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

Tradition!

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 27, we considered an encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with some of the leading religious scholars of their day.  On the surface, it was a discussion about some ceremonial cleaning laws – but my sense is that the real conflict is about something deeper. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:1-23

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

I remember the first time I ever paid a dry-cleaning bill.  I was student at Hanby Jr. High School and the time, and my introduction to the world of professional cleaning services came as a result of an incident that occurred at lunch the previous week. I had liberally doused a school-issued “tater tot” with ketchup and thrown it across the cafeteria, where it made an astonishingly vivid imprint on the brand-new purple dress being worn by my classmate Tricia.

Food fights. We’ve all seen them.  Some of us have started them.  When we got down to the Principal’s office following a cafeteria altercation, all of us probably had the same conversation:
“Why did you do that, young man?  What possessed you to throw processed potato product at the girls’ table?”
[Shrug].  “I dunno.”

Of course, most of the time, we doknow what starts food fights. They are almost always a diversion – an attempt to draw someone’s attention from one thing to another thing.
– I can’t say that I have a crush on that person, so I’ll launch an attack of candy corn and veggie sticks.
– I’m not ready for the test that’s coming up next period, so I’ll try to get sent to the office instead.
– Something scary is about to occur, so I’ll create an alternative scenario that will attract more adults into the room and prevent that other thing from happening…

Mark takes only 16 chapters to tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry, and yet he devotes at least half a chapter to describing a first-century food fight.  Out of all the stories he could have told about Jesus, why does he tell this one?

Sadducees and Pharisees, James Tissot, c. 1890

It would appear as though the story we’ve heard this morning is here to help readers in the first century – as well as the rest of us – to consider the ways that Jesus understood the core responsibilities of those who would walk with God.

We’re told of a confrontation between the disciples of Jesus and a group of Pharisees and Scribes. In this corner, we have the men and women to whom Jesus has dedicated the best and last years of his earthly life as he sought to equip and train them to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom and the Gospel message.  In the other corner, there are the big guns – the theological heavyweights of the day, including at least a few who have been sent up to Galilee by the religious headquarters in Jerusalem.

The apparent conflict is over a small detail of tradition: why don’t Jesus’ followers wash their hands the way that we’ve always been taught to wash our hands?

I should point out here that nobody, including the boys from Jerusalem, is implying that the disciples are eating with dirty hands.  No, the bone of contention is that the followers of Jesus had not participated in the ceremonial cleansing that had become the practice of the day. It’s not a concern about hygiene – rather, it’s a complaint about orthodoxy, authority, and tradition.

The real question is, “Jesus, why don’t you teach your followers to act like us?  Why don’t you tell them to live the way that we live?” The Pharisees and the Scribes are relying on their position of privilege, looking at the followers of Jesus as though they are some sort of backwater hicks – deplorables, if you will.  They are dismissive of the disciples and of Jesus, and they couch their derision and criticism in an appeal to tradition and to the Bible.

Pharisees, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

Jesus, as you’ve heard, responds by pointing out that one can do all sorts of horrible things (like neglecting one’s parents, for instance) while claiming to be doing other, wonderful things (like paying for a new roof for the temple while getting a nice fat tax write-off at the same time, for instance).

In the conversation that ensues, Jesus apparently dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the dietary regulations) while pointing to the reality that a key aspect and indeed responsibility of living in the Kingdom is seeking to grow more deeply in our concern for and attentiveness to the things that are of ultimate importance.

The early Christian community heard the story of this food fight and assumed that it meant that none of the Old Testament laws concerning keeping a kosher kitchen had any relevance in the new understanding of faith.  We know that this is what they thought because the author of Mark, speaking for the community, says so right there in verse 19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And for centuries, those who would follow Jesus have found this to be a very serviceable, helpful interpretation.  It flows nicely from the text; it makes sense; and I get to eat all the bacon I want. Talk about your win-win situations!

But is that allthat this text means?  I would propose that such a reading is incomplete, and in fact suggest that in the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus engages the Pharisees, the Scribes, the disciples, the first Christians, and us in a discussion on the role and authority of scripture in our lives.

Hands holding Bible on a wooden desk background.

Think about it: is the purpose of the Bible to control what you do? That is, is the primary concern that lies behind the giving of God’s word that of making sure that you don’t eat shrimp, always tell the truth, and don’t forget to give your money to God?

Or is the Bible more concerned with seeking to engage us as to what kind of people we should be?  That is, helping us to realize the call to be generous, respectful, and loving?

For a number of weeks, a small group of us have been meeting in a Faithbuilders group to consider some thinking by a church leader named Brian McLaren, who in his book A New Kind of Christianitypoints out that those who saw themselves as Jesus’ opponents on that day were treating the Bible and the traditions of God’s people as a constitution of sorts.  That is, a collection of sayings and laws that are given to us to help us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is permissible and what is not.  In this view – which is at least as prevalent today as it was 2000 years ago, the Bible is an unchanging document designed to establish who’s in and who’s out.  Oh, and spoiler alert: we’re on top.  We’re God’s favorites.

Jesus brings to the discussion the notion that the purpose of Scripture is rather to point toward the heart of God even while revealing the strengths and weaknesses of those whom God has used to help craft, record, and preserve the scriptures. He goes on to accuse the religious leaders of his (and, I’d submit, subsequent) day of hiding behind a particular Bible verse or two in order to defend their own positions, preserve their own power, or get their own way.  Isn’t it convenient when I am free to interpret the Bible in such a way as to indicate that God is actually commanding me to do something that I was already planning to do anyway?

What if the purpose of the Bible is not to provide us with a seamless set of codes of conduct for every situation, or a litmus test for religious or theological purity, or recipes for how to be happy and wealthy because we always do exactly what God tells us to do?

Rather, what if scripture is a record of a people who engage (or are engaged by) the presence of the Divine in such a way as to stimulate their own faith, to enhance their abilities to walk with Jesus more faithfully, and to respond to the world around them as if God cared for, created, and was in fact active in that world?

To put it a different way, what if the Bible is not so much a rulebook listing for you and me every eventuality that we are to face in life and offering us instructions as to exactly what to do or think in that situation, but is instead more like a diary or a blog written by people who had caught glimpses of God at work in their lives or in the world and offering us clues as to how we might be better equipped to be God’s people in the world right now?

I’d like you to try something.  I’m going to be quiet for 15 seconds.  In that time, I’d like for you to think of an instance where your mind or awareness has substantively changed on a particular issue in the last 10 or 15 years.  I’m not looking for reflections like, “You know, I always thought that beets were disgusting, but then I tried that recipe I saw on The Chewand WOW!  Delicious!”

I’m talking about something real and important in some way.  Maybe your thinking about homosexuality and the faith, or issues about race, or thoughts about the environment or our economy.

In the next 15 seconds, ask yourselves, “Where has my mind changed?”

When you think of something, then ask, “What role, if any, has scripture played in that shift?

Here’s what I think: if we see the Bible or the interpretation of that Bible that we’ve received as being more like a rule book or a constitution, then any change from that is a mistake.  If the Bible is an unchanging code of conduct that tells us what is up and what is down, what is black and what is white, and what is right and what is wrong… then if our understanding of those rules has changed, we are questioning the very basics of the faith.  In a system where the Word is the Word, where God said it and I believe it and that settles it – then if my thinking on, say, divorce and remarriage has changed, well, I must be getting soft on scripture and its authority in my life.  I know this because I can think of half a dozen places where my own thinking has changed, and I could name scores of people who would be happy to tell you that I am devaluing the unchanging and inerrant word of God and departing from the truth in some way.

But if we see the Bible as a living, breathing document with which I am called to interact so that I might grow in my ability to really walk with Jesus, then perhaps at least some changes could be understood to be fruit – and therefore, not something to be feared, but rather something to be explored or cultivated.

The call for this day is for us to look for ways in which we can engage with, or be engaged by scripture, each other, and the world as a means to grow deeper in our appreciation for and investment in the things that matter to God.  I think that means that we will have to reject the temptation to treat specific Bible verses or ancient teachings of the community as creative or convenient means by which we can sidestep or avoid the intentions of God.

It’s easy to get sidetracked and not even know it.  For instance, I experience an inner pang of revulsion and distaste when I hear someone referring to immigrants or refugees as animals, or using terms that make those people less than human.  Such conversation does not resonate with any of my experience, my understanding of scripture, or even my political leanings.

However, when that language is used, and someone else refers to the speaker by saying, “Oh, for crying out loud! Thatguy? What a pig!”… am I equally offended?  That is to say, am I as troubled by the dehumanization of the one with whom I disagree as I am by the dehumanization of the one for whom I have some affinity? If not, then I think I have some growing to do.

The fellas from the head office came up to Galilee that day and told Jesus that they were going to keep an eye on him – that they wanted to see how he and his disciples were “walking” and “living.”  He gave them an earful – but so far as I can tell, he didn’t do anything to discourage them from sticking around.  My hope and my prayer is that you and I might be smart enough to stick close to Jesus, to learn to walk as he walked so that we might live as he lived.  I know that means that I’ve got some growing to do, and I suspect that the same is true for you as well.  Thanks be to God for the gift of this community that enables us to engage in this practice together.  Amen.

Jesus is Not a Jerk

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Day of Pentecost (May 20, 2018) we considered the ways that Jesus sends his friends to some difficult places… and claimed the truth that when they got there – he was waiting for them.  Our texts included Mark 6:45-56 and Acts 2:1-4.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-20-18.mp3 into your browser

The official records of Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape region of South Africa indicate that at 4:14 p.m. on the afternoon of February 11, 1990, prisoner number 1335/88 was released, having been incarcerated for twenty seven years. That’s a fact.  That’s history.

However, history is not the whole story in this case.  Prisoner number 1335/88 was named Nelson Mandela, and his release marked the beginning of the end of the evils of Apartheid in South Africa.

Closer to home, I can tell you that you won’t find this in any of the official box scores of the game, but during the bottom of the second inning of a baseball game at PNC Park on October 1, 2013 the pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds was so flustered by the jeering of the hometown fans that he dropped the ball.  You won’t find it in the official records because it was not a baseball play.  According to the rules of the game, it didn’t matter.  It might as well not have happened.  It is NOT history, in that regard.

But again, the official record is only a portion of the story.  On the very next pitch, Russell Martin smacked a home run and the Pirates went on to defeat the Reds and gain access to the Major League post-season for the first time in more than two decades.  When Johnny Cueto dropped that ball, the Pittsburgh faithful knew it: the Buccos were back.

This morning, we’re going to talk a little bit about the difference between historyand gospel. History tells us what happened, when, and to whom.  Gospel is the message that is conveyed through the means of history.  History is a listing of events.  Gospel is the meaning that we assign, or the truth that is proclaimed, in those events.

Madiba is free! The struggle may continue, but the battle has been won!

The Pirates are going to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years!  The drought is over!

Sometimes when it comes to the Bible, we get so caught up in analyzing the historical perspective of events that we lose sight of the message those events were meant to convey. Let’s look at the Gospel passage…

Jesus Sends the Apostles, Duccio Di Buoninsegna (c.1300)

In the story you’ve heard, Jesus is eager to spend some time alone with God.  So eager, in fact, that just after the feeding of the 5000, he packs his disciples into a boat, pushes them into the Sea of Galilee, and says, “We’ll see you later, fellas!  I’ll catch up soon.”

The text implies that Jesus knew that his followers faced difficulty, but he sent them anyway. This is where a strict reading of history could lead us to ask, “Just how big a jerk is Jesus, anyway?”

He puts them in a boat, and makes them sail straight into a storm.  Later, he goes out walking on the water, only when he gets to where they are, he pretends as if he’s walking further.  He scares the crap out of his best friends on what has not been a good day to start with – and then he gets in the boat, laughing, “Haha, guys – it’s only me! We’re all good!”  That’s an historical perspective.

But let’s consider the Gospel.  First, what is the Gospel in Mark? What is the “Good News” that is to be proclaimed? “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus to that first community is an affirmation that you are close to the heart, and close to the intentions, of God.

We have come to understand that the disciples are called to carry this message into the world, and I’ve suggested in a previous message that all believers are called to be encouraged by the presence of Jesus in the face of tremendous difficulty. The Gospel in Mark reminds us that Jesus can be trusted.  Are you with me on this?

Now, I want you to take a trip into some holy memory with me.  Walk with me back into the days when God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. God said, “That is not my intention for humanity! I will deliver them.”

Who was the man that God called to free his people from slavery? Moses.  How did Moses feel about receiving this call from God? He feels afraid, alone, confused, and uncertain.

Moses, Jack Baumgartner (2015). Used by permission. See https://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com

But what does he do? He goes ahead and stands in front of Pharaoh, and he does what God asks him to do, and he finds himself with the Israelites in the wilderness… where the Israelites just cannot help acting like knuckleheads.  Time and time again, they disappoint.  Moses stands between the people and their God and finally cries out, “Look! This is impossible!  I’m never sure that I’m doing what’s right.  You’ve got to be with me, God. Show me a sign that you are here, now.” It’s right there in Exodus 33:18: “Show me your glory.”

And this is the part that I want you to remember… God says, “OK, Moses, I’ll do that.  You stand here, and the storm will come, and I will pass by you, and you will see my glory; and then I will speak my name to you…”

Do you remember the name of God? YHWH.  It means “I am.”

It’s all right there in Exodus 33.  God passes by Moses, and shows him his glory while announcing his name.  “I am.”  The storm passes, and God takes Moses up the mountain and gives him the Ten Commandments, calling people to a new way of life.

Now, let’s go back to Mark.  In the readings leading up to today’s, Jesus has revealed much about the Kingdom to his disciples – he’s done so in his preaching, teaching, and miracle-based ministry that leads up to the feeding of the 5000.  And just as God had asked Moses to do the impossible (that is, to lead the people to a place he didn’t know, through the desert for 40 years without a visible means of sustenance or support), Jesus was looking at his followers and asking them to stretch beyond their limits: he sent them to preach right after John was killed; he asked them to find food to serve to a hungry crowd; and now he expects them to row across a lake at night in a storm.

Seriously, Jesus? What the heck? Are you some kind of a jerk?

The disciples are afraid, alone, confused, and uncertain.  Jesus sees them in the distance, and clearly knows how they are feeling.  After some hours pass, he decides to do something.  He walks out onto the water and intends to “pass them by”.

Does that sound remotely familiar?

Rowing a Boat in Stormy Weather, François Musin (1820 – 1888)

He wanted to “pass them by”, but his disciples freak out, and so he changes his mind, gets into the boat with them, and the storm stops.

Historians have a lot of questions here: how could Jesus see them through the storm at night on the sea?  What does it mean that Jesus walked on the water? That’s impossible.  Those are historical questions.

But the Gospel message is clear: The kingdom of God is at hand.  Right here.  Right now. And it includes you.  You are close to God’s heart.  Jesus is trustworthy.

OK, OK, Pastor Dave, easy now.  How do you know that it means all that?

Because of what Jesus says when he gets into the boat.  “Take courage.  It is I.” In the Greek, he says, “Ego eimi”.  That literally means “I am.”

The writer of the Gospel is telling us this story so that we might know something incredible about Jesus.  Listen:

Being good Jews, the disciples are already familiar with a story that features a scared, frustrated, fearful and lonely man who longs to experience the Divine presence. They know about a man who saw the glory of God pass by, and who heard a voice speak from the storm, “I am.”

Now, these men experienceall that as Jesus walks out into the midst of the storm in order to pass by them and show them his glory but here Jesus breaks the pattern of Exodus.  He does not simply continue – he gets into the boat with them.  And then he says, “I am.”  It is, to us, unmistakable.  But Mark says that they disciples don’t “get it” yet, and before too long they are back on the shore, among the crowds, reacting to the events of this new day.

But one day in the not-too-distant future, these men wouldget it – in a big way.  They remembered this day, and the other ways in previous days, when Jesus had been revealing the Good News – the Gospel – of the Kingdom of God.  And they probably remembered that almost every time he spoke of that message, they shuddered.  It is hard to believe, they thought.  It is hard to accept.

It didn’t get easier the day that Jesus marched into Jerusalem and confronted the powers of the religious establishment and occupying government. And it sure didn’t get any easier as he was tortured and killed.  While they were joyous when he rose from the dead, they still weren’t quite sure what to do when, just prior to his ascension to heaven, he told them one last time: look, you are my witnesses.  You are the Kingdom of God in the world right now.

And, as you’ve heard, they were hiding out in the upper room in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit overpowered them.  As the wind and the flames danced around, THEN they got it.  Then they were acting like the Body of Christ at work in the world, revealing the glory of God and inviting those around them to participate in the things that God was doing.  It didn’t make sense at first, but it registered with them later.

Some of you heard the Gospel being read, and you thought,  “I know exactly how it feels to be in that boat. There have been times when Jesus has pushed me where I didn’t want to go; times when the storm was so bad I thought I was going to drown; times when the storm was so bad I was hoping I would drown… And worse yet – there have been times when I’m sure that I can see Jesus, and I know that he knows where I am… and it seems like he is just passing right by me.  Yeah, I get that part.”

Beloved, know this: the One who was there to proclaim to his friends, “I am” is the One who calls to you today.  The Good News of the Gospel is for you, this day.  He is.

And others heard that Gospel, and for some reason you identified with the ending of the story: there was this great and powerful surge of emotion: fear and doubt and awe and wonder… and now, well, all that stuff just takes up too much energy and there’s a world of stuff waiting for you to do today.  You’re past the fear and the wonder and the power and you’re mostly just tired.

Listen: the Good News of the Gospel is for you, too.  Trust that the Glory of God is all around you, and know that the invitation you’ve been given to bear witness to that is still on the table.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you know something about that.

These stories of Jesus walking on the water or the explosive power of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room – they are not merely once-upon-a-time historical events that the church is called to remember and maybe even appreciate.  No: they are a model for church life now.  We can ride out the storm and we can proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom not because it’s what he did – but because it’s what he does. These are not written records of something that happened – they are witnesses that point to what is happening right now.

Sometime in the next couple of days, the official records of this congregation will be updated to reflect that on May 20, 2018, a hundred people or so showed up for worship and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  That’s the history of the day, and it will be published.

I want to know, though: will the Gospel break through? Will the Good News of the nearness of the Kingdom of God infiltrate this community becausewe gathered for worship?

That remains to be seen.

Be the church. Your friends, who are caught in the midst of storms of every kind, need you to be.  Speak a word of presence to them.  And be the church.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

The Secret Smallness

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our texts included Mark 4:21-34 as well as Zechariah 4:6-10a. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

This is a photo of one of my favorite trees in the world, the baobab. Baobabs are found in many parts of Africa, as well as in India, Ceylon, and Australia. They are curious and majestic trees for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that they grow slowly and deliberately and can seemingly live forever. It’s estimated that a mature tree such as this could be as many as 5,000 years old. In fact, I once saw a photo of some of the first Scottish missionaries posing under a baobab tree near Lake Malawi in the late 1800’s. Next to that was a picture of their descendants in the same spot that was taken a hundred years later. If a viewer were to compare the photos, that person would discover that the individual branches of the tree are essentially unchanged – even after the passing of a full century. These trees are seemingly impermeable to change. Remember that.

The Calling of Saint John and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Since Advent, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of Mark. We heard in chapter one, verse one, that it contains the good news of Jesus, the Son of God. Thus far, we’ve gotten a little bit of background on Jesus and, more importantly, we’ve gotten to see him at work. After bursting onto the scene announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, He’s healed people, driven out demons, garnered great attention, elicited significant reactions, and gained both followers and foes. In the first section of his Gospel, Mark is crying out to the reader, “Look! Pay attention! Something really big is happening! This guy is worth listening to!”

And, in chapter four, we get to hear what he says. Mark 4 represents the longest stretch of teaching about the Kingdom from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel. We’ve been told that it’s important, and we’ve been told that it’s at hand. Last week, we heard the single longest parable about the Kingdom as we listened to the story about the farmer and the seeds and the various types of soil. In that, we heard that the Kingdom is God’s idea, and that we are called to be receptive to it and to allow that Kingdom to do its work in us, on us, to us, and through us.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues this teaching by apparently piling on the parables of the Kingdom as if they were bullet points – three quick comparisons given in short order.

Just after explaining the parable of the sower to his followers, he says, “You know, as I think about it, this stuff is like a lamp. It’s significant. It’s out there in the open. It’s public!” As soon as he’s finished talking about the necessity for those who would follow him to be receptive to the work of the Kingdom in their lives, he warns them that this is all to be done for all to see; that nothing is secret forever, and that their lives will be visible to the world.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Practicing Resurrection, says much the same thing about those who would live out the Kingdom ethic in our world:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

I think that Peterson is spot-on when he talks about a real community – with named persons engaged in intentional practices. It’s not just an idea – if the Kingdom is visible anywhere, it’s visible in time and space through the lives of people – people like, well, you and me.

Now, understand me: this part is not in the Gospel of Mark, but here’s what I think happens next: I think that Jesus uses the parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God and then he offers these warnings about everything happening out in the open and people paying attention and having ears to hear and that causes at least some of his followers to shift their feet a little and maybe start avoiding eye contact. I think that more than a couple of these fellows get a little nervous and glance at him questioningly as if to say, “Um, you see, Lord, well, the thing is… do you know us? Because, er, we’re not really all that special. We screw up. A lot. And most of us can be pretty unreliable at times. If you’re counting on your named, particular followers to be doing all this stuff in public, well, you might want to rethink a few things. You might have to find some new followers who aren’t as likely to, you know, get it wrong.”

The reason I think that something like that must have happened is because of the tenor that Jesus’ teaching takes next: he goes right back to the language of farmers and seeds.

“Maybe you didn’t get it during that last story,” he says, “so here it is again. The Kingdom is like a seed that is scattered on the ground.” He tells a story about a seed that is self-contained and sufficient. The seed, he says, has everything it needs to produce fruit. As he tells this story about the man who scatters seed and then goes about his daily business, he’s reminding his disciples (then and now) that the Kingdom doesn’t need us to somehow try harder in order for it to work. Somehow, mysteriously, the seed is set into the soil and the seed itself – the Kingdom – does its work. And when the seed is lodged in soil that is receptive, amazing things happen – things that the farmer can’t begin to understand.

“Don’t worry that sometimes you can be such knuckleheads,” Jesus is apparently saying. “This isn’t about you. It’s about what God is doing in and through the Kingdom.”

He then takes a quick breath and dives into another comparison. “Not only is the Kingdom like a seed,” he says, “it’s like a mustard seed.

You probably know something about mustard seeds. If you’ve ever bought pickles, you’ve probably seen some of them swirling around in the jar. They may not be the tiniest seeds, but they’re pretty small. And yet when planted, they become a shrub or bush – sometimes getting to be ten feet tall. In addition to providing these seeds, the greens and even shoots of the mustard plant can be eaten and thus provide nourishment for humans and animals.

So, let’s follow Jesus’ teaching here… the Kingdom is like something that is given or placed amongst us and it grows on its own. It is self-contained and mysterious, but if we allow it to flourish in our midst, it will produce fruit that is useful. Moreover, Jesus says, there will be such abundant growth that this Kingdom blessing will spill over into other spheres. Birds will have perches and shade.

But here’s something that maybe you didn’t know: mustard is an annual plant. That is to say, it has to be planted every year. Unlike the oak tree in your yard and certainly unlike the baobab tree that I love, a mustard shrub lasts for a single season. And while it may be large by garden standards, a ten-foot mustard plant cannot compare with the magnolia out front of this building or the pine tree in my yard. Compared with these, the mustard is a tender, vulnerable plant.

So here’s the good news for today, at least as far as I’m concerned. Do you remember that big baobab I talked about? The large, leafy, majestic tree that seems to last forever? According to Jesus, in this context, that’s a horrible tree with which to compare the Kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that in my mind’s eye, I want the Kingdom to be like that. More specifically, I want the kingdom in my life – or in your life – to look like that. I want it to be tall, strong, unchanging and unbending. I want it to survive centuries of conflict and human error. And, in some other places, Jesus tells us things that lead us to affirm that the Kingdom of God is able to do that.

But here, he seems to be saying that the Kingdom is planted in and designed to take root in lives that are vulnerable. It grows in people who are, in some ways, well, shaky. Sure, a bird can perch in the branches of a mustard bush, but you’re not going to want to live in a house made out of that plant.

If you plant a maple seed or a baobab, you might get something big. But it’s going to take a long time before you even know if anything is happening, and a really, really long time before you wind up with anything useful.

But the Kingdom of God, in this scenario, at least, is not like that. Instead, we are invited to participate in a Kingdom that appears to be small and mysterious; as an annual plant, mustard depends on new growth coming each year, and new seeds being produced, and then sown, and grown, and harvested, and then the whole process starts again next year. What a relief that is to losers like the disciples, and me, and you!

Listen: your life of faith is not meant to resemble some sort of statuesque tree that once upon a time had a single planting and since then has thrived through decades of unbroken growth and stability.

I think that instead, our lives of faith are reflective of the fact that the Kingdom calls us to be changeable, flexible, growing, and giving. That is an encouragement because when I sense that I’m in a period that’s difficult, I don’t have to give up, or think, “Well, this life of faith clearly isn’t for me, or else I’d look like that perfectly formed statue of the ideal Christian…” Rather, I claim the truth that Zechariah espoused: that the Kingdom is rooted in God’s power, and in God’s power, small things can win the day.

I’m afraid that too many of us, too much of the time, see the life of faith as a list of answers to be memorized or a series of principles to be learned or, even worse, a series of behaviors to do in front of my neighbors so that they see how holy I am.

But I think that Jesus calls us to a life that is characterized by a willingness to continue to start at the beginning, to look for ways to grow in insight and then apply this insight to new situations, and thereby to grow fruit in season after season of life.

20th-century philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” I think that in these teachings about the smallness and vulnerability of the Kingdom, Jesus is encouraging his followers to become learners, rather than learned; to be those who know the importance of asking the right questions as opposed to spouting off the right answers; to be those who are willing to engage in the process of the journey and not merely obsess about where we’re going and when are we going to get there.

So here’s the deal, beloved! Give yourselves a break. Let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect. Instead, give yourself ever more to the Kingdom that is growing amongst you. Offer shade where you can. Keep throwing seeds, even when sometimes you wonder if it’s doing any good. And keep asking questions. In doing these things, we are becoming, day by day, more fit disciples of Jesus the Christ, and – by his grace – better able to live in the world that will greet us tomorrow. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

With Friends Like These…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

At Fever Pitch

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.