2018 Youth Mission #1

On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

We arrived on Sunday and set up shop in the church, which is where we are going to be sleeping, eating, and working all week. We inflated our mattresses, set out our tools, and met our hosts.  Prior to bed, Marla led us in a devotional, we did some singing and talked about our hopes for the week.

Monday morning dawned clear and sunny, and it only got hotter as the day went on.  Half of our team began the work of demolishing some deteriorated walls on the inside of the building in preparation for a CHUP-esque makeover.  It was messy work to be sure, but our team tore down drywall and ceiling tile with vigor.  The rest of our group started work on a small porch and a wheelchair ramp in the rear of the building.  In both instances, we had the opportunity to learn new skills and practice some which have been dormant for a while.

The day got hotter and hotter, and by four pm we were delighted to be able to knock off work and drive a little further into the reservation to take advantage of the swimming pool operated by the Seneca Nation. In addition to providing us an opportunity cool off and play, this is the site where we’ll be showering all week as well.

Our evening included a delicious spaghetti dinner, an exploration of Ezekiel 37 with a discussion about the nature of hope, and some amazingly appropriate ice cream cones.  It was a great beginning to what we hope will be a great week!  Here are a few photos…

Removing old wallboard

Hey, Tim, that must weigh 80 pounds. Let me show you how to carry it…

Show us how it’s done, Evan…

Who ARE those people?

A refresher on the workings of the power saw…

These four young women installed the decking on our 6 x 8 platform essentially by themselves… Tim…um…”helped”.

Alyssa setting up the framing.

Making sure it’s all square…

Does this guy do ANY work?

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about…

What a great way to end the afternoon!

So thanks for all your prayers – we’ll keep you posted in the days to come!

Finder’s Keepers?

On August 5, the saints at Crafton Heights commissioned a group of young people for service and partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church, located in the territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.  That prompted me to want to explore the notion of “discovery”, and that of “privilege”, and how in the world these things were connected to our experience.  Our texts for the day included Luke 16:19-31 and Micah 2:1-10.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media browser below:

OK, let’s see who paid attention in school. Does the name Isaac Newton mean anything to anyone?  Sure! He is credited with the discovery of the Law of Gravity in 1666.

How about Joseph Priestly? This one may be a little tougher, but Priestly is one of the men acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. His findings were made public in 1774.

In the interest of gender equity, let me ask you about Marie Curie. Does anyone remember why she rose to prominence?  She is credited with the discovery of radiation and radioactivity in 1898.

Each of these people is listed as a “discoverer”.  In this context, the word “discover” means “to be the first to find or observe”.  And in these cases, it is arguably true.  Somehow, Newton, Priestly, and Curie quantified or pointed to some phenomenon that was not known or understood by the people of their times.  Of course, they didn’t “invent” gravity, or oxygen, or radiation – they simply pointed to them and described them.

Let’s try another: do you recognize this man? Christopher Columbus. And what is he famous for? Well, we were all taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and he “discovered” America, right?

But wait – how could he claim to be the discoverer of a place that had between 50 and 100 million people here already?  How can anyone say that he “found” this place, and thereby “claimed” it for a king in Europe when there were already hundreds of people groups and communities thriving here upon his arrival?

Let’s try that notion of “discovery” in other contexts.  How would it be if you left worship today and went outside and found that your car was missing?  Would your first reaction be, “Hey, golly! I guess someone ‘discovered’ my Chevy this morning!  Good for them…”  Have your purse, or wallet, or keys ever been “discovered” by someone else?  Doesn’t feel too good, does it?

A few years ago I saw a greeting card that read, “This year, I’m going to celebrate Columbus Day the old-fashioned way.  I’m going to take the bus across town, find a house that I like, kick the current owners out, move in, and take all their stuff.”

Common sense will tell you, “Hey, you can’t do that! People have rights!”

Of course they do. All people have rights.  So the only time when you can do things like is when you do them to those who are not really people.

That’s the justification that much of Western Civilization has used for the past five hundred years.  In 1452, as much of Europe was getting pretty excited about the idea of vast quantities of land and resources of which it had previously been unaware, Pope Nicholas V wrote that it was the sacred duty and obligation for Christians to

“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”[1]

The leader of the Christian church said that anyone who wasn’t a European Christian wasn’t really a person at all, and so it was important for Christian people to find ways to use their stuff that would make God happy.  That line of thinking became a part of our American story in many ways, not the least of which was a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which read, in part,

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness …

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory …

The potentates of the Old World … made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.[2]

Perhaps you are familiar with the portions of the US Constitution that spell this out – pun intended – in black and white, indicating that slaves and other persons of color were to be counted as 60% of a real person for the government’s purposes.

To put it plainly, the recognized policy of the church and law of the land for half a millennia, at least, was to say that anyone who didn’t look like me was in some way or another sub-human, and therefore did not really deserve the same treatment as a person such as me might expect.

I hope that when I state it so plainly that you say, “No way, Dave! That stands in complete opposition to the Bible!  Didn’t you hear what Micah said about taking the things that belonged to others, or expelling women and children from their homes?  We’re not supposed to do that!”

That’s the line of thinking taken up in St. Louis earlier this summer when the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially repudiated and condemned what has been called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.  In an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church denounced these and other statements that laid the groundwork for the suppression, oppression, and removal of Native American people and other persons of color.  We said that it was wrong to say that just because a place didn’t have anyone like me in it it was “empty” or “unknown” and therefore it was ours for the taking.

And some of my friends said, “Great.  It’s about time.  Now what are you going to do with those horrible parts of the Bible that claim the same thing?  Have you read Exodus, or Numbers, or Deuteronomy?  Isn’t that what the Jews did to the Canaanites?  They walked into someone else’s home and said, “God told me that this all belongs to me now, so, see you later…”

I can only say that I’m stumped by that.  I just don’t know.  I can say that those who were trying to follow God 4000 years ago did not have the whole story.  They had a few visions and a couple of great leaders, but they didn’t have access to the prophecy or the preaching of Jeremiah or Isaiah.  The person and work of Jesus and the witness of the early church was, of course, unknown to them.   It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery was based on an application of certain aspects of the Old Testament that categorically ignored the pleas of the prophets and the Passion of the Savior.

And as a 58 year old male with British heritage, there is something about all of this “Discovery” conversation that makes me feel uncomfortable.  I have a difficult time knowing what to do with decisions that were made hundreds of years before I was born.  Yes, what Columbus did was wrong.  And slavery was bad.  And so was the internment of American Citizens during World War II and on and on and on.  That was all horrible.

But really – it’s not my fault.  If I could undo it, I would.  But I can’t. So what am I supposed to do?

Can I learn from it?

Pittsburgh, March 18, 1936

Listen: in a couple of hours, we’re going to be taking a few carloads of kids from Western Pennsylvania up to the Seneca Nation reservation in New York.  Every single one of these young people has grown up in an area that was stabilized and enriched by the flood protections on the Allegheny River.  A hundred years ago, that river was cause for uncertainty. Lives and commerce were at risk as seasonal floods made development difficult and uncertain.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, a flood hit Pittsburgh and destroyed 100,000 buildings, closed the steel mills, and forced the layoffs of an estimated 60,000 mill workers.

That prompted the US Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to install a series of locks and dams on the Allegheny river.  The crowning achievement of this act was the creation of the Kinzua Dam on the northernmost part of the river.  As a result of that dam, Pittsburgh grew to achieve unparalleled success in industry and stability.

Demolition of Seneca property to make way for the Kinzua Dam

But there was a cost.  The Seneca Nation of Indians lost one-third of the land that had been granted to them by the treaty of 1794, signed by President Washington. The Seneca lost some of their best farmland, burial grounds, and hundreds of people lost their homes.

Nobody in this room voted for that.  But everyone here has benefitted from it.  And our young people need to be aware of some of this history as we go to listen to the stories of the Seneca this week.  It’s not our fault that those lands were taken seventy years ago.  But something of what is good in our lives is here because they were.  We can’t forget that.

Lazarus and Dives, illustration from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030 – 1050)

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the story of a man who was fantastically wealthy.  We’re told of his extravagance in that he wore purple every day, not just on holidays; he feasted every day, not just on special occasions.  This man was fantastically wealthy.

But his wealth was not his problem.  His sin was not that he was rich – his sin was rooted in something that he did not do.

At the gate of his home was a poor man whose name, Lazarus, means “God is my help”.  And, I suppose, it’s a good thing that God helped him because the rich man paid him no mind whatsoever. The rich man was simply unable to see Lazarus.

In fact, even after he died, the rich man could not bring himself to see Lazarus as a human being.  In his misery, the rich man cried out to Abraham, saying “send Lazarus on these errands to help me out…”  He didn’t get it!  Lazarus was fully human, but the rich man could only see him as a resource, an agent given to serve the whim of the rich man.  In reality, though, Abraham affirms Lazarus’ humanity and celebrates the fact that Lazarus’ life has purpose and meaning.

I hear the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and I remember the connections between the Seneca Nation and the people of Pittsburgh, and I wonder… have we gotten any better at recognizing the humanity of those around us?  Are there parts of our stories that continue to dehumanize others?

For the Youth Group kids who were a part of last year’s mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina and who will leave today for another, does it mean anything at all that the National Football League’s fifth-most valuable franchise – the one based in Washington DC – is named after a racist slur?

All of us live in an era of increasing polarization and a diminishment of our shared humanity.  In many of our lifetimes, we’ve watched as Nazis called Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals “rats” and called for their “extermination”.  Prior to the genocide in 1994, Rwandan Hutus called rival Tutsis “cockroaches.”  A few months ago comedian Roseann Barr lost her job for calling another woman the child of an ape, and that was only a few weeks after the President of the United States called immigrant gang members “animals”.  Just prior to that, the cover of the New YorkMagazine had a photo which depicted the President as a pig.

Are we so in love with our ideas and so afraid of the encounters we might have with others that we lose our ability to love those whose ideas and identities are different from our own?

The charge for this week – for the youth group team and for all of us – is to seek to learn from what has come before so that we can be better people in the days to come.  Can we dedicate ourselves to hearing the stories of the “other”, and to promise to look for the spark of the Divine Image in all people?  Can we refuse to demonize and dehumanize, and instead seek to honor and call forth our best selves?

Are we always going to agree? Of course not.  And there are some despicable actions done by those with horrific intent.  But nobody wins if we denigrate those with whom we disagree by calling them sub-human.

And, by the way, I didn’t discover this idea.  I didn’t invent it.  I found it when I started following a carpenter from Nazareth who invited those around him to love their neighbors, to break down walls, and to seek to bless those who are on the margins.  The thing is, he told me I couldn’t keep it.  He told me I had to give it away.  So…I just did.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]As quoted in “The Doctrine of Discovery”,  The Christian Century 4/20/15 (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-04/doctrine-discovery)

[2]From Johnson v. McIntosh, (1823), quoted in https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/because-the-bible-tells-me-so-manifest-destiny-and-american-indians-762x1fEsrky5-1Gq0pDj7w/

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.

Can You See Anything?

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 July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness.  Our gospel lesson was from  Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.

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

In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident.  The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?”  He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom.  I love my dad.  I will get better.”  The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin.  His parents couldn’t understand him.  And he could no longer speak English.  In an instant, he was transformed.  After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.[1]

The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception.  She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed.  Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared.  Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.[2]

A man came to me following a worship service I’d led.  He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious.  But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation.  “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me.  I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true.  I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”

Have you heard stories like this?  Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?

And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December.  We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’.  He even brought back a little girl from the dead.  So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”

Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Eduourd Leon Edy-Legrand, 1950

Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different.  The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark.  All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed.  Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.

But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique.  Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one.  Did that strike you as strange?  Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?

There are a few interesting theories out there.  One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him.  However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right.  He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.

Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again.  Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.

So what is going on here?  Why a two-stage healing?

Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing?  There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.

I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich.  Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?”  He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.

That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.

The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.

I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once.  There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.

That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament.  The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith.  In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…”  Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.

I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.”  Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete.  If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.

Did you pray the prayer?  Did you “accept Jesus”?  Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps.  But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.

Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus.  Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion.  There are colors.  In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.

It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time.  He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up?  I mean, what if it gets worse?  Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”

But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand.  Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat.  Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.

This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured.  There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere.  Confrontation is the order of the day.  Fear is endemic – it is all around us.  And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels.  To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night.  We are compelled to defend our ideas.  To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…

I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone.  In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”.  A statue of a deer.

While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury.  May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.

I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is.  And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.

Jesu Healing the Blind Man, Ethiopian Icon

This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus.  If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged.  And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.

As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him.  May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.

I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar.  If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud!  Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice?  What’s wrong with me?”

Of course not.  I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match.  But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be.  Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.medicaldaily.com/australian-man-comes-out-coma-able-speak-mandarin-fluently-not-english-302046

[2]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150306-the-mystery-of-vanishing-cancer


On Staying in the Boat

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 June 24, we considered the final teaching that Jesus offered to his disciples in the region of the Galilee.  What did this team need to know before the next, most difficult part, of their journey began.  Our gospel lesson was from Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from I John 2:12-14.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/sermon06-24-18.mp3 into your browser…

So let me ask you to think about this – and it’s a rhetorical question.  No need to answer out loud.  But why did you come here this morning?  What motivated you to get yourself out of the house and into the pew today?

I ask that because it seems to me that is a crucial question in the gospel reading at hand.  This is, at its core, the story of two different motivations for hanging around with Jesus.

When we left Jesus and his followers last week, they were “on the other side” – that is to say, in the region of the Decapolis, the land of the Gentile, the outsider, the “other”. The last thing we saw on Sunday was Jesus and his friends getting into the boat following the feeding of the 4,000. They were heading toward the region of Dalmanutha – a town on “our” side of the lake in the area of Galilee.

No sooner do they make landfall than they are greeted by a welcoming committee of Pharisees.  These religious leaders are eager to see Jesus – and they are primed for a fight.  Mark says that they came to “question” Jesus.  The Greek is a little more emphatic.  They were looking to argue, or even to “tempt” Jesus.  They wanted to know – was Jesus really who he appeared to be?  There were those who were claiming that he was Divine. Was he?  They’d know, if only he’d give them the right sign.  They’d know, if only he’d fit into their God-shaped box.

And I love what happens next.  Jesus “sighed deeply”.  It’s a word that implies some level of frustration and even anger. They have come to argue, but he won’t fall into the trap.  He sighs, he rolls his eyes, and then he says, “All right, boys.  Here we go.  Back into the boat.”

At this, the disciples (who, presumably, are doing most of the rowing here)have got to be thinking, “Are you kidding me?  I get it – you know a lot about healing, and feeding, and miracles, but you are a lousy sailor, Jesus. For crying out loud, make up your mind…” But they follow his directive and get back into the boat.

I think I know how they felt.  Many years ago I took a class on ministry and stress, and a part of that class involved a wilderness trek. We had a group of about 18 folks, and every day, a different pair was in charge of leading the group.  That meant reading the map, using the compass, and getting us to our next campsite. I’ll never forget the day that a couple of inexperienced folks had the map and we crossed the same stream – carrying 60 pound packs – six times. When they called us together to indicate yet another crossing, I lost my cool.  “Listen,” I said.  “I have one pair of dry socks left to last me the entire week.  I’ll cross that stream because you’re the leader, but if you tell me we have to cross it again today, I’m not going to be happy!”  It was not my proudest moment, I can tell you that…

But the disciples were not hanging around Jesus because he was such a great sailor; and they were not hanging around him because he always made sense.  If you’d have asked them that day, I suspect, they might not have been able to give you a clear answer as to exactly whythey were still following Jesus… but they were. There was something in him that was growing in them.  So this time, they got back into the boat and started rowing.

But there’s a problem. In all of the coming and going, unpacking and packing, somebody forget their lunches.  All that bread that was left from the other day… forgotten. Given the events of recent days, however, nobody was going to bring that up to Jesus.

If you’ve been here in the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard me say that the theme music in the Gospel is beginning to change.  There are indicators that something is in the wind, and change is afoot.  That becomes a little more pronounced – although the disciples still didn’t realize it fully – as today we read about the final teaching that Jesus gave to his followers in the region of Galilee.  Whether the others know it or not, Jesus is about to give them the last lesson in this area that has been home to most of them for their entire lives.

Of course, he chooses to use a metaphor about baking.  “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod!”

The disciples have to be thinking, “Oh, geez, who told him about the bread?  Now we’re going to hear it for sure!”

But instead, Jesus hurls a series of questions at them – at least eight or nine, depending on which translation you’re using.  And he ends with the frustrated cry of every teacher at some point or another: “For crying out loud, don’t you get it?”

Get what?  The teaching about the yeast.  What was Jesus talking about when in this last ever teaching session in Galilee, he talked to them about yeast?

I suspect that you know what yeast is – a microscopic organism that converts sugar into alcohol or carbon dioxide.  I know that some of you are quite familiar with, and grateful for, the yeasts in your lives…  You know that a tiny amount of yeast, left undisturbed, will radically change a large amount of whatever that yeast is in.  Put a quarter of a teaspoon of yeast in fifty pounds of flour and leave it in there long enough, and soon the entire quantity of flour has been transformed.

Jesus said “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod…”  In other words, be careful about the ways that their thinking affects your thinking.

The Pharisees were the religious group that had all the power in the daily lives of the people. There was a lot of what they did and held to that was good and noble… but… but… they had come to stand for an expression of the faith that was all but hollow and therefore meaningless. They carried around the Law and pointed to it in order to demonstrate the failings of those around them, but they never applied that same law to themselves.  The Pharisees used religion as a weapon against other people rather than a tool to shape their own lives.

And we’ve talked about Herod in recent weeks as we considered his murder of John the Baptist. He took what was meant to be a good thing – the rule of law – and turned it into an instrument of terror.  He completely separated morality (what is right) from what was legal.

The Pharisees enforcedthe religious laws on others, but disregarded them themselves; Herod enforced the laws of Rome not to bring order and safety, but to exalt his own personal power.  In both of these cases, Jesus said, there is a leaven, there is some yeastiness at work. Just as yeast works through a pile of dough and gives shape to the loaf that results, so too these false understandings of how to live work through the lives of those who practice them and wind up mis-shaping the lives of those who live that way.  Both Herod and the Pharisees had double standards – they said one thing, but they lived something else.

More than that, both the Pharisees and Herod used religion as a cover for doing what they really wanted to do anyway.  They made some decisions about how they were going to live, and then they selectively applied some religious-sounding language to make it seem as though they were just following through with God’s ideas.

Here’s the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod: you might start out thinking that you have been made in the image of God, but before too long you start worshiping a god who is just like you; a god who wants to give you all the things you want; a god who hates all the people you hate.  Whenever we come to worship in order to baptize our politics and our prejudices, then we are using the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.

And Jesus says, in what is his final teaching in the region of Galilee, “No! Stop! Beware! Don’t be that way!”

Well, what are we to do?

Jesus gave us questions.  Eight or nine of them in this passage alone.

Questions? That is fantastic! I love questions!  In fact, I have a lot of questions!  Does following Jesus mean I get to ask questions, too? Here are some that all of us have had to live with in the past week:

  • what are we going to do with those babies that are locked up?
  • Is it possible to have security at the border? What does that even look like?
  • Why are so many young men of color killed by members of the law enforcement community?
  • What do we do about the fact that less than a mile from here is a group of people who have called themselves the “Greenway Boy Killas” – 29 of whom were indicted for drug trafficking, home invasion, violence…?
  • What are we to do about the flooding that has come so close to home? Is this climate change, or just a fluke? What will happen in the days and years to come?

It’s not just those, of course.  There are some that are a little more specific to individual circumstances…

  • what about those lab results? Will I ever hear good news?
  • What do I do about my child’s addiction?
  • How can I tell my parents about the real reason I failed that class?
  • Will I be able to forgive that man for what he did to me?

Man! Those are huge questions.  What does discipleship look like here?  How do I follow Jesus in questions like that?

For starters, I think we’ve got to remember the caution to avoid the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.  For me, that means that I can’t just parrot a simple answer.  It’s not good enough to say, “Well, just follow the rules.  As long as you obey the law, you’ll be ok.” That’s a bunch of baloney – because there are unjust laws and corrupt officers of the law. Not every law is good and right.  Slavery was legal.  Everything Hitler did was legal.  Jim Crow was legal.  Calling something “legal” doesn’t make it right.

Equally, though, I’m not free to simply say, “Ah, those people who disagree with me are all morons.  Get rid of them all!”  Dismissing people in that manner is not helpful because it diminishes my ability to see anything of the Divine image in that person.

So what do we do?

The first disciples, I think, had it right.  They stayed in the boat, even when they weren’t sure where Jesus was telling them to go.  Stay in the boat, and ask your questions.  And look at Jesus while you ask them.  At whom does Jesus look? Who does Jesus embrace?  To whom does Jesus extend himself?  Where does Jesus line up?

 I chose the reading from I John to be included with this passage because, frankly, that message has always troubled me a bit.  John says, quite plainly, “Look: you’ve got this.  You know who you are. You know where you’re headed.  You know who’s in charge. You know how to act.  Can’t you be brave enough to act that way?  Can’t you simply follow the path you know to be true?”  The leaven of Jesus – the yeast of Christ – is more effective and truer than that of the Pharisees or of Herod.

My point is that neither the Pharisees nor the Disciples had a clue what Jesus was up to here…but look at how differently they responded.  The Pharisees couldn’t see, and they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, that’s it. This man needs to die.”  And they looked to escalate the conflict.

The disciples couldn’t see, and so they kept talking about it amongst themselves…they stuck with him…they asked him questions…they made more mistakes…they ended up following him, as we will see in the weeks to come, into Jerusalem….and up the hill to Calvary, where they watched him die…they followed him to the graveyard, and they were there when he rose from the dead…and they were still trying to figure it out when he ascended into heaven…and somewhere, somehow, some way in the midst of that sticking with Jesus, it clicked for them.  They had ears, and they heard.  They had eyes, and they saw.

Beloved, I am here to tell you that God is at work in your world.  The God who sent his son to be born as a child on earth, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead – the power that made the blind see and the deaf hear, the hands that broke bread for Jew and for Gentile alike – that God is calling to you.

And I fully acknowledge that you may not totally understand all this right now.  There are some confusing things about your life and how God fits into it right now.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure that I am the one who can necessarily explain how God is moving in your world.  I don’t know, always, where God is moving in the world.

But as your pastor, all I can do is to ask you this – I can ask you to stick with him.  Don’t give into disappointment or depression, frustration or anger because God isn’t fitting into your box right now.  Instead, ask God to show you a new way of seeing him.  Ask God to show you his goodness.  Ask God to show you how he intends to use you to bring about his purposes in the world.

“Do you not yet understand?” That’s ok. Keep asking.  Keep walking. Keep looking.  And when you see which direction to go – by God’s grace, and for God’s sake – get moving. May God bless you on that journey to be like him. Amen

How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

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 June 17, we considered a curiosity – Mark narrates the feeding of the 4,000 just after he tells us about the feeding of the 5,000.  Why would Mark, the sparest of Gospel writers, think we needed to hear what is essentially the same story twice?  Unless, of course, it’s NOT the same story…  Thoughts about how this expression of God’s presence in Christ is instructive in Jesus’ world and in ours. You can all about it in Mark 8:1-10.   We remembered the songs of God’s people by hearing Psalm 107:1-9.

To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the media player/link below:

All right, let’s say that you’re in the back seat of a car…make it any car…say, a 1968 Ford station wagon.  And let’s say that you’re on a long, long trip in the middle of a hot, hot summer…say, oh, I don’t know, from Wilmington DE to Falls City NE – 3 days in this unairconditioned vehicle with 5 people and a dog.  And let’s say, oh, just imagine this, that you’re in the middle between your older sister and your younger brother, and they keep touchingyou. And it really, really, bothers you. For 2 days, it bothers you.  And maybe, let’s say, you happen to mention this fact out loud.  A couple of times.  And let’s say, just for the sake of this discussion, that your father turns around while he’s driving 70 MPH down the highway and says, “Son, how many times do I have to tell you to quit your whining?”

OK: helpful tip here, if you ever find yourself in a situation like this one.Some questions that people ask – they don’t reallywant an answer.  “How many times do I have to tell you?” “Ummmm, seven?” – Well, apparently, that’s not the answer my dad was looking for.  I’m just saying…Some questions, you better think really hard before you try to answer them.

In honor of Father’s day, I’d like to take a look at today’s Gospel readings in the light of two “Dad-isms” that stand out not only from my childhood, but from a careful reading of this scripture.

“How many times do I have to tell you?”  I know you’ve heard that question before.  And I see some weary parents out there, hanging your heads, saying, “One. Please.  For the love of God, let me tell you something one time.”

One time is a great answer.  It makes sense.  It’s efficient and logical.  For most things in life, we think, we should have to be told once.

And when Luke and John got around to writing their gospels, they came to this story and they apparently said something like, “Oh, another feeding of a multitude.  We’ve done that.  Five thousand, four thousand, whatever.  Not going to waste parchment on this story again…”

All Were Satisfied, James Seward (2006)

But Jesus and Mark, it would seem, believe that in this particular instance, once is NOT enough. Just one chapter separates the account of the feeding of the 5,000 with the one you heard today – the feeding of the 4,000.  You might remember that as we’ve talked about Mark, we’ve said that he is a spare narrator. He doesn’t like to waste words, and he’s telling us a tight story.  I would suggest that in Mark’s mind, the story of the 4,000 is notthe same as that of the 5,000.  So what’s different?

Well, in chapter 6, we read that the crowd had been with Jesus all day and by suppertime, they were hungry.  In today’s reading, how long had the group been together before someone mentioned food? Three days.

Hmmmmm.  Three days.  Here’s a little clue from your old friend, Pastor Dave.  Whenever anyone in the Bible, and especially a Gospel writer, says something was going on for three days, well, pay attention.  Last week, I mentioned that it seemed as though the mood music in Mark was beginning to signal a shift in emphasis and intent for the gospel.  Today, we read about a Jesus event that lasted for three days.  Tuck that away, and remember that in the weeks to come.

So they’d been together, this time, for three days.  Have you ever been so engaged in something, so preoccupied, that you forgot to eat?  You’re caught up in a show, you are wrapped in grief, you’re pressing hard to finish a big project at work… and you just don’t think about food?

The crowd would rather be with Jesus than eat.  The disciples would rather be with Jesus than take care of the crowd.  And Jesus would rather spend time with all of these folks than worry about what was looming on the horizon for him.  Everybody is having a good time, but, well, you’ve gotta eat.

Jesus points this out to his followers, who seem to be less than thrilled about the idea of catering such a large event.  When this passage is read in worship, it’s often interpreted as a way to say that the original disciples of Jesus were a bunch of lug nuts who never seemed to understand what Jesus was really about and this is one more time for them to demonstrate just how thick they were.  And if we read it as if the twelve really are just a pack of lug nuts, then Jesus says, “How many times do I have to tell you?”, he is barking it in anger and frustration.

And yet we all know that there is more than one way, and there is more than one reason, to ask that question.

A young lover gazes into the eyes of a beloved who has been deeply wounded in the past – so traumatized, in fact, that trust is hard… and the lover says, again, “How many times can I tell you…?”

A child has been abused and treated with violence and contempt but then brought into a new home – with new ways of treating each other – but continues to act in hate and fear. The new caregiver continues to offer love and peace, while saying softly, “How many times can I tell you…?”

I’m here to suggest that in this passage, Jesus is smiling tenderly as he looks at his beloved friends and then sets to work.  When they had the feeding of the 5,000, there was a cool efficiency to the process. Jesus gave the orders to the twelve, and then they broke the company down into fifties and hundreds… there was a hierarchy, and it worked.

Here, however, Jesus is much more low-key.  He speaks to the crowd, and they are gathered apparently together.  Had Jesus really been trying to straighten out some aspect of his followers’ behavior, he’d have made them do it again and get it right. He’d be drumming it into their heads. But with the four thousand, he treats it almost like a worship service and just enjoys the time together.

In some ways, that is Jesus living into the second Dad-ism of the day.  I would suspect that many of you can predict what my father might have said after he asked me “How many times do I have to tell you…?”.  “Do I have to stop this car and come back there and give you a reason?  Do you want me to show youthat I mean business, mister?”

Now, in my father’s defense, he was raised as an only child, and so he literally had no way of understanding the horror of a sibling actually touching you and looking at you hour after hour…  So in a way, he didn’t know what he was saying.

But in a way, that’s what the feeding of the four thousand is: an affirmation of Jesus’ willingness, and in fact, eagerness, to be the means by which God’s love was shownto the ones he came to save.  Jesus, in capping off these three days of teaching and healing and prayer with a sacramental meal is demonstrating the depth of God’s commitment to the world.

This demonstration becomes more obvious when we look at another key difference between the feeding of the five thousand and that of the four thousand.  In the earlier miracle story, what was left over at the end of the day?  There were twelve baskets of bread remaining.  That makes sense, we say.  There were twelve disciples, and each one got a meal for the next day.  Twelve baskets – the Greek word for basket in the feeding of the five thousand is kophinos, and it means, well, lunch-box.

St. Paul Lowered from the Walls of Damascus in a Basket, 11th c. tapestry

In today’s reading, what remains after the crowd has been satisfied?  You heard it: seven baskets.  Ah, so Jesus must be getting better at anticipating the needs of the crowds, eh?  He’s done a better job guessing the amount of food to feed the multitude, and it’s more efficient.  Well done, Master!

Except that’s not what happens here.  There are not seven kophinos left over; here, Mark chooses a different word.  When this crowd has eaten, there are seven spuridas to fill.  A spuris is not a lunch-box – it’s a hamper.  A large hamper.  In fact, when the Apostle Paul’s life was threatened in Acts 9, he was saved from death by being hidden in a spuris.

Furthermore, if we’re going to say that there were 12 baskets left from the first feeding, and that represents the 12 disciples… then why are there 7 left here?  What’s the point?

One of the things that “everybody knew” in those days was that while there were Twelve Tribes of Israel, there were just as clearly Seven nations of the Gentiles.  In fact, much of the Old Testament narrative is about the Twelve Tribes in conflict with the Seven nations.

I’m suggesting that in leaving seven enormous baskets of sustenance on this day, that Jesus is coming down there to show us that we are all called to be one people of God.  Gentile, Jew – there is enough for everyone.  Here, he said that day, let me show you.

And as the passage for the day ends, there is one more way in which this account of the feeding of the four thousand differs from the earlier story.  After the five thousand had been fed, Jesus puts the disciples in a boat and sends them on their way… In today’s reading, he gets in there with them.

Today, let’s not talk about the twelve being so thick that they didn’t trust Jesus to take care of business.  Let’s not bicker about who is in and who is out.  Let us instead pause, as the Psalmist suggests, to consider the generosity and character of the one who will tell you time and time again that you are enough. Let us give thanks for the one who comes to us again and again offering his very self.  Let us be grateful to the one who promises to get in the boat and go with us toward an uncertain future and in so doing, demonstrates the reach of God’s unending love.

My dad was not perfect – not by any stretch.  But one of the things he did was seek to anchor his life around attempting to demonstrate that which might have seemed hard to believe.  So he did ridiculous things like put three kids and a dog in a station wagon and drive to Nebraska for a week so that his parents could see their grandkids.  He sought to make promises real and visible.

That’s all the church is asking you to do today, sisters and brothers.  Look at the lavish generosity of Jesus, poured out for all of us – insiders and outsiders alike – and then look for ways to make that care and presence seem real in the lives of the people who are around you this week.

How many times are you going to have to do that?  Probably quite a few. Do you have to stop what you’re doing and get over there and demonstrate to people that God is love?  Yep.

Thanks be to God for the calling and equipping to do that.  Amen.

Shhhhhh….

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 June 10, that meant following Jesus from Tyre to the Decapolis by way of Sidon – and ending up in one of the grossest healing stories we’ve seen. Jesus is a lolligagger who seems to go just about anywhere…and in so doing reveals even more of the Kingdom that is already at hand. I found this to be helpful as we were commissioning our Cross Trainers Summer Mission Team – a group of young adults who are ready to lead our congregation’s six week day camp for kids in our neighborhood.  You can read these stories for yourself in Mark 7:31-37.  We pointed back to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 35:1-7. 

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

Have you ever noticed while watching a film or television program that oftentimes a subtle shift in the background music will alert the viewer to a substantive change before the characters in the story are aware that such a change is coming? Maybe you’re watching Star Warsand the characters in the film appear to believe that everything is going well, but then you hear the Darth Vader theme and youknow that things are going to get dicey; or during a particularly tense moment in an Indiana Jonesmovie you hear the subtle strains of the triumphant theme and you just know that it’s going to work out all right for Dr. Jones and his friends.

Mark chapter seven brings us close to the mid-point in the Gospel writer’s attempt to give us the Jesus message. While there is no soundtrack for our reading today, there are a lot of clues that indicate that our author is building toward a crucial moment in the narrative.  This subtle change is, perhaps, more apparent to those of us who have the gift of hindsight than it might have been to those who are actually living the story.

There is a curious incident reported at the end of Mark 7 that, in my mind, alerts us to the fact that the narrative of the story will be changing.  These verses have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the scholarly and theological community over the years, and I believe that they are of great importance to us as we stand on the brink of a summer program here in Crafton Heights.  Let’s look at where Jesus goes, what he does, and what he says.

Our text tells us that Jesus is on the move again – this time, we read that he’s leaving Tyre, and he is heading toward the Sea of Galilee and back to the region of the Decapolis.  On his way, Mark says, Jesus decides to visit Sidon.

And because we’re not from there, that little note just rolls right past us.  Jesus is a grown man.  He can go where he wants to go.  But imagine if you asked me for a ride downtown and the Arts Festival today, and I said, “Hey, sure.  I’m happy to take you to the park.  On the way, though, I’ve got to swing past the airport and then pick up a buddy in Cranberry Township.

If you know anything about the geography of our region, you’ll roll your eyes at me and say, “Come on, Dave, those places are hardly on the way to town.  In fact, they’re the exact opposite!”

But that’s what Mark says Jesus is doing here.  In order to head southwest, he first goes due north, then due south, and finally to the west. It’s just ridiculous and inefficient.

In fact, many scholars have looked at this passage as bona fide proof that Mark didn’t know what he was talking about.  Clearly, the author is an idiot who is unacquainted with the area about which he’s writing, these folks would say.  Nobody in their right mind would travel from Tyre to the Decapolis and say that Sidon was “on the way”.  That would add weeks, if not months, to the journey.

I would respond by saying that clearly these scholars are not well acquainted with the ways of Jesus, who, when given half a chance, always seemed to take the slow way, the long route, and the back door.  After all, this is the same man who preached love for the enemy and the power of yeast and seeds, who reached out time and time again to those who had been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and who proclaimed that the ultimate power of God is best demonstrated in submission to torture and death on a Roman cross.  I have absolutely NO problem believing that Jesus thought that the best way to get from Tyre to the Decapolis was to go through Sidon.  It’s one of the glorious inefficiencies that makes sense in the Gospel economy – but is hard to sell in the 21stcentury.

For instance, last week Marla and I got into a car with McKenna and Lindsay because we had some questions about the upcoming Youth Group mission trip to the Seneca nation of Indians in Western New York.  We drove three and a half hours for what turned out to be a 45 minute meeting. On the surface, that’s a bad choice, right? Four fairly gifted, very busy people, spending seven hours in the car to do what one might think could be accomplished in a phone call and a couple of emails?  When we got back to Pittsburgh that night, every single one of us thought we had made the exact right choice – spending the day in the car was the only way that we could lay eyes on our work site, shake hands with our hosts, and begin to dream a little bit about what that week might look like.

In seeking to be followers of Jesus in the 21stcentury, we could all learn a little bit from this messiah who often chose the slow, indirect route.  Parents: let me encourage you to put the phones down, and to allow the dishes or laundry to pile up just a little bit longer.  I’m here to tell you that while some of the days may seem incredibly long, the years are oh-so-short.

Cross Trainer staff, as you try to fit everything into a brief summer camp, let me remind you that the ultimate goal of this experience is love – and that love is a most wildly inefficient yet ultimately amazingly effective practice in changing the world for young people.

That’s where Jesus is going.  What does he do when he gets there?  I’m not sure if you were really paying attention at all, but this is an incredibly weird healing story.  Did Jesus really give the man a “wet willie” in the process of this healing miracle? No, no, the text clearly indicates that he didn’t spit on his fingers until after he removed them from the man’s ears… he didn’t spit on his fingers until he went to touch the man’s tongue…

Seriously, what’s up with this healing story? Just a few verses ago, we heard of a young girl who was plagued by an evil spirit, and Jesus wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as she – and yet he granted her healing.  In today’s reading, though, there is a multisensory healing with many stages.  It would appear to be, at the least, another example of the inefficiency of Jesus.

I’d like to invite us to pay attention to a single word in our Greek text this morning.  The word is mogilalon, and it’s translated as “could hardly talk” in the NIV, and as “speech impediment” in other versions.  It is a peculiar word that indicates that the sufferer has difficulty speaking.  I find that curious, because in the bibles that have topic headings, and when we talk about this miracle, we often see this as “the time that Jesus healed the deaf-mute.”  That’s not true.  Mogilalonis not the word for “mute” – it means something different.

Jesus meets this man who is afflicted with mogilalon and engages him fully.  He touches him, he uses the most basic of his own bodily fluids by spitting into his hands and touching the man’s tongue and in so doing frees the man to hear and speak well.

The word mogilalonis used only one other time in the Greek translation of the Bible: that comes in our reading from Isaiah 35.  Because this word is so unusual, and because it only occurs one other time in the Bible, I’m suggesting that Mark chose to use it intentionally so as to remind his readers of the context of Isaiah 35. The Old Testament reading you heard earlier is an amazing passage about the real presence and reign of God. The prophet has spoken at length about God’s promises to come and dwell with his people and to bring about the ultimate healing of the world. In answer to the question, “when will this happen?”, he says, “look for these kinds of things: the opening of blind eyes, the unstopping of deaf ears, and the freeing on tongues that are mogilalon.”

Way back in chapter 1, Mark told us that Jesus was preaching aboutthe nearness of God’s kingdom; now here in chapter 7, he is demonstrating that kingdom.

For me, that begs the question: how am I not only talking about and preaching about the intentions of God, but living them in the world today?  None of my words – and none of yours – mean a blessed thing if we are unwilling not only to talkabout loving our neighbor but to actually demonstrate in the lives of our neighbors the care of God.

So after Jesus gets to where he’s going and does what he’s been asked to do, he speaks to those who have gathered.  Specifically, he tells them, “shhhhhhhh.  Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.”

This is a prime example of what we can call “the Messianic secret” in the second Gospel.  Time and time again Jesus does something amazing and then says, “Look, let’s keep this amongst ourselves, OK?  No need to go telling everyone…”

Again, this is a great example of Jesus acting in ways I would not.  I mean, seriously, if I did something like that, I’d be tempted to tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and call the newspaper.  And if, in a burst of modesty, I actually refrained from doing any of those things, I’d hope that you’d do that stuff and tag me in it.  But Jesus does not.  He discourages the disciples from publicizing this stuff at this point.  Why?  What is the point of this secret?

Could it be that here, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, fellas, you don’t know the whole story yet.  Don’t try to talk about what this means because you don’t really get it – all of it – yet. Right now, your speech about me is about as accurate and helpful as this guy’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address half an hour ago.  You can make some sounds, but you can’t really get the whole message out because it’s still unfolding…I’m afraid that you might have spiritual or theological mogilalon…”

Sometimes, an incomplete message is less helpful than no message.  As we prepare to engage in the work of ministry this summer, let us be slow, and be active, and resist the temptation to make global pronouncements. Instead, let us merely point to the things that we cansee and invite the people who are around us to make connections in their own lives.

As I indicated in my comments at the beginning of this message, the feeling in the text is that there is something more, something substantive to come.  Clearly, for those of you who are being commissioned as Cross Trainers today, there must be a feeling of anticipation and maybe even some anxiety.  We are on the brink of something… and we might know something about it, but I guarantee it will be different from what we expect in many ways.

My deep hope and prayer as we stand on this tenth day of June in 2018 is that we might see ourselves in every aspect of this passage.  May we be willing to stick with Jesus even as he takes what seems to be the longest possible way around… may we be willing to allow him intimate proximity to our very selves so that we are better able to perceive his action in the world… may we be able to speak of what we know even while we wait for what we don’t know… and may we be willing to live the faith such a way so as to be a blessing to the ones God has given as our neighbors.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.