The Life Of The Party

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 January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

With Friends Like These…

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 January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

At Fever Pitch

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.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

Where to Next?

God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the church around the world in observing the Epiphany of Our Lord in our worship January 7 (a day late, perhaps, but the attendance was better than it would have been on Saturday…).   The readings for the day included Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi as well as Isaiah 60:1-6.

 

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

Let me start off by affirming that I like – no, I love – babies. I’ll hold babies. I’ll change babies. I’ll coo and ooh and ahh over babies. Some of my favorite people are babies. Heck, I was a baby. I like babies.

Having said that, I need to confess how deeply I hate baby showers. That whole process is painful to me… playing cute games…watching people unwrap gifts which are either profoundly practical, yet dull (ooooh, a dozen diapers!), or wildly entertaining but not necessarily helpful (like the baby poop alarm that slides into the diaper). I don’t like watching people pretend that they don’t already have four other Bumpo seats while they are unwrapping the one I got for them. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of the Baby Shower.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1500)

But imagine if you could have been a fly on the wall the day that the Magi came to visit the Holy Family. Can you imagine reading Mary and Joseph’s faces as they unwrap the presents that came in that day?

“Hmmmm… what could it be? Oh, look, Joseph! It’s gold! What a nice gift – I’m sure that will come in handy in the days ahead…” So far, so good.

“OK, Mary, what’s in that one? Frankincense? Um, thanks. I’m sure that, you know, when he’s older, he’ll really like burning this and smelling the, you know, good smell. When it’s on fire. So, we’ll just hold onto it for him for the next decade or so…”

And finally, “Ooooh, golly! Myrrh! What young family wouldn’t be thrilled to get the gift of embalming fluid at a time like this! Thank you so much…”

Frankincense and myrrh. Two of the least practical baby gifts in the history of baby gifts.

And yet, the Magi not only gave them to Jesus, but this is one of only two stories that Matthew chooses to tell us about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Why would that be so? Why did they give those gifts, and why do we need to know about them?

Willie Sutton was a notorious bank robber in the middle of the last century. According to legend, one reporter asked him, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” His answer was simply, “Because that’s where they keep the money.”

Why did the Magi leave gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Because that’s what they had. OK, but why did they have it?

Well, for starters, they had that stuff with them that day because they’d been intentional. They had brought it from home, hoping to meet a king, hoping for a chance to honor that king, and hoping for the opportunity to present gifts signifying wealth and power to that king.

More to my point, I would emphasize that they still had the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That is to say, they had it on the day that they met Jesus because they didn’t give it to anyone else along the way. Which is, when you stop to think about it, fairly remarkable. They’d come to Israel seeking a king. And they’d already met a king – his name was Herod. When they showed up in the country where they thought that the king would be, they did what you or I might do – they looked in the palace for the king. And yet when the got to that palace, and they met that king, they chose NOT to give Herod the gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They might have left a few other trinkets or hospitality gifts, but they opted not to leave the “real” gift with him.

Journey of the Magi, James Tissot (c. 1894)

And we might say, “OK, they gave the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they happened to have them on hand, but presumably they had a lot of other things on hand, too.” In all probability they had camels and servants and scrolls and granola bars and license plate bingo games (ok, I’m not sure about those last two; I’m just inferring from when my family takes long trips…). When they got to the house and they saw that the king was only a baby, why did they follow through on their plan to offer those things to Jesus?

On the one hand, we could say that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts that symbolized honor and worship. That’s why they left home; that’s what they came to do; and that’s what they did. The visit wasn’t so much about providing the new king with tools that would equip him for his reign as it was about making a statement as to what they thought of him and his role in the world.

And on the other hand, we could say that they really had no idea what they were doing in presenting those gifts to the child. The author of Matthew used this event, in a broad way, to symbolize the fact that in the years ahead, Jesus would be rejected by those who ought to have known better and at the same time his message would find widespread acceptance by those who for centuries had stood on the outside looking in. There’s no way that the Magi could have known the impact that their visit would have so many years after it occurred.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I will point out that there are, to my knowledge, no near-eastern mystics, astrologers, or potentates in the room this morning. And I will go out on a limb and predict that when it’s time to receive the morning offering, the plates will come back up front with some cash and a few checks inside, but there will be no bullion, no incense, and no embalming fluid in this morning’s collection.

[3]And yet, each of you is from somewhere, and you are someone, and you have something…which means that every person in this room faces some level of choice which is not altogether different from that with which the Magi dealt so many years ago. Each one of us left home on Monday carrying the promise of 168 hours in this week. Every single person in this room can choose to invest energy into relationships and the lives of other people. We all have some level of opportunity connected with our financial situation. I understand that nobody has unbridled control over every aspect of their lives, but I am here to suggest that how you decide to allocate those resources over which you do have control says a great deal about yourself and your value system.

I suspect that for the first wise men, and for us, the temptation might be to look at those items of value we’ve received – our treasure, our time, our skills – and be tempted to simply leave them at home. We don’t want to use them, we aren’t interested in giving them away, so why bother carting them around?

Then again, we could all simply hand that stuff over to whoever passes for Herod in our own lives. We could show up at the place that symbolizes power and majesty and fame and offer the best that we carry there.

But I am here to say that offering my self – time and energy and finances – in the service of Christ has been a source of deep blessing for me.

And I’m also here to say that some of the things that you and I have done in our lives that have had the deepest and longest-lasting impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and our world have been done in sheer ignorance of their impact. We had no idea that the little thing we did affected someone so profoundly. We couldn’t see it coming any more than the Magi saw themselves as agents of God’s working in and through different cultures in the world. We had a nudge, we felt a little prompting, and so we gave, or we served, or we acted like a friend to someone… and the world changed a little bit.

And all of that leads me to my absolute favorite aspect of the whole story from Matthew: the last phrase in this morning’s narrative. In the midst of all the details about the visit of the Magi, the author makes sure that we know that these travelers “…returned to their country by another route.”

Three Wise Men Watercolor 4, Niall Drew (2014) Used by permission. For more, see http://nialldrew.com

Now that could mean simply that they chose an alternate route home. They went by boat over the Sea of Galilee, or they took route 80 instead of the turnpike. It certainly means that they decided not to go back to Herod and fill him in on their visit to Bethlehem. While both of those things could be true, I choose to add my own interpretation as well: that these mystics returned to their point of departure having been changed by the travel they’d shared.

That is the power of a pilgrimage. They went on a trip, and the things that they saw, and did, and heard affected them to the core of their being. Coming up against the power of Herod, the act of giving gifts to the Holy Family, and their encounter with the Christ child all led them to redefine themselves in such a way as to ensure that none of the days that followed were as they might have been otherwise.

You know this. You’ve been on a pilgrimage, I suspect. I’m certain that when I use this word, some of you reflect immediately on that time when you had a huge, once-in-a-lifetime trip. It was a mission trip to somewhere far away, or you visited the Holy Land or the Vatican, and you knew, even as you were preparing for the journey, that it would be powerful. You hoped for it. You planned for it. And it changed you.

And others, I hope, will think a little deeper. You’ll remember the day that the pastor called you to go and visit the hospital, but the day that you got there, the patient asked you to help her die. You were invited to a Youth Group retreat, and while you were there, something just clicked. You asked a friend have a coffee or a beer with you, and you wound up hearing for the first time the story of his failed marriage. In other words, there have been times when you didn’t know something was going to happen, but you found that you were changed anyway. You thought you were doing something that required a few steps or a couple of minutes but discovered that you were in the midst of a journey that affected you in a profound way. You didn’t know it then, but you can point to it now.

That is the essence of a pilgrimage – whether you’re an astronomer 2000 years ago or a soccer mom today, a pilgrimage is accepting the invitation to a journey that results in change. My call for today, and the invitation I put forward this morning, is for each of us to consider 2018 as a year of pilgrimage. As you consider the year that lies ahead, can you ask yourself, “What next?”

Everybody in this room stands at the door right before you walk out of the house, and you say, “OK, do I have my wallet? My keys? My phone?” Let me encourage you to adopt this as more than a pragmatic ritual. Think about what you have when you answer the phone, or leave the house, or open your email. Think about how you steward the resources at your disposal, and what you think of as “yours” as opposed to what you think of as something to share.

Look for ways to engage with others in the pilgrimage that is worship, and ask for God to change you in and through that worship experience so that you, no less than the wise men of old, might be changed for having encountered the Christ – and that therefore you, too, can go home by another way.

The opportunity for such an encounter stands before you this day. Thanks be to God for the privilege of saying “yes”.  Amen.

Here We Grow Again

Statistically, January 1 is less likely to occur on a Monday than on other days.  Why? I have no idea.  But that means that we don’t have the chance to end the year in worship on 12/31.  In 2017, we did just that, and thought about the nature of time, and what it means for us to be creatures who are called to inhabit time, but who may also live beyond time.  Scriptures for the morning included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and Luke 13:6-9.   

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

Don’t answer this out loud, but think for a moment… What is your first thought upon awakening on a typical day? Not that groggy, in and out, half asleep stuff, but the first moment that your YOU is present… what fills your mind?

I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum… there are occasions when we find ourselves sighing, resignedly, “Well, here we go… another day in paradise… Same stuff, different day…” And there are, presumably, some people in the room who wake up delighted with the prospect of spending another day circling the sun, full of hope and purpose for the hours that lay ahead… “A whole new world…”

Or do you even think about those kinds of things? How important is time to you? Do you need to know what day, what hour, what minute it is? Are you always early, or chronically late? Do you feel as though you have to be doing something – you have to be productive all the time?

And how do you see yourself in the midst of time? I have a hunch that many, if not most of you, see yourselves as following a certain chronology… That could be a daily thing (“Hmmmm, well, I have to be to work by four, so that means that I’ve got to finish the shopping by three…”), or it could be expanded into a longer view (“Yep, I’d better purchase that 2018 fishing license now…” or “Yikes, it’s time to clean those carpets again…”).

I’m walking around the edges of this relationship that you and I have with time at what I perceive to be an opportune moment. My hunch is that there are not as many times in the rhythm of our lives when we are as apt to say something like, “Oh, we always do such and such…” as we are around the holidays. We always buy a real tree… Grandma always makes the gravy and the stuffing… she always visits the cemetery on Christmas Eve…

Oh really? Are those things that, in fact, always happen?

I could say that I always spend time with my brother and sister around Christmas. And, in a way, that’s true. I mean, photos don’t lie, right? Here we are – late December back in ’63, and then again on Friday evening of this week… Yet is this the same thing? In what ways is this “always”? I mean, how many people are there in those photos? Are there three people on the screen? Or six? Obviously, the good-looking kid on the right is me. Or was me. But is the child the same me?

I mean, you think about this kind of stuff long enough and your head starts to hurt, doesn’t it?

I suspect that a part of the conundrum that we experience when we seek to think about and relate to the passing of time is the fact that we are, in some ways, bound to the passing of minutes, hours, days, and weeks. And yet in some very important ways, we are designed to transcend that.

British theologian and writer C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic book The Screwtape Letters:

Humans are amphibians…half spirit and half animal…as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.[1]

This inbetweenness – sometimes feeling lost in eternity and other times feeling gripped by the moment was captured in an old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen:

We are, each of us, always, in both places. We are near to eternity, and we are stuck having to remember that garbage collection is delayed a day this week due to the holiday. And that is precisely why we sometimes find ourselves singing “A Whole New World” even while we’re muttering “same stuff, different day” under our breath. In some way, both are true. There are things that we have always done, but the we who have done them are different every single time, aren’t we?

I not only use time, keep time, spend time, save time, waste time… I am affected by time. I live within time. I am shaped by time. And, in some way, I am called to shape the times in which I live.

I’m preaching all this, of course, because today is the first time in eleven years that New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. In our culture, we think a lot about time on December 31. We look back at the year that has past, and we anticipate what is to come. Some of you, no doubt, are hard at work crafting your list of New Year’s Resolutions…

Are we, waiting and watching for the beginning of another year, different than we were last year?

Well, yes and no.

How do you view time? A casual reading of Ecclesiastes might lead you to the conclusion that time is circular: we do this, and then we do this, and then this, and lo and behold we find ourselves back to the beginning again. It really is just the same stuff on a different day…

You’d be hard pressed to prove different by looking at our church calendar: there’s advent, then Epiphany, ordinary time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, ordinary time, and Advent… It does seem as though it is circular.

Yet when we remember that we are always moving, always changing, and always being given the opportunity to grow, we confess that time is not merely circular, but rather, it has a structure and a movement that may bring us around to similar places, but not the same place. I like to think of the rhythm of the year like those ramps at Heinz Field or any other stadium. They are built in a circle, and as you get closer to the nosebleed seats, you’ll find that you have several opportunities to be looking North, East, South, or West… but when you get to “that” spot again, your vantage point is a little different because you are thirty feet higher than you were the last time around.

Ecclesiastes does say that the seasons come, and go, and repeat… but a careful reading will also indicate that they are not the same – because we are not the same. The landscape, and our perspective on it, changes as we mature and, well, encounter more and more seasons.

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Which brings me to December 31 and the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Allow me to make several brief observations about these verses as we worship together for the last time in 2017.

First, let us note that in all likelihood, the central figure in this story – the landowner – is supposed to remind us of God the Father. And what do we note about this landowner? His main business is the vineyard. That’s the way that he describes his property. And yet growing in this vineyard is a fig tree. The figs are not this man’s main interest. They are a hobby. They, for some reason, occasion his interest or even his delight. He doesn’t need the figs. He wants them. He is eager for them.

The landowner’s central concern is, of course, fruit. He is not interested in the fig tree for the sake of the lumber or shade or the quality of leaves it may or may not provide. No, he looks at it and he wants to know if it is bearing fruit. If it is, in fact, doing that which fig trees ought to do. Is it blessing him or others? Is it bringing forth richness and nutrition and, well, delight? At this point in the story, of course, it is not.

And yet there is a profound sense of patience, and hope, or at least tolerance on the part of the landowner. His servant – whom I would identify as the Christ-figure in this parable – has an eye to the future and an awareness of the fact that things can and do change. The gardener convinces the landowner to care more about the tree, and to invest it with the special attention and other conditions that are likely to result in the appearance of some fruit. Interestingly, the verb that the gardener uses when beseeching the landowner is the Greek word aphes. In our translation here, it is rendered “let the tree have another year”. Aphes – “leave it be; let it alone…” – is also translated as “forgive”. In fact, the One who told this story, Jesus, would use that same word on the day that he was killed – and he looked up to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive; let them alone – they don’t know what they’re doing. Give me time here…”

Here’s my point: somehow, against all odds, you and I have survived another year. That is to say, we’ve lived through 2017 (so far!) and we’re still speaking to each other. We got out of bed this morning – maybe singing, maybe mumbling. We’ve got today. We are not the same people as we were 365 days ago, and yet many of us are in the same place… What are we supposed to do with that?

In 1999, Annie Dillard thought about the significance of the changing of a millennium and wound up writing a wonderful book entitled For the Time Being. In it, she challenges us to consider who we are as creatures who can only exist in and through time. Listen:

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? —our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.[2]

I think that the point is this, and simply this: thanks be to the grace of the landowner and the love of the gardener, we have everything we need. As we stand on the brink of 2018, we are able to do that for which we have been created: we can bear fruit in the place we’ve been planted and the season we’ve been given. Let us, therefore live and move in these days as those who are interested in producing fruit of love, grace, hope, and peace. It’s who you are. It’s why you are. Thanks be to God, it’s the reason you’re here and now. Amen.

[1] MacMillan publishing (1942, chapter 8).

[2] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999) pp. 30, 88-89.

Rain and the Helping

For more than a quarter of a century, I have written an original short story each Christmas season in an effort to express the deep and eternal meaning of the incarnation in terms that are accessible to those in the room for a candlelight service.  Many of these stories have been published in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas. Information about purchasing these stories can be found by clicking here. This year, I tried to write a story that would make sense to the entire congregation but use a couple of characters that I’d invented to help my four year old granddaughter deal with some of the joys and concerns of growing up, becoming a big sister, and dealing with things that make us nervous.  Our text included the well-known account from Luke 2:1-20. I hope you enjoy it!

To hear the story as told in worship, please use the audio player below.

This is the story of a brave, strong, kind, child whose name was Rain. Like all children, Rain enjoyed many things: she liked fishing, and cooking, and taking walks to look for special things outside. But among Rain’s most favorite things in the whole world were the times when she got to climb into her Grampy’s lap and listen to his stories. They didn’t get to do that often, but whenever they were together, it was something that they shared.

Tonight was a special night, because Grampy had promised to tell Rain one of the most important stories ever – the story about the night that baby Jesus was born.

They had a book with some pictures, and there was a pretend stable with a little manger that was sitting on the table, and Rain looked at these things while Grampy talked about the man whose name was Caesar Augustus who made a rule that everyone had to go on a special trip just to pay some money and sign their names.

Rain interrupted. “But Grampy”, she said, “Why would he do that? That just seems really mean – especially to Joseph and Mary.”

Rain had been with her own momma and daddy when her little sister was born, and she knew that it was hard work being pregnant and helping to take care of someone who was pregnant. She went on to say, “If it was me, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have just looked at old Caesar and said, ‘Hey, buddy – we’re too busy to travel now. Sorry, Pal.”

Grampy laughed at this, and then said, “Well, sometimes even mommas and daddies have to do things that are hard. But one of the things I’ve learned is that God always sends helpers. No matter where you are, God will always send helpers.”

Rain frowned and said, “Well, it sure doesn’t look like that now. I tell you what, Grampy. I’m going to keep an eye on God.”

“That’s a really good idea,” responded Grampy.

They got to the part of the story where Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, but couldn’t find anywhere to stay for the night. Once again, Rain burst into the story:

“But where are the helpers now, Grampy? Mary is going to need someone – and the only person in the story is a mean old innkeeper who wouldn’t even let them stay!”

Rain had a barn at her house, and it was a real mess – filled with bugs and snakes and bees. She would never ask anyone to sleep there!

Grampy helped Rain to see that maybe not all barns were like her barn, and maybe since the house was already full, a clean, warm, dry barn would be better than nothing.

“And,” Grampy said, “maybe a group of women came out of the house and helped Mary. The story doesn’t say that she was all alone.”

“Well,” Rain said, “If I was there, I would have waited with Mary. I would have helped her.”

Grampy went on with the story, and he got to the place where the shepherds came to visit the little family.

Rain didn’t know much about sheep, but she knew a lot about goats. She looked at her Grampy and her face squinted a little bit, and she said, “Wait – the shepherds came on the night Jesus was born? Weren’t they muddy and dirty from being outside with the animals all the time?”

Grampy smiled and said, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure that they were very dirty. But God wanted to include them in this special night.”

Rain thought about it for a while, and she asked a great question. “Did the shepherds come to help with the baby?”

“No,” her Grampy said. “They didn’t really come to help. They came to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born, and to say ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus.’ And maybe, in some way, the shepherds saw that Jesus’ birth was a reminder of the fact that God had promised to send them help in their lives.”

Now, this just sounded foolish to Rain. She had a new baby in her family, and she knew that babies could be great in some ways, but she also knew that mostly, babies are loud, and messy, and not really very helpful to anyone. Ever. So Rain asked her Grampy another very good question. She said, “Grampy, how can a baby ever help anyone?”

Grampy held little Rain very tightly in his arms and said, “Oh, Rain. You will know more about this when you get to be a little older, but any baby – and especially baby Jesus – can always be a reminder of how good life is supposed to be, and what special gifts God gives to each one of us.”

“Think about it,” Grampy went on, “This group of shepherds was probably pretty poor, and they were often lonely. Most of the people in their world didn’t pay any attention to shepherds – they didn’t want to be friends with them, they thought that shepherds were not as good as they were… Maybe the shepherds could have felt as though God had forgotten about them, and that God’s promises of help didn’t include them.”

“But then all of a sudden, on that special night, what happened to the shepherds?”

Rain knew the answer to that question! “The angels came, and sang just for them, and then sent them to see baby Jesus.”

Grampy asked Rain, “How do you think that the shepherds felt when the angels were there? Do you think that they thought that God had forgotten about them?”

“Of course not!”, Rain replied. “There were angels, singing in the sky, telling them to go and visit the baby! God did not forget the shepherds.”

“So then listen, Rain, because this is important: before Jesus ever grew up, before Jesus did any miracles, or healed anyone, or forgave anyone… before the baby Jesus even knew how to stand up by himself or say his own name, he was already a reminder to people who felt poor and alone and forgotten. Before Jesus could say anything with his own mouth, God used the baby Jesus to remind people that God keeps his promises and that his help will always find a way to reach us.”

That seemed to get Rain thinking for a little bit, and the room got quiet for a while. Grampy was looking at the lights on the Christmas tree, and then he looked out the window and saw that it was snowing again, and then he started thinking about the fact that pretty soon he would have to get out of that nice soft chair and start to shovel the walks again.

And while Grampy was thinking all of these big and important and grown-up thoughts, Rain was just sitting in his lap, turning the pages in the picture bible they were holding.

After a minute, Rain stopped looking at the pictures and looked at her grandfather. She thought he was very special, but she had an important question for him.

“Grampy,” she said, “do you know how to do miracles?”

“What?” He wasn’t sure that he heard the question right.

“Grampy, you know, like in the Bible stories. Jesus cured people who were sick, and he walked on water, and one time he even fed a giant crowd with only a few loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. Can you do any of those things?”

Now it was Grampy’s turn to be quiet. Finally, after a few moments, he said, “No, Rain, I don’t suppose that I can do any of those things.”

Rain nodded, and held her Grampy’s hand, and said, “That’s all right. I don’t think that I can do any of those things either.”

“Well,” said Grampy, “what do you think we can do?”

Rain said, “Look, I’m not a baby any more, and I can’t do miracles. So I can’t act like the baby Jesus, and I can’t act like the grown up Jesus. So I guess the best way for me to be like Jesus this Christmas is to try to do that reminding thing. You know, you said that this story is about how God always sends helpers. Do you think that you and me could be the helpers? I want to be a helper and a reminder.”

And so that’s what they did. They got up from the chair, and Grampy decided that he did have to go outside and shovel. But Rain came along with him, and she helped. And then they went across the street and shoveled the snow away from two other houses.

When they came inside, it was time to do arts and crafts. Instead of just making projects to hang on her own refrigerator, Rain decided that she would make some special cards for people in the hospital who might be feeling alone at Christmas time. Grampy even helped her put them in some envelopes.

Late that night, Grampy was tucking Rain into bed, and he asked, “Well, Rain… was it a good Christmas?”

She said that it was, but then she added, “But I have a a question.”

“What is it?”

“I know that now, Christmas is over. But I still want to be one of the helpers. I still want to be one of the people who reminds other people that God promises to be with them when they feel sad or alone or hurt.”

Grampy bent down and he kissed the little girl right on both cheeks. It looked like he might have been crying a little bit, but Rain wasn’t sure about that. Then he said, “Rain, that is the best answer ever. If we only do helping for a day or two, then we’re not really acting like Jesus, are we? Let’s try to do it every day, all year through.”

And so, that’s the plan. To work, in whatever way an old man and a little girl can, to be in on the helping thing that God is doing in the world.

There’s room for more of that, you know. Thanks be to the God who not only promises us help, but who sends us into the helping. Amen.

After the story was finished, we lit the candles and sang “Silent Night”, and I shared a meditation entitled “First Coming” written by Madeleine L’Engle.

 

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he cameto a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

If At First

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the wonder of what it means to be in a position to be called by the Lord.  We heard the stories of God’s calling the boy Samuel and the annunciation to Mary and thought about how or when we might be able to respond to God’s call on our own lives.  

 

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

It wasn’t a joyous Christmas for everyone when Mikayla brought home her final report card from the first half of the third grade. Although she had been a wonderful student in previous years, every single subject showed a marked decline. Worse than that, at least for her mother, was the fact that Mikayla’s teacher indicated that Mikayla’s attitude had become really negative. The teacher said, “It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about school.”

Well, as you might imagine, there was a pretty serious conversation at dinner that evening. Mikayla’s mother was appalled by her daughter’s blatant disregard for her concerns. Finally, the child blurted out, “Look, it’s just too hard! Multiplication? Sentence structure? I hate that stuff. I’m just going to quit school.” At this point, Dad tried to take the long view, and asked about her future. Mikayla’s face brightened immediately, and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about there. I have it all figured out. I don’t need to finish school or go to college. When I grow up, I’ll be a Kindergarten teacher. That stuff is easy! I understand all that.”

How frustrating is it when you find yourself in a situation where you are not able to understand what’s going on? Maybe it’s when you walk into a room and everyone is laughing… and you’re not sure why… You’re given an assignment at work or at school, and you just can’t figure out what is expected… You know what it’s like to encounter a situation in which you know that something should make sense, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it comprehensible.

We want the world to make sense, to have order, and to be predictable. We want to know what to expect, and when, and why. And yet all too often, it’s not that way. Especially, it seems, when God is involved.

Eli and Samuel, unknown illustrator.

Each of our scripture readings this morning presents us with a biblical character who simply cannot get a grip on what God is up to in their lives or in their world. In the first reading, we encounter young Samuel, who believes that the most important thing in his life at this point is to help Eli get through his days and nights in service to the Lord at the temple. Samuel respected the old man and he probably felt sorry for the ways that Eli’s sons had turned out. And Samuel probably wasn’t sure exactly why all the other kids lived at home with their parents, and he was here in the Temple, but he was making the best of it.

As you know, he heard a voice, repeatedly, and is finally able to ascertain that the voice belongs, not to the ancient priest, but to the God that they both serve.

Luke tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mary who is, by all accounts, simply minding her own business and planning a wedding. There’s a lot to do, and I’m sure that tensions were high. All of a sudden, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of an angel who tells her something that she simply knows to be flat-out impossible.

There is not a person in this room who hasn’t asked each of these questions before: “Is that really you, God?” and “How can this be?”

You know what it’s like to ask these questions. How do you respond when you are faced with a situation that is puzzling, or confusing, or heart-breaking? It would seem to me that we could learn a thing or two from the models we have encountered in scripture this morning.

Samuel might tell us that it’s ok to slow down when you are confronting a perplexing situation. “Take some time,” he would say. “Get your bearings and try to discern what is really happening, not merely what is apparently going on.” He would know, since as you heard he didn’t get things right on his first, second or even third try.

Samuel’s willingness to restart, and his acknowledgement that his perception might not be ultimately accurate allowed him to embrace the new thing that God was going to begin in his life and in the experience of his people.

Our sister Mary would add that it’s ok to ask for help. When Gabriel started spouting all of this nonsense about her being pregnant she listened politely, but then she reminded him of the facts of her own life. And then she simply asked a question: “How can this be? I hear your words, but it simply seems unbelievable to me. Can you say more about this, please?” And in response to that, the messenger from God does, in fact, elaborate. He says that the Holy Spirit will “cover” her. The word for “cover” that is used there is the same word that the Greek Old Testament translators used to describe what was happening in the very beginning – when back in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God was “hovering” or “moving over” the water.

Mary’s willingness to ask for support and encouragement brought her to a place where she was able to see herself as a part of God’s creative movement in and through the world. She came to see that this thing was not happening to her, but rather in or through her.

Annunciation, Matthias Stom (c. 1600 – 1652)

In both instances, we see that slowing down, seeking alternative understandings, and asking for help leads God’s people to a deeper self-awareness and greater self-understanding. As young as they were, Samuel and Mary were each in a position (guided, I will note, by a mentor of one kind or another) to step outside of their own hurt, pain, confusion, or bewilderment and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the roles that were being offered to them in the Divine economy. And in the security of that mentorship, the assurance of God’s presence, and with the gift of faith, both of these young people were able to redefine themselves, first and foremost, as “servants” of the Lord.

Mary, in fact, goes even further, referring to herself as a doulé of the Lord – a “slave”. Singer-songwriter Michael Card notes this in his volume on Luke, saying,

Her final response to the angel is conclusive proof. Essentially she responds, “Look, the slave of the Master.” Of all that she does not know, one thing seems perfectly clear to her. It is a perspective that will help her navigate the deep waters into which the small vessel of her life is about to go. It will be the source of her disturbingly clear obedience… She is surrendering her rights, her hopes and dreams and her own body absolutely to him. Mary seems to know that she is owned by Another. The message that has come to her through the angel is absolute and life-changing.[1]

So when you find yourself up against things – whether you are confronting some of the great existential questions of life, such as “Why is this hurting so much?” or “When will healing come?” or “What next?”, or whether you are encountering yet another situation where it seems as though a colleague is determined to ride your last nerve, to poke and dig at some source of irritation, or to accuse you of that which is not true… When any of those things are going on in your life, it might be helpful to remember the practices enjoined by Samuel and Mary.

Remember that you are still – and that you are always – learning how to live in the life of faith. There is no one in this room who can claim to have mastered that. Some days, you may feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress, and you can think, “Wow! I’m glad I am not where I used to be…” But never forget that each and every one of us has a long way to go on our journey toward maturity and discipleship.

Try to remember what you told your daughter when she was learning to tie her shoes, or what your friend told you when he was trying to teach you how to drive a stick-shift car: Slow down. Relax. Let’s try this again. Watch.

Remember not to take yourself so seriously. In all probability, the situation in which you find yourself is not really and ultimately about you anyway. In any case, the realities of your life at this instant are offering you with an opportunity to come alongside of God and to help conform God’s world to God’s intentions.

You know, that all sounds pretty good. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Give yourself a break. As God for help. Remember that you are a part of the thing that God is doing in the world.

Nobody would be surprised to show up for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent and hear the preacher spouting stuff like that. It’s the sort of thing that we think we pay for from the pulpit.

But here’s something that struck me as I contemplated the nativity narratives: actually doing those things is easier for some people than others. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, Carver goes to school for a hundred and twelve years, and then serves as a pastor for a quarter of a century, and he’s beginning to get a glimmer of understanding that we’re not all alike…”

That’s not what I mean. Look with me at some of the stories you all know about the birth of Jesus – the biggest, newest, most amazing thing that God is doing. The angels are dispatched to the Shepherds – a lowly, marginalized group on the fringes of that culture – with a message of God’s new and amazing thing, and how do the shepherds respond? “Let us go to Bethlehem and see!” The star shines in the East, and a group of foreign non-believers sense that there is something overwhelmingly compelling about this particular event, and they leave everything behind and prepare themselves to worship whoever or whatever they meet at their journey’s end. In each case, you have a group of people who are less invested in the status quo, less tied in with how they think that the story should end, and they respond by saying, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. Let’s move into this a little deeper!”

On the other hand, the more entrenched the participants are in their own practices and understanding of the life of faith, the harder it is for them to perceive this new thing that God is doing.

Mary is a teenaged girl who is, from everything we can tell, simply trying to do the right thing: to worship and serve God, to honor her parents and her commitments… she hears word of this astounding plan and raises her hand, haltingly, to ask a clarifying question…

Joseph is a responsible, righteous, well-regarded member of the community. He is afraid of bringing disgrace on his own family as well as that of Mary, and when he is confronted with this impossibility, he decides in his heart that he can’t possibly get behind this and so he plans a quiet bit of legal action to make everything go away quietly.

Zechariah, the priest serving in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the one who was chosen to be the father of John the Baptist – the man who, as much as anyone in this part of the story is an insider aligned with a particular way of understanding God at work in the world – he hears word of what is happening and is so surprised and upset by it that he actually argues with the angel and is struck mute as a result. And although the other priest of whom we read this morning, Eli, does not figure in the narrative of the nativity, it is worth pointing out that he cannot even hear the voice of God speaking when the Spirit announces the intention to do something new.

Could it be that in our quest to consider ourselves “mature Christians” and “growing disciples” that we may be prematurely declaring that we know what God wants and we can take it from here, thank you very much? Could it be possible that in my quest to take care of things and try to impress either you or God with my wisdom or insight or faith or whatever… that I have lost something of my ability to wonder at and seek to join in with God’s purposes?

At the end of the day, both Samuel and Mary are able to adopt a posture that is first and foremost humble, teachable, and trusting.

Samuel says, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

Mary echoes, “I am your slave. Let it be to me according to your word.”

When Jesus’ friend John wrote his account of Jesus’ life, he didn’t tell any stories about when Jesus was born. But he did give Jesus an interesting label: John said that Jesus was the “word” for God. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, I’m sure. Perhaps chief among them for me, this morning at any rate, is the fact that Jesus was the Word that was shaping Samuel (“Speak, O Lord…”. Jesus was the Word that was preparing Mary (“Let it be to me according to your Word…”).

Today, dear friends, and in the days to come, let me encourage you to find some quiet spot. Unplug. Listen. I suspect that the Word which became apparent to Samuel and to Mary is longing to become audible to you in a new fresh way here in Advent of 2017.

And you say, “Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve! And did you see the news? Taxes! Russia! Cancer! Wildfires! Jobs! Those idiots in congress! How am I supposed to unplug?”

Listen. Seek God’s face for half an hour. None of those things are going anywhere fast. They’ll all be right where you left them when you get back. The question is, can you be different as you consider the questions in your life and in our world? If Christmas means anything, it means that you can. Thanks be to God, we all can. Amen.

[1] Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series, IVP 2011), p. 39.