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!

FIG-ure It Out

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 20, 2019, we considered one of the few stories that is present in each of the four canonical gospels: the cleansing of the temple (although Mark adds some detail that the others do not include).  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:12-25, and we made reference to Jeremiah 24:1-10.

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

As we continue with our discussion of the Gospel of Mark, I’m sure you realize that this is not the only Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  “Of course,” you say.  “Matthew, Luke, and John are all Gospels.”  You may not be aware, however, that for several hundred years after Jesus’ death there were dozens of “gospels” written; some of these contained sayings attributed to Jesus, others had stories of Jesus as a child, and still others were filled with some then-popular teachings and simply ‘credited’ to Jesus of Nazareth. None of these gospels was recognized by the church then or now, and they have been pretty thoroughly discredited.

Children complaining about Jesus to the others in their community, from Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th-century gospel translation.

One of my favorites from this group, however, is a volume called “The Gospel of Thomas”.  It contains a number of far-fetched tales, among them an account of the time that the boy Jesus was angered by one of his playmates; Jesus cursed the boy and what do you know? The kid withered up and died.  Well, the community heard about it and was upset, and so they told Joseph that his kid had to stop killing people or the whole family would have to leave town.  According to the Gospel of Thomas, when young Jesus heard about that, he struck the entire community blind.  Then, Joseph is alleged to have taken the son of God by the ear and “wrung it ‘til it was sore” and made Jesus un-curse the village.

I think about those legends when I hear today’s Gospel account of the time that Jesus lost his temper with the fig tree. You hear this account of Jesus’s frustration and you want to say, “Really, Jesus?  You’ve just entered Jerusalem for the worst week of your life and you’re talking to fruit trees?”  And then you think, “Why in the world was this story included in the Gospel?  How did this make sense to the early church?”

I want you to think back to something I told you a few months ago.  Do you remember “the Markan sandwich?”  There are plenty of times when the author of the second Gospel starts a story, and then interrupts himself to tell a different tale, and then gets back to the first story.  I know, it’s as annoying as all get out when your mom does it, but the author of Mark uses it as a device to let one story offer commentary on another. Maybe you’ll recall that Mark starts to talk about a 12 year old girl who gets sick, and then he interrupts that by mentioning a woman who’s been sick for 12 years, and then he goes back to the little girl.  The stories connect, and in looking at both parts, we get more meaning than we could by considering them independently.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a classic Markan Sandwich.  One day, Jesus goes to check out a fig tree.  Since it’s not fig season, the disciples are not too surprised when there are no figs on it.  But Jesus apparently loses his mind and curses the tree.

They leave that curious incident and show up in the Temple, where Jesus really appears to let his emotions get the best of him and he flips tables and drives out business people, all the while preaching that God’s house was for prayer, not commerce.  Of course, nobody there likes it, but what can they do?  Jesus is at the height of his popularity.

The next morning, they pass by the fig tree, and it is withered away – from the roots up.

I’m here to tell you that the author of Mark intended us to see the episode of the fig tree as being connected to what happened in the temple.  Listen: there are plenty of places in the Jewish scriptures where the people of God are compared to a fig tree.  The passage from Jeremiah that Lydia shared with you is only one example.  In those verses, it’s unmistakable: Jeremiah is looking at a fig, but he’s thinking about the leadership of the people of God. The author of Mark counted on other people remembering that passage, and others like it, when he tells us about a controversy at the Temple on the same day that a fig tree was condemned.  When Jesus curses a fig tree for not having any fruit, and then wanders into the temple and discovers that the leadership has failed, the first readers of Mark would have made the connection.  And then when Jesus’ friends discover that the wretched tree has died from the roots up, they would understand this to be a commentary on the spiritual bankruptcy of the people who were called by God to be a light and to be a blessing for the world. Just as the roots of the tree had gone, so too had the roots of the nation’s spirit.

I hope you’ve heard this story of Jesus driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple, and we could talk about many different aspects of it.  However, since we are spending the year talking about the Gospel of Mark, I’d like to focus on one of the few places where Mark actually tells moreof a story than do the other Gospel writers.  Although this episode is shared in all four of the Gospels, Mark is the only one to include the phrase, “and he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”

It’s an odd little detail, really.  I mean, there was all kind of flagrant sin going on – consumerism in the house of the Lord! Extorting the poor to buy the sacrificial animals! Apparent collaboration with the occupying army for economic profit!  Why does Mark point out that Jesus also talked about people who were walking through the temple courts with stuff that they may have bought elsewhere?

Well, it has to do with the location of the temple in relation to the rest of the city. The temple was right up against the eastern wall of the city, and just past the temple to the east was the Mount of Olives and then the road to Jericho and Bethsaida.  In addition to the flagrant and calculated hucksterism that was going on inside the temple, there were people who were simply using that sacred ground as a shortcut.

Do you see? The ordained and called leadership had deliberately secularized the outer courts of the worship area by engaging in commerce to their own advantage there.  As a result of that, it wasn’t too long before the population of the city thought so little of the sanctity and beauty of the temple that it became the fastest way from point A to point B.  There was no reverence, there was no engagement – people were just passing through, making sure that their errands got run.

And Jesus put a stop to that.  “This is not a short cut!” he roared. And then, maybe weeping, he put his head down and said, “You can’t just show up here and not be affected by this place and these people and the truth that is here…”

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, illustration from a 17th-century Ethiopian manuscript.

Mark alone points out that Jesus was not only frustrated at the people who were actively undermining the sanctity of the holy, but he was also clearly frustrated by those who had become so accustomed to not finding anything praise-worthy at the Temple that they thought of it as just another footpath.  In this passage, Jesus seeks to re-orient their thinking and to prevent them from showing up on holy ground guided by “auto-pilot”; he reminds them of the potential for transformation that can come when we encounter the Holy One.

Jesus didn’t want anyone carrying stuff through the temple without stopping to remember why there wasa temple in the first place…

I’ve thought a lot about that this week, and I’ve thought about the times I’ve shown up at a worship service not really expecting much of anything to happen. I was there to be polite, or to be seen by someone else, or because I had made a deal that if I showed up for church, then I could go and do something that I really wanted to do.  In other words, there have been a lot of times that I think I’ve carried my things right through the temple, disregarding the opportunities for encounter with the Holy because my mind was elsewhere.  And I would suspect that I’m not the only person in this room who can say that.

How do we become a people who show up in worship on purpose, who arrive here so expectantly that we are able to “clear the decks” and set down the other baggage we’ve been carrying in order to embrace the truth and be wrapped in love?

Well, my first answer to that question may be a bit simplistic, but on the other hand, it’s one that everyone in this room has already done today: that is, simply show up.  In order to have access to any possible fruit that might come from worship, I’ve got to be here.  I’ve got to set aside time intentionally to be present with folks like you in a place like this.

In some ways, coming to worship is a bit like visiting Crafton Heights.  As I wander through the city and talk to other folks, almost everyone in other neighborhoods says something like this: “Wow, Crafton Heights… Yeah, I’ve heard of it.  I’ve never been there before, but it sounds familiar to me…”  And I always respond by saying, “Yes, if you want to come to Crafton Heights, you have to come here on purpose.  You’re probably not going to stumble into my neighborhood because you’re drawn by the fantastic museums here, or the fine theater, or the many retail outlets or exotic dining venues we have.  You’ve got to come to the Heights because you want to be in the Heights.”

It’s the same way when it comes to worship.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible to encounter the Holy in random places – far from it – but I am saying that the most likely way that you’re going to find time to be in the Presence is when you set aside time intentionally to be available for the gift and discipline of worship.

More than that, though – more than simply entering into the place of worship, I want to encourage you to enter into the practicesof worship.  When I put together the order for worship each week, I try my best to give you some really good things to say and to sing.  In fact, we call the contents of the order of worship the liturgy.  That word – liturgy – comes from two old Greek words, leitos, meaning “public”, and ergos, meaning “working”.  The liturgy is the work of the people.  It is not a performance, and it is not a contest.  The spoken and sung prayer give you a chance to speak and sing what is true!

Sometimes, though, we’re not all that great at it.  We forget where we are; we forget who we are; or we get self-conscious. And so we wind up being in a room where we mumble along during the responsive readings, or we sing amazing words of praise as though we’re waiting in line at the filling station:  “Praise God (yawn) from whom all (stretch) blessings flow (check phone)…”

Beloved, let me encourage you to try this.  I know, some of the songs I pick are ones that you wouldn’t.  Sorry for that.  But lend your voice, your heart, your spirit to the liturgy.  Don’t watch – or even worse, criticize – the work of the people, share in it!

And one more thing that you can do as you seek to become one who is equipped to bear the fruit that comes from true worship: listen for the places in the liturgy and the scripture that push back on you a little bit.  We’ve talked before about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” – where we tune into a program or a website because we’re pretty sure that it’s going to tell us what we think we already know and allow us to hear what we want to hear.

Praise God, sometimes that happens here, and it’s good.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” Ain’t it the truth?! Don’t I need to hear that?!

But what if I say, or the lyrics indicate, or the scriptures contain something that is challenging or irritating?  Do we allow God to confront us in some way that gets us thinking about something?  As you participate in the work of the people, listen for ways that God intrudes into your own life or heart or preconceived notions.

Seriously: when Jesus was talking, he got people so worked up that they wanted to kill him.  Are we such different people, are we so much better than they were, that when he speaks we nod approvingly and say, “Ah, yes.  Good point, Jesus.  That’s my Jesus.  You tell ‘em, Jesus…”?

Or can we come to worship and be challenged and poked and prodded (and maybe a little irritated) too?

Jesus closes this passage with a brief teaching on the power of prayer and practice. He links the idea of belief with that of behavior, reminding his followers that they can believe in the power of prayer, but as they pray for the miraculous, they are called to treat their sisters and brothers with kindness and grace.  He encourages them to dream big when it comes to prayer, and to know that the things that happen in worship and in prayer will have an effect.

And sometimes we hear that and we say, “Well, maybe for someone else.  But to be honest, I’m not sure what it does for me. I can’t remember the words to the bible verse I just read.  I’m not feeling anything overwhelming when we do the liturgy here.”

Maybe. But maybe we’re just not noticing. There was a fellow who stopped at the preacher’s home one Spring day and found his pastor out in the tool shed. He said, “Pastor, I’ll get to the point. I’m in church every week, and I listen to what you say, but I don’t remember any of it.  I hear those Bible verses, but they just fade away.  I think you need to hear it from me – I’m going to stop wasting my time and yours.”

Without really looking up, the preacher said, “Well, Ron, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not going to try to talk you out of it.  Instead, let me ask you to do one thing.”  She handed the man a couple of dusty, dirty old terra cotta planters that were filled with cracks.  “Look, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning, go down to the creek behind your house and fill each of these with water.  Carry them up the path to your back porch and set them down.  I want you to do that every morning for two weeks. Don’t come to church if you don’t want to, but promise me you’ll do that.”

The man took the planters, and thought that his pastor was crazy, but he agreed to it.

Two weeks later the pastor showed up at the man’s home.  “I’m here for my planters, Ron,” she said.  “Let’s go around back and get them.”  And as they stood on the back porch looking at the path down to the river, the Pastor said, “I get it, Ron.  You think that all that time you spend in worship is wasted, because you can’t remember it.”

The man nodded.  The pastor went on.  “It seems like a waste of time, right?  I mean, if nothing changes, why bother?”  The man wasn’t sure where the preacher was going, but he nodded again.

The pastor picked up the pots and said, “Ron, I asked you to fill these things with water every day.  But will you look at this? They’re dry as a bone.  Did you do as I asked?”

Ron assured the pastor that he had, but that all the water had leaked out.  “What did you expect?  They’ve got cracks all over them.”

The pastor seized the moment… “So you’ve been getting water every day, but there’s no water here now. Has anything changed?”

Ron looked at the pots.  They were still cracked, but all the cobwebs and the mud had washed away by the daily rinsing.  He looked at the edges of the path, and he saw where the grass was greener because of the water that had leaked from the pots during his daily exercise.  And he knew.

And he was in worship the next Sunday, singing loudly and reading intently. Because he got it.  It matters.

Beloved, it may sometimes seem as though your reality has not changed, but I’m here to tell you that the disciplines and practices of faith are designed to promote change and grow fruit in lives like yours and mine.  May God bless us with the ability to hear, to believe, and to bear fruit because we are willing to encounter the Holy One. Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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