If We’d Have Been There…

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 January 13, 2019, we re-entered this study after an Advent hiatus we talked about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem following the completion of his ministry in the Galilee.  It was an interesting discipline to preach on this on a day that was NOT Palm Sunday.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:1-11.  We also heard from the Psalm for the Triumphal Entry: Psalm 118:19-29.

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

I’d like to begin by inviting you to consider two phenomena that are both very real and very much a part of your experience, but also appear to be direct opposites.

Does the name Kitty Genovese mean anything to you?  I encountered her name in High School, when I had a teacher who brought up this case with astonishing frequency.  I’m not sure why… Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in New York who was horrifyingly murdered on March 13, 1964.  A newspaper report indicated that there were at least 38 witnesses – people who saw or heard something incredibly wrong, but who did nothing to stop the attack, which lasted more than thirty minutes.

When police questioned the man who was found guilty of this crime, they asked how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many people, and he responded by saying, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.”[1]

Psychologists call this pattern of behavior the “Bystander Effect” – nobody wants to get involved, nobody wants to stick their necks out for someone else, and everybody assumes that someone else will do something…

On the other hand, I imagine that you are also aware of a seemingly opposite phenomenon called “The Herd Effect”. Researchers into human behavior use this term to describe how often we find ourselves adopting certain behaviors as a result of an appeal to our emotions.  This has also been described as “Mob mentality” or “pack mentality”. In situations like this, people find themselves eagerly doing something that they might typically reject simply because other people are doing it or a charismatic leader has incited a crowd. If you’d like to see a demonstration of the Herd Effect, just turn on the NFL playoffs later this afternoon, and you’ll see large groups of overweight middle-aged men stripped to the waist, covered in body paint, and cheering on a football team in sub-freezing temperatures.  Now, you have to assume that these guys are not idiots – but here they are doing something today that they would dismiss out of hand tomorrow – because their emotions got the best of them as they prepared for the big game…

Today, we are resuming our exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  When we left off, Jesus had left his ministry in the Galilee behind and had made his way to the edge of Jerusalem.  Today, we see in the event that’s come to be known as “The Triumphal Entry” evidence of both the Bystander Effect and the Herd Mentality.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Early on in our reading, Jesus instructs his followers to go and retrieve and animal that he’ll need.  When they do so, they encounter a bit of questioning.  “Hey, why are you taking that?” “The Master needs it.” “Oh, OK.” You can just hear the wheels spinning in those ancient Palestinian minds… “All right, this is weird, but it’s not my circus and those are not my monkeys, so I’ll just stay out of it…” The people who watched the colt being led away didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened – they just went about their business.

Palm Sunday, John August Swanson (1994)

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus shows up riding on this borrowed animal, people seem to lose their minds.  Whereas at our last meeting in Jericho, it was only Bartimaeus who was calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”, now it’s a large crowd of people going in front of and behind Jesus as they sing the words to Psalm 118.  There is no indication that these people actually know who he is, and Jesus himself doesn’t speak, according to Mark.  Yet the crowd enthusiastically uses terms that evoke images of the Messiah, the defeat of Rome, and the reign and rule of God.

And yet at the end of the day, what do we see?  Jesus retires to Bethany with his disciples.  Those who had demonstrated the Bystander Effect were presumably satisfied as the colt had been returned and there was no harm, no foul. Likewise, I’m sure that there were many homes filled with people who said something like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming today.  That was sure different… What do you have planned for tomorrow…”  People removed themselves from the herd and regained a sense of their own distinct lives and preferences.  In fact, many of the voices that had cried out to Jesus as the Son of David on Sunday would be calling publicly for his execution on Friday – but that’s a different day, different mob…

And Jesus?  Well, Jesus begins this day in quiet discussion with his friends, and that is exactly how he ends it.

Back in November of 2017, we began this study of the Gospel of Mark by pointing out that this little booklet was written for a community of Christians who were in the midst of a difficult time. They were in distress, and they were at least witnesses to, if not victims of, injustice.  The group of people for whom Mark was written dwelt in a climate of fear, and lived with an awareness of the fact that outsiders were often distrusted and marginalized.

And it’s important for us as we study these passages that we note that Mark does not use the words “Triumphal Entry”, and he does not mention palms. Instead, we meet a crowd who is obsessed with making Jesus into a conquering King. This Jesus, however, rides not a war-horse, but a colt. The Greek word is not species-specific: it could refer to a young horse, a young donkey, and in fact once in the bible the word is used in reference to a juvenile ibex or deer (Proverbs 5:19). The point is that Jesus presents himself as weak and vulnerable; he comes in humility and is not threatening an uprising.  There are no pretensions here.

As I’ve indicated, Mark was written to help the first generation of Christians improve their understanding of what it meant to be followers of Jesus.  With that in mind, let’s look at what the twelve do in this passage.

First, they obey their friend and master.  When he tells them to go and get the animal, they do so.

Next, they give of themselves in simple and practical ways.  This is a colt – a foal – and it’s never been ridden.  There would not be a saddle or other riding equipment, and so the disciples take off their own cloaks and place them on the animal to help facilitate Jesus’ ride.

Then they stay with Jesus. They’re there during the parade and the shouting of the crowd, and they walk back with him into the night at Bethany.

I think it’s fair to say that those who followed Jesus on that day refused to be incapacitated by the Bystander Effect andthey did not allow themselves to be manipulated by the mentality of the herd.

One of the things that Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem teaches me this year is that an important part of being a disciple is knowing when to use your voice, and why.  In the context of following, serving, giving, and listening to Jesus, disciples have got to figure out when and why it’s time to say or do something.

There is in our day and culture an ongoing controversy as to how to secure our nation’s borders in such a way that allows for the safety of those who are already here and provides a means for those who are persecuted elsewhere to find shelter and hope.

Bystanders simply see what’s happening and change the channel, saying something like, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the President.  I hope this guy knows what he’s doing…” or maybe “I’ve got some ideas, but what difference can I make, anyway.  Forget about it…”

Similarly, there are herds of us who chant “Build the Wall!” or who stand across the street and yell “Bridges, not Walls!”  We do this until we get hoarse, or until our energy is gone, or something else distracts us and then we go home…

What is a disciple to do in times like these?

A Team from CHUP visiting the US/Mexican Border, escorted by a US Border Patrol Officer

We listen for the voice of Jesus.  We look for where God is on the move, and we try to get there, too.  In our case, this has been a ten year process.  In the last decade, more than 25 people from this congregation have visited the border between the USA and Mexico – many of us more than once.  During that time, our group has had the opportunity to ride along with Border Patrol agents and see the challenges that they face each day; we’ve taken several tours of the facility in McAllen where the President visited on Thursday, and we’ve seen children sitting in glass-walled rooms crying for their parents; we’ve met people who have had to flee their homes in other lands after suffering unspeakable violence; and we’ve entered a church and school complex that is now used as a refugee center that offers those who have been terrorized a hot shower, a warm bed, and a decent meal.

In the course of this decade and these many trips, we’ve encountered the complexity of the situation in a way that is different than that which we’ve seen on television.  And I’d be lying if I told you that the 25 or 30 of us who have made this trip had broad agreement as to which simple policies should be enacted in response to this crisis.  But you’d be wrong if you assumed that all we were doing on these trips was hanging drywall.

We make these journeys because we realize that we need to be shaped; we need to listen; we want to grow toward the truth, and we need to find our own voices.

Listen: next week, many of you will be given an extra day off from work or school. It’s a Federal Holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”[2]

Listen: I know that I cannot speak for you, or for anyone else.  I am struggling to find my own voice and my own words as I look for places in the world around me where God is on the move.

My challenge for you this week is to find your own voice.  To listen to the news prayerfully.  To read your news feed with an eye on your Gospel, and to ask the Lord when and how it is appropriate for you to speak out against violence and the oppressor, or to stand with someone who has been victimized.  In what instance will you use your voice to contact your legislators or our policymakers?

Beloved of God, do not look away, thinking that it is someone else’s problem. And don’t get sucked into anybody’s mob. Listen for the Master, and be attentive to the things he does, the people at whom he looks, and the places to which he directs his energy.  And follow Him there.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Takooshian, Harold, Ph.D., “Not Just a Bystander: The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?”Psychology Today, March 24, 2014.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 27, 1965 Dinkler Plaza Hotel

How’s Your Follow?

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 23 we heard the plea to “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”.  You can hear a version of that at the end of the post, below.  Our scriptural basis was the original call to the shepherds in Luke 2:1-20 as well as the example of Ruth in Ruth 1:16-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  If you typically read the message, I’d really encourage you to listen this week, as I think that the audio is a a little better proclamation.

Maybe it’s just me… or maybe it’s simply another sign that I’m getting to be pretty old… but this year in particular, I’ve been struck by a phrase that has become a feature in advertising.

ONE DAY ONLY!

We have to Act Fast! Do It Now! Christmas only comes around once a year, Bub, and if you’re going to be a good parent / child / sibling / neighbor, well then you’d better get moving and get shopping! If you don’t drag yourself to the mall, or write out the Christmas cards, or plan the big dinner NOW – well, forget about it.

It’s Christmas, for crying out loud! You’re supposed to be driving / spending / baking / shopping yourself into a frenzy.

Why? Because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Don’t try this at home… SERIOUSLY, DO NOT try this at home…

Listen, if I ever go out and make a $60,000 purchase without talking to my wife about it, you’d better believe that you’re going to hear a lot about that decision… and I’m here to tell you that whatever may be said about that kind of foolish and reckless behavior, two words that will not be included are “most wonderful”.

But we do this, don’t we?  We put such great expectations on the holiday season, or on a single day, or even into one particular hour that if a flight is delayed or a home is sold or a loved one dies, well, then, everything is ruined and it’s the most horrible time of the year.

You are aware, I presume, that this is not how it’s supposed to be…

Nativity scene with figures in black silhouette against blue starry sky with comet star lightbeam.

The Biblical model for Christmas is something unassuming and surprising; it is something that draws us in rather than railroading us into action.

This month we’ve been seeking to be attentive to some songs of lament and hope that we know as African American Spirituals. Today’s song, “Rise Up, Shepherd”, is shaped around the word “follow”, and I’m here to tell you that as such it is a prophetic word to the culture in the USA in 2018.

Christmas in 2018 is about creating meaning and inventing significance – about building up expectation and acquiring the right gift, people, or experience so that you just know that it’s Christmas and, more so, that you’ve won Christmas.

The first Christmas, on the other hand, was more about discovering what was already there; at joining in with what had begun.  It was about following the soft light of a star that had been shining for, well, who knows?  It was about responding to the song of the angels and then hurrying to get to the place where God was already at work.

“Follow, follow; rise up, shepherd, and follow…”

We use that word a lot these days, don’t we? And I’m here to tell you that there are a lotof followers out there.

How many of you use the social platform called Instagram?  Do you know who has the most followers on that photo and video-sharing network?  Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese soccer player, has 148.3 million followers.

How about Twitter? Who would you suppose is the most popular tweet-er?  An American woman, Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, a.k.a. Katy Perry, is followed by 107 million people – that is more than twice as many as follow any President of the USA, living or dead (although the dead guys don’t tweet as often…).

Or what about Facebook?  How many “friends” do you have? Who would you suppose has the most followers on Facebook? Once again, it is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 122.5 million followers; he is followed by a Columbian pop star named Shakira.

And you say, “Ah, all that social media stuff. I’m not into that.”  Maybe not.  But I bet that you could use the word “follow” to describe your relationship with the Penguins, or the Stock Market, or the soap operas.

In our culture, surprisingly, the word  “follow” has become a passive activity.  When you say that you “follow” Shakira or the Penguins, you probably mean that you identify as an interested party or as a fan.  However, you probably don’t invest a great deal of your time or energy in “following” Evgeni Malkin or the latest share price for US Steel.  In “following” these things, you’re keeping an eye on them, and hoping that they might do something that would interest or benefit you. Do you see what I mean when I suggest that it is a “passive” activity?

Did you know that the Internal Revenue Service has a special category for “Passive Activity”? According to them, passive activities are those in which you participate non-materially – that is, less than 500 hours in a given year.  For tax purposes, you can only claim to be actively pursuing a trade or business activity if you spend close to ten hours a week doing so.

I’m here to say that I hope that nobody in this room is investing ten hours a week in Ronaldo, or Shakira, or the Steelers place-kicker.  Oh, we say, we follow those folks.  But they don’t really impact us.  That’s what I mean when we use the word “follow” to indicate a mild interest, or a plan to keep tabs on someone who really is tangential to the main parts of my life.

Yet when we use that definition of “follow” in terms of our discipleship, well, that’s incomplete. According to the spiritual we just sang, you will be so entranced by the presence of the Christ that your following will result in the forgetting of your flocks and of your herds…

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

One of the best examples of a follower in the Bible is from the ancient story of Ruth. This woman, who had been born as an outsider – a Moabite – had been through some incredible difficulty. There was a famine in her home land, and it was so severe that it took the lives of her father-in-law, her brother-in-law, and eventually her husband.  Most of her contemporaries would have said that she was all alone – except she was not.  She had a vibrant relationship with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  She was so captivated by what she saw in the person of Naomi that she left her old life behind so that she could get in on what Naomi was doing.

You heard her declaration a few moments ago: it’s about as far from passive as one can get, isn’t it?  For Ruth, “following” meant adopting a new address, a new culture, a new diet, and new habits.

For the first disciples, following Jesus meant disrupting their vocational plans, involvement in significant conflict, and most often, an untimely death.

For many who sang that spiritual, following Jesus meant holding onto hope in the midst of days that seemed bleak and ugly; it meant trusting God to right wrongs even as they themselves worked to subvert an order that was fundamentally unjust.

“Follow, follow; rise up shepherd and follow…”

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

The shepherds were drawn in.  The wise men sought slowly and deliberately.  The disciples re-oriented their lives.

How are you following?  And is it the way that you’d like to follow?

I’m here to suggest that even though it’s technically notChristmas yet, it’s probably too late for this year.  I mean, Christmas Eve is tomorrow, for crying out loud.  I think that for must of us, the 2018 Christmas train has left the station.

Don’t get me wrong – I hope to share with you in worship; I’ll advocate for you to look for ways to avoid overspending and unwise debt and to seek out ways to be fully present with  people in the days that are to come.

But what about after Christmas?  What will the days following Christmas look like for you?

You see, in our current cultural understanding, the number one activity immediately following Christmas (“the most wonderful time of the year”) is kicking back, taking time off work if you can, and breathing a huge sigh of relief… “Oh, boy, I’m glad that’s over! I sure wouldn’t want to have to go through that again!  Now it’s time to get back to what I want to do.  I want to spend on the things that I’m interested in.  I get to eat what I want to, and to go where I want to go…

As if following the Bethlehem star, or being ‘good’ for Santa, or living in relationship with other people is somehow outside of our normal experience and something we can’t wait to stop…

Today, I’d like to ask you to make the days following Christmas days in which you seek to follow Jesus.  And I’d like to suggest that there are at least four things that you can do to help you be a better follower…

Rest.  I know, you’re planning on that, just as soon as you get back from Aunt Marge’s place on the 29th.  But I mean to ask you this: can you change the pace of your life so that you have a better rhythm?  What if you built in more rest each day? I’m not saying that you’re supposed to plan more “spa” days, whatever they are.  I’m suggesting that every day, you could probably linger over a meal with a friend for a few more moments.  You could probably set aside ten or fifteen minutes at some point in the day to read something that would revive or refresh you.  I know, it might cost you some Ronaldo or Shakira time, but we all make choices…

Practice Gratitude.  I know, many people think that “thank-you” notes are a quaint and unnecessary formality, while others think that they’ve all got to be done in a week.  When we view that kind of correspondence in that way, it becomes another source of pressure and a community killer.  Look – when you receive a gift or a card, just jot it down on a list.  And then in the days, and weeks, and months to come, take a moment to write to the person who extended themselves in that way and say, “Thanks for thinking of me.  It matters. Here are some things that are happening now.  You matter.” Write a note, or send a text, or make a phone call.  Allow the practice of gratitude to drive you more deeply into relationship with people who are important to you.

Give more.  We spend a month or so rushing around hoping we’ve gotten enough stuff to give away and not feel guilty about it, and then we spend 11 months doing whatever the heck we want.  Let me encourage you to make giving a part of your following.  Look for ways to free up more time, more energy, and more money for you to share with people and causes that you think align with God’s intentions.

Try something new.  Find a new adventure or passion that will be tied to and also help feed your faith.  Maybe that’s an active step, such as finding a spot on the Texas Mission Team, or volunteering with the Open Door, or the Preschool, or The Table.  Or maybe that’s a quieter role, such as doing some tinkering around this building or visiting some of the lonely in our midst.  Maybe this is the kick in the pants you need to start investing some new time in an Adult discussion group like Faithbuilders or another small group.

Look, my sense is that for ONE DAY ONLY we’re willing to sit and talk with people a little longer, or to pretend to be grateful, or to make a donation to a cause that we don’t really care about, or to try something new… but then we are ready to get back to “normal”.  But really, if Christmas is for one day only – if it’s the 25thand then back to business as usual… I think we’re doing it wrong.

Follow, follow; rise up, Shepherd, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

One Step at a Time

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 9, we heard the plea to “Guide My Feet” (video below).  Our scriptures included Luke 1:67-79 and I Corinthians 9:24-27.  In addition, the congregation surprised me with a recognition of my 25th anniversary as their pastor AND we welcomed new members AND we celebrated baptisms.  It was, as my friend Eddie would say, a “double feature”.  And it was good. 

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

I suspect that if you’ve been here for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that we’ve had a lot going on (evidently, this morning, even more than even I knew about!).  Communion. Congregational meetings. Baptisms.  New Members.  We started a new Advent practice of singing spirituals.  Today many of the kids are on a retreat; we’ve heard an Epistle reading that talks about the race of discipleship that must have made sense to the ancient Greeks, who invented the marathon.  We’ve listened to a Gospel story of an old man singing to his infant son about how that son would guide people’s feet into paths of peace…  When I get to a flurry of activity like this, the first question I need to ask myself is, “Well, what are we going to talk about?”

Let’s start at the beginning.  I suppose that there’s a slim chance you could remember, but I doubt it.  Who taught you how to stand up, and then to walk? Who coached you through that experience? Do you remember the precise exercises you did as you practiced rising, putting one foot in front of the other, and then maybe even tackled the stairs?

Of course not.  In reality, by and large, nobodyis taught how to walk.  We just do it, right? Some of you were 8 months old.  Others were 14 months old.  Barring some sort of medical issue, every child eventually gets it, right?

And – you know this – watching a child who is figuring this all out? It’s hilarious.  They pull themselves up on something, and they toddle along stumbling like drunken sailors until they arrive at the inevitable face plant… Most children do not need someone to teachthem how to walk.  Yet every toddler needs someone to encourage them – to remind them that they cando it – that they are, perhaps, better at it than they realize.

The Christian Life is often called “a walk”, and I think that in large part that’s because it is easily understood as a place where – just as in our earliest experiments in mobility – innate ability, personal responsibility, and communal engagement come together.

Why do you follow Jesus?

Well, most of you would say that in large part, you’re here because you choseto be here. You have responded to the gift of grace that was extended to you. Not many people are here – at least, not for long – if someone is “making” them come.  When we shared communion last week, we noted that there was no such thing as a “force feeding” of the Gospel.

Here’s another example that I suspect will resonate with many of us in the room.  When you, or someone you loved, got sober or clean, how did that happen?  Did anyone make you do it? My experience – which is limited, to be sure – is that healing from addiction cannot move forward without a decision and an act of the individual will.  Some of you have told me that you got clean when you wanted to be clean more than you wanted something else.  I’ve heard about how tired you were of seeing the pain, fear, or disappointment on the faces around you – your parents or your children, in many cases.  Most of the time, moving towards wholeness begins with the day that the individual chooses to move.

But – and this is a big but, and there are a lot of big buts in church – in situations involving dependency and addiction, the individual’s choice and sheer determination are not sufficient.

Unlike learning how to walk (which is a natural aspect of human development), entering the paths of faith can be more like coming out of addiction, seeking to lose forty pounds, or going back to school to get another degree. When one is going through such a complete change, the support of family and friends is essential. Many of you who have gone through such significant life changes have talked with me about the importance of having one particular person who can coach you as you look at the pitfalls and seek to gain strength.

Look, I realize that I can only push any analogy so far, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of us are here because we’ve heard something from the Lord, we’ve seen something in Jesus, we’ve sensed some movement in the Spirit and that has made us say, “Yes! That!  I want that! I’ll run this race!”  You and I are here because God was somehow active in our world and we responded to that activity and showed up.

So the more important question for today, then, is not “why do you follow Jesus?”, but rather, “how are we becoming a community of encouragement and care?”  How are we treating each other – those who have joined us in running this race?

I know that every single person in this building has been in a room crowded with “grown-ups” who are watching a child take their first steps.  How does any experienced walker behave in that situation?  You’ve been there: there’s a lot of cheering and celebration and even videotaping and recording, right?

How about here?

It seems to me as though it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as a community of care and encouragement if we are characterized by condemnation and ridicule.  Think about it: can you imagine a grandparent belittling a two year old for stumbling down the hallway?  Would a mature person study an 18 month old child’s attempts to get from the living room to the kitchen and then post it on Facebook, saying, “Well, this kid’s clearly an idiot.  Yesterday, I thought we were getting somewhere, but today? Please.  Looks like she’s falling back into those old habits.  What a loser. Steer clear of her – she looks pretty needy.”?  Of course not.

In the same way, an essential task of the church of Jesus Christ is to resist condemnation, share affirmation, and practice encouragement. Part of our organizational DNA is reminding people that they can be more than they thought they could.  I’d like to try something with you.  Right now, can you just put down whatever you’re holding and just reach your hands high above your heads.  Get them up there – as high as possible, and hold them there for a moment.  OK. Got it?  Now, listen to me, but watch your neighbor: I want you to reach higher.

You liars! I asked you to get your hands as high above your heads as you could, and you said you were doing that… but then when I asked you what was apparently impossible – reach higher – you did.

Listen: my point here is not that you can’t be trusted… it’s that each of us can probably accomplish more than we think we might be able to if we are given the right amount of encouragement and challenge. Let us pledge as a community to resist the temptation to condemnation and judgmentalism and embrace our identity as we become those who encourage.

Another thing that any competent adult would do when encouraging a toddler to walk is clear the path.  When Sharon and I are trying to get Violet to trust her legs and balance more, we pick up laundry and close the gate to the fireplace and so on.

As we are joined by sisters and brothers who are eager to run the race of faith, can we create worship and discipleship experiences that remove obstacles and hindrances for others?  Maybe it’s providing child care.  It could be taking a good look at musical styles or the language we use. In any case, it’s the responsibility of those who are better at walking to make sure that the pathway is as clear as possible.  And I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: when we do this, we don’t gripe about it. When your friend was rehabbing from his accident or your daughter was learning to walk, you didn’t moan and groan about how you had to make sure that the laundry was picked up before they tried to walk across the room – you did it, and you were happy to do it because you love that person more than you love the things that are laying the path, right?

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about creating a vibrant community of faith, and it’s slightly counterintuitive.  If we’re talking about children learning to walk, we accept it as a given that the two year-olds are learning, and the sixteen or sixty year-olds know it all.  We think that there is some sort of linear progression there, and we’re probably right.  However, as we engage in the walk of faith, we have got to remember that for each and every one of us, there is a lot to learn, and we must be open to learning from someone who is “younger” in one way or another than we are.  Our Gospel reading today showed us a father who was expecting his son to teach him great things; our Epistle was written by Paul, who was one of the best-educated men of his generation – and yet who was nurtured and taught by, and learn from, a group of illiterate fishermen.

When I show up at meetings with other pastors, they sometimes give me grief because I still work with the Youth Group.  “Come on, Carver,” they say.  “Time to get out of that.  That’s a young person’s job.”  Maybe. But I love watching the face of a young person figuring some of this out for the first time.  I am constantly encouraged by – and learning from – the children and young people in our community.  I have learned far more about being fearless from young people than I have from those older than I; children have taught me to use my imagination; and in recent years I’ve seen young adults push me closer to the heart of Jesus than I might go on my own. I’m grateful for the chances I have to teach, and yet I’m more grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn.

“Guide my feet while I run this race” is not merely a prayer wherein I ask God to give me some special coaching; it is a cry for community.  We come in here and we tell each other that we’ve been out there doing it – whatever “it” is – and we cheer for each other, we hold one another’s troubles, and we remember that this is a good place – the right place – for us to be.  Thanks be to God for a community that is vibrant and growing.  Amen.

There IS A Balm

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of Advent, December 2 2018, we talked about the second occasion in that Gospel wherein Jesus restores sight to one who has been blind. We noticed that this passage is intended by the editor of Mark to be a commentary on discipleship and faith – it was so in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first as well.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 10:46-52.  We also referenced Jeremiah 8:18-22.

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

I’ve come to notice something over the years, and perhaps you have, too. Often times when I am getting toward the end of a sermon, our musicians will slide into place behind their instruments. Sometimes I wonder how they know I’m getting close – they don’t have an advance copy or anything – but they pick up on my rhythm or content or pace and often find themselves in position at the close of the message.  Our friend Brian Buckley was a master at this – it was mystifying, and a little spooky, how good he was at knowing when I was done.  In fact, he was so good at it that there were a couple of times when I heard him slide onto the organ bench behind me when I still had a page and a half to go on the message that I wondered, “Wait…should I be done now?”

Of course, if you ask the musicians, they’ll say, “Gee, you listen to a guy for a couple of years/decades, and you kind of get a feel for where he’s going.  There are clues to be heard…”  And because they pick up on these clues, there are shifts in the content and direction of our worship that day.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, Robert Hodgell, c. 1960

I bring that up this morning because as we hear our Gospel reading for today, we ought to be attentive to some clues that are there.  This is the second and last time that Mark reports the healing of a person who was blind.  I think that when Mark mentions the fact that Bartimaeus was blind, he wants us to think back to the lasttime a person’s sight was restored.  In chapter 8, the healing of the man in Bethsaida marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Prior to that miracle, Jesus seemed to be focusing his ministry on a proclamation of the Good News throughout the Galilee that often featured large groups and great wonders (such as the feeding of the 5000).  The incident in Bethsaida effectively closed that part of Jesus’ ministry and led to a new emphasis: one that was focused more intentionally on the disciples and those around him.  After the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, we hear Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, we see the transfiguration, and we listen to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection as he leaves the Galilee and walks toward his destiny in Jerusalem.

Today’s passage – another encounter with a sightless person – therefore is meant to send another signal: there are changes ahead.  We see that Jesus is in Jericho, which is only fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem, and so we ought to expect this story to serve as a bridge between that which we’ve already experienced in the Gospel and that which is to come.

And, in a lot of ways, the encounter with Bartimaeus is a commentary on what has come before.  We meet him and we are told that he is a blind beggar.  In Jesus’ day and age, that is a bit of repetition. If a person was blind, of course that person would be a beggar. There weren’t many other options for folk who experienced disability in that day.  Saying that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar is every bit as redundant as it would be for me to say, “Here, would you like some cold ice?”, or “this is a delicious blueberry pie”, or “I’d like you to meet my friend, who is a disappointed Browns fan…”  You see? Saying one thing (he was blind) implies the other (he was a beggar). Mark’s point is that Bartimaeus was an outsider, and, more than that, he was a no-account outsider.  He’s not a Pharisee, he’s not a rich young ruler. He’s on the fringes of society.

And Bartimaeus is not just any marginalized person, he’s experiencing this marginalization in Jericho.  Jericho, as previously noted, is about fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem. At that time, Jericho was home to a large contingent of priests and Levites – professional workers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a “bedroom community” for the religious elite, if you will. Bartimaeus was a sightless, marginalized, seemingly irrelevant person living in a community that was home to thousands of people who were being paid to watch for and point to the coming Savior of God – the One who, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, would be the “balm” of healing for God’s people.  And yet in spite of the fact that there were all of these professional religious people on hand, it falls to a marginalized, sightless, economically disadvantaged member of the community to be the first person in the Gospel of Mark to call Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.”

Furthermore, you might remember that previously in Mark’s Gospel, whenever someone did call out Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus would hush that person.  This is the first time that Jesus accepts a public acknowledgment of his role.  This is new in the Gospel of Mark.  And it happens in Jericho – home to the religious professionals.  And he’s recognized by someone who is, to say the least, surprising.

Bartimaeus, sculpture by Gurdon Brewster. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/index.html

In addition, Bartimaeus refuses to be hindered in his approach to Jesus.  Do you remember when the children were being brought to the Lord? The disciples kept them away.  Do you remember when the rich young man came and asked to follow? He could not, because his possessions weighed him down.  Bartimaeus won’t let either the crowd or his belongings slow him down, and so he shouts above the thron and throws aside his cloak – which, as a beggar, would have been his most prized possession and a symbol of his identity – and he leaps to his feet and rushes to Jesus’ side.  Do you see how this story is a commentary on what has come before?

There’s another clue that this is not an isolated event, but rather one meant to be read in context.  Just a few verses ago, Jesus looked at the men who had been following him the longest and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here, he looks at a man he’s just met and uses the exact same words.  James and John call Jesus by a professional title, “master”, and ask for positions of power and honor in the kingdom that is to come.  Yet when Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question, the sightless man calls Jesus “Rabbouni”, and says simply, “I’d like to see again”.

Whereas lots of people call Jesus “Rabbi”, which means “teacher”, there are only two people who call him “Rabbouni”, which means “myteacher: Bartimaeus (as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem) and Mary Magdalene (when she recognizes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection).  My point is that Mark intends us to notice that Bartimaeus, for all of his limitations and marginalization, as eager to align his life to God’s will.

In all of this, I am suggesting that the writer of Mark’s Gospel intended this encounter with Bartimaeus to be a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  In these few verses, Jesus calls and invites a person to new possibilities for this life with the understanding and expectation that these new possibilities will change the realities for the one who answers the call. When Bartimaeus received from Jesus the thing for which he’d asked, he understood that the Lord had not healed him so that he could be a sightedbeggar.  When he regained his vision, he left his cloak on the ground for someone who needed it more, and he followed Jesus on the way.  This meeting in Jericho gives Mark the chance to show his readers how disciples ought to respond to the intrusion of the Divine in their lives.

So… in the words of that renowned theologian Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

For a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine Jesus drawing near to you, and opening up new possibilities in yourlife. When the Son of David says to you, “What do you want me to do for you?”, how do you answer? I hope you noticed that when Jesus encountered Bartimaeus, he was respectful.  He didn’t presume to speak for Bartimaeus – instead, he allowed the man to speak for himself.  Similarly, when we celebrate communion in a few moments, there will be an invitation to receive – but there is not ever a “force feeding”.  What do you want Jesus to do for you?  Think about that.

And as you imagine Jesus asking you you, consider this: what will you need to leave behind?  Bartimaeus was in such a hurry to reach the Lord that he threw his cloak aside.  What about you?  What do you need to leave be in order to approach Jesus unhindered?

Some folks might think that is glaringly obvious. You’ve battled a demon – and maybe carried it around with you – for far too long.  A friend of mine told me that he once asked a convert to the faith, “What’s different about your life now that you’re following Jesus?” The new disciple, who had come out of a street gang, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t shoot as many people now as I used to…”

And that’s good.  That’s very good.  But what about you?  Is there a pattern in your life that is contrary to the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?  I suspect you don’t shoot many people, either… but what about your worry?  Or your anxiety? Or your fear?  Can you set those down as you seek to follow?

What about your arrogance or your temper? Can you ask Jesus to give you a spirit of humility?

“What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking.  And as you hear that question, consider who it is that is asking. Is it Jesus the enforcer, the sheriff, the one who’s here to make sure you get what’s coming to you?  Or is it Jesus the Wizard of Oz, who promises you escape and enchantment?  Or is it Jesus the rabbouni, the one who is your teacher?

This morning, this week, this Advent – hold onto those questions. Reflect.  Anticipate.  And praise God for healing that does come.  Praise God that there isa balm in Gilead.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

A Different Kind of King

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On “Christ the King” Sunday, November 25, we talked about the many, many ways that following Jesus can really screw up your life.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the one who deserves all our allegiance?  Our gospel reading was Mark 10:32-45.

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

When you look at your bulletin, or the screen, or perhaps your handy-dandy pocket liturgical calendar, you’ll see that today is called “Christ the King” Sunday. We’ll talk a little more about how this Feast Day came to be a part of our Christian year later on, but for now, I wonder what you think when we say that Christ is the ‘King’. As welcome New Members into our congregation, please give some thought to how it was that you entered into the path of following Jesus?  Who told you about the Lord? What did they say?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are some who invite others to consider an eternal relationship with their creator using what could be called the “turn or burn, baby” method.  Listeners are urged to clean up their acts and to become holier people – leave sin behind, straighten up and fly right, and become the kind of people that God can like a little better.  Some folk see the Gospel as a call to repentance, which can often mean giving up sin and becoming a little nicer.

Another, more attractive approach to teaching others the good news could be referred to as “Jesus is the answer”.  There was a time in my own life where I encouraged people to turn to Jesus at a point when they were simply tired of all of the problems in their lives.  Their marriages were miserable, or they didn’t have any focus, or there was financial difficulty.  Whatever the problem was, Jesus had come to make it better.  An evangelist who subscribes to this school of thought might say that you should become a Christian because it will help you get rid of, or at least deal with, your problems better.

I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade, and truth be told, I’ve lived in both of these Gospel camps before. But I don’t stay in either of them very often now.  The way of discipleship, at least as it is described in the Gospel of Mark, has little connection with either the “turn or burn” crowd or the “Jesus is the answer” folks. Today, we join up with Jesus and his disciples as they are on the way to Jerusalem.  Most faithful Jewish men in that day and age tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal.  No doubt, that’s what the twelve disciples thought was going on, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to speak of it in other terms.

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus with his followers

This passage from Mark 10 contains the third of Jesus’ predictions about his own suffering and death.  In Mark 8, right after Peter’s confession that Jesus is in fact the Holy One sent by God, Jesus reveals to his most faithful followers that he will suffer and die.  Then in Mark 9, as the group is still basking in the glow of the Transfiguration and the healing of a boy who suffered from seizures, Jesus calls them out of that into a consideration of his impending struggle.  In each of these prior circumstances, the disciples don’t have a clue. They just can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about – how can he be the Messiah and die?  That’s just crazy talk.

He’s back at it today – he’s just laid two heavy teachings on them – one about marriage and divorce and sexual ethics and the other about money. And then he says pretty explicitly that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be forced to go through a sham trial, he’ll be beaten and killed, and he’ll rise on the third day.  In spite of the apparently obvious nature of this prediction, James and John start to daydream about how good it’s going to be when Jesus finally starts acting like a king.  Despite the fact that whenever Jesus has brought this up, he’s had to quell any talk about how great that’s going to be, James and John get so wound up in their discussion that it actually seems like a good idea to them to call “dibs” on the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.  We know that because Jesus looks at them and says, “You fellas just don’t get it, do you?” But then look at what happens next. He doesn’t yell at them.  He doesn’t scold them.  He simply reminds them that they don’t know what the kingdom will be like.  They can’t imagine the crown he’ll be wearing – a crown made of thorns, crushed into his skull.  They haven’t the foggiest notion about what is waiting for Jesus on the hill known as Calvary, where he would be nailed to a tree and hung out to die.  And then, gently, he says, “You don’t understand anything at all about the cup that I will drink, but you will – because you will share that cup.”

And it’s not just James and John who don’t get it.  When the ten other disciples hear that James and John are trying to claim the best spots at the messianic inauguration, they are upset! I suppose you could make the claim that these guys were really looking out for Jesus here and were indignant by the petty request made by their friends…but I think that Mark’s pretty clear that they were irritated because if Jesus didend up giving James & John the two best seats in the house, where were the rest of them supposed to sit?

And again, Jesus sits them down and invites them to a time of teaching wherein he is gentle and patient.  He’s not belittling them, he’s not berating them, and he’s not telling them to straighten up and fly right.  Instead, he’s trying to help them re-shape their expectations.  He’s hanging in there with them.

Why?  Why is he responding like this?

Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the first time that the twelve disciples appear to be slow, dimwitted, selfish, ambitious, and thick-headed. But here they are, following Jesus. They may not grasp all of the details concerning this coming kingdom.  But they are following Jesus.  They are not following Jesus because they want his help in getting rid of a few bad habits, and they are not following him because it’s easier than whatever it was that they used to do before they started following him.  But they arefollowing Jesus.

And listen to this: if the first readers of Mark’s gospel knew anything about following Jesus, it was this: following Jesus can really screw up your life.  After all, remember what we said about this little book when we started this exploration: Mark is written by a man who is jail, on death row, for preaching about Jesus.  The early followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were used as human torches at Nero’s garden parties.  So far as we can tell none of the twelve disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes.  And those first Christians who were not killed were treated as outcasts – they were told over and over again that they did not belong with the Jewish believers, and the Gentiles thought they were crazy – they called them cannibals and incestuous.  If there is one thing that the readers of Mark’s Gospel knew, it was that following Jesus will screw with your head and could really mess up your life.

Twenty-five years ago, I took a group of young people on a mission trip to Mexico.  Two weeks after that trip, I left that church and moved to Pittsburgh.  About five months later, I got a really thick envelope from one of the kids.  I tore open the envelope, expecting to hear sunny news about her life.  Instead, I read,

Dear Dave, I just wanted to thank you for totally ruining my senior year of High School.  My whole life, I’ve looked forward to this year, where we’d be on top.  My friends and I had all kinds of plans for how we were going to rule the school, and for Prom and Homecoming and parties.  But the trip to Mexico changed all that.  My friends are materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – they can’t get their heads out of their butts to save their lives. The things that they want are so small…of course, all of that was true last year, too – only I didn’t know that last year.  The trip to Mexico really opened my eyes, and showed me that I am materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – and I hate that about myself. Why can’t I be lazy and happy like my friends?  But no, I have to care now.  I have to think about other people.  That mission trip really screwed up everything about my senior year….

Do you see?  She got it! Yay!  She had been goingto church all her life…but here she was thinking about followingJesus!  The good thing is that the letter was ten pages long, and by about page eight or nine, she had gotten past some of the anger and had decided that if she had to choose between being selfish and materialistic and following Jesus, she’d rather be with Jesus…but it was a struggle.  Because when she took Jesus seriously, she didn’t fit into any of the really comfortable slots in her high school.

Beloved, if you are here expecting me to scold you into the Kingdom of God, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t think that the reason that Jesus came was so that you wouldn’t drink quite as much, or so you would think about sex a little less often, or write to your grandmother more.  If you need to hear someone say that it’s time to turn or burn, baby, well, I don’t think I’m your guy.

And if you are here because your life is miserable and you think that somehow I can help lobby Jesus onto your side so that you have fewer problems – if you think that if you are able to get yourself cleaned up a little bit then Jesus will reward you with a new car, a better boyfriend, or whiter teeth, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Some People Following Jesus, Gary Bunt, Contemporary British Artist

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are holier than everyone else, if by holy we mean people who smoke less, or cuss less, or fornicate less than the general population.  Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer.

And as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are richer, or better employed, or have fresher breath or fewer neuroses than the general population. He didn’t come to make us more socially acceptable.

Jesus came to be the ransom.  To give his life so that we might have real life.  Jesus came to be God for humanity and to be humanity for God. And as he marches toward his death in Jerusalem, he is imploring the twelve to stick with him.  He’s not promising them anything, and he’s not threatening them.  He’s asking them to stay the course because that is the only way that they will be able to become the community that he is calling them to be.  For a couple of years, he has taught them “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  Now he is equipping them to be the kingdom!  To enflesh that Kingdom in the world!  To be the sign of God’s presence in and through creation.

I hope that each of our new members will recall that in the Presbyterian Church we are governed by both the Bible and a document called The Book of Order.  In the very beginning of that book, it says that the church exists in order to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (F-1.0304)

I love that!  It tells the truth that the only way that your neighbors or mine will know of the grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love of the Savior is if somehow the body of Christ – that’s us – is able to exhibit that grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love.

When the twelve don’t get it – here in Mark chapter ten, or anywhere else in the Gospels – Jesus doesn’t call them morons and tell them to get lost.  No, he calls them together and invites them to try again and to lean on each other and to stick together – because the only way that they’ll be able to make it in the world is if they do stick together.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will do something incredibly difficult.  It will take everything he has.  And he is asking his followers to stay with him when it happens.  And to take over for him when he leaves.

Discipleship is hard work, my friends.  It would be easy if all we had to do was lie a little less often or budget our money a little better.  But it’s all of who we are. Discipleship is not a part-time job. The only way for me to give all of who I am is if I can count on you to help me where I am coming up short.  I can be forgiving if you forgive me.  I can be gracious if you show me grace.  I can love unconditionally if you do that for me.  I can give my life away…if you come, too.

I mentioned that today is “Christ the King” Sunday.  Most of the great “feast days” of the church are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The church has observed Advent and Lent and Easter and Christmas for millennia. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that “Christ the King” was added to the church calendar.  This observance came about because in the aftermath of World War I, much of the world’s population lived in places where tyrants and dictators were gaining strength.  These rulers insisted that Christians ought to somehow compartmentalize their faith, and see “religion” as a nice little hobby, but to give their highest allegiance to the government and the flag of one particular nation.  The church said, “No, it is Christ, not any human or any nation, who is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.”

Beloved, we are called to be committed. We are called to live the Christian ideal – that of following Christ.  Obviously, Jesus is concerned with your personal life and your habits. Obviously, Jesus is concerned with the choices you make.  But these things are not a precondition to becoming disciples – those things are matters for discussion once you are on the road.  Let us join each other in this holy, wholly difficult task of following the Master as we love and serve those among whom he has placed us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Is He Talking to ME?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

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

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

What Makes You Angry?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 11, we began our time in the Word by hearing a brief word of God’s care for the weak and the marginalized in our midst as we overheard a snippet of the conversation between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33:12-14. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:13-16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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