Being Willing to Learn in the Exile

With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the difficulty of finding our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.  When our part of the state entered the “Yellow” phase of this effort, gatherings of 25 people were permitted.  I was delighted to be able invite four confirmands and their families to be present in the sanctuary for worship even as the bulk of our congregation gathered virtually.  Today we celebrated the young people who made their public profession of faith and one special young person who received the sacrament of baptism.   As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 24 included Daniel 5:17-31 and Luke 11:24-28.  

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the YouTube link posted at the end of the message.

One of the hazards of leading worship on the internet is that I don’t know who’s here or who has been here before.  So this morning, let me start by reminding some of you and informing others that we’ve spent the last six weeks immersed in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  When we were hit with the Coronavirus and all of the COVID closures, it seemed like a good idea to take a look at what some of our ancestors have experienced, done, and learned.  Daniel chapters 1-6 tell a number of stories about a group of people who are taken from what they think of as their “normal” lives, compelled to go to places they don’t want to go, eat what they don’t want to eat, be called by something other than their true names, and live in a culture that is not of their own choosing.  We’ve heard of young people resisting pressure from their peers as well as their leaders, we’ve seen stories of God’s power overwhelming that of the idols, and we’ve watched rescues and bravery in many ways.  Last week we even heard about one man’s inability to get a decent haircut. So, yes, there have been some parallels to our current situation.

Today’s story fits in nicely with this sequence.  This week, we’re back in ancient Babylon.  King Nebuchadnezzar, who originally kidnapped the young people back in about 605 BCE has died in 562 BCE, and there have been a number of power-hungry and blood-thirsty men who have sought to succeed him.  The Book of Daniel is silent about the intervening years, and today we pick up the story on what we are told is October 11, 539 B.C. – 23 years after the old king died and 66 years after Daniel and his colleagues began their exile.  The man in charge now is named Belshazzar.  He gives a feast, and as he gets drunk, he orders the servants to bring the holy objects that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem.  And there, as they are toasting the idols and mocking the Lord, something incredible happens.

A disembodied hand appears and begins to write upon the wall.  The king is suddenly very sober and very scared – his knees are knocking and the color drains from his face.  He calls out for the same bunch of clowns that we’ve seen time and again in Daniel, the royal astrologers, wise men, and magicians.  He begs them to tell him what is going on.  And once again, they are perplexed.

Then the queen has an idea.  Scholars think that because this woman was so bold in her speaking and so familiar with the history, that when the story talks about the queen, it’s referring to the queen mother – perhaps old Nebuchadnezzar’s wife.  She reminds the king of the Jewish slave who’s done all right at solving these mysteries in the past.  “Send for Daniel,” she says.  “He’ll tell you what this is all about.”  I should tell you that at this point in his life, Daniel is well over 70 years old.

So Daniel comes in and the king tries to keep his position of power.  He tries to buy Daniel’s advice and loyalty by making all sorts of promises of wealth and fame.  And what does Daniel do?  He says, “Keep your money.  I’ll tell you the truth about what the writing on the wall is all about.”  And he does.

“Nebuchadnezzar was the king – a powerful man who didn’t care about anything other than himself.  But God humbled him – God showed him who was really in control.  And you knew this, Belshazzar!  But you have ignored it.  And tonight you have made that fact crystal clear by praising these idols of wood and stone and metal while you’ve treated the objects that belong to God with contempt.  You knew the truth, and laughed at it.  And that will cost you.”

And then Daniel goes on to read and interpret the writing on the wall. The words that have been written are, as best we can figure out, are the Aramaic spellings of common coins of the day.  At that time, the value of a coin was not seen in its imprint (as we have today, where we accept the fact that a dime is worth ten times as much as a penny, even though the penny is clearly bigger), but rather in its weight of precious metal.  There are three coins mentioned: the mena, the peres, worth about half a mena, and a tekel, or shekel, worth about a sixtieth of a mena.  These words form a sort of a riddle that we might read this way: “A half a dollar, a half a dollar, a penny, and a quarter.”

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt (between 1635-1638)

Now Belshazzar looks up and he sees the words, but they don’t make sense. After all, why does a king care about the weights of the various coins?  Daniel comes in and realizes that God has made a pun for everyone to see.  Mena is related to the word for ‘numbered’; tekel is related to the word for ‘weigh’, and peres can mean ‘divided’.  Daniel says, “Well, king, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  You have been found to be a real lightweight.  You knew what was right, you did what was wrong, and your days are numbered – the kingdom will be divided, or taken away.”

Belshazzar keeps his promise, and gives the goods to Daniel.  A parenthetical note here: some of you will recall that in previous weeks we’ve compared the story of Daniel to Joseph, and talked about how the Jews would want to be reminded of the fact that God is present, even when it’s hard to feel that.  Here are other reminders.  When old Pharaoh can’t make sense of the situation around him, how does he happen upon Joseph? After all of the king’s magicians and wise men failed, someone in the room said, “Hey, I remember a Hebrew slave who’s pretty good with this stuff.” And when Joseph solves the Pharaoh’s problem, what does Pharaoh give to Joseph?  A robe and a gold chain.

When Belshazzar is so afraid he needs a new pair or royal underwear, and his magicians and wise men are clueless, how does Daniel enter the picture? Someone in the room says, “Wait a second… remember that Hebrew slave who’s been around for ages?”  And what does Belshazzar give to Daniel?  A robe and a chain of gold. These are the same stories – they are connected – they are given to remind God’s people that we will endure exile, that we can survive, and that victory and power belong to God, not to any self-important ruler.  So at the end of the day, Daniel gets his reward, and fortunately for him, Belshazzar gives it to him in cash, because a couple of hours later, the king is murdered and the kingdom falls.

What a great story, with a lot to say to us.  I’d like to center on two insights that have gotten me thinking this week.

First, it seems pretty obvious that Belshazzar is in big trouble because he has ‘de-sacralized’ the vessels that had been in the temple.  That is, he took those holy objects – the cups and the plates and the trays that had been consecrated – set aside – for use at the temple in Jerusalem and used them for his drunken festival worshipping other gods.  More than that, when he did so he ought to have known full well what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar.  Belshazzar, this text points out pretty clearly, looked at the God of heaven and earth, the creator of the universe, and said, “Yawn.  Whatever.”  He took the reign and the rule of God lightly.

And so when Daniel pronounces the sentence indicated by the writing on the wall, we nod approvingly.  The king is only getting what he deserves.  It’s too bad, but the man should have known better.

Beloved, let me tell you the truth – and it is a hard and heavy truth.  We do what Belshazzar did every day.  We take what God has made to be holy and sacred and destroy it without thinking twice.  We should know better.

Look at the alb that I’m wearing.  100% cotton.  In order to grow the cotton that we use in our clothing cheaply and efficiently, the fields are first plowed up.  Then they are sprayed with a chemical cocktail that sterilizes the soil so that there are no pests like weevils or fungus.  There’s nothing else, either.  The soil is so heavily treated that in some cases it takes 5 years before earthworms can live in it.  And then, because the soil has been bleached, after they plant the cotton they’ve got to use more chemicals to fertilize the plants.  What did we read just a couple of weeks ago? ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it!’  Yet we are turning our farmland into food factories that depend not on the cycle of rain and sun or the virtues of rotating crops or composting, but rather on daily doses of deadening chemicals and cancer-causing pesticides and environment-destroying fertilizers.  Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the plastics we toss aside so lightly, or the fuels we burn so freely, we take the reign and rule of God, and God’s care for this earth, lightly.

Here’s another way that we do this same thing.  God has created us to be a body, right?  We are called God’s people.  We live together.  We work to build the kingdom here.  But how do we treat each other?  We gossip.  We backbite.  We harbor resentment.  The Lord has given us clear guidelines about how to deal with conflict when it arises – because it always does.  But the sad truth is that sometimes I’d rather talk about  you than with  you.  God has given us a good, good gift – the treasure of relationship – and so many times we don’t value that gift enough to treat each other as though we were owned by and consecrated to the Lord.  And then we look up and see the writing on the wall.  And then it hits us – that perhaps this applies to us as well.

That leads me to my second insight from this passage, which is this: God expects us to learn not only from our own experiences, but from those of other people.  Daniel, a foreign exile, a man of no power or consequence in the kingdom, comes face to face with the most powerful man in the known world, and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for not learning from the mistakes of other people.  More than that, actually, he says that Belshazzar’s failure to apply the lessons he ought to have learnt will, in fact, cost him his life.

OK, because I know that you all have Google, I need to be upfront with you about something important right now.  This is fake news.  That is to say that so far as we know, there never was a “King of the Babylonians” whose name was Belshazzar.  King Nebuchadnezzar, who kidnapped Daniel, did have a son, who ruled after him – but his name was Amel-Marduk.  Nebuchadnezzar apparently had a grandson, or maybe a great grandson, whose name was Bel-shar-usur, who would sometimes rule in Babylon while his father was away from town, and the timing works out that this Bel-shar-usur might very well have been in Babylon on the evening of October 11, 539 BCE.

So what’s your point, Pastor Dave? I mean, if this didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen this way, then why are we even reading it?

Because the point of the book of Daniel is not to make sure that all God’s children know the timeline of the Neo-Babylonian Monarchy of the 6th century BCE!  This part of the Bible is written to remind us that there will be times when we are called, or even sent, into exile.  There will be times when God’s people will face testing, and live under rules that we don’t like, and watch people who think that they have authority strut around like they own the place.

Right now, I’d like to speak to the young people who will stand up here and affirm their faith in Jesus.  Your call, as young disciples, is NOT to be sure that you continue to do things exactly the same way that we’ve always done them, or to come into church as if it’s a museum full of holy relics and life-giving artifacts and it’s your job to protect those things.  I’m asking you to learn from the mistakes we have made; to be faithful in your own discipleship, and to, starting now, create a “new normal” for yourselves and our world that is closer to the ways that God wants it to be.

In our reading from Luke, Jesus banishes an evil spirit.  He encounters a man who is in trouble, and he cleans things up.  But then the person who was healed did not seek to build upon that healing.  He didn’t choose a good to replace the evil from which he’d been delivered.  As a result, he ended up worse than he started.  This time of quarantine, this forced interruption of your lives has taken a number of things from you.  You have had to re-invent the ways that you spend your time, do your homework, express your love, grow in faith.  I want to encourage you to keep looking for new ways to be yourself, to be faithful, to be anchored in the person that God intends you to be.

So maybe the point is this: who do you want to be in this story?  The arrogant king who scoffs at God’s power and makes light of the sacred?  The inept wise men who look at the writing on the wall and shrug their shoulders and say, “well, it’s all Greek (or Aramaic) to me”?  Or an agent of the living God who is sent to proclaim the truth of God’s presence in the world and to reveal the lifeless idols for what they are?

Beloved, the message of Daniel is clear – you don’t get to choose everything; you’re not in charge.  You’re going to be handed some stuff that you don’t want and don’t deserve.

But what you are in charge of is how you deal with it, and seeking to learn from it. As you make your profession of faith in a public fashion this morning let me encourage you to continue to seek out what is holy, to build relationships of trust and where it is safe to wonder about things, and to grow in your ability to be person who is responsive to God’s leading and committed to the friends around you.  I’m proud of you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Naming Names

January 12, 2020, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the church of Jesus Christ in remembering the baptism of Jesus.  In addition, we took some time to ordain and install new officers – in our tradition, that means a third of our elders and a third of our deacons are starting fresh terms.  Our texts were Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

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

I suspect that even if you have not played the board game Clue recently, you are familiar with it.  There’s been a murder, and each player represents a specific character (Col. Mustard, Professor Plum, Ms. Scarlett, etc.) who is at once both detective and suspect.  The game ends when the mystery is solved and the killer is named, along with the location and weapon.

We like those stories, I think.  From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, we appreciate the image of a detective assembling a group of individuals and then walking them (and us) through the details of the crime until finally the murderer is named and the case is closed.  Sometimes we anticipate who it will be, and other times we’re surprised, but we always like to have that resolution.

The Prophet Isaiah, Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, c. 1510)

Unfortunately for readers of detective fiction, some of the mysteries in the Bible are a little more obtuse.  For instance, the Book of Isaiah contains four sections of poetry that are called, collectively, the “Servant songs”.  Chapters 42-53 contain these works, each of which points to a Servant of the Lord who will somehow participate in, point toward, or accomplish the work of the Lord.  Our reading today, from Isaiah 42, is the first of these poems.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the years by scholars, rabbis, and teachers who’ve sought to identify the “real” identity of the servant.  Many of these folks have treated it like an Hercule Poirot mystery, and have claimed to unveil the identity and thereby point the reader to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Lord’s methods.  To be honest, I am not much impressed with this sort of scholarship, and agree with Dr. Paul Hanson, who writes, “The scholarly debate over this text has been preoccupied with…the identity of the Servant… The resulting literature that has accumulated generally offers dreary reading with little genuine insight.  Although dozens of candidates have been advanced as the person or group designated as the Servant, the matter is as confused as ever…”[1]

I’ve read articles indicating that “of course” the Servant must be King Cyrus of Persia, who led a military campaign to defeat the Babylonians and thereby brought about the release of the Jews from captivity.  Others have speculated that the author of Isaiah was looking back to Moses, or maybe over at Jeremiah, or perhaps even in the mirror at himself.

And, because we’re in church, it’s very common to hear people say that any song with lyrics like “by his stripes we are healed” (such as we find in the fourth Servant song) can only refer to Jesus.

Why is it, I found myself wondering this week, that we spend so much time and energy seeking the precise identity of the Servant?  Here’s what I think: if the Servant can be proven to be Cyrus or Uzziah or Jesus or Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump then it can and will mean many things, to be sure… but such identification would also mean, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Servant is therefore, obviously, not me.  And, to be honest, I think that life would be a lot easier for me if I was proven not to be the Servant of the Lord.

It’s like the time the preacher was pointing out the fact that the roof of the church was falling in, and at the end of worship one of the parishioners came up and said, “Reverend, I was glad to hear you say that you didn’t know where the money to fix the roof was going to come from.  For a minute there, we were kind of afraid that you thought that we had it!”

You see, in declaring that the Servant must obviously be some historical figure or other, that gets me off the hook of being expected to act as the Servant acts.  And yet just prior the first of the Servant songs, in Isaiah 41, we read that Israel – the people of God – is called God’s servant, the one who is chosen by God and upheld by God’s hand.

Isaiah 41:8-10                            Isaiah 42:1

You, Israel, my servant…             Here is my servant,

Whom I have chosen…                My chosen,

I will uphold you.                         Whom I uphold….

And if the Servant is in fact the whole people of God, well, that would include Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah… but it would also include me and you.  And, well, let’s be honest: if anything that the Servant is called to do is going to actually get done in 2020, um, Uzziah and Cyrus are not going to be terribly helpful.  But if God’s people – if you and I are the Servant – that changes things significantly.  And – to be clear – I think that we are called to be the Servant.  I’m going to assume that the things that are true of the Servant in today’s reading are, or ought to be, true of me and you as well.

But let’s put the idea of naming names on the shelf for a moment and consider the tasks at hand.  I mean, what exactly is the Servant supposed to do, anyway?  Here in Isaiah 42, we read that the Servant is called to bring forth justice.  The Hebrew word there is mispat, and it means the wholeness, the order of compassionate justice that God has designed for all of creation.  The mispat of the Lord is a demonstration of the right rule, the proper fitting together, of all parts of the created order.  Other tasks assigned to the Servant in this chapter appear to be revealing light to the nations. Note that the Servant is not called to reveal light to the Servant’s friends, or the Servant’s favorite people; rather, the light is shared with the entire world.  All people!

Further, the Servant is called to open eyes that cannot or will not see, and to release those who may have been imprisoned.  This is a tall order for the Servant, and you can see why it would be more convenient if the Servant was, indeed, someone else.  But if the preacher is insisting (as he is) that the Servant is us, perhaps the next question is obvious: how are we supposed to do all that?

You’re not going to like this.  I mean, for all I know, you don’t like anything I’ve said so far.  But you’re really not going to like this.  The question of how the Servant establishes and reflects the Divine intent is crucial.  I mean, few things are more frustrating than trying to accomplish a task without knowing how.

And yet the answer is, well, difficult.  The strategy laid out for the Servant is counterintuitive.  It’s not what we think it should be, it’s not what we want it to be, and it’s definitely unAmerican and, at least at times, it has been historically unchristian.

What we would like, of course, is to be able to bring about these ends by brute force or the dint of our own efforts.  We want to legislate these ends, or to impose them on others with a decree.  Isn’t that why we argue about who gets elected? Isn’t that why so many of us are trying to “pack the courts” in one direction or another?

Listen: at least three major religions have turned to the Servant Songs, Isaiah, and the rest of what we call the “Old Testament” for authority and inspiration.  Our Jewish siblings have practiced the Milhemet Mitzvah, which can be translated as “a commanded war”.  Our Muslim siblings have referred to the notion of a Jihad, or “holy war”.  And of course Christians have brought to the world the Crusades and the Inquisition.  Each of these Faiths, birthed in the Torah and God’s call to be holy, has an element that says something like, “You want justice? You want to know God’s love? Oh, I’ll teach you a thing or two about justice and love, buster… and you’re not gonna like it.  Hold on – Look out – ‘cause I’m about to open up a big old can of God’s purposes on you…”[2]

And yet it would seem by any measure that Milhemet Mitzvah, Jihad, Crusades, and Inquisitions are all inherently inconsistent with the call to the Servant in Isaiah 42 or the life of faith as demonstrated in the baptism of Jesus.  The strategies espoused in Isaiah 42 are simply foolish in the eyes of 21st-century Americans: there is no chest-thumping, there are no grandiose announcements, drone strikes, or attacks; the weak are not pushed aside, and faint hope is to be encouraged and not extinguished.

Baptism of Christ, David Zelenka (2005)

Matthew tells us that Jesus launches his mission in a moment of submission – or perhaps more accurately, submersion.  He has to argue with John the Baptist in order to undergo his own baptism, and then he places himself entirely in John’s hands and, holding his breath, he slides beneath the river’s surface, submitting himself in humility and even weakness.  Both Jesus and the Servant are called to lead as, well, servants.  The predominant posture here is not one of domination or dominion, but of trust and humility.

And all of this is relevant this morning as this congregation ordains and installs a group of elders and deacons who are charged to lead the congregation in the years to come.  We are declaring that you have been chosen to create conditions suitable for people here to grow in faith and to grow to be more like Jesus every day.  You will have responsibility for the operation of this institution and the stewardship of its resources.  How will you do this?

I hope and pray that you will seek to do it in a way that is consistent with the scriptures we’ve read this morning.  That means, I suspect, that you will have to do so from a position of humility, submission, and even vulnerability.

Vulnerability.

Oooh, Pastor, we don’t like that word.  I mean, no offense, but it sounds like what you are saying that a part of leadership means being exposed, or at risk, or even weak.

It might sound like that because that is exactly what I am saying.

Every week I get a dozen emails or advertisements from Christian ministries or businesses urging me, as a pastor, to do everything I can to make sure that our church is safe.  Right now, there are two overriding themes in these emails.

One is a call for church security.  I’ve gotten brochures offering to train our ushers to carry concealed firearms; I’ve seen advertisements for “discreet” metal detectors at the door, and even the creation of what would amount to a church police force.  The overwhelming sense that I get from these pieces is that while we can’t always count on God to protect us, Smith & Wesson will keep us safe and secure and send the bad guys packing.

There’s an even greater theological flaw when it comes to the other area: that of child safety.  This congregation – like every other wise congregation in the country – has developed a “Safe Child” policy.  We have talked about how we can protect children from abuse and train volunteers and staff so that our programs might be safe spaces for children and families.  This is good.  This is right. This is holy work.

And yet the mail I receive on this topic seems to center around a theme: we develop these policies, have these trainings, and enact these protections… not primarily because it is a pressing issue of justice and love; not because there is a theological imperative to honor, nurture, and protect children.  No.  These emails and advertisements and warnings are sent to make sure that I know we better have good policies so that we do not get sued and so that maybe even get lower insurance rates.

Listen: the call to follow God in Christ, to serve Christ, and to reflect the mispatof God in the world is, at its core, a call to love proactively.  And love, as you know, is inherently risky behavior. Love makes you vulnerable.  You know that if you have ever waited for an answer to a text, a card, or a call; you know that if you’ve ever left the porch light on and the front door unlocked hoping that maybe tonight a child would come home; you know that if you’ve ever watched someone you know to be made in God’s image engaging in behavior that is horribly self-destructive but you don’t know how to get through to them – all you know is that you can’t make them stop.

Love involves a handing over of a portion of your heart to someone else.  It is risky.  It is painful.  Just ask Jesus.

And yet, I think that both Jesus and Isaiah would declare, it is the most effective way to bring about lasting change.

In a few moments, I’ll invite the incoming officers to stand in front of the congregation and I’ll ask a series of nine questions. You might be tempted to think of this as one of those dry, procedural occurrences that make for longer worship.  But I’d encourage you to pay attention to them – particularly to question #8: “Will you pray for and seek to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”  My hope is that the new officers will reflect on that vow and find new ways to live it out in the years to come.

And maybe some of you are saying, “Phew, I’m glad I didn’t talk to the Nominating Committee. I couldn’t put up with that crap.  Who needs it?” But you see, my deeper prayer is that everyone will remember that while some small minority of our congregation is up here making promises today, every single one of us is being sent out into these streets for the next 167 hours with the same calling: to offer our selves in love for the life of the world.  To give all we are to establish the mispat of God in love and hope.  To be the living demonstration of what God intends for the whole world. And 167 hours from now, we’ll be back here, returning for encouragement, for replenishing.

Do you see what we have received?  Do you appreciate how we have been blessed? Do we have the courage and conviction to give that away?  Thanks be to God for the call to be a Servant people, cloaked in the vulnerability of love.  Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary Series on Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press 1995), pp. 40-41.

[2] See “Holy War: A Jewish Problem , Too”, by Rabbi Reuven Firestone.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holy-war-a-jewish-problem-too/

What Keeps Us The Way We Are

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

To hear (most of) this sermon as preached in worship please visit the media player below:

 

When I preached this sermon in worship, I opened with an illustration from my college days that I thought would provide an opening to the scripture for the people in the room. I thought twice about using it, because I wasn’t sure that it had “aged” well, or that it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be.  I should have thought three times.  I used it, and I wish that I hadn’t.  If you were present for worship, and found that illustration to be troubling or unwise, please know that we agree on that.  I regret using it, and will not compound the error by publishing it here. What follows is an abbreviated version of the sermon, which I think is better than the original. 

I wonder: are there things that we do that help keep us the way that we are?  Of course.

Every Christmas Eve, the community is invited to my home to share in a big pot of oyster stew.  Can I tell you something? My wife doesn’t like oysters.  Not even a little.  But for nearly four decades, she has helped me to prepare this meal because, well, it’s what Carvers do.  My parents did it before me, and it reminds me – especially on Christmas – that the most important presents cannot be wrapped and hidden under a tree.

Similarly, Dan and Trish Barry gather their family up at their cabin the night before the opening day of trout season.  If you asked them what they were doing, they might tell you that they’re catching fish, but if you hear them talk about it long enough, you know that the trout are a small part of what is actually happening. It’s a lot more about family, and stories, and spending time unplugged.

Many of you could point to various practices that your family employs to shape and inform who you are.  You do something because you want to remember where you came from, and you want to share that with people who haven’t been in the room as long as you have.

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (German, d. 2015). I love how in this portrayal the view is from the perspective of Jesus.

For Christians, the sacraments of baptism and communion fill this function.  These rituals and habits are at the core of what it means to us to live in and practice our faith together.  Today, as we have the portion of Mark’s Gospel that relates the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and then move into sharing the sacrament of baptism with little Jonah and his family, it seems to make sense to reflect on these practices.

And, since Mark has been the focus of our study for more than a year, we’ll look particularly at some of the emphases that he places on the Lord’s Supper.

First, I should say that there is some controversy as to on which particular day all of this happened.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his followers, and then was killed the next day.  John, on the other hand, says that he ate a meal the day before the Passover with his disciples and was killed himself on Passover. There are some fine, but important, points to be made as we consider whether Jesus was giving his disciples this meal as a means to transform the Passover or whether he himself became the new Passover lamb.  And as rich as that discussion might be, we’re not going to have it today.  We’ll simply affirm that the Gospels are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus died during the holiest time of the year, a time that was informed by the memory and celebration of the liberation of God’s people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and all of the disciples would have said that Jesus took a long-standing practice – the Passover meal – and he infused it with new meaning and purpose at the hour of his death.

In leaving this meal for his community, Jesus left clues that the new community would not be identical to the old.  For instance, in verse 13 of today’s reading, the disciples are told that they should look for a man carrying a jar of water.  To us, that sounds like pretty standard old-timey Bible stuff.  But to those men, the idea of finding a man doing woman’s work like that must have stuck out.  I’m suggesting that it’s intentional – a way of indicating that life in the Kingdom invites us to different understandings of people and their gifts and their roles. The Kingdom calls us to consider new patterns of relationships.

Another emphasis of Mark is conspicuous by its absence. From what you remember of the Last Supper, what did Jesus say to his disciples after he passed the bread and the cup?  “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?  You do?

That’s funny, because the Gospel of Mark doesn’t remember that. There is no command from Jesus to continue this meal.  Of course, we can say with some certainty that it is implied – Jesus shares the Passover with his disciples; he assumes that as faithful Jews of course they will re-engage with this meal.  But he re-defines the basis of it.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And then look at what he says: “I will not drink it again until the kingdom comes in all its fulness.”  In other words, Jesus assumes that his disciples will remember him.  He’s given them language for that.  Here, he is telling them that he will remember them! It’s not a command – it’s a promise! You are remembered!

And so, every now and then, the body of Christ – the church – trots out the bread and the cup and we give thanks for this promise.  We have communion.

The Last Supper, from Jesus MAFA: Art in the African Christian Tradition

And yet here is a supreme irony: that while for two millennia the followers of Jesus have claimed that these practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given by the Lord in order to bring about the fullness and unity of the church… we find ourselves arguing about these two things more than just about anything else!  Think about it: in spite of the fact that the word “communion” is literally built around the word “union”, there are few places in our theology that are as fractured as this!

When you go home, google your favorite denomination and the words “full communion”.  You’ll discover that Presbyterians like me claim to be in “full communion” with some of the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Moravians (look it up) and the Reformed Church in America.  The Lutherans, however, have six partners.  The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is in full communion with five traditions, all of which have the word “Catholic” in their names.  I suspect that there is nobody in this room who hasn’t been in a church service of one sort or another where communion was being served and been told, “Well, actually, while this is for the whole people of God… you can’t have any…”

This is the meal by which we remember the great truth that Jesus taught us – that all of us are welcome, that each of us has a place – and we interrupt Jesus and say, “Yeah, sure, Lord, we get that… but not HIM, right? I mean, people like HER aren’t supposed to be here, are they?

Here’s another ‘Dave story’: in 1989 I was a Presbyterian Student at a Baptist and Episcopalian seminary who had been hired by the Reformed Church in America to do youth work.  One of my main responsibilities was overseeing a week long experience for young people from all over the country who converged on Rochester NY for a week of service, study, and growth.  One evening, this Presbyterian seminarian took a group of Reformed kids to worship in the local Roman Catholic church.  When it came time for the Eucharist, Father Jim asked me to come up and help distribute the elements.  He invited everyone in the room to share in the sacrament.  It was a true feast of unity.

Afterwards, I found one of the students weeping.  I asked her why, and she said, “Dave, this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.”  And, being a knucklehead, I said, “Great!  That’s fantastic! I’m happy for you!  Why are you crying?”  She continued, “Because in my congregation, the only people who can take communion are the ones who have met with the elders.  And the only time that any of us can take communion anywhere else is when we have permission ahead of time from the elders.  Don’t you get it, Dave?  This is the best moment of my Christian life, and when I get home, I’ll have to tell my dad, the pastor, about it, and the elders will probably discipline me for breaking the rules.”  And then she wasn’t the only one weeping.

The communion that we shared that evening was not “legal” by anyone’s standards.  The Presbyterians would have had a fit if they caught me, a seminarian, up front handing out bread.  The Catholics were totally bent out of shape that the Priest had invited Protestants to share in the Eucharist.  And every Reformed kid there was flouting the rules of their own churches.  Officially speaking, none of those churches would call what we did “communion.”  In practice, however, lives were changed.

That leads me to one more observation about the Lord’s Supper as Mark describes it.  Who was in the room?

Well, we can’t be sure of everyone who was there, but we know for a fact that the twelve were there.  The twelve. All of the disciples.  In fact, Mark goes out of his way to mention that Jesus not only invited Judas to the meal, but shared the meal with him.  It’s clear from the text that Jesus knows who Judas is, what Judas had already done, and Judas is planning… and yet there he is, sharing in this meal with Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

For two thousand years, Christians have found deep meaning and great inspiration in the memory of this first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every Christian tradition remembers that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and served him the meal.  The events of this chapter are sacred to the memory of every Christian tradition.

But when we get around to sharing this supper with each other, how quick are we to say, “What? You? Here? Not so fast, Bub.  Just step right back there and cool your jets.  We’re not so sure we can let you in.”

And somewhere, someone is saying, “Seriously?  Judas – Judas Iscariot, the person who is guilty of doing the worst thing in the history of things – thatJudas can come, but not me?”

Is that the message that we want to send to the world?

O, beloved church!  On this Lenten Sunday – this Lord’s Day on which we celebrate baptism as a symbol of forgiveness and restoration, and on which we remember the Lord’s Supper as a meal of welcome and inclusivity, let us remember that we have been brought together notby how holy we are, or how correct our theology is, or how blameless our practices have been… Let us affirm and hold fast to the fact that we are broken, lost, flawed people – that we are great sinners in need of a great salvation and lo and behold, we have seen that offered to us – to all of us – in Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, saints of God in Jesus Christ: on this day – another day following another instance where a man yelling slogans about the supremacy of one race and ideology burst into a worship space seeking to destroy those whom he had determined to be less than worthy, less than deserving, less than human – let us gather around the table and the font in humility, not arrogance, recognizing that the Kingdom of God proclaimed in Mark is not one that is always recognized by or embraced by the world, yet vital to who we are as a church and the Body of Christ.  May we be known, dear ones, not for whom we keep away, nor for that which we hate, but rather as those who are willing to share the welcome and grace that we ourselves have received in unending supply.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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.

Why Are We Doing This?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On World Communion Sunday, October 7, we walked into a religious dispute between the followers of Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. On a rare day for our congregation, we participated in both the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our gospel reading was Mark 9:14-32.

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

My wife and I were traveling in a strange and wonderful place, and we’d seen and experienced many amazing things.  We’d been told to be in a certain place for dinner, and that the meal would have many local flavors.

Our hosts were not kidding!  We showed up and there were tables spread with all kinds of food! Every color of the rainbow, every point of the food pyramid – wow, it was delicious!  After we’d eaten quite a bit, a bunch of people showed up and took all that food away… and brought in morefood!  Soups and breads and cheeses.  We stepped up to the plate and dove in.  When that was done, we sat back, exhausted… and they brought out plates of meat and fish and eggs… And later – you guessed it – dessert.

If we’d have known what was coming, we’d have paced ourselves better.  In the interest of pacing, I am going to do my best to fly through one of my favorite passages in the gospel – there is a great deal to see here, but I want to make sure you have room for baptism and communion today, so hold on…

Jesus is coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration and he finds his disciples engaged in an argument with the religious leaders. When he asks what the disagreement is about, they introduce him to a parent who is in great pain.

The Transfiguration, Raffaello Sanzio (16th century). I am especially taken by the lines of sight amongst the various participants in this drama and the pathos of the boy and his father.

Look at what’s happened here: a father who is experiencing tremendous distress comes to the followers of Jesus and makes them aware of his pain and his need.  When he did this, someone at least attempted a response.  Evidently, someone else took issue with the nature and content of that response, which prompted some defensiveness and hostility on the part of the first group. Before you know it, there’s a big argument about who is right about how to respond to this pain.  And the person in pain? The person with the problem? That person is excluded from the conversation, because it’s now a contest to be right.

Until Jesus shows up and asks what’s going on.  At this point, the warring factions are silenced and the father speaks up. “It’s my boy.  He’s in bad shape.  I brought him here, but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.”

Now here’s something: All my life, I’ve heard this passage and I’ve heard it read, “IF you can do anything, please help us…”  But today, for the first time, it struck me that perhaps this is the cry of a desperate parent: “Oh, sweet Jesus – none of THESE knuckleheads can do anything… but if YOU can do anything, please help us…”

In Mark 8:29, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah.  In Mark 9:7, the Divine Voice says, “This is my son – listen to him”. Today, a father looking for someone – anyone – who can bring him boy some peace, looks at Jesus and says, “If YOU can…”  And Jesus, secure in the truth to which his friend had pointed and his Father pronounced, says, “IF? There’s no IF here…”  And that leads to the heart-wrenching cry: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

I know that I’m not the only person in this room who has voiced that same cry: Oh, Jesus, I want to be there.  I want to be with you.  I am with you.  But not as I want to be.

And I wish I could talk for 15 minutes about that, but we’ve got a big old helping of worship in front of us, so I want to spend my remaining time talking about the end of this episode.  After the young man is restored, the disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Hey, master, what’s the deal?  Why couldn’t we do that?”

“This kind can come out only in prayer.” Jesus’ response implies that the disciples were not praying.

They were so busy being disciples– you know, planning meetings, setting up flow charts, printing up sign-in forms – that they didn’t have time to pray.

They were so busy being right – you know, defending their ideas and practices in front of those other people who were so clearly wrong – that they had neglected to bring themselves, and that boy, and his dad to God.

Do you hear what I’m saying, church?

Jesus confronts the disciples.  He’s already given them great power and authority – and for some reason, they haven’t bothered to contemplate what it really meant.  The followers of Jesus were so busy minding the religion shop that they failed to meet a person in the midst of great brokenness.

Are you with me on this, church?

“This kind can come out only in prayer.”

So far as I can tell, this is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus talks with his followers about prayer.  He’s modeled it for them; he seems to assume that they’re acquainted with the concept; but here he mentions it.

In Mark, prayer is not a divine shopping list wherein we jot down a few things that would be really nice and then we sweet-talk God into giving them to us.  In this Gospel, prayer is wrestling in the wilderness with the Evil One.  Prayer is submitting the self to God over and over again and again, seeking to align my heart and will and intentions with those of the Holy One.

That distinction is important today because not only are we praying, but we are engaging in the historic practices of the people of God: for the first time in years, we’ll be sharing baptism and communion in the very same service.

Why do we do these things?  Why has the church spent so much time and energy talking about and engaging in prayer, baptism, and communion?

Much of American Christianity would lead us to believe that prayer and the sacraments are all about bringing us the assurance and comfort we crave as we walk through this vail of toil and pain.  They are insurance policies or pick-me-ups…

“I’d like to have my baby baptized, so, you know… just in case… well, in case something happens… and then he’ll make it to heaven.”

“I love communion because it makes me feel all special and warm inside – like I really do matter to someone.”

“Ooooh, I love to pray.  If I didn’t have my morning quiet time, well, I wouldn’t be able to feel like Jesus was close to me.”

All right – let me be plain: I don’t have anything against going to heaven, feeling loved, and feeling close to God.  But beloved know this: that is not why we do any of these things!

Work with me here.  Who remembers? What is the theme of the Gospel of Mark?

The Kingdom of God is at hand!  God is near!  Look! Act like it matters!

If that’s the heart of the message; if that’s what Jesus is about – then why do we do these things? Prayer, baptism, and communion are practices that are helpful to the extent that they reveal the nearness of the Kingdom.

We’ll have communion today – and we’ll do so not as a nice ritual that allows us to remember that there’s really something quite remarkable about us and this community, but so that we remember that we are a part of the body of Christ that is broken and cast into the world.  Especially on this world-wide communion Sunday, we remember that the body of Christ is bigger than we can imagine! I know, I know, you’ll get the plate from someone who looks like Erlina Mae or Matt Adler, but I’m telling you that the bread we share also belongs to the undocumented immigrant; to the believer who is holed up in hiding under an oppressive regime; to the person who has been used, abused, and disbelieved time and time again; to that one who is lost in a fog of mental illness and anguish.  We do this not justwith each other, but with the whole body of Christ from all times and all places.

We’re going to sprinkle little Stella today and parade her around the room, not simply because her great-great grandparents were here before any of us, but because we need to confess that her identity does not come only or even primarily from her parents, grandparents, or any of us… It is given first and foremost in Jesus Christ.  She needs to know – today and every day moving forward – that before she is a redhead, before she is a Democrat or a Republican or gay or straight or trans or cis or rich or poor – before she is anything at all – she is God’s.

As are you.

As am I.

And prayer – the prayer we share this morning and the prayer in which you take part through the week – that is not your own personal little exercise that is designed to make you feel all Jesus-y and holier than you used to be.  It is an exercise in which we participate to the end that the Kingdom of God might be revealed and our neighbor blessed.  If my praying does not result in a life that points toward God’s intentions and the encouragement of my neighbor, I must be doing it wrong.

To review: we pray so that our neighbor might be blessed.  We share communion in order that we might remember who our neighbor is. And we celebrate baptism so that we never forget that the Kingdom of God is, in fact, God’s idea, not mine.  I am brought to it, helpless and vulnerable and sometimes screaming like nobody’s business – and in the context of a communion-sharing, praying community, I’m equipped to grow into the kind of pray-er that blesses his neighbors.  Thanks be to God for these, the gifts of God!  Amen.

 

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

Giving More Than You Get

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 16, we jumped to a new book as a source for these stories: I Chronicles 29 served as our primary source, and we also sought to be attentive to selected verses from Romans 12.  Thoughts on facing challenges, responding to persecution, and leaving a legacy in this week’s message.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please click on the player below:

So, how do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? And, in a related question, how do you want to go? What’s the last story you want people to tell, or hear, about you?

Jim Heseldon, the inventor of the Segway, died when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. The first man to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel died fifteen years later after complications resulting from a fall when he slipped on an orange peel. Then there was the lawyer in Toronto who was so fascinated by the safety ratings of the windows in his skyscraper that he used to hurl himself against them, demonstrating to anyone who cared that the glass was unbreakable. In July of 1993 he threw himself at the window in his 24th story office and, sure enough, the glass did not break. The frame, however, popped out and the man fell to his death.

You and I can think of a million ways that we’d NOT want to die, and we hope that if we get caught in some embarrassing situation, that’s not the last story that gets told.

“Study of King David”, 1866 photograph by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

Last week, we read the last story about David that gets told in the books of Samuel. I’m not sure that David – or the rest of Israel – wanted people to remember his pride and the ill-conceived census he ordered as his final achievement, though. For that reason, we move today to the book of I Chronicles. I and II Chronicles contain many of the same stories that we find in the books of Samuel and Kings. They are written by a different author, and to a slightly different purpose. The name that these books have in the Greek translation of the Old Testament may give us some insight into that purpose: they are called paraleipomena, which means “the things that were left out” or more literally, “the leftovers.” It’s as if the authors are saying, “Look, don’t forget that this happened, too!”

For almost a year, we’ve walked through David’s life. Here, I’d suggest that even his “golden years” are behind him and he is making plans for his own death. Of utmost importance to him, as it is to many kings and politicians, is the line of succession. Who will replace him? In no small part because of his own sinfulness and failures as a parent, the normal process of naming the first-born as king is not available to this family. Adonijah and his brother Absalom have already been killed in family warfare. It will be one of his sons, but it won’t be the “leading candidates.”

Furthermore, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his own brokenness and sinfulness, David is increasingly concerned about providing the nation with a legacy of faith and worship. He wants to build a grand and glorious temple as the site for worship of YHWH.

“King David Presenting the Sceptre to Solomon” (detail) by Cornelus de Vos (17th c.)

The authors of Chronicles tell us in chapter 21 that David had a vision wherein he was told, firstly, that the Lord would not permit him to build the temple himself because he had too much blood on his hands, and secondly, that his son Solomon should succeed him as king. Solomon, not David, would build the temple that would glorify the Lord.

And so in the reading you’ve heard from today, David addresses these two issues publicly. He names Solomon as the one who will replace him and he charges Solomon to build the temple to the Lord. He further states that he’s providing Solomon with the financial and material support necessary for such an undertaking.

Where did this come from? I mean, where did David learn this kind of stuff? His life had been so messed up in so many ways for so long… plucked from the fields as a mere boy and anointed as king in a secret ceremony; resented by his older brothers; mocked by his peers and his adversaries; threatened, persecuted, and then hunted down by Saul, his predecessor as king…

And his own ascendance to the kingship was simply horrible! After Saul and Jonathan were killed, most of Israel looked at David and said, “Him? No thanks…” It took another seven years for the nation to unite under David’s leadership.

This man, now seventy years old, who has been raised in uncertainty and surrounded by those who question his authenticity is doing anything he can to seek to save Solomon and the kingdom from all the grief that he himself went through. In publicly declaring Solomon’s ascendancy and praying for his rule and providing him with the resources necessary to gather the people together in worship of YHWH, David is clearly giving to his son and to his people far more than he ever got from those who preceded him.

In some ways, this is not surprising. You saw how David sought to provide the vulnerable with protection and security even while he himself was on the run. You know how he sought out Mephibosheth and honored him for his father’s sake. So on the one hand, you might have seen this coming.

But on the other hand, the notion of going above and beyond, of giving more than you got, goes against the norms of David’s day and ours own.

We are much more likely to live by creeds such as “You get what you pay for” or “You get what’s coming to you…” We say things like, “Well, what did you expect? After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” What about, “You can only play the cards that you’ve been dealt, right?”

Now listen: there is a nugget of truth in all of these old adages. I’ve said them all, for crying out loud. But they are NOT, thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord.

David, for some reason, got more than he paid for. He was an apple that fell a long way from the tree. And he demonstrates here that on at least some occasions, he was able to play way better cards than he was ever dealt.

How is this possible? Because of an even greater wisdom and greater truth that we know simply as grace. David knew that the world would love to operate in a simple math problem: garbage in, garbage out. An eye for an eye. That’s all neat and tidy.

And deadly. It’s an equation nobody can live with. As a man who has sinned so frequently and so publicly, David realizes that he has not gotten what he deserved, and that he will therefore seek to give to others better than what they’ve earned.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

In the first century, a follower of Jesus named Paul wrote to a small group of Christians in the city at the heart of the Roman Empire. These women and men, who met in secret for fear of persecution and betrayal, were told in no uncertain terms that the life of faith means following the example of both Jesus and David in giving more than you get.

I want to point out the fact that Paul was writing to a group of people who were persecuted because that is a sentiment shared by an improbably increasing number of Christians in the USA. In a recent survey, 57% of white evangelical Christians said that they sense discrimination against Christians in America. Only 44% of those same people feel as though Muslims are discriminated against. And an amazing 75% of whites who call themselves evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians is as great or greater than that which is leveled at blacks or other racial minorities.[1]

If those statistics are accurate, then I would have to assume that there are those in the room who identify with that – who feel threatened or persecuted. And if that’s the case, then the words of Paul and the context in which he uttered them are of great significance to the church in the USA. Do you think you face discrimination because of your faith? Are you feeling worried about the negative repercussions that could arise should someone discover that you’re a Christian? Then let’s listen to the man who writes to people who are facing the reality of being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, or public floggings in the square. Let’s pay attention to the man who would himself be beheaded because of his faith in Jesus Christ. What does Paul say?

Live graciously.

Give better than you get.

I’d like to suggest that there are three concrete ways in which everyone in this room can respond to the charge of Paul in light of the example of King David.

We can do this financially. What do you have? What can you anticipate? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Too often we think of our spending and consuming as aspects of life that are just not going to go away. I have to make this car payment; I need the new smartphone; I can’t stand to stay home and cook again tonight… And yet we think of the gifts we bring to the Lord as afterthoughts. We look in the wallet when the plate is being passed and hope that we’ve got something small to toss in. It’s a little embarrassing, after all, to try to make change from the offering plate when it’s going past…

David gave his wealth for the building of the temple; he set aside a significant portion of his material well-being so that the people of God would have a place in which to encounter God’s truth.

Do you have a will? Does it include provision for the Work of the Lord? I can tell you that I have a will and then when it’s my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, there’s something in it for this church. I should also warn you that there’s probably not enough in it to warrant anyone tampering with my brakes this week, though…

How does your discipleship determine your spending? If the answer to that is “Um, I don’t know…” or “It doesn’t”, let me encourage you to take some time this week thinking about what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus as a citizen of the wealthiest society this planet has ever known.

Another area in which we can easily give more than we’ve gotten is that of investing ourselves in future generations. In a few moments, we’ll be baptizing little Karalynn. You’re going to like it. I’ll probably cry. Her parents are going to make a few promises, and then it’ll be your turn. You’ll be asked whether you intend to live a life of faith on which she can model her own. You’ll be asked whether you intend to make available to her resources that will allow her to grow as a follower of Jesus. We’ll ask you all of these questions in the context of the baptism of Karalynn.

But here’s the deal: this particular little screecher lives in Akron, Ohio. So when you’re asked these questions, you might be tempted to think, “Sweet! There’s no way I’ll be asked to really follow through on these. She’s not my problem!”

Except, of course, that you’re not only speaking for yourself in these moments. You’re speaking as an agent of The Church of Jesus Christ. Her parents are promising to put her in a place where The Church can see her. You, on behalf of The Church, are promising that there are believers who are interested in and concerned for the lives of babies who have been baptized elsewhere – or not at all.

You are saying that a part of being a Christian means that we take an active role in the spiritual nurture of other people’s children. And, to be honest, with the ministry of the Preschool and the Open Door, this congregation does this better than most… but what is your investment in this practice? How are you blessing the next generation as it seeks to learn what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God?

And finally, each of us can give more than we’ve gotten as we seek to live lives of grace and gratitude. In our every day decisions about how to invest our energy, what to get excited about, where to put our worries… can we just be thankful? David thought about his death, and then turned around and thanked God for life. Paul saw the conflict and fear that faced early Christians throughout the Roman Empire, and said, “Well, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”

You, beloved – you can do this. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When the yahoos cut you off in traffic, let them in. Buy someone else’s lunch. That little thing that your spouse does that just gets under your skin? Let it go. Turn off the social media and the talk radio and news every now and then. That horrible thing that happened to you? Don’t make that the most important part of who you are.

About fifteen years ago, modern American poet Scott Cairns penned this brief verse entitled “Imperative”, and I keep it in my Bible to remind me of the call to live a life of grace. Listen:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.[2]

Beloved, we’re getting close to the end of David’s story. We may be close to the end of mine or yours. At any rate, let us commit ourselves to being people who give freely what we cannot keep forever in the hopes that in so doing, we’ll learn how to hold on to that which we cannot lose. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/perceptions-discrimination-muslims-christians/519135/

[2] From philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns. Used by permission of the author.