Can You See Anything?

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 July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness.  Our gospel lesson was from  Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.

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

In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident.  The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?”  He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom.  I love my dad.  I will get better.”  The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin.  His parents couldn’t understand him.  And he could no longer speak English.  In an instant, he was transformed.  After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.[1]

The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception.  She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed.  Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared.  Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.[2]

A man came to me following a worship service I’d led.  He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious.  But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation.  “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me.  I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true.  I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”

Have you heard stories like this?  Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?

And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December.  We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’.  He even brought back a little girl from the dead.  So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”

Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Eduourd Leon Edy-Legrand, 1950

Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different.  The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark.  All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed.  Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.

But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique.  Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one.  Did that strike you as strange?  Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?

There are a few interesting theories out there.  One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him.  However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right.  He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.

Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again.  Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.

So what is going on here?  Why a two-stage healing?

Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing?  There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.

I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich.  Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?”  He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.

That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.

The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.

I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once.  There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.

That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament.  The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith.  In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…”  Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.

I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.”  Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete.  If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.

Did you pray the prayer?  Did you “accept Jesus”?  Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps.  But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.

Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus.  Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion.  There are colors.  In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.

It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time.  He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up?  I mean, what if it gets worse?  Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”

But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand.  Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat.  Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.

This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured.  There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere.  Confrontation is the order of the day.  Fear is endemic – it is all around us.  And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels.  To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night.  We are compelled to defend our ideas.  To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…

I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone.  In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”.  A statue of a deer.

While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury.  May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.

I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is.  And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.

Jesu Healing the Blind Man, Ethiopian Icon

This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus.  If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged.  And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.

As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him.  May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.

I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar.  If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud!  Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice?  What’s wrong with me?”

Of course not.  I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match.  But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be.  Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.medicaldaily.com/australian-man-comes-out-coma-able-speak-mandarin-fluently-not-english-302046

[2]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150306-the-mystery-of-vanishing-cancer


Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).

The Church on the Move: Antioch

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 4, we considered the little town of Antioch in Pisidia, and the controversy that took place when the Gentiles were included.  You can read about it in Acts 13 (note that there are TWO Antiochs in this chapter).  

The women behind the registration table were staring at me as if I had come from outer space. Finally, the one in the middle regained her composure and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t catch your name. You would be…”

I simply pointed to the little nametag in front of her, and to my name on the list of those who had RSVP’d, and said “Him. That’s me. Rev. David Carver.”

She smiled, looked at the list again, at me, at the list, and finally, she slid the nametag toward me and said, “Of course, you’re Rev. Carver. The Secretary and other guests are down the hallway in the room on the left.”

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

Some weeks before, I had received an embossed envelope from the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. The then-Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, was going to have a series of meetings with inner-city pastors in an attempt to rally their support behind President Bush’s initiative called “No Child Left Behind.” The ornate invitation indicated that Secretary Paige was eager to meet with me and others of my station.

The meeting was scheduled for one of the downtown hotels, and there were all sorts of signs welcoming both Secretary Paige and the urban pastors. Finding the registration was easy. The four women behind the table, presumably volunteers from one of the congregations, were all African-American. And, as I said, they were all rather surprised to see me.

GeorgeWashingtonCarverWhen I went down the hall and into the conference room, I realized why they were so shocked. There were probably fifty people in the room, and forty-nine of them were men of color. Clearly, when the White House sent out the invitations, and they saw my name, they assumed that I was from the George Washington Carver branch of the family tree. And if you look in phone books, particularly in the southern part of our country, you’ll find that many of the Carvers are named Roosevelt, or Tyrone, or Otis – names that carry a certain ethnic implication. When lunch was served, Pastor Woodworth and myself were the only Caucasians in the room – a circumstance that was handled gracefully by everyone involved, even though it was clear that we were not the target demographic.

“What are you doing here?”

“Who let them in?”

We have all experienced that at some point or another, I suppose. Who is included in “we” and “us”, and what are we going to do about “them”?

The Covenant with Abram, by Michael Winters.  Used by permission of the artist.  For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Count the Stars, by Michael Winters. Used by permission of the artist. For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. Jesus saw himself as the unfolding of all that God had been doing since the beginning of the world. God had made the world to be beautiful and perfect, but sin interrupted that and brokenness and division seemed to reign. God steps in, all the way back in Genesis, and promises to straighten what has been twisted, and we read of how God, in Abram, called a people to himself. He does this, he says, so that all the people of the world might be blessed (Gen 12:3). These people who are called, whom we come to know as the Jews, are then shaped by a series of behaviors and practices as they continue to point to the promise of God’s blessing for all. And finally, two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “I am that blessing. I am that to which you have been pointing.”

Many of the people who had been longing for the fulfillment of the promise believed him. As we discussed last week, those first followers of Jesus became apostles, who were sent out to proclaim the good news of this promise and its fulfillment to those who had been waiting for it and to those who did not even know that a promise like that existed!

However, they soon discovered that some of those folks who were living lives that were shaped by certain behaviors and practices were more committed to the behaviors and practices than they were to the promise itself! For many people, “being faithful” was less a matter of holding to the promise, looking to God, and wanting to participate in what God was doing than it was a matter of what you wore, what you ate, and who you spent time with.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

The book of Acts is full of situations where someone shows up to a group of those who believed themselves to be called by God and said, “Hey! I have great news! I’m here to tell you how God has kept his promise!”, and the reply is, essentially, “Not wearing that you’re not! Not with those people, you’re not.”

Acts 13 is a description of how some people refused to hear the apostles’ message because it was far too inclusive for their tastes, even when the Old Testament is full of reminders that the promise is intended for all of creation and the call is to care for all people. And by the end of the chapter, which is our reading for this morning, we are confronted with a reality in which the Holy Spirit is alive and active and moving; a community through which joy and hope and love are flowing. It’s just that those things are not present in the community that for so long had been a steward of the promises of God.

In fact, the community of those who had been called by God was so hostile to the messengers that God’s Spirit had sent that they persecute the apostles, who wind up leaving town and shaking its dust from their feet.

I want to make sure that we point out that the people who persecuted the first Apostles were not bad people. The folks who filled the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia were decent, honest, God-fearing people.

They were people who for generations had been committed to preserving what was. They wanted to sustain the truth. They hoped to point to the promise.

And these good, loyal, stalwart people are suddenly confronted with a group of apostles who are more excited about dreaming of what could be than they were about conserving what was; they were more eager to share the truth than they were to sustain or steward it; and they said that they were called to carry the promise, not merely point to it.

Do you see the difficulty? The people who had lived in Pisidia for years were like a group of folks who owned a car that they kept in nice condition, and every now and then, if you cleaned yourself up right and asked nicely, they’d take you out for a little spin. But the Apostles came barging in talking about good news and grace in Jesus Christ were like the outspoken neighbors who didn’t just have the car, they tossed you the keys and invited you to go give it a whirl yourself, whenever you needed to.

And when those Apostles started talking to the Gentiles about the way that God’s blessing was available to them, well, that was too much. If we let them in, then how in the world are we going to keep control of where this is heading?

Yes, the folks in Antioch saw what was happening, and they acted fast. If they were going to preserve their habits, customs, and way of life, then these new folks were going to have to leave. They were pushing the boundaries a little – no, a lot – too far.

Last week, we spent time with the church in Jerusalem, and we saw that it was a church of survivors and witnesses – those who had lived through the ministry years with Jesus, and followed him, and been taught by him. In the days after the resurrection, that church became empowered and somehow changed from a group of tired, timid, deniers and betrayers into a force of bold, energetic, zealous missionaries.

EarlyChurchThat boldness got them into trouble, and some of their number were killed by the authorities, and the church then scattered. Some of those apostles wound up in a town called Antioch in Syria, an important city in the Roman Empire. The congregation in Antioch became a hub of early Christianity, and in fact was the church that really became known as the sending church – men and women like Paul and Barnabas and Priscilla and Aquila were empowered for ministry by that congregation. And some of those men and women found themselves in places like Antioch in Pisidia (just for point of reference, the difference between Syrian Antioch and Pisidian Antioch is like the difference between Washington, DC and Washington, PA – that is to say, a huge difference!). And it was in little, out-of-the-way places like Pisidian Antioch that the rubber met the road for the first Apostles. They had been emboldened, and they were sent, and then they told of what they knew. And the world was changed by the promise they carried – and shared.

It seems that there are several implications for the church in the 21st century. Chief among these, I’d suggest, is that we cannot be more in love with the way that we do things now than we are with Jesus.

We can’t love our music more than we love the One about whom and to whom we sing. We can’t love our clothing more than we love the One for whom we get dressed up. We can’t love our building more than we love the One to whom it is dedicated.

More than that, I cannot love my whiteness, my maleness, or my ideas about what it means to be a person who inhabits race and gender more than I love the One who created me in some degree of whiteness and maleness. I cannot be more committed to my wealth or my American-ness than I am to the One to whom I must render an account of how I used that wealth and citizenship in His service. Do you see? HE must come first, and my ideas and practices and habits and theories about Him, about me, about you, and about “them” must come afterward, and in the light of, HIM.

I understand – I really do – the conflict that filled the synagogue that day. Because while things aren’t perfect, I’m at least used to them. And I don’t like change. And I am a little afraid of if we do things differently, then we will lose meaning. But the promise itself is always more important than the things that we do that point to the promise.

Another implication for us is that we have got to remember that no one of us has a lock on the truth. We know our story, and we may know it well. But we only know our story – and we have got to learn the other’s. The way that God’s goodness and grace have come to me may not have much in common with the ways that they have come to you, and neither your experience nor mine may be of great use in helping that person over there to see God’s goodness and grace. Because, thankfully, God is God, and I am not. God has, and is, the truth. I can only point to it from my little corner of the balcony.

And if we remember to love Jesus more than we love our ideas about Jesus, and if we remember that we only know some of what there is to know, then we can be free to look for the fruit that is growing where the Spirit of God is present. Where is there joy? Where is there love? Where is there kindness, or truth, or justice, or hope? When we see those things, can we go to where they are and celebrate?

When we leave this worship today, can we commit to pointing to the promise in all of the ways that we know how – and trust that the promise is greater than our ability to understand or explain it?

“What are you doing here?” I got an invitation from the guest of honor. So did you. That’s all that matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Texas Mission 2014 – Day Three

You have probably seen the series of commercials featuring “normal people” who find themselves in unusual circumstances, but it’s OK because they stayed in a particular hotel the previous night.  Here’s an example:

So here’s what happened today:

I was in the house hanging drywall and Bob came in and said, “Dave, can you come out and be a translator?”

In reflecting on this event later, I don’t know which I think is more incredible: that Bob thought I actually spoke Spanish well enough to fulfill the need, or that I actually put down my tools and went out there “to help”.

Know this, beloved reader: I do not speak Spanish.  Not even un poquito.  But hey, I’m Dave Carver.  I’m Pastor Dave, for crying out loud.  You need me to help you order in a Mexican restaurant, and you’re outta luck.  Need directions while traveling in Madrid?  Don’t ask me.  But here, on a mission trip in Texas, dealing with a homeowner who knows no English?  I’ll be right there.

Joe said later, “I couldn’t believe he asked you, and then I couldn’t believe you went.  So I went out there, not because I thought I could help, but because I was sure something really interesting was about to happen.”

Here’s what happened: Bob asked me the question in English.  I turned to her, and with a slight accent and maybe an usted thrown in there, repeated the question, in English, to her.  She shook her head like I was a lunatic.  I tried again.  A little more accent.  A little more S-L-O-W-L-Y.  Finally, Sean handed me his smart phone and we used the translation app.

I share that story because it illustrates anew for me the ugly side of mission and mission trips.  I am not normally an arrogant, overconfident person.  But put me in the right spot, and I can be a real jerk.  Sometimes, when we arrange trips to serve others in different contexts, the process brings us to the point where we find it easy to indulge in arrogance, escapism, paternalism, rescuing behavior, or any of a number of other unproductive (or even worse) practices that belittle, rather than serve and honor, those with whom we work.  Bob Lupton explores this concept admirably in his book, Toxic Charity.  We are not going to do much, if anything, on this trip to right the wrongs that have created a society in which it seems acceptable for a young widow to live with seven children in a trailer that most folk reading this story would not allow their dog to sleep in.  That is a huge, seismic shift in the globe.  It ain’t gonna happen here, and it ain’t gonna happen this week.

Fortunately, we are not here, primarily, to change houses.  We are here to do these things:

1. Encourage our partners – to walk alongside First Presbyterian Church of MissionSolomon’s Porch, and the members of Port Lavaca First United Methodist Church.  Sometimes, when someone from outside notices what you are doing, that makes it easier to do it.  We are here to notice.

2. Model the body of Christ to a small group of people who can see who and what we are doing.  We’re trying to do this with the family  in whose home we are guests this week.

3. Most importantly, we are here to change US.  To nurture those places in our spirits where we are most likely to be able to follow Jesus faithfully.  To guard against those enemies that seek to contort us into prideful and selfish people.  To engage in a pattern of reflective and grateful living that allows us to  grow into people who are so upset by the ugliness and sin in the world that we are willing to give of our time, our energy, and ourselves significantly over the long haul in order to make a difference somewhere, somehow.

I am a lousy translator.  When it comes to hanging drywall, I’m iffy at best.  And you don’t really want me messing with the electric.  But because of the number of chances I’ve had to be in places like this, I’m a pretty good noticer.  And usually, a fair cheerleader.  And I’m learning to be a giver and a listener.  Because of the places where I’ve found God at work…like a dusty road in the corner of one of the poorest places in the USA where nobody speaks English…and where that’s not the most important thing.

Pray for continued transformation, my friends… in me; in the members of this team; for the members of this family; for our partner churches; and for this world.

And here are a few photos of what we actually did today!

Marla and Joe work on installing one of the final pieces of drywall - we finished hanging all the board today!

Marla and Joe work on installing one of the final pieces of drywall – we finished hanging all the board today!

Gabe and Bob work on installing the fixtures in the new bathroom!

Gabe and Bob work on installing the fixtures in the new bathroom!

Lindsay helps prepare the kitchen cabinets for their final installation.

Lindsay helps prepare the kitchen cabinets for their final installation.

Chris prepares the frame to receive the bedroom door.

Chris prepares the frame to receive the bedroom door.

Sean dreams about the day when his modeling career will finally take flight...

Sean is talking to his agent about the next steps for his fledgling modeling career…

The kids have been hanging around since school let out, and here we get to invite them into their new home!

The kids have been hanging around since school let out, and here we get to invite them into their new home!

Napoleon Bonaparte said, "An army marches on its stomach." Mike and Joe have taken great delight in keeping us moving and motivated, today with chicken cutlets, asparagus, and macaroni and cheese.  To. Die. For.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Mike and Joe have taken great delight in keeping us moving and motivated, today with chicken cutlets, asparagus, and macaroni and cheese. To. Die. For.