An Elegy For The World

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

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

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.

Eating the Poor

he people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On March 3, 2019, we considered the scripture that terrifies me as few others do: Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders and worship practices of his day.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:35-44.  The Old Testament reading was another frightening passage – God’s judgment on the religious leaders as found in Ezekiel 34:1-10.

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

I suspect that I am not the only person in the room who is guilty of having watched a television program called “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.  This show ran on Comedy Central from 1988-1999 and was revived on Netflix last year. What you need to know about that program this morning is that it featured a human and several robotic companions watching B-grade movies in an empty theater; the movie would be shown in its entirety and the characters, visible in silhouette on the bottom of the screen, would provide humorous or sarcastic commentary while the film played. Some days, it was pretty funny.

I think about Mystery Science Theater 3000 as I read today’s gospel.  Jesus and his friends have gone to the Temple to offer worship to the Lord.  Like everyone else there, they’ve participated in the prayers, sung along, and made some sort of an offering.

And then something happens – there’s a slight shift.  In my mind, it’s like we are watching a drama unfold over Jesus’ shoulder.  We are hearing his commentary on the story of worship that day – the religious figures who are leading worship as well as the poor people who take part in other ways. And just as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 hoped, this program of Jesus’ commentary on worship was a smash hit.  We read in verse 37 that “the large crowd listened to him with delight.”  Everybody was having a good time.

Can I tell you something? Jesus’ teaching here in Mark 12 is the absolute scariest passage of the entire Bible to me.  And when I read the text from Ezekiel?  I get a pit in my stomach.  In fact, sometimes I think that I’m asking the Lay Readers to share the scripture because I want them to have a meaningful part in the morning worship.  Today, it’s because I’d rather have Rayna and Jon reading that than me.  I mean, did you hear what was going on there?

Here’s Jesus, delighting the crowd with his observations about pompous, self-righteous religious authorities who walk around in long robes (…maybe like this alb I’ve got on this morning?).  The Greek word that is used there is stola– as in “stole” (…maybe like this stole I’m wearing now?).  And these people of whom Jesus is so critical demand respect.  Maybe you know that most of the time when I introduce myself, I’m “Dave”, or maybe “Pastor Dave”.  But on days when I’m cranky, or when I want the people at the hospital or the prison to take me seriously, I introduce myself as “The ReverendDavid B. Carver…”  Jesus talks about those pretentious leaders as people who long to have the best seats in the front of the worship space (…maybe you’ve noticed that there are only 3 upholstered arm chairs in the room, and you-know-who is seated in one of them every week…).  Incidentally, you might not know that Rayna’s dad is the craftsman who upholstered these chairs a few years ago…

But do you see why this passage frightens me?  Jesus is talking about people like me!  What if he’s even talking about me?!?  To the cheers of the crowd he is taking these self-righteous, arrogant, religious hypocrites down a peg or two.

What makes me any different?

I’ve seen it – far too often.  I’m sure you have too.  One of the scenes that sticks in my mind happened some years ago in a place far away. I was a guest in the home of a pastor, and the pastor’s wife warned me about another pastor in the area.  “Stay away from that one,” she warned.  “He eats the money that people bring to the Lord.”

Her husband attempted to quiet her, but she waved her hand and continued. “Listen, a long time ago in another place that man was the treasurer for his Presbytery.  Somehow, he stole a receipt book then, and he carries it with him now.  When elders from the churches bring in their offerings, he writes them receipts from his own book, rather than the official book, and he takes the money from the poor home and he eats it.  It is a terrible thing for a person to call himself a ‘man of God’ and then do something like that.”

You’ve seen it, and I hope you’ve been troubled by it – those who would hold themselves up as authorities or somehow important or especially blessed by God who wind up deceiving themselves or their audience.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  We as humans find it so easy to get puffed up, we find ourselves so desperate to impress either ourselves or each other that we become blind to the purpose, glory, and hope of the Kingdom that is proclaimed throughout Mark’s Gospel.

The Good News of the Gospel, my friends, is that we are not presented with a problem and then left hanging.  Just after Jesus states the lamentable nature of the human condition to preen and strut and fill ourselves with pride, he offers a set of practices that will help us to deal with that problem.

While some of these very important and impressive men are parading up to the front of the temple and putting on a show as they drop in the money for a new roof on the temple, or maybe a scholarship in grandpa’s name or a sizable donation to the organ fund, Jesus isn’t even looking. After all, whatever they give is inconsequential – it’s their extra money, and they know where to get more if they need it.

Instead of focusing on the doctors of the Law and their flowing robes, Jesus invites us to notice a small, impoverished woman making her way up the side aisle.  She’s coming while all the attention is on the goings-on in another part of the building, and she’s putting some coins in the offering plate.

When she thinks that no one is looking, she drops everything she has into the basket.  Her offering consists of two coins that are called leptons– which means literally “a thin one”.  It was the smallest coin known to that culture, and it would buy about one slice of bread.[1]  Clearly, Jesus is not impressed with the size of her gift – but he makes special note of the substance and the manner of that gift.  He says that “she put in everything that she had”.  Jesus points out that this woman is modeling a set of behaviors that are demonstrably different from those that he’s critiqued in the previous verses.  Rather than trusting in herself, her own giftedness, her own respectability, she is trusting God with her very self as she gives all that she is to God.

So why does Mark write this down?  More than that, why does Mark choose to use this as the last of the public teachings of Jesus?  Let’s remember that the original audience for Mark was a small community of Christians in Rome who lived under constant threat of persecution from both the civil and religious authorities.  People were literally dying because they professed to be followers of Jesus; the self-important leaders in flowing robes and fancy stoles and rich togas were enjoying the good life, and those people who carried the name of Jesus were being put to death.  And Mark, writing to encourage this community, keeps this important teaching here because he wants to remind people that it’s better to be nameless, poor, vulnerable and trusting in Godthan it is to be renowned, revered, and favored in the world’s eyes.

Mark’s first audience needed to hear this because each of them wasthe widow; they werethe ones who were reduced to nothing but poverty, trust, and hope.  They needed to hear the blessing of the Christ.

But why has it survived?  Why read this today, on Preschool Sunday of all days?

Because I am not the only one who longs for respect and affirmation.  I may be the only person wearing a white dress and a stole this morning, but each and every one of us in the room this morning knows something about how it feels to simply lovewalking around claiming that there is something external that defines us, that makes us important, that gives us status or prestige or respectability.

Maybe it’s our nationality. “Hey,” we say.  “I’m from _______.  That makes me special.”  Or we point to our race, or we crow about how we pay taxes and those other losers do not; maybe we’re proud to be homeowners and not renters, or we’ve impressed ourselves that our sexuality is somehow more pure than those other people.  I remember this feeling of superiority very vividly as a teenager.  A number of the people with whom I was connected had gotten themselves arrested for one thing or another, and one of the mothers looked at me and said, “Well, David – why are you looking so smug?  Do you think you are better than these boys that you’re sitting with?” And – I said it.  I’m not proud of it, but I shot back, right before she slapped me, “Well, actually, if we’re looking at things from a purely legal standpoint…”

If you’re going to be honest with yourself and with me, you’ve got to know how that feels – to look at someone else and say, “Look, I know that I may not be perfect, but I’m surely better than that slob over there…”

The Widow’s Offering, Jesus MAFA Project

Mark’s first audience and the people gathered today are called to the same practices – to engage in disciplines that will lead us to lives that are characterized by humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude.

What do thoselives look like?  In her stunning volume entitled, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott tells the story of Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of a group called Homeboy Industries, a ministry that helps former gang members re-enter society.  He reminds us that

…gratitude is not about waving your arms in praise on Christian TV shows. That’s what we think God would want because we would love to have a few hundred people applauding us, waving their arms like palm fronds. Instead, God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at [a local] Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him. He can be long-winded and a handful, but we used to put each other’s peas in the glasses of root beer at holiday dinners, so we have history together. With two other cousins, we took naps together in one big bed, so we pick up the two-hundred-pound phone and dial his number, and say, ‘How are you?’

I really believe God’s idea of a good time is also to see us sharing what we have worked so hard to have, or to see us [chatting up] the old guy in line at the health food store, telling him our grandfather had a hat just like his, even though it is a lie.

When you have been able to cry out “Thank You” upon finding your lost child at the mall or getting off booze it can naturally make you willing to want to take time with the homeless…[2]

Closer to home, you can see this in lots of places here in Crafton Heights.  Did you see someone bringing a child to worship or after school?  How about the person who called the church to make sure that we knew about her sick neighbor? You can walk into a room and hear people with quiet voices who speak last.  You know someone who has spent time sitting with an old, sick man who doesn’t speak our language, and the two of them were laughing at jokes that only one of them could fully understand. There are those in our midst who have dedicated themselves to making room in this congregation and their lives for those who feel excluded or unsafe everywhere else in their world…

We are here and in all of those places, dear friends, not because the seats are all comfortable and the hymns are our favorites and the babies are all cute – we are here and in each of these places because this is where God is, and this is the world to which Christ is sending us.  These are the places where we learn humility, generosity, faith, and gratitude.  Is it hard? Sometimes.  But it’s good.

Samuel Shoemaker was a religious leader in a difficult place in New York City. He was asked why he continued to pour his love out on those who were past the edges of society, even when it was taking a toll on his own health and well-being.  He replied, “I would love to run away from it all, but a strange man on the cross won’t let me.”[3]

Beloved, I started this message inviting you to recall a television program wherein we are sitting in the back of an auditorium, belittling a story that plays out on the screen.  In our world, however, we are like the poor widow who lives for an audience of One. We seek to be humble, generous, faithful, and thankful because that is who God has made us to be.  We are called to live and share and model this behavior in front of God and therefore, with and for each other.  Thanks be to God for the ability to share in this life together. Amen.

[1] http://disc.yourwebapps.com/discussion.cgi?disc=148202;article=233607;title=OCRT%20Forum

[2]Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott. (Riverhead, New York, 2012) pp 58-59.

[3]Interpretation Bible Commentary on Hebrews,Thomas G. Long

And the Survey Says…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 24, 2019, we encountered something we have not seen before and will not see again in the Gospel of Mark: a “teacher of the Law” who is commended by Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:28-34.  The first reading (for both us and Jesus’ hearers) was a passage known very well to those who participated in and overheard the discussion between Jesus and the man: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the browser below…

Like many of you, my computer knows that I can be a little slow.  My trusty laptop is willing to help speed things along for me. As I was preparing for this message, I typed into my search bar, “what is the most important rule in” and before I could say “my faith” or “Christianity” or even “religion”, I was offered a whole host of suggestions…

It’s not really fair for you to answerafter you’ve already heard the Gospel, but if someone would have asked you an hour ago, “what is the heart of the message of scripture?  What is the Bible about?”, how might you have answered?

I thought recently about a neighbor that Sharon and I had when we lived on South Graham Street many years ago.  There was an elderly woman who lived nearby who had become, for some reason, quite embittered with the world. She knew that I was some sort of a professional Christian, however, and so one day as I washed my car she accosted me.  “Listen,” she said, “I see you spending all your time over there at the church, and I wonder if you really know what’s going on.  Tell me this, young man: what is the core message of the New Testament? What is it that we ought to take away from that document?”

I was a little taken aback by her frankness, and I felt put on the spot.  I hemmed and hawed a little bit about loving each other and loving God, and she interrupted me by saying, “No, no, no… Here’s the message of the New Testament: if you spend your whole life loving other people, if you forgive people when they hurt you and trust people with what’s important to you, and if you try to help other people with no expectation of what you might get in return, then don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

I think she is wrong, but the older I get, the more I can understand her.  What is the core of the Gospel, do you think?

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

Jesus has been spending all day dealing with one religious expert after another.  If you’ve been here this month, you know what I mean: we’ve had scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and more, all having come to Jesus to test him in one way or another.  And, as you may recall, he replied to each challenge with distinction and wisdom.

He did so well, in fact, that near the end of this conversation, an apparently un-aligned teacher of the Law approached him, not with malicious intent, but with respect and curiosity.  He noticed that Jesus had answered well, and so he came to Jesus with a question that was not uncommon at the time.  When he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”, he was echoing a conversation attributed to the legendary Rabbi Hillel a generation earlier. A man asked the Rabbi, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”  The old man replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All else is commentary.  Go and learn.”

So this man is an earnest inquirer, and he asks Jesus a genuine question. Jesus does not exactly push the bounds of accepted teaching when he starts by quoting Deuteronomy.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is one…”  Any Jew would have recognized this immediately – it was the call to worship at the temple every morning and every evening.  If there was one verse that had been etched into the consciousness of the children of God, this was it…

“What is the most important commandment?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…”  You can almost feel the tension in the crowd melt away. His followers and friends might have thought he was going to say something unusual (he had a real knack for that); his critics and opponents might have hoped for a hint of impropriety, but there was nothing… It was the “safe” answer.  I mean, who’s going to argue with that one, right? There are affirmative nods all around, and then Jesus draws another breath and says, “And the second is this…”

“Wait, what? Come on, Jesus, there is no ‘second’.  There is only the Shema, there is only the Oneness of God.”

And in that moment, there was probably a little panic in the eyes of his closest friends.  You know that feeling of apprehension – when someone opens their mouth and you’re not at all sure what’s coming next… Maybe you’re the parent of a toddler who has declared, “Do you want to know what else mommy said?” Maybe you’ve run into someone you don’t know very well, or you haven’t seen in a while, and that person says, “Well, I just had surgery, and I was really surprised by how long the scar was… do you want to take a look at this—” and you scream “Noooooooo!”

“The second is like it…”

What is Jesus going to say?  I mean, there is only one…  Come on Jesus, don’t mess with us here…

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Seriously, Jesus? That’swhat you’re going to go with? A passage from Leviticus 19?

Look, if you’re at my house, and you say, “Dave, I need the best rolling pin you’ve got”, I’m gonna reach into the drawer and give you a great one.  No problem.  Because I have one really good rolling pin.  But if you say “I’d like a second…”, well, we’re gonna have some issues. Because there isn’t a second one.  I mean, I’ll root around in the drawer, and I might bring something out, but it would probably surprise you…

Look, the “greatest commandment” we all know.  Hear it all the time.  Sing it, in fact.  But when Jesus starts rooting through the scripture bin looking for the second one, it’s a little surprising.  He grabs hold of Leviticus 19:18 and holds it up: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Listen, folks, that’s a fine scripture, but it’s not exactly a pronounced emphasis in Leviticus.  I mean, the very next verse says, “Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of material.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  How different, how much less complicated would the world be today if Jesus had only said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength; and, oh, yes, don’t wear that cotton/polyester blend.  That has gotto go…  Seriously.”

That’s it? Love God? Wear wool?  All right! We can do that!

But he said it.  He chose, of all the things he could have chosen, to hold up Leviticus 19:18.  Why would he do that?

Because he could see that the religious leaders of his own day assumed that it was possible, acceptable, and maybe even desirable, to love God withoutloving one’s neighbor. As if we could divorce the two of those things somehow!

One of the great tragedies of religion is that professed followers of Jesus have not realized that these two commandments are inseparable.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who believe the same things as we do.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who have the same skin tone, or language, or orientation, or income level as we do.

Our primary response to the creation of the world and our place in it is to love God with everything that we have and are.  One of the ways that we demonstrate the sincerity of our love for God is by our willingness to show our neighbor the same respect and tenderness that we show ourselves.

In commenting on this passage, Dr. Ernest Thompson writes,

“Love to God finds its only adequate fulfillment in love to one’s neighbor.  Nonetheless this is the second command and not the first. Love to one’s neighbor must be rooted in love of God, if it is to be wise (not mere sentimentality), if it is to endure (even when we meet persistent unfriendliness, or sheer unloveliness), and if it is to be universal (excluding no race, no class, and no individual.”[1]

Golden Rule (detail), Norman Rockwell (1961).

It seems to me that there might be no challenge more difficult for the church of Jesus Christ in the United States of America in 2019 than to love everyone without exception. Not “agree” with your neighbor.  Not “tolerate” or “put up with” your neighbor.  Love them.  Love each of them. You, the brown-skinned person wearing a hoodie.  You, the old white guy in a MAGA hat. Her, the lady smoking with her kids at the bus stop. Him, the grumpy police officer, and her the screeching seven year old.  Those two over there, who you’re not even sure what to call because they don’t like any of the pronouns currently used by the English language. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew… The one who denies his creator, and the one who praises God every day. The veteran who is wearing her uniform proudly, and the one next to her who kneels during the anthem.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When Matthew is telling this story in his Gospel, he notes that Jesus concludes by adding, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

Listen, this scripture was chosen for this day a long time before I knew we’d be baptizing little Arya Jane this morning.  But isn’t this the goal? To raise a generation who live this way?  That’s what it says in Deuteronomy, right?  Tell this to your children.  Remind them.  Do something to remember it!  When Jesus and his friends were little boys they were given little boxes to put on their foreheads and wrists.  When Joe was younger he received a confirmation class cross.  Our lives are filled with symbols of that which we love and which we want to be.

May we be love.  May we desire to be love.

At the end of their conversation, Jesus commends the scribe.  Mark notes that “Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely…”  Do you know that this man is the only teacher of the law in the Gospel of Mark to be recognized and commended publicly in this fashion?  I think that matters…

And then, Jesus concludes the interaction by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Welcome home, friend.”  He didn’t say, “Now go away, son, you bother me.”  He didn’t even say, “Follow me.”

We are left wondering: what happened to this guy?  I’ll tell you this – this isn’t the first cliffhanger in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s not the last, and it’s certainly not the biggest.

But this man had a choice: would he walk in the way of love, welcome, service, and humility?  Or would he stay where he was?  He clearly had to decide.

And so do we.  Thanks be to God, we can decide today.  Let us follow in the way of the Christ and in the way of the Kingdom.  One of the most influential Christian minds in the last century was a writer named G. K. Chesterton.  He once said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  May be engage our faith, those around us, and indeed ourselves not only with a doctrine that is respectable, but with the holy, burning love of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] The Gospel According to Mark and Its Meaning for Today(John Knox Press, 1968), p. 198-199.

2019 Texas Mission #5

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

There’s a couple of hundred yards of Crooked Creek shoreline in Erie County, PA.

There are my two black chairs right next to my fish tank.

There’s a spot on the road between Liwonde and Ntaja, Malawi.

There’s a room in the cardiac care wing of Presbyterian University Hospital.

I don’t know where they are for you, but I’m betting you’ve got one or two or more… spots from which you have glimpsed the Holy – places to which you have returned more than once because you have found that those are spots where you simply know that God abides, and because you have sensed it there, you think, it’s reasonable to assume that the Presence might be anywhere.  You have places where you have found belief that remind you that you can continue to carry belief even when it seems nonsensical, or wearisome, or simply too heavy.

Most people think that those spots are functional – fishing holes or furniture or paved road or a health care center –  but to me, it’s a place where I’ve fished and heard the voice of God, or the location of some of the most deeply personal and intimate conversations with which a pastor has been entrusted, or the place where I remember the beauty and wonder of the God with humor enough to create Baobab trees, or a spot where I’ve witnessed faith and family and healing that strengthens my soul.

Thursday evening I was privileged to be in one of those spots – a place to which we’ve returned several times over the past few years.  It’s a lovely tree next to a little purple home outside of Mission, Texas.  It’s a tree that has provided me with shade on some really hot days, conversation and friendship on many days, and incredible glimpses of the kingdom on a few occasions.

In 2015 our team worked on a home that afforded us the opportunity to strike up a wonderful relationship with the family who lived there. In the years since then, every single time we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley – every single time – we have been invited over for conversation and a meal.  Tonight, we visited that family again, and saw more chicken and sausage than anyone knew what to do with.  There was a bigger pot of beans than anyone from Pittsburgh had ever seen before.

We sat by the fire, we sat under the tree, and some of us who were there for the first time engaged in conversation with gracious people.  Others, who’d been there before, took the opportunity to hear and learn and share things that one does with friends in holy places like this.

I heard from one of the young adults in the home that when we were first there, they didn’t know what to make of us.  We sure laughed a lot, and we spilled a lot of paint.  But I was told of how it felt to go from having five people sleeping and living in a single room with a single bed to having a real house, where when it rains or storms, you are safe; of how it feels to be able to go to school and know you have an address; of what it means to be able to think about a future in service to others.

And I was reminded of those holy places in my life, and I thanked God for glimpses into the eternal.

All of the above was just AFTER dinner.  Before dinner, we did a lot of stuff that you’d expect from us this week: painting, roofing, drywalling, laughing, and spilling paint.  Here are a few images of our Thursday, as selected by our team’s primary photographer, Josie.  We appreciate your prayers.

Karren continues to conquer her discomfort with being on the roof by teaching that shingle who’s the boss…

Jon and Lindsay are taking care of the other side of the home…

Our hallway transitions from lime green to sunshine yellow…

Kayla, you really shouldn’t be having this much fun painting the house…

Jessica? Where’s Jessica? The last time I saw her, she went into the dining room with a paintbrush…

Every day we are here, the people of Mission Presbyterian Church offer us a hot lunch. Today, we were blessed to have homemade noodles from our friend Carol. She and her late husband Rog have been stalwart supporters of this mission.

Sacred conversation around the Lord’s table…

And here is the tree that reminds me that God is faithful, even when I doubt. I hope you can sit here one day.

 

2019 Texas Mission Trip #4

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Today was a great day to be on site as we continued our trip in the Rio Grande Valley.  The sun made an amazing appearance, and we had a lot of pink shoulders and faces around the discussion table this evening. The team that worked up on the roof (which, frankly, was most of our number) made some fantastic progress on the roof.  Meanwhile, a few of us remained inside – which felt increasingly like a cave as the sun shone more brightly. We were able to finish piecing in the drywall that we’d cut out due to flood damage and most of it has a second coat of mud on it already.

Following our work day, we were able to spend some time with Daniel Behrens, a Deacon in service to the Anglican Church through a mission called Trinity On The Border.  It was Daniel who gave us the idea to pack the hygiene kits for the Respite Center.  Daniel was eager to see some fellow Yinzers (he grew up in the South Hills) and to share his perspective on the nature and needs of the communities here.  We had a great discussion on the value and purpose of short-term trips like this (I might have said something like, “Seriously! Why should we spend all this money bringing us down here when we could send the money to someone local, who could hire roofers who probably need the work, and who would do it better than we would… because, frankly, we’re not very good roofers?”).  It was a rich time of conversation about the fact that the little house on Rhode Island Drive is not the only that’s getting worked on this week… We are all being shaped.

It’s late – so here are a few photos that will give you a glimpse of our day…

What IS that burning orange ball in the sky?

Jahn and David putting on the shingles…

Brian prepares our next piece of sheetrock…

The roof isn’t THAT pitched, but Josie is creative…

Phillippe, the homeowner, gives me some advice on cleaning the drywall equipment.

Daniel leads the conversation pertaining to Trinity on the Border

2019 Texas Mission #3

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

If you pray, how do you think that God answers prayer?

When do you know that it happens?

Have you ever been around to see it?

Today, we did a lot of work.  More about that in a moment.  I’d like to tell you about the fifteen most significant moments of my day.  If you saw Sunday’s entry to this sequence of updates, you know that in addition to coming to the Rio Grande Valley to do some housing rehabilitation, we came to seek to learn about the experiences of those who are here and those who arrive here each day.  To help us in this we prepared, and asked a lot of friends to prepare, “Respite Kits” for distribution to those who have entered the USA here in Texas and are seeking asylum or permanent residency.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been calling folks at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.  They didn’t return our calls, and someone suggested that we should just stop by and drop off the kits.

We arrived at the building and saw long lines snaking out in so many different directions. We took our donations to the side door where we were greeted by a volunteer who said, “Seriously? You have respite kits?  We ran out earlier today.  I didn’t know what we would do, but I told my wife, ‘God will get us some.’  And look, here you are!”  We discovered that the reason that they had not been answering their phones was because in the past 3 days this center has received more than 1500 individuals – mostly women with children.  They are at the center for a day at the most, hoping for a hot meal, a quick shower, a new set of clothes (including shoe laces which are taken from each individual at the detention centers), and a bus ticket to the home of a relative or friend while they await the hearings that will determine their eligibility to stay in the USA.

For me, the emotion was so palpable that I * might * have burst into tears whilst talking to a young mother whose children helped to pack similar bags several states away.  There is so much brokenness, so much that is wounded and wrong in our world. And here we are, with our baggies full of toothpaste and soap.  Talk about “the least of these.”  Sheesh.  I mentioned to someone earlier today that one of my favorite characters is Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I felt as though I were charging at windmills for much of the day.

And we worked – a lot – on the house as well.  And we had an amazing dinner with some good friends from the Valley.  And we enjoyed another hot lunch courtesy of our hosts.  We are overwhelmed with blessings.  I’d say more, but it’s nearly midnight and I’ll be up six hours from now ready to start it all again.  So here are a few photos.

Our Respite Bags having been transferred to the incredibly temporary storage bin at Catholic Charities.

Meeting with Scott, the volunteer at the Respite Center who prayed for supplies and then we showed up…

I’d say Gabe’s back is looking pretty great, thanks be to God!

Beginning the process of laying the new roof (yes, we can see it is raining…)

Bob Walters is an amazing person. That is all.

Just a couple of Daves, doing drywall. Nothing to see here…

Josie takes charge with the drywall gun!

Jessica hanging drywall with patience and precision.

Tina learning to tape drywall.

Amazing dinner with long-time friends in a wonder-filled atmosphere. We are indeed blessed.

2019 Texas Mission #2

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

The first day of a construction/service trip is often slow to get going, as we’ve got to get the lay of the land in terms of the tasks that are in front of us, the tools at our disposal, the personnel we have on hand, and the constraints or opportunities any of those afford to us.  Today it felt as though we launched with lightning speed!

We’ve been invited to help a homeowner recover from some pretty intense flooding that hit this area last year.  This part of Texas is flat – I mean, FLAT. And we are essentially at sea level, even though we are so far inland.  That means that when an area gets hit by a hard, heavy rain, it can take some time for the water to get anywhere. As a result, homes that are built on a slab are at risk of flooding.  Such was the case in the property we went to today.

The remedy for this kind of flooding is to remove the bottom two feet or so of drywall so as to reduce the likelihood of mold or mildew setting in and causing long-term damage to either the home or its inhabitants.  Some of our group spent much of the day measuring and cutting through drywall and trim in order to accomplish this.  The rest of the team was sent up top, to remove the shingles from the roof as we anticipate replacing it later in the week.

It was a great first day of labor, and a better first day of coming together as a team and a community.  There was a lot of laughter and encouragement; some of us (I’m looking at you, Karen!) faced our fears and scaled new heights – literally – in order to work on the roof.  All of us enjoyed a delicious lunch of “Grandma’s sloppy joe” and, my personal favorite, GRAPEFRUIT PIE!  We first had this southern delicacy years ago, and my friend Martha made TWO of these treats for the group, along with a couple of blackberry pies.  If I was on my game, you’d see a picture of us, and these pies, and there would be lots of smiling involved… but the truth is that I was so engaged with visiting, listening to stories, and, well, eating that I didn’t get any.  I’m sorry about that, because those are shots I’d like to have some day, and maybe you’d like to see them.

We are eager to get back out there tomorrow and discover what is waiting for us on site and in our lives.  Until then, we are deeply grateful for the chances we’ve been given to be here and to be together.  Here are a few images from our day…

Starting the day in conversation and prayer with our team and members of the community here who have rallied to support us.

Kayla and Jessica preparing to remove the trim on the lower part of the walls.

Lindsay making sure that the lines are straight and the surface is prepared for the new drywall.

Karen wasn’t sure she could get up on the roof – but once she got there, she was unstoppable!!! (Oh, yeah, Jon, Bob, Tim, and the rest of the crew were there too!).

Clearing the old shingles off the roof was tedious work, and we were glad for the cool (64°) temps.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the roof was in fundamentally good shape. We didn’t have to replace any of the wood, which was good for everyone!

There was a slight “wardrobe malfunction” as Kayla’s boot – practically new! – blew out. Fortunately, there’s duct tape for that…