The Proof of the Pudding

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26.  The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self.  Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going.  Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid?  Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.”  But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove?  It was always good!

I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried.  When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order.  After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.

As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works.  As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse.  Here’s what I mean by that…

When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.”  The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart.  These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart.  The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.  When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.

My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.”  A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient.  For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further.  In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet.  If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?

James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.

I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.

Now, hold on, Pastor Dave.  What could be worse than something that kills me?  Isn’t that about as low as we can go?

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.

When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know.  We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions.  We see that in many ways.

For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best.  He must have needed another angel up in heaven.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all?  And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?

Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years.  There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”.  Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right?  Those are just not disaster-worthy sins?  These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.

You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries.  In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people.  His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that.  Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.

The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me.  I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.”  Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together.  I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.

Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire.  Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.

Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”.  Fulfill the law of love.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?

It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire.  We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs.  Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.

We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give.  We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.

What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020?  If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.

Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances.  And that is surely the case here.  Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now.  Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins.  So if you have what you need, you are blessed.  This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.

But it’s not just your money, you know.  You can also be generous with your time.  Are you the parent of a young child?  Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now.  If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow.  I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus.  But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer.  If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime.  Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.

Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others.  Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise.  Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now.  Seek to live with others in mind.

When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter.  He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers.  The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day.  “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved?  Are you a believer?”

The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”

The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question.  The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil.  He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine.  Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian.  Ask them.  You can trust them.  They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”[1]

May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time.  And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born.  Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors.  Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.

The Old Song and Dance

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  One way that we did that this week was to celebrate the gift of God in the presence of a child presented for baptism.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 19.  The scripture for the morning was James 2:1-13

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

To view the entire worship, visit the YouTube link below.

A couple of years back, our older granddaughter stayed with us for a week or so for what I like to call “Camp Grampy”.  One of the highlights of that week was what could be called “a perfect evening”. We made homemade ice cream with home-grown strawberries.  We spread a blanket in the den and put in the DVD of Cinderella that Danielle lent us.  Lucia was captivated and engaged and laughing… and then we got to the scene where the cat, aptly named Lucifer, was chasing the mice around, intent on devouring them.  All of a sudden my granddaughter clutched my arm and said, “Wait, Grampy – this is pretend, right? It’s not real, is it?” When we assured her that it was, in fact, pretend, and that the mice would eventually outsmart the cat, Lucia relaxed and regained her joyful demeanor.

I know that you have had an experience like that.  You’ve paused the movie or muted the set and said, “No, honey, it’s ok.  This is just pretend.  Nobody is really getting hurt.”  Maybe we talk to them about actors, or about fake blood or pretend hitting.  We need to let them know that it’s “just a story”.

It’s not just children who need to remember that, by the way.  If 1/100th of what we saw onscreen took place in front of our eyes for real, we’d be traumatized for life.  One study has indicated that by the time a young person finishes high school, they’ve seen 200,000 acts of violence in the media, including 40,000 dramatizations of murder.[1]

We have to turn off something in ourselves in order to digest all of that. Speaking for myself, I have no idea how many dramatic crimes I’ve witnessed – but I can tell you that the real life blood and brains and carnage and pain I’ve seen have been seared into my memory and psyche.

I’m bringing all of this up because in his letter to some of the world’s earliest Christ-followers, James asks, essentially, the same question that my granddaughter did.  “Is this faith of yours real?  Does it matter in your daily life? Or is it just pretend? Just for show?”

He then presents his readers with a case study.  “Hypothetically speaking,” he asks, “what would you do if a person of great affluence and a person stricken by poverty entered your assembly of worship?”  He wants to know if they think that it’s appropriate to fawn over the wealthy in ways that diminish the humanity of the poor.  James goes on to indicate that if his hearers think that is all right then they have simply joined the long line of humans who have learned the language of their former oppressors and are content to repeat it over and over again.

And as James writes, we can see that he anticipates some sort of a pushback on his question because, after all, it is a revealing one.  “No, no, no – it’s not like that.  You see, we did this thing… and this other thing… and we always do that special thing at Thanksgiving…”  And so James preemptively calls “shenanigans” (it’s an old Greek word…) on them for trying to give him the song and dance.

“The old song and dance” is an expression that dates from at least 150 years ago, and while it may originally described a scenario wherein someone was both singing and dancing (think about Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain” or Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”), now the phrase is often used to describe an elaborate story that is meant to confuse the listener in order to deflect blame or avoid punishment.

James points out the incongruity of a person who says, “I’m a follower of Jesus” but who then can’t be bothered to, you know, act like Jesus.

You might remember a few weeks ago, when we began this series of messages dealing with James, that I said some theologians have eyed this epistle with suspicion because it only mentions Jesus twice.  At that time I went on to say that James may not talk about Jesus all that much, but he sure talks like Jesus an awful lot. I hope you remember that, because you’re going to see that all over this passage.

In verse 8, for instance, he admonishes his readers by saying, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law…”  That’s an interesting word choice.  He didn’t say “obey”, which is what most of us think that we are under an obligation to do.  He said, “fulfill” the law.

Hmmm.  Where have you heard that before?  I’m here to tell you that I believe he is echoing his brother, Jesus, who said, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.” (MT 5:17)

Do you see how James’ word choice is consciously directing his readers to act like followers of Jesus?  And as the late-night infomercials say, “But wait – there’s more!”

In verse 10, James continues to surprise us with the words he uses in association with the word “law” by saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law…”.

Again, he could have said “obey” and we wouldn’t have thought twice.  But he didn’t.  He said, tereo – “keep”, and not hupakouo – “obey”.

What’s the difference?  Tereo, or “keep”, means literally to keep an eye on or to guard in order to prevent someone from suffering harm or loss.

Hupakouo, or “obey”, means to hear as a subordinate and then act in a way that conforms to the command of a superior.

Jesus, so far as I can tell, only used the word “obey” once in all of his teaching.  In Luke 17, he says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

In contrast, however, Jesus used the word “keep” a lot.  Just think about John 14, where in his last conversation with his followers he said, “Those who love me will keep my word…”

The difference – for Jesus and for James – is this: our response to the invitation to follow is rooted in love.  One cannot demand love; nobody can be told to love another.  Love grows where the other is honored, seen, heard, and kept.  When James talks about “keeping” the law, he is subtly reminding his readers that the law is not a tool to be manipulated in order to gain favor or escape punishment, but rather a gift to be treasured, honored, and nurtured.

OK, Dave, so what’s your point here?

It seems to me that throughout this passage James’ theme is this: “Are you really in this?  Do you want to actually be like Jesus, or do you merely want people to think that you are like Jesus?”  James doesn’t have time for the song and dance.  If you say that you want to follow Jesus, then act like Jesus.

I’m convinced, more than ever, that the world agrees with James.  I have met lots and lots of people who have horrible things to say about the church or about Christianity.  I don’t know too many people who are critical of Jesus himself.  A Hindu writer about a hundred years ago put it this way: “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”  I’m sad to say that so often, that criticism rings true for me.

I think a part of the problem is that we spend way too much energy worrying about which laws those people are not obeying and we are not nearly as concerned with the ways that we ourselves are keeping the law of love.

As a result, we have politicians, celebrities, and preachers who have photo ops at churches, or who show up for prayer breakfasts, or who strap on a collar and march around all acting as if they’ve actually done something meaningful and the world keeps crying out, “Yes, but where is Jesus? What has changed? Where is the hope?”

The call of the gospel today is to keep the “royal law” of love.  We are invited to guard the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds and to be focused on finding ways to live  and love like Jesus did: wholly, sacrificially, gracefully, and humbly.  Oddly enough, the only way that we can “keep” the love of Jesus is to give it away freely and regularly and without keeping score.

And I know that today, as we celebrate Emersyn’s baptism, that I am preaching to the choir.  I have seen this family move in love and care for each other for a long, long time.  I have watched you honor and serve and respect each other.  I see how you pour yourselves out on behalf of your children and your grandchildren.  You love these kids.

The call of Jesus is for all of us to remember that each of us is somebody’s child.  Having real faith, says James, means that we will be especially attentive to the voices that have been crowded out or silenced, and to create wellsprings in our lives from which mercy flows in abundance.  Anyone who claims to follow Jesus is bound to live kindly, graciously, expectantly, and lovingly.

And it is not lost on me, beloved, that the overwhelming majority of people who can hear my voice right now are watching this service of worship on a screen.  Maybe it’s your phone, or maybe it’s the big flat screen in your family room. Regardless, you are participating in worship today using the same device that we use to amuse ourselves with Cinderella or Criminal Minds or Tiger King. That machine is now the vessel of this call from Jesus of Nazareth.

And so I wonder, if someone were to clutch your arm at some point during this hour and say, “But seriously – is this for real?”, what could you say?  If someone were to look at your story of faith, could they see evidence of your conviction that everyone is somebody’s child, and we are all children of God?

Let me implore you, friends, to live as though you believe this call to be real, and as though you know that it matters.  And let me implore you to do it even when no one is watching you. Because it matters.  And so do you.  Thanks be to God for words that shape and form us, amen.

[1] Dr. Norman Herr, California State University Northridge, “Television and Health.” http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

Being Faithful in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 19, 2020 to continue the celebration of Easter.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it important  to share the good news as is found in Daniel 1 (excerpted below) and I Corinthians 9:24-27.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a YouTube link for the entire worship at the end of this entry.

Perhaps you know the story about the skeptic sitting in an airplane next to an elderly woman who was reading her Bible.  She leafed through the well-worn volume, evidently looking for encouragement and hope.  He said, “Ma’am, you know that there’s nothing in that book that can help you.  You’re just going to have to trust the pilot and the engineers.”

She responded by saying that she had great faith in the bible.  He sneered, “What a bunch of rubbish!  I mean, how can you believe that?  Do you honestly think that, for instance, there was a man named Jonah, and he was swallowed by a fish, and he somehow lived inside that fish for three days?  How could such a thing ever happen?”

She paused for a moment and said, “You know, that’s an excellent question.  I think that I’ll ask Jonah that when I see him in heaven.”

The skeptic replied, “Oh, sure.  Well what if Jonah’s not even IN heaven when you get there?  What if for some reason he’s in hell?”

She set the Bible on her lap and looked at the man and said, “Well, then, I guess you can just ask him yourself!”

You know, sometimes you show up at church and the preacher hands you a whopper and expects you to believe it. Here you are, trying to be a responsible citizen of the 21st century, and you never know when you walk in here whether someone is going to be talking about miraculous healings, a talking donkey, or even a person who comes back from the dead!

This week, we’re going to begin a series of messages that focus on a story that took place a long, long time ago in an empire far, far away.  I have to warn you, this story may stretch you.

I mean, it’s an incredible tale about a group of people whose lives were upended.  They were forced into a quarantine, isolated from their families, unable to participate in their regular school or occupational activities.  They had to deal with new food regulations and new ways of interacting with each other in public.

And it’s not just a small group, either.  This situation affected people all over the known world.  And don’t even get me started on the political situation then – it was a red hot mess.  There were leaders talking out of both sides of their mouths; clowns and buffoons who were arrogant, ill-informed, self-serving, and at times downright evil.  Many aspects of that society were characterized by instability, uncertainty, fear, anger, boredom, and isolation.

Can you even imagine a world like that?  I know, the Bible is filled with some crazy stories, right?  But it’s here.  Listen to the Book of Daniel, starting in chapter 1.

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 

Daniel and His Friends, Artist unknown

So who is Daniel? When our story begins, he’s a boy of 13 or 15 years old.  He’s been born into a prominent family in Jerusalem, and enrolled in the program for the gifted.  He’s been identified as a future leader, a kid with potential – and when the nation falls, he’s kidnapped by the Empire and forced to relocate to Babylon where along with a small group of his peers, he endures isolation and is subject to an entirely new culture and lifestyle.

More than that, there is a plot afoot to re-educate, to re-mold, to re-make Daniel.  The book continues:

The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

We’re told that he and his companions were given new names.  Sometimes, we do that, don’t we?  When we meet someone from Malawi, and find that her name is Chimwemwe – well, that’s just hard to say, and so she says, “Just call me ‘Joy’”.  In her own language, Chimwemwe means joy.  But that’s not what happens here.  Daniel is a fine Jewish name, and it means something like, “God is my judge.”  But when he’s taken to Babylon, people start calling him Belteshazzar, which can be translated as “may the goddess protect the king”.

Do you see what’s happening here?  This is not a shift in moniker so that people’s tongues can pronounce a name more easily; it represents, instead, an attempted shift in identity.  All his life, Daniel’s been told – every time his name is uttered – that he is a child of God and a participant in a promise.  Now, he’s told that he’s an investment; a commodity; a slave; an insurance policy.

Some of you know how that feels.  For a long time, you thought you knew who you were.  You had your identity in a series of relationships: you were a teacher, a student; a grandparent, a host.  And now someone is telling you that you can’t act that way right now.

Or maybe your identity came from what you do on what you’d think of as a “normal” day.  You think that you sell houses, or cut hair, or make doughnuts… but now you can’t do those things.  And if you can’t do them, are you still you?

And all the while we’re getting messages from those in authority: remember, you’re an American!  Remember, you’ve got to go out and BUY stuff, because you’re a consumer. You’ve got to SHOP, people!

Who are you, anyhow?  And who gets to tell you who you are?

In the book that bears his name, Daniel refuses to let the Empire define him.  Listen:

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.

There’s an old proverb in the Middle East that says, “I saw them eating, and I knew who they were.” That doesn’t make much sense in our culture of dining out and sampling a variety of ethnic delicacies, but in that part of the world, at that time, what you ate and who you ate it with spoke volumes.  Eating was, in many ways, something that was done religiously.  So note that in this section, not only does Daniel refuse his Empire-given name, he refuses to share the King’s table.

Essentially, Daniel is saying, “I know that I belong to God, and will not become dependent on Nebuchadnezzar or anyone other than the Lord.”

Now, this does not make Ashpenaz, the Palace Master – the head of all the captives – a happy camper. He knows that if something bad happens to Daniel or his friends, that it will be his job – his head – on the line.  So he doesn’t want any part of tinkering with Daniel’s diet.

His underling, however, is a different story.  It seems as though the head guard and Daniel arrange a deal: Daniel and his friends will trade the rich meat and fine wine from the king’s table for some fresh fruits and vegetables that this steward is willing to bring in.  It’s a great deal for the guard, who had probably never seen that kind of meat in his life.  And it allows Daniel and his friends to remain loyal to God.

Daniel realized that saying “yes” to God would mean saying “no” to certain things in his world, and he did so.  And the result, as we see it here at the end of chapter one, is that Daniel and the boys ended up getting straight A’s on their final exams – in everything from gym class to calculus, they were ahead of the others.  God saw what they were doing and blessed them because of it.

And right now, it would be nice if I would wrap this sermon up with a little moralistic lesson.  Right now, you wish I could say, “See, friends, that’s the kind of God we serve.  You treat God right, and you’ll be blessed with success and riches. After all, that’s what happened in Daniel, right?”

That is the Good News, is it not?

It is the Good News… but it’s not all of the Good News.  In our New Testament reading for today, we hear from the Apostle Paul.  We’re not exactly sure where he’s writing from, but I can tell you it’s not the Presidential Suite at the Crowne Plaza.  He’s in prison somewhere, waiting for word on his fate.  He’s been faithful to Jesus, and so far that faithfulness has gotten him beaten up, spat upon, cursed, and jailed.  And he keeps on writing, because Paul knew that faithfulness doesn’t always lead to a new car, a date for the prom, or the corner office.

Paul and Daniel served the same God, belonged to the same people, and faced the same dilemma: how is it possible to maintain or regain my true self in a world where everything seems to be shifted?  How do I live faithfully when all of the markers seem to be re-arranged?

Have you found yourself asking questions like that in the past month? I can’t imagine that you have not!  Let me offer a few observations based on my reading of Daniel and Paul that might be of help to us in the age of Coronavirus.

Let us remember, beloved, who (and whose) we are.  You are called by God.  You have been named by God.  I know, we are taught over and over again by the Empire to find our worth in what we have… but how can we do that when our savings are plummeting and our resources appear to be more finite than ever?  We have been taught over and over again by the Empire to define ourselves by how we look… but how can we do that when we can’t get to the barber shop or buy new clothes?

And there are some in the Empire who are unable to remember the deeper truths.  And so there were people out protesting the other day because their need for validation as those who have independence and agency as defined by what they buy and how they look has been compromised by a stay-at-home mandate from the health officials.

Seriously?  Your ‘right’ to get rid of the gray in your roots, or to eat chicken wings at a bar is so significant that you want to put other people at risk with foolhardy behavior?  You are not what you own, where you shop, or how you look.  You’re not.

And remember, beloved, that you are not alone.  Daniel formed a pact with his peers, and we’ll hear more about that in the weeks to come.  Paul was always traveling with someone, and in I Corinthians we know that he’s with Sothsenes even as he reaches out to a larger community.

Can we seek to redefine our sense of community and what it means to connect?  I am profoundly grateful for the social media that allows us to connect in worship with a sense of immediacy and presence even as we are unable to gather in person.  Will you remember that you are connected?  Will you practice that connection by showing up for the Zoom youth group meeting or the Wednesday night discussion group?  And let’s not forget that most of you have one of these [cell phones].  There’s a really cool app that comes pre-installed on every single one of these devices, no matter how old it is.  Did you know that you can hold it, punch in a series of numbers, and actually talk to another living human being?  You don’t have to use this just to broadcast texts or tweets or status updates.  You can talk to each other on these things.  It’s amazing!

And lastly, let me encourage you to join our brothers Daniel and Paul in remembering to stay focused.  In the current state of affairs, we, no less than they, are called to remember that we are in it for the long haul.

I’ve been corresponding for a year or so with someone who has experienced a debilitating illness, and it nearly killed them.  I reflected the other day that early in this process, I was sending messages that were filled with caution against panic and fear.  I was trying to beat down the notion that this terrible thing was going to swallow my friend up.  When it became clear that death was not imminent, I noticed that my messages were more likely to be filled with verses that pointed to hope – to remembering that there is good ahead.  And even more lately, as recovery inches ever closer, I find that my counsel is that of patience – of not getting ahead of ourselves.

I think that’s where we are, in some respects, with the experience of COVID-19. Much of the original panic gave way to a need to be reminded that we could get through whatever was coming, and that in turn has begun to yield to an impatience that just wants things to get back to “normal” again.

Paul writes of the importance of self-discipline.  Of training himself to be faithful and ready in any situation.  Daniel lived that kind of life.  There is one final verse in Daniel chapter one that doesn’t really make sense to our modern ears.  We are told that

Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Because we’re not Chaldean or Babylonian, we don’t know what that means.  Let me tell you: Daniel arrived in Babylon in the third year of King Jehoiakim of Judah.  By our modern reckoning, that would be 605 BC.  King Cyrus came to power in about 539 BC.  Daniel lived this life of exile for more than sixty years.  It would be like saying he arrived in the USA when Harry Truman was president, and he stayed until after the election of Donald Trump.

Friends, we are a people who have known – who have always known – that we belong to a God who tells us who we are. We are a part of a story that is taking a long time to tell.  And this is a difficult part of that story for many of us.

Listen: give yourself a break.  It’s ok to grieve what you’re missing.  It’s all right if you are not as ‘productive’ as you wish you were or think you ought to be.  You don’t want this.  I don’t think anyone does.

But at the same time, let me encourage you not to languish or waste away.  Find something that will reconnect you to who you are in your inner self.  Plant some seeds.  Take a walk.  Write a letter.  Try something new.

And remember, beloved.  Remember who you are.  Remember that you are never alone. And remember that this will end.  Your call, and mine, is to be faithful in the days that we have been given, one day at a time.

In one of the truest laments in one of the most insightful books ever written, a hobbit called Frodo looks at his mentor, a wizard named Gandalf, and says,

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’…
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”[1]

And so, beloved, it is with us.  We are not in a position to wish away the virus, and we are not free to ignore it.  Let us then choose to live prudently and wisely in the days we have been given, remembering who, and whose we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Below you will find the links to the YouTube recording of this morning’s worship.  Because we had a glitch in the Facebook feed, the service is divided into two parts.  Part one, above, consists of everything from the Call to Worship to the beginning of the Prayers (including the scripture, children’s sermon, and sermon).  Part two, below, picks up with the prayers and goes until the benediction and response.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton-Mifflin, 1955, p. 76).

Let Me Hold That for a Second…

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Maundy Thursday (April 9) this year.  We sat with the disciples as Jesus washed their feet in John 13.  We shared the sacrament of Communion and thought about what love looks like and what love does. 

To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below!

If you’ve been around the Crafton Heights Church for a while, you’ll have heard about the Texas Mission Team.  For more than a decade, adults from this congregation have traveled, usually in February, to work in partnership with churches in southern Texas to make the love of Jesus more tangible to our neighbors.  The size of the team has varied – once we sent five men, and another time we had a crew of nearly 30 if you count our colleagues from the John MacMillan church.  And as with all such experiences, the Texas Trip has produced a pool of memories – stories that are told and retold.

Some things happen every year, no matter who is there, and every single participant can point to these as personal memories. For instance, if you’ve ever been to Texas with this church, you have teased someone about birdwatching.  It happens every year.  And you’ve marveled at how good the fresh citrus fruit tastes in Texas in February.  Those are core memories shared by every traveler.

And some things happen once, but are retold enough to make you think that everyone was there.  I’m thinking now of the time that Jon Walker crashed through a window, causing Eddie Schrenker to rename him “Wounded Elk”.

And other things happen enough that you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen it, but you know that it’s true.  I would suggest that many of our Texas trip participants know what it feels like to be working away on a project and have Steve Imler come and watch you for a moment, and then sidle up next to you, and then take the tool out of your hand while saying, “Here, let me hold that for a second…”

When Steve does this, you can see the task on which you were working being done properly and quickly.  And then Steve hands you back your tool, and says, “Oh, sorry man, I just saw something…” and he walks away, confident that you were paying attention while he was “holding” your putty knife or hammer, and expecting that the quality of your work will improve as a result.

A lot of people, myself chief among them, are better drywall finishers, carpenters, musicians, parents, and teachers because someone has practiced “the Imler method” in our lives – they stood next to us and showed us how it can be done, and expected us to learn.

That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in John 13.  Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but when the other three Gospels talk about the night before Jesus’ death, they emphasize the significance of the meal that is shared, and they point to the bread and the wine as representative of Jesus’ sacrifice.  John has already made that point back in chapter 6, where he quotes Jesus as saying “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  When John tells the story of the Last Supper, he talks about something else.

First, he sets the stage for us.  Most of us, praise God, do not have to live with the knowledge of which day, which meal, which interaction will be our final one.  We blunder along, ignorant, sometimes afraid and sometimes cocky or overconfident, day after day after day.  Yet John reminds us that Jesus knew.  Because he knew that he was going to die for the world, he also knew that there was no hope in the world to save him.  He knew, and yet he kept on going.[1]

As Texas Pastor Steve Bezner once tweeted, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live. Eat junk, go crazy, etc. Today it hit me: Jesus knew. And he washed feet.”  And I would suggest that in choosing this course of action, Jesus gives us not only a new command but a model for daily living.

I find it noteworthy that Jesus had allowed the meal to begin before he interrupted it with his act of love.  We are presented with a room full of people, reclining at table as would have been customary in that time and place.  As they lounge, there would have only been one place for the legs and feet to be – right in front of everyone else.  And because there was evidently no domestic staff on duty that evening, nobody had taken it upon themselves to perform the humiliating, menial task of washing the feet of those participating in the meal.  Each disciple knew that it should have been done – but nobody thought it was his job to do.  They all thought it was beneath them… until Jesus got up and did it.

Note this, beloved: before Jesus gives a “new command” to “love one another”, he shows us how to do it.  This evening, I’d like to look at two aspects of the demonstration that Jesus offered and invite us to reflect on what that might mean for our own lives in the age of COVID-19.

For starters, there is a call to yield one’s self.  Simon Peter thinks that he is fundamentally OK and therefore he is not willing to accept any service from the Christ.  He stands in opposition to Jesus, and says, essentially, “Look, man, we’re good here.  There’s no reason to get into all of this now, Jesus.  Let’s just let this go…”

To which Jesus replies, effectively, “Come on, Simon – you’ve got to get over yourself.  You need this.  Let me serve you.”

Beloved in the Lord, I am not entirely aware of all of the realities of your present life. But I am utterly convinced that Jesus longs to bring you relief and release, and that he is willing to enter into this very moment with you.  Jesus of Nazareth, the one that is called “Immanuel” – God with us – is seeking to embrace the you that is at the very heart of your being.

And some of my friends have heard this, and they reply by saying, “Oh, look, I know – Jesus is a great guy, all right.  He’s super forgiving, and kind.  I mean, Jesus is the best… It’s just, well, I can’t believe that he’d be willing to bother with me.  I’m just so… I mean, I’m too angry, or I’m too drunk, or I’m too guilty…”

It’s as if some of us might have the chutzpah to say, “I know, Jesus is all right for the normal, run-of-the-mill sinner like you, Dave, but you don’t get it.  I’ve been damaged.  And I’m not in a good place.  You don’t know what you’re talking about…”

Relax.  I’m here to tell you that nothing you’ve done and nowhere you’ve been is going to shock Jesus.  You pretending to be some sort of “untouchable” so that you don’t have to think about the things that Jesus has already forgiven is simply a way for you to avoid confronting the unpleasant aspects of your own story.

And it may be that a few of us have the opposite problem.  We hear Jesus talking about belonging to him and being cleansed and made whole and we say, “You know what?  I’m good, thanks.  There’s nothing to clean here.  You know what? My feet don’t even stink.  But thanks for the offer…”

And I get that.  I mean, you didn’t travel all the same roads that your reprobate sibling or cousin did; you’ve got a clean record, you’re a basically moral person and you’ve worked to keep your side of the street clean. But here’s the deal – not even you can walk all day on these paths that fill our world without getting marked by them.  We are surrounded by brokenness and crap, and it gets on us.  Let us accept the cleansing that is offered and look for a deeper wholeness in Jesus.

In addition to this idea of yielding yourself to the Lord, let me beg you, people of God, to quit worrying about who else is standing in line to be cleaned.  We get so worked up about those who surround us…

  • This guy is almost there, but you know, he’s soft on the Trinity… I’m not sure he can be trusted.
  • Her? Oh, please, be real.  You know she’s not even pro-life, don’t you?  She is on my last nerve.
  • This other person? That one is such a mess that they use “they” to refer to themselves.  Come on, pal, pick a pronoun!  How can I be in the same church with people like that?

As if those behaviors – or any of a million others – are cause to treat someone less than lovingly.  Listen to me, church: Jesus looked Judas in the eyes and then knelt down and washed his feet, and I’m going to claim that we can’t worship together because you belong to a particular political party or have a different view on gender roles than I do?

Give me a break!

Here.  Let me hold that for a second.  Pay attention.  Love one another. Period.

Here’s something that you might not have noticed in the reading for this evening: after Jesus washes their feet and invites them to participate fully in him, he does something that he does only one other time in the entire Gospel of John.  He offers a beatitude.

I know, I know, if you’re a churchy person, you think of the Beatitudes as that list of eight affirmations found in Matthew 5.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are the meek…” You know this, right?

And if you’re a really churchy person, you’re thinking, “Yes, and when Luke tells that story, he uses four blessings and adds four woes.”

While Jesus uses the word makarios – meaning “blessed” or “happy” a number of times in those other accounts, he uses it exactly twice in the fourth Gospel: here, in verse 17, and after the resurrection, where he commends Thomas for his belief even though he doubts.

The way to makarios – to wholeness, to blessing, to completeness – is through love.  And in this act of service, Jesus shows us what love looks like.  In sitting by each of his friends, holding their feet in his hands and wiping them with a towel, Jesus shows us what love does.

And I know – I get it.  It’s hard to imagine being a disciple two thousand years ago, following a Rabbi through ancient marketplaces, in dusty villages and cow paths, surrounded by hostile enemies and treacherous friends.  We don’t know how we could do that, and this act of love looks, well, a little curious to us.

A month ago, it was hard for any of us to imagine being cooped up at home, watching church on a screen, staying away from work or school or even grandma’s house.  If you’d have asked us on March 9 to give up all of that, we’d have said we didn’t know if we could do it or not.

Beloved, the call of the Gospel is a call to live with the imagination that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what you or they have done – you can imagine that you can love your neighbor.

We can do that, because he has shown us how.  Let us now, in the realities of this evening, use our imaginations and dream of what love looks like in this new reality.  Thanks be to God for the One who shows us what love is and what love does.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for helping me to grasp this.  His treatment of this notion in The Faces of Jesus (Stearn/Harper and Row, 1974) pp. 126ff.

The Church of the Empty Pews

Like most of the rest of the country, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually for worship on March 22.  We had a skeleton crew inside the building (practicing good social distancing) and a vibrant connection with a community spread across three continents via Facebook live.  Our texts included Psalm 25:16-22 and John 9:1-17. 

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

To view the entire service as it was live-streamed on FaceBook, try clicking this link.  It is my understanding that one need not have FaceBook in order to view the recording.

Well, beloved, it has been a week, hasn’t it?  I am sure that you have experienced the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainties every bit as much as have I.  We watch the news, we talk to friends, we worry, we wonder, we wait and we watch.

“Stay home!”, we are told.  How fortunate we are, how blessed, to be living in this age of technology.  To think that we can comply with the mandate for “social distancing” and yet still somehow gather virtually in this fashion is, well, amazing.  And the device that you’re using right now – well, that is incredible.  To think – all of the wisdom of all of the ages; the great literature, the incomparable art, the profound knowledge that is available on this device – and yet we so often use it to post cat videos or share pictures of our food.

And we ask questions! If you have a social media account, you’ve seen people looking for recommendations to various dilemmas in their lives, or filling out quizzes as to which bands are the best, or wondering how many of the fifty states you’ve been to and how that compares with their lists.

We are questioners.  In fact, I saw recently that the average four-year-old asks a staggering 437 questions in a single day.  I suspect that some of you who are spending unexpected long stretches with the littles in your lives will back me up on this one.

Do you know who loved questions? Well, I am in church, and the answer is… Jesus.  One writer (who must’ve had time even before the age of social distancing kicked in) has indicated that Jesus asked 307 questions in the gospels.[1]  He was asked 163 questions.  Perhaps infuriatingly, for those in the room at any point, he often responded to a question with one of his own.  You know that!

The disciples ask, “where could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?” and Jesus replies, “how many loaves do you have?” (MT 15:32-34)

The jar of perfume was broken, and some present wondered, “why was this ointment wasted, when it could have been sold to benefit the poor?”  Jesus answered by asking, “Why are you bothering this woman?” (MT 26:6-10)

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (LK 4:38-40)

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)

The same writer says that Jesus only responded directly to a question with an answer a handful of times.  Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times. He’s asked a straightforward question: “Look at that blind fella, Jesus.  Who’s fault is it that he was born that way?  His? Or his folks’?”

And Jesus gives a direct answer: “Look, friends: the man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone sinning.  He was born so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”

After  announcing the works of God, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate them.  He reenacts the creation story from Genesis by taking the dust of the ground and using it to bring life and wholeness.  He brings new possibilities to this man, who has been marginalized for so long, and instructs him to rejoin, and to regain, his community. In his act of healing, Jesus opens a new pathway of wholeness and life for this man, his family, and the neighborhood.

The un-named man takes Jesus’ at his word and does just that – he re-engages with his family and his community… and then the questions really begin.  In the next ten verses, we find that the crowd asks at least three questions (“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”, “How were your eyes opened?”, and “Where is this man?”), while the religious leaders add “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” and “What do you have to say about him?”

Everybody in town wants to know something.  You see, everybody has a theory, or an idea.  Everyone has a point to prove, a judgment to pass, “fake news” to dispel.  Everybody is talking… except the guy we expect the questions from – Jesus.  He is finished talking.  He’s responded to his disciples; he’s healed the man, and he’s sent the man to be more fully himself.  For once, the questioner is silent.

Now, although I want to be a follower of Jesus, I would never attempt to put myself in the same category as Jesus.  I want to learn from him, and to grow.  And one of Jesus’ habits that I’ve picked up along the way – one which is, I know, deeply irritating to many of you – is asking questions.

Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was preparing to drive two high school students somewhere.  As they approached the car, one of them dove for the back seat, saying to her friend, “Look, you take shotgun.  I never know how to respond to all those questions Dave asks all the time.”

And it’s true.  I ask questions.  If you have a friend dealing with a traumatic illness, after we pray together, I might say, “I wonder – how does this sickness affect you?”.  A young woman lost the child she was carrying, and I asked, “how will life be different from what you had hoped?”  A student announced that he’d gotten into the college of his dreams, and I asked, “What will change about your life as a result of this?”  One of you came to me and talked about how difficult your life had been recently, and I asked, “Do you think you’d experience things otherwise if you drank less?”  I don’t always ask the right question, and I’m sure that not every question that I asks feels good… but I’m seeking to do so with sincere hopes that these questions will lead you more deeply into God’s best for yourself.

And so in that spirit, I want you to think about this.  We are in an age of pandemic.  You know people who have, or who will have, the COVID 19 virus.  You may have it right now and not even know.  How will that virus affect you?  How will it affect us?

And you can say – in all honesty and sincerity – “Geez, Pastor Dave, I don’t know.  We’ve never been here before.  This is all uncharted waters to us.”  And you’re right.  Most of us have not been here.  But the Church has.  We have gone through plagues and pestilence – while remaining ourselves.

And that is the question we need to discern, beloved.  How do we live into the calling to be the body of Christ – a very corporeal word – the BODY of Christ – at a time when corporate – bodily – gatherings are at least discouraged and probably downright dangerous?  I was speaking with a younger pastor earlier this week who said, “I don’t know, Dave… How are we gonna do this?  I mean, when people are hit by hard news – when tragedy strikes – we’re supposed to get together, aren’t we? We have special services and vigils and candles.  Are we supposed to do all this alone?”

Yes.

On the day I was ordained, I received a small calligraphy that has been on the wall of my study ever since.  In its most basic sense, it is my job description.  It is our job description.  Look:

Listen, beloved: none of that has changed.  I think that Jesus expects that we are doing those things.  The “what” has not changed… but the “how” must change, at least in the short run.  How do we do these things that we’ve always done when we can’t act the ways we’ve always acted?

Thomas Pettepiece was an Irish Methodist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his book Visions of a World Hungry he recounts his experience of an Easter Sunday that taught him that we can do what we have always been called to do even when we don’t think we have what we have always had.  Listen:

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion— without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [Another man] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.”[2]

We who have always had the benefit of being able to gather freely, and to share abundantly, and to hug warmly – we are crying out: “How can we do this?  How in the world are we supposed to give to the work of the Lord when there are not even any collection plates, and when we’re not sure what is happening with our jobs?  How can we notice who’s missing when none of us are supposed to be here?  How do we love when we can’t even see each other?”

Oh, beloved… let us ask God to unleash creativity in the church today.  Let us press to discover new ways of doing these eternal tasks.  Let us commit to intentional connectivity, to seeking windows of vulnerability, to read and reflect and pray as though those things really matter, and to give as generously as we can in ways that make a difference in the world today.

And above all else, dear people of God, I charge you this day to remember how deep and dark and cold and desperate these days feel.  I charge you to remember how scared you have been, or how desperately you have really wanted to know, or be, or do something other than that which has been open to you in the past few days.  I charge you to remember the depths of pain and loss that you see in your neighbors – the people you love – today.  Remember these things – and when it gets better, as it surely will, remember these things the next time you are tempted to scorn a refugee or scoff at someone who is running for their lives. Remember that in our neighborhood, many of us were fighting over toilet paper.  How will this experience affect us? I hope and pray that it makes us better human beings, more able to recognize and live into the Divine Image in which we are each created.

And in your remembering, dear ones, I charge you to live lightly this day.  To do all that you can to treat the earth well, and to seek to heal it, rather than to dominate it.  I charge you to deal gently and kindly with your neighbors – the ones you already love and those whom you’ve been instructed to love but you haven’t quite gotten there yet.  And I charge to you behave as though you expect that the presence and glory of God is revealed in the ways that you and I enact the love of Jesus in this world.

If we can live in those ways, dear ones… then we will become the church of the empty pews and the full hearts.  Thanks be to the God who has called us to be his own.  Amen.

After the sermon, I shared with the congregation a rendition of a song that has meant a great deal to me in trying times.  It is James Ward’s take on “Rock of Ages”, and if you’d like you can hear me sing it by using the media player below.

[1] Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That He Answered, Martin Copenhaver (Abingdon, 2014).

[2] From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas Pettepiece, quoted in A Guide to Prayer (Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 143-144.

Decently and In Order

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On January 26, we considered The Second Helvetic Confession, written in Switzerland in the mid-1500’s. We centered our worship on selected verses from I Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:19-25.

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

This morning we are going to return to a theme that we left off before Christmas: we are looking at some of the great creeds of the church.  You may remember that nearly all of these statements came out of a church fight somewhere or other.  There are a dozen such documents in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions, and we are in the process of touching each of them.

Portrait of The Elector Frederick III “The Pious” of Saxony, artist unknown, c. 1550

I hope you remember the last time we considered this topic: we were in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1559 where there was, quite literally, a church fight.  Do you remember how the senior pastor, Tileman Heshusius, and his associate, Wilhelm Klebitz, exchanged punches during communion while leading worship in Heidelberg?  And how the regional governor, Frederick III, Elector of Germany, sent them both packing and brought in a couple of young guys to write a statement that would be more accessible to the youth in the church? We call that statement The Heidelberg Catechism.

I know that this might shock you, but, well, it turns out that not everyone was happy with the fact that their church was changing.  Can you believe it?

Sure, Frederick III thought that he’d settled the matter and went on doing whatever it is that “Electors” do in their spare time.  And everything was great… until… dah dah dah…

Someone took it upon themselves to write a snooty letter to Maximilian II, who was the Archduke of Austria, the King of Bohemia, Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, and the Holy Roman Emperor.  He was kind of a big deal, and he was Frederick’s boss.  Maximilian was a Catholic, but he supported freedom of religion as long as the religion we were talking about was Christianity.

On January 14, 1566, Maximilian called for the Imperial Diet to convene (This may be the reason that even  now, 450 years later, everyone starts a diet in January).  The Diet was the  deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire.  The reason for this gathering, according to Maximilian, was to determine whether Frederick III was a heretic.  He’d been accused of betraying the Gospel and by supporting a new statement of faith, leading the people of Germany astray.  The Diet would convene to consider that charge, and if so, what punishment might be leveled.  Should Frederick be removed from office? Banned from the Empire? Imprisoned? Even killed?

I know, I know, it’s crazy to think that a group of people would be critical of their government, and want to hold their leaders to account, and investigate charges against a head of state, but evidently, it happens some times…

Anyway, Frederick gets a letter from Maximilian indicating the charges against him and telling him he’d better come up with a defense and prove that he was not a filthy heretic, or worse, a Lutheran.

Frederick panicked, and reached out to a friend, a Swiss church leader named Heinrich Bullinger. “Heinrich”, he said, “I need a statement! I need something that will clear my name and show that the things I’ve said are consistent with the faith… and I need it fast!  The Emperor is expecting me in less than four months!”

Heinrich Bullinger, at the time, was 62 years old.  He was nearing the end of a stellar career in which he’d been an eyewitness to church history: he had been a close associate of Ulrich Zwingli, a colleague of John Calvin, and a mentor of sorts to John Knox of Scotland.  A couple of years previous, there had been an outbreak of the plague in Switzerland, and Bullinger had spent months and months tending to the sick and burying the dead.  He knew that his days were numbered, and when he returned to his home each evening, he worked to write a personal memoir.  He completed it in 1564 and set it in an envelope, along with his will, so that it might be shared as a testimony to his personal faith upon his death.  He did not intend the document to be a public statement, at least in his lifetime.

But now he had to make a choice: his friend was in trouble, and there was no time to draft a new creed.  Could he share his personal reflections with Frederick III?  Would that be enough to satisfy Maximilian and the Diet?  Could Bullinger’s statement save Frederick from banishment, imprisonment, or even death?

At the end of the day, Bullinger sent a copy of his statement to Frederick, who was so impressed with it that he had it published in March of 1566.  It was accepted by Emperor Maximilian and became the new standard for Reformed confessions of faith.

Bullinger’s document has become known as The Second Helvetic Confession.  “Helvetic” means “Swiss”, so if you want to impress the folks at the deli next time, ask for a ham and Helvetic sandwich…  see what happens…

At any rate, this was not a short statement.  The Second Helvetic Confession contains 30 chapters.  The first sixteen of them deal with matters of scripture, theology, and church doctrine, while the second half consider the ordering of church life.  There are chapters on church leadership, the sacraments, worship, holy days, confirmation, funerals, and marriage.  The Confession is deeply personal, and is in the first person voice: affirmations begin with the word “we”.  The central emphasis, I think, is the notion that what “we”, the church, do – well, it matters.

And I suspect that even if there are those of you in the room who found the account of the church fight in Heidelberg and the accusations against Frederick to be mildly interesting, at least for church, that right about now your eyes might be glazing over and you’re sighing, “So what?  That booklet is more than 450 years old, written in another era to a different people.  What does it have to do with us?”

If I had the time, I’d suggest that any number of those 30 chapters might be worth the church’s consideration in 2020, but let me offer you two “C’s” that seem to stand out in the Second Helvetic Confession.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c. 1512).

The first is the notion of covenant.  We, the church of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury are here, just as were our siblings in the 17th century, participating in a journey towards faith that is, in large part, given to us.  God has invited us to participate in the drama of history, and we are called to play a role in world events as they occur.

On the one hand, this is a great freedom, and it means that we are not in a position where we have to make stuff up.  Our identity is given to us.  We are told that we are made, fearfully and wonderfully, to be in God’s own image.  We are included in a body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church – that is sent out into the world as agents of what God is doing in that world.  We, though many, are called into one body to be an expression of the love of Jesus in the places where we are sent.  Do you see?  We don’t have to invent ourselves or our church out of thin air!  We accept what is given to us, and we seek to live into it with authenticity and integrity.

And while we don’t have to make stuff up, we don’t get to make stuff up, either.  The Apostle Paul was writing to a church in Corinth where a few folks had decided that they were the ones to call the shots, deciding what things God could tolerate and which were simply beyond the pale, and in so doing they came up with a list of things of which God approved.  Paul had to remind that congregation, in chapter 13 of that letter, that our first obligation is always to love; in the context of that love, Paul wrote, we could do things “decently and in order” – but we had to accept the notion that God, not us, is the One who puts things in order.

When we say, with the Second Helvetic Confession, that we are a “covenantal” body, we are saying that we must allow God the freedom to be God.  We affirm our willingness to accept the fact that we are made in the Divine image, even though it’s often so much easier to imagine that God is in our image, and therefore hates all the same people that I hate and is really, really fussy about all the things that just so happen to irritate me, too.  The call to participate in a covenant is a call to grow in our understandings of what it means to be faithful to the God who calls us, rather than simply more entrenched in our own ideas and practices.

The second “C” I’d like to highlight from this confession is the notion of community.  In spending so much time and energy outlining practices such as local church leadership and marriage and baptism and funerals, the Second Helvetic Confession stands against the notion that the Christian Faith is fundamentally the ability to say “yes” to a certain number of theological propositions or intellectual ideals.  Far from it!  We are, together, the body of Christ, and we are gathered into local congregations.  Each of these gatherings consists of individual people – people who have names, and stories, and hopes, and fears, and dreams, and failures.  We are not an idea – we are a people.  We are us.  We are who we are.  And we are God’s.

And we – us – this particular congregation of named people who gather at a particular time in a specific place – we are called to live the lives that we’ve been given in such a way that people might see in those lives something of the Holy One.  The ways that we come together in this community, and practice the faith that we’ve been given in the covenant, ought to point others to the Giver of all good gifts and the Author of every story.  In this context of this congregational community, we commit to loving each other.

Listen, I’m here to tell you that the Second Helvetic Confession can be tedious reading.  I get that.  But in giving 14 chapters to the ordering of congregational life, this document establishes the truth that the ways that we treat each other in common interactions like birth and marriage and death and community – that the ways that we treat each other reflect whether or not we have truly “gotten it” in terms of being agents of the Divine Love in the world.

As a community, then, we gather not to carp or criticize, not to elevate ourselves at the expense of another, but rather (as it says in the letter to the Hebrews), to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  We gather, not in order to show the world how holy we are, or how God is especially pleased with the ways that we happen to run things, but because each day, each of us needs to be encouraged to be more loving and more generous in heart, mind, and spirit.

God forbid that we come in here and assert that because we have some particular corner on the truth that our marriages are stronger, our baptisms more valid, or our funeral luncheons are more delicious!  The only reason the church is called to be together is so that our love for one another might somehow reflect the love of God for the world and that our neighbors might therefore be more likely to recognize the blessings of community, justice, and shalom that God intends for all of creation.  The way we point to that big thing, says Bullinger in this confession, is by doing the little things with integrity and honor.

So let us keep on, saints!  Not because we alone know the truth, or because we are always right, or because the songs that we like are the only ones worth singing.  Let us keep on so that we ourselves might be formed more fully into a covenant community that reflects the Divine Intention of love in the world all day, every day, to everybody.  Thanks be to God for this church fight that led us closer to living the truth.  Amen.

The Importance of Being Kirk

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 17, we considered The Scots Confession of 1560 and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 68:1-10 and Matthew 18:15-20

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

This month, we’ve been using this part of our worship to look at some of the ancient and historic documents, called “creeds”, that are a part of the church’s story.  Maybe you remember that the oldest of these start with the words “I believe”, and the Latin word for that is “Credo”.  The creeds provide a helpful means for us to look back at where we’ve been as the people of God.  When I speak with the confirmation class, I tell them that the Bible is like a birth certificate: it tells us who we are, and where we came from.  The Creeds are like a family album: they tell us what we looked like at a particular point in time.  Like most photo albums, some of what is here is more flattering than the rest of it, but they are accurate depictions of where we were, what was important to us, and – in a manner of speaking – what we were fighting about at that time.

In the fourth century, the church argued about who Jesus was in relationship to God the Creator.  The Nicene Creed emerged from that controversy.

The Apostles’ Creed, as we discussed last week, was a response to a series of conflicts relating to the possibility of forgiveness, the meaning of Christ’s death, and an understanding of who could be included in the church.

About 800 years following the completion of the Apostles’ Creed, the winds of change were blowing through Europe and much of the world.  There was an explosion of learning and culture that we call “the Renaissance” that led to the reshaping of political boundaries and allegiances as well as a burst of energy within the church.  A movement we know as “the Reformation” was ignited by men like Martin Luther and later John Calvin.  These folks saw some glaring problems within the church, and they tried to get the church to fix them – to re-form itself.  Instead, by and large the church tended to kick people like this out, and the fact that they were protesting something they saw as wrong led them to be called Protestants.

Across the church, in congregation after congregation, people were asking questions like, “How do we worship?”, “Who’s in charge of worship?”, and “Which of these is the ‘true’ church?”

John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation in the Parish Church of St. Andrew’s, 10th June, 1559. Attributed to Sir David Wilkie (1785 – 1841)

In the mid-16th century, the nation of Scotland had just emerged from a bloody civil war.  The political unrest and conflict had led to a determination to reform not just the government, but the entire ethos of the country, including the church.

In the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds we have documents that resulted from long periods of deliberation involving dozens, if not hundreds of people, written apart from or even in opposition to the government.  In the Scots Confession, however, we find a statement that was written in haste by six men so that it might be presented to the Scottish Parliament, thereby making the realm of Scotland officially “Protestant territory”.

The world of the Scots Confession is vastly different from that of the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds.  The church is no longer hunted or persecuted – in fact, it is virtually synonymous with the government in nation after nation across Europe.  In most countries, there is very little distinction between the offices of the church and state, between ecclesial polity and national strategy.  When Scotland emerged from a civil war, then, it seemed logical to them that they’d want a new form of the church – which meant breaking away from the Catholics in France as well as the Church of England.

And so for four days in August of 1560, John Knox and five other men named John wrote what we have come to call The Scots Confession.  It followed, essentially, the teachings of a Presbyterian theologian in Switzerland whose name was John Calvin.  At the end of the week, it was submitted to Parliament, ratified, and the Church of Scotland as we know it was born.

If we were to read the entire document – which we shall not – we’d think it to be quite dated.  It is tied to its time and place in many respects.  Yet one key – and perhaps this is the reason that the Presbyterian Church USA has retained this confession in our own Book of Confessions – is the emphasis it places on the local church.

Using the Scottish dialect, the confession describes that there is one true Kirk – or Church – and yet we can only know the one Kirk in and through specific congregations in particular places.

I have to interject and say that when I speak of the one true Kirk, I’m not trying to discuss the merits of William Shatner or Christopher Pine.  Rather, I’m joining John Knox and the other five Johns in affirming that the one Kirk is comprised of many parts.

For centuries, the question “which is the right church?” was not problematic.  Fundamentally, there was a single church, headquartered in Rome, led by the Pope and his Cardinals and Bishops.  If you were to say, “Which is the true church?” to many folks, that would be like asking “How long is the television program ’60 Minutes’?”  It was a no-brainer.

And yet as the Reformation and Renaissance splintered and fragmented society, new churches and theologies sprang up. Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others, began to teach that there was a way to discern where the “true church” could be found.  They said that the presence of Christ was found in any congregation wherein the Word of God was preached and the sacraments were rightly administered.  As long as when you went to church you could find someone speaking your language teaching the Bible and offering baptism and communion to those who requested it, you could count yourself as “home”.

And yet Knox and the others thought that this did not go far enough.  In their experience, the church was often led by unsavory characters.  It was not uncommon to find authoritative and powerful church leaders who were corrupt, murderous, or totally lacking in integrity.  For instance, the Cardinal overseeing that part of Europe at the time was widely known to have fathered at least eight children with several women.  Knox and his contemporaries advocated for a higher moral standard within the church, and so the Scots Confession offers a third key definitive aspect to the church: in addition to proclaiming the Word of God and administering the sacraments, the true church is marked by “ecclesiastical discipline whereby vice is repressed and virtue is nourished.”

The framers of the Scots confession said, essentially, “Look, we live together in covenant community.  How we treat each other matters!”

When we hear the word “discipline”, particularly in church, we can have a negative connotation.  We’ve heard of groups that use their particular version of the truth to shun others, to marginalize smaller groups, or to bring shame and pain to particular people.  In the 21st century, we don’t think about “church discipline” often. We don’t want to offend people; we don’t want to sound as though we are trying to be “holier than thou”, and nobody wants to be the person pointing fingers at anyone else.  It’s uncomfortable:  I’ve sat in a lot of rooms around the world wherein people with power use the church courts to marginalize, ostracize, and shame someone else.

The Scots Confession points out that discipline is not a dirty word, but rather an essential tool used by individual Christians and local Kirks so that each of us would be better able to follow Jesus and glorify God.  They sought to reclaim the teaching of Jesus that an authentic and helpful understanding of discipline was a liberating thing.  When I talked to the kids about exercising during the Children’s Sermon, I hope I indicated that I don’t exercise because I like laying on the floor with my dumbbells – I exercise because that’s the best way to become the person I think I’m supposed to be in the world.  Each of us in the Kirk commits ourselves to seeking to act uprightly and with integrity, and we covenant with others to hold ourselves and each other accountable.  In this light, discipline is not a weapon, but a resource that can be used to help us be our best selves.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus outlines a simple plan for individual uprightness and corporate accountability.  If you sense that someone in the fellowship has wounded you or acted in a manner that is contrary to the Good News of Jesus, you are obliged to speak to that person about it.

Do you think that Jesus knew how uncomfortable these conversations would be?  When he said this, did his followers avoid eye contact and stammer, “Um, yeah, well, you see, Jesus, nobody really wants to be ‘that guy’ in this kind of a thing…”

One of my best friends in the whole world is a person who makes me a better human being each time we speak.  Often she will sit me down and say, “Look, this isn’t easy, but I’m not really your friend if I don’t tell you this…” and then she names some hard truth about myself that I need to hear but very few people are willing to tell me honestly.  Stephanie holds me accountable in a way that reflects love and grace and reminds me to be my best self.

I’d invite you to go home and re-read the passage from Matthew.  You’ll note that Jesus did not say, “If you see a sister in sin, make sure that you post it on Facebook, #prayforthispatheticloser.”  He doesn’t say, “If your brother sins against you, make sure that everyone at the office knows what a jerk he is.”

No, the prescription that Jesus offers is simple.  One on one, go and ask.  Inquire.  Expect the best from this person who is a sibling in Christ with you.  If you are not heard, and you remain convinced that there’s a problem – go back.  You take the initiative and bring one or two more people along in the expectation that things can be made right.

I know – this is an idealistic scenario.  It presumes that trust, integrity, humility, and interdependence are shared values, and that change is possible.  But it is what Jesus expects from those of us who follow him.

But what if there is no change?  What if the poor behavior continues?  “Well,” said Jesus, “at that point, then treat this person as you would a tax collector or a sinner.”

Ahh, so NOW we can gripe on Facebook and gossip at the coffee shop, right?

Except… how did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners?  How many people did Jesus publicly marginalize or shame?

Listen: we are never free to publicly humiliate or denigrate someone else.  Can we disagree?  Of course.  Are there times when we need to remove ourselves from the conversation? You better believe it.  Shall we launch an attack, or smear someone, or return bad behavior for bad behavior?  That is simply not of God.

The goal of all discipline – in my own life and in that of the Kirk – is self-discipline.  If I hurt or offend you, then you offer me feedback as to what I have done that has harmed you.  Eventually, we hope, I’ll get it right.  I’ll learn, I’ll remember, and I’ll stop doing it.  And if I don’t? Then you may need to step away from me for a while, until I learn how best to be the person God longs for me to be.

The Scots confession ends with a powerful allusion to Psalm 68, which Anna read for you earlier today.  It is a prayer for the people of God – the Kirk – to be bold in speaking the truth and in living with integrity so that all creation might see the true nature of God.  The confession and the Psalm both indicate that all we do in our lives and in the Kirk ought to point to the powerful acts and loving character of the One who created us.

The Psalm is a plea that we are not those who are known for who we hate, but for how we love; we are not renowned for the ways in which we attack others, but for our willingness to defend those who have no other recourse; the Kirk of God is defined not by our willingness to exclude others, but rather to lay siege to the fortresses of loneliness and isolation.

Like every other document produced by human hands, the Scots Confession is a mixed bag – there are some parts that make me cringe as I read them, and some paragraphs that resound with truth and grace.  Today, let us claim the truth that is here: that none of us can do this alone.  We are each members of the Body of Christ, but together we are the Kirk of God.  We need the Kirk – we need each other – to help us, to equip us, to correct us, and to motivate us to be our best selves so that we display the love of Jesus in all we do.  Thanks be to God for that!  Amen.

[Following the sermon, the congregation rose and used these words from the Scots Confession to affirm our faith and our commitment to follow the rule of love.]

The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be:

  • first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us…
  • secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus…
  • and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.

Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time…is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. This is not that universal Kirk of which we have spoken before, but particular Kirks, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and other places where the ministry was planted by Paul and which he himself called Kirks of God.

Such Kirks, we the inhabitants of the realm of Scotland confessing Christ Jesus, do claim to have in our cities, towns, and reformed districts…

The interpretation of Scripture, we confess, does not belong to any private or public person, nor yet to any Kirk for pre-eminence or precedence, personal or local, which it has above others, but pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written…

We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love.

In Rare Company

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”  On October 20 we talked about the unusual and difficult-to-quantify virtue of meekness.  Scriptures included Matthew 5:1-12 and Psalm 37:1-11.

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

There is a lot to love about the 1987 film The Princess Bride.  One of the plot lines involves a mob boss named Vizzini seeking to escape the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Every time Vizzini thinks he’s outsmarted his foe, he finds himself surprised at Roberts agility and resourcefulness.  At each turn, he utters the word, “Inconceivable!”  Finally, he is corrected by the swordsmith Inigo Montoya, who points out, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Montoya is correct, of course.  “Inconceivable” means that something is impossible even to imagine. Anything that is truly and utterly inconceivable would by definition be unimaginable by the human mind.  Vizzini ought to have used words like, “surprising”, or “unlikely” or “improbable”, but although such might have been more accurate, the dialogue would have suffered.

We do that a lot, don’t we?  We use words that don’t mean what we think that they mean.  Part of that is because English is a funny language.  I mean, why in the world should “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing when “active” and “inactive” are opposites?

I bring this up because we are thinking about the ways that the scripture calls us as Christians to treat each other.  A few weeks ago we read from Colossians 3:12, wherein the Apostle Paul instructs the church to “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” in our dealings with one another.  Today, I’d like us to consider what it would mean to clothe ourselves in “meekness”.  How would you define that word?

I checked a few dictionaries earlier this week and came across these definitions: “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on…” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment…” “deficient in spirit and courage…” or “not violent or strong…”

Really, Paul?

Is that what we’re supposed to do and be in the world?  Come to church and be NICE.  Don’t make any waves. Be polite.  Make sure to use your manners and say “yes, please” and “no, thank you”?  Is that what it’s all about?  Is that what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? How can that even make sense?

Science fiction author Robert Heilin read the Beatitudes and quipped, “The meek do inherit the earth, but they tend to inherit very small plots – about six feet by three.”  That’s what the world thinks about people who are “meek”.  A person who is meek is mousy, or timid, or weak.  Meekness is related to being ineffectual and powerless.  Meekness is thought to be a liability or a character flaw, and not something to which we ought to aspire.

We keep using that word.  I do not think it means what we think it means.

The word that is translated as “meek” in Colossians and in Matthew comes from the Greek praos.  It’s a word that was sometimes used to describe the behavior of the best horses – strong, mighty, and ready for battle BUT responsive to the command of the rider.  Sailors would refer to a “meek” breeze as one that was powerful enough to move the ship in the right direction without driving the boat off course or capsizing it.  A further use of the word can be traced to the idea of an appropriate dosage of medicine.

I hope you get what I’m saying here: a horse that is harnessed and hitched correctly can be very useful and productive; a horse that is stampeding out of control is a danger to the entire community.  Similarly, a good stiff breeze will carry cargo across the sea, while a typhoon will lift boats out of the water.  The right amount of medicine will save your life; too much will kill you.  Praos is about having a great deal of power under the appropriate control.

In fact, Aristotle said that this word was best understood as being between two extremes of getting angry without any reason at all and never getting angry at anything.  Praos is having the energy and the passion to get worked up at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason – and expressing it appropriately.

If we understand “meekness” in that way, then maybe you are not surprised when I tell you that there are two people in the bible who are called “meek”: Moses and Jesus.  In fact, Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was the meekest man on the face of the earth.  Moses, the man who went in to Pharaoh and led the people out of Egypt; the man who threw the tablets down in anger at the sight of the golden calf… he was “the meekest man in the world.”

And Jesus, who fashioned a cord into a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple; the man who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “hypocrites” turned around and said to those who would follow him, “come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest…take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart…”

“Grace”, photograph by Eric Enstrom (1918).

I think that we can agree that neither Moses nor Jesus was a soft, pushover, spineless person; and yet each was described as being “meek”.  In an effort for us to understand our calling to wear “meekness” in our dealings with each other, let’s take a little time and look at the 37th Psalm, which I believe Jesus clearly had in mind when he blessed the meek.

Psalm 37 is attributed to David, and comes from the perspective of his old age.  The heart of this Psalm is offering advice to the community of faith as to how to live in confusing and conflicting times.  Psalm 37 is a lesson in meekness, and I’d like to draw out at least three themes from the verses we’ve considered this morning.

The Psalm contains clear instructions to make sure that we keep our focus.  When we experience pain, or discomfort, or endure some evil, it’s easy to get rattled.  Those connected to the psalmist had gone through some sort of an attack or experienced injustice.  His clear word to them was “don’t worry about what those other people are doing: keep your eyes on God and what God is about.”

Of course, that’s difficult to do, particularly in an age of social media.  When someone wrongs me, it can be amplified by Facebook or Twitter; if someone seeks to diminish you, it’s frustrating for you to see that person posting photos of their perfect life, perfect child, or fantastic job.  Psalm 37 says that we can’t afford to be sidetracked by what someone else is doing.  “Fret not because of the wicked…”, he writes.

Instead, we are to keep our focus on living for God and caring about the things that God puts in front of us.  A dear friend of mine refers to this as “keeping my side of the street clean”.  When someone wrongs me or angers me or frustrates me, often the only thing that I can do is to make sure that I’m continually working to keep myself in line, making sure that I’m becoming the best person I can be.  If I get obsessed with how many “likes” his social media posts have or the kinds of things that are coming her way, then I can lose track of who I am supposed to be.  Meekness is focusing on living the life that God has put in front of me right now.

As we move ahead with focus, however, we have to realize that we ourselves are still in the process of being shaped and framed.  One of the most misinterpreted verses of the Bible, in my opinion, is Psalm 37:4, which reads “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  I’ve heard from people, “Dave, I’ve prayed and I’ve prayed, but God still hasn’t given me that job that I want (or that boy or that girl or that new baby or that whatever). I’m trusting in God, but I’m not getting what I want.  What’s wrong?”

The way of meekness teaches us to submit all of who we are to the Lord.  As I learn to be meek, I ask God not only to give me a focus, but to frame my life.  My relationship with the Lord is not about wandering through my own hopes and dreams thinking about what would look nice, but rather learning how to hope and dream for the right things.  This is what I mean by asking God to “frame” me in meekness.

Years ago I visited in the home of a couple who’d been married for nearly sixty years.  He had been through an enormous number of health challenges, and his strength was nearly gone.  He barely had the strength to swallow, and yet the doctors were clear: “you have to eat.”  He didn’t want to.  He was ready to die – but he was afraid of the effect that would have on his wife. I went to their home and she said, “I’m going to make that stew you like so much.  You need to eat it, honey.”

I followed her to the kitchen and I watched her crooked fingers chop and dice.  I knew that the arthritis was so bad that it was more than the onions that were bringing tears to her eyes.  She said, “Dave, this is so hard to make, but he loves it, and I need him to eat.  I am not ready to lose him.  And so I will do this.”

Later, I was in the living room when she brought out a bowl of stew.  He took it gratefully and began to work on it.  Each bite was difficult, and every swallow a test.  When his wife stepped out of the room he said , “Pastor, I have to be honest with you.  I’ve had so many different medicines over the years that I can’t even taste any food any more.  This is the hardest thing I’ve done all day.  But I love her, and if this is what makes her happy, this is what I can do.”

For years, that holy conversation has been a window for me on what it means to allow God to frame the desires of my heart.  If all we read in the Psalm is “God will give you the desires of your heart”, we are short-changing ourselves. It begins with that focus on God, that trust in God’s presence and care.  As I focus on God, I can pray that God will teach me to want the right things.  I remember as a young husband that I went home praying that I would want the kind of love I’d seen that day far more than I wanted fancy vacations or extravagant adventure or eternal youthfulness.  Meekness is about allowing the Lord to frame or transform our desire.

And another thing that we can learn from this Psalm is the importance of taking the long view.  We focus on God’s intentions, and we ask God to frame our desire; we are also called to follow in God’s way habitually.  “Commit your way to the Lord” is how the Psalmist puts it.  It’s not a one and done deal – it’s a lifetime of realizing that we are simply a part of a chain of events bigger than we are.  We see some challenge of the present, some obstacle in the path, and we think that everything is lost and that we are finished.  This is an incomplete view.

Luis Espinal was a Jesuit priest who fought for the rights of the poor and marginalized in Bolivia in the 1970’s.  He stood up to both the corrupt government and the cocaine cartels.  Not surprisingly, he was murdered.  Shortly before his death, however, he published a meditation that speaks about the importance of following Christ in meekness for the long haul.  Listen:

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions
As if the world had slipped out of God’s hands.
They are violent, as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history.
The world is not a roll of the dice on its way toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen!

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph.
With our bodies still in the breach, our souls in tension;
We cry our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are the definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death, Because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you on the road to the future.
You are with us. You are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces; We are not in a game of chance! You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones,
Now has begun the eternal “Alleluia!” From the thousands of openings in our wounded bodies and souls, there now arises a triumphal song!

So teach us to give voice to your new life throughout the world, because you dry the tears of the oppressed forever, and death will disappear.

As Psalm 37 teaches, meekness prepares us for life together.  I was thinking earlier this week about one of the perks of my job is hearing people rehearse music.  I sit in my little room there and people come in here and practice all kinds of things: saxophone, organ, piano, guitar, drums, and voice. As I thought about the power and the discipline of meekness, I was reminded of the scene on a stage just before the symphony starts to play.  All the musicians are blowing into their instruments, running up and down the scales, and it seems random and chaotic.  It’s irritating and loud. Then the first violin stands and plays an “A” note and everyone in the orchestra makes sure that their instruments are, in fact, in tune.  Then, when everyone is aligned, the conductor steps out and lifts his or her baton and all the power of every instrument is there, focused, framed, and ready to follow the conductor’s leading.  That’s when music happens.

To think of meekness as being weakness is, well, inconceivable.  Let us remain focused on God’s call in our lives; let us commit to asking God to frame our desires, and let us follow where God in Christ would lead us.  If we are able to do that, then we will, in meekness, be strong enough to carry the hope of Christ into the world that needs it.   Thanks be to God for that hope!  Amen.

Wearing the Uniform

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 13 we talked about the virtue and practice of Humility.  Scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 and Philippians 2:1-11.

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

I’d like to start this morning by sharing one of my all-time favorite memories of Christmas.  In the mid-1980’s, before we were parents, Sharon and I spent a day buying clothes for a student at a prestigious private school where Sharon was doing some research. This young lady was a “scholarship” kid who lived in what thirty years ago we called “the projects”.  Most days, she did well at school, but the last Friday of every month was sheer torment for her, because it was “dress down day”.  That meant students were free to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to.  I think that Maddy could tell us something about how nice it feels to be able to choose your own clothes for a day every now and then.

The problem was that this student didn’t really have any other clothes that were nice enough to wear to that school – so she just wore her uniform on those Fridays.  And, because kids are kids, she got ripped apart on those days, and was teased mercilessly. Because my wife is one of the kindest, most generous people I know, she decided that we’d go school shopping for a high school girl.  We bought a couple of bags of clothes, and got a youth group member named Tom Taylor to dress up in my Santa suit and deliver the goods.  It was wonderful to hear Sharon narrate the scene she witnessed on the next “dress down day” at that school.

Now, the Gospels don’t record that Jesus ever had to deal with a posse of “mean girls”, but there was a group who consistently targeted and criticized him for being “not like us”.  They looked at Jesus and they scolded and mocked him, saying, “What’s up with those losers you surround yourself with?  And how can you justify spending your time in that way? And that stuff that you eat? And the people you eat it with? For crying out loud, Jesus, you are embarrassing us.  You are so out of it.  How dare you think of yourself as one of us, Jesus.”

But Jesus looked at that crowd – we know them as The Pharisees – and shot right back.  “Those guys?  Please.  Oh, they may think that they’re all that.  And they’ve got the right uniforms on – their prayer shawls and beads and scripture boxes – but there is no substance there.  They don’t have a clue.  They were born on third base but they walk around like they just hit a triple.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

And then he looked at those who were following him and issued a call to humility. “Don’t be like that,” he said.  “You are to take the lowest place. You are to see yourselves as students, not teachers.  You are to serve each other.”

It’s hard to talk about humility in the church – or anywhere, really.  I mean, if you talk about yourself as someone who is humble, you probably aren’t.  I’m reminded of the time that the congregation surprised their pastor at the end of one Sunday worship service.  They announced that he had been voted the “Most Humble Pastor in America”, and then they presented him with a medal having that inscription.  The next Sunday they took it away from him because he wore it.

As we continue this series of messages on “The Dress Code for Christians,” what does it mean for us to be people who wear humility in our relationship with each other?

Let’s look at a case study: the situation in the First Church of Philippi.  Things were rough there.  We don’t know exactly what was going on, but it’s clear that the place was simmering with conflict. Plenty of people were really irritated with each other.  Paul names two adversaries in chapter 4 of this letter, and so it may be that folks in church were taking sides in this dispute.  Maybe some of the folks were running around saying, “Well, I’m on Syntyche’s side” and others were saying, “Why is that person being so mean to Euodia?”  It could be that what had started as a personal argument was polarizing people in the congregation.

Or maybe there was some conflict around the idea of what made someone a “real” Christian.  Some folks insisted that you couldn’t follow Jesus unless you bought into all of the Jewish Law first, and others insisted that there was no impediment to following Jesus – nothing at all.

And it could have been that some people there were irritated at Paul – they saw him as playing favorites, or as being too close to some people while being distant from others.  Whatever the cause, the content of the letter makes it plain that there was some genuine conflict in the church.  I know, I know, it sounds difficult to believe, but it’s right there in the Bible so I guess we’re going to have to accept that it’s possible for people to argue with and even be petty with each other at church.  Go figure.

So Paul addresses this conflict by constructing a theological argument.  He begins chapter 2 with a sentence that strings together a number of clauses that all begin with the word “if”.  In the Greek, it is ei.  You heard it a moment ago: “if you have any encouragement… if any comfort… if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Now, in English, when we use the word “if”, it’s often in a conditional clause: “If it rains on Saturday…” It might be gonna happen, it might not be gonna happen.  We won’t know until Saturday.  But the Greek language allows for an understanding of “if” as a statement of fact.  Something like, “Look, Andre, if I’m your friend – and we both know that I am – then…”[1]

My point is that Paul is not wondering whether there is encouragement, comfort, commonality of purpose, or compassion to be found in Jesus – he is affirming FOUR TIMES that we all agree that those things are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  So he starts this case study by reminding them of what they all know.

In the second verse, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what ought to happen.  And once again, he re-states the goal four times: be like-minded (this does not necessarily mean that he expects them to agree on everything or vote unanimously, but rather that they are to work toward having the same attitude, or to be looking in the same direction); have the same love for one another; be of one spirit (the literal Greek there says “share the same soul” or “share the same breath”); and be of one mind.

You may think that he’s stretching to make it come out to four by repeating the word “mind” twice in this list, but I’d like to suggest that in repeating the word phroneó, he is actually getting that word into their heads so he can use it again in verse 5.  He calls his congregation to have the same mindset, the same view, to have a commitment to seeing things… how? To seeing things the way that Jesus saw them.  “Be like Jesus,” Paul says.

And then the old Apostle does something that you’ve done a hundred times.  Do you know how sometimes you have something to say, or you want to tell me something that is true, and you’re not quite sure how to put it into words, and then you think of a song that says it exactly right?  You want to remind your spouse of the way that you love her, and so you play “your song” on the car radio.  You are grief-stricken at the cemetery and all you can do is just stand there while “Taps” is played.  You are searching for something true to say at church and the best you can do is say, “Well, Amazing Grace, right?”

That’s what Paul does in Philippians 2.  He either reminds them of a song that they’ve sung before or he writes a new hymn on the spot.  The purpose of this hymn is to point to the humility of Jesus.

So what did humility look like when Jesus wore it? It begins, Paul says in verse 5, with a mindset.  He repeats the word phroneó as a means of affirming that Jesus, in the mystery of his pre-existence within the Trinity, decided something.  Jesus chose to submit himself to the overall purpose and intentions of God.

Now that choice, that mindset, led Jesus to a specific course of action.  When Jesus decided to align himself with God’s purposes, that meant that he was setting down the pathway of obedience.  In this case, obedience means that he yielded his rights, privileges, or place in line so that he might be better able to see, hear, and simply be with people like us.  Obedience for Jesus meant the setting aside of one possible reality in order to fully embrace something else.

Of course, every action has a consequence.  According to the hymn that Paul sang, the result of the action that Jesus took was his death.  He suffered pain that he did not deserve because he had chosen to act in obedience.

However, that action also produced fruit.  Yes, Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. The end result of Jesus’ decision and action was that the entire creation would come to the realization that Jesus, not Caesar, not me, not you, is Lord.

So what?  What are the implications for the people in Philippi? Or for the people in Crafton Heights?

Paul is calling us, as the people of God, to recognize that humility is a part of the uniform that we wear as Christians.  Like any other garment, we must choose to put this thing on.

Paul begged his friends in Philippi to see that humility is a willingness to accept that God, in Jesus, is at work in each life.  In my life.  In your life.  And in affirming that God is at work in my life, I must of necessity acknowledge that the work is not yet complete.  I am a work in progress.  And since I am not yet finished, I cannot (as the Pharisees did) present myself to you or anyone else as a final product.  I am still being molded, shaped, and used as I seek to stay on the path of obedience.

And if God is at work in each life, then God is moving not only in my life, but in yours.  I must acknowledge that you are being molded and shaped by the power of the Spirit that flows through Jesus.

And if THAT is true (and it is), then it is preposterous for me to think that somehow you are in your finished form.  I am not free to treat you as someone who is too high and lofty for me to reach – someone who is out of my league.  And neither can I regard you as one so lost that I shouldn’t even bother reaching out to you.

Like Paul, I’m not above quoting a song lyric that says something meaningful and important.  The late Rich Mullins wrote these lyrics:

My friends ain’t the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother’s keeper[2]

When Paul tells his friends in Philippi, or when he speaks to us through the letter to his friends in Colossae, that we are to wear the uniform of humility when we come to church, he’s saying that we are to look to Jesus in obedience and to each other mercy and kindness.  That’s what Mullins is saying when he says he is his brother’s “keeper”, not “judge”.

John Ruskin was a leading thinker in 18th century Britain. He got to the heart of the matter at hand when he wrote,

“The first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of one’s own power…[but really] great people… have a curious… feeling that… greatness is not in them, but through them… and they see something Divine… in every other person, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”[3]

Humility, therefore, is not thinking less of yourself, but simply thinking of yourself less as you act in kindness and mercy toward others.

Beloved, this is the truth that comes to us from scripture this morning, the truth that echoes through the streets not only of Philippi but Crafton Heights: if your baptism means anything, it means that we are called to care with and for each other in demonstrable, observable ways; that we are charged to invest more in the means of building each other and the whole Body of Christ up than in tearing it down; that anyone who would wear the name “Christian” is by implication someone who is learning every day to adopt the mind of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for the call, the example, and the presence of Jesus on this path of obedience.  Amen. 

[1] Fred Craddock, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) p. 35.

[2] “Brother’s Keeper”, David (Beaker) Strasser | Rich Mullins, © 1995 Kid Brothers Of St. Frank Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

[3] https://ldschurchquotes.com/john-ruskin-on-humility/, edited for inclusivity.

Deciding to Love

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 6, World Communion Sunday, we considered the call to practice kindness.  Scriptures included Deuteronomy 22:1-4 and John 13:34-35.  

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

Demetri Martin is a comedian and author who has what I consider to be a particularly keen eye for human behavior and our foibles.  In one of my favorite routines, he talks about getting dressed in the morning.  In it, he says, “I think vests are all about protection. You know what I mean? Like a life-vest protects you from drowning and a bullet-proof vest protects you from getting shot and the sweater-vest protects you from pretty girls. ‘Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m cold just right here?’”

Or this observation: “I think that when you get dressed in the morning, sometimes you’re really making a decision about your behavior for the day. Like if you put on flipflops, you’re saying: ‘Hope I don’t get chased today.’”

I’ve been thinking about clothes lately because we’re in the midst of these sermons that I’m calling “The Dress Code”. I hope that you were here a couple of weeks back when we read from Paul’s letter to his friends in Colossae.  As he was helping them through a particularly difficult time in their life together, he said this: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  A couple of weeks ago we talked about the practice of “compassion”, which can be literally taken to mean “suffering with”.  Today, I’d like to think about what it would mean for us to be a people who practice clothing ourselves with kindness as we present ourselves to each other and to the world.

Often, we use the word “kind” in a very vague, non-specific way.  When we say someone is “kind”, it’s like saying that they are “nice”.  It can be a way of damning someone with faint praise.

Yet the word at hand in today’s reading is the Greek chrestotes.  That word shows up ten times in our New Testaments, and always carries with it a sense of moral goodness and integrity.  In fact, it is used in Ephesians, Titus, and Romans, to describe the ways that God has acted toward us.  Chrestotes is a word that refers to a root conviction, an attribute, or a decision that of necessity displays itself in action.  So, rather than being a vague compliment, this word is used to imply the following: God has acted toward us with goodness, kindness, and integrity.  We are made in the Divine Image.  Therefore, it is only sensible that I am called to choose to treat you well.

And perhaps you say, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll buy that… but what does it look like?”

Think with me about the passage you heard from Deuteronomy.  It describes a mundane scene of rural village life: you’re out walking around, minding your own business, and you see a stray animal.  You recognize it to be your neighbor’s.  What do you do?  Well, three times in those four verses there is a simple imperative: “do not ignore it”.  The scripture is clear: you cannot know about something bad that happens to a neighbor and choose to ignore it.

Aw, geez, I hate scripture sometimes!  I know that I’m not the only one who, on some days, could pass for a professional ignorer!

You have a friend who has experienced some real trouble.  You don’t know what to do, or how to do it, and all of a sudden you see them at the grocery store or the bus stop…and you are tempted to run into the next aisle or duck behind a building.  Please tell me that I’m not the only one who thinks that those are viable options…

And yet there it is, right in Deuteronomy.  In fact, the word that is used means literally, “do not hide yourself”.

CRAP!

That’s what we do, isn’t it?  Think about when a fellow student drops a tray in the school lunchroom, or a server spills a plate at the restaurant. We look away, and pretend it didn’t happen, don’t we?  There’s a kid with a world-class temper tantrum going on in the drugstore, or a person sitting by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Homeless – anything can help”.  We avert our eyes.  We pretend not to see anything.  We repeat, “Not my circus, not my monkeys…”

And that, my friends, is a problem, especially as we seek to live in community with one another.

If you were a part of the All-Church retreat last weekend, you may remember the conversation we had about the fact that the only name for God that is given by a human being is when the Egyptian slave-girl Hagar is met by God and she says, “You are El-Roi – you are ‘the God who sees’”.  The fact that God is a God who sees is great news for Hagar, for Ishmael, and for all who struggle.  It is reassuring to know that God sees you – that God cares for you – that God is aware of the pain in which you find yourself.

And, at risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again: one of the cornerstones of our theology is this: we are made in the image of God.  If God sees, then we see.  If the seeing nature of God is held up as a positive attribute of the Holy One, if we worship a creator who is beneficently observant, then it only follows that we are called to be those who are similarly motivated to notice what is going on around us.

This seems like a simple truth, beloved in Christ, but I think it is one to which we need to be re-oriented time and time again.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to put on kindness in our dealings with each other.  We are implored to be ready to see the lives of those around us and to act daily in love for and with the people around us.

This kind of behavior is not reactive – at its best, it is anticipatory and pro-active.  A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas.  People were fleeing the islands.  But a man named Jose Andres, a professional chef, was busy taking people and food and water to that nation.  With members of his organization, World Central Kitchen, he pre-positioned himself in Nassau.  When asked why, he said, “We are learning that pre-positioning yourself in a hurricane buys you precious time. You know…we’re in the business of feeding people after a hurricane. Sometimes in some parts people obviously they can be OK one, two, three days later. But for some people, sometimes three days is way too much. Some people don’t have any food at home or if they had, they lost it because the hurricane.”[1]  This man planned to love – and he lived kindness by taking food to a place close to where it would be needed so that it would be available sooner.  We can do that – we can plan to be kind even before we know what specific kindness will be needed.

The Last Supper, Hyatt Moore (2000)(for more – or for Moore – visit https://www.hyattmoore.com)

When Jesus was talking with his disciples – at the meal we commemorate this morning – he put it simply: “A new command I give you, that you love one another.”  And when you heard that, you nodded and you said, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”  But think about it for a moment.  “Love one another”?  Isn’t that all over the earlier parts of Jesus’ teaching?  Isn’t that infused throughout the Hebrew Bible?  Where does Jesus get off saying that this is a “new command”?  Is this first century Fake News?

“Love one another” is not a new command.  Keep reading.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not saying, “Hey, fellas, here’s a new idea: love each other.”  The new part is what comes next.  “Love each other the way that I have loved you.  Do love the way that I do love.  Do love in the feeding, healing, foot-washing, forgiving, reconciling way that I do love.

Back to the dress code: put on kindness.  That’s not a way to say “be nice” or “don’t offend people”.  It’s an imperative to actively seek ways to bring about love in the world.

  • Take a moment more to listen before you speak.
  • Offer a gift before it’s requested or needed.
  • Be a person who offers forgiveness and seeks reconciliation.

You know this! The reading from Deuteronomy was clear: you can’t leave a neighbor’s donkey in a ditch – it doesn’t matter how it got there: if you see it, you’re called to help lift it out.

Does the Lord care about people any less? If your relationship with a sister or a brother is in the ditch, you are not free to ignore that, or even worse, to make the ditch deeper.  You are called reach out.

I say that with this caveat: you are not called to return to an abusive relationship, and your pastor is not saying that you ought to continue to enable a destructive person.

Having said that, though, I will say that you don’t get to decide to leave someone else in a ditch because you disagree with them or because they irritated you.  We are called to follow Christ in the practice of chrestotes – of living toward, and acting toward, and loving toward other people.  As those who bear the name of Christ, we are expected to let go of our past resentment and become living reminders for the world of the hope that is love.

The world is a painful place.  Paul, and Jesus, and Moses, seem to expect that the church should be less painful.

Demetri Martin, like most good comics, told the truth: when you get dressed in the morning, you are making a decision about your behavior for the rest of the day.

Have you decided to wear kindness today?  If so, you will find that it’s harder to hold onto a grudge, or nurse a resentment, or feed a rumor.  You can’t do those things while you are wearing kindness any better than you can run while wearing flip-flops.

I’m here, as your pastor and friend and neighbor, to ask you to make a decision about what you’re going to wear.  To ask you, as did our brother Paul, to put on kindness.  For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the person you see in the mirror each day, put on kindness.  Thanks be to God, for God’s kindness toward us. Amen.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/04/757420239/chef-jose-andres-is-in-the-bahamas-preparing-to-feed-dorian-victims