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!

Remembering Ed Schrenker, Jr.

On Thursday, September 27, my friend Edward T. Schrenker, Jr., died in an automobile accident.  You can read his obituary by clicking here. Eddie was remembered in a Memorial Service on October 2 at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, where he served in many capacities and was an active elder. Several of Ed’s friends have asked whether the memorial service was recorded.  I am happy to provide this vehicle to include those who were not able to be there, or who might not have been able to hear the service clearly.

Because the service was so long (so sue me, Eddie), I’ve split the recording into three tracks.  Listeners might do well to open up The Order of Worship in order track their listening.

The first part of the recording begins at the bagpipe prelude and ends during the portion of worship labeled “Remembering Ed Schrenker”.

The second part of the recording begins with the portion labeled “A Daughter’s Testimony” and ends with the singing of “Amazing Grace”.

The remainder of the recording contains that portion of worship from Micah 6:8 through the Words of Committal.

One particular element of the service was a form of prayer known as dayenu .  The congregation joined in this prayer of lament and thanksgiving, and you might be encouraged to read it here.

The Sunday after Eddie’s death, his friends at church wanted to honor his memory. So we wore flannel shirts. There were more than 60 flannels in the room, sported by those as young as 11 months and as old as 85. It was beautiful.

It is my deep hope and prayer that this service pointed both toward the inspiration that Ed has been and will continue to be in the lives of those who have loved him AND the savior to whom Ed had surrendered his life and served joyfully and with abandon.

Remembering V. Eugene McCoy

My Father-in-Law, V. Eugene McCoy, died very suddenly on Monday, July 16, 2018.  From July 7 – 15, he joined the rest of the family in an incredible beach vacation that featured, among other things, our celebration of his 85th birthday. At the end of that trip, as each car prepared to depart and head north, he whispered – as he always did – into the ear of each member of the family, “Remember: Grammy and Gramps love you an awful lot!”  He arrived home late in the day on the 15th, and on the morning of the 16th he went to play his regular Monday morning tennis match.  After winning the first set convincingly, he collapsed on the court as his earthly life ended.  I was privileged to be asked to make a few remarks at his memorial service from the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE – the entirety of which was recorded and is accessible in the media link below.  Since many readers of this blog knew Gene, and since all of us know death, I thought that you might be interested in reading this.

Dad, surrounded by much of the family, getting ready to dig into the cherry pie with which we’ll celebrate his 85th birthday on July 8 2018.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, NIV)

I am humbled to stand here on behalf of the family and say a few words about the gift that Gene McCoy has been to us and to our family.

As far as I can figure it, I’ve known Gene for about 55 years.  We met here – well not actually “here”, because there was no “here” here when we met. There was an orchard and a farmhouse and a Darley wing and a big old chestnut tree where we could get really cold lemonade on days like this.  At that time, I was one of the little rugrats in the nursery and he was a guy who sneaked in during the first hymn and made his way into the side pew over there after his early morning tennis match or golf game.

Our relationship changed rather dramatically about 44 years ago when I fell in love with his daughter.  While I was walking on eggshells for a few years, I soon came to appreciate at least his tolerance and eventually his embrace.  And like everyone else in the front rows to my right – and probably everyone else in the room – I loved him fiercely.  And like each of them, I have grown secure in his love for me.

Before I say too much, I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment and reflect: what is something that Gene McCoy gave to you? Maybe it was a ride, or a piece of candy; it could’ve been a paper towel that he’d carried in his back pocket just hoping that someone would ask him for it.  Maybe it was some good advice, or a book, or a carefully clipped comic strip or bridge column.

I’ll give you a moment, because my hunch is that you can’t think of just one.

Gene McCoy was one of the most amazingly generous people you’ll ever have the privilege to meet.  While I bet everyone in the room knows this, my sense is that the people up front have had the most opportunities to witness this.  As my brother-in-law Marty said, “Gramps redefined the basic Christmas stocking.”  Each Christmas, the sons-in-law and grandchildren would find a giant bag with a tag indicating that it had been left by “the tool guy.” Every time Craftsman had a sale, Dad would go into the store and buy four or more of whatever shiny caught his eye. Do you know how when you go to a store there are special parking places for those with disabilities, and spaces for new or expectant mothers?  I’m betting that the Sears store had a reserved spot for Gene McCoy.

In fact, is there anyone here from Craftsman today?  If so, please accept my condolences.  On behalf of the entire family, we’re deeply sorry for your loss.

Now, if you’re not in our family, you’re probably smiling to yourself and thinking, “Wow, that’s nice.  Gene helped his sons-in-law get started.  That was kind of him.”

And I’m here to tell you that you don’t get it. I mean, he bought, and we got, TOOLS! So many tools.  Listen: every Christmas and every birthday for the past 40 years there has been a bag from Craftsman with my name on it.  Some of it was stuff that I really wanted, and I couldn’t afford to buy for myself – like my first Shop-Vac.  Lots of the tools were things that I didn’t even know that I needed – such as the band clamps he gave me a few years ago.  And, to be honest, there has been a lot of stuff that I had to Google to find out what it was for and if and when I might ever need it.

You might not be surprised to know that as we and Dad aged, the themes of the tool kits changed.  Early on, we seemed to find a lot of gadgets that everyone ought to have for their cars: Raise your hand if you ever had a standard-issue Gramps McCoy green tool kit or 12 volt air compressor in the back of your car… For a while he was in a “ratchet” phase. We got ratchet drivers and ratchet wrenches and flexible ratchets and who knows what else.  There was a “cordless” phase, where we got battery-operated drills, mini-tools, saws, and – believe it or not – battery-operated hammers. Who knew?

But in spite of the phases, there were some things that were always – and I mean ALWAYS there. For forty years, twice a year, I’ve gotten a bag from Gene that has contained batteries, extension cords, scotch tape, super glue, light bulbs, and, of course, clamps.

This morning I’d like to suggest that Dad’s affinity for these particular gifts was rooted in his view of the world.  When you opened your package of light bulbs – whether it was the old fashioned incandescent, or halogen, or fluorescent replacements, or LEDs, you could sense that Dad was saying that there were some dark corners in your home, and surely in our world, that needed a little more light and illumination.

When I carried those extension cords and the giant packages of batteries home, and to church, and to the youth center, it occurred to me that there are times when you just need a little more energy.  Gene drank something like 23 cups of coffee each day in order to keep himself going, and he was always encouraging me to find ways to rest, recharge, and then engage with energy and purpose.

Each time I opened a package of tape, glue, or clamps, I was reminded that things – and people – tend to fall apart sometimes. When they do, it doesn’t make sense to just throw them away.  Instead, he challenged us all to look for ways to mend, restore, and heal the things in our lives as well as the relationships in which we dwell.

In fact, it occurs to me that one gives tools to those who are able to recognize not only the brokenness of the world, but who also realize that each of us has agency – that is, we can effect change. One gives tools to those who believe that the world can and should be a better place.

In some ways, Gene McCoy is a tool given by God to help you and me to understand more of the Divine intention for this life, and to then use our energy, our intellect, and our time in working to make that intention palpable in the world.

The scripture you’ve heard from Ephesians chapter three is all about knowing what all of the best and most knowledgeable theologians say is unknowable – the love of God that surpasses knowledge.  How can you measure the love of God?  Where does it start?  Where does it end?  How in the world can we truly speak of these things that are fundamentally mysterious and supernatural?

And yet Verl Eugene McCoy, Junior, the scientist, sought to study that love.  To quantify it.  And, most importantly, to demonstrate it – to make it known not by describing it, not by talking about it, not by pointing to it – but by demonstrating it in the best way he could.  In his lavish generosity, his insatiable curiosity, his insightful questioning, his corny jokes, his love for puzzles of all kinds, his efforts to push himself and challenge you – Gene McCoy was an agent of God seeking to make the purposes of God a little more clear.

As I say this, I am fully aware of the fact that if Dad was in the room right now, he’d be wishing that I would please talk about someone else; he would be uncomfortable with all of the attention being paid to him.  To that I would simply respond that this is the first sermon I’m preaching in 30 years that Gene McCoy is not timing, he won’t be asking me to email him a copy, and he won’t be responding to it with some thoughtful questions and helpful feedback. Gene might be uncomfortable with us looking at certain aspects of his life as noteworthy or illustrative for us as we continue to walk this earthly journey, but this is one time I’m not giving him a vote.

Because here’s the deal, beloved: I know for a fact that while Alex, Marty, and I might have received the most white bags from “the tool guy”, each and every person in this room has been given tools of one sort or another – many, perhaps, by Gene himself; more, I’m sure, by others whom God has chosen.

One more thing about Dad and those tools: when he came out to Pittsburgh to visit, he would always find an excuse to go down into our basement.  I’d find him looking into my tool cabinet, and he’d ask me, “Whatever happened to the such and such I gave you three years ago?”  And if he saw a job at my place that needed to be done, he’d look at me and say, “You know, the ______ I gave you a few years back would be perfect to fix that…”  He wasn’t nagging – he was gently reminding me that I had what I needed to get stuff done.

Folks, it’s pretty simple.  Someone gives you a gift, and you say “thank you”, and then you USE that gift.  In gratitude to God, and in honor of Gene McCoy, I’d like to encourage you to take a few moments at some time today to think about the gifts you have received. Then, make sure that you actually usewhat you’ve been given to make this world a brighter, more peaceful, and less-fractured place.  It is what Gene tried to do, and it is surely the will of God for us.  Amen.

To hear the entire memorial service, including music, scriptures, and other reflections, please use the audio player below.

The remarks about Gene’s life made by his pastor, the Rev. Brad Martin, begin at approximately the 21:10 mark of the audio recording.  My remarks, outlined above, can be heard beginning at the 33:40 mark.

The comments below were made at the committal service, a gathering of our immediate family.

As we gather around the grave and contemplate the gift of Dad’s life and consider the nature of our own mortality, I’d like to share a brief reading from the first epistle of John, chapter 3:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:1-2, NIV)

As we think about the great mysteries of life and death, we have to confess that we don’t really know all that much.  We know something about what we are, but we realize that we cannot truly be sure of what we will be…

So this day, let us claim what we know: the gift of love.

This past week, as most of you know, I watched more tennis on television than I have in my entire life. For some reason I enjoyed watching Gramps and the rest of you watching Wimbledon.

As I thought about this morning, and the events of this day, it occurred to me that it is easy to focus on what we do not have, and what has been taken away.  And then I thought about tennis, where the score is kept in a different way.  Nobody has “zero” in tennis.  Nobody has “nothing.”  When you don’t have anything else, you have “love.”  When everything else is gone, there is “love”.  And when nobody has anything, it’s called “Love All”.

It seems to me this morning that even when we feel most bereft, we can remember that we have “Love All”.  As we walk through the difficult events of this day, let us remember that we have known great love – and if there are times when it feels as though you have nothing – hang onto that love.

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #4

The adventure in tripartite mission connection continues as the conference between representatives of Pittsburgh Presbytery, South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Synod of Blantyre in Malawi ended with a day of shared worship and exploration.  There were essentially two components to our day, and for the sake of brevity I’ll simply post a few photos of an inspiring worship service at the Koche CCAP wherein Brian Snyder preached and an afternoon of exploring some of the beauty of Lake Malawi.

Brian preaching at Koche with Davies translating.

 

Rev. James was so excited about the chance to worship in Malawi that he asked to sing a solo. It was wonderful!

 

I was privileged to bring greetings on behalf of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

 

Lauren prepares to dedicate the morning offering.

If the Youtube link above doesn’t work, then paste this into your browser to see a little of the congregational singing at this rural congregation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyLzBDhI2Yk

In Africa, it’s not uncommon for two men to hold hands while they walk and talk together. It IS uncommon when one of them is about 5’6 and the other is about 6’8! Life might be better if we all left worship like this…

 

A baboon grabbing a quick snack…

 

Adventures in tripartite boating!

 

There are more than 1000 species of cichlids in Lake Malawi – the most astounding diversity of fish anywhere on earth.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish eagles…

 

The sun sets on another day of partnership and mission.

Remembering Ben Butzbach

Regular readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive me for a departure from the normal format.  My sister has asked me to create a post to house the message I was privileged to share at the funeral service for her son, my nephew Ben Butzbach.  Ben was a real character — larger than life in so many ways. Interested readers can find his obituary by clicking here.

To listen to the message I shared, use the media player below:

An avid fan of the Nashville Predators, Ben cohosted a radio program called Penalty Box Radio.  Click here to hear a tribute show that was aired just after Ben’s death.

Ben’s passion for hockey led him to help establish Fire House Hockey, a non-profit dedicated to helping teams composed of first responders and public safety personnel in their mission to raise funds and awareness for members of their community that suffered loss.

During the television broadcast of the Predators game immediately following the funeral, the announcers gave a wonderful send-off to the man they called “Big Ben.” The NHL network featured this tribute on this website.

Ben leaves behind a legion of friends, but most particularly his wife Brandy and his son Jake.  A fund has been established to help provide for Jake’s education in the years to come.  You can learn more about that by Clicking here.