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

The God Who Sees

Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”.  This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda.  In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal.  I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me.  My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar.  You can read more about that in Genesis 16.

While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.  

As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name.  Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called?  Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what.  For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”.  My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right.  For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me.  Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life.  You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.

Think about the names for God.  There are many in Hebrew:

  • El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

  • El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
  • YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
    God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
  • YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
  • Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power.  It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))

As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is?  How do you think of God?  What do you call God?

I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy.  You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away.  Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider.  She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship.  At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property.  Hagar is an outsider.  A slave. A marginalized person.  A victim of human trafficking and abuse.

Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai.  Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.

Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name.  In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”.  In 16:6, Abram does the same.  To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person.  She was a uterus.  And she became inconvenient.

Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away.  She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8).  Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord.  She is then asked two questions:

  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

“Hagar in the Wilderness” Rivkah M. Walton, Sculptor (2008)

Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”?  Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future.  She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying.  Maybe she even wants to die.  Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.

And so the Divine One answers the second question for her.  Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous!  How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain.  And how can Hagar manage to go back?

She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God.  Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself…  There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses).  She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother…  And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded.  Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard.  Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord.  Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram.  It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman.  She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi.  You are the God who sees.”

I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13.  There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase.  I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:

“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)

Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me.  Death has been a constant companion.  I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent.  There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away.  And it included a lot time alone.  I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time.  There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.

And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself.  I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me.  And it was OK.

Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self.  God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named.  God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace.  God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.

In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son.  She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.

Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come.  Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand.  We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.

Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.

I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day.  There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth.  Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

 

The Dress Code: Compassion

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 September 15 we considered the need for compassion.  Scriptures were Colossians 3:12-17 as well as Zechariah 7:8-14.

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

A few years back, I was invited to a luncheon at a place called The Pittsburgh Athletic Association.  The invitation looked pretty fancy, and the speaker was one I’d been eager to hear. As I prepared, I was struck by a thought: what does one wear to lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association?  I know, I know – you’ve seen me around this neighborhood for decades and most days it doesn’t appear as though I give much thought to what I’m supposed to be wearing, but hey – it happens every now and then.  I’d never been inside the place, and I didn’t know anyone who had.  It came to this: do I dress according to the fanciness of the invitation, or in line with the fact that it’s an “athletic club”?  I couldn’t bring myself to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt, so I settled on khakis and a polo.

I had an inkling that I’d made a mistake when I arrived and the guy who held the door for me was wearing a suit and tie.  My suspicions were confirmed when, after asking for directions to the room where the luncheon was to be held, the host said, “Certainly, sir. But before we go to the dining room, would sir like a jacket and tie?”  Before I could think about it, I said, “No thanks, I’m good.”  The host was persistent.  “Sir”, he intoned, “The Association has a dress code.  It would appear as though sir was not aware of that. In order to enter the dining room, one must be suitably attired.  Therefore, would sir like to borrow a jacket and tie?”

Well, I did.  And here’s the deal: I don’t remember who spoke that day.  I don’t remember what was said.  I don’t remember who I sat with or what I ate.  But I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed because I didn’t choose to wear the right thing.

Maybe that’s never happened to you.  I hope it hasn’t.  But I would imagine that each of us, at some point, have wondered, “Am I doing this right? Does this look OK on me?”

Frieze of the Prophets, mural on the East Wall of Boston Public Library, John Singer c. 1893

On December 7, 518 BC[1]a delegation of visitors arrived in Jerusalem. Sharezer and Regem-melech, along with their entourage, represented a group of faithful Jews who were returning to Israel following decades of exile in Babylon.  They had a specific religious question, and they wanted a prophetic answer.  You see, ever since the fall of the Temple some seventy years or so previous, the people of faith had been observing four days of lamentation and fasting each year. There was a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem, another to mark the day that the city’s walls were destroyed, an observance of the destruction of the temple, and a final fast commemorating the murder of the governor.

But now, since the temple is being rebuilt, the visitors want someone to tell them: are we still expected to mourn the loss of the old temple?  What, exactly, are we supposed to do now?  It is a fair question.

The prophet Zechariah happens to be around on that day, and when he hears this request for a word from the Lord, he provides one – only, as it often happens in church, the question he answers is not really the question that was asked. The query brought by Sharezer and the boys is pretty narrow and specific, and the answer provided by the prophet is broad and far-reaching.  Instead of giving a simple “yes or no” answer (which is, by the way, insanely popular in religious circles), the prophet seizes upon the question of the returning exiles to launch into a class on ethics – and his answer lasts at least a chapter and a half.

Zechariah, in his response, encourages the people to give up on their robotic and nearly-meaningless ritual observances and instead live with an awareness of the fact that we live for and serve with a God who is always coming. We are not called to gather together for hallowed remembrances of something that God used to do, or some time when God showed up in our lives – we are called to live in hope that the God who came is the God who shows up and is always unveiling and revealing the Divine Self.  Because we are creatures of time and space, our worship – and everything else – is rooted in the present.  But we look forward in hope to the reality which continues to unfold.

And then Zechariah describes the kind of people who live in that kind of hope: in the present day, in the neighborhood and country where they live, they are to administer justice, to constantly display compassion and mercy, and to refuse to contribute toward the oppression of those who are marginalized, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, or the poor.  The call of God is not to remember that once upon a time God acted, but that every day, God calls us to transform the world around us with the power that we have.  Our faith drives us toward embracing a lifestyle, and not merely a specific list of dos and don’ts.  It is a masterful sermon, and I’d encourage you to read all of Zechariah 7 and 8.

Hundreds of years later, the small Christian community in the town of Colossae is faced by an insidious threat.  This group, formed by the teaching and power of those who had first followed Jesus, had been infiltrated by some teaching that could cause the congregation to abandon its calling and integrity.  The threat was both philosophical or theological as well as practical.

The theoretical danger was that apparently someone had come into the church teaching that while Jesus was by all accounts an incredible guy, he was more a symbolof what God was trying to do and not really an expressionof the depth of God’s self.  In fact, Christ was a sign that pointed to God, but, let’s be honest, just one of many signs.  In fact, similar insight into the Divine reality could be gained from the worship of stars, or spirits, or angels, or some other aspect of creation.  There was something amazing about Jesus, but it was not necessarily singular.

Apostle Paul, Anonymous, Italian 18th c.

The Apostle Paul’s response to that line of thought is unequivocal.  He reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the One through whom creation itself was accomplished.  In Christ, the old apostle wrote, we live and move and have our being. He is not an option on a religious menu – he is the one who holds all things together.

Now the practical danger to Christian community was felt in this way: if people came to accept that the power and presence of God was to be found through a personal revelation from the stars or angels, then each individual person should follow a process to prepare for her or his own true, authentic heavenly vision.  That led to a plethora of religious coaches teaching people to somehow mortify their bodies, to fast, to practice abstinence or celibacy or some sort of asceticism and self-denial because only in ignoring your worldly surroundings could the true, authentic God be found.

Paul addresses this by echoing not only Zechariah, but Isaiah and Deuteronomy in affirming that true worship of God is not primarily an escape to some other-worldly bliss but rather a full and rich engagement with those with whom we are connected. If you were to read through the entire letter to the Colossians, you might sense that chapters 1 and 2 are a grand theological grounding of who Jesus is, and they are followed by chapters 3 and 4 that contain a “so what”, or an ethical guideline for daily life.

In particular, Colossians 3:12 (the key text in our reading for today) contains specific guidelines for those who would follow Jesus.  Paul calls his friends “chosen by God, holy and dearly loved.” In this verse, he provides them with a “dress code” for the Christian community.  What should we wear when we come together, and when we encounter the world in our day-to-day lives?  Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Just as a jacket and tie are the marks that defined the proper male diner at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, so these characteristics are the marks of the Christian in the world.  And in the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at these qualities.

Today, I’d like to focus in on the practice of compassion.  In the original Greek, Paul tells his friends to put on splagxna oiktirmou. Literally, this means, “bowels of mercies”.  In Greek thought, the core of one’s being was centered in the bowels, or as we might say today, the “guts”.  If an ancient heard you described as “good-hearted”, he might be mystified, or think that you were really excited about your last EKG.  But if you were a person with strong bowels – well, she’d be impressed, she would…

Some of that language carries over into our use of the words having to do with “viscera”.  If someone has a “visceral” understanding of a concept, then we say that she really “gets” it, and she knows it in her innermost self.  If a person is “eviscerated”, then we understand that either figuratively or literally, the most important part of him – the guts – has been removed.

Paul, in writing to a congregation that appears to have been told that the best way to holiness is by focusing on your best self and looking for an other-worldly escape, says that the most important thing that we can wear as followers of Jesus is compassion.

I would suggest that a good definition of compassion is an ability and a willingness to fully enter into the experience of another, and in particular, the pain or suffering of another.  Our English word “compassion” comes from a pair of Latin roots: com, which means “with”, and pati,which means “to suffer”.  Compassion = “suffer with”.

A couple of the older translations of this verse use the word “pity” instead of “compassion”, but I think that is insufficient because when one “pities” someone one can maintain an emotional distance and stand over, or around, but not with someone else.  “Compassion” says, “Wow, this must be incredibly difficult right now.  I’m sorry that you’re in this place, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.”  “Pity” says, often, “Oh, you poor thing!” or even worse, “sucks to be you.”

Earlier this year I was the recipient of some amazing compassion.  I presented myself for my annual physical and must have looked a wreck because Dr. Hall sat and listened to me for forty minutes before he ever got around to touching me.  There was a set of situations and symptoms that gave me some real anxiety and that blessed man just sat there and encouraged me before he made the slightest suggestion of what I needed to do to “fix” anything.

You’ve seen compassion like that in action, and I want to encourage us to model it more and more as we continue through 2019 here at Crafton Heights church. Specifically, I want to challenge us to continue to grow in our ability to become a congregation of people who are willing to listen to each other.  Give each other the gift of your best time and your best attention – or be honest enough to admit that you can’t do that right now.  Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to. If you are going to say, “Hey! How are you doing?”, be ready to act like someone who cares what the answer to that question is.  If you don’t have time or energy to fully enter into someone’s day, simply say “Hello” or “I hope you are well today”.

Taking that a step further, let me challenge us to be known as a congregation that will stand with and for each other.  Can you seek to give yourself to someone else in such a way as to allow yourself to see the world from their perspective?

For instance, one of the best days of my 2019 Sabbatical (and there were a lot of them) was Monday, August 19.  It was a banner day at “Camp Grampy”, and Lucia and I spent time together doing puzzles, swimming, reading, and fishing.  As we prepared for our camp out on the boat, I took her photo.  She asked why I was doing that, and I said, “Because I always want to remember how you look today.”  A few moments later she asked for my phone and said, “Grampy, I’m going to take your picture.  Please send it to mama’s phone because I always want to remember how you look today.”

Here’s the photo she took.

 

Do you see?  That’s her perspective.  Often, that’s how the world looks to a five-year old.  A heart of compassion teaches us to seek to get an understanding of another’s perspective even if we do not share that perspective.  Perhaps you’ve never been widowed, or hungry, or abused, or addicted, or abandoned – but can you listen to someone else’s story intently enough to be able to sense at least a part of what that must feel like?

So often we skip that part of compassion.  We see someone in a tough situation and we want to proscribe, prescribe, or describe.  We want to tell them what their problem is and how they should fix it.  Maybe there is a place for that – but it is not the first thing we do.  Remember that when Job had the worst of all days, his friends came and simply sat with him for seven days before they even opened their mouths.  Once they started talking, everything went downhill in a hurry.

Putting on an outfit woven from the fibers of compassion means striving to see others the way that Christ sees them, and then seeking to treat them the way that Christ would treat them.  That’s the first part of our “dress code” for being in the community here at Crafton Heights.

And I have to tell you something that you already know.  The reason that I wore a polo shirt and khakis to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is because that’s a heck of a lot easier for me to put on than a suit and tie.  Come Saturday, I’ll be officiating at an elaborate wedding.  I’m here to tell you that the folks standing up in front of that wedding will not be wearing the clothes that are the easiest to put on – but they will do so because that’s the expectation of the group on that particular day.  It is the dress code.

In the same way, having a heart of compassion is not always the first or easiest thing for us to put on, especially in times of conflict or anxiety. But it is right, and it is what our heavenly Host expects of and hopes for us.  And it is what we all need.  Thanks be to God for those who have lived compassionately amongst us!  Amen.

 

[1] Dating based on work of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zechariah in the Interpretation: Nahum-MalachiCommentary Series (John Knox, 1986), p. 134