Can’t We All Get Along?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series concluded on December 22 as we read someone else’s mail: Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter/sermon in which Paul invited the church to take responsibility for healing in relationships.  Our scripture consisted of Philippians 4:1-9 as well as Psalm 122.

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

Not long ago I attended a worship service to mark the installation of a colleague as pastor of a local congregation. To be honest, it was a tough day for me, and I was mostly going because I’d promised I’d go.  When I saw that my friend Saleem was the preacher for the day, I perked up.  And when he made a point in the sermon, and then said something like, “my friend Dave Carver is a wonderful example of this kind of living”… Well, let me say that it was humbling, affirming, and really turned the whole day around for me.

That’s a “shout out”.  You know, when you’re in church (or some other crowd) and you’re sort of daydreaming along and the preacher mentions you by name and everyone smiles and you are lifted up as a positive example.  That feels pretty great.

How about the other end of the spectrum?  Instead of a “shout out”, have you ever seen a “call out”?  You know, the pastor is up there preaching a sermon entitled something like, “Stupid Things That Horrible People Do” and then you hear your name lifted up as an example? Yikes.  That does not feel too good… Nobody wants to be called out in the morning’s message.

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)

The Apostle Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, near the end of his life.  He gets news from a church that he started some time ago in Philippi, and he takes the time to write a letter.  When that letter is delivered, it is, in all probability, read to the community as a whole – it is the morning’s sermon.  It is, by and large, a lovely message.  He seeks to put his friends’ minds at ease by assuring them of his own welfare; he encourages them to grow in humility and grace and to follow the footsteps of Jesus, and he warns them about the dangers of false teaching and heresy.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through the morning message, Pastor Paul drops a bunch of names in what becomes a “daily double” of both call out and shout out.  First, he names two women who are apparently having some sort of a conflict and says, essentially, “Look, Euodia and Syntyche – you can do better than this…”  And then he mentions another name, Syzygus, which is often simply translated as “loyal yokefellow”, and then offers another man named Clement a shout out in dealing with difficult situations.

Wow.  I don’t know how often I’ve ever called out anyone from the pulpit, but I can’t imagine that would feel good.  And that’s just in this little church in a small neighborhood.  What would it be like to be called out by the guy who wrote half of the New Testament?  And for us to be reading about it two thousand years later?  That seems kind of harsh.

How do you like hearing your name when you’re in a crowd?  When would that make sense?

I think in this case, Paul is naming a situation of which everyone in the congregation is aware, and then he’s making a very simple point: that the church ought to play a role in bringing about the healing and reconciliation that is needed.

Paul mentions these folks by name, not in order to shame anyone, but to compel the church to action.  It’s as if the old apostle is saying, “Listen up, church: you know these people, and you love them.  You need to help them find a way to work through this pain.  What we have here is not good for anyone.”

So who are these people? This is the only time in the Bible that we read these names, and on the surface we don’t know much about these folks.  But we can say this: both Euodia (which can mean “pleasant journey”) and Syntyche (which translates roughly to “good luck”) are respected leaders in their community.  On Paul’s first trip to Philippi, an account of which is contained in the book of Acts, we find him preaching to a group of women gathered outside the city.  Paul’s usual practice was to preach to the Jews in a town first, and to do that, he’d go to a synagogue.  Most scholars believe that the fact that he goes straight to a gathering of women indicates the fact that the Roman colony of Philippi did not have ten adult men who were willing to identify as Jews, and therefore Philippi did not have a synagogue in which anyone could preach.

While some of the men were apparently reticent or simply absent, there is a rich tradition supporting the leadership of women in this congregation. The first person in all of Europe to respond to an invitation to hear more about Jesus was a businesswoman and entrepreneur named Lydia.  She welcomes Paul and his companions into her home and circle of friends, and it seems logical that the first church in Europe, there in Philippi, grew from that gathering.

In his letter to that community, Paul commends – he offers a shout out to – Euodia and Syntyche for the fact that they “contended with me for the Gospel”.  That’s the exact same phrase that he used earlier when he was describing the importance of the ministries of his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus.  Using language that is parallel at every turn, Paul emphasizes the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would not exist without the selfless service and valuable leadership offered by women such as Syntyche and Euodia.  And more than being leaders, they are his friends, and he laments this brokenness in the fabric of relationship in the household of God.

Paul goes on to invite a particular person, Syzygus or “loyal yokefellow” to work with these two women in reconciling their differences.  In doing so, Paul is putting this person in a difficult spot – literally inserting him in the midst of what is now a public conflict.  Why would Paul do this?  It seems as though the only explanation is that Paul believes that this person has the tools, the skills, and the relational capital to help move this situation towards health.  While he is in prison and therefore unable to deal with this himself, Paul deputizes Syzygus to lead the church in bringing healing – because his core belief is that the current state of affairs isn’t good for anyone.

In the past three weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to look at some fairly detailed biblical narratives of people enmeshed in conflict.  In the lives of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the “Prodigal Son” and his family, we saw several ways in which conflict can eat away at the bonds of family and friendship. I hope we also noted some ways in which we can take steps to effect reconciliation and healing when we’ve been wounded.  This morning, I’d like to invite you to consider the ways in which you might be called to be Syzygus in the lives of those around you.  It’s pretty simple: Paul implies that even those who are not directly embroiled in pain are called to help lead the community out of it.  How can we assist other people in times of conflict?

We can do that by remembering who we are.  We are Syzygus. Are we, in some way, equipped to encourage a healthy resolution to a nagging problem?  Note that even as he calls these women out, Paul avoids anything that even looks like gossip.  He presents each party in a very positive light and emphasizes the gifts and integrity of each.  He does not take sides nor encourage Syzygus to do so. If there is an attack to be launched, it is on the problem at hand, and not the people involved.  At the end of the day, it is not about demonstrating who is “right” and who is “wrong”, but rather how we can get to a place where everyone is contributing toward the ministry of Christ.

In addition to remembering who we are, we do well to remember where we are.  I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who notices things like this, but in these nine brief verses, Paul reminds those who are struggling that they are “in the Lord” three times and “in Christ Jesus” once.  You might say that’s just a literary device, but I will suggest that it’s an important way of remembering that the landscape is different when we are actively dwelling “in the Lord.”

Many years ago I was learning how to drive a car in Africa.  Now, I’d been driving for more than twenty years in the USA before I ever took the keys anywhere else.  But here’s the deal: in South Africa and in Malawi, traffic proceeds on the LEFT – as in England, it’s the opposite of the way we do things in the USA.  And I remember driving down a deserted street in Johannesburg South Africa with Erin in the car, turning left onto a divided road, and being so confused that I stopped the car and called for a vote as to which side of the road I was supposed to be on.

When we are navigating tricky situations, it’s important to remember where we are – in what context are we having these discussions? Our perception of what should be done and who can do it might change when we are able to center ourselves with a proper perspective.  When we are “in the Lord”, our own personal agendas and ideas can and should often take a back seat for the greater good.

Similarly, those of us who are called Syzygus and thereby seeking to help community through conflict will find it essential to reflect on why we are here.  If you follow any kind of social media, you are familiar with the phrase or the meme, “I’m just here for the comments.”  Someone has posted a message that has made a stringent point, and another person has found fault with that post, and then the comments light up!  People attack each other’s credibility, politics, family structure, educational background – you name it – and lots of us follow along not necessarily because we care about the issue raised by the original post, but because we want to be entertained by the conflict that ensues.

We are here, Paul would say, to point to what God is doing in the world.  We are here to do what we can to move the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ forward in the world.   As we do so, we are called to do all that we can to dispel anxiety, to rebuke harshness, and to speak against fear.  Last week I asked our confirmation class to read this passage and tell me what I should say to you about it.  One of the most cogent comments was this: “It’s right there, Pastor Dave.  ‘The Lord is near.’” Everything else needs to be understood in light of the fact that God is close to us and those who are currently struggling.  It may very well be that the reason we are where we are right now is to remind those who struggle that they are close to the heart of God.

And lastly, we have to remember what we are doing as we stand with those who are conflicted.  As the church of Jesus Christ, we who are in the Lord are called to embody the unity that God intends for all creation.  In a few moments you will find a phrase rolling off your tongue without a thought: you will join me in praying that the fullness of God’s presence and authority might be shown “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Who do you suppose is responsible for the “on earth” part of that sentence?  The world needs us to have our acts together – if we are constantly picking at each other, or standing idly by while others in our community are hurting, then our entire witness toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will be meaningless.

The reading from the Psalms really emphasizes this point as over and over again we are told to ‘pray for the shalom of the community’.  I love the way that song ends: “For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.”  We are not commended for simply staying out of conflict; we are not invited to ignore one another.  No, the model is clear: we are to seek one another’s good.  We are here to actively promote healing and wholeness, wherever the dis-ease began.

As our new members began their study of what it means to be the church, we considered the call of Abram and Sarai, and we emphasized the fact that since then, those who have understood themselves to be called by God are called out for service; we are called out in order to be a blessing to the world around us; we are called to give all that we can in order that the world might be a better, healthier, more just, and loving place as we seek to give away that which we have received in abundance from our God in Christ Jesus.

Beloved in the Lord, let me encourage you to live into the calling to be one who promotes peace by doing your best to create a scenario whereby everyone can realize that same call.  It starts, as it must, with each one of us. With Syzygus. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

And Then What?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 15 with an exercise in “holy imagination” based on the story of the Father with two sons, found in Luke 15:11-32.  We also heard an encouraging word from Psalm 34:1-3.

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

“OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

Do you know someone who begins stories or jokes that way?  Have you ever heard that phrase used? In my experience, it’s wasted air.  Hardly anybody actually interrupts and says, “Yeah, Dave, you mentioned that twice already…” Instead, when someone starts to repeat a story with which we’re familiar, it’s easier to simply disengage.  We think we know where the punchline will be, and we allow our minds to wander.  We’ve heard it before.  Got it.  Thanks.

Here’s another phrase you may have heard: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Yes, you think, that’s what we’re saying.  When someone tells us the same story over and over again, it gets bothersome, and even irritating.  During one of the darkest days in early World War II, England’s Winston Churchill summoned General Montgomery and suggested that the General do a review of logistics.  Bored, Monty replied, “You know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt.”

Churchill waved him off and said, “I would like to remind you, my friend, that without a degree of familiarity we could not breed anything!”

I mention all of this because we’re going to look this morning at one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told: the one about the headstrong son who wished his father dead, squandered his inheritance, and still received a hero’s welcome on his return home.

We do this in the context of an Advent journey that invites us to consider various aspects of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Perhaps you were here two weeks ago, when we saw in the story of Jacob and Esau that a movement toward God’s best for our lives would be irrevocably tied with a drawing near to the brother or sister from whom we might be estranged.  Last week we delved into the same family tree and listened in on Joseph and his brothers.  In doing so, we thought about what it might mean for us to take concrete steps toward healed relationships even when we have been wounded.

This morning, we look at a story that features someone who might be the poster child for forgiveness.  We call this account “The Prodigal Son” or “the Loving Father”, and we love it.  You’ve heard a hundred sermons about it, and maybe you recognize the very end of this passage as being the root of what is arguably the most popular hymn of all time: Amazing Grace! I once was lost, but now am found…”

And it is a favorite passage for a reason.  We do well to remember the story of a son who hit rock bottom and who found his way home again; we ought to celebrate and learn from the astounding love that this father had for his sons as he refused to let pride and circumstance stand in the way of a right relationship.

The trouble is, however, that we’ve heard this story so frequently that when Karlena stands up here and reads it to you again, it’s a little too easy to button up the story, to put it away, and start wondering what hymn we’ll be moving onto next.  And when we do this, we fail to realize that Jesus didn’t tell us how this story ended.

Fred Craddock, who was one of the most important preachers of the last century, talks about the ending this way: “He what? He threw a party for the rascal? I can understand letting him back in, but after what he did he ought to come through the back door and eat in the kitchen for a while. He ought to be put on probation, a trial period, maybe work off some of the money he took from the old man. That boy ought to learn a lesson or two. But a party? Where’s the lesson in that?”[1]

The Prodigal Son, He Qi, 2013

And if we’re paying attention, we usually agree that the lesson winds up being that God loves us as we are, and welcomes us home, and that’s just how God is.  And we’re glad.

Except that when Jesus finishes the story, not everyone is glad. There’s one person who is still out on the back porch stewing about the situation.  This morning, I’d like to think about this not as the story of the Prodigal Son, or the account of the Forgiving Father.  No, for our purposes today I’ll title this the Tale of the Presbyterian Brother.

If you’ve been around here more than thirty seconds or so, you might have noticed that we call ourselves a “Presbyterian” church.  If you ask the right person, that person will tell you that in the Greek language in which the Bible was written, “presbuteros” means “elder” – and since we’re a church governed by elders, we’re a “Presbyterian” church.  Luke uses that same word when he’s talking about the first son of the loving father.  He’s an elder.  He’s Presbyterian, through and through, and if we’re not careful, we’ll wind up repeating some of his mistakes.

I’d like to offer a few observations about the Presbyterian in this morning’s reading.

First of all, did you see how offended he was by the party?  I mean to tell you, he would not set foot inside that house as long as that idiot brother was there! He would not dignify the proceedings by making an appearance.

What we don’t realize is what a breach of etiquette this would have been in an ancient Palestinian village.  In a social situation, no matter what else is going on, the host – particularly the male host – has a supreme obligation to greet the guests even if the host is compelled to spend most of his time doing something else.  A number of you have been in an African home where something like this has happened.  You show up for a meal somewhere and all of a sudden a bunch of people come out of nowhere, shake hands with you, and disappear.  They may have jobs to do, responsibilities to attend, but they will stop all of that at least for a moment and recognize the visitors.

But not here. The Presbyterian brother pouts in the back yard and in failing to greet the guests, he publicly insults both them and his father.  It was a clear signal to all involved that he was standing in judgment over them all.  In this, I think we can see that the older son’s rebellion might be less flashy than the prodigal’s, but it is no less serious.  It points us to a broken relationship.

Another thing we might notice about this Presbyterian brother is that he is inflexible and filled with pride – especially when compared with his dad.  In verse 26, we hear that this irritated older brother “called to one of the servants”.  The root of that word is kaleo.  There are all kinds of forms that this word can take, and when the Presbyterian brother speaks to the servant, the word used is proskaleo – it’s a summons to appear before someone more powerful than you.  When the father goes out to speak to the son, you’d think that the same word would be used – it is a father calling to his child, after all.  But the father approaches the son with love – and Luke uses the word parakaleo – the prefix para meaning, “alongside”.  The Father is saying, “Son, look at things my way. See them how I see them…” But the older brother responds, not in the language of relationship, but of duty.  When his father speaks to him in the language of love, the Presbyterian son replies by saying, “I have served you like a slave… and have obeyed your commands…”

Do you see what’s happening here? He is using transactional language: I did this, and you have to do that for me.  His claim is not one of love or grace, but rather worthiness – worthiness that he is clear to point out does not extend to his worthless younger sibling.

The other thing I’d like to point out about the behavior of this older brother is this: that nothing about what he does or says seems to allow for the possibility of a healed relationship. He cannot even see the guest of honor as a brother: he calls him “this son of yours” instead of “my brother”, and then he goes on to make up a story about how the younger brother must have burned through his inheritance.  He invents a narrative about prostitutes… who said anything about that before? Not Jesus, not Luke, not the younger brother… But in his zeal to be seen as a fine, righteous, upstanding person who is clearly holier than anyone else in the room, the Presbyterian brother has to attack and demean his younger relative.

Not only that, but he implies that he’s taking this principled stance against what he thinks is improper living because the father is too weak to do so himself.  He’s being so tough, he seems to indicate, because everyone knows that the father is too soft and will let the young boy get away with murder.  Someone’s got to take a stand, and it’s going to be the older brother.

So what happens next? After this exchange on the back porch… how does the scene resolve?  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  The parable ends.

Home – The Invitation, Seiger Köder (contemporary)

What do you think?  What will happen between this Presbyterian and the rest of his family? Do you remember a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure?  In each of these books, the reader assumed the role of the main character and made choices that determined the outcome of the plot.  Let’s play.  Choose an ending:

In his groundbreaking work The Cross and the Prodigal, Ken Bailey suggests that the most logical ending would consist of the older brother attacking and beating the father.  The brother can’t bear the shame of being in a family where such poor behavior is tolerated or even encouraged.  In Bailey’s understanding, the younger brother is seen as an enemy and the father, as one who gives aid and comfort to the enemy, must be attacked.  The story ends in bitterness, isolation, and death.

Perhaps you’d prefer a different ending.  Maybe the older brother was eventually won over by the father’s love, and went into the party and had a blast.  He greeted the guests, he took over at the grill and made hamburgers for everyone, and a year or so later, served as the best man at his little brother’s wedding.  Maybe confession and repentance won the day and the whole clan was able to live into this storybook ending.

But, because the brother was a Presbyterian, after all, my hunch is that this story ended somewhere between patricide and “awe, golly, shucks”.  I mean, Presbyterians are nice, after all.  We don’t have many enemies.  In fact we think of “enemy” as a rather distasteful word.  There are certain people one avoids, if possible.  For everyone’s good, after all.

My suspicion is that this story ends without an explosion and yet also apart from the storybook.  I suspect that in the days to come, the characters involved simply pretended that none of this happened.  They moved stiffly, they did their duty, they avoided eye contact and did their best to stand on opposite sides of the room when it came time for group photographs.

In other words, I think that the ending of this story is that the Presbyterian son continued to deny his father the gift of a restored relationship within the family unit; that there was no pattern of interactions that could be characterized as loving, forgiving, or reconciled because the older son simply could not bring himself to be placed in that position.

In other words, this story is a tragedy.

Here’s the challenge of Advent, my friends.  Once again, I’d like to invite you to consider your web of relationships.  Last week, I asked those who were in attendance to pray about their specific situations, and about relationships in which they were involved wherein grace and forgiveness were needed.  Do you remember that?  Can you think of a situation like that?

Can we engage in an Advent discipline that would allow us to

  • Allow God to take the lead; one where you and I seek to follow and act toward the other as God is acting?
  • Resist the temptation to take it as a sacred duty to somehow defend God’s honor or reputation by punishing or vilifying someone else? To commit to telling the truth about the other, and to striving to believe the best about each other?
  • Find it in ourselves to wish for happiness and even joy in the life of the person with whom we have been in conflict?
  • Look for a way to crowd into the party realizing that at the end of the day it has always been about God, God’s love, God’s kindness, God’s abundance. The farm is God’s, the robe, the ring, the prize cow – they are all God’s.  Therefore, any insistence I have on setting ground rules, or proving myself to be worthy, or seeking to act in such a way so that we all know that God likes me a little more than God likes you… that all of that leads only to a diminishment of the party for everyone?

The Psalmist sang, “O magnify the Lord with me! Let us exalt God’s name together!”  I don’t know if I can envision an ending to the parable in which the older brother grasps the younger and says that.  And it really breaks my heart to say that, because the people of God should be able to do better than that.

Can we? Can we do better?  Can we lay down our posturing and our pride and, in this instance, anyway, be a little less Presbyterian?  Can we move toward grace and rejoice when our siblings do, too?  Oh, beloved, I sure hope that we can.  If our relationships with each other are not characterized by this kind of generosity of spirit, why would anyone care to know about our claims to have a relationship with the Divine? Thanks be to God for our siblings in Christ, and for the opportunity to walk with them even on difficult days.  Amen.

[1] “Party Time”, in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (John Knox Press, 2011), p. 173

Speak Kindly

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 8 with an exploration of the healing of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  This can be found in Genesis 50:15-26. We also considered Paul’s call to reconciliation in II Corinthians 5:16-21

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

Last week, we began to talk about the ways that Advent is a season for reconciliation – healing in our relationships with each other as well as with the Divine.  Maybe you were here when we talked about the relationship between Jacob and Esau.  Well, if you thought things between Jacob and his brother were difficult, wait until you get a load of how things were between Jacob’s sons.

Maybe you know what happened in that family, but here’s the skinny: Jacob had twelve sons.  One of them, Joseph, was so clearly the favorite that his brothers decided that life would be better without him, so they sold him off into slavery and told the old man that he was dead.  Joseph found himself enslaved in Egypt, where he spent decades being alternately reviled and honored and at the end of the day, he found himself elevated to the position of, essentially, Prime Minister. As luck (or God) would have it, his brothers come cringing to him to save their sorry skins in the midst of a famine, and he does, and so Jacob and all the boys move to Egypt.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear a description of what happens in Jacob’s family after the old schemer dies.  Look at the ways that the brothers are described.  What are some words that you might use to describe these eleven men?  Afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, guilty…  These guys are not at their best right now, are they?  I should hope not!  They are small, they are petty, they are obsessed with the past.  So far as we can tell, they’ve been stewing on this for two decades.

Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Burgeois (1863)

Now, think about some words that you might use to describe Joseph.  Confident, comforting, generous, reassuring, forgiving… Joseph clearly is at his best, isn’t he?  I mean, this kid has been through a lot: he was born into a tragic and dysfunctional family; he was attacked by his brothers, sold as a slave at 17, spent at least a decade in involuntary slavery or as a prisoner, and finally ends up as the vice-governor of Egypt.  Amazing!  He is not at all worried about the past, is he?  He’s at peace and looking ahead!

Another question.  If you got to choose…if you could be afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, like the brothers….or confident, generous, forgiving, and at peace like Joseph, who do you want to be?  What kind of character do you wish you had?  Who do you want to be like?

While you’re mulling that over, let me throw out a couple more examples:

Mahatma Gandhi was on a speaking tour across India, as part of his non-violent struggle for independence from the British.  At that time, the only affordable mode of travel across the country was by rail. When there were no whites waiting for a train, the British rail company, in an effort to save the expense and time of actually stopping at the station, would merely slow the trains long enough for passengers of color to run along-side and hop on. (This racist policy was part of what Gandhi was protesting…)  One day, Gandhi was running to get on a train, and as he jumped up, a sandal slipped from his foot. Though he reached, he ended up watching helplessly as it fell behind him on the tracks. Quickly, he grabbed the other sandal and threw it back down the tracks towards the first shoe.

People who saw this thought perhaps Gandhi had taken leave of his senses. His response to their mystified expressions was: “At least now if a poor person finds my shoe he will soon come across its mate and end up with a good pair of shoes.  A single sandal does neither of us any good.”  There you have it…Ghandi’s character coming through.

Do you remember the day about a decade ago when a man went into the West Nickel Mines School and brutally slaughtered five innocent Amish schoolgirls?  Before the blood was dry on the floor of that building, the parents of one of those girls sent a message of forgiveness to the shooter’s family.  Within twelve hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were visiting and seeking to care for the children of the murderer.  When the assailant was buried Amish mourners outnumbered non-Amish.  And the Amish established a fund for the assassin’s family.

How to you get to be like that? Joseph appears to be genuinely surprised and hurt that his brothers even thought that he might be harboring revenge in his heart.  He hears their doubts – and he weeps!  If Gandhi had waited another moment he would have lost the opportunity; what poor person would continue for miles along the tracks in search of a matching shoe? For the Amish to extend forgiveness on the spot – and think it normal?  To have such an immediate reaction, a person has to reach such a place that behavior is not a thought out process; it’s almost instinctive. How can the average person aspire to reach such a level of human behavior? That’s the kind of person that I want to be…but how do I get there?

It reminds me of the old joke that is supposedly true:  master violinist Jascha Heifitz was hurrying along a sidewalk in New York City when a man yelled out of a cab: “Hey, pal, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  And without breaking stride, Heifitz is said to have replied, “Practice”.

How do you develop the kind of character that shows up in people like Joseph, or Ghandi, or the Amish?  Practice.  Or, to be more precise, practices.

In recent months, I have tried to use the time I’m afforded in your pulpit to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.  There’s not a person in this room who is unacquainted with estrangement in one way or another.  If we are going to follow Christ, we are going to have to learn how to forgive and make for healing.

But lots of times, we don’t want to forgive, and we think that it’s only someone else who needs healing.  We’re not interested. Or maybe we think it’s impossible – we just cannot do that.

Which is, of course, one of the fundamentally hard things about trying to live like a Christian.  We are essentially trying to be, or at least become, something that we are not.  How does that happen?

Some years ago I had the chance to spend some time with pastor and author Brian McLaren.  He said this to a group of us at the Pittsburgh Seminary as we were wrestling with this very problem:

Spiritual practices are actions that are within our power which we do to train ourselves to do things that are currently beyond our power so that we can become people we are currently incapable of being. 

You see, faithful behavior does not come automatically once we sense that God is calling us to be people of faith… Some of us might say that our hearts were changed instantly by Jesus, but all of us have to learn how to act like Christ-followers, don’t we?  We need practice.

Joseph was shaped by his whole life story.  He didn’t ask to be born into a family torn apart by jealousy and favoritism.  He didn’t ask for those amazing dreams, or to be sold as a slave, or to be cast into prison, or even to be elevated into a post in Pharaoh’s government.  That stuff happened to him.  But the ways that he responded to those things and the practices that he adopted allowed him to be shaped in such a way that he became a person of grace and forgiveness.

From everything we can tell, Joseph was a listener.  He was humble.  He was a learner.  He sought God.  And he did that wherever he was: in the fields with his father’s sheep, in Potiphar’s home, in jail, and in the royal palace, you get the sense that Joseph had a series of practices that kept him centered: prayer.  Hard work.  Service to others.  Submission to God.  And what was the result?  At the end of the day, he was confident, comforting, generous, peaceful, forgiving…all of those words we mentioned earlier.  His daily practices shaped and made him who he was.

The same, of course, is true of Ghandi or the Amish.  It’s not like the Amish live day to day full of anger and trying to cheat each other, but when the worst thing ever happens, they say, “You know, let’s try something different now…”  No.  Their lives are shaped by the daily pursuit of grace and forgiveness.  The non-violence with which Ghandi conquered the British Empire was borne out of hundreds of decisions that he made every day and that came to bear fruit in his life.

I want to speak further about the implications of these practices, but first let me make two further observations about forgiveness as we see it in the Joseph story.  One of the things that we can see plainly here is that reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was not dependent on a confession.  Did you hear what his brothers said?  Nobody said, “Wow, we were pretty harsh, dude…”  Nobody apologized.  Instead, they came up with this crazy story about something that their father told them before he died.  Yeah, they threw the dead guy under the bus so that they could patch things up with their brother… and it didn’t matter to Joseph.  He treated them with grace.

Similarly, we can draw from this that forgiveness is not always dependent on a shared understanding of the past.  I suspect that Joseph and each of his brothers would tell a different version of the things that had happened.  Nowhere do we see them coming up with a timeline to which everyone can agree.  Rather, they decide that hashing through the sequence of events is not as important as living into the days that remain.

So what about those practices?  I hope that you are convinced that you’d like to dive more deeply into them, but as we do so, I wonder why you want that.

Let’s say that there are two men who decide that they’d like to get in a little better shape.  They can’t walk from here to Giant Eagle and back without getting winded and so each one says to himself, “Wow. I’ve let myself go.  I’ve got to get back on track.”

The first man does so because he wants to shovel snow for his elderly neighbor, to play with his grandchildren, and to be more fully alive in the world around him.

The second man embraces the exact same regimen of workout and diet, but these things do not come from a place of strength and hope.  Rather, he is ashamed of how he looks, and as he gets healthier, he is more and more pleased with what he sees in the mirror.  He becomes vain, and begins to make sarcastic comments to his friends who are not as fit as he.

Do you see? Each of these men is doing what is fundamentally a good thing, and engaging in sound and wise practices, but one of them is acting far more ethically than the other.

In our day, there is a narrative about forgiveness that relates to this example and leads to an unhealthy exaltation of the self.  You have suffered some great wound; you have been wronged greatly; and in response, you declare publicly that you are going to be the better person, and have a bigger heart.  You engage in a campaign in which you do all you can to ensure that everyone knows how deeply you have been wounded, and how Ghandi-esque, how Christ-like you are because you are willing and able to forgive even a loser like that person…

That is neither true forgiveness nor reconciliation because it keeps your neighbor in your debt, it perpetuates pain, and it builds your pride and ego at the expense of your neighbor’s shame.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in love and trust in God’s provision.  We see that in the narrative about Joseph, when he goes so far as to envision a new reality with his brothers and their families.  He invites them to make a promise to him!  He holds out the possibility of renewed trust.

Authentic forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in proper understanding of who we are and who our neighbor is.  In II Corinthians, Paul points out that we have to give up scorekeeping.  There is no sense, he would say, in trying to come to a consensus as to who is the “bigger person” because none of us can really measure up.

Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, put it this way: when it comes to living the Christian life, we are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. The path to true reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement that the only way I can even contemplate forgiveness is by recognizing that I have learned it from Jesus.  We seek to be reconcilers not in order to inflate our own ego or reputation, but because reconciliation is the arrow that points the universe toward God.

This is Advent.  This is the time when most of us prepare for Christmas, and in so doing, we engage in a number of practices.  We shop.  We send out greetings.  We plan hospitality.  This year, I’d like to challenge you to include one more Advent practice: practice forgiveness.  Practice reconciliation.  Spend some time each day asking God, by the power of the Spirit, to show you – “how can I give this gift of reconciliation away?  How do I practice forgiveness in my daily life so that I get good at it?”

And in particular, let me invite you to hone in on one particular area: look at your speech.  What do you say to and about other people – in real time, or online, or through social media?  Genesis sums it up by saying that Joseph “spoke kindly to his brothers”.

For Christ’s sake, friends – truly, for Christ’s sake, not mine or yours – can we seek to grow this week in our ability to speak kindly to and about one another? Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation we have received in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Christmas Blues…and Golds

It’s Advent, and that means that in my role as Pastor Dave, I get to do one of the Best Things: for four Sundays, and again on Christmas Eve, I can wear one of my favorite stoles.  If you’re not a regular in a liturgical church, you might not know, or care, what a stole is.  It’s a strip of fabric that some of us wear around our necks and over our robes.  A stole is, as I understand it, reminiscent of the yoke that was placed around the necks of service animals like oxen or donkeys, and it reminds the preacher that she or he is yoked to the Word; we do not invent anything, but rather we are called to remain faithful to that which we have received.

Most of us have several – the Christian year features a variety of color schemes for different seasons.  In Advent, that scheme includes blues and purples.  And this stole has these in abundance.

This symbol was made for me in the last year of her life by my friend Helen, who was a weaver of great distinction.  She lived with cancer for many years, and as she was preparing for her death in her seventh decade she presented me with this lovely stole.  We both knew that it was the last gift she’d ever give me. She said, “Now it’s got the blue and purple, which means that you’ll wear it during the darkest, coldest time of the year.  But look: I’ve woven some golden threads through it.  Most of the folks in the congregation won’t be able to see them, but you’ll know that they’re there.  And never forget, David, never forget that the news is really good news.  Never forget that the season of darkness will end, and that life continues.”

I fingered the stole, and felt something at the bottom of each side – it was about the size and shape of a quarter.  “What’s this?” I asked the weaver.

She smiled and said, “I wasn’t happy with the way it hung, and so I sewed a couple of lead washers into it.  They cost a couple of cents each down at the hardware store.  And let that be a lesson to you: you’re wearing the blues and the purples and there’s even some gold woven in, but it’s held down by simple lead.  You are dust, David, and to dust you shall return – but you are dust wrapped in hope and life.”

Advent has been called a “little Lent” because of the ways that we are invited to consider our own brokenness as we prepare for the birth of the Savior.  Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to do that.  I mean, we’re supposed to have “the holiday spirit” and all that.  We can be in a rush to get to the angels singing “Gloria” and the star shining brightly and Good Christian Men Rejoicing.   I know.

But here’s the deal.  It’s December.  The days to come are, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest and darkest days of the entire year.  I know, Andy Williams and Michael Bublé and I don’t know who else want you to believe that this is “the most wonderful time of the year…the hap-happiest season of all”, but I can’t always seem to get there.  I love the holiday, but it’s dark and cold and I miss the people who have been here before…I miss the way it used to be…I am enraged by the things that are wrong…and sometimes I feel guilty for not being all happy clappy at Christmas. I hate the dark, and I miss the light and warmth.

And so I wear this stole, and I remember that the gold is there, even though it is hidden sometimes.  And so I sing “O Come, O Come, Emanuel”,  “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “The Canticle of the Turning”.  And I’m inviting you to join me in waiting, watching, hoping, confessing.  And I hope that, sooner or later, we will be together holding candles.  Don’t be afraid of the darkness and cold – because it cannot last.  The light will shine.

Me, My Brother, and God

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series began with a telling of the healing that took place between Jacob and Esau.  Our scriptural focus was from Genesis 32-33.

To hear this message as preached in worship on Dec. 1, 2019 please use this media player:

So, do you have a sibling?  Do you know what it’s like to be irritated, offended, misused, or let down by your sister or brother?  Maybe you heard the story of the pregnant woman who was in a car crash.  She was in a coma for a week.  When she woke up, the nurse told her, “Congratulations!  Not only are you going to pull through from your injuries, but you’ve had twins!”  The woman said, “But who’s taking care of them?  I’m not from around here.”  The nurse said, “Oh, that’s no problem.  Your brother has come, and he’s here helping out.  He’s even named the babies.”  “Oh no!,” the woman thought.  “My brother is a moron!  What are their names?”  The nurse said, “Well, the girl is named Deniece.”  “Oh, I like that,” said the new mother.  “And the boy is named Da Nephew…”

As we begin Advent this morning we’re going to spend a little time talking about brothers and other people who are close to us – morons or not – and how we are called to remain in and repair relationships with them.

Perhaps you remember something of the saga of Jacob and his brother, Esau.  Genesis describes the way in which Jacob took advantage of Esau and connived his way into receiving the blessing of the first-born son.  Not surprisingly, the next episode featured Jacob running for his life when Esau discovered the deception and set out to kill his brother.  Much of season two of that miniseries focused on Jacob’s life in the country near Paddan Aram – a long way from home.  You could say that he was trying to save his own skin.  Esau was a big, strong, angry man.  You could also say that Jacob was waiting for God to keep God’s promises: God has promised him many descendants, and that his descendants would be a blessing, and that his descendants would inherit the land that he had left behind whilst running away from Esau.

Karlena has set up today’s episode pretty well.  In chapter 31, Jacob hears from God that it’s time for him to go home and claim the land.  He leaves his father in law and begins the journey of 500 miles or so.  As Jacob and his wives and his children pack up, he must be filled with fear.  However, he has done a pretty fair job at irritating the folks back in Paddan Aram, and so he’s got to keep going.

The good news is that as Jacob neared his old hometown, he met messengers from God.  That gave him an idea. Look at what’s next – he wants to butter up his brother:

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau, toward the land of Seir, the open country of Edom. He gave them these orders: “Say this to my master Esau. This is the message of your servant Jacob: ‘I’ve lived as an immigrant with Laban, where I’ve stayed till now. I own cattle, donkeys, flocks, men servants, and women servants. I’m sending this message to my master now to ask that he be kind.’”

The messengers returned to Jacob and said, “We went out to your brother Esau, and he’s coming to meet you with four hundred men.”

Jacob was terrified and felt trapped, so he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. He thought, If Esau meets the first camp and attacks it, at least one camp will be left to escape.

Immediately after the message from God, Jacob sends a messenger to Esau, who replies with a messenger of his own.  Do you see how things tie together?  Already, eight verses in, and we are seeing an interconnectedness between me, my brother, and God.

What happens next is unique.  Genesis 32:9-12 is the longest prayer recorded in Genesis.  Think about all of the things that happen in the first book: The Garden of Eden.  The Flood.  The tower of Babel.  The call of Abram.  Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  Yet for some reason, this encounter between Jacob and Esau is the occasion for the longest prayer recorded in the book.  I’d say that’s significant.

Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’”

Jacob Returns to Canaan, Attributed to Charles Amédée Van Loo (18th c.)

Did you hear what Jacob does in this prayer?  He owns the covenant – that is, he puts himself in the midst of God’s promises.  As he does so, he remembers that he is an unlikely recipient of God’s grace – as the second-born, he knows he is not worthy, that he is the “least”.  He asks for God’s help and protection, and announces that he will hold God to the promises that God has already made to Jacob. That’s a great prayer!

Next, Jacob stops praying and starts doing what he’s best at: he plots and strategizes.  He’s just prayed indicating that it’s all up to God, but now he’s planning as if it’s all up to him.  He splits up his flocks and his family and thinks that if Esau is really angry, at least he won’t be able to destroy everything.  And, having prayed and planned, he continues to walk towards his brother.

A funny thing happens, though, before he gets there.  When he got to the Jabbok river, he was overcome by the desire to be alone.  He took his wives and his children and set them up in a campsite, and then he spent the night alone – except as he tried to sleep, he was set upon by One whom he came to understand was God.  They wrestle all night long, and as day breaks, Jacob is left with a limp – but also with the Divine blessing.

Jacob, on his way to reconcile with his brother, first wrestles with God.  Although he isn’t named as God in the text, when Jacob names the place “Peniel”, he says, “I have seen the face of God.”  Before Jacob gets to Esau, there’s some business that he has with the Lord.

This is a crucial theme in the book of Genesis, and all of scripture – the idea that our relationship to the brother (or the sister) influences our relationship with the Lord.   We can see this as we look back at Cain and Abel, or at Noah and his sons, and next week we’ll consider the ways that Joseph and his brothers treat each other.  One of the first and most important lessons in scripture is that we cannot separate the ways that we relate to each other from the ways that we relate to the Lord.

So all night, Jacob and the Lord wrestle with each other.  In the midst of that, what happens?

First, Jacob is re-named.  All his life, he has been known as “Jacob”, which means “the grabber” or “the trickster”.  Now, he’s told that his name is “Israel”, which means “God strives” or “God rules” or “God protects”.  His identity is changing – no longer is he known as the one who relies on his own wits; instead, he is known as the one who demonstrates the presence of God.

Another thing that happens that night is that Jacob receives a wound.  For the rest of his life, he is different somehow.  I think you know something about being changed as you are wounded, don’t you?  You have encountered the Holy in a death or through a surgery or at some other part of your life and you are different.  Some of you cry more easily now than you ever did before.  Some of you are more generous.  Some of you find it easier to let things roll off your back.  Whatever it is, you know what it means to have been changed by an encounter with the Holy One.

And almost as an afterthought, Jacob receives a blessing from God.  He has been blessed before, of course, but here at Peniel he finds that blessing strengthened and renewed as he revives himself by the banks of the Jabbok.

And in the morning, we find Jacob/Israel, limping along, finally ready to meet his brother after having been worked over by God all night long.

Jacob looked up and saw Esau approaching with four hundred men. Jacob divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two women servants. He put the servants and their children first, Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went in front of them and bowed to the ground seven times as he was approaching his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept.

Jacob and Esau, woodcut, Jacob Steinhardt, 1950

What are these passages in Genesis about?  Are they about the long-awaited reconciliation between to brothers?  Yes, partially.  Are they about the terror and power of God, the mystical being who has the ability to heal and to bless and to wound and to re-name?  Yes, partially.  But mostly, I would suggest, they are about the fact that you cannot separate healing with the family from an encounter with the holiness of God.

Professor Walter Brueggemann puts it this way in his comments on the passages at hand.  He notes that Jacob is concerned with seeing Esau’s face in 32:20, and having seen God face-to-face in 32:30.  Then, in 33:10, Jacob says that seeing Esau’s face is exactly like seeing God’s face.  Brueggemann says,

It is hard to identify the players.  In the holy God, there is something of the estranged brother.  And in the forgiving brother, there is something of the blessing God.  Jacob has seen the face of God.  Now he knows that seeing the face of Esau is like that.  We are not told in what ways it is like the face of God.  Perhaps in both it is the experience of relief that one does not die…the crippling is not to death.  The forgiving is not unqualified.[1]

Jacob, in his attempt to be faithful to God, has got to reconcile with Esau.  And Jacob, in his efforts to reconcile with Esau, has got to encounter God.  In each case, there is deep fear – because Jacob knows that both God and Esau can hurt him very badly.  And yet he knows that to be fully himself and to realize the promise, he’s got to move toward both God and Esau.  And, more to the point, it would seem that he cannot divorce his pursuit of God from his relationships to those who surround him.

Who are we, brothers and sisters?  Aren’t we the heirs of Israel?  Aren’t we here to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  We have been called, and blessed, and changed, and wounded.  We are on our way towards an encounter with our brother or sister.  This is a story about us, my friends.

How can we do this?  How can we be this Word of the Lord?  It depends on where you are in the story.

Some of us don’t know what it is to encounter the Holy One – to wrestle with God about something huge.  Oh, we’ve got problems all right.  We sense them nagging at us, weighing us down – but we’re reluctant to spend time alone with them and God.  Maybe you need to camp out on the Jabbok for a few days.  I’m not suggesting that you need to relax, or that you need a day off, or that you should send the kids someplace and pamper yourself and get some “me time”.  I’m saying that you might be in a place where you need to intentionally engage in the presence of God.  Spend a day or two in fasting and in prayer.  Take some time away and disengage yourself from the details of your everyday life.  In my life, that can mean spending a couple of days and nights out of town in a boat or on a cabin; it can also mean skipping lunch and sitting at the Aviary for a few hours.  Maybe you need to rent a room at the Holiday Inn for a night.  If you need some ideas as to where you can go to be alone in the  presence of God, I’d like to help you think that through.  In any case, I hope that you’ll do that – that you will make space for the wrestling to begin.

And some of us simply need to get on the road.  The one constant in these chapters is that Jacob AND Esau are walking slowly and deliberately towards each other.  Think about that.  They didn’t “need” each other at all.  They both had a fistful of wives and children; they were both financially well off.  They had what they needed to get by…except, somehow, they needed each other – and so they walked the road of reconciliation, because they knew that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s call and presence was in a healed relationship.

From whom are you estranged?  With whom do you need to be reconciled?  And what does it look like for you to walk towards that reconciliation?  Do you, like Jacob, need to lower your head and swallow your pride?  Do you need to acknowledge a hurt, and then act with a generosity of spirit?  Do you need to write a letter – or two – or twelve?  Do you need to make a phone call or visit?  Think right now of a relationship that is not the way that God wants it to be… What will you do to move towards wholeness in that relationship?

The Last Supper, Timothy Schmaltz (contemporary).

Because here’s the deal: It’s not just about you and your brother (or sister), you know.  If you want to get close to God, you’ve got to sit next to other people.  There aren’t any other options – you can’t escape it.  When you come to the Lord’s table, “private dining” is not one of your choices.  You’ve got to crowd in here with the rest of us.  May God bless you.  May God make you limp.  May God bring you home.  Amen.

[1] The Interpretation Commentary series on Genesis (John Knox, 1982) p. 272-273.

Chimwemwe To The World

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included all the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  They included Isaiah 21:6-8 (which, by the way, is the passage that served as the inspiration for the title of Harper Lee’s Go, Set A Watchman) and John 1:6-18.  

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

Chimwemwe rushed into the room.  Although the small home was lit only by candles and kerosene lamps, her face made it light up as though there were floodlights! This thirteen year old girl, whose name means “Joy” in their local language, was the embodiment of light.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said.  “Can we go?”

“We can go when your sister and brother are ready,” replied her father, as he put down a newspaper.

She jumped into his lap – which was not as easy as it had been a few years ago.  “Madala, I can’t wait! This is my favorite night of the whole year!”

Although he knew the answer, her father played the game.  “Why is that?”, he asked.

“Because!” she exclaimed.  “It’s almost time to see if we were right!  Tonight we will know the truth about what we thought we saw!  We will know if we’ve been good watchers!”

The girl’s mother called from the other room.  “Oh, you four and your watching.  What will you see tonight?” she asked.

Chimwemwe concentrated for a moment, and then said, “Well, Dalitso noticed that the old woman who lives across from the maize-flour mill has had the thatch from her roof blow off. He thinks she needs new-”

She was interrupted as her ten year old brother burst into the room and completed the sentence, saying, “he knowsthat new iron sheets will keep her dry for the entire rainy season.”  Dalitso, whose name means “blessings”, sought to join his sister in their father’s lap.

Chimwemwe continued as if there was no little brother.  “Chikondi has selected some new books for the teacher’s library that was burnt in the fire, and we have some chickens to deliver to Mr. Mphatso, the watchman.  While he was at work a few weeks ago, the baboons came and took all of his chickens and now there are no eggs for his children.”

The father hugged his children tightly and said, “You know that I’m always proud of you, but this year it means even more to me. You have touched me deeply.”

The children looked at him quizzically, and he said, “You don’t know this, but a long time ago – before you were born – I was a watchman myself.”

The kids were incredulous.  “You? How could that be?  You run a newspaper!”

“I do now, but I have not always.  Listen, since it seems as though your sister will be a while, let me tell you a story.”

“When I was a child, life was very, very difficult.”

The children chimed in as if in chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We know.  You lived in the village.  There was no electric, and you had to fetch water-”

Now it was father’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, that’s true,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He held up his right arm, and there where his hand should have been was something that looked as though it could have been the idea for a hand, or maybe the rough draft of a hand, but it was not a hand such as you are accustomed to seeing on folks every day.  There were only three parts of it that might conceivably have been called “fingers”, and even then, the bone structure was quite different.

“When I was born,” he went on, “there was a problem.  Even before the midwife was called to help my mother, she knew that my birth would be difficult.  And while usually the first part of a baby to be born into the world is the head, with me it was this arm that came out first.  I obviously don’t remember this part, but I’m told that there was a lot of yelling and crying, and that people were afraid of this baby to be born.”

Chimwemwe took her father’s hand and said, “Madala, it’s just your hand.  It was just a little baby hand.  Sure, it looks different, but it’s fine!”

Her father said, “Well, we know that now, but this was a long time ago, and in the village. There were not as many doctors. People thought differently.  And so it was that when I was born, my father took one look at me and called me ‘Mabvuto’, which means ‘trouble’ in the local language. And for a long time, everyone – including me – thought that the name was perfect.  Because I wastrouble.”

“Can you imagine growing up with a hand like this?  Can you think how the other children would have teased me? Do you know that they made fun of me and even ran away from me?  On my inside – I wanted to help, I wanted to be a friend – but they could only see my different hand.”

“Now in those days there was a company that was called Secure-Corps or something like that. When I saw them, I saw athletic young men wearing matching uniforms driving fast trucks. They were guards hired by rich people, and when an alarm sounded, truckloads of these men would rush through the streets in order to save a home from being robbed or a person from being beaten.  I wanted to work for them.  I just knewthat if I was a Secure-Corps guard, people would be happy to see me coming!”

Dalitso – ‘Blessings’ – looked at his father and said, “So is thatwhen you were a guard, Madala?”

“No!,” was his father’s quick reply.  “I could never work for that company.  I was never a guard; I never had a uniform or one of those fast trucks.  You see, in order to be a guard for that company, you had to be able to read.  My father wouldn’t pay to send me to school.  He said, ‘Why bother, for such trouble?  Mabvuto – look at him.  Look at that hand.  What can he do with a hand like that?’”

“For a long time, it was so hard.  I was always angry.  I was getting mean.  But one day, it was my grandmother – Agogo – who helped me.”

“She surprised me in the bush one day.  I was staring at my hand, and I had taken some small sticks and was trying to hold them there to see what my hand might look like if I had five fingers.  She took the sticks and threw them and then grabbed me to herself.  ‘Oh, Mabvuto,’ she cried.  ‘Why do you keep on looking for something that is not there?  Do you think that if you stare long enough or hard enough that those fingers will appear?’”

“We sat in the grass for a long time, and if we said anything, I don’t remember it.  As the sun was setting, she asked me to help her back into her hut.  It was getting dark, and she almost stepped on it, but at the last minute I saw it – a snake – a poisonous black mamba – and I pulled her back. I grabbed a hoe and I killed the snake.”

“My Agogo hugged me and she said, ‘That’s my Mabvuto – so observant.’”

“’Observant?’ What’s ‘observant?’  She told me it meant that I was good at noticing things, and at watching.”

“And I was.  I couldn’t be a guard, so I became a watchman, and I discovered that I think I liked that even better than being a guard. Guards, you see, were always rushing around in times of trouble, but watchmen were just always there.  Guards were hired by rich people to protect them from bad things, but as a watchman I would see all kinds of things.  I noticed when the hippos left the river to eat and when they returned.  I learned all about the stars.  I would watch and listen as people ran into a house when a new baby was being born.”

“Do you see? As a watchman, I had to keep an eye out for problems, but I also got to observe – to watch – beautiful and powerful things that might have seemed small. Instead of looking only at bad things, or concentrating only on what was missing, I could tell stories about what I did see.”

“When I got home, my sisters and then my cousins would come around me and listen to me tell them about the things I’d seen.  When I got older, I taught myself how to read and write.  I wanted to share the stories that I had, and so I opened my own company…”

“The paper!” his children shouted.  “Nkani Yabwino!  The ‘good news’ paper!”

“Well, yes,” he said. “It wasn’t a newspaper at first. It was just copies of some of the good things that I saw – and it taught me how to be a better watcher.”

“And now, Chimwemwe and Dalitso, and even little Chikondi – you are all better watchers than I am!  You see everything, and you look for ways to make things better or stronger.  I know, you like tonight because we will go out and share some iron sheets, or books, or chickens… but every day we have the chance to look for things that no one else sees.  We try to straighten what is bent, to point out what is great, and to share in people’s lives.”

“But why do we do this tonight, Daddy?” asked Chimwemwe.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve, my daughter!  It’s your birthday!  Do you remember what your name means when we say it in English?  It is ‘JOY’ – because on that night there is always a lot of JOY.  There is joy because we see that God watches with the people who watch-”

His children cried in unison: “the shepherds!”

“There is joy because God sends people to honor and bless the poor-”

“The Wise Men!”

“Mostly, there’s joy because we know God didn’t set out to guard the earth, but to be in it, to watch it, and to teach people how to see!”

The mood of the room changed quickly with the arrival of the youngest child, a girl called Chikondi. And you might want to know what happened next.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you were looking for.

The men down at the Secure-Corps headquarters who watched the surveillance camera footage could tell you that they saw a middle-aged man who appeared to be favoring one hand take 3 kids – later determined to be named Chimwemwe, Dalitso, and Chikondi – around town delivering parcels.

The families of a poor old woman, and a teacher, and a night watchman later said that they’d been visited by angels who came to them and said that God had noticed them in the midst of their trouble.

And me? I saw someone called Mabvuto who once thought that he had been born for trouble make a way for Joy, Blessings, and Love to shine in the darkness on Christmas Eve.

Well, that was a long time ago.  And it was in a place that’s pretty far away.  But keep your eyes open.  Watch. You never know what you’ll see, and who you can tell about it. Thanks be to God, who watches over us, and invites us to do the same with each other!  Amen.

How’s Your Follow?

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

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

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

ONE DAY ONLY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

No One Works Like Him!

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 16, we heard the celebration that “No One Works Like Him” (See another congregation’s rendition of “He is King of Kings” in the video below).  Our scriptural basis was another old hymn: the Magnificat – as found in Luke 1:46-55

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

As we start our time together this morning I’d like to invite you to look at a couple of images.  First, take a look at these magnificent shorebirds that were sketched recently. Can you see the detail in the beaks, especially?  Can you believe it when I tell you that when I showed these birds to my wife, she said, “Wow.  Those rabbits are extraordinary!”?

And how about this image of my uncle?  Do you see him there? The man and the dog that he loved?

Actually, as you may know, each of these sketches is nearly a hundred years old – they are optical illusions – images that can present in at least two ways.  What is interesting is that the scientists tell us that you can only see one image at a time – you see either a man or the dog, but you can’t see both at the same time. The image can only be one thing or another at any given instant in your brain.

I’m bringing this up as we continue our discipline of considering the weight and meaning of African-American spirituals during Advent.  As we’ve said before, Advent is a time of both lament and hope – a time when we name things that are not right, and yet claim that rightness is the intention and the direction in which the creation will ultimately head.  As we experience the songs originally sung by those who arrived to these shores in chains, we need to hear echoes of lament and hope.

George Washington Overseeing His Slaves, 1853 Lithograph

Consider the refrain of the tune we heard a few moments ago: “no one works like him.” Now I’m asking you to use your imagination here, but work with me on this: how would slaves working out in the field have heard that phrase?  In a society where human beings are bought and sold, where one man’s life is the property of another, then can you see that “no one works like him” is a sales pitch, a bit of braggadocio?  A “master” walks past a slave toiling away and points to him, saying, “Just look at him! No one works like him! This is how you should all be behaving.”

Could it be that this lyric is a way of reaffirming the existing structure and paradigm? Could this lyric be interpreted in a way that takes for granted a reality in which slavery is normative and hard work is expected?

If you see these lyrics in this way, then you can imagine a slaveowner out walking in the fields, hearing “his” slaves singing “No one works like him!” and being reassured – as if to say, “Yep, look at Jesus. He works so hard – you should, too!”

I sincerely hope that this is the worst picture of Jesus you ever see in your life.

And if you can see the lyrics in this way as being interpreted like that a hundred and seventy years ago, then it’s easy to see similar images of Jesus’ work in our world now – the images of Jesus working hard on behalf of someone else (usually me).  Here’s what I mean by that: think about your prayer life. “Lord, I really need a new car, or a new job…” and Jesus’ expected reply, “Yep! I’m on it, buddy!” “Oh, and Lord… you didn’t forget that Larry’s neighbor is having a heart catherization today, did you?… Oh, crap, there’s not a parking place to be found, and I’m already late… Jesus, can you help me out here?”

“Well, Dave, you know what they say! ‘No one works like him!’  I’ve got this, Dave.  Don’t worry!”

You see? If you hold the Bible just right, you can see that image, can’t you?

But what if the spiritual we heard earlier is indeed an attempt to tell the whole truth – but to tell it from a different perspective?

Years ago I heard one of my mentors, Eugene Peterson, introduce a study on Jesus by reading a work by Emily Dickenson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With Explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind     [1]

Eugene was using this poem to talk about the ways in which the truth that Jesus spoke and the truth about Jesus was always present – but it nearly always was truth on a slant – or, to put it another way – Truth coming in the side door.  When we talk about telling the truth, and telling it slant – we are saying that there are some truths that are not as obvious at first, but may be just as deep – or even deeper – than the ones on the surface.

For instance, what is this?  I know, I know, Tim and Gabe keep thinking that it’s a fishing net.  They can’t understand that it is my personal collection of holes, held together with string.

Let’s look at a “slant” interpretation of this hymn. “No one works like him.”  Well, what is the work of Jesus?  When he was ready to get down to business, this is what he said of himself: ““The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’” (Luke 4:16-20, CEV)

Magnificat, Daniel Erlander. Used by permission. More at http://danielerlander.com

If we are to take Jesus at his word, he did not come in order to consolidate or affirm the existing power structure – he came to alter it, or more precisely, to subvert it. He came to restore what was broken and to right what was wrong.Therefore, I suspect that when an enslaved people spends the day singing a song about a Jesus who works hard, that they are echoing another song – one that Campbell read a few moments ago.  They sang about Jesus and they remembered the prophecy of his mother, who sang about a savior who has uses his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud; about one who drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power. They placed their hope in a God who gives the hungry good things to eat, and who sends the rich away with nothing.

The One to whom this song points did not come to reinforce oppressive structures such as slavery and he did not come seeking to bless my upwardly mobile lifestyle.

The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus came to help us identify deep, dark places in this world and in our own lives that are at odds with the Creator’s intent and then invite us to work together to redesign that world and these lives.  Look, I’m not saying that Jesus can’thelp you find the perfect gift for the letter carrier or help you to remember Aunt Edna’s sugar cookie recipe, but I am here to say that if those kinds of things were all he that did, we sure wouldn’t be singing about him 2000 years later.

Let me put it this way.  I want you to think of an artist whose work you really admire. And let’s say that Henri Matisse, or Georgia O’Keefe, or Bob Ross showed up at your house with all their stuff and said, “Well howdy, neighbor! I’m here all week! What would you like me to paint?”

I’m here to say that you’d be a real knucklehead if the first thing you thought of was to say, “You know, I’m not really comfortable with the color of the trim in the upstairs bathroom.  Would you mind….?”

Listen: the world in 2018 is a world beyond King Herod’s wildest dreams.  If Jesus’ first arrival was in a world that was characterized by injustice and social inequality, I’m here to tell you that in many ways it’s worse today.  There are more slaves on the planet now – approximately 40 million of them –  than there ever have been.[2]

We see every day that there are different systems of justice that are applied in different ways, depending on the race, culture, and financial status of the one who stands accused.

As we speak, nearly 70 million human beings have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are desperately seeking shelter in camps for Internally Displaced People, or as refugees, or as asylum seekers.[3]

And every day, you and I meet a hundred people who, if they were to be asked about the prevalence of slavery, or the conditions that cause people to leave their entire lives behind them, or the fact that there is not a uniform system of justice in the nation, would say, “Wow, really? That’s too bad.  But it’s not my problem.”

And yet the Jesus who features so prominently in the mangers that they – and we – eagerly display this month is promising to upend a social order that perpetuates inequality and oppression. Jesus seems to think that those things are his problems.

Are we sure that the Gospel is good news? Not to everyone, it’s not.  Do you remember what Herod did when he figured out who Jesus was?  He murdered an entire village’s infant sons, hoping to extinguish this kind of thing.

And yet the work of Jesus is profoundly Good News – it is Gospel – to the marginalized and to those who love them.

So remember what I said about how brain researchers telling us that we can sometimes see the bird and sometimes see the rabbit, but we can’t see both of them at once?  It’s the same way with Jesus and his work and the Kingdom he proclaims.  You cannot see the work of the Christ as BOTH reinforcing the way things are AND heralding something new and liberating.

This Advent, can we stop acquiring and spending long enough to listen for the cries of those on the margins?  Can we learn to not only lament with them in the pain of this world, but to join them in expectant hope and thanksgiving for the God who comes?

Beloved, let us plan our gifting, our eating and drinking, our shopping and sharing as if we are aware not only that “no one works like him”, but as if we actually have a clue as to what kind of work he does. And then, let us join him in it!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1955), #1129

[2]https://www.freetheslaves.net/our-model-for-freedom/slavery-today/

[3]https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

One Step at a Time

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 9, we heard the plea to “Guide My Feet” (video below).  Our scriptures included Luke 1:67-79 and I Corinthians 9:24-27.  In addition, the congregation surprised me with a recognition of my 25th anniversary as their pastor AND we welcomed new members AND we celebrated baptisms.  It was, as my friend Eddie would say, a “double feature”.  And it was good. 

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

I suspect that if you’ve been here for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that we’ve had a lot going on (evidently, this morning, even more than even I knew about!).  Communion. Congregational meetings. Baptisms.  New Members.  We started a new Advent practice of singing spirituals.  Today many of the kids are on a retreat; we’ve heard an Epistle reading that talks about the race of discipleship that must have made sense to the ancient Greeks, who invented the marathon.  We’ve listened to a Gospel story of an old man singing to his infant son about how that son would guide people’s feet into paths of peace…  When I get to a flurry of activity like this, the first question I need to ask myself is, “Well, what are we going to talk about?”

Let’s start at the beginning.  I suppose that there’s a slim chance you could remember, but I doubt it.  Who taught you how to stand up, and then to walk? Who coached you through that experience? Do you remember the precise exercises you did as you practiced rising, putting one foot in front of the other, and then maybe even tackled the stairs?

Of course not.  In reality, by and large, nobodyis taught how to walk.  We just do it, right? Some of you were 8 months old.  Others were 14 months old.  Barring some sort of medical issue, every child eventually gets it, right?

And – you know this – watching a child who is figuring this all out? It’s hilarious.  They pull themselves up on something, and they toddle along stumbling like drunken sailors until they arrive at the inevitable face plant… Most children do not need someone to teachthem how to walk.  Yet every toddler needs someone to encourage them – to remind them that they cando it – that they are, perhaps, better at it than they realize.

The Christian Life is often called “a walk”, and I think that in large part that’s because it is easily understood as a place where – just as in our earliest experiments in mobility – innate ability, personal responsibility, and communal engagement come together.

Why do you follow Jesus?

Well, most of you would say that in large part, you’re here because you choseto be here. You have responded to the gift of grace that was extended to you. Not many people are here – at least, not for long – if someone is “making” them come.  When we shared communion last week, we noted that there was no such thing as a “force feeding” of the Gospel.

Here’s another example that I suspect will resonate with many of us in the room.  When you, or someone you loved, got sober or clean, how did that happen?  Did anyone make you do it? My experience – which is limited, to be sure – is that healing from addiction cannot move forward without a decision and an act of the individual will.  Some of you have told me that you got clean when you wanted to be clean more than you wanted something else.  I’ve heard about how tired you were of seeing the pain, fear, or disappointment on the faces around you – your parents or your children, in many cases.  Most of the time, moving towards wholeness begins with the day that the individual chooses to move.

But – and this is a big but, and there are a lot of big buts in church – in situations involving dependency and addiction, the individual’s choice and sheer determination are not sufficient.

Unlike learning how to walk (which is a natural aspect of human development), entering the paths of faith can be more like coming out of addiction, seeking to lose forty pounds, or going back to school to get another degree. When one is going through such a complete change, the support of family and friends is essential. Many of you who have gone through such significant life changes have talked with me about the importance of having one particular person who can coach you as you look at the pitfalls and seek to gain strength.

Look, I realize that I can only push any analogy so far, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of us are here because we’ve heard something from the Lord, we’ve seen something in Jesus, we’ve sensed some movement in the Spirit and that has made us say, “Yes! That!  I want that! I’ll run this race!”  You and I are here because God was somehow active in our world and we responded to that activity and showed up.

So the more important question for today, then, is not “why do you follow Jesus?”, but rather, “how are we becoming a community of encouragement and care?”  How are we treating each other – those who have joined us in running this race?

I know that every single person in this building has been in a room crowded with “grown-ups” who are watching a child take their first steps.  How does any experienced walker behave in that situation?  You’ve been there: there’s a lot of cheering and celebration and even videotaping and recording, right?

How about here?

It seems to me as though it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as a community of care and encouragement if we are characterized by condemnation and ridicule.  Think about it: can you imagine a grandparent belittling a two year old for stumbling down the hallway?  Would a mature person study an 18 month old child’s attempts to get from the living room to the kitchen and then post it on Facebook, saying, “Well, this kid’s clearly an idiot.  Yesterday, I thought we were getting somewhere, but today? Please.  Looks like she’s falling back into those old habits.  What a loser. Steer clear of her – she looks pretty needy.”?  Of course not.

In the same way, an essential task of the church of Jesus Christ is to resist condemnation, share affirmation, and practice encouragement. Part of our organizational DNA is reminding people that they can be more than they thought they could.  I’d like to try something with you.  Right now, can you just put down whatever you’re holding and just reach your hands high above your heads.  Get them up there – as high as possible, and hold them there for a moment.  OK. Got it?  Now, listen to me, but watch your neighbor: I want you to reach higher.

You liars! I asked you to get your hands as high above your heads as you could, and you said you were doing that… but then when I asked you what was apparently impossible – reach higher – you did.

Listen: my point here is not that you can’t be trusted… it’s that each of us can probably accomplish more than we think we might be able to if we are given the right amount of encouragement and challenge. Let us pledge as a community to resist the temptation to condemnation and judgmentalism and embrace our identity as we become those who encourage.

Another thing that any competent adult would do when encouraging a toddler to walk is clear the path.  When Sharon and I are trying to get Violet to trust her legs and balance more, we pick up laundry and close the gate to the fireplace and so on.

As we are joined by sisters and brothers who are eager to run the race of faith, can we create worship and discipleship experiences that remove obstacles and hindrances for others?  Maybe it’s providing child care.  It could be taking a good look at musical styles or the language we use. In any case, it’s the responsibility of those who are better at walking to make sure that the pathway is as clear as possible.  And I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: when we do this, we don’t gripe about it. When your friend was rehabbing from his accident or your daughter was learning to walk, you didn’t moan and groan about how you had to make sure that the laundry was picked up before they tried to walk across the room – you did it, and you were happy to do it because you love that person more than you love the things that are laying the path, right?

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about creating a vibrant community of faith, and it’s slightly counterintuitive.  If we’re talking about children learning to walk, we accept it as a given that the two year-olds are learning, and the sixteen or sixty year-olds know it all.  We think that there is some sort of linear progression there, and we’re probably right.  However, as we engage in the walk of faith, we have got to remember that for each and every one of us, there is a lot to learn, and we must be open to learning from someone who is “younger” in one way or another than we are.  Our Gospel reading today showed us a father who was expecting his son to teach him great things; our Epistle was written by Paul, who was one of the best-educated men of his generation – and yet who was nurtured and taught by, and learn from, a group of illiterate fishermen.

When I show up at meetings with other pastors, they sometimes give me grief because I still work with the Youth Group.  “Come on, Carver,” they say.  “Time to get out of that.  That’s a young person’s job.”  Maybe. But I love watching the face of a young person figuring some of this out for the first time.  I am constantly encouraged by – and learning from – the children and young people in our community.  I have learned far more about being fearless from young people than I have from those older than I; children have taught me to use my imagination; and in recent years I’ve seen young adults push me closer to the heart of Jesus than I might go on my own. I’m grateful for the chances I have to teach, and yet I’m more grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn.

“Guide my feet while I run this race” is not merely a prayer wherein I ask God to give me some special coaching; it is a cry for community.  We come in here and we tell each other that we’ve been out there doing it – whatever “it” is – and we cheer for each other, we hold one another’s troubles, and we remember that this is a good place – the right place – for us to be.  Thanks be to God for a community that is vibrant and growing.  Amen.

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.