like?

So often we skip that part of compassion.  We see someone in a tough situation and we want to proscribe, prescribe, or describe.  We want to tell them what their problem is and how they should fix it.  Maybe there is a place for that – but it is not the first thing we do.  Remember that when Job had the worst of all days, his friends came and simply sat with him for seven days before they even opened their mouths.  Once they started talking, everything went downhill in a hurry.

Putting on an outfit woven from the fibers of compassion means striving to see others the way that Christ sees them, and then seeking to treat them the way that Christ would treat them.  That’s the first part of our “dress code” for being in the community here at Crafton Heights.

And I have to tell you something that you already know.  The reason that I wore a polo shirt and khakis to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is because that’s a heck of a lot easier for me to put on than a suit and tie.  Come Saturday, I’ll be officiating at an elaborate wedding.  I’m here to tell you that the folks standing up in front of that wedding will not be wearing the clothes that are the easiest to put on – but they will do so because that’s the expectation of the group on that particular day.  It is the dress code.

In the same way, having a heart of compassion is not always the first or easiest thing for us to put on, especially in times of conflict or anxiety. But it is right, and it is what our heavenly Host expects of and hopes for us.  And it is what we all need.  Thanks be to God for those who have lived compassionately amongst us!  Amen.

 

[1] Dating based on work of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zechariah in the Interpretation: Nahum-MalachiCommentary Series (John Knox, 1986), p. 134

 

Does This Happen Often?

On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical.  As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.

 

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

My wife and I were out for a quiet evening.  As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced.  She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept.  We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?”  I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying?  That seems odd to me.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.

As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place.  There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences.  The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.  We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.

So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May.  And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened.  If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.

But other things happened, too.  You didn’t read about them on the internet.  Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.

I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back.  The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.

As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered.  I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here.  I think I just ran away from home.”

I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad.  I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me.  If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me.  So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”

Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have.  A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake.  One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from.  After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away.  I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”

The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving.  Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be.  My dad… it’s really rough.  Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”

A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next.  A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.

Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan.  You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail.  Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.

Why?

Because that’s where we live.  That’s who we are.  The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence.  I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm.  That’s just where we are.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour.  They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law.  I mean, things were really looking good.  They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry.  The storm erupts, and these people panic.

In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die.  They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on.  They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”  And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby.  Do you even care?”

Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here.  I’m dying.  Do you notice that?  Do you even care?”  If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world.  And the disciples came to know that.

But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.

And that’s why we’re here, right?  We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world.  We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.

And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers.  He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…”  It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi.  It is not, at first glance, a compliment.

And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord.  These are the 12 we’re talking about here.  These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?

The Gospels use that word five times.[1]Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.

Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith.  Oligopistoi.”  Never.

The Tempest – Peace, Be Still, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2015 Used by permission. See more at https://jorgecocco.com

To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church.  Us.  It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more.  There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.

Oligopistoi.  That is why we are here.  We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.

So here’s what we know to be true:

  • We cannot escape the storm
  • There is one who can and does calm storms
  • Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.

And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation.  In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other.  In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit.  Why were they there?  Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.

In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released.  Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.

This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.

I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink.  Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us.  We hurt each other.  We disappoint ourselves.  We make mistakes.  We blow up. We crash and burn.  We act like, well, oligopistoi.  We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.

And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed.  This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”

Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.

Does this happen often?  Yes. You know that it does.  And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.

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.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the Media Player below:

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,

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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.