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.

The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

Watch Your Step

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights marked the fourth Sunday of Advent 2016 by giving some thought to what it means to be a people of peace in a culture that seems riven by conflict.  Our texts included Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 1:67-79.

Do you like hockey?

I do. I mean, I really do. I’ve been watching more and more of it in recent months. 20 years ago, you could say that I had a passing interest in the game. That grew to the point where 10 years ago I might have been called a “mild” fan. Now I find myself watching most of the games on TV, and I even go to a few. I love it.

rondaveA couple of months ago I came across a pair of tickets and so my neighbor Ron and I went to see the Penguins take on the Sharks in a rematch of this year’s Stanley Cup finals. Early in the second period, the Sharks scored and that quieted the fans down a bit. Not long after that, it appeared as though Hornqvist put one in for the Penguins, but the replay showed it was a bad goal, and so it was disallowed. And then the Sharks scored again.

By the end of the second period, we were down 2 – 0, and in addition, two of our defensemen were injured and out of the game. During the intermission, Ron turned to me and said, “OK, this is all right. They’ve got a two-goal lead. That’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.”

I looked at Ron as if to say, “Nice try, neighbor. But let’s go get some nachos or something to redeem this evening.”

In the third period, the Penguins scored three times in seven minutes and ended up winning the game. I like hockey – in part, because it’s possible for my team to come back in a big way.

Believe it or not, there’s an Advent connection here.

Today is “peace” Sunday. We’ve talked about the ways that Advent leads us toward hope, love, and joy; today we are considering the notion that peace is reflective of the Lord’s intentions for his people.

advent-candle-flames-1200x450If you have any access to any kind of device that is capable of relaying any information about the world outside of these walls, you will know that this has been a tough week for the team that follows the One who is sometimes called “the Prince of Peace”. Just on my phone – a three inch screen – I’ve seen…

  • the most recent devastation of Aleppo
  • The next steps toward genocide in South Sudan
  • I had a friend call and describe how the house across the street from him had been shot up in a drive-by
  • We saw the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and heard the verdict in the trial of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church
  • There was a shooting on Barr Avenue – five or six blocks from here – over a parking place
  • Another friend about whom I care deeply received word that a loved one had attempted suicide

Sometimes, I just don’t get it – we come in here and we read these words about swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but I don’t know, man. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jesus – I’m a big fan… But when I look around at what’s going on in the world – even in my little corner of it, which is a pretty sweet little corner… it seems like we’re in a really tight spot. This is worse than a 2-goal deficit, if you know what I mean.

I just don’t see how Team Peace can pull this one out. There always seems to be more hatred, more violence, more death. It’s hard. I mean, it’s just really hard some times.

I said I like to watch the hockey games. And at least once a week, I do. But when I watch them, I use the amazing little feature called DVR – that allows me to skip the commercials and, more importantly, the intermissions. I turn on the game at 8 or 8:30 and I watch it straight through.

Usually.

On November 16, the Pens went down to Washington and played the Capitals. It was horrible – they wound up losing 7-1. I can guarantee you that I didn’t watch that whole game. I mean, we fall behind 4 – 0, 5 – 0… it’s time to let my wife have the remote control. I don’t have time to watch that kind of performance.

Why? Why do I give up like that?

There are at least two reasons. First, I give up because I can. Look, it’s a hockey game. If a bunch of well-paid, enormously-talented young men want to spend a couple of hours crashing into each other, loosening teeth and creating bone-jarring collisions long after the outcome has been decided, well, they can be my guests. But I’m not interested in that kind of a “contest.”

And secondly, I stop watching because I’m well aware of the fact that I have no impact on the outcome of the game. I’m a fan. I’m not even in the same city, often. What can I do about it?

But if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor a bit, I’m not merely a fan of Team Peace. Like you, I’m one of the players. I have a stake in the game, and I have a responsibility toward the other players and the team.

Look at the reading we’ve had from the Old Testament. After Isaiah tells the people what the Lord is going to do, in verse five he looks at his audience and says simply, “so let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

zaechariah-and-elizabeth-with-johnIn Luke 1, the old man Zechariah sings a song we know as the Benedictus. He starts by recounting what God has already done: God has redeemed, raised up, showed mercy, and remembered. The next verse is about what his son, the one we would come to know as John the Baptizer, will do: John will prepare the way for the messiah, and he will tell the people of God’s saving love and forgiveness. And the final refrain describes what is going to happen as a result: the tender mercy of God will come upon us, and it will shine on those who are in the darkness and under the sentence of death, and it will guide our feet in the paths of peace.

In both of these passages the implication is unmistakable: God has acted, God will act, and there is a role or a responsibility for us. There is a path that we must take – the work that is before us is to walk the pathways of peace.

OK, so what does that mean? How do we live in such a way so as to prepare for a reality in which swords and spears are superfluous? How do we live in a way that recognizes the fact that our God is a redeeming, raising up, merciful, remembering God?

It means that we get out there and we live the faith that we talk about. We walk in the light. We move through the shadows. We stay on the path.

And how do we do that? Well, here’s a clue: the paths of peace do not begin and end in this room.

Let’s go back to hockey. What’s the part of the telecast that I hate the most? What’s the reason that I use a DVR to watch the games?

The fact that NHL games have not one, but two intermissions. From where I sit, an intermission is 17 minutes of bad commercials, useless commentary, and talking heads. There is no action at all.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a little like worship – an artificial interruption of real life where a couple of people do a lot of talking, sometimes someone tries to sell you something, and not much appears to be going on. Maybe Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was right when he said in a 1996 interview, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

Exactly. This? This is not very efficient.

carlyle-practice-620-thumb-620xauto-357815But listen to this: in the NHL, the intermission does not exist for the spectators or the fans. When that horn sounds and the teams traipse off to their locker rooms, that’s a chance for the players and coaches to get together and see how things are going. They look at who’s hurting. They talk about strategy. I can imagine that someone might come up to Sidney Crosby and say, “Look, #43 has been trying to ride me up the boards all night. What if we faked a breakaway and you gave me a pass a step behind him?” The players and coaches use those 17 minutes to take a breather, to hydrate, to adjust their equipment, and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

Nobody connected with the NHL thinks for a minute that intermission is the reason to sell tickets or play the game. But successful teams realize that it is crucial to use these breaks from the action to reflect on where they have been, to correct or adjust strategy, and to choose how to move forward into the time that remains.

And here’s the problem: many churches, Christians, and pastors act like the hour we spend in worship every week is the primary means by which we follow Jesus Christ. And that’s just not true. It’s a load of hooey, in fact.

The path of peace brings you by here now and then – but you’d better be walking in that path 24/7/365.

When I was growing up, I thought that 11 a.m. on Sundays was the time when Christians played the game. I thought that was the most important hour of the week. That worship was where the action was – it was what counted.

I was wrong. This? This is intermission. This is where we all stop our running around and beating ourselves and each other up and we come in here and we catch our breath for a bit. This is a sanctuary – but it’s also a locker room.

And I gotta tell you, team… it looks like we’re getting beaten pretty badly right now. Team Peace is taking it on the chin.

What are we going to do?

We could quit. Forget trying to do anything meaningful about the pain, suffering, and dis-ease around us and focus in on the things that we like. We have great coffee hours. And the kids seem to enjoy each other. Maybe we just re-think where we’re going.

I suppose you could call in the substitutes. Maybe you want to get a new coach? I hope not. I kind of like it here… and besides, no matter what you do with the lower management, the Ownership is not likely to change any time soon, if you know what I mean…

So how do we respond to the fact that we are living in a world that is by many measures more violent and less peaceful?

What if we got ready to take five key young leaders and immerse them in a cross-cultural experience that will not only knock their socks off, but just might screw them up for the rest of their lives in terms of their ability and inclination to fit into a materialistic and violent culture?

What if we took a couple of thousand dollars and bought a new furnace for the Open Door on Friday morning and then hosted a party for 200 neighbors on Friday evening?

The ministry down at the Table, where we offer a hot meal and warm fellowship to dozens of people who need it, seems to be taking off. How about we recruit a few extra folks to staff that?

We could prepare a group of twelve adults to travel to the southern border of this country, where they could learn about issues of poverty, justice, and immigration while helping churches in that area reflect the love of God through the provision of adequate housing…

Do you see what I mean? You don’t come in here because this is the place where you act like a Christian. You come in here because this is the place where we catch our breath; we talk to the team; we listen for some new direction or fresh ideas; we revisit the basics; we share our heaviness and our joy – before heading back out to where the action is.

Come Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we’re not going to stand around and sing old songs and light candles because we think that kind of nonsense actually accomplishes anything in our ongoing battles with addiction or depression or ISIS or materialism or fear or war-mongering or greed or racism…

We engage in those practices because they remind us that at the end of the day, light does shine! Peace will reign. We are not here to offer a little mumbo-jumbo that somehow erases all the pain; we are here in order to be shaped and challenged and refreshed in our attempts to live lives of peace all week long!

So rest this morning, saints. Catch your breath. In a few moments, we’ll have the choir sing a little number. I think you’ll like it – it’s a real toe-tapper.

But that’s not the point. The point is getting you equipped, getting all of us ready to get back out there and continue walking in the paths of peace, even when it seems rough.

God is doing a new thing. Not just now, but tomorrow morning and on Thursday and yes, on Saturday night. Remember that, and move toward that all week.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Interview with TIME Magazine, January 13, 1996