What Makes You Angry?

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 November 11, we began our time in the Word by hearing a brief word of God’s care for the weak and the marginalized in our midst as we overheard a snippet of the conversation between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33:12-14. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:13-16.

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

Today we have another example of why things become complicated when you have to announce the sermon title before you’ve done your research for the message itself. One of the translations of today’s Gospel portion talks about Jesus becoming “angry” at the disciples.

When I saw the version that you’ve just heard, though, I noticed that the word “indignant” was used. That got me wondering, and so I did a little digging.  The word that Mark uses when he is trying to describe how Jesus is feeling is aganakteo.  The best Greek dictionaries tell us that can be translated as “to have great indignation”, “to be greatly displeased”, “to be pained”, or “to be vexed.”  I’ve come to believe that the best equivalent in modern English for the ancient Greek aganakteo is a word that, according to 73% of the respondents to a poll at daycare.com, polite people should not say in church.  So, in the interest of not having my mother roll over in her grave or my wife be disappointed in me, I won’t tell you that the best translation for aganakteo is a word that rhymes with “missed” or “kissed” and means, well, really, really displeased and angry.

That word is used seven times in the New Testament, all in the Gospels.  In every other instance, you get a sense of the meaning:

  • Ten of the disciples overhear James and John talking privately with Jesus, evidently looking to score some nice box seats in the heavenly kingdom. They are really…indignant… and they pull the brothers aside and say, “Dudes, what the heck?”
  • Judas and other onlookers are present when a woman breaks open a vial of very costly perfume and smears it all over Jesus’ feet.They get…vexed…and say, “Oh, for crying out loud! What a waste! That money could have been better spent!”
  • Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the religious rule-keepers – men who thought that they were in control and were kind just to invite this young Rabbi in as a guest on their show – get really…irritated… and declare that Jesus has no right to heal people on the Sabbath
  • And when Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the crowds are going crazy, fervor is sweeping the city, and the religious leaders are totally… displeased… and say, “Teacher, make them shut up!”

Do you see? Each of the other uses of this word in our Bibles refers to a situation wherein someone sees another person receiving special treatment or getting something that they themselves wanted, and that makes them really aganakteo­-d off.

Except here. What is it that ticks Jesus off so badly?

Let The Little Children Come To Me, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1538)

Well, it’s someone messing with the Children’s Sermon. There are parents who have brought their children to see Jesus (and I think that it’s safe to say that probably means that these are women who long to have their children see the Master). The disciples, though, stand in the way. Jesus gets irritated with his followers and says, “Let those kids in. Do not hinder them.”

For a long time, I played racquetball with Adam and Tim once a week over at Carnegie Mellon. There’s a very interesting rule in racquetball called the “hinder”.  If you’ve never played that sport, it involves standing inside a box with another player (or 3 other players); everyone is swinging clubs around while chasing  a little ball that is flying all over the place.  From time to time, you just can’t help but be in someone else’s way.  If you and I are playing, and where I’m standing prevents you from doing what you can and should do, it’s called a “hinder”, and we start over.

Jesus is ticked off because his followers are intentionally engaging in behavior that prevents children from receiving what is rightfully theirs and becoming who they were meant to become.  If you’ve been here in recent weeks, this will not be surprising to you – a few weeks ago we heard that the only time Jesus talks about the idea of Hell in the Gospel of Mark was when those around him – those who claimed to know him best – were callous to the cries of the weak and vulnerable.  It is therefore less than shocking to see that Jesus is indignant when his followers would limit the ability of children to draw near to him.

I wonder…are there any ways in which the children who ought to be drawn safely and closely to Jesus are being hindered by those in positions of power and authority now?

I know. That seems like an impossibly easy question.  The news has been full in recent years of instances wherein people who have had great positions of prestige and leadership within the church have used and abused children wantonly and shamelessly.  I hope that I don’t have to convince you that that kind of treachery and manipulation is certainly contrary to God’s intentions and most assuredly…um… vexes Jesus.

But we can’t stop there, dear friends.  Are there other ways in which children are being hindered – kept from the blessings that are rightfully theirs?

Do the decisions that we and our leaders make about educational policy have anything to do with hindering at least some of the children?

In many parts of the world, including right here in the USA, our children are being raised in a climate of fear and distrust.  Bullying is the norm in far too many places, “active shooter drills” are required in schools and day cares, and racial tension seems to be on the rise… while far too many of us throw up our hands and say, “Hey, that’s the world we live in.  What are you gonna do?”  I am sad to say that I believe that in these instances, too many of us are not “vexed” enough to be motivated to change things.

Similarly, we hinder children’s ability to participate in the blessings of Jesus if we raise them to believe that they are better than other people – if we do anything to communicate to the children with whom we are entrusted that their family’s wealth, or ethnicity, or geography makes them more special to Jesus or superior to other children around the world, we limit the ways that they can hear the full call of Jesus in this world.

There are other examples, perhaps ones that you’d find more applicable, but my point is this: that when the disciples hindered those kids on the Palestinian hillside 2000 years ago, it wasn’t the last time that followers of Jesus stood between him and children he loves.  Not by a long shot.

So what is his teaching on this?  What does he say?  He encourages his followers to themselves become like the children who occasioned this conversation.  “Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it…”

Ok, great. So what does that mean?  In what respects are we to imitate children in seeking to participate in the Kingdom? I suspect that we know enough about children to understand that he was not saying that we should model their humility. Seriously – have you seen how amazingly (and undeservedly) self-confident children are? He cannot have been lifting up the childish trait of almost zero self-awareness.  Children are, by and large, the center of their own universes. Nor was Jesus imploring us to seek to somehow develop the emotional maturity of your average eight year old. While all of us have known or seen religious, cultural, and political leaders who seem to flourish in their own bubble of self-aggrandizement and self-validation, seemingly immune to the cries of those around them, this was not the kind of behavior that Jesus was inviting his followers to emulate.

When Jesus invites us to become as little children, I think that he is encouraging us to trust in the presence and purposes of the Lord.  In spite of the way that we hinder them, many children are shining examples of what it means to trust that the grown-ups around them are able and willing to care for them in any and every circumstance.

This was brought home to me very personally recently when my daughter relayed a conversation she had had with our five year-old granddaughter.  Lucia had announced that she intended to take part in a certain activity, and Ariel reminded her that it was on a day when Sharon and I had planned to be in Ohio. Lucia said quickly, “I know that. And I’m telling you that Grampy will be delighted to take me swimming.” That little girl is so convinced of the love and care that Sharon and I have for her that she plans on that love being present in her life every day.

Can I take a page from Lucia’s book?  Am I so convinced of God’s willingness to care for me and of God’s ability to do the same that I plan my days as if God’s provision were true?  Am I teachable?  Am I willing to realize that my own knowledge and experience and understanding is limited, but I have access to the One who is the source of all knowledge and understanding?  And moreover, that that One has a care for and an interest in me?  Can I trust in One like that?  And if I do – does it re-shape my relationship with you and those around me?

That’s what Jesus says.  And lastly, look at what Jesus does. “He took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed them.”  Friends, this is not an account of a formal benediction.  The language is rich and full here.  Jesus embraces the children.  He holds them.  He blesses them – with depth and feeling and intent.  Jesus spoke about the importance of being like children – but here he indicates that he not only values the qualities of childlikeness, but that he actually loves children.

What is the call to the church in this passage?  It seems clear to me that a key aspect of our self-understanding as the body of Christ is that we exist in part in order to love and serve children. Unlike so many of his contemporaries in the ancient world, Jesus did not see children as ‘adults in waiting’. Jesus did not see children as those who would become something important some day; Jesus saw children as people– as those made in the image of God who deserved respect, care, and encouragement.

During the recent visit from our African partners, my brother Davies Lanjesi said to me, “Pastor, I have heard people all over the world talk about children. They say that the children are the future of the church, and they talk about how to prepare the children to build up the church once they are able.  But I have seen that is not how you do things in Crafton Heights.  At Crafton Heights, the children are not the future of the church. The children are the church right now.”

I hope that my brother is correct.  I hope that every time a child walks through these doors, there is a welcome and a joy. And I’m sorry for some of you, but if you and I are talking and someone three feet tall comes up and attempts to engage me in conversation, I’m going to ignore you – because I think that’s the ‘Jesus-y’ thing to do.  I hope and pray that every single time I touch one of you or one of your children, it is indeed a touch of blessing and an affirmation of God’s presence.  If I get that wrong, I need you to tell me.

When the early followers of Jesus started to form communities, they lived into this.  At a time when the surrounding cultures saw children as disposable and inconsequential, the early church made it their business to rescue those children who had been abandoned by their parents and to raise them in the community of faith.

That call is no less urgent today.  I know, I know – perhaps you’ve been listening to this message and saying, “See! That’s why we have the Crafton Heights Community Preschool.  That’s why we have the Open Door.” And I love these institutions.  But at the end of the day, they are institutions.  They are often fragile and sometimes clumsy programmatical efforts to embody this command of Jesus.  But Preschool and the Open Door are not enough.  May we, individually as well as corporately, commit ourselves to being those who are deserving of children’s trust.  May we do all we can – each of us – to nurture them in an environment that is free from abuse and from fear.  And may we pledge never to stand between the children and Jesus, and ever and always to firmly plant ourselves between those children whom God loves and anything that would hinder them. May we build ourselves there like a wall! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Shhhhhh….

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 June 10, that meant following Jesus from Tyre to the Decapolis by way of Sidon – and ending up in one of the grossest healing stories we’ve seen. Jesus is a lolligagger who seems to go just about anywhere…and in so doing reveals even more of the Kingdom that is already at hand. I found this to be helpful as we were commissioning our Cross Trainers Summer Mission Team – a group of young adults who are ready to lead our congregation’s six week day camp for kids in our neighborhood.  You can read these stories for yourself in Mark 7:31-37.  We pointed back to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 35:1-7. 

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

Have you ever noticed while watching a film or television program that oftentimes a subtle shift in the background music will alert the viewer to a substantive change before the characters in the story are aware that such a change is coming? Maybe you’re watching Star Warsand the characters in the film appear to believe that everything is going well, but then you hear the Darth Vader theme and youknow that things are going to get dicey; or during a particularly tense moment in an Indiana Jonesmovie you hear the subtle strains of the triumphant theme and you just know that it’s going to work out all right for Dr. Jones and his friends.

Mark chapter seven brings us close to the mid-point in the Gospel writer’s attempt to give us the Jesus message. While there is no soundtrack for our reading today, there are a lot of clues that indicate that our author is building toward a crucial moment in the narrative.  This subtle change is, perhaps, more apparent to those of us who have the gift of hindsight than it might have been to those who are actually living the story.

There is a curious incident reported at the end of Mark 7 that, in my mind, alerts us to the fact that the narrative of the story will be changing.  These verses have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the scholarly and theological community over the years, and I believe that they are of great importance to us as we stand on the brink of a summer program here in Crafton Heights.  Let’s look at where Jesus goes, what he does, and what he says.

Our text tells us that Jesus is on the move again – this time, we read that he’s leaving Tyre, and he is heading toward the Sea of Galilee and back to the region of the Decapolis.  On his way, Mark says, Jesus decides to visit Sidon.

And because we’re not from there, that little note just rolls right past us.  Jesus is a grown man.  He can go where he wants to go.  But imagine if you asked me for a ride downtown and the Arts Festival today, and I said, “Hey, sure.  I’m happy to take you to the park.  On the way, though, I’ve got to swing past the airport and then pick up a buddy in Cranberry Township.

If you know anything about the geography of our region, you’ll roll your eyes at me and say, “Come on, Dave, those places are hardly on the way to town.  In fact, they’re the exact opposite!”

But that’s what Mark says Jesus is doing here.  In order to head southwest, he first goes due north, then due south, and finally to the west. It’s just ridiculous and inefficient.

In fact, many scholars have looked at this passage as bona fide proof that Mark didn’t know what he was talking about.  Clearly, the author is an idiot who is unacquainted with the area about which he’s writing, these folks would say.  Nobody in their right mind would travel from Tyre to the Decapolis and say that Sidon was “on the way”.  That would add weeks, if not months, to the journey.

I would respond by saying that clearly these scholars are not well acquainted with the ways of Jesus, who, when given half a chance, always seemed to take the slow way, the long route, and the back door.  After all, this is the same man who preached love for the enemy and the power of yeast and seeds, who reached out time and time again to those who had been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and who proclaimed that the ultimate power of God is best demonstrated in submission to torture and death on a Roman cross.  I have absolutely NO problem believing that Jesus thought that the best way to get from Tyre to the Decapolis was to go through Sidon.  It’s one of the glorious inefficiencies that makes sense in the Gospel economy – but is hard to sell in the 21stcentury.

For instance, last week Marla and I got into a car with McKenna and Lindsay because we had some questions about the upcoming Youth Group mission trip to the Seneca nation of Indians in Western New York.  We drove three and a half hours for what turned out to be a 45 minute meeting. On the surface, that’s a bad choice, right? Four fairly gifted, very busy people, spending seven hours in the car to do what one might think could be accomplished in a phone call and a couple of emails?  When we got back to Pittsburgh that night, every single one of us thought we had made the exact right choice – spending the day in the car was the only way that we could lay eyes on our work site, shake hands with our hosts, and begin to dream a little bit about what that week might look like.

In seeking to be followers of Jesus in the 21stcentury, we could all learn a little bit from this messiah who often chose the slow, indirect route.  Parents: let me encourage you to put the phones down, and to allow the dishes or laundry to pile up just a little bit longer.  I’m here to tell you that while some of the days may seem incredibly long, the years are oh-so-short.

Cross Trainer staff, as you try to fit everything into a brief summer camp, let me remind you that the ultimate goal of this experience is love – and that love is a most wildly inefficient yet ultimately amazingly effective practice in changing the world for young people.

That’s where Jesus is going.  What does he do when he gets there?  I’m not sure if you were really paying attention at all, but this is an incredibly weird healing story.  Did Jesus really give the man a “wet willie” in the process of this healing miracle? No, no, the text clearly indicates that he didn’t spit on his fingers until after he removed them from the man’s ears… he didn’t spit on his fingers until he went to touch the man’s tongue…

Seriously, what’s up with this healing story? Just a few verses ago, we heard of a young girl who was plagued by an evil spirit, and Jesus wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as she – and yet he granted her healing.  In today’s reading, though, there is a multisensory healing with many stages.  It would appear to be, at the least, another example of the inefficiency of Jesus.

I’d like to invite us to pay attention to a single word in our Greek text this morning.  The word is mogilalon, and it’s translated as “could hardly talk” in the NIV, and as “speech impediment” in other versions.  It is a peculiar word that indicates that the sufferer has difficulty speaking.  I find that curious, because in the bibles that have topic headings, and when we talk about this miracle, we often see this as “the time that Jesus healed the deaf-mute.”  That’s not true.  Mogilalonis not the word for “mute” – it means something different.

Jesus meets this man who is afflicted with mogilalon and engages him fully.  He touches him, he uses the most basic of his own bodily fluids by spitting into his hands and touching the man’s tongue and in so doing frees the man to hear and speak well.

The word mogilalonis used only one other time in the Greek translation of the Bible: that comes in our reading from Isaiah 35.  Because this word is so unusual, and because it only occurs one other time in the Bible, I’m suggesting that Mark chose to use it intentionally so as to remind his readers of the context of Isaiah 35. The Old Testament reading you heard earlier is an amazing passage about the real presence and reign of God. The prophet has spoken at length about God’s promises to come and dwell with his people and to bring about the ultimate healing of the world. In answer to the question, “when will this happen?”, he says, “look for these kinds of things: the opening of blind eyes, the unstopping of deaf ears, and the freeing on tongues that are mogilalon.”

Way back in chapter 1, Mark told us that Jesus was preaching aboutthe nearness of God’s kingdom; now here in chapter 7, he is demonstrating that kingdom.

For me, that begs the question: how am I not only talking about and preaching about the intentions of God, but living them in the world today?  None of my words – and none of yours – mean a blessed thing if we are unwilling not only to talkabout loving our neighbor but to actually demonstrate in the lives of our neighbors the care of God.

So after Jesus gets to where he’s going and does what he’s been asked to do, he speaks to those who have gathered.  Specifically, he tells them, “shhhhhhhh.  Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.”

This is a prime example of what we can call “the Messianic secret” in the second Gospel.  Time and time again Jesus does something amazing and then says, “Look, let’s keep this amongst ourselves, OK?  No need to go telling everyone…”

Again, this is a great example of Jesus acting in ways I would not.  I mean, seriously, if I did something like that, I’d be tempted to tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and call the newspaper.  And if, in a burst of modesty, I actually refrained from doing any of those things, I’d hope that you’d do that stuff and tag me in it.  But Jesus does not.  He discourages the disciples from publicizing this stuff at this point.  Why?  What is the point of this secret?

Could it be that here, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, fellas, you don’t know the whole story yet.  Don’t try to talk about what this means because you don’t really get it – all of it – yet. Right now, your speech about me is about as accurate and helpful as this guy’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address half an hour ago.  You can make some sounds, but you can’t really get the whole message out because it’s still unfolding…I’m afraid that you might have spiritual or theological mogilalon…”

Sometimes, an incomplete message is less helpful than no message.  As we prepare to engage in the work of ministry this summer, let us be slow, and be active, and resist the temptation to make global pronouncements. Instead, let us merely point to the things that we cansee and invite the people who are around us to make connections in their own lives.

As I indicated in my comments at the beginning of this message, the feeling in the text is that there is something more, something substantive to come.  Clearly, for those of you who are being commissioned as Cross Trainers today, there must be a feeling of anticipation and maybe even some anxiety.  We are on the brink of something… and we might know something about it, but I guarantee it will be different from what we expect in many ways.

My deep hope and prayer as we stand on this tenth day of June in 2018 is that we might see ourselves in every aspect of this passage.  May we be willing to stick with Jesus even as he takes what seems to be the longest possible way around… may we be willing to allow him intimate proximity to our very selves so that we are better able to perceive his action in the world… may we be able to speak of what we know even while we wait for what we don’t know… and may we be willing to live the faith such a way so as to be a blessing to the ones God has given as our neighbors.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Cliffhanger!

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 June 3, we heard one of the truly difficult stories about Jesus: his encounter with a woman pleading for the welfare of her daughter. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:24-30.  Our second reading came from I Thessalonians 5:10-18.

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

Most Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1966 – 1968, you could find me perched in front of our family’s old black-and-white television following the adventures of Gotham City’s Caped Crusaders.  The original Batmantelevision show aired two thirty-minute episodes each week.  On Wednesdays, Batman and Robin would typically encounter some diabolical plot by the Joker, the Riddler, or the Penguin, and on Thursdays they’d find a way to save the city.

Will the dynamic duo survive? Wait and see…

Almost every Wednesday night episode ended in the same way: the dynamic duo would be in a precarious situation, apparently headed toward certain destruction, and then a very dramatic voiceover would remind viewers that if we wanted to see how the storyline resolved, we’d have to tune in tomorrow – same bat time, same bat channel.

This was my introduction to the concept of a “cliffhanger” – stopping a story at a crucial instant in the drama for the sole purpose of making sure that the viewer or the reader would come back for more at a subsequent time.  You’ve seen this in all kinds of ways.

I will suggest that the scripture from Mark’s Gospel this morning presents us with a cliffhanger of sorts.  Here’s what I mean:

In recent episodes, we’ve seen Jesus come into his hometown of Nazareth and reveal himself to be the manifestation of God’s power in the world.  Then, he learns of and reacts to the death of John the Baptist; no doubt it is a sobering time of reflection for him as he anticipates that which is to come in his own life.  He sends out the twelve, which leads directly to the feeding of the 5,000, which in turn brings about a significant confrontation with the religious authorities.  All of these things must have contributed to Jesus’ expressed desire to get away from the pressures of the crowds and the religious and political leadership so that he can be alone with and prepare his disciples.

We know that Jesus wanted to get away because we read that he went to a community known as Tyre. In so doing, Jesus is moving away from Jerusalem (the seat of Jewish power at that time), away from Galilee (the center of his ministry for much of the past three years) and away from the Decapolis (his previous “retreat” spot, but one wherein he’d become quite a celebrity in recent months).

We also know that Jesus wanted to get away because Mark tells us so in verse 24: “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.”

However, Jesus’ hopes to keep this retreat on the down-low appear to be immediately thwarted when he is recognized by a stranger.  And this is no ordinary passer-by: the Gospel writer goes to great pains to make sure that we know that this is an encounter with an outsider. One of them.

We are told that the stranger is a woman. Moreover, she was a Greekor aGentile.  And she had been born in Syrophoenicia.  The Gospel writer did everything but hang a sign on this poor woman’s neck reading “not one of us”.

The One With The Crumby Dog, Ally Barrett (2017). More at https://reverendally.org/art/

Nevertheless, she persisted.  For a man intent on finding some down time with his friends, Jesus is attracting a lot of attention.  He apparently ignores the woman, but that doesn’t do anything except increase the volume of her appeal.  In fact, the when the author of Matthew tells this story, he mentions that she is creating such a ruckus that the disciples implore Jesus to do something just to shut her up.

When he finally does engage her in conversation, Jesus apparently follows the culturally accepted rules of engagement: Jews like himself are God’s favorite; Gentiles like this woman are no better than dogs in the street.  A couple of weeks ago, we asked the question, “Was Jesus a jerk?”, and here we see behavior that seemingly points in that direction.  This conversation is cringe-worthy; particularly when we consider that it came from the same mouth that gave us the Beatitudes and the story of the Good Samaritan.  What is Jesus up to here?

The accepted conclusion is that Jesus is testing this woman’s faith.  But why would he do this?

Is it because he enjoys seeing her crawl along and beg? Is his self-esteem so low that he needs to have this woman plead for the life of her daughter so pathetically?  I can’t see this as being consistent with Jesus’ character.

There are some who have suggested that the Lord went through the motions of this conversation because he hoped that it would demonstrate the foolishness of the prevailing prejudices in that culture.  In essence, these people are saying that Jesus treated this woman contemptibly so that his disciples could recognize, and then reject, contempt as a basis for relationahip.

I’d like to go a little further and say that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith neither to satisfy his own curiosity about the woman nor to make a cultural statement about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles.  I think that he was testing her faith in a public fashion in order to allow his disciples to see beyond the shadow of a doubt that her faith was authentic and her claim legitimate.

Some years ago I was in Turkey and one of my friends was looking to buy a leather jacket. When he put it on, the vendor went to great lengths to demonstrate the quality of material and workmanship. While Dan was wearing the jacket, the salesman tested it in every way: he poured water on it, he stretched the seams, and he even held a lighter under Dan’s elbow to prove that this was a rugged and durable garment.

I think that Jesus was allowing this conversation with the Syrophoenician woman to go on so long for precisely the same reason: he wanted to allow the disciples to conclude that this woman was indeed passionate about and beloved of God. In so doing, Jesus taught them a lesson they would not forget about the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God.

Once her faith is demonstrated, Jesus acknowledges the woman’s place in his Kingdom and announces that he has healed her daughter.  She goes home and discovers that such is indeed the case.  That’s the end of the story.

Um, Pastor Dave? You called this sermon “Cliffhanger.”  You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means…  There is no cliffhanger here, Pastor Dave.  Jesus comes, the woman begs, Jesus seizes a teachable moment for his disciples, a daughter is healed, and the woman goes home.

Exactly.  But what happens next?

Next? There is no next.  Her story is done.

And that’s the problem.  The story ends with the one who began as an outsider remaining an outsider.  I’m saying it’s a cliffhanger because I want to know what the twelve did next.  Did they reach out to her?  Was she eventually included among the followers of Jesus?

The Limits of Tyre, Vasily Polenov (1911)

I’m afraid that the answer to that must be “no”.  If this woman or her daughter was ever included in the body, I suspect that we’d know her name.  Do you remember later in the Gospel, when the man carries the cross for Jesus, Mark tells us that he was Simon, the father of Rufus and Alexander… Lots of people who encounter Jesus are remembered – because they become part of the story. Nicodemus.  Joseph of Arimathea.  Mary Magdalene.  Blind Bartimaeus.  The fact that this woman and her daughter are still anonymous when Mark is writing the Gospel indicates to me that nobody remembers her name nowbecause nobody really knew her then.

And when I read this story of Jesus healing a woman because his disciples urge him to do so in order to keep her quiet… then I’m reminded of all the times that I have “helped” someone while secretly wishing that they’d just leave.  I am embarrassed by the number of times I have given some groceries or helped with a financial burden – but begrudgingly.  “Here…” I say, “This is for you.”  And then I don’t say it out loud, but the next phrase is “now leave me alone.”  I can’t wait to get to the “mission project” and then I count the hours until it’s done and I get to go home and take a shower and do what I want to do… because I am not interested in really including any of those peoplein my life.

So what’s your point, Dave? What are you asking us to do?

I thought about using this passage to get myself and a least a few of you all worked up into a lather about the ways that refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers are being treated in our nation these days.  I thought about telling you the true story of a young mother who was abused and threatened and feared for her life and that of her daughter in the dangerous nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She was so afraid that last year she scooped up her six year-old daughter and fled to the United States, where she went directly to the immigration authorities and requested political asylum.  Her case was declared valid, and she was allowed to enter the country. She followed all the rules.  She was not “illegal”; she was not a terrorist. But four days after her arrival in San Diego, they took her daughter from her, slapped her in handcuffs, and sent the daughter (age 6) to a “facility” in Chicago – two thousand miles away.  In the next four months, she’d have the chance to speak with this child six times.

But if the point of this message is to get you all excited about some kind of political action then, to be honest, it’s less than the Gospel, and this isn’t worship, it’s a rally.

Here’s what I think about this passage:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this story about a mother who was terrified by a situation that her family faced is an old story, or ancient history.  The Gospel reading resonates with us because many of us have lived this story, and each of us has seen it.

Furthermore, let’s not pretend that we can insert ourselves into the Biblical narrative and try to role-play: are you more like Jesus, or a disciple, or the woman, or her daughter? We are all over the place in that regard.  And, more importantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the disciples “got” where Jesus was going with this, at least initially.

Instead, I’d like to direct your attention to the epistle reading for the day.  Let’s listen to Paul, who as much as anyone in the first century, was a real mover and shaker.  He was a political creature – a citizen of Rome who knew how to use that identity and his passport.  There aretimes where Paul seems to encourage those in leadership and authority to do what is right.  But when he spoke to a real live church, he didn’t tell them to sit down and write a bunch of letters to Nero or to seek to overthrow the Roman garrisons in Thessalonica or Philippi.

No, he spoke very plainly.  Remember who you are, who you were, and who you will be.  Encourage one another, and strengthen each other.  Encourage those who are afraid.  Help the weak.  Be patient with everyone. Always try to do good for each other and for everyone.

Look: I’m not here to put the badmouth on political action in the name of the Gospel.  If you want to write the President about immigration or the governor about abortion, well, knock yourself out. But just don’t be an activist without any action.

Listen: in two weeks, the Cross Trainers camp will start here in Crafton Heights.  There will be 60 young people coming in and out of our buildings for six weeks.  Some of them are in a great place.  Others are in a world of hurt. Most of them, if you give them half a chance, will get on your last nerve.

Re-read the Gospel for today, and then ask yourself: do these kids really belong here?  Is this church for them and for their families?  Is there grace and hope and love and acceptance and guidance and challenge for themhere?

If so… how will they know?  Because we’re paying half a dozen people like Carly and Katie to be nice to them for a few weeks this summer?  Will they be authentically included in the purposes of God because we “let” them show up here and we’re nice to them for a few hours?  Or is there a deeper response that might be indicated on our part?

It’s a cliffhanger.

When I watched Batman, I had to wait an entire day to see how he and Robin solved the problem. When it comes to discipleship, I’d suggest that the true measure of our faithfulness is whether the young people who are here this summer will be remembered by and connected with the community of faith in ten years.  What can wedo about that?

Stay tuned.

Don Quixote and Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)

Unhindered

Some thoughts on bringing babies to Jesus – and what keeps them away from his intentions.  Our worship on August 23 was anchored in Luke 18:15-17, Colossians 3:21, and Proverbs 22:6

It’s been a busy week here at the Crafton Heights Church. As we creep closer and closer to September, there is more and more activity in and around this building. This week we had painting and Preschool planning and staff conversations and the newsletter was published and lots more – including a Session meeting. At that meeting, the elders of this congregation approved a six-page document called “The Safe Church Policy of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights”. This is a statement regarding the protection of minors while they are in our building or attending church-related events.

safe_church_0The “Safe Church Policy” was made necessary by some sweeping changes in the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These changes resulted from a number of high-profile cases wherein adults have done unspeakable things to children.

This is not a new problem, of course. There are many people in this room who are survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. And this is not a distinctively American problem – all around the world, people do horrible things to children. And so, under the rallying cry of “Somebody ought to do something,”, the lawmakers and insurance companies got together and created these new regulations that will result in a host of new policies and practices at virtually every facility that serves children.

Here at Crafton Heights, that means that there will be more open doors, an increased need for adult volunteers, a heightened screening of those volunteers and staff, more paperwork and increased oversight as well as additional fees. And we are fine with that – because we want to do it right.

But here’s the deal, beloved: Our goal is not simply to comply with the law. Our objective is not to create a paper trail that will make it harder for us to be sued. That’s aiming too low. Our calling is to be a blessing to children and youth. To nurture, protect, and guide these children as they grow. To love them as God in Christ has loved us. That’s what we want to do – keeping them safe is simply a part of that.

jesus-children-clipart-6I would imagine that just about everyone in the room is familiar with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus blesses the little children. It’s the stuff of Sunday School posters and bad artwork for longer than any of us have been alive. We know that about Jesus. Jesus blesses children – of course he does. That what Jesus is all about, right?

Christ Blessing the Children Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

Christ Blessing the Children
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

In his day and age, Jesus’ attentiveness to children was counter-cultural. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for unwanted children to be left to die of exposure or given away to those who would raise them as gladiators or beggars, yet Jesus points to the weakest members of society and honors them. Luke heightens this emphasis, for whereas Mark and Matthew say that people bring their “children” to see Jesus, Luke points out that they are bringing babies. Jesus’ blessing of such babies is entirely consistent with his affinity for standing up for those who are on the fringes.

This morning, though, I don’t really want to look at what Jesus does; I’d like to consider what he says. In this brief passage, Jesus gives pretty explicit instructions to his followers: “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

Let’s talk about that word, “hinder”. In the game of racquetball, if I get between you and the ball such that you can’t reach it, instead of me getting the point for being such an amazing athlete, we have to replay the point because I have “hindered” you. That is, I’ve gotten your way; I’ve cut off your access to the ball. The Greek word kaluo is a key word in the Luke’s writing. At least twelve times in the two-volume work that forms Luke and Acts, he uses this word to communicate something important about the Gospel.

In Luke 6, Jesus says that we are not to hinder another person’s access to the things that he or she needs, even if that thing is “ours”. In Luke 9, Jesus scolds his disciples for “hindering” someone who is doing God’s work simply because he’s not doing it the way that they expect him to. Later, Jesus charges the Pharisees with “hindering” people’s ability to live faithfully.

When Luke was writing Acts, he mentioned that the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know if there was anything that “hindered” him from being baptized, and he uses the same language in the conversations around Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius – there is no reason, apparently, to “hinder” the progress of God’s truth. In fact, the very last word in the book of Acts is the negative form of this word: akaluo. Luke finishes telling the story of Jesus and the early church by saying that the Gospel itself is “unhindered” as it is set free in the world.

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. Used by permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. http://www.Jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA

So when Jesus says, “don’t hinder the children”, he’s saying more than simply “keep out of their way”. I think that he’s telling his followers that these children deserve unfettered access to the love of God in Christ, and that disciples of Jesus are called to do everything in our power to give children the opportunity to be embraced by the Lord.

So of course, we need to have a “Safe Church” policy. But we need to remember that protecting children from physical abuse is the starting point – the ground floor of this enterprise. What else are we going to do?

Well, I can promise you several things that will be true as long as I am the pastor of this congregation.

If you and I are talking and someone who is less than four feet tall comes and starts to tug on my robe, I can pretty much guarantee that you and I will be interrupted, because I want that little person to know that Pastor Dave is interested in what she or he has to say.

You need to know that children are going to cry during worship, God willing. I know, it’s very important that we nurture and instruct our kids in the art of sitting in and participating in the worship service – but the fact of the matter is that not all of us are good at that all the time, and neither are our children. And we will not banish children who make a little noise.

This congregation will work to create meaningful experiences outside of this room wherein children can be welcomed: FaithBuilder classes and toddler care rooms and other places where faith can be nurtured and intergenerational friendships can flourish.

Through the ministries of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool and The Open Door, we will enlarge the circle of caring by providing excellent role models and mentors and safe places to grow and learn what faith looks like and how we practice it on the playground and on at Youth Group Mission Trips.

Those are the policies and procedures and programs that we will continue to work on as we strive to make this church a “safe place” for all children. If you see something going on here that is hindering someone’s access to the love and blessing of Jesus, I hope that you’ll tell me what it is. Because if the Gospel is unhindered in the Roman world, it sure as heck ought to be unhindered here in Crafton Heights.

But the reality is that it’s not enough for the leaders and volunteers here to seek to remove hindrances. There are some obstacles to faith that are rooted in the home.

One of the most significant barriers between children and the embrace of Jesus is a demon whose name is “perfectionism”. We do our children and grandchildren a disservice when we expect them to do everything right all the time, or when we think that the way that they will live into their discipleship has to look exactly like the path that we have followed. Parents, don’t expect your children, your family, or your church to be perfect. Again, look to Jesus: he lived with and shared grace all the time – surely we can too. The reading from Colossians indicates that even crusty old Apostle Paul took time to write to the parents in his churches and remind them that it’s important to give the next generation a break every now and then.

Another word that I would have for parents in this regard is to please, please, please be attentive to the schedules that you are building for your children’s lives. Activities and extra-curricular events are important and wonderful opportunities for children of any age, but we have to make sure that worship and time with family are anchors for the week. Karate and football and music lessons and dance are foundational experiences in so many ways, but my hope and prayer is that they would find their meaning in the context of a life that is rooted in Sabbath, worship, and other rhythms that nurture the child in Jesus’ love and embrace.

JesusAndChildrenAnd even if we as a congregation have an amazing set of programs and policies, and individual families are diligent when it comes to establishing patterns that point children directly into the arms of Jesus, there are some larger cultural issues to which we ought to dedicate ourselves.

None of what I’m going to say now will surprise you. We want to work for that which promotes peace and justice and hope. We have to support structures that educate and feed and shelter those who are at risk. We must be diligent in our willingness to stand with those who are oppressed and do what we can to remove anything that would hinder their experience of Jesus’ blessing.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy week here at Crafton Heights. But the truth of the matter is that writing out a “Safe Church Policy” is the easy part. By all means, go over and see Jason and Cheri. Fill out the paperwork. Give your fingerprints to the FBI if you need to. Go ahead and check all that stuff off your list.

But know this, beloved: filling out the forms and making the insurance company happy is not the same as blessing the children in Jesus’ name. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

May we – as a congregation, as a community of families, and as a culture – commit ourselves to doing the things that will take time, energy, love, and creativity as we seek to bring the children with whom God has entrusted us to a place where they will have access to the fullness of his love. Thanks be to God for the children we’ve been given and for the mercy under which we live. Amen.

Ordinary Time

The previous posts in this stream narrate some of the experiences I had on a partnership visit with God’s people in South Sudan.  In this entry, I offer a theological reflection on the most powerful worship experience of my life.  Scriptures for the day were Psalm 137 and Ephesians 2:11-22.

If you look at the bulletin you received earlier today, you’ll see that right across the top of the page it indicates that today is the “Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time”. Ordinary Time. What is that about?

OrdinaryTimeWell, mostly, “Ordinary Time” refers to the part of the church year that is not associated with the major cycles of either Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter. One way to put it would be like this: “Ordinary Time is the norm of time kept by the church. The Sundays of Ordinary Time celebrate the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the unfolding presence of the new creation. Ordinary Time presents us with an ongoing opportunity to witness to the living Lord who makes all things new. The standard time of the church is Ordinary Time.”[1]

The name, though, is a little misleading. Rather than meaning “standard” or “routine” – “the usual”, the term “Ordinary Time” actually comes from the word “ordinal”, meaning “counted”. Ordinary Time is “counted time” – we begin with the incarnation, and we count towards the Resurrection. We begin at Pentecost, and we count towards the intrusion of Christ in new ways. “Ordinary Time” is the standard time for the church in that the church is looking forward – always looking forward – to the new inbreaking of God’s presence among us.

Given that, I’d like to tell you how I passed the first week of “Ordinary Time” in 2015 while I was spending time with God’s people in South Sudan, in Africa.

I will begin by confessing a weakness in my theology that may make me a poor excuse for a pastor, but it is the truth. I have long believed that children should be cute in worship.

I try not to manipulate children, as sometimes happens when we pass the mic around during the children’s sermon and we hear those little rascals saying the darndest things. No, I mean the times when we ask them to lead us, and it’s just so beautiful.

Were you here a week or so before Christmas, and Jess had the kids come up front and sing, and Henry was playing the drums while his dad was playing the guitar? Come on, Scrooge, admit it, that was way off the cuteness scale. It was beautiful. Or maybe the first time that little Rachel Salinetro served as a lay reader in church. I bet no one else remembers the way that she tried to pronounce the same word in the Gospel of Luke five times before she finally shook her head, and said, “wait a minute, I got this”, and then she did it flawlessly. It was pure gold. Or the time that I had been away for a number of weeks and Aviva came flying up the aisle at during the last hymn and would not let me put her down, even for the benediction. Do you know what I mean? That stuff is cute!

That’s the way I like to think of kids in church. We eat those things up.

The underlying thought behind the notion that children ought to be “cute” in worship is that we want our worship to be a safe place. We hope that the kids who are here are comfortable and secure; we want them to enjoy God’s people and to be enjoyed; we want them to know the strength and power of God’s protective embrace.

The worship service I attended and led two weeks ago was the single most powerful worship experience of my life. And it was a time when children – hundreds of them – were present. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were active. But they were not, by any measure, “cute.”

map-south-sudanHere’s some background: In 2011, South Sudan achieved independence after half a century of struggle and warfare. As a result of the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of black Christian and Traditional African Religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in order to come back to their “ancestral homeland” in the south. They were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed part of the continent with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources. The world’s newest country was among the world’s poorest countries. But they had hope.

I visited this nation in January of 2013, not quite 18 months after independence, and I saw growth and joy, the beginnings of a plan for self-governance and a longing to emerge into a more developed future.

However, in December of 2013, a political conflict developed into a clash within the South Sudanese military. That quickly denegrated into ethnic and tribally-based violence and erupted into a full-scale civil war. Within months, two million people were displaced from their homes. Entire communities were obliterated. Thousands were butchered. Millions were traumatized. And although the situation has improved enough for me to visit, the fighting continues even to this day. South Sudan is not a safe place.

Walking towards worship at the UN "Protection of Civilians" site in Juba.

Walking towards worship at the UN “Protection of Civilians” site in Juba.

And on the day when my dear friend Saleem was here preaching so eloquently about the church’s calling to continually participate in the work to which Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed, I was asked to preach at the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church service in the United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Base #3 near Juba. This camp supports more than 30,000 people who have lost nearly everything in the past twelve months and, fearing for their lives and safety, have sought refuge in this vast community of plastic tarps, dust, weeping, and squalor about 400 miles from their homes.

Most Sundays, I walk to worship. I come out of my home and I look to the left and see the Gielarowski’s and I smile at the Simcox’s up the hill. I walk down Cumberland, thinking about the things that await me in the morning, and I pray for the people in the homes I pass. I cut down between the Prevost’s and the Phelps’ and I catch a glimpse of the Sam’s and the Barnes’ places. I come through the vacant lot and look up at the homes where Jason and Kelly, Lindsay, Rachel, and Stacey live. By the time I unlock the door, I am already richly and deeply invested in a community that is filled with beautiful people that I love.

On January 18, I was driven to church over pitted dirt roads. I stopped at checkpoints manned by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I was passed by trucks filled with squads of fully armed UN soldiers. There were armored vehicles and machine gun emplacements. I passed by children playing in the street, and many of them had scars on their heads and faces that bore witness to violence endured. Eventually, the road came alongside a ditch, on the other side of which was a tall fence covered in razor wire and then a large earthen berm so I could not see inside the compound.

We came to a break in the fence, which was a large shipping container with doors at either end. As I walked towards the door, which was the entrance into the camp, I saw over the earthen wall a small green flag with a cross on it. I thought, “Hmmm, this may be a church on the other side”.

ChoirProcessionJust before I entered the container, filled with UN soldiers and armed guards, a man behind me screamed and I saw the flag wave. I heard singing from behind the fence. I came through the container and was greeted by a single file line of 150 teens in matching shirts who were singing their hearts out. It was the choir that had come to greet me.

I walked with the choir – single file – for a long time. Maybe a mile or a mile and a half went by as they sang first of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They broke into a new song and pointed at me as they sang, in Nuer, “Here he comes – this one is a soldier of Christ.”

Normally, I resist military imagery as it is connected with worship, but as I thought about all the weaponry and machinery of death that I’d passed in order to get to this point, I had to ask myself whether I really believed that the promise I have in Jesus Christ is stronger than the weapons of destruction by which I was surrounded. And I came to the conclusion that, at that time and place, I was in fact a soldier of Christ – only the weapons that I had been issued were hope, love, and forgiveness. The protection given to me was not a bulletproof vest or a blue helmet, but a promise.

ChurchEventually, we arrived at the most substantial structure I’d seen inside the camp – a long mud building with iron sheets for a roof and a crude crossed nailed to one end. I guessed that there were about 1200 people inside the building and nearly that many outside.

And we worshiped. Our opening song two weeks ago was the same one with which we began worship here this morning: “To God Be the Glory”. Of course, we sang it in the Nuer language.

CongregationI have to tell you, I’m pretty good at African worship. I know how to tell a joke to an African crowd, I can work with a translator in a sermon, and we had a fine time. There were lots of choirs, some official greetings, and I preached a really long sermon (hey, nobody in the IDP camp was worried about getting home for the game, I can tell you that). None of this was what made it the most powerful worship experience of my life.

I sat down after the sermon and we began to pray. We prayed for those in the community and the nation and the world. And when the prayers were finished, I was told that the Sunday School Children were to enter and sing a few songs.

And they came. And they came and they came. There must have been more than 200 children. And they sang. They sang beautifully.

If I say that the songs that they were singing were in a “major” key, would you know what I mean? I mean that they sounded strong and confident, victorious. “To God Be The Glory” and “Amazing Grace” are sung in a major key. “O Come, O Come Emanuel” or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are in a minor key. These songs sounded full of life and strength.

And they were songs with actions. The boys and girls were standing and sitting in turn. I liked that. I thought it was cute as they boys called and the girls responded. I asked my host, “What are they singing?”

He said, “Well, the boys are saying, ‘You can attack us’ and the girls are replying, ‘but you can’t get all of us.’ The girls sing, ‘We know you will kill us’ and the boys say, ‘But not all of us will die.’ And together they sing, ‘Even when we die, we are not defeated.’”

This was the children’s choir. Boys and girls from about four to about fifteen years old. And this is what they were singing.

And it was loud. I mean, it was loud. Some of you know that I like to watch the fireworks in my boat because there on the water, so close to the launch site, I can not only see and hear the explosions, I can feel them in my chest. Have you had that experience during fireworks? I am here to tell you that when these children were singing about their own deaths in that beautiful major key, I could feel the words bouncing off my chest.

Louder and louder they sang, and then suddenly, all 200 of these children just slumped to the floor, draped across each other. It was as if every single one of them had been shot simultaneously. They laid there as if they were dead, unmoving.

It was silent, and the silence was deafening. I could feel the silence in my chest even more than I had felt the singing. It was powerful. It was not cute – in no way, shape, or form, beloved, was this part of worship “cute”.

And then one little girl in the back – a child about Samaiya’s size – stood and began to sing in a wail. She was singing, “We may be killed. We may all be killed. But we will surely rise in the light of Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is in us.” And one by one, the children stood and joined this little girl’s song. It got louder and louder.

And then this little girl came up and knelt on the floor a foot from me and sang “O God, you made us, why aren’t you saving us? Why can’t you see us? Do you still love us? We are wandering in our own land, Father. Why have you forgotten us? Are you the one who created us or not?”

I was overwhelmed.

I was glad that they were asking the questions of God, and not of me. I had no answers. I still don’t. It was all I could do not to collapse into tears right then.

The kids finished, and we sang a little more. I was asked to share the benediction, and I gave them the same one I offer here each week. I was invited to share a bowl of rice, sorghum, and beef broth in one of the tent homes, and then I was escorted from the compound, past the soldiers and back to the guest house.

It was the most powerful worship moment in my life. I am still not sure, even eight pages into this thing, that I have words for it.

Psalm 137 is a lament. It is a song, sung in a minor key, describing how it feels to be lost, abandoned, and hopeless. The singer remembers being isolated and alone and forgotten by God. And then the Psalm concludes with that angry prayer for vengeance and retribution. It is a Psalm that points to a downward spiral of violence and death and increasing hatred.

And the songs of the children in United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Camp #3 were also songs of lament, but they were in a major key. They were songs that spoke of depths of pain and suffering that I cannot imagine, but somehow, those songs were able to anchor their lament in a place of hope. There was not a prayer for retribution, but for restoration. There was not a prayer for the death of the enemy, but for life abundant.

I tried that morning two weeks ago to preach a good message. I used Isaiah and Luke, and I talked about the promise of God’s kingdom. I had some really good stuff.

But the children presented the hope and the message that day in a way that I never could. I knew that I was on Holy Ground as these disturbing, Spirit-filled, recklessly-trusting children who were not at all cute forcefully asked God to do what he said he would do and to be who he said he would be.

If we want our worship to be safe, and calm, and tame, and cute – I believe we will limit the power of the gospel. May we pray for boldness to trust the promises of God as recklessly and as forcefully as did my young friends two weeks ago.

May God be with us as we stand with and for them to create a world where they grow free of fences and convoys and ration cards and weapons of destruction. God is who God says he is. And God will do what God says he will do. And we, his body, are bound to participate in the demonstration of that truth.

Ephesians says that Christ himself is our peace, and that Christ alone can break down the walls of hostility.

I want to close with a story from another part of Africa that describes this hope perfectly.

It was 1959 in the nation of Malawi. There had been increasing pressure for the British to end their rule and give this nation independence. Racial and tribal tensions were on the rise, and word went out from London that all whites were to leave the country for fear of their own lives. The mission station in Livingstonia Synod was so remote that it could not be reached by the road, and the British government was concerned about the ability of the white missionaries to survive in this conflicted environment. They sent a plane from the Royal Air Force to drop a

Livingstonia Mission as seen from the air, 1959

Livingstonia Mission as seen from the air, 1959

message so that the whites could plan their evacuation for the next day. The next day when the plane approached, the pilot saw an unmistakeable message written in stones on the ground: Eph 2-14, which as you know reads “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…”

Listen, my friends – the world needs to see that message. It needs to hear it in the UN Camps in South Sudan and in the streets of our own nation. It needs to resound from the rooftops of Palestine and into the bowels of Kolkata.

May we be living stones that spell that out, all day, every day, wherever we may be. Where people can read it, or hear it, or feel it in their chests…may we be able to participate in proclaiming it here…and in South Sudan…and everywhere.

Every day.

In ordinary time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Liturgical Year: The Worship of God (Supplemental Liturgical Resource #7), Westminster/John Knox, 1992 p. 51.

It’s About the Walk

As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”

On October 19, as our congregation observed “Preschool Sunday”, we considered the command to “Walk Humbly with God”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 131 and Mark 10:13-16

For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at one of the key texts in the Old Testament. The people have left God’s best for them and are now faced with the threat of war, exile, and even the extinction of their nation. They turn to Micah, God’s spokesman, and say, “Well what can we do? How are we supposed to stay alive?” And the response, which you’ve already heard this morning, is clear: “He has shown you what is good – and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

That’s how we stay alive. Do justice: that is, when you are in a position to assist one who has been wronged or to lift up someone who has been stepped on, do it.

And love kindness: that is, growing into a pattern of living where those acts of justice come, not as a response to a command, but out of the depths of your heart.

And walk humbly: that is, shape your daily behavior in such a way so that God’s power and presence in the world is more visible to the people who are around you. When the prophet, or God, or you and I, use the word “walk” in this way we are referring to a way of life.

I find it interesting (and refreshing) to see that this last condition on how we are to make it out of here alive does not hinge on our theological dexterity. It is not based on our intelligence, nor does it rely on us having the correct position on current political issues. The prophet asks us about the way that we live.

In that way, of course, he reminds us of Jesus, who wasn’t particularly big on inviting people to sit around and make sure that everybody agreed on a particular set of ideas. Jesus didn’t come with a slate of answers or a political agenda to which he required everyone to adhere.

DustNo, when Jesus wanted to get inside of your head or your heart, what did he say? “Follow me.” “Walk like I do.” The way that you live, and the one that you follow, says a lot about what you believe. The Jews have recognized this when they refer to the collective body of written commandments as wisdom as halakha – that is, “the way to walk”. Neither Micah nor Jesus talks about ideas in the abstract; instead, they invite us to join with the Lord in a way of living.

And how does Micah invite us to walk? We have a very rare Hebrew word here, which is usually translated as “humbly.” As I look at that word, and at the ways in which it is used in other places, I think that I will agree with those scholars who suggest that a more faithful translation would be “wisely” or “carefully”. We are to engage the world (that is, to live) each day knowing who we are and who God is, and acting as if that matters.

The scriptures you’ve heard this morning talk about that kind of awareness and lifestyle. And, not suprisingly on Preschool Sunday, each of the verses point us in the direction of children.

The 131st Psalm is very useful to us in our daily devotion because it reminds us to be alert to two dangers in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are to be alert to the evil of pride. A modern translation of this passage gets it right: “God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.” (The Message)

If we are to walk wisely, we must remember that we live in relationship with God. We are not in charge, we are not in control – we have a place in the universe that is less than primary.

That idea, even though it sounds terribly obvious when I stand up here and say it out loud, runs counter to the experience that most of us have every day. Our culture tells us that we are supposed to be on top of the heap and exercise our own power and strength. When Eugene Peterson writes about this verse, he says,

It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as an achievement. What is described in Scripture as the basic sin, the sin of taking things into your own hands, being your own god, grabbing what is there while you can get it, is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able, get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But at the end the devil has his due There is damnation.[1]

An essential, if seemingly-obvious, aspect of the faithful walk is recognizing that at the end of the day, God is in charge and I am not. Pride is my enemy.

But the Psalm does not only warn us against the evil of arrogance. The next passage cautions us against the resignation that can come from a clingy dependency and a refusal to grow up into being our own person in God’s sight.

Dave with Caitlin & MackenzieOne of the great blessings of being me – and there are many – is that I have known a lot of babies. Not only that, but people seem to trust me with their children, and will willingly hand me the little angels when they are only a few hours old. And here is something I have noticed about every infant I’ve ever held: sooner or later, that baby will get fussy and start to scream at me for something that I will never, in a million years, be able to provide. You know what I’m talking about – there I am holding that baby, smiling for the photos, and what starts out as a nuzzle before too long turns into a situation where that child is rooting around expecting old Pastor Dave to come up with some milk. Sooner or later, every infant cries – not for a relationship, not for affirmation – but for a meal. If you have ever been a mother, you know what it is like to be yelled at, not for who you are, but for what you provide. You are a meal ticket.Dave with Caitlin & Mackenzie

But the Psalmist compares himself to a weaned child resting at its mother’s breast. A weaned child is not looking at mom as a commodity. A weaned child is there because that child has learned that mom’s lap is a delightful place to be in and of itself.

Many of you know that I was away for much of 2010. I traveled the world and saw some amazing things, and I am hard pressed to say which of the experiences I was blessed with was the most memorable. For four months, I was living in a dream.

But this is one thing I hope I never forget about that trip: In September of 2010 I arrived home from the airport. As I carried my bags up the steps on Cumberland Street, I heard a small voice coming from next door: “Hey! Pastor Dave is home! Pastor Dave is home!” And before I could reach my front porch, I was bowled over by my next-door neighbor and covered with kisses.

Samaiya was only about two and a half years old at the time, and she didn’t need me for anything. She wasn’t expecting a gift, and she didn’t think I had snacks. She just wanted me. That is what Psalm 131 looks like – rushing to embrace God because he is there, and he is good, and he loves you, and because you love God.

A few hundred years later, Jesus holds out the children in his community as special. He doesn’t think that they are pure or perfect. He commends them because they are willing to be blessed, eager to be loved, and wanting to be taught.

A weaned child is content with the relationship for its own sake. That child doesn’t see her mother as a means towards satisfying herself, but rather as a good and loving presence that is to be treasured and received. Again, I would imagine that the parents in this room know the difference between a weaned and an unweaned child.

But here’s the deal: weaning is hard work for both the wean-ee and the wean-er. It’s confusing and painful and noisy. But it needs to happen eventually if the child has any hope at a real and somewhat normal life.

In your spiritual life, are you weaned?

The reason I ask that is that from time to time, someone will come into my study and say, “I don’t know, Pastor, it’s just different. I’m not feeling it any more – not like I was. When I first followed Jesus, I knew that God had my back. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I cried out for something and there was a miraculous answer right then and there. When I needed God, he was right there. But now, when I pray, it seems different. I cry out, and I’m not sure that God even hears me. Does God still love me?”

Of course God loves you. God couldn’t love you any more. But maybe God is weaning you from an infantile dependence on the emotional lift you think you need in order to get through the day so that you might grow up into a discipleship that is healthy and vigorous. Maybe God is teaching you how to discern and act for yourself, building on the lessons you’ve already learned, so that you can walk wisely in this world.

I just spent twenty-four hours with my daughter and her husband and my eleven-month old granddaughter. It was wonderful. I had not seen them since September 1.

But things are changing. Do you know that the last time I was there, Ariel carried Lucia everywhere. It seemed as if that child could not move on her own – the only way she got from the living room to the kitchen to the car was if some big strong grown up came along and scooped her from one place to another.

But yesterday, I put that baby down in the living room and when I went to the kitchen to get some coffee, I turned around and she was there! I set her by the table, and in ten seconds she was climbing towards the sofa.

And you say, “Of course, you idiot. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Lucia is learning to walk. Watch out – once she’s mobile…boom!”

Of course she has to learn to walk. Like she will learn to feed herself, and dress herself, and think for herself. We would not have it any other way.

In the same way, those of us who are made in the image of God are called to learn to walk on our own, and freely, in the direction that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later, we all get to the questions that Micah’s audience had in the 6th century BC: what does God want from me? How am I supposed to live, anyway?

The answer provided here and demonstrated by Jesus is clear and natural: a step by step living with and walking with God, living for others; a life where we advocate for the powerless and care for those who are hurting and help those whom are are able.[2]

We come together each week to remind us that this walk is for us, and for our children, and for those whom God loves in our community – which is to say, it is a walk to which each of us is called.

I don’t know what scares you or thrills you or bores you or excites you about your life today. Are you concerned about Ebola, or worried about your property values? Are you afraid you might be pregnant? Or concerned that you never will be? Is it your job, your marriage, or your lack of one of those conditions? I don’t know.

But I do know that God has put you in a place where you can learn to walk towards his best. You may cry out and sense an immediate rescue. And you may find a season of confusion and discomfort. You may find, in the struggle, that you have resources or abilities you did not realize were yours. You are still you. And God is still God. Our calling to so live as if those things are both always true. Thanks be to God, they are. Amen.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity, 2000), p. 152.

[2] Adapted from James Limburg’s commentary on Micah 6:8 in the Interpretation series (John Knox, 1988, p. 193).