Never Underestimate Us

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 the Fifth Sunday of Lent (April 7, 2019), we sat and listened to the crowds clamoring for Jesus’ life outside of Pilate’s palace… and we considered what it means for we who might consider ourselves to be “typical people” in 2019.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:1-20, and we interpreted it light of Paul’s words about “thinking like Jesus” to his friends in Philippi: Philippians 2:5-11

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

I’m dating myself here, and I’m asking some of you to date yourselves, too.  I wonder if anyone has any idea what the number one selling toy in 1975 was.

For six months in my fifteenth year, the best-selling toy for the Christmas season was… the pet rock.  Somehow, a man named Gary Dahl persuaded 1.5 million people to pay $4 each for some stones he acquired for a penny apiece.  To put that into perspective, $4 in 1975 is equivalent to about $19 now.

H. L. Mencken was an American journalist and writer who is reputed to have said, “No one in the world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the plain people.”

Is he right?  Have you ever underestimated the intelligence, the wisdom, or the goodness of our culture?

As we continue in our conversations about the Gospel of Mark, this morning we’re going to look at some of the plain people that are described in the second gospel.

Our reading for this morning is strikingly parallel to the one we shared last week.  Once again, we find Jesus undergoing a trial.  In this case, however, rather than standing before the religious leaders, he has now been dragged before the chief civil authority for the whole region, Pontius Pilate.  Although the venue and the inquisitors have changed, Jesus continues to be resolute and stoic as he calmly subjects himself to unjust treatment.

Mark chapter 14 describes a religious council that was sure about what they wanted to do with Jesus – but they lacked the power to carry out their designs.  So they hand him over to the Roman Empire and ask Pilate to do their dirty work.

One difference is that Pilate could not care less about the finer points of the Jewish faith, and so rather than asking Jesus if he’s the Messiah, he asks him whether he claims to be some sort of a king.  He wants to know whether the young man from the Galilee is a threat to the peace and stability of the region, and whether he intends to mount any insurrection against Rome.

Jesus’ answers satisfy the Governor, and he acts as if he’s ready to let the Rabbi loose.  This is intolerable to the religious leaders, though, and so they start to throw more accusations.  Still, Pilate appears unfazed.  “Jesus isn’t really bothering anyone,” he says.  “He’s a little misguided perhaps; maybe naïve; but he’s no threat to me or to Rome.”

And that’s when the situation changes drastically by the addition of yet another character into our drama: the crowd.  The ordinary common people of Jerusalem show up, and they demand action – action in the form of Jesus’ death.

Behold the Man (Crucify Him!), Mihály Munkácsy (1896)

So, if you’re keeping score at home, this is where we stand: The religious leaders really, really want Jesus to be executed, but they have no authority to impose the death penalty.  Pilate has that authority, but he’s not really interested in putting an innocent man to death.  But the crowd wants someone to die, and they are convinced that Jesus is as good as anyone else in this regard.  One writer puts it this way:

In this tumultuous scene, rival authorities vie for power. The chief priests, elders, and scribes have religious authority, which they can exercise only by manipulating a Roman governor and an excitable crowd,  Pilate possesses civil authority, but will not act on his own judgment because, like the religious leaders, he fears the crowd. The crowd clamors for blood, but with no clear sense of purpose or direction.[1]

As this trial ends in the same fashion as the one the previous day – with Jesus undergoing yet another undeserved beating and humiliation – I think that Mark’s point is really clear: there are no bystanders at this point in the story.  Somehow, we are all participants in the extermination of this teacher from Nazareth. The commoners in Jerusalem saw no intersection between their lives and that of Jesus – or, if his life did affect theirs, it was to disappoint or anger them to the point where they clamored for his death.

Remember, friends, that the Gospel of Mark was written as a handbook for the Christians who were undergoing trials of their own in Nero’s Rome. All of this had to be, for these first hearers of the Gospel, an encouragement.  In their suffering and persecution, they were in some way more like Jesus.  Although Mark doesn’t spell it out as clearly here as does Paul in Philippians 2, I think his point is similar: the common Christians in Rome can identify with Jesus because he can identify with them.

Crucify Him, Peter Gorban (1923- 1995)

So what about us?  We are, I think it’s safe to say, “commoners” here in Pittsburgh in 2019. What is the impact of all of this on our lives?

On this 5thSunday in Lent, 2019 we need to make sure that disciples of Jesus are absolutely paying attention to what happened on that morning so long ago.  When we scan the faces of the hostile crowd, we need to recognize our own faces, and those of our neighbors.  When we observe the religious leaders’ commitment to destroying the life of someone whose understanding of Gospel was at odds with their own, we need to remember that kind of destructive instinct is not peculiar to our sisters and brothers of 2000 years ago.  We need to confess the fact that even the most ardent of disciples in our day and age will often find it easier to identify with the religious leaders or with the crowds than we do with Jesus.

And perhaps most strikingly to me, I am tempted to see my own reflection in the face of Pilate.  I recently discovered a letter that was written in the voice of Pontius Pilate to a colleague in Rome.  Listen:

The Most Noble Tertius Quartus, Rome

Your Excellency: You may have heard of the disturbance in Jerusalem last spring over the trial and execution of one Christus. It was quite a nuisance. But then, everything in this miserable province is a nuisance.  But it pass off all right, and we will never hear of Christus again.

My skirts are clear.  I rather liked the man.  He was what these Jews call a prophet, from upcountry, unsophisticated, of course. But compared to the rabble yelling their heads off, and the priests pushing their flimsy charges with no evidence at all that would hold in a Roman court, he was dignified and attractive.  I told them plainly and courageously that I found no fault in him.  But they kept yelling, ‘Crucify him!’ so I washed my hands of the whole affair.

My reasons were sound.  To have let this Christus go free would have meant a riot and disorder and, no doubt, complaints to Rome.  And you know that could be a lot of trouble.  A procurator must keep order above all things.

Besides, it was none of my business, really.  The man had committed no crime, but after all it was not my affair to mix into the squabbles of these fanatical Jews. It was their business, not mine.

And then it just happened to be a lucky chance to get solid backing from two groups usually opposed to me – the priests and the populace. I couldn’t let that slip.  It will mean a lot to my prestige and career here, and I hope in Rome too.

So if you hear any different reports, dismiss them.

With high esteem,
Pontius Pilate[2]

I found that little bit of creative writing to be spot on, because it illustrates that at the end of the day, Pilate chose to do less than his best, and less than what was right, because it was too much trouble, it was none of his business, and it might wind up costing too much time, energy, or money.

One of the reasons that I find that arresting is the fact that every day, common folks like you and I make a thousand different decisions.  We walk and talk and live and breathe and buy and sell and, if we’re not careful, Pilate’s Jerusalem or Mark’s Rome could seem like places that are far removed from us.

But this morning, my beloved, I would urge you not to make the mistake of underestimating in your life the power of the temptations that faced Pilate.  We are called to follow Christ.  We have said that we would follow him.  We are here, we think, following together.  And yet, how often do some or all of us shrink back from fully embracing the Kingdom of God because, well, because it might be more trouble, or fuss, or cost than we think we have to spare right now?

I will add my voice to Paul’s in encouraging you (and me) to “put on the mind of Christ” each day.  To recognize that there are times when we will move forward in resistance to the powers that surround us.

I saw this when I was walking with one of you and there was a grown man yelling at a child. Not in discipline, but rather berating and belittling the child.  The little boy was whimpering and crying under the onslaught of the cursing, but the man was drunk, or high, or crazed with anger.  And one of you stopped and said, “Hey, man – is that how you want to be talking to your boy?  Is that how you want him to remember you?  I don’t know what happened here, but I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t need to hear that kind of cursing from you.  Maybe you could find a more appropriate way to vent.” It was a risk to have said that.  I might have cost something.  But I think that Jesus would have said something, and one of you did.

I saw this kind of discipleship when one of you heard about an opportunity to make a financial gift in support of a ministry that was changing lives.  You were planning to retire, but you figured that if you worked another six months, that would allow you to do something important in a community that needed it.

I saw courage and purpose like this when one of you challenged your pastor on an important social issue. You thought that maybe I was coasting, that maybe I was taking the easy way, and you wanted to be sure that I was being attentive to the voice of Jesus, and so you came in and sat with me and asked me some hard questions.

And I saw what the mind of Christ looks like when one of the young people in the congregation talked about befriending a classmate who was being mistreated because of that student’s wardrobe and apparent lifestyle. I don’t know whether our young friend agreed with all of the decisions of her classmate… but I do know that she reached out in love and extended a welcome that the other student had not found elsewhere.

In those, and so many other ways, I see what it looks like to put on the mind of Christ.  When I read the story of the day that Jesus stood in front of Pilate and was condemned by the crowd, I need to remember that somehow it made sense on that day for common people in Jerusalem to choose a man of hate and violence over a man of love and peace.  When they did that on that day, they ensured that he would literally die for them.

That’s what the crowd did on that day.  We can’t undo it, but we can learn from it.  Mark Twain is credited with saying “while history may not necessarily repeat itself, it often rhymes.”  Today, we have the privilege and the responsibility to honor Christ’s authority in our lives by looking for ways in which we might choose to live wisely and well – for him, and for our neighbors, whom he loves.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1 ]Interpretation Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1983) p. 273.

[2]The Christian Century, March 14, 1951, p. 329; quoted in The Gospel According to Mark and its Meaning for Todayby Ernest Trice Thompson (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968) pp. 230-231.

Everyman’s Lament

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 27, we read through the longest poem contained in Lamentations – chapter 3 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

Near the end of the 15thcentury an unknown author wrote a play in either Dutch or English entitled Everyman.  That play begins with God sending Death to visit a character named Everyman in order to tell him that it was time to make an account of his life before God. Everyman panics, and asks for more time, but Death refuses to add even a single day.  However, Death does allow Everyman the opportunity to find a companion to accompany him to the grave.

Everyman rushes to find company, but Fellowship and Family refuse to travel. Goods says that she cannot come – nor will Beauty, Strength, Wits, or anyone else.  Finally, Good Deeds says she’d like to come along, but is too weak for the journey because Everyman has not been attentive to her during his lifetime. Everyman eventually realizes through this pilgrimage that each of us is essentially alone at the hour of our death and we have nothing but our good deeds to accompany us to the grave.

Everyman is an example of what we have come to know as a “morality play” – a production that is designed to increase personal understanding of the faith and to promote faithful living and a just society.

I bring Everyman to mind this evening because in some ways, this is what we find in the poem of Lamentations 3.  Just as with the previous two poems in this book, chapter 3 is an acrostic poem written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. However you will notice some key differences between this work and those that precede it.

Whereas chapters 1 and 2 consist of 22 verses, each of which starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, chapter 3 is the most complicated poem in the book.  There are three verses for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and it doesn’t even mention the destruction of the city. Rather, there is a response to the event.  Another significant difference is that this poem begins in the first person, rather than switching voices halfway through. Finally, the narrator is most decidedly a male voice who speaks in contrast to the feminine voice assigned to Jerusalem in chapters 1 and 2.  Look with me at the first six stanzas of this poem:

1I am someone who saw the suffering caused by God’s angry rod.
He drove me away, forced me to walk in darkness, not light.
He turned his hand even against me, over and over again, all day long.

He wore out my flesh and my skin; he broke my bones.
He besieged me, surrounding me with bitterness and weariness.
He made me live in dark places like those who’ve been dead a long time.

He walled me in so I couldn’t escape; he made my chains heavy.
Even though I call out and cry for help, he silences my prayer.
He walled in my paths with stonework; he made my routes crooked.

10 He is a bear lurking for me, a lion in hiding.
11 He took me from my path and tore me apart; he made me desolate.
12 He drew back his bow, made me a shooting target for arrows.

13 He shot the arrows of his quiver into my inside parts.
14 I have become a joke to all my people, the object of their song of ridicule all day long.
15 He saturated me with grief, made me choke on bitterness.

16 He crushed my teeth into the gravel; he pressed me down into the ashes.
17 I’ve rejected peace; I’ve forgotten what is good.
18 I thought: My future is gone, as well as my hope from the Lord.

This lone male voice is, truly, an Everyman.  Did you hear in this long reflection that once again, God is named as the source of the narrator’s pain?  This is a continuation of themes developed in the first two poems – God is angry, God has done this.  Here, the effect of God’s anger is personalized – because our narrator – Everyman – has been humbled.  His weakness and frailty and even impotence is on display; he is vulnerable.

What is interesting is that verse 18 marks the ending of the accusations about God’s role in the story.  The remainder of this poem, and, by and large, the rest of the book, will focus on the response to the situation that has developed.

Let’s turn our attention to what happens after the narrator finds himself exposed and vulnerable:

19 The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
20 I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
21 I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended;  certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
24 I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

25 The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
26 It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.
27 It’s good for a man to carry a yoke in his youth.

28 He should sit alone and be silent when God lays it on him.
29 He should put his mouth in the dirt—perhaps there is hope.
30 He should offer his cheek for a blow; he should be filled with shame.

The response to having been humbled, or brought low, or made aware is to seek to remind himself of what he has known to be true.  He anchors himself in what God has revealed about God’s self, which is most simply and appropriately described as “faithful love”. In spite of his own experience; in spite of his own pain, he disciplines himself to remember that his current situation is neither reflective of the original intent nor a universal condition. So that personal recollection leads him to the next part of the poem:

31 My Lord definitely won’t reject forever.
32 Although he has caused grief, he will show compassion in measure with his covenant loyalty.
33 He definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer.

34 Now crushing underfoot all the earth’s prisoners,
35     denying someone justice before the Most High,
36     subverting a person’s lawsuit—doesn’t my Lord see all this?

37 Who ever spoke and it happened if my Lord hadn’t commanded the same?
38 From the mouth of the Most High evil things don’t come, but rather good!
39 Why then does any living person complain; why should anyone complain about their sins?

The stanzas that make up verses 31-39 contain an extended section of teaching and theological reflection.  In the margins of my bible I have written “who is the author trying to convince here?” Is he talking, as most preachers do, to himself? Is he lobbying a group of hearers who have suffered similarly? Or is he speaking to some disinterested bystanders or even to those who have attacked his home?

No matter his intended audience, he gets himself so worked up that the voice of the text shifts slightly.  Notice how the next few stanzas adopt a first person plural:

40 We must search and examine our ways; we must return to the Lord.
41 We should lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.
42 We are the ones who did wrong; we rebelled. But you, God, have not forgiven.

43 You wrapped yourself up in wrath and hunted us; you killed, showing no compassion.
44 You wrapped yourself up in a cloud; prayers can’t make it through!
45 You made us trash and garbage in front of all other people.

46 All our enemies have opened their mouths against us.
47 Terror and trap have come upon us, catastrophe and collapse!
48 Streams of water pour from my eyes because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

Do you see what has happened here? His personal reflection on the situation and subsequent theological exploration have led him to a rallying cry for action! He begins with confession – what the community did.  And that leads to a lament – a statement of truth and a recognition that the world is currently characterized by chaos and pain.

That is continued in the next two stanzas:

49 My eyes flow and don’t stop. There is no relief
50     until the Lord looks down from the heavens and notices.
51 My eyes hurt me because of what’s happened to my city’s daughters.

52 My enemies hunted me down like a bird, relentlessly, for no reason.
53 They caught me alive in a pit and threw stones at me;
54     water flowed over my head. I thought: I’m finished.

This, beloved, is what lamentation can and should look like. The speaker, regaining his sense of vulnerability and brokenness says simply, “There is no relief…I’m finished…”

The sense of active lament is intensified in the next few stanzas:

55 I call on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit.
56 Hear my voice. Don’t close your ear to my need for relief, to my cry for help.
57 Come near to me on the day I call to you. Say to me, “Don’t be afraid.”

58 My Lord! Plead my desperate case; redeem my life.
59 Lord, look at my mistreatment; judge my cause.
60 Look at all of my enemies’ vengeance, all of their scheming against me.

61 Hear their jeering, Lord, all of their scheming against me,
62     the speech of those who rise up against me, their incessant gossiping about me.
63 Whether sitting or standing, look at how I am the object of their song of ridicule.

Notice the verbs: the posture of lament has stirred the spirit of the speaker to request that God move – now. Hear.  Come.  Speak. Save. Redeem.  Look. Judge.  The speaker who began this poem by blaming God for the pain that he himself is experiencing is now recognizing that God alone is the source of help and strength and, above all, justice and reconciliation.

The poem ends with what we might call “imprecatory” verses.  This is a particular style of prayer in which the one leading the prayer invites, asks, or begs God to bring pain or misery into the life of another.  It is a prayer for the destruction of an enemy.  Listen:

64 Pay them back fully, Lord, according to what they have done.
65 Give them a tortured mind—put your curse on them!
66 Angrily hunt them down; wipe them out from under the Lord’s heaven.

To our ears, imprecatory verses are difficult to hear – I hope because we understand a little better the divine intent as expressed by Jesus as he ties the forgiveness we receive from God with our willingness to extend that forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  It is clear that this prayer ends with a plea for punishment of those who have brought pain.  We should note, though, that it remains a plea for Godto act, rather than a call for some within the community rise up and seek revenge.

The poem ends with the narrator giving God some free advice – but realizing that this is God’s sphere, and not his own. He places himself firmly under God’s authority and direction even as he honestly cries out from his own pain.

I began this message by referring to the medieval play Everyman.  The final lines of that play are spoken by a “Doctor of Divinity” who is seeking to hammer home the message of that work: that there is nothing to which we can cling in this life that will save us, only the mercy and justice of God.  It is therefore incumbent on every man (and every woman!) to live each day with an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by that mercy and justice.

I conclude this sermon in the same fashion: only instead of warning you about the fleeting nature of pride, possessions, or knowledge, I will remind you that each and every one of us has spent every moment of our lives in a culture that is assumes, in one way or another, that the perspectives, opinions, and experiences that come with “whiteness” are normal and right, and any deviations from those perspectives, opinions, or experiences are wrong or abnormal.

When we breathe air like that, beloved, we become fundamentally misshapen. We lose track of who, and whose, we are; we cannot see our neighbor or ourselves aright.  When we breathe this air too long, we find ourselves seeing “us” and “them”; we see young men in hoodies as “thugs” or we place targets on the backs of law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to promote justice and serve the common good.  Everyone loses when we accept the notion that whiteness is normative.

I would suggest that the call of God for our congregation, this evening, is to enter into a time of lament.  To recognize in ourselves and our neighbors the destruction that comes

  • when we value one race above another;
  • when we centralize one culture while marginalizing another;
  • when we choose to use our power to extend our own advantage and somehow – knowingly or not – wind up eroding the humanity of those who do not look like us.

Let us enter into a time of prayer, wherein we lay before the Lord our own confession of brokenness and our lament for a world in which the color of a person’s skin seems too often to be more important than the content of that person’s heart and wherein too many of God’s children with brown skin are burying their children and living in fear.  The world should not be this way, beloved.  Let us hear their cry, and add our own to it.  Let us decry and deny the subtle or not-so-subtle racism that wants us to believe that “there are good people on both sides” – as if there can be anything good about a values system that seeks to discredit, disinherit, or destroy the other.

I don’t want to end my message with, or include in my prayers, any words that are imprecatory.  I’m not looking call down fire and brimstone on anyone.  I’m looking for ways to encourage us to live into the Kingdom that we get so worked up about every time we come into this room.  If it matters in this room, then it should matter out there. And if it isn’t showing up out there – then we need to consider how it is we are applying the things we learn while we’re here.  Let us, beloved, stand for this thing that matters.  Let us, beloved, stand with these sisters and brothers who struggle. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

2019 Texas Mission #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen seeing her “new” living room.

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

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

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

 

Old Befana: An Epiphany Story for All Ages

On Epiphany (January 6, 2019) God’s people gathered for worship.  In these times of fear and distrust of the “other”, it seemed wise to me to share an old story from Italy.  When my own daughter was a child, I particularly enjoyed the legend of Befana as retold by Tomie dePaola in his wonderful book The Legend of Old Befana. I combined elements from his retelling with some other material from La Befana: An Italian Night After Christmas by Susan Frey-Blanchard.  After we shared the story, we had communion and then the children led us through an activity to do at home: the “chalking of the doors”.  You can read more about that practice as well as finding a liturgy for use at your own home in a post from 2015 by by clicking here.

You can listen to the story as told in worship by clicking on the media player below:

A long, long time ago there was a small village in the countryside. On the edge of that village was a tiny house that was remarkable for two reasons.  First, it was undoubtedly the cleanest house you’ve ever seen, and second, it smelled better than any home you’ve ever visited.

Inside the little home lived a very old woman whose name was Strega Befana. While other people were happy to go roaming through the village or even travel the world, La Befana was happiest inside the coziness of her little house.  She kept busy all winter long by sewing little toys to sell to families who had need for such, or by making herbal remedies and potions to sell to those who were not feeling well, or by baking some of the most amazing bread and cookies you’ve ever eaten.

She also kept busy – very, very busy, by making sure her home was clean. She swept the floors at least three times a day – morning, noon, and night.  If there was one thing that Strega Befana hated, it was a dirty home!

While she depended on other people to buy the things that she created, La Befana actually didn’t like people very well and never admitted them inside her house when she could avoid it.  She sold them their toys or their cookies or their ointments, and then she sent them away.  She led a clean, quiet, life, and didn’t want anyone messing with that!

One night, when she had finished sweeping the last stair and had pulled in the lantern and blown out the light, she was presented with a mystery.  Her home was not dark!  She checked the lantern and it was indeed out – but the light was pouring in through the window.  “Why was it so light?” she wondered.  She looked out the window and saw a star was shining brightly – it was the brightest star she had ever seen!  But she didn’t have time to think about what was happening, because she was startled by a knock on the door. “Visitors now?” she complained.  “Who is bothering old Befana so late?  If it wasn’t bad enough with the sky all lit up, now I have company!” No one had ever came so late before.

She peeked out her window to see who was there and saw an old man who was magnificently dressed.  He looked to be very learned, his face was quite tan, and although his clothes were brightly colored, they were covered with dust from the road.  His shoes were very muddy, and he looked worn out from his travel.

She opened the door, reluctantly, and he stepped inside – with his dirty shoes and muddy pants.  “Good evening!”, he said. “I’m sorry to be disturbing you at such a late hour, but I am lost.  I’m on a great mission – I’ve seen a sign that a child has been born – one who will lead us all in the years to come.  This child is divine!  He is full of joy, hope, and love.  I know that he is sent from God above.  I’ve brought gifts to this child, and I want to give him my heart, too.”

The old man saw the little toys and things on the shelves in La Befana’s home.  “Oh! You could come with us! These things that you sell would be fit for a king like this baby!”

Befana wasn’t too sure about that, and she didn’t like the fact that this man was dressed so funny, and that he was out there following the stars. And he was MUDDY.

“No, no, no,” she said.  “I don’t know anything about this child, and I can’t help, and I certainly don’t want to go out following a star or some such nonsense!”  She showed him the way to the door and reached for her broom to start cleaning up the mess.

No sooner had she started cleaning when there was another knock on the door.  She saw another man, also dressed quite finely. “What do you want?”, she yelled through the closed door.

He answered, “I need directions, my friend.  I am also looking for supplies for a journey.”

The second gentleman and his friends came inside.  Like the first, their boots were covered with grime and dirt. “My friend,” he said “We are seeking a child of light – one who will become a King! We go to bring gifts and offer him our hands. He will bring good news to the poor, and to change the world! Why don’t you join us as we travel to see him?”

Once more she assured them that she was not at all interested in something like that, and so she sold them what they needed and sent them out into the night.

She thought that they had all gone, but she looked out and there was still a young boy, holding a camel.  “Please, Befana!”, he said, “Come with us!  We will find the king, and he will be good news for all people!  He will love and help the poor.  There’s still time!  Join us!”  But Strega Befana just closed the door and collapsed into her chair.

She looked at her room – it had been soooooo clean! She set down her broom and decided that she’d take a quick nap before she cleaned it up again. As soon as she sat to rest, the oak door was pounded on one more time.  She didn’t even get up – she just yelled at the door: “Go away! I know nothing about this child that everyone is trying to find!  Please, leave at once!  I will not come, and I’m not interested in selling anything else!”

Whoever it was that had knocked went away slowly, and La Befana finally started to finish cleaning up her house.  She muttered and sighed as she swept.  “Coming to serve the poor…hmph!  Old Befana is poor.  Does this baby care for her?  I think not!”

But when she opened the door to sweep the dirt out she let out a small cry. There in the distance, something bright caught her eye.  It was a wondrous new star in the deep blue sky.  Something in her changed, and she realized that this was not an ordinary star, and it was not an ordinary day.

She thought back to those lost gentlemen, the king they were seeking, and the gifts that they’d brought. “That star – and those visitors – they were right!” she said to herself.  “Maybe it’s not too late for me to go.  I will find them.  I will go with them and present my gift to the child king.  But what could I take?”

She set down her broom and went to the kitchen.  All day long she baked.  When she was not baking, she was clearing all the little toys from her shelves, throwing everything into a large bag.

She put on a shawl, and she opened the door.  She grabbed her broom, thinking, “I imagine that when I find that baby his mother will not have had time to clean.  I can help her with the sweeping of her home…”

But as she stood at the door looking back into her home, La Befana noticed that there was a speck of dust in the corner of the room.  She thought, “Well, now, how would it be if I were to go on a trip and leave my own home a mess!”

And so La Befana put down her sack and started to sweep.  She got the speck of dust.  And then she swept the room, and the other room.  She swept the steps, and she even thought to sweep the walk outside.

Finally – hours later – she was ready to leave.  She glimpsed the star all right, and she walked toward it. She was in such a hurry that she began to run, and she ran as fast as she could… but it was a long way, and she was old, and she got tired.  She started to walk, and she thought, “This is no good.  I’ll never find this baby.  I don’t even know where he is.”

And, sure enough, when she looked at the sky again, she wasn’t sure which star was THE star.  She sat down and cried.  She got up again, and started to walk when she saw a home with an open window.  She looked inside, and there was a child asleep. “I wonder,” she said, “Could this be the one?  Is this the one who is born to be king? Maybe I better leave something just in case…? The further Old Befana walked, the more sleeping children she passed, and in every home she left a small gift and swept it a little cleaner with her broom, because she said, “After all, I’m not sure which of these was born to bring good news to the poor and to change the world.”

Well, La Befana never caught up with the wise men, and she never made it to Bethlehem, and she is still not sure which child they came to see.

So now, every year on the eve of the Feast of the Three Kings, the story is told of a sad old lady who flies around on her broom, bringing little treats to all children.  She’s happy that she can share what she’s been given, but she’s sad because she wasn’t able to welcome the visitors to her home, and she missed her chance to follow them and to greet the Christ child.  She’s decided that from now on, she’ll never miss the chance to show kindness to strangers, or to welcome visitors, and in so doing, to follow the star of Bethlehem.

How’s Your Follow?

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 23 we heard the plea to “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”.  You can hear a version of that at the end of the post, below.  Our scriptural basis was the original call to the shepherds in Luke 2:1-20 as well as the example of Ruth in Ruth 1:16-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  If you typically read the message, I’d really encourage you to listen this week, as I think that the audio is a a little better proclamation.

Maybe it’s just me… or maybe it’s simply another sign that I’m getting to be pretty old… but this year in particular, I’ve been struck by a phrase that has become a feature in advertising.

ONE DAY ONLY!

We have to Act Fast! Do It Now! Christmas only comes around once a year, Bub, and if you’re going to be a good parent / child / sibling / neighbor, well then you’d better get moving and get shopping! If you don’t drag yourself to the mall, or write out the Christmas cards, or plan the big dinner NOW – well, forget about it.

It’s Christmas, for crying out loud! You’re supposed to be driving / spending / baking / shopping yourself into a frenzy.

Why? Because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Don’t try this at home… SERIOUSLY, DO NOT try this at home…

Listen, if I ever go out and make a $60,000 purchase without talking to my wife about it, you’d better believe that you’re going to hear a lot about that decision… and I’m here to tell you that whatever may be said about that kind of foolish and reckless behavior, two words that will not be included are “most wonderful”.

But we do this, don’t we?  We put such great expectations on the holiday season, or on a single day, or even into one particular hour that if a flight is delayed or a home is sold or a loved one dies, well, then, everything is ruined and it’s the most horrible time of the year.

You are aware, I presume, that this is not how it’s supposed to be…

Nativity scene with figures in black silhouette against blue starry sky with comet star lightbeam.

The Biblical model for Christmas is something unassuming and surprising; it is something that draws us in rather than railroading us into action.

This month we’ve been seeking to be attentive to some songs of lament and hope that we know as African American Spirituals. Today’s song, “Rise Up, Shepherd”, is shaped around the word “follow”, and I’m here to tell you that as such it is a prophetic word to the culture in the USA in 2018.

Christmas in 2018 is about creating meaning and inventing significance – about building up expectation and acquiring the right gift, people, or experience so that you just know that it’s Christmas and, more so, that you’ve won Christmas.

The first Christmas, on the other hand, was more about discovering what was already there; at joining in with what had begun.  It was about following the soft light of a star that had been shining for, well, who knows?  It was about responding to the song of the angels and then hurrying to get to the place where God was already at work.

“Follow, follow; rise up, shepherd, and follow…”

We use that word a lot these days, don’t we? And I’m here to tell you that there are a lotof followers out there.

How many of you use the social platform called Instagram?  Do you know who has the most followers on that photo and video-sharing network?  Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese soccer player, has 148.3 million followers.

How about Twitter? Who would you suppose is the most popular tweet-er?  An American woman, Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, a.k.a. Katy Perry, is followed by 107 million people – that is more than twice as many as follow any President of the USA, living or dead (although the dead guys don’t tweet as often…).

Or what about Facebook?  How many “friends” do you have? Who would you suppose has the most followers on Facebook? Once again, it is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 122.5 million followers; he is followed by a Columbian pop star named Shakira.

And you say, “Ah, all that social media stuff. I’m not into that.”  Maybe not.  But I bet that you could use the word “follow” to describe your relationship with the Penguins, or the Stock Market, or the soap operas.

In our culture, surprisingly, the word  “follow” has become a passive activity.  When you say that you “follow” Shakira or the Penguins, you probably mean that you identify as an interested party or as a fan.  However, you probably don’t invest a great deal of your time or energy in “following” Evgeni Malkin or the latest share price for US Steel.  In “following” these things, you’re keeping an eye on them, and hoping that they might do something that would interest or benefit you. Do you see what I mean when I suggest that it is a “passive” activity?

Did you know that the Internal Revenue Service has a special category for “Passive Activity”? According to them, passive activities are those in which you participate non-materially – that is, less than 500 hours in a given year.  For tax purposes, you can only claim to be actively pursuing a trade or business activity if you spend close to ten hours a week doing so.

I’m here to say that I hope that nobody in this room is investing ten hours a week in Ronaldo, or Shakira, or the Steelers place-kicker.  Oh, we say, we follow those folks.  But they don’t really impact us.  That’s what I mean when we use the word “follow” to indicate a mild interest, or a plan to keep tabs on someone who really is tangential to the main parts of my life.

Yet when we use that definition of “follow” in terms of our discipleship, well, that’s incomplete. According to the spiritual we just sang, you will be so entranced by the presence of the Christ that your following will result in the forgetting of your flocks and of your herds…

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

One of the best examples of a follower in the Bible is from the ancient story of Ruth. This woman, who had been born as an outsider – a Moabite – had been through some incredible difficulty. There was a famine in her home land, and it was so severe that it took the lives of her father-in-law, her brother-in-law, and eventually her husband.  Most of her contemporaries would have said that she was all alone – except she was not.  She had a vibrant relationship with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  She was so captivated by what she saw in the person of Naomi that she left her old life behind so that she could get in on what Naomi was doing.

You heard her declaration a few moments ago: it’s about as far from passive as one can get, isn’t it?  For Ruth, “following” meant adopting a new address, a new culture, a new diet, and new habits.

For the first disciples, following Jesus meant disrupting their vocational plans, involvement in significant conflict, and most often, an untimely death.

For many who sang that spiritual, following Jesus meant holding onto hope in the midst of days that seemed bleak and ugly; it meant trusting God to right wrongs even as they themselves worked to subvert an order that was fundamentally unjust.

“Follow, follow; rise up shepherd and follow…”

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

The shepherds were drawn in.  The wise men sought slowly and deliberately.  The disciples re-oriented their lives.

How are you following?  And is it the way that you’d like to follow?

I’m here to suggest that even though it’s technically notChristmas yet, it’s probably too late for this year.  I mean, Christmas Eve is tomorrow, for crying out loud.  I think that for must of us, the 2018 Christmas train has left the station.

Don’t get me wrong – I hope to share with you in worship; I’ll advocate for you to look for ways to avoid overspending and unwise debt and to seek out ways to be fully present with  people in the days that are to come.

But what about after Christmas?  What will the days following Christmas look like for you?

You see, in our current cultural understanding, the number one activity immediately following Christmas (“the most wonderful time of the year”) is kicking back, taking time off work if you can, and breathing a huge sigh of relief… “Oh, boy, I’m glad that’s over! I sure wouldn’t want to have to go through that again!  Now it’s time to get back to what I want to do.  I want to spend on the things that I’m interested in.  I get to eat what I want to, and to go where I want to go…

As if following the Bethlehem star, or being ‘good’ for Santa, or living in relationship with other people is somehow outside of our normal experience and something we can’t wait to stop…

Today, I’d like to ask you to make the days following Christmas days in which you seek to follow Jesus.  And I’d like to suggest that there are at least four things that you can do to help you be a better follower…

Rest.  I know, you’re planning on that, just as soon as you get back from Aunt Marge’s place on the 29th.  But I mean to ask you this: can you change the pace of your life so that you have a better rhythm?  What if you built in more rest each day? I’m not saying that you’re supposed to plan more “spa” days, whatever they are.  I’m suggesting that every day, you could probably linger over a meal with a friend for a few more moments.  You could probably set aside ten or fifteen minutes at some point in the day to read something that would revive or refresh you.  I know, it might cost you some Ronaldo or Shakira time, but we all make choices…

Practice Gratitude.  I know, many people think that “thank-you” notes are a quaint and unnecessary formality, while others think that they’ve all got to be done in a week.  When we view that kind of correspondence in that way, it becomes another source of pressure and a community killer.  Look – when you receive a gift or a card, just jot it down on a list.  And then in the days, and weeks, and months to come, take a moment to write to the person who extended themselves in that way and say, “Thanks for thinking of me.  It matters. Here are some things that are happening now.  You matter.” Write a note, or send a text, or make a phone call.  Allow the practice of gratitude to drive you more deeply into relationship with people who are important to you.

Give more.  We spend a month or so rushing around hoping we’ve gotten enough stuff to give away and not feel guilty about it, and then we spend 11 months doing whatever the heck we want.  Let me encourage you to make giving a part of your following.  Look for ways to free up more time, more energy, and more money for you to share with people and causes that you think align with God’s intentions.

Try something new.  Find a new adventure or passion that will be tied to and also help feed your faith.  Maybe that’s an active step, such as finding a spot on the Texas Mission Team, or volunteering with the Open Door, or the Preschool, or The Table.  Or maybe that’s a quieter role, such as doing some tinkering around this building or visiting some of the lonely in our midst.  Maybe this is the kick in the pants you need to start investing some new time in an Adult discussion group like Faithbuilders or another small group.

Look, my sense is that for ONE DAY ONLY we’re willing to sit and talk with people a little longer, or to pretend to be grateful, or to make a donation to a cause that we don’t really care about, or to try something new… but then we are ready to get back to “normal”.  But really, if Christmas is for one day only – if it’s the 25thand then back to business as usual… I think we’re doing it wrong.

Follow, follow; rise up, Shepherd, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Is He Talking to ME?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

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

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

Rules Are Rules

 

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 4, we took some time to think about one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, the one regarding divorce and remarriage. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:1-12.  

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

As we begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to test your baseball knowledge.  Let’s say that I’m the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, I’m still dreaming…). I’m up to bat, and Jon Lester of the Cubs throws two fastballs right past me.  I’m in the hole.  But somehow, I manage to stay alive and have an at-bat for the ages.  He throws me 17 more pitches, and I foul off 14 of them while three are for balls. Now, it’s full count, and I’m on the verge of breaking the MLB record for the longest at-bat ever.  On the 20thpitch to me, I swing awkwardly, and I manage to foul off yet another pitch, but in so doing I wrench my back horribly. After laying in the dirt a few moments, it’s obvious I can’t play any further. Clint Hurdle comes out and helps me off the field and you come in to replace me.  Lester eyes you up and throws a change-up – a grapefruit – right down the middle of the plate.  You watch it go by for strike 3.

When the records of this game are finalized, who has to carry that strikeout on his record? Me.  According to Rule #10.17(b), “ When the batter leaves the game with two strikes against him, and the substitute batter completes a strikeout, charge the strikeout and the time at bat to the first batter.”

But let’s say that you DON’T do that.  Let’s say that you come in and you take a pitch that is so, so close – but you let it go by for ball 4, and you head down to first base.  In this instance, even though I’ve endured the first 20 pitches of the at-bat, youget credit for the base on balls.  The same rule that makes me liable for the negative result gives you credit for the positive one – even though our actions are unchanged.  It doesn’t seem right.

Rules are rules. Most of the time, we want them. We need them to guide us.  We rely on them to help us keep things straight.

Sometimes, we ignore them.  Sometimes, we twist them to get what we want.  Oftentimes, we wish they were different.

Rules are rules.

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

Our reading from Mark invites us to overhear a conversation between Jesus and some members of the Pharisees.  Although they have a bit of a bad reputation nowadays, I suspect that most of the Pharisees were good people, and I further suspect that Jesus had more respect for most Pharisees than he did for other religious groups in his day.  He argued a lot with them, but I think that’s because he thought that they were on to something – they were almost there – but they couldn’t quite see where Jesus was going.

More than anyone else, the Pharisees sought to codify what it meant to be faithful to God. Do this.  Don’t do that.

So these very religious folks come to Jesus and they have a question about the rules.  It seems like a pretty easy yes/no question: is a man allowed to divorce his wife?  That seems like a pretty cut and dried question.

However, a closer reading of the text would indicate that they were not interested in merely acquiring knowledge.  Mark says that they asked him this question in order to test him.  I suspect that they are looking for a way to put Jesus in a bad spot.  He has come through the Galilee into Judea as he is walking toward his death in Jerusalem, and they interrupt this pilgrimage by asking about divorce.  In King Herod’s back yard.  You may recall that the last time we read about divorce in Mark, it was when John the Baptist was beheaded for being critical of the fact that the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had divorced his first wife in order to marry his brother’s wife.  I suspect that in asking this question at this time, the Pharisees are hoping that Jesus might say something that would attract Herod’s attention in such a way as to induce the monarch to attempt to silence the Rabbi.

Moreover, at that time there was a significant disagreement within the community about the ethics of divorce.  As the Pharisees rightly pointed out, the rules (aka the commandments of God) allowed for divorce, but only a) if it is initiated by the man and b) if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Hillel and Shammai, Artist Unknown

Most of the faithful in that time agreed that divorce was possible. There was conflict, though, as folks disagreed about what “uncleanness” meant.  A very influential teacher named Shammai said that when the Law allowed for divorce, the only acceptable form of “uncleanness” was infidelity.  Adultery was the only permissible reason for a man to send his wife away.

Not long after that, another teacher by the name of Hillel said that “uncleanness” could cover a multitude of offenses, such as if the wife spilled food on her husband, or if she spoke ill of his family, or even if he saw someone who was more attractive to him than wife #1.  Any of these reasons, and a hundred more, were sufficient cause, according to Hillel, to dissolve a marriage.

I’ll give you one guess whose views were more popular amongst the men in that region at that time.  Hillel’s teaching was carrying the day, and divorce was rampant.

“Hey, Jesus? Can we get a divorce? Moses said we could!  Rules are rules, right?”

And I can hear Jesus sigh and say, “Yeah, Moses said that because he knew that you were a bunch of knuckleheads.”  He then offers a teaching that takes the discussion to a whole new level.

Jesus’ teaching about divorce makes the most sense in, and speaks most plainly to, a culture in which divorce is an issue of justice for the marginalized, rather than a straightforward legal procedure between two equals.  When a man sought to “send his wife away”, he was often condemning her to poverty, to shame, and to alienation.  Divorce in Jesus’ day was overwhelmingly an injustice to the woman, who was most frequently thought of as a “thing”, one who was subject to the whims of the male head of her family.

Christ and the Pharisees, Ernst Zimmerman (1870 – 1944)

In this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, and he talks to them about marriage. They were looking at problems.  He was looking at the plan, and reminds them of the creational intent for human relationships as found not in Deuteronomy, but further back, in Genesis.

Then, Jesus takes the disciples aside and elaborates.  “If a man divorces his wife,” says Jesus, “he commits adultery. And if a woman divorces her husband”, which was virtually impossible in that day and age, “she commits adultery.” Rules are rules.

But people are people.  I think that what Jesus was saying to the people in the room is that if a man attempts to discredit, disempower, or disenfranchise his wife (or injure his family) based on his own whims, then he becomes the one who is unclean or impure. Humans matter.  Relationships of intimacy are important – important for those who share them as well as for those who bear witness to them and who find their lives shaped by them.

So how do we read this in 21stCentury America?  What about divorce now?

Before I say anything, I want to recognize and claim the fact that I am speaking from a certain position.  I enjoy a number of privileges: I am white.  I am male. I am heterosexual, and have participated in one marriage.  Compared to many in this room, and many in the room with Jesus two thousand years ago, my life has been easy and uncomplicated.  I have to admit that if I had not committed to preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, I’d probably have skipped this passage.

But here we are, listening to a first-century Rabbi try to encounter this difficult question in his day and age, and not only that, but seeking to draw some ultimate meaning and truth from it.

Here’s what I think: in answering a question about Moses with a scripture about creation, Jesus is indicating that relationships are a part of our creational identity, and therefore an invitation to practice godliness in everyday life.  In pointing to the way things were at the beginning, he is affirming that the ways that we treat each other (and ourselves) matter.  And he is pointing out that breaking troth with each other – practicing faithlessness – has consequences.

However, I would further suggest that Jesus does not allow any of us to be in a position to be sanctimonious or judgmental.  In some traditions, participation in a divorce, no matter what the cause, excludes people from full participation in the life of the community.

I had a friend who felt this way.  She was married at a young age to a man who seemed so much more sophisticated than she. They had a quick courtship and they were married.  He betrayed their vows on their wedding night!  She was heartbroken, and eventually he filed for a divorce (which she did not contest).

Not only did she never marry or seek a meaningful intimate relationship again, she spent the rest of her life feeling guilty at having divorced.  She was a hard-liner, and she was a hard-liner on herself as well as anyone else.  She saw her divorce as a great stain on her life, a sin that prevented her from full participation in the life for which God made her.

And there are those who might say, “Of course! How could she do otherwise?  Look at the scripture! Jesus says that those who are involved in divorce are equivalent to adulterers.”

Maybe.  But if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to be ready to take a look at how Jesus treated adulterers. The most well-known of the stories involving Jesus and one accused of adultery ended with Jesus speaking words of compassion, grace, and encouragement to the woman who lay before him.

My hunch is that most of my friends who are younger than me have a hard time understanding the perspective of my friend who felt stained by divorce.  For many in our culture, divorce is not a deal-breaker. It happens, they say.

These people, if they claim faith in Christ, are able to see Jesus in this passage as pointing toward the Divine intent of using our relationships to honor the other, and to set up truth and beauty and integrity and faithfulness as hallmarks with which we are to treat each other.

I am certain that Jesus is nottrying to beat up anyone in this teaching, and I would caution that anyone who would use this passage for that reason does so at their own peril.

What is the take-away that we can glean from this conversation?  That life and relationships are given as a gift.  We ought to seek to honor other people every chance we get.  We are called to treasure and esteem and value others in ways that reflect the creational norms.  We must resist every temptation to use, abuse, or commodify the other.

We are not free – in fact we are called to avoid – the use of the rulebook in order to beat someone else up.

This includes the one who has wronged you.

This includes the one who is different from you.

This includes the one whom you have judged to be “unclean”.

When it comes to the rules, I think that Jesus is saying, look first at yourself, and then at Jesus, and only through the eyes of Jesus at everyone else.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Because there were a number of visitors to the congregation, I felt obliged to explain why I chose to have the congregation sing “Good, Good Father” after the sermon.  If you are unfamiliar with that tune, you can access it by clicking the video link below. You might also be interested in hearing my two-minute commentary linking the song and the sermon.  In fact, if you and I have not met, or if there is any chance that you feel “beaten up” by my use of the rulebook in the sermon above, I’d ask you to please listen to the comments by clicking on the audio player below.

Lastly, in a surprise move, the Worship Team at our congregation commemorated this observance of All Saints Day by covering “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers in celebration of the life of our dear friend Ed Schrenker.  You can hear that by using the media player below.  As you listen, please remember that we are recording in a sanctuary, not a studio.  It was just beautiful, and I wish you’d have been here!