Glad and Generous Hearts

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 24, we considered The Heidelberg Catechism and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 19:7-14 and Acts 2:42-47.

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

So, here’s how we began our 2019-2020 Confirmation Class last Sunday evening.  In addition to the young people who were there beginning their journey towards church membership, we once again had an older teen who is volunteering as assistant teacher.  When we were going around the circle introducing ourselves, Maddy said, “Well, when I did this five years ago, Carly was here to help Dave, and that was important to me.  I think that sometimes it’s helpful to have someone, you know, younger, who can explain things differently than Dave.”

Ouch!  But it’s a fair statement.  The circle is always better when it’s more inclusive.

And we are not the first church where this has happened.  As we continue in our discussion of the creeds that have shaped our faith, I’d like to take you back to 1559.  Frederick III has just become an Elector – a sort of regional governor – of Germany.  No sooner had he taken office, though, when he had a ringside seat to a full-blown church fight.  Here’s the story.

In this corner, we have Tileman Heshusius.  He’s a professor of preaching at Heidelberg University and is also the preacher at the local church.  Heshusius is a staunch Lutheran – one of the most important aspects of theology, in his mind, is what one believes happens during the Lord’s Supper.  He believed, taught, and preached that the actual body and blood of Jesus was present in the sacrament.  Anything else, thought Heshusius, was nonsense.

And in the other corner, we have Wilhelm Klebitz (I tried, but could not find a picture of this fellow).  He’s a student at the university, and a Deacon in the congregation.  He advocated, very forcefully, that while every believer has access to the real and substantial presence of the risen Christ while taking the sacrament, there is no literal body or blood.

If I were to say that this was a heated debate, you wouldn’t get the full impact of what happened.  While Heshusius was out of town, the other professors awarded Klebitz his degree. When Heshusius returned, he was furious, and in a sermon he called that act a “hellish, devlish, cursed, cruel, and terrible thing” and said that Klebitz was a devil from the pit of hell.  The next week, when these two men were together at the communion table leading worship, Heshusius literally wrestled the cup of wine out of Klebitz’ hands.  The congregation watched, dumbfounded, as the two pastors fought in the chancel.   Finally, Frederick had had enough and he kicked them both out of Heidelberg.  But then he had another problem: he needed someone to preach at his church and he needed a professor for the university.  More than that, he was concerned that the church argument between the previous folks had turned off the young people.  He wrote that his problems were many:

Therefore, we also have ascertained, that, by no means the least defect of our system, is found in the fact that our blooming youth is disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine… The consequence has ensued that they have, in too many instances, grown up without the fear of God and the knowledge of his Word, having enjoyed no profitable instruction, or otherwise have been perplexed with irrelevant and needless questions, and at times have been burdened by unsound doctrines.[1]

But what to do?  How to get the kids to pay attention to religion, and learn the faith?  Frederick had just the ticket: he went out and hired Zacharias Ursinus, age 28, to be the professor of preaching at the university, and a 26 year old named Caspar Olivianus to be the preacher at the local church.  I’m not sure whether these young whippersnappers had goatees, or played the guitar, or know all the right slang words, but I do know that Frederick asked them to come up with a means by which young people might be instructed in the path of Christian discipleship.  Moreover, Frederick asked them to do it in such a way as to bring people together, rather than driving them further apart.

In January of 1563, then, these men published the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers covering the depths of human sinfulness, the profundity of God’s redemptive love, and the importance of our gratitude for that redemption.  It is a remarkable document in many ways.

It is, first of all, deeply personal.  This is not a sweeping series of broad theological statements requiring intellectual assent, but rather a string of heartfelt questions addressed to the individual.  For instance, this is how the catechism begins:

  1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
    A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Do you hear how different that is from our previous statements like the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds or the Scots Confession?  It’s just lovely!

In addition, it is conciliatory in tone.  The authors deliberately sought to find areas of agreement in Jesus Christ.  There is little trace of the controversy that birthed the catechism within it.

And it is remarkable in its emphasis on the positive aspects that flow from a life of discipleship in Jesus.  If you read it, you’ll discover an echo of the 19th Psalm focusing on the beauty of God’s law, one that stresses the goodness that can come from walking in the path of obedience.

Too often, the Christian faith is presented as a caricature.  God is depicted as a grumpy old man who is really mad at you because you’re such a miserable sinner.  Maybe you grew up in a church that defined faithful living as all the stuff we’re not supposed to do: no swearing, no lying, no cheating, no dancing, no card playing…  In some churches, the message seems to be this: If you want to make God happy, then straighten up and fly right, Buster.  Stop doing all that stuff that ticks God off, and then maybe God will have mercy on your pathetic little soul…

But the Heidelberg Catechism is beautiful in the way that it treats the laws of God.  In fact, the discussion of the commandments is located in the section of the Catechism dealing with gratitude because Christian living is not primarily about avoiding the negative and unpleasant realities of sin, but rather embracing the positive and joyful aspects of daily life.  I’d like to look at two sections of the Catechism by way of illustration.

Questions 110 and 111 deal with the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not steal”.  If the only possible interpretation of “stealing” was breaking into my home or robbing me on the subway, well then it’s easy to have a simple prohibition.  But the Catechism suggests that the commandment addresses a more pervasive human condition, that of greed.  The answer to question 110 indicates that the eighth commandment “forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but.. also… all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor’s goods…”

It’s fair to include in this definition, then, deliberate attempts to underpay workers or to cheat the poor.  This is particularly relevant during the Christmas season, when we are so pressured to buy more and more stuff for loved ones, colleagues, and, of course, ourselves.  The Catechism reminds us that the Law of God is concerned with who is getting the money for these products.  Are those shoes that look so great being crafted in subhuman conditions by 13 year-olds?  Is that furniture that looks so amazing in my den the result of deforestation in a country that desperately needs a rain forest?

You see, our economics can never simply be about saying “I paid for this, and so it’s mine.”  Who did you pay, and who got paid?  Who else made that bargain possible?  In your purchase, did you somehow support, enrich, or encourage someone who truly needs that income?  That is the law of love applied to the eighth commandment.

Similarly, question 112 deals with the ninth commandment which forbids false witness.  We are cautioned, of course, to avoid outright deception and deceit that come straight from the pit of Hell.  And we are also reminded that human speech is a glorious gift.  How dare we abuse that gift by contorting it into falsehood?  In addition to refraining from lying, I am forbidden to take your words and meaning and twist them into something else entirely, implying that you are saying something altogether different than that which you meant.  The Catechism warns us against slander and gossip.

Wow, is that relevant in the age of social media and electronic communication, or what?  Between Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and Email and Texting, it is so easy to yield to the first impulse and to launch an attack, spread a falsehood, perpetuate a rumor, or join in a group smear campaign against someone else. The Catechism says, “In judicial and all other matters I am to love the truth, and to speak and confess it honestly.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, a contemporary theologian and philosopher, puts it this way: “Thou must not take cheap shots.  Thou must earn thy right to disagree… the point being it is much more difficult (I don’t say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.”[2]

The Catechism goes on to instruct us that the ninth commandment calls us to defend and promote our neighbor’s good name.

I want to pause there and remind you that we’re talking about a document that was written as a result of a church fight.  Frederick III asked for a way through a conflicted time, and the resultant catechism affirms that we are called to build up our neighbor in what we say about her or him even when, or perhaps especially when, we are angry.

That might be timely for you this morning.  Maybe you’re irritated with a fellow member of this congregation; perhaps you’re preparing yourself for another holiday meal with your “idiot” brother-in-law whose politics you cannot stand; or maybe you’re enraged by the current state of affairs in Washington DC.  The question is the same: in what you say about or to people, are you, to the best of your ability, promoting their good name? Are you loving your neighbor in your speech? Is the world a better place because of what you say and how you say it?  That is keeping the commandment!

Acts chapter two describes the first Christian community.  I know we are the “First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights,” but this passage is about First Church of Anywhere, anytime, anyplace.  It describes their gatherings… day by day – that is to say, they are normal, and unremarkable.  They met – how? With “glad and generous hearts”.  When they looked at each other, and spoke to and about each other – they did so with generosity of spirit.  The result was that they enjoyed the good will of all the people.

Beloved in the Lord, the scripture is plain: God’s law is a gift.  It is designed to lead us to embrace what is best.

May we be known as people who are quick to encourage and affirm; as those who are reluctant to profit from another’s misery or misfortune; as people whose hearts, minds, and spirits are indeed glad and generous.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

We concluded the message by affirming our faith using

questions 1, 2, 110, 111, and 112 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

  1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

    That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

  2. Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

    First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.

    110. Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment (concerning theft)?

    God forbids not only outright theft and robbery but also such wicked schemes and devices as false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury; we must not defraud our neighbor in any way, whether by force or by show of right. In addition God forbids all greed and all abuse or squandering of His gifts.

    111. Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?

    I must promote my neighbor’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.

    112. Q. What is required in the ninth commandment (concerning false witness)?

    I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard. Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil’s own works, under penalty of God’s heavy wrath. In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbor’s honor and reputation.

[1] From the original preface to the Catechism in 1563.  Available in its entirety here: http://heidelberg-catechism.s3.amazonaws.com/Original%20Preface%20of%20Heidelberg%20Catechism%20(1563).pdf

[2] Quoted in Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Heart and Mind, edited by Douglas Huffman (Kregel Academic and Professional Press, 2012), pp 88-89.

Wearing the Uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Appreciation for A Faithful Guide

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio.  While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…

I took a rather circuitous route to the Pastoral Vocation.  As mentioned in the previous post, I spent many years specializing in “youth” ministry – it took me more than eight years to complete my Master’s Degree and satisfy my denomination’s requirements for ordination – a place I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go.

And yet in September, 1990, it happened.  Not only had I jumped through all the hoops, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s – lo and behold, there was a congregation that wanted me to serve as (Associate) Pastor!  One of the first things I did as a pastor was to dip into my book allowance and buy a slim volume entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity  by Eugene Peterson.  I’m sure that it was the best ten bucks the church ever spent on me.  I recall sitting in my study, reading portions of it out loud to anyone who happened to have had the poor timing to be walking past or telephoning me at the moment.  My takeaway from that book was that while the church really did want me (or someone like me) to take care of the business of being the religious institution that counted for respectability in the neighborhood, nobody in the congregation would really ever give a rat’s patootie about the three things that constitute the core of the Pastoral Vocation: prayer, studying scripture, and offering spiritual direction.

Peterson proved prophetic in many ways: I’ve often received memos for failing to account for some particular budget anomaly, and I’ve been reamed out more than once for choosing the wrong music, and I’ve been challenged on many occastions for being too political (or not political enough) from the pulpit.  Sessions and Presbyteries and Assemblies care about results, about data, and about growth.  Eugene pointed out to me early on that nobody was going to bug me about the most important stuff – the stuff that kept me alive, and that really mattered to people when they were calling from the ER or wondering what had happened to their marriage or how they might survive the loss of yet another child.

I grew to see Eugene Peterson as a guide in ministry, and I devoured his writing. And then about a dozen years ago: a great gift.  I was facing a challenge in ministry for which, to my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else I trusted had written a book.  And so I wrote a letter (on paper, through the snail mail!) to Eugene, then living in (semi) retirement in Montana. I asked if he might mentor me through this particular challenge, and after a few weeks I received an invitation from Eugene to call him at his home (on his land line!).  We met several times in person and more frequently via telephone for the next eight months or so, and I was greatly blessed to be the recipient of his wisdom, his energy, his insight, and, most especially, his care.  That time made me a better pastor and a better person.

In my previous post, I wrote about the joys of learning from someone younger than me. When I’d finished Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired, I went in the other direction and picked up the last book that Eugene published prior to his death. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God  is a collection of 49 sermons (yes, there are seven units that contain seven messages each) that Eugene originally preached to the congregation of Christ Our King parish Bel Air, Maryland.  What a joy it has been to hear these words in his deep and gravelly voice – words that bring me into consideration of The Word; words that ask important questions and point to great beauty and poke holes in easy answers.

For instance, in a sermon on Psalm 23 he writes, “Our lives are lived in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow…Life in the desert for both Shepherd and sheep is no soft, sun-drenched idyll on a south sea island.  It is menaced by the dark shadows of the beast-infested valley. The threats to life are all around, but the presence of the Shepherd guides and leads, dispersing the threats.” (pp. 101-102)

In his introduction to the sermons on prophecy, he writes, “Everyone more or less believes in God or gods.  But most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or, failing that, we refashion God to suit our convenience.  Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss.  The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, wehave to fit into God.” (pp. 115-116)

In reflecting on his growth in wisdom, he said, “Not everything I did or said took place behind the pulpit or in the sanctuary.  Not everything I was learning about grace and holiness was coming out of the Bible.  I was also being tutored by a woman recovering from a heart attack, by a family struggling in poverty, by young people finding words to express their newfound faith honestly and unpretentiously, or, in the words of our text, by hearing wisdom crying aloud in the street (Proverbs 1:20).” (p. 185)

In this, his final volume, I hear Eugene reminding me of truth I first encountered three decades ago: that the Christian life is all about congruence – it’s not about some extraordinary event or immersion or experience that we get once in a while, but then it’s business as usual; rather, faithful Christian living is done Monday – Sunday in workplaces and schools and hospitals and homes.  Our calling as believers is to look for ways to participate in what God is doing in each of those places; my calling as a Pastor is to point to how that might happen and invite your consideration of that as it does its quiet work in your own heart.

It’s only a hummingbird, and not a kingfisher – but she was a welcome companion all morning!

I’ve been reading his work and drafting this appreciation seated at a picnic table overlooking a lake in Eastern Ohio.  As I’ve been doing so, a number of hummingbirds have been flitting in and out, buzzing me, chasing each other, and sipping on the nectar in the feeder. This is not a gift I deserve nor one for which I could have planned, but at this season in my life and ministry, I am grateful for such reminders of grace and beauty and perseverance and delicacy and energy.  My prayer for you today is that you have the presence of faithful mentors and guides who help you to see what really matters in the world and in your own life. Thanks be to God!

I realized that I’d omitted a photo of my bride from previous posts at the lake. She is here on the weekends and source of great comfort and joy!

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

Weaponizing the Gospel

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 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

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

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

What Were You Made For?

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 3, 2019, we saw an unlikely group of “allies” come together in an attempt to entrap Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:13-17.  Our Old Testament reading was a vivid reminder from Genesis 1:26-28

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

As I begin this morning, I feel my affinity for the Professional Organization of English Majors compels me to acknowledge that the title of this message, and therefore the signboard outside of this church, consists of a phrase which includes a dangling preposition.

Most normal people will readily understand questions like “Where are you at?” or “What are you talking about?”.  Sticklers for some of the archaic “rules” in English, however, will cringe when they hear such construction, and even more annoyingly, will smugly correct you.

When faced with an editor who attempted to rebuke him for such a “crime”, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about the English language) is alleged to have scrawled in the margin this note: “This is the type of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put!”

As any speaker of any language knows, sometimes the most effective communication goes against the strictest rules of the grammarian.  In order to have clear and concise meaning, we sometimes have to be direct, even if it might make a 9thgrade English teacher (or Sharon Carver) cringe.

Today’s Gospel reading contains a number of very interesting points all of which center around the appropriate interpretation or application of a rule and the impact of that on one’s view of life and culture and faith.

As we mentioned last week, we are in the midst of reading through Mark’s account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  We have already seen several conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are clearly looking for a way to eliminate him as a threat to themselves. Mark informs us that on this day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to catch Jesus in his own words – they were trying to set a trap for him.

Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

A word about these men: we’ve seen the Pharisees many times in the Gospel; they were one of the three main sects of Judaism at the time.  Their name literally means “separated ones”.  They emerged as a distinct group about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and at first, they were men of the highest religious and moral character – by some accounts the best people in the nation. Yet as time went by, more and more people simply “inherited” membership in this group and the caliber of its witness suffered.  In Jesus day, the Pharisees talked a good game about separating oneself for God’s purposes, but did not always live that out.

The Herodians, on the other hand, are mentioned very infrequently in Scripture. As their name contains that of the civil ruler, it is assumed that this was a group of men who were far more secular in their approach to life.  Any power they had derived from the government established by Rome, and as such they were very vested in maintaining or even strengthening the status quo.  Whereas the Pharisees bristled at the claims of Herod and the rule of Rome, the Herodians sought to please their patrons by any means necessary.

And I hope it goes without saying that a quick examination of our (or any nation’s) history would indicate that these are not merely historical oddities.  We see time and time again in our own story the ways that people are willing to use faith to either prop up or bring down a rival political party.  We don’t call them Herodians anymore, but a glance at our headlines for the past generation reveals any number of religious leaders who are willing to contort the teachings of Christ so as to prop up the political empire that in return empowers or enriches them.

We can see, therefore, how much Jesus threatened both the religious and the political status quo when he manages to unite the Pharisees and the Herodians in a common task: that of eliminating him.  In our own day, it would be like walking into a Starbucks and seeing Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Kamala Harris sipping lattes.  I mean, it’s possible – but it would be very surprising.

They come together and they ask Jesus a question about the rules: is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans?  Should we do this?

In that day, there were three main taxes levied by the Romans.  The “ground tax” was paid by landowners, and it imposed a levy of 10% of the grain and 20% of the wine and fruit that the land produced. Obviously, this tax only applied to those who were wealthy enough to own property.

There was an income tax that applied to all wage-earners, and it was approximately 1% of a person’s income.

And finally, there was the “poll tax”.  Every male between the ages of 14 and 65, and every female between the ages of 12 and 65 was required to offer Caesar a single denarius every year simply for the privilege of existing.  A denarius was the daily wage for an agricultural worker in Jesus’ day.

It seems as though this last tax is the issue to which Jesus responds, because he asks them to show him a denarius coin.

But look at how Jesus engages these men: he calls “shenanigans” on them right away in several different ways.  Before we consider Jesus’ conversation, though, let’s think about why in the world he would ask for a coin.

Tell me – what do you know about a quarter?  Please describe the 25 cent coin that is in your pockets or on your nightstands today.  Whose likeness does it contain? What does it say? What are the symbols?

Similarly, think about the pennies that are cluttering up the top of your dresser.  Whose image is on the penny? What are the words or symbols contained on it?

The reason I ask those questions is to demonstrate that I don’t need to hold up a coin and walk you through an examination of that piece of metal in order to talk about it.  We all know what a quarter is, and what it says, and what it’s used for.

The “Tribute Penny” bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius

And yet Jesus had the Pharisees and the Herodians fetch a coin for him.  Why?  I would suggest at least two reasons. First, I think that his questions were intentional.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He wanted them to see the image, and to read the inscription.  The coin had the likeness of Caesar, and on the “heads” side, contained the phrase, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the august god”. The “tails” side read “Pontif Maxim”, or “the greatest high priest”.

I want you to imagine how compromised and embarrassed these lofty leaders of Judaism – especially the Pharisees – must have, or should have, felt when they were sitting in the Temple reading aloud about Tiberius’ claims to divinity.

Moreover, Jesus asked them “whose image” is on the coin.  Do you remember the 10 commandments? Number 2? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”

And do you remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Jesus clearing all the moneychangers out of the temple?  The moneychangers were there because the religious leaders like the Pharisees thought that it was sacrilegious to use coins containing the image of one who claimed to be divine in the worship of God.  Having a coin with the picture of Caesar on it was, in their ruling, a violation of the second commandment.  So they made their own temple coins that were to be used instead of the ones containing the Emperor’s image.  Yet here, when they are trying to eliminate Jesus, none of them seem to have a problem with pulling the offensive bit of metal out of whatever passed for pockets in their ancient robes.  Do you see? In asking them to produce a coin and describe it, Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy and exposes their shallowness.

Then he answers them. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The Greek word he uses is actually apodidomi, and it means, literally, “return”.  The old versions translate it as “render” – and it is usually used to convey the idea that one is to give up, give back, return, or restore.

Looking at the coin, he seems to say, “Well, that apparently has Caesar’s image on it.  So it belongs to Caesar.  You ought to give it back to him.  And anything with God’s image, well, give that back to God.”

On the surface, it’s a non-answer, but if you dig a little deeper, he is actually acknowledging that a civil government – even an unjust one – receives some sort of support from the population.  Taxes must be paid but, more importantly, God must be honored. Jesus’ answer here and the way that it was subsequently interpreted may have something to do with the fact that the crowd that had cheered him as a deliverer from Rome on Sunday would be crying for his death on Thursday and Friday.

I’d like to look for a moment at the unspoken question that Jesus’ answer implies. “Return to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s” begs the question: how much of what you have, who you are, belongs to the government or the culture?  And how much of that belongs to God?

And how you consider those questions might drive you back to the questions that the Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus.  When they came to him, they said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” and then followed that immediately with “Should we?”

This is a tacit confession of something that you already know: there is sometimes a deep and profound difference between that which is “legal” and that which is “right”.  I would suggest that in his answer to the leaders who were trying to trap him, Jesus is calling his followers to always take the high road and seek to honor God by doing what is right.

Think for a moment about these things: slavery, compulsory education, child labor, a forty-hour work week, the Holocaust, the right for women or people of color to vote, the incarceration of sexual minorities, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.  Each of those things has at one point been legal or illegal.  Obviously, declaring something to be “legal” does not make it “right” or “good”.

For instance, in the USA in 2019 it is perfectly legal for a payday loan company to charge an annual percentage rate of up to 800%  – the average is 400% – interest to a poor family looking to bridge a week or two between paychecks.

It is also currently a federal crime to leave food or water in the desert in order to assist those who need it. This week four women were convicted of doing this in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  Sharon and I have driven through there, and I want to tell you that you would not want to be there an hour without water.  And yet four women from a humanitarian aid group now face up to six months in Federal Prison for leaving jugs of water in places where migrants might find them.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we have many issues in our society, including usury and border protection.  But needing to borrow money to pay your bills is not a license to extort, and no one in the United States of America, no matter how they arrived here, should die of thirst because our government mandates it.

The coin in the Gospel reading is not the only image-bearer up for discussion this morning. I tried to tell at least some of you on the day you were born, and I seek to remind each of you every day that you are created in the Divine image.  God made you, and you carry God’s image.

Are you stewarding that image well?  Are you caring for it, and living into it?

I hope that I can say that I agree with Jesus when I say that our government and our culture has a claim on us.  We need to recognize and honor that in many ways.  And yet we must also acknowledge that both the nation and the self belong to God.

Great thinkers and believers throughout history have suggested that Christianity should make you a better citizen.  I mean this with my whole heart, and I gladly affirm the fact that we ought to be training our children to live in a world characterized by “liberty and justice for all.”

That has a cost, dear friends.  Some of you are old enough to know who Ruby Bridges is.  When she was six years old, a Federal Judge said that “liberty and justice for all” meant that this African – American child was entitled to be educated at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She would be the first, and the only, person of color in attendance there.  Before her first day at that school ended, every single white parent had collected their children, and all but one of the teachers walked out.  She remained the only student in the class, taught by the only teacher who remained. Every day, she was escorted through crowds of angry protesters calling her every name in the book and even shoving in front of her an open casket with a black baby doll inside.

Psychologist Robert Coles was studying children and desegregation in the American South, and he took a personal interest in Ruby.  He noticed that as she was walking through the crowds, her lips were moving.

Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?”

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”

Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”[2]

This six-year old daughter of impoverished parents who could neither read nor write absorbed enough of the truth of scripture that she was able to see the Divine image not only in herself, but in her tormentors.  And she changed the world.

Or maybe you saw the recent film Hacksaw Ridge.  It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who refused to carry a weapon or take the life of another, and yet received the US Medal of Honor for carrying 50 – 100 wounded soldiers to safety in the horrible battle of Okinawa during World War II.

The religious leaders asked the Lord two questions: Is it legal? And is it right?

When faced with that bit of trickery, Jesus provided a hugely complicated answer that is open ended and very difficult to live into.  He knew, and they knew, that that denarius was made specifically so that a subjugated people could offer – legally – a confession of faith and economic tribute to the occupying forces.  That’s what it was made for.

What about you?  What were you made for? Whose image do you bear?  How much does that mean to you?

You bear the image of the One who formed you.  You were made to show the heart of God to the world around you – to mirror the hope and justice and love of God every day. Thanks be to God for the people of God who are willing to do this.  Amen.

[1]Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

[2] A Child Leads”, in The Christian Century March 29, 2017.

Starting Now

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 27, 2019, we followed Jesus back into Jerusalem and considered a confrontation with the religious leaders of the day.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:27 – 12:12, and we listened to the “song of the vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-7  

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

As we continue in our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, let me remind you of some things we’ve already seen.  You’ll recall that the first part of this narrative contains many scenes of Jesus as a healer, a wonder-worker, and a man who was out amongst the crowds.  That time in the Galilee, however, ended when Jesus entered into a time of intentional discipleship with those who were closest to him. Between now and Easter, we’ll be dealing with the third major section in the Gospel, his arrival in Jerusalem on the day we’ve come to call “Palm Sunday” and the events of Holy Week.

Last week we considered a story that might be the “frame” for this whole section – the cleansing of the Temple and the judgment on the fig tree that was a pointed lesson to his disciples on the nature of the religious leaders at that time.  Today we’ll look at the first of five specific confrontations that follow the day when Jesus ran the money-changers and profiteers out of the temple.

Allow me to begin by making a few observations about the text as we have heard it and then I’d like to invite you to think creatively about the parable.

The Chief Priests Ask Jesus by What Right Does He Act in This Way, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Jesus and his friends are coming into Jerusalem and the religious establishment asks him, essentially, “Hey, buddy, who do you think you are, anyway?”  I find that this conversation is in some ways a mirror image of the sacred and powerful time that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?  And who do you say that I am?”  Back in chapter 8, that gave those who were interested the opportunity to confess their faith and give voice to their doubt.  In today’s reading, however, it’s clear that a group of powerful people who felt threatened or irritated by Jesus were seeking to put him in a position of defending himself.

In reality, though, Jesus turns the tables on them by asking them to recall John the Baptist’s invitation to repentance and forgiveness.  Jesus isn’t playing a trick on them here by answering a question with a question: he’s making a serious statement about who he is and what he’s here to do.  He’s essentially saying to them, “Look: you’re not going to believe me whatever I say because you’ve already got your minds made up.”

One little twist that our narrator adds is that we are given all of this dialogue in the “historical present” tense – “They say to him… He says to them…” and so on.  What that means is that when Jesus looks at them and says, “Answer me!”, he is inviting readers of all times and places to do the same thing.  In chapter 8, he asked his first disciples, “Who do you think I am?”  Here in chapters 11 and 12 we have the obligation to reflect on that question in a personal way.

And then, even though he says in verse 33 that he’s not going to tell them under whose authority he’s acting, he goes ahead and tells a story that makes it pretty plain.

You may recall last week, when we talked about the fact that there are several places where the Old Testament speaks of Israel as though it were a fig tree.  This morning you’ve already heard of Isaiah’s referencing the people of God as a vineyard.  And before you get all worked up about mixed metaphors, let me remind you that if your grandmother called you a peach and your grandfather called you the apple of his eye, you would know in a second that they weren’t really talking about healthy snack foods – they were voicing their delight in you.

The “Song of the Vineyard” that begins Isaiah 5 describes God’s disappointment in the crop that has been produced.  It ends with a description of the harvest: the Lord had expected justice (mišpāṭ), but was dismayed to find bloodshed (miśpāḥ); he had hoped for righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ), but found only moaning (ṣĕʻāqâ).

From the Codex Aureus of Echternach, an 11th-century illuminated Gospel

In telling his learned audience a story about a vineyard, Jesus was sure that they would remember this sad song about God’s hopes for his people.  In this current version, however, there is a significant change: the owner of the vineyard is now holding those who had stewardship over the property to be responsible.  He’s not frustrated or angry at the vines themselves; he’s irate because those who he had trusted to tend and care for and nurture his property were not being faithful in their duty.

And so, as you’ve heard, he sends a series of messengers to set them straight, and they respond violently and ultimately kill the landowner’s son.

It’s easy to jump straight to what might be an obvious conclusion: that Jesus is the son who was killed, that John the Baptist and other prophets were the previous messengers who were treated spitefully, and judgment is coming to all who reject the Son.  And if you wanted to say that, I’d award you two points for paying attention and following along.

However, let’s say that you’d like to have ten points, not just the easy two. Let’s dig a little deeper into the story.

The tenants are really making a mess of things, and the owner continues to send them opportunities to make it right.  However, the tenants continue to escalate the situation until finally they kill the landowner’s son.

Think about that for a moment: in what scenario would it possibly make sense for them to murder the son?  The landowner is clearly hot under the collar, and he knows that they are there. How would killing the son going to be of any benefit to the tenants?

The only possible scenario in which that makes sense is if the tenants believe that the owner is so far away, so weak, powerless, or so disengaged that they can get whatever quick profit that they can from the land and then get out of town before the owner comes for them with guns blazing.

Do you see what I mean here? The only reasonable explanation for killing the son is that the tenants hope that by the time news of this crime reaches the rightful owner of the property and he comes to execute judgment, they’ll have taken anything that isn’t nailed down and be long gone.

“But Dave,” you say, still striving for your ten points. “This is not really a story about farmers.  It’s a story about God pronouncing judgment on the leadership of the house of Israel for failing to take care of God’s people.”

And I’d say, “That’s brilliant!  So in that reading, the leadership believes that the judgment day is so far off that they can go ahead and do what they want as long as they want to do it because God is not really going to act now anyway…  Ten points for CHUP!”

So where do we see that in our own world?  What is the relevance of these passages to our own lives?

Well, for starters, I’ll give you the two point answer again: just as Jesus provided the religious leaders the opportunity to confess their faith in him and acknowledge the power that is rightfully his, so too, we are each invited to place our trust in him and give thanks for the presence we have.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  Let me ask you to think about some scenarios in our world where people persist in a pattern of behavior because it seems as though any consequences of such action are either minimal or so far away we don’t have to care about them.

Let’s swing for the fences here – a big, hairy, audacious, ten-point problem… What about climate change and our stewardship of the environment?  Is that a spiritual issue?  Does the church, do people like you and me, have the responsibility to act because we are accountable to the creator?

And you say, “Oh, come on, Dave… that’s too big.  That’s too complicated. And besides, we’ll be dead long before –“

Yep. In other words – it is an issue, and we do have some culpability, but because it’s really big, really complicated, we don’t have time for something like that.  Therefore, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll be so paralyzed by the enormity of the situation that we are more likely to leave a mess for our children or our grandchildren.

I’m 58 years old.  I have a granddaughter who is 1.  Lord willing, Violet will turn 58 in 2076.  What kind of world will she and her friends inherit from us?  If we continue to act the way we’ve always acted, then scientists tell us that heat waves that used to come every 20 years will be annual events in 2076.  Some models indicate that insects, which are vital for pollination and therefore for food production, could lose half their habitat by 2075.  The beach where my granddaughter went swimming this summer could be under six or ten feet of water in 58 years.

Do I have the right to continue to lay waste to this planet simply because I expect that I’ll die before it does? Or does the fact that God set us in a garden, said it was good, and left us in charge imply that I ought to do what I can to be a good steward of that trust so that those who come after me have the opportunity to garden in peace?

Or how about a little closer to home… are there places in your life where things are not great, but you don’t see any easy way out and figure that you’ll just do your best to ignore it until it goes away or all comes crashing down on you?

Maybe it’s a financial issue.  You had those student loans, and then the car payment… insurance is a mess… and now you just feel like it’s hopeless and so the best that you can do is hide out and numb yourself as you watch the numbers spin and spin and spin…

Or maybe it’s more of a personal issue.  There’s a relationship that isn’t the way that you wish that it was, but you’re thinking, “You know what? Forget them!  All the blood, sweat, and tears I poured out and this is what I get?  Never mind!”

Listen, in these cases it seems to me that the call of the Gospel is the same: believe that healing, that resurrection, that change is possible.  Believe in the interest and the presence of the Landowner.  Believe that the vineyard in which you’ve been planted is capable of growing fruit, and hold on to your call to be a steward of this earth, your finances, or that relationship.  Believe that your life, your presence has meaning and purpose.  Believe that God is close at hand – don’t give in to the temptation to believe that God is too far away, or unable to help.  Refuse to believe that anything is beyond God’s reach.

And then let me encourage you to not only believe, but to act like you believe.  Take a step indicating that you think  that even though the situation seems dire – it’s big, it’s huge –  it is not the only possible reality.

Can you commit to reducing your use of fossil fuels? Will you look for ways to use less plastic – actually, to use less everything?  Can you walk a little more, or encourage your neighbors in some of these processes?

When you get that paycheck, can you prioritize where it will go so that you can think of yourself as someone who is making progress toward financial health?

Maybe you need to pick up the phone or write a short note to one whom you’ve wronged, and seek to move past some obstacle that has seemed paralyzing to you in the past.

Look, I have a confession to make.  I am out of touch with popular culture.  I have never seen or listened to Hamilton.  I’m not necessarily proud of this, but up until last week, I thought Cardi B was a diet and workout plan.    Seriously.  But listen: my all-time favorite musical is a really cheesy story – Man of La Mancha. If you want, I’ll walk you through the entire plot and even sing you the best songs, but for now let me say that I love that story because Don Quixote de la Mancha is dismissed as a fool, or treated as though he were insane, because he continues to dream about and attempt to do that which everyone around him knows is impossible.

I know that the prevailing wisdom is to hear this parable as one of judgment – to read these verses and think, “Wow, God is really ticked at these people. He’s going to punish them – and he’s going to punish you, too, if you don’t straighten up and fly right.”  That’s the easiest way to interpret this parable.

But I think that there is something to be gained in remembering that Jesus did not come so that we would all straighten up and fly right.  In the parable, the owner keeps sending messengers and eventually his own child because he can see that the current tenants are bent on overriding and demolishing his intentions for that vineyard.  Jesus came so that we would know that God’s intentions are for fruitfulness and for love.  Let us rejoice in a God who sent prophets, who sent Jesus, who sent people to us, who sends us! A God who is love over and over and over again!  All this, not so that we would fear him, or so that we would hide ourselves or some aspect of our lives from the Lord, but so that we might do the opposite and open ourselves and our lives up to the love for which we were made.

This is grace, friends, and it is for you. Thanks be to God, Amen!