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

Was Jesus Happy?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Psalm 47 and John 15:9-17.

 

Are you familiar with the game known as “Would You Rather?” It’s a conversation-starter featuring questions in which players are asked to choose between one of two options. You can’t say “both” and you can’t say “neither”. Some are simple matters of preference: “Would you rather be a firefighter or an astronaut?” Others seem irrelevant to me: “Would you rather eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life or give up Instagram?” And some are downright cruel: “Would you rather listen to Nickelback every day for the rest of your life or read the entire 56 page iTunes terms and conditions every day for the rest of your life?”

Here’s one for Advent: Would you rather be happy or joyful?

Maybe that’s a trick question, so let me ask you to ponder this for a moment: is there a difference between joy and happiness? On the one hand, we tend to use those words differently. On the other hand, the dictionary uses those words to define each other:

Happiness (noun)

  1. the quality or state of being happy;
  2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.

Joy (noun)

  1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation…

Maybe me asking if you’d rather feel happy or joyful is akin to me asking whether you prefer rain or snow. Is there a difference between water and ice? On the one hand, there is no difference at all. Ice is water. Water becomes ice. In either case, we’re looking at two atoms of hydrogen for every atom of oxygen. But on the other hand, we surely experience rain and snow differently, don’t we?

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, once wrote “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” (from Nine Stories, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”)I like that.

Joy is a form of happiness to be sure, but it is not exactly the same. It’s the kind of happiness that comes to us in surprising ways, that runs over us, or that seeps into us even when we’re not quite sure what we’re looking for.

Happiness, in my mind, can be very fleeting and tends to be related to some sort of outward circumstance: “I won the lottery!”, or “He went to Jared’s”, or “That was the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Joy, however, tends to be longer-lasting and is related to something that is more inwardly-focused: “My life is so much better since I stopped worrying about money!”, or “I am loved!”, or “Everybody seemed to really enjoy themselves at dinner tonight…”

Maybe another way to think about it is this: we are often happy because of some physical sensation or material object (“Have you seen my new car?”); we tend to experience joy as a result of a spiritual awakening or a burst of gratitude (“It is so wonderful not to have to wait at the bus stop every morning!”).

gaudeteI bring all of this up, of course, because this month we are looking at the traditional Advent emphases of the church. As such, I note that on this, the third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate what the church has called Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday of Joy. The name comes from the beginning of the liturgy that the early Christians used in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice). You may not have noticed, but in addition to lighting our first two Advent candles – purple to symbolize the reflection and repentance appropriate to the season – this morning we lit the one pink candle. Many churches use the pink candle to remember and proclaim that even as the days become longer and darker, there is a sense that joy is on the horizon. You may not be happy about the fact that it’s freezing outside and it will get dark at 4:30 and our boiler is struggling to keep up with the draft in here… but we can celebrate the truth that none of these things matter in comparison to the gift of the Christ child.

This kind of thought is especially meaningful to me this year as one of the most important part of my Advent disciplines is preparing the team of five young leaders from Crafton Heights for a visit to our sister church in Malawi.

It has been my great honor and deep joy to worship with the church in many, many places around the world: from Malawi to South Sudan to the Soviet Union or Mexico or Haiti or Korea or South America… I am thrilled to have been present in so many different kinds of worship. Yet one thing strikes me, and frankly, annoys me. When I am with a group of Americans at worship in the developing world, the almost universal reaction is this: “Wow, Dave, did you see that? I mean, these people are so poor! Their lives are so difficult! And yet they are so happy!”

smilesI want to tell you, nothing chaps my hide as quickly as having some well-meaning person look at an economically challenged community and say, “Sure, they’re poor, but look how happy they are. I could never be happy like that.”

The reality is that reasoning comes from a false equivalence. We fall into that line of thinking when we assume that our happiness is dependent on our outward situation. People aren’t happy being poor or facing difficulty. Yet they can be filled with joy even in those circumstances as they hold to a higher truth. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”[1]

That rings true in our Gospel reading for today. I don’t think that many people would consider the events of Maundy Thursday and call Jesus “happy”. We have read from John’s description of the Last Supper. He is on his way to what scholars have called “the agony in the garden,” where Luke tells us that he experienced such stress that he was sweating blood. He spent the night preparing for his own suffering and death – this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “good day”.

And yet, here he is, however improbably, telling his best friends (all of whom would scatter in the moments to come) about the joy that he has, and about his longing for them to experience the same joy in their own lives.

You know the truth: viewed through any lens but that of faith, this is a nonsensical proposition. There is simply no call for Jesus to be happy about his impending pain, suffering and death. Of course. And I cannot believe that he is happy about those things.

But what if Jesus is not, in fact, happy about his impending torture and the agony of the crucifixion, but rather is filled with some sort of joy as a result of participating in God’s plan of redemption, healing, and hope? What if the thought of other people, such as his disciples or even us, sharing in that mission was enough to give Jesus the ability to look past the anticipated pain and torment of the days ahead and into a reality where human hearts were shaped according to God’s design?

And what if our friends in Malawi or elsewhere in the developing world are not happy because they are privileged to live in some of the harshest places on the planet in terms of infant mortality, HIV/AIDS infection, or access to clean water… but rather, they are filled with joy at the prospect of being able to participate in the body of Christ at work around the world? What if, instead of wondering why someone can be so happy while they are so poor, we committed ourselves to sharing in the transformative work of Christ in a way that focuses less on what we have and more on who we are?

I know I’ve been quoting a lot of theologians this morning, but here’s one more. This is from the late Theodor Geisel, who considered this very mystery in one of his more celebrated works:grinch

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, “How could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.”

And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”[2]

What if the point of life is not to be happy, but rather to share joy? If that’s the case, then we can seek to spread the joy of Advent each day no matter what our current situation. Pope Francis, preaching on Gaudete Sunday in 2014, said “Many people in the rush toward Christmas fret about all they still haven’t done for holiday preparations,…Think of all the good things life has given you.”[3]

Can we do that? Can we, gathered here in this place, make today a day of joy?

Here’s what I want you to do. When you get home, don’t worry about the fact that you’ve got that list of cards to send or gifts to wrap. Instead, take a breath and make a phone call or write a letter to one person and express gratitude for that person and his or her place in your life.

And now some of you are saying, “Great, Dave. Thanks for that. You should know that the person I’d most like to share that with has died, and this is my first Christmas without her or him.” If that’s the case, then go home, take a breath, and remember that person. Give yourself permission to weep for your loss, if need be. Grieve over what has been taken… but – and this is a very big but – rejoice that you had that time with that person. Give thanks for what you have received.

Today, I want you to remember that while we sometimes think of happiness as being fleeting, joy is a kind of happiness that comes from a deep, deep place – it is a gift that is received.

To put it quite simply, spiritual experience, whether it be of faith, hope (or expectancy), or love, is something we cannot manufacture, but which we can only receive. If we direct our lives to seeking it for ourselves we shall lose it, but if we lose our lives by living out the daily way of Christ we shall find it.[4]

The joy of the Christian life comes as a result of a process. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he talked about his desire that their joy may be made “complete”.

This gift of joy is one that comes over time, and it is cumulative. In John 16, or James 1, or Psalm 16, or I John 4, or John 17, or Philippians 2, or II John 12, of dozens of other places, some biblical writer talks about having a joy that is some how “made complete”. Today, ask God to help you view your reality and your gifts and your opportunities in such a way as to be able to take a step closer to that kind of completion.

Today, let us join with Jesus and the shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, with the people of God in Malawi and South Sudan and a dozen other places around the world to spend less time looking for ways to make our lives easier, or more fun, or less mundane, and more time searching for opportunities to participate in the Big Thing that God is doing. The Big Thing might hurt. I’m guaranteeing that it’ll cost you. But the result, my friends, is joy. I promise. Better than that – God promises.

And wouldn’t you rather be joyful?

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] The Heart of Henri Nouwen, quoted at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/14116

[2] Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (New York: Random House 1957)

[3] “Pope Francis: Enough Gloom, Try Joy Ahead of Christmas”, The Whittier Daily News 12/14/14, quoted http://www.whittierdailynews.com/social-affairs/20141214/pope-francis-enough-gloom-try-joy-ahead-of-christmas

[4] “Yielding to God”, Philip Britts in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough, 2001), entry for December 9.

How Do You Know You’re In Love?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and I John 4:7-12.  

 

A couple of months ago I set up the preaching schedule for the year decided to key in on the stories surrounding David, the shepherd who killed Goliath, became the greatest King of Israel, and fell hard for Bathsheba. It seemed wise to me to set aside a couple of breaks from that soap opera and all of its violence, intrigue, and general seaminess.

So we’ll get back to all of that after the first of the year, but for now, we’re going to consider some of the great Advent themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. These seem better suited to our preparation for Christmas than some of that other material; the words themselves conjure up muted pastel shades of nativity paintings, silent nights, and warm candlelight. That’s what we want right now. That’s what we need.

sweetbabooAnd when I knew I’d be away for the first Sunday of Advent, I thought, “When I come back, I’ll take ‘love’.” I mean, I’m coming in from a family vacation, we’ll have been spending time with a community’s wedding celebrations – heck, there’s no better theme for me this week than that of love.

To be honest, it’s not an uncommon topic for me – especially as I am in relationship with young people or others considering attachments of the heart. “Dave, how will I know when I’m in love?” is a question I’ve heard many times. Generally, the information being sought is essentially, “how do I know when I have found the right person?” The question is usually framed in the context of romantic love, accompanied by tenderness, affection, and an overwhelming feeling of bliss or joy.

There’s nothing wrong with romance, but Advent is a good time to remember that romantic love is only a small sliver of the full expression of love in which God’s people may walk.

Advent is a time for love.

In his letter to the earliest believers, the church leader named John says that love is the true mark of every Christian. The old apostle realizes that in many ways, “God” can be an idea, or a construct, or a theory. After all, he says, nobody can see God. Nobody’s met him. How do we know who or what God is?

Well, we can look at what God did. God showed himself by love. God showed the love in which he holds the creation and each of us by sending his son to be present with and for us. In the person of Jesus, says John, we came to understand who and what God is and the love that God bears for us. This kind of love is not a feeling or an emotion – it’s a verb. Love – and God – is a “doing” thing, not just a “thinking” or “feeling” thing.

In his letter, John is building on one of the most important pieces of the only Bible that the first Christians had: the Old Testament. Here, he echoes a passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Most of the earliest Christians would know that the book of Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon, or a collection of sermons, in which Moses speaks to the Israelites about what has come before and what lies ahead of them. He speaks to a community that has been living for generations in slavery and fear as captives in Egypt and yet has been granted the privilege of release and redemption as they journey to the land of the promise; they are increasingly free to follow God’s intentions for themselves and to demonstrate those intentions to others. And the reading that we’ve heard today is essentially a summary of the first 1/3 of Deuteronomy.

Moses pauses in his sermon and he says, “OK, folks, because of all that God has done in us and with us and for us, what is our response to be? What should we do?”

He talks, not surprisingly, about loving and serving God. He reminds his hearers that God moved toward them in love a long time before they were even aware of God. And he offers them a very tender and insightful description of the ways that God has behaved: in verse 15 he says, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them…” The words that are used there are fascinating to me. God “set his affection on” them – the Hebrew is chaw-shaq, and it can be translated as “to delight in”, or “to cling to” or even “to join”. And next, God “loved” them; the word is ‘aheb, and can mean “to have affection for”, or “to like”. It carries with it the idea of acting like a friend to the other. There are echoes of tenderness and vulnerability here.

What is happening in this verse, then, is that Moses is describing the love of God in the lives of the Israelites as One who moves toward the other in friendship, affection, and sincerity. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

Given that, says Moses; since this is true… then there are two imperatives for the rest of us.

The first command sounds a little odd in our ears. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” When we read that, we think, “Well, first of all, that’s kind of gross, and second of all, it’s just impossible.” Physically speaking, that’s true. But let’s consider what the act of circumcision was about for those people. Generations before, in a covenant with Abraham, God had instructed the males of Israel to bear the physical sign of circumcision on their bodies as a reminder of the fact that they were a people who had been called out for service and to bless the rest of the world. This outward sign was, in many ways, a reminder of the fact that they were to be purified to and dedicated to God. It was intended to be an identity-forming act that gave shape and meaning to the lives of the people who were called to serve God.

The danger with any outward sign, of course, is that it can become separated from the inward reality that it’s supposed to signify. Think of the person who steps forward for baptism because he wants to keep his parents happy, but has no real intent to live as a Christ-follower; or maybe the person who puts on a wedding ring to symbolize eternal love and faithfulness but who pockets that ring when traveling out of town on business… We know that it’s possible for the sign to become just a show – a hollow act that does not really reflect the inward reality of one’s heart.

Moses warned against that, and said “don’t let the circumcision be only an outward symbol. Quit insisting on your own way all the time, and don’t be so stubborn. Live into that reality by acting like God does.”

OK, great. So how does God act? He “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing…” To make it crystal clear, Moses goes on to give the second imperative: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

In this context, it’s plain to see that loving the stranger is not a plea to cultivate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a command to turn our hearts, minds, attention, and even our wallets in the direction of those who we perceive to be “other”. Alien. Stranger.

In short, Moses says that because God is God, and because God chose to act in love towards us, the only correct response is to return that love to God and to pass it on to the strangers and neighbors around us.

Which means, I think, that the test of our Christmas spirit is not how many gifts we give or receive; it’s not how elaborate our displays are or how many nativity sets we put out for our friends to see in our home.

The test of Christmas is this: are we engaged in actively displaying the incarnate presence of God on earth right now by living with circumcised hearts and walking in love for the stranger? Are those around us surrounded by love? Do they know that they are “in love” – by which I mean to say, do they sense that there is a palpable reality of care and concern surrounding them? And do they know that it comes through us?

img_5751Look. This is Lucia. She is my granddaughter. I may have mentioned her once or twice or a thousand times. She is the light of my world these days. She melts my heart. News flash: I love her.

aleppoAnd this is Aleppo. It is a place to which I’ve never been, but I understand that it is remote and dangerous right now, surrounded by death and filled with people who would give anything to be anywhere else at this very moment.

pittsburgh-skyline-through-the-trees-on-the-west-end-overlookAnd this is Pittsburgh, the geography in which I am most often to be found, the place where I live and move and shop and vote and play and worship.

If God is expecting me to feel the same way about people in Aleppo or Pittsburgh as I feel about my grand-daughter, well, then, God’s looking for the impossible. I can’t see how that is going to happen. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what God expects or demands.

I believe that the message of Advent is that while I feel crazy in love towards this three year old from Ohio, God is crazy in love towards not only this beautiful child but her dad and her grandfather. And not only that, but towards the people of Pittsburgh and Aleppo. And while I can’t possibly feel all of the feels for all of those people, I am called to show these people, to the best of my ability, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

maryandjesusAnd I should point out, as obvious as it may be, that while my world may appear to revolve around a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child living in a stable home in a free country, that’s not how Jesus chose to show up when he came to bring us the fullness of the embodied love of God. Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished member of a religious and ethnic minority in a culture that was controlled by a militaristic empire. He began his life as a refugee, seeking shelter in a foreign land; an unwanted stranger who most likely could not even speak the language. Which means if my love is enacted only, or even preferentially, towards blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, it will more than likely miss the Son of God.

You know the truth: it is definitely God’s will for me to love my little girl. Yet I am a man with an uncircumcised heart and a stubborn will if I only love my granddaughter. My job and your job is simply – and excruciatingly difficultly – this: to show the love of God in Christ to the people whom God loves.

Even the ones who do things I don’t understand.

Even the ones whose practices I find abhorrent.

Even the ones who treat me poorly.

Even the ones who do not accept the love in which I am sent.

The challenge of Advent is NOT to “get ready for Christmas” by sending the right cards and making sure I’ve bought all the right gifts. The challenge of Advent is to make sure that the people who see me have every opportunity to know that they are, right now, in the love of God.

Dorothy Day was a journalist who lived an pretty dissolute lifestyle until she became convinced of the love of God in her own life. She converted to the Christian faith and launched a movement of non-violence and social justice. She wrote,

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the Cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. [1]

This week, let us go forward and seek to immerse the people to whom God sends us in the love that has been present from the beginning of time. Let us show them the truth of the God we worship by the way that we treat them. And may God have mercy on us and patience with us as we do so. Amen.

[1] On Pilgrimage, Dorothy Day and Peter Day (A & C Black, 1999), p. 35.

A Season of Joy

In Advent 2015, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 27, we ended that series with a celebration of the ways that the incarnation has changed our reality.  Our texts included Psalm 96 and Luke 2:1-14.

What, would you say, is the most popular Christmas song in these United States of America?

Well, I guess it depends on how you measure it. Time magazine searched every recording produced since 1978 and determined that Silent Night has been recorded 733 times in the past 37 years. According to the people at Spotify, however Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You is number one. If we shift our attention to Pandora, we learn that people in Pennsylvania listen to Christmas Canon as performed by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra more than any other holiday tune.

What is your favorite Christmas carol?

Why does it have that place in your heart?

Think about how we experience the music of this season. We sing it. We listen to it. We complain about it. It gets stuck in our heads. And then we listen to it some more, don’t we?

Allow me to suggest that we use the songs as an avenue for both memory and hope. For instance, when I hear or sing O Holy Night, I am taken back to the piano bench where I am trying to get my left hand to do what seemed so easy for Mrs. Sanner when she was sitting next to me. I’m about to give up, and I hear my mother from the kitchen call out, “Oh, David, that sounds beautiful! O Holy Night is my favorite.” I remember coming into this room as a young man and hearing Lois Peters sing it each year, and I think about the ways that Christmas in this place has shaped me. Christmas music is about memory, isn’t it?

But that song, of course, is not only about looking back. Remember that when we intone “chains shall he break, for the slave is his brother and in his name all oppression shall cease”, the only thing we are remembering is that we’ve prayed this prayer for a long time. The song points us to that which is still yet to come. Christmas music is about hope, too. That’s why we have to sing it over and over again.

There was no such thing as iTunes or YouTube when it was written, but the song that you heard as Psalm 96 has been high in the rotation list for centuries.

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

So far as we can tell, it was first written, or at least popularized, when David had Asaph and the band play it as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. For years, this sacred piece of Israel’s heritage had been where it was not supposed to be – first in the hands of their Philistine oppressors and then in a remote village, apparently languishing in a forgotten field. These lyrics first appear in I Chronicles 16, and they sure make sense in that context. Finally, it would seem that the Philistine threat that had plagued the nation for generations had been dealt with. National security was, at least for the time being, not a problem in Israel.

More than that, the people had a king. David is doing all of the things that the best kings do, and people are sensing God’s blessing in the midst of that. In addition, the capital city has been established, and Israel has a real identity. When this song is written, we sense that the people really believe that they belong to God and that God will keep his promises to them.

Not surprisingly, then, these words find their way into the book of Psalms – those tunes that were sung over and over again as the people worshiped YHWH in Jerusalem and throughout the nation. When the people rose up and sang Number 96, they remembered all that was good on that day when the Ark was restored – and they celebrated new experiences of God’s faithfulness:

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;  bring an offering and come into his courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

The Psalm refers to a specific incident, to be sure, but also maintains an awareness of God’s continuing presence and the hope that God will deepen that presence in the days to come.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,  he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

The song says clearly that God “comes”. Not, “came”. Not, “will come”. “He comes to judge the earth…” God’s intentions, say this beloved song, are to restore what has been ruined; to establish justice where that is lacking, and to bring order where there is chaos.

And because this Psalm is so clear about the understanding of God as one who comes, it has become a favorite among Christians, particularly on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Looking back through the lens of time, we can remember not only the ways that the Philistines were pushed back and the throne of David was established, but also the ways that those intentions of God were more clearly revealed two thousand years ago in the event the theologians call “the incarnation”.

We remember that first-century Palestine was characterized by brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear – and yet, he comes.

To King Herod in all his military might and wealth and power – he comes.

To those wise men in their towers, studying the mysteries of the ages from afar – he comes.

To homeless foreigners who have been told time and time again that there is no place for them in this town, in this city, in this part of the world – he comes.

To poor shepherds whose difficult labor mostly increases the wealth of others while not doing much for their own security – he comes.

For all of creation, in fact, He comes. He did come. He does come. He is coming. He comes.

And because he comes, we respond in joy.

Some of that joy is involuntary. According to the Psalm, the creation itself is so taken with the notion of justice being restored that the fields are jubilant and the trees are singing. And those of us with some greater level of awareness are invited to worship in joy and thanksgiving because we love and serve a God who comes.

IncarnationWe see that joy in the story that comes out of Bethlehem, where it seems as though everyone gets in on the invitation to share in what God is doing. The Angels, the shepherds, the holy family, and the whole community is blessed by the willingness of God to participate in the restoration of Creation.

On this, the last Sunday of 2015, I will remind you, dear friends, that while brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear are very much with us, they belong to the old order. These scourges, and those who inflict them, are derivatives from a world that does not know anything of the gentle, abundant, gracious and peaceful welcome of the savior.

I know, I know – you say to me that everywhere you look, you see these things. But I am reminding you that they are not of God and they will not last. As we end this year, let us remember that the situation in which we find ourselves or even the situation in which we are willing to place our neighbors is not congruent with the scripture or God’s eternal intentions.

Please hear me: I am not minimizing the horrors of brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear. Those giants are every bit as frightening as were the Philistines, or King Herod, or any other power that attempted to take the place of the One who comes. So remember, as this year ends, so they, too, will end.

And as the new year will dawn before we are together next, let me remind you of the invitation you have received to participate in the order which is to come. Asaph and his band sung a version of it when the Ark was restored. David and his congregation reminded themselves of it time and time again. The Angels spent all night teaching it to the shepherds, who couldn’t wait to spread the news to anyone who would hear.

And now it’s our turn. Your call this day, beloved, is to be a herald. A living reminder that what is is not all that there is, and that we serve a God who comes. Let me encourage you to live your life as a testimony to the truth of which the Angels sang – the truth that brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear belong to yesterday, not to tomorrow. Sing about the generous grace that has come, is coming, and is yours to share right now. Thanks be to God, who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and the peoples in faithfulness. Let that be the tune that is stuck in your heads in 2016! Amen.

He’s No Hero

Each year I write a story to tell on Christmas Eve.  My conviction is that my life was not changed by an intellectual, but by a  by a relationship – by a hope that came to me first in the form of a story.  Any story I tell is simply a reflection of The Story.  Some are better than others.  I hope that in this one, you can see something of the light of Jesus.  I like to read them out loud, and encourage you to do so, too.

If you’d like, you can read John 1:1-14 to get an insight in the The Story which led me to this story.  If the idea of these stories appeals to you, you might be interested in reading more.  I’ve collected them in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, available at Amazon or by contacting me directly.

Derrick Brown was in a groove. The Imperial March from Star Wars was keeping time in his head as he administered CPR to the woman who’d collapsed at the supermarket. Here he was, channeling his inner Jedi as he sought to save a life on a Tuesday evening.

As the woman regained consciousness and Derrick’s partners put her into the ambulance for a ride to the hospital, the full-time English teacher and part-time volunteer firefighter smiled as he thought about the relationship between resuscitating the shopper and the lesson he’d already planned for his ninth-graders tomorrow. It was one of his favorite lessons of the year – they’d been preparing for a unit on Shakespeare, and he was going to help them learn to tell the difference between a comedy and a tragedy.

In tragedies, like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, the story ends with disaster and death. In comedies, such as Twelfth Night or The Tempest, a hero shows up in the nick of time and saves the day.

Believe it or not, that was Derrick Brown’s favorite lecture of the year. He was fascinated with the idea of heroes and heroism. It wasn’t so much that he collected comic books or anything like that – it’s just that he saw himself as someone who was capable of, and therefore responsible for, bringing that kind of order into the world. It’s why he volunteered as a first responder in his community even after teaching all day; it’s why he drove the sandwich truck into town every Saturday, passing out meals to those experiencing homelessness.

For Derrick Brown, life was supposed to be a comedy – it was supposed to turn out all right, and lots of times, it was up to him to make that happen. In fact, he had a t-shirt printed up that read, “as a matter of fact, I do think I’m some sort of a comedian”. He wore it under his Fire and Rescue shirt most days.

So yes, Derrick was a nerd. He was the kind of nerd who hummed a tune from Star Wars while thinking of Shakespeare while responding to a call for CPR. And he was fine with that, because most days, it worked. Most times, the fire was extinguished. Most days, the baby was born just fine. Most of the crises were averted.

He refrained from singing the Imperial March when he differentiated between tragedy and comedy for his young scholars the next day, but found that the tune remained stuck in his head as he waited for Aaron to hop into his car after school. Aaron was Derrick’s mentee – a sixth-grader who had come through some tough stuff but was fundamentally a good, good kid.

Derrick hadn’t been sure what to expect when he signed up to be a mentor, only that he wanted to “make a difference” and “turn some kid’s life around”. In other words, Derrick began his mentorship career because he wanted to be a hero to someone – to help avert tragedy and restore order and save the day for someone.

Derrick had been planning to take Aaron to see the latest Star Wars movie, but Aaron’s mother had called to see if he’d be willing to go with Aaron to choir practice instead. They had evidently scheduled this rehearsal fairly last-minute and she didn’t have any other way to get her son there. Even though Derrick didn’t think much of organized religion, he was more than happy to help this family solve their problem.

As he listened to the choir rehearse, Derrick couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a house of worship. He was not particularly opposed to any faith, but rather had a deeply-held sense that religion caused more problems than it solved. Looking around at the life of Jesus displayed on the stained-glass windows, he thought that Jesus, in particular, was a lousy hero. Even if all you knew of his story was provided in the images at which Derrick now gazed, you had to admit that for Jesus himself as well as most of his followers, there was no escaping tragedy and suffering.

More than that, when Derrick considered all the people he knew who claimed to be in touch with the power of the Divine, he saw a good share of broken marriages and premature deaths and places where horrible things happened to good people. Again, he wasn’t opposed to religion – he just didn’t get it. It didn’t seem like it made any sense. And, let me be clear: Derrick was not interested in judging any part of Aaron’s life, but it sure looked as though faith had not paid off all that well for this kid or his mother. Aaron’s father was nowhere to be found, leaving his mother to raise three boys. Not only that, but Aaron’s mother was now dealing with the thrill of radiation treatments and weeks of missed work, waiting for an opinion as to whether the cancer that had struck her twice was going to come back or had been at least temporarily eradicated. It was hard to see what Jesus had done for this family, but it seemed pretty important to them that Aaron sing with the choir on Christmas Eve.

And so because he was a nice guy, and because he wanted to be a hero to someone like Aaron, Derrick was sitting in the rear of the poorly-heated sanctuary thinking about all the ways that Jesus had failed as a hero, at least in Aaron’s life.

“Yeah,” he thought to himself with a bit of a smirk, “If I were Jesus, things would sure be different…”

He had no way of knowing it at that instant, but those nine little words would change Derrick Brown’s life. “If I were Jesus, things sure would be different.” Here’s what happened next:

Because, like all good heroes, Derrick was essentially a problem-solver, later that night he actually allowed himself to think about what would look different if he really was Jesus. He didn’t start at the top, with issues like world peace or global warming. He thought about Aaron and his mother. Exactly what, he wondered, would he do if he had unlimited power? How would he “fix” the problem that was so central to young Aaron’s life?

The longer he thought about it, the more he came to see that his approach was flawed. In reality, of course, Aaron did not have “a” problem. It wasn’t just that his mother was ill or his father was a deadbeat or that the shut-off notices were piling up. Even if Derrick had been magically able to snap his heroic fingers and restore the boy’s mother to health, the bank account to solvency, and the father to some level of responsibility, the web of difficulty in which Aaron and his brothers found themselves was vast and complicated.

And sooner or later, of course, even a properly-parented and adequately warmed family will face death and grief.

He thought and thought about this conundrum for a couple of days, and was probably not at his sharpest when he got the call from Aaron’s mother at about noon on Christmas Eve.

“I’m sorry to bother you on a holiday,” she began. Derrick’s “hero antenna” went on full alert. Here was a problem – an opportunity for him to swoop in and make things right.

“The thing is,” she continued, “I’ve had a little setback with my cancer. It turns out that they want to keep me in the hospital for a few days. I hate to ask you this, but you see, I don’t really have any better ideas. The social worker said that if I could find someone to take the boys that would be fine. Otherwise, the people from Family Services will arrange for their care. The only problem with that is there are no homes in our county that are able to take three kids together tonight. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but…” and her voice trailed off.

Instinctively – without a thought, literally, Derrick Brown said, “Of course the boys are welcome with me.” And they were. He was, as has been mentioned, a fixer. And this was a problem. And for the next few hours Derrick filled his day with securing all the things that would be necessary for him to host three young boys for the weekend. He had a lot of good ideas and made excellent plans and didn’t even stop to think until that evening, where he once more found himself sitting in an unfamiliar church – a church that, contrary to his experience of a few days earlier, was jam-packed on Christmas Eve.

As the service unfolded around him, Derrick again considered the question that had preoccupied him in the past few days: “If I were Jesus, how would things be different?”

And he was stumped. He simply could not think of a way to tie this together in a neat little package. There were some ideas that were better than others. There were a few that, if not good, were at least good-ish. But the reality of the situation that faced Derrick Brown that Christmas Eve was that there were no heroes to be found. It seemed as if the nick of time would come and go and these boys would be facing peril no matter what anyone did.

Derrick was so struck by this notion that he forgot to pay attention when the kids’ choir sang. It wasn’t until the congregation offered that awkward applause that sometimes shows up in churches, where people are not sure whether the Almighty approves of clapping or not, that Derrick looked up to see Aaron beaming like the star of Bethlehem itself. Derrick quickly scanned the program and saw that there was a bible reading and then another number by the kids, so he sat up straight and focused and willed himself into the present so as not to miss the next song.

That didn’t help, because he was paying attention so well that he actually heard the Bible verse being read, and that catapulted him back to his thoughts about heroes and insoluble problems. The young woman up front was reading from the book of John, and she said, “In him there was life, and that life was the light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it.” That phrase hit Derrick like a ton of bricks: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it…

It occurred to Derrick that the reason that Jesus was such a lousy hero was the fact that Jesus was not any kind of hero. Jesus hardly got anywhere in the nick of time, and disasters piled up all around him. Jesus did not come to prevent, avert, or mop up after tragedies. If anything, Jesus came to transform disasters, or to demonstrate that tragedy is not our end.

Aaron and his brothers were not there singing about a God who promised them a happy ending with no unresolved conflicts. They were there to point to the fact that even in the midst of the darkness, a light shines.

More to the point, thought Derrick, Aaron didn’t need anyone to come and “fix” his life. What Aaron, his brothers, and a billion other children need is for someone who is willing to come and wait and watch and walk with them in the midst of their lives. When they sang, “Son of God, love’s pure light,” they weren’t singing about a hero. They were worshiping a savior.

Derrick took the boys home and put them to bed after church. And because he hadn’t expected to host guests, he didn’t have a lot of decorations in his home. So this is what Derrick did: he went into his kitchen and turned off all of the lights and he sat at the table and lit a candle. And he simply sat in the glow of that candle, and he thanked God that the darkness that filled the room was no match for the light that emanated from the candle. And he found a new song with which to keep rhythm in his life – one that has not, so far as I know, ever left him.

(This story was inspired by “A savior, not a hero”, a reflection on the death of Lazarus by Shannon Graigo-Snell of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that appeared in The Christian Century on July 22, 1915.)

Jesus is no hero. Terrible things happen far too often for anyone to suspect him of being anything of the sort. Christmas is not about God the Father sending God the Son to earth so as to rescue people from some tragic ending. If anyone knows about tragic endings and the nick of time fading away, it’s God the son.

Jesus is a savior. A savior who can never arrive too late. A savior who is here to remind us that our ultimate purpose is to dwell in light and in love and in grace. A light that will pierce the darkness until that time when darkness is no more.

This is a dark night in a dark season in a dark world. ISIS. Famine. Abuse. Neglect. Cancer. Death. Fear. It’s here, or it’s coming. And yet there is light – a light that not even the fiercest darkness can dispel. Tonight, we remember, share, and point toward that light. It is, quite literally, the best that we can do.  Thanks be to God!

His Name is Faithful

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 20, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is called “Faithful”.  Our texts included Isaiah 49:8-18 and Matthew 1:17-25.  

 

You may have noticed a certain gloom that has fallen over some parts of our city in the last couple of weeks. On December 9, the Pirates announced that Neil Walker, aka “The Pittsburgh Kid”, would be leaving our city, our team, and the storybook “local champ succeeds” career that began at Pine Richland High School. When I heard that Walker was headed to the Mets, I remembered losing Bobby Bonilla to the Mets in 1992. Bonilla signed a fat contract, but his play was disappointing and he was traded a couple of years later. In 1999, he was re-acquired by the Mets, and once again was underwhelming and he was released by the team after that year.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

In spite of his disappointing performance in the field, I’m here to tell you that in 2015, at the age of fifty-two, Bobby Bonilla was the twelfth best-paid person on the Mets payroll. On July 1 of this year, and each year until he is 72 years old, Bobby Bonilla will receive $1.2 million from the New York Mets – all because of a rather creative and very lucrative contract he signed in 2000. It is one of the most bizarre and famous contracts in history.

My hunch is that while you don’t get $1.2 million deposited into your checking account annually, you know a thing or two about contracts. When we buy a car, get a job, or hire someone to fix the roof, we depend on a contract to make sure that our interests are taken care of.

contractThe language of contract is complex, but it boils down to this: you do this and I do that. If you stop doing this, then I’m not going to do that. For example, when you finally decide to redo that bathroom of yours, you get a number of bids and finally select a construction firm to take care of it. As they work, you pay. When the work is done, you finish paying. Your pay depends on their performance, and vice versa, right? That’s how contracts work.

While we use contracts and contractual language all the time, we don’t often do so in the context of worship. The reason for that is that our relationship with God is covenantal, rather than contractual. In a contract, if one party breaks faith, then the entire deal is null and void. If your plumber doesn’t finish the bathroom, you don’t pay him any more.

In a covenant, however, each party agrees to uphold their end of the deal regardless of what the other party does. One of the most famous covenants in our nation’s history is the Declaration of Independence, which ends with these lines: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” John Hancock and Caesar Rodney and Ben Franklin and the rest of those fellows didn’t know which ones, if any, would commit an about-face and side with Britain after all. It didn’t matter to them – they were making that covenant with each other on behalf of the colonies they represented. That’s what a covenant is: you say, “This is what I’m going to do”, and your willingness to keep your word is not dependent on my behavior.

Covenants and contracts are very, very different kinds of agreements.

And you might think that’s pretty interesting, but you know, Dave, it’s December and I’ve got a lot going on and if you could just get to the point, I’d appreciate it…

Here’s the deal: Advent is a reminder of the fact that God invites us to participate in a covenantal, not contractual, relationship with him. In fact, all of the Old Testament is a testing of God’s willingness to keep faith with his people, even when they appear to be more than willing to leave him time after time after time.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

The story of the Garden of Eden reveals that God establishes and blesses his creation and asks humanity to care for it…and we rebel. Noah’s ark is the means by which God saves a people from oblivion and self-destruction, but two chapters later we’re already building a tower of Babel because, hey, who needs God anyway, right? God uses Moses to deliver the people from slavery in Egypt, and before the ink was dry on their passports, they were out there dancing around a golden calf. They enter into the Promised Land, and instead of trusting in God to care for them there, they start building altars to the Baalim and the Asherim and other gods of the Canaanites. Time and time again, God sends prophets and leaders and preachers and judges to remind his people of his love and to warn them of the consequences of disobedience, but it doesn’t seem to do much good.

220px-IsaiahOne of these prophets was a man named Isaiah, who was active in the 8th century BC. Before he started his ministry, God’s people had already been divided by a civil war and he further witnessed the fall of Israel to the Assyrian army. Jerusalem and Judah, the capital city, were on the block, and you could forgive the people for thinking that God had finally gotten tired of them, or worse, had forgotten all about them. While he’s not shy about naming the places where the Jews had left God’s purposes, he takes great pains to remind them of God’s covenantal nature: “How can I forget my promise?”, God wants to know. “Even if a mother could forget her baby, there’s no way I could ever forget the love I have for you. I’ve promised it. I’ll do it.”

Advent, as often as any other time of the year, is the time when we pull out Isaiah’s words to remind us of God’s willingness to be faithful to us in spite of the messiness of our own lives. Advent is a time to remember the Covenant.

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Joseph and Mary had entered into a formalized relationship known as betrothal. That means that they and their families had engaged in a period of negotiation and offer and compromise resulting in a legally-binding contract to become husband and wife. And then, don’t you know, Mary shows up pregnant and it looks as though the whole deal is off – because she appears to have violated at least one of the terms of the agreement. In Matthew 1 we read where Joseph is mentally composing the speech which goes something along the lines of “That’s it, Mary, we’re done. I’m pretty sad about this, but I’m going to have to let you go…It appears as though you’ve decided to move in a different direction, and, well, good luck…”

But before he can even say this speech, God interrupts him and says, “Don’t do that, Joseph. Instead, go ahead and enter into a covenant with Mary – this is the way that I will display my love for and my commitment to the universe.” And so Joseph and Mary enter into the covenant of marriage, and Jesus is born, and the world comes to learn of Emanuel – of God With Us. It’s Christmas.

And as we stand here, it’s easy to celebrate the baby in the manger. Christmas is, for many of us, all warm and fuzzy. But Jesus is not only God with us in precious moments nativity figurines.

Advent reminds us that God is with us in the teaching, healing, discipling ministry of Jesus of Nazareth…and that God is with us during the horror of the betrayal and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth… and that God is with us in the victory of the resurrection… and that God is with us in Jesus’ promise to come again in order to restore the universe to justice, peace, and God’s eternal intentions.

This Advent is a time to remember that all contracts will eventually end. Even Bobby Bonilla (or his heirs) will wake up on July 1, 2037 and NOT get paid by the New York Mets. Contracts come and go.

But the covenant in which God enfolds us is eternal. In Advent we remember that it was here before we were, and it will carry us after we’re gone. We are wrapped in the promise, and God is faithful to that promise.

I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. I know that there are times when we look around our lives or this world and we think that we’re on pretty shaky ground. For some, what was once one of the most joyous seasons of the year is now marked by emptiness or loss. For some, the darkness is heavy.

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year. There will be, here in Pittsburgh, only 9 hours, 16 minutes, and 56 seconds of daylight. And it’ll be just as dark on Tuesday. That darkness matches well the mood of many right now.

But God’s covenantal faithfulness does not depend on your emotions (or anything else that you do). It will be dark tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But Wednesday, you know, will give you four additional seconds of daylight. Thursday will be even longer. And just as light returns to the earth, so too does God keep his promises. Allow the promise and faithfulness of Emanuel to remind you that what we see and experience is not all that there is.

Give thanks, this day and this season, for the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. In Advent and at Christmas, he demonstrated his willingness to enter fully into our lives. And in response to God’s eagerness to embrace us within this covenant, let us then live as people who are grateful for the promises of God. We do not earn the covenant or the promise, but we can respond to them with joyful acts that remind ourselves and our world of God’s intentions for the world and all who dwell within it!

Remember that this week, when you blow it. Remember that this week, when your spouse or child or friends blow it. Remember that we are invited to participate in a manner of life marked by joy and thanksgiving and justice and hope and mercy and love. And look for ways to live into that life – even if it’s dark right now. Thanks be to God! Amen.