What Keeps Us The Way We Are

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 the Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

To hear (most of) this sermon as preached in worship please visit the media player below:

 

When I preached this sermon in worship, I opened with an illustration from my college days that I thought would provide an opening to the scripture for the people in the room. I thought twice about using it, because I wasn’t sure that it had “aged” well, or that it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be.  I should have thought three times.  I used it, and I wish that I hadn’t.  If you were present for worship, and found that illustration to be troubling or unwise, please know that we agree on that.  I regret using it, and will not compound the error by publishing it here. What follows is an abbreviated version of the sermon, which I think is better than the original. 

I wonder: are there things that we do that help keep us the way that we are?  Of course.

Every Christmas Eve, the community is invited to my home to share in a big pot of oyster stew.  Can I tell you something? My wife doesn’t like oysters.  Not even a little.  But for nearly four decades, she has helped me to prepare this meal because, well, it’s what Carvers do.  My parents did it before me, and it reminds me – especially on Christmas – that the most important presents cannot be wrapped and hidden under a tree.

Similarly, Dan and Trish Barry gather their family up at their cabin the night before the opening day of trout season.  If you asked them what they were doing, they might tell you that they’re catching fish, but if you hear them talk about it long enough, you know that the trout are a small part of what is actually happening. It’s a lot more about family, and stories, and spending time unplugged.

Many of you could point to various practices that your family employs to shape and inform who you are.  You do something because you want to remember where you came from, and you want to share that with people who haven’t been in the room as long as you have.

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (German, d. 2015). I love how in this portrayal the view is from the perspective of Jesus.

For Christians, the sacraments of baptism and communion fill this function.  These rituals and habits are at the core of what it means to us to live in and practice our faith together.  Today, as we have the portion of Mark’s Gospel that relates the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and then move into sharing the sacrament of baptism with little Jonah and his family, it seems to make sense to reflect on these practices.

And, since Mark has been the focus of our study for more than a year, we’ll look particularly at some of the emphases that he places on the Lord’s Supper.

First, I should say that there is some controversy as to on which particular day all of this happened.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his followers, and then was killed the next day.  John, on the other hand, says that he ate a meal the day before the Passover with his disciples and was killed himself on Passover. There are some fine, but important, points to be made as we consider whether Jesus was giving his disciples this meal as a means to transform the Passover or whether he himself became the new Passover lamb.  And as rich as that discussion might be, we’re not going to have it today.  We’ll simply affirm that the Gospels are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus died during the holiest time of the year, a time that was informed by the memory and celebration of the liberation of God’s people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and all of the disciples would have said that Jesus took a long-standing practice – the Passover meal – and he infused it with new meaning and purpose at the hour of his death.

In leaving this meal for his community, Jesus left clues that the new community would not be identical to the old.  For instance, in verse 13 of today’s reading, the disciples are told that they should look for a man carrying a jar of water.  To us, that sounds like pretty standard old-timey Bible stuff.  But to those men, the idea of finding a man doing woman’s work like that must have stuck out.  I’m suggesting that it’s intentional – a way of indicating that life in the Kingdom invites us to different understandings of people and their gifts and their roles. The Kingdom calls us to consider new patterns of relationships.

Another emphasis of Mark is conspicuous by its absence. From what you remember of the Last Supper, what did Jesus say to his disciples after he passed the bread and the cup?  “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?  You do?

That’s funny, because the Gospel of Mark doesn’t remember that. There is no command from Jesus to continue this meal.  Of course, we can say with some certainty that it is implied – Jesus shares the Passover with his disciples; he assumes that as faithful Jews of course they will re-engage with this meal.  But he re-defines the basis of it.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And then look at what he says: “I will not drink it again until the kingdom comes in all its fulness.”  In other words, Jesus assumes that his disciples will remember him.  He’s given them language for that.  Here, he is telling them that he will remember them! It’s not a command – it’s a promise! You are remembered!

And so, every now and then, the body of Christ – the church – trots out the bread and the cup and we give thanks for this promise.  We have communion.

The Last Supper, from Jesus MAFA: Art in the African Christian Tradition

And yet here is a supreme irony: that while for two millennia the followers of Jesus have claimed that these practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given by the Lord in order to bring about the fullness and unity of the church… we find ourselves arguing about these two things more than just about anything else!  Think about it: in spite of the fact that the word “communion” is literally built around the word “union”, there are few places in our theology that are as fractured as this!

When you go home, google your favorite denomination and the words “full communion”.  You’ll discover that Presbyterians like me claim to be in “full communion” with some of the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Moravians (look it up) and the Reformed Church in America.  The Lutherans, however, have six partners.  The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is in full communion with five traditions, all of which have the word “Catholic” in their names.  I suspect that there is nobody in this room who hasn’t been in a church service of one sort or another where communion was being served and been told, “Well, actually, while this is for the whole people of God… you can’t have any…”

This is the meal by which we remember the great truth that Jesus taught us – that all of us are welcome, that each of us has a place – and we interrupt Jesus and say, “Yeah, sure, Lord, we get that… but not HIM, right? I mean, people like HER aren’t supposed to be here, are they?

Here’s another ‘Dave story’: in 1989 I was a Presbyterian Student at a Baptist and Episcopalian seminary who had been hired by the Reformed Church in America to do youth work.  One of my main responsibilities was overseeing a week long experience for young people from all over the country who converged on Rochester NY for a week of service, study, and growth.  One evening, this Presbyterian seminarian took a group of Reformed kids to worship in the local Roman Catholic church.  When it came time for the Eucharist, Father Jim asked me to come up and help distribute the elements.  He invited everyone in the room to share in the sacrament.  It was a true feast of unity.

Afterwards, I found one of the students weeping.  I asked her why, and she said, “Dave, this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.”  And, being a knucklehead, I said, “Great!  That’s fantastic! I’m happy for you!  Why are you crying?”  She continued, “Because in my congregation, the only people who can take communion are the ones who have met with the elders.  And the only time that any of us can take communion anywhere else is when we have permission ahead of time from the elders.  Don’t you get it, Dave?  This is the best moment of my Christian life, and when I get home, I’ll have to tell my dad, the pastor, about it, and the elders will probably discipline me for breaking the rules.”  And then she wasn’t the only one weeping.

The communion that we shared that evening was not “legal” by anyone’s standards.  The Presbyterians would have had a fit if they caught me, a seminarian, up front handing out bread.  The Catholics were totally bent out of shape that the Priest had invited Protestants to share in the Eucharist.  And every Reformed kid there was flouting the rules of their own churches.  Officially speaking, none of those churches would call what we did “communion.”  In practice, however, lives were changed.

That leads me to one more observation about the Lord’s Supper as Mark describes it.  Who was in the room?

Well, we can’t be sure of everyone who was there, but we know for a fact that the twelve were there.  The twelve. All of the disciples.  In fact, Mark goes out of his way to mention that Jesus not only invited Judas to the meal, but shared the meal with him.  It’s clear from the text that Jesus knows who Judas is, what Judas had already done, and Judas is planning… and yet there he is, sharing in this meal with Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

For two thousand years, Christians have found deep meaning and great inspiration in the memory of this first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every Christian tradition remembers that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and served him the meal.  The events of this chapter are sacred to the memory of every Christian tradition.

But when we get around to sharing this supper with each other, how quick are we to say, “What? You? Here? Not so fast, Bub.  Just step right back there and cool your jets.  We’re not so sure we can let you in.”

And somewhere, someone is saying, “Seriously?  Judas – Judas Iscariot, the person who is guilty of doing the worst thing in the history of things – thatJudas can come, but not me?”

Is that the message that we want to send to the world?

O, beloved church!  On this Lenten Sunday – this Lord’s Day on which we celebrate baptism as a symbol of forgiveness and restoration, and on which we remember the Lord’s Supper as a meal of welcome and inclusivity, let us remember that we have been brought together notby how holy we are, or how correct our theology is, or how blameless our practices have been… Let us affirm and hold fast to the fact that we are broken, lost, flawed people – that we are great sinners in need of a great salvation and lo and behold, we have seen that offered to us – to all of us – in Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, saints of God in Jesus Christ: on this day – another day following another instance where a man yelling slogans about the supremacy of one race and ideology burst into a worship space seeking to destroy those whom he had determined to be less than worthy, less than deserving, less than human – let us gather around the table and the font in humility, not arrogance, recognizing that the Kingdom of God proclaimed in Mark is not one that is always recognized by or embraced by the world, yet vital to who we are as a church and the Body of Christ.  May we be known, dear ones, not for whom we keep away, nor for that which we hate, but rather as those who are willing to share the welcome and grace that we ourselves have received in unending supply.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Why Are We Doing This?

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 World Communion Sunday, October 7, we walked into a religious dispute between the followers of Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. On a rare day for our congregation, we participated in both the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our gospel reading was Mark 9:14-32.

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

My wife and I were traveling in a strange and wonderful place, and we’d seen and experienced many amazing things.  We’d been told to be in a certain place for dinner, and that the meal would have many local flavors.

Our hosts were not kidding!  We showed up and there were tables spread with all kinds of food! Every color of the rainbow, every point of the food pyramid – wow, it was delicious!  After we’d eaten quite a bit, a bunch of people showed up and took all that food away… and brought in morefood!  Soups and breads and cheeses.  We stepped up to the plate and dove in.  When that was done, we sat back, exhausted… and they brought out plates of meat and fish and eggs… And later – you guessed it – dessert.

If we’d have known what was coming, we’d have paced ourselves better.  In the interest of pacing, I am going to do my best to fly through one of my favorite passages in the gospel – there is a great deal to see here, but I want to make sure you have room for baptism and communion today, so hold on…

Jesus is coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration and he finds his disciples engaged in an argument with the religious leaders. When he asks what the disagreement is about, they introduce him to a parent who is in great pain.

The Transfiguration, Raffaello Sanzio (16th century). I am especially taken by the lines of sight amongst the various participants in this drama and the pathos of the boy and his father.

Look at what’s happened here: a father who is experiencing tremendous distress comes to the followers of Jesus and makes them aware of his pain and his need.  When he did this, someone at least attempted a response.  Evidently, someone else took issue with the nature and content of that response, which prompted some defensiveness and hostility on the part of the first group. Before you know it, there’s a big argument about who is right about how to respond to this pain.  And the person in pain? The person with the problem? That person is excluded from the conversation, because it’s now a contest to be right.

Until Jesus shows up and asks what’s going on.  At this point, the warring factions are silenced and the father speaks up. “It’s my boy.  He’s in bad shape.  I brought him here, but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.”

Now here’s something: All my life, I’ve heard this passage and I’ve heard it read, “IF you can do anything, please help us…”  But today, for the first time, it struck me that perhaps this is the cry of a desperate parent: “Oh, sweet Jesus – none of THESE knuckleheads can do anything… but if YOU can do anything, please help us…”

In Mark 8:29, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah.  In Mark 9:7, the Divine Voice says, “This is my son – listen to him”. Today, a father looking for someone – anyone – who can bring him boy some peace, looks at Jesus and says, “If YOU can…”  And Jesus, secure in the truth to which his friend had pointed and his Father pronounced, says, “IF? There’s no IF here…”  And that leads to the heart-wrenching cry: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

I know that I’m not the only person in this room who has voiced that same cry: Oh, Jesus, I want to be there.  I want to be with you.  I am with you.  But not as I want to be.

And I wish I could talk for 15 minutes about that, but we’ve got a big old helping of worship in front of us, so I want to spend my remaining time talking about the end of this episode.  After the young man is restored, the disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Hey, master, what’s the deal?  Why couldn’t we do that?”

“This kind can come out only in prayer.” Jesus’ response implies that the disciples were not praying.

They were so busy being disciples– you know, planning meetings, setting up flow charts, printing up sign-in forms – that they didn’t have time to pray.

They were so busy being right – you know, defending their ideas and practices in front of those other people who were so clearly wrong – that they had neglected to bring themselves, and that boy, and his dad to God.

Do you hear what I’m saying, church?

Jesus confronts the disciples.  He’s already given them great power and authority – and for some reason, they haven’t bothered to contemplate what it really meant.  The followers of Jesus were so busy minding the religion shop that they failed to meet a person in the midst of great brokenness.

Are you with me on this, church?

“This kind can come out only in prayer.”

So far as I can tell, this is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus talks with his followers about prayer.  He’s modeled it for them; he seems to assume that they’re acquainted with the concept; but here he mentions it.

In Mark, prayer is not a divine shopping list wherein we jot down a few things that would be really nice and then we sweet-talk God into giving them to us.  In this Gospel, prayer is wrestling in the wilderness with the Evil One.  Prayer is submitting the self to God over and over again and again, seeking to align my heart and will and intentions with those of the Holy One.

That distinction is important today because not only are we praying, but we are engaging in the historic practices of the people of God: for the first time in years, we’ll be sharing baptism and communion in the very same service.

Why do we do these things?  Why has the church spent so much time and energy talking about and engaging in prayer, baptism, and communion?

Much of American Christianity would lead us to believe that prayer and the sacraments are all about bringing us the assurance and comfort we crave as we walk through this vail of toil and pain.  They are insurance policies or pick-me-ups…

“I’d like to have my baby baptized, so, you know… just in case… well, in case something happens… and then he’ll make it to heaven.”

“I love communion because it makes me feel all special and warm inside – like I really do matter to someone.”

“Ooooh, I love to pray.  If I didn’t have my morning quiet time, well, I wouldn’t be able to feel like Jesus was close to me.”

All right – let me be plain: I don’t have anything against going to heaven, feeling loved, and feeling close to God.  But beloved know this: that is not why we do any of these things!

Work with me here.  Who remembers? What is the theme of the Gospel of Mark?

The Kingdom of God is at hand!  God is near!  Look! Act like it matters!

If that’s the heart of the message; if that’s what Jesus is about – then why do we do these things? Prayer, baptism, and communion are practices that are helpful to the extent that they reveal the nearness of the Kingdom.

We’ll have communion today – and we’ll do so not as a nice ritual that allows us to remember that there’s really something quite remarkable about us and this community, but so that we remember that we are a part of the body of Christ that is broken and cast into the world.  Especially on this world-wide communion Sunday, we remember that the body of Christ is bigger than we can imagine! I know, I know, you’ll get the plate from someone who looks like Erlina Mae or Matt Adler, but I’m telling you that the bread we share also belongs to the undocumented immigrant; to the believer who is holed up in hiding under an oppressive regime; to the person who has been used, abused, and disbelieved time and time again; to that one who is lost in a fog of mental illness and anguish.  We do this not justwith each other, but with the whole body of Christ from all times and all places.

We’re going to sprinkle little Stella today and parade her around the room, not simply because her great-great grandparents were here before any of us, but because we need to confess that her identity does not come only or even primarily from her parents, grandparents, or any of us… It is given first and foremost in Jesus Christ.  She needs to know – today and every day moving forward – that before she is a redhead, before she is a Democrat or a Republican or gay or straight or trans or cis or rich or poor – before she is anything at all – she is God’s.

As are you.

As am I.

And prayer – the prayer we share this morning and the prayer in which you take part through the week – that is not your own personal little exercise that is designed to make you feel all Jesus-y and holier than you used to be.  It is an exercise in which we participate to the end that the Kingdom of God might be revealed and our neighbor blessed.  If my praying does not result in a life that points toward God’s intentions and the encouragement of my neighbor, I must be doing it wrong.

To review: we pray so that our neighbor might be blessed.  We share communion in order that we might remember who our neighbor is. And we celebrate baptism so that we never forget that the Kingdom of God is, in fact, God’s idea, not mine.  I am brought to it, helpless and vulnerable and sometimes screaming like nobody’s business – and in the context of a communion-sharing, praying community, I’m equipped to grow into the kind of pray-er that blesses his neighbors.  Thanks be to God for these, the gifts of God!  Amen.

 

A Fruitful Risk

What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the vine?” Or that we are the branches?  Some thoughts on the occasion of Maundy Thursday 2014.  The text was John 15.

JesusTeachingFor the past few weeks, we’ve been listening to Jesus preach. And in his preaching, he’s made a number of statements that begin with the words, “I am…” And always, the formula for Jesus’ sermons has been, “I am the …” and then he would name the thing. I am the bread of life, the gate, the light of the world, etc.

Did you notice what he said this evening? The formula has changed a little bit. “I am the vine…and you are…”

For the first time, Jesus explicitly states what we are. He uses a metaphor to describe, not just himself, but us as well. And it seems to me that this description is really the culmination of all of the other “I am” statements that we’ve heard. Because Jesus is the savior, the bread of life, the light of the world, the Door, the Good Shepherd – because he is all of those things in our lives, we are then free to relate with him the way that a branch relates to a vine. Because of all that Jesus is and does, we are free to participate with him in an intimate, organic, relationship.

Think about it. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus call himself a lot of things. Usually, we understand those things, at least in part, by what they are not. I am the light (not the darkness). I am the bread of life (not something that will not last). I am the way (not a maze in which you get lost). I am the good shepherd (not the hired hand).

And sometimes, when he uses a metaphor to describe himself, we learn something about ourselves, too. If he is the good shepherd, then obviously that implies that we are sheep. Unless you are profoundly vision, hearing, and smelling-impaired, there’s not much challenge in telling the two apart.   Shepherd – sheep. You know which one is which, right?

grapes71But the Vine and the Branches? That’s a bit tougher, isn’t it? Next time you’re at my house, stop into the back yard and look at my kiwi plants. If you go right to the ground, you can see clearly – that large brown thing – vine. No problem. And if you go to the other end, wispy leafy thing – branch. No problem. But in the middle, it’s pretty tough to tell one from the other. Where does the vine stop and the branch begin?

Oooooh, I get it, Pastor Dave! Our relationship with Jesus is designed to be so close that we are totally immersed in Him. We grow into him… or does he grow into us? I don’t really know…Some days it’s kind of hard to tell.

Have you ever heard people talk about their relationship with God like this? They describe a closeness, a warmth, a sense of togetherness that is really appealing, don’t they? You hear some people talk about the ways that they and God spend time together, the kinds of feelings that they have about God, and you think, “Wow, that’s someone who must be really close to God. There’s someone who must be a branch that’s well-connected to the vine.”

And if we’re honest about it, that’s what we want. We want to have that intimacy – that sense of knowing and being known. I might say that it’s a sort of spiritual security blanket – the sense that Jesus is right here with me and nothing’s going to happen.

That is a good thing to desire, and a great thing when it happens. But it’s not the point. Jesus never talks about intimacy with God as something to be desired in and of itself. This connection between the vine and the branch is not the end – it’s a means. A means to what? To the fruit that is supposed to be growing at the end of the branches.

It’s very possible that you have come into worship in the previous weeks and gotten the impression that you were created to be in a life-changing, joy-filled relationship with Jesus. It’s possible that you’ve gotten that impression because that’s what I’ve said. However, we need to be clear about the fact that the joy-filled relationship where you feel fed and nurtured and forgiven and shepherded is not an end in itself, but rather the means by which God intends to use you to shape the world according to his purposes for it.

Or, to put it another way, that intimate, organic relationship with God for which you were created is incomplete until it bears fruit. There is an expectation clearly set forth in John 15 that if we allow ourselves to relate to Jesus in the way that he intends for us, then things will happen.

Jesus is the vine. He promises that he will give us everything necessary to produce fruit. And he promises that he will come looking for fruit in our lives.

Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We exist to bear fruit. In fact, look with me at the progression that exists in this conversation. In verse 2, he commends the branch that bears “fruit.” That quickly is modified to read “more fruit”. Then in verses 5 and 8, he talks about “much fruit”, and by the time we reach verse 16, we understand that he is looking for “fruit that will last.”

How does the plant go from being fruitless to bearing not only fruit, but much fruit that will last?

It is tended and cared for. It is pruned.

PruningMost fruit-bearing trees and vines have two prunings. In the dormant season, the gardener removes all of the branches that are obviously dead. John 15:2 says that the vinegrower takes away every branch that does not bear fruit.

Literally and metaphorically, this is a pain in the neck, but it’s not so hard to wrap your head around. I walk out to my garden, and I see some dead raspberry canes or a rotten limb on the apple tree, and it’s fairly painless to whack it off. I know it has to be done.

In my life, where I see rot developing, where I sense hatred growing, where I am made aware of an evil that threatens my life, my joy, my purpose – then I can ask God to take that away. Oh, sometimes I experience it as a loss, but it’s not too bad. I generally come away thinking, “well, that just had to happen.” It makes sense, somehow, even if it doesn’t always feel good.

pruningliveBut there’s a second pruning that takes place during the growing season. If I’m on my mark as a gardener, once those branches have set some fruit, I have to go out and thin the plant, and remove shoots that are clearly living, but have no fruit on them. I do this because I didn’t plant my cherry tree to grow wood – I planted that cherry tree because I would like to see cherries in my pantry and freezer. If I remove those branches, the tree can put its energy into growing bigger cherries – and less wood.

And in my garden and in my life, I don’t like that pruning. I don’t like to cut into the pretty greenery. It’s hard to rearrange the shape of the tree. And even though a particular branch may be fruitless, I may get some measure of satisfaction, or shade, or beauty from that greenery. But if my goal is fruit, it’s got to go.

This Maundy Thursday evening ask God, and ask yourself: is there some secret attraction, some trivial pursuit, some fruitless distraction that ought to be removed from your life?

Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe there is an addiction that you know is killing you; an unhealthy relationship that consumes you. Sometimes the dead wood is easy to spot.

But my hunch is that for many of us in the room this evening, the second pruning is what needs to occur. There is something that looks healthy and alive, but is simply not fruitful for us. It may be a behavior that is rewarded in some circles: a devotion to work that seems commendable to many, but then you realize that you haven’t known Sabbath rest in far too long. An awareness of your diet and need for fitness that makes you critical of other people to the point of cruelty. A practice of saving that is rooted, not in a biblical understanding of stewardship, but a deep fear that you do not now, and will never have “enough”.

Ask for the grace to make you want the fruit more than you want this other growth. Ask God to show you how the fruit that he desires is better than the things that have held your interest or distracted you.

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

And let’s talk for just a moment about that fruit. In John’s description of the Last Supper, it’s pretty clear what kind of fruit Jesus is talking about. Love. Love is the fruit that grows from a life rooted in the Father’s intentions and sustained by the Spirit’s care.

Let me remind you that love is not warm and mushy feelings. Love is not being nice to the people who are nice to you.

In fact, in John, there are two measurable criteria for the kind of love that Jesus says God is looking for. First, love means obeying God. And second, love means being willing to lay down your life for your friends.

I’m pretty sure that could mean that if you love me, you’d be willing to take a bullet for me, or throw yourself on a grenade if one got flung into the room right now. But more probably, I suspect that kind of love means that you are willing to act for my good, even when it is inconvenient for you. That kind of love means that you are willing to help me grow into what is best for me, even if it costs you somehow.

It is, in short, a kind of love that is not altogether attractive or valued in our world. And frankly, it’s not the kind of love that we usually look for at church. Listen:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.[1]

Here is something that occurred to me this week. What is it that is between the vine and branches and the fruit? The blossom, right? The flower. Every branch, every vine, every plant in my yard that produces fruit does so by extending a blossom. And that blossom – every blossom – is a risk. I’ve got a little cherry tree in my back yard. I get nervous when it starts to blossom. I’m excited, because I can think about homemade jam and cherry pie. But I’m scared, because what will happen if we have a freeze? Even a really gusty day can blow the blossoms off the tree. And if they freeze or fall off, then no matter how green the leaves, how deep the roots, how nicely the tree’s been pruned – there’s no fruit. The blossoms are a fragile risk that my cherry tree makes each spring. And if for some reason you need proof of the great gamble that spring blossoms are, then take a look at that very sad-looking, brown magnolia tree in our front yard – thousands of blossoms that were simply frozen on Tuesday evening.

Tonight, we commemorate the ultimate risk. The sinless Son of God who loved his friends enough to lay down his life for them.

doubting-thomasIncluding Thomas, who would later doubt that Jesus was who he said he was.

 

 

Including Peter, who would later deny even having ever met Jesus.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

 

 

Judas Accepts the Bribe_Arena Chapel_Padua_1300-05Including Judas, who had already sold Jesus out to the authorities and was arranging his arrest.

 

 

 

Tonight, as we remember this risk, know that this Jesus knows you, calls to you, and loves you with this kind of love. He desires a deep and intimate relationship with you, as the vine has with the branch. And if you are not in that kind of relationship, then let me encourage you to walk towards that tonight – to ask Jesus to enter more fully in to your life and heart and purposes.

Jesus-on-CrossAnd if you are in that kind of relationship with Jesus, then let me challenge you to grow in your ability to love with the kind of love that he seems to expect from us. I know that I am advising you toward a dangerous prayer – that I am asking you to pray for pruning and tending and shaping that could be inconvenient or painful. After all, look at what that kind of love got Jesus.

But know, too, that you are not alone in this love, you are not alone on this vine, and you are not alone in this risk. It is why you exist. You came into being for love, and you are to dwell in and act in love. May God be gracious to us as we learn it…again and again and again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] $3 Worth of God, Wilbur Rees (Judson Press, 1971)

Waiting for The Dough

On January 5, we observed the Day of Epiphany (a day early – so sue me!).  We read from Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-7.

         Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota.  Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public.  In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers.  It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth.  And what a variety!

You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”.  There are a litany of notes from past elections.  Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.”  Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times:  “Hungry?  Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.”  And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.”  And some are out of control…

I don't even know what to say about this one...

I don’t even know what to say about this one…

And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy.  Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”

Life stinks, and then you die.  That must be a hard load to carry around every day.

waiting-for-godot1   When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot.  This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”  It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that  characterizes much of modern life.

The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon.  They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go.  They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot.  As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.

The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.

Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail.  Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends.   Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death.  Life stinks, and then you die.  Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”

But not everyone believes this, of course.  That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.

There are many others.

Agrippa_I-Herod_agrippaKing Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life.  He was no idle bystander.  He was not waiting for anyone or anything.  And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading  “life stinks and then you die.”

Herod was a man with power over his destiny.  He was the king.  He was in charge.  He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted.  What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle.  So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation.  He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah.  He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere.  After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run.  He’s got interests to protect.  And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life.  They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”.  Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers.  These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women.  The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is.  For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.

When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room.  They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty.  They worshipped him.  They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way.  They went home changed.  Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life.  Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.

For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting.  We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy.  We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives.  We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator.  We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys.  We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”

There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men.  We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it.  We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.

We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night.  Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.

And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod.  We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king.  But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives.  We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now.  We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.

If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence.  We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use!  Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.

communion_elements On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope.  On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.

People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.

This meal is what we have been waiting for.  All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us.  And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime.  This is what we have been waiting for.

So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.

Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off.  Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.

Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God.  What are you waiting for?  Christ is waiting with and for you.  What are you journeying toward?  Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live.  And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

What Have You Got To Lose?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On World Communion Sunday, we considered one of the most terrifying, and least-likely to be included in Children’s BIbles, texts – the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael (excerpted below).  Our Gospel reading was John 12:23-26.

         If you have not been following along, you need to know that we are working our way through a study of the Book of Judges.  This morning’s reading, like most of that volume, is a bleak and difficult story, especially if we take it at face value.  As we begin, let me remind you about a couple of things.  First, the overall purpose of Judges, as we’ve described it, is to help us see what happens when there is no sense of order and purpose in society.  Several times the text says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel”, and I am taking that to mean that Judges paints a picture of a people who have forgotten the Lord and His purposes.  And secondly, I’d like you to remember that the theological theme of Judges is that God calls his people to replace systems of repression and slavery with structures of release and liberation.

metal-and-stone-spiral-staircaseIn reality, reading through Judges is like following a circular stairwell into a deep, dark basement.  We seem to be going around and around, and instead of getting easier and brighter, it’s getting harder and darker and colder.  And if you think what we’ll read today is bad, well, just wait until March.  This week, I had the sense that a lot of these stories full of violence and bluster are the campfire stories of a culture that needs to hear something of God’s purposes and deliverance, even if they sound unbelievable.  It’s a lot like whistling while you walk past the graveyard in the dark, I suppose.

Let’s begin this fourth chapter, the story of Deborah and Barak, Sisera and Jael.

 

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

You see the cycle, right?  The last Judge, Ehud, dies, and there is peace.  And then we forget, and we do what is evil.  And then God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, and then we cry out to God…

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

But wait a second.  It says we’re oppressed by a king…and what is the distinctive feature of this particular king?  He’s got chariots.  I seem to remember another king with chariots who tried to stand in the way of God’s purposes.  Do you remember Pharaoh?  Can you see how this is being set up as a story of God’s delivering God’s people?

The story continues:

 

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deb′orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abino-am from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph′tali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

DeborahBarakLast week we looked at the meaning of the names in the story.  This week, we’ll see some more of that.  We’re told that Deborah is the “wife of Lappidoth”, and that may be.  But “Lappidoth” is also the word for “torches”.  So she may be “Mrs. Lappidoth”, but she may also be “the torch lady”.  She lives into that name, because she sure lights a fire under Barak!

And “Barak” is the word for “lightning”.  When you hear the rest of this story, I hope you’ll see that perhaps this is a bit of a joke, like when you call a bald man “Curly” or a 350 pounder “Tiny”.  This guy is surely not quick, powerful, or brilliant.

But Deborah, the “torch lady”, is a prophetess.  That is, she is called by God to tell the people the truth.  And the truth she reveals is that God will save us from Sisera:

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

Barak is doubtful and even cowardly.  He chooses to see the size of the problem, rather than the power and the purpose of the savior. “I can’t do it…you’ll have to come.  You be my ‘good luck charm’.”  Earlier in this passage, I suggested that the chariots were to remind us of Pharaoh.  Can you think of another man who was told by God to lead his people to freedom, and who tried to get out of it?  Doesn’t Barak sound just like Moses here?  Moses said that he wasn’t a good enough speaker, that he wasn’t powerful enough.  Barak said he couldn’t do it alone, either.

Deborah gives him his answer:

And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.

Here’s the truth: God does not punish people for an inability to believe, but I am sure that people who cannot trust or believe are unable to see all of God’s best. That’s the situation for Barak, at any rate.  God will do what God will do, but you’ll miss out on some of it, Barak. 

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-anannim, which is near Kedesh.

OK, that’s a little bit random.  Why do we need to know about Heber and the Kenites?  Isn’t this a story about Deborah and Barak?  Yes, it is.  But here we are reminded that the Kenites, even though they are from Canaan, usually play for our side.  Going all the way back to Moses, we’ve had pretty good relations with them.  Moreover, this verse explains why this particular group of Kenites found themselves in Kedesh.  They are usually much further south…but for some reason, there are a few of them around here.  I wonder what they are doing?

12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abin′o-am had gone up to Mount Tabor,

Wait!  Sisera found out about Barak’s army?  How did he do that?  Who told him? Heber!  Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.  I thought we were friends!  But now you’ve ratted our guy out to the enemy.

13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The scene shifts now, to what the RSV calls “the river Kishon.”  The word that’s used, though, is “Wadi” – “Wadi Kishon.”  A “wadi” is a riverbed that is usually dry, packed and firm.  However God defeats the army of Sisera in the Wadi Kishon.  Chapter 5 (verse 4 and 21) describe a battle occurring in a thunderstorm – the dry wadi became a raging torrent, and Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic.  In fact, the word for “panic” that is used here is the same word that describes what happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14:24.  Can you see the echo of a liberation story here?

God does in fact use lightning to defeat Sisera – but it’s actual lightning, not Barak.  Once again, we see that God’s hand is more powerful than the enemy’s chariots.  That’s fantastic!  Let’s see how this story ends:

17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Seriously?  A tent peg through the skull?  Look, you can read through the Bible and find a lot of places where you think, “Somebody needs to be wearing a WWJD bracelet here”.  This is not the best and finest part of our story, folks.  What’s going on here?

Well, for starters, let’s consider a couple of things that “everyone knows” – that is, what would be really obvious to hearers of this story that might slip past us?

Sisera, the enemy general, went straight to the tent of a woman.  In that culture, that’s a serious breach.  He ought to be presenting himself to the master of the property, the man.  In a time when the “taking” of “war brides” and forced sexual advances was common, a soldier walking into the tent of a woman is a real threat.

Furthermore, he asked for a drink.  Everyone knows that a good guest doesn’t ask, he waits to be served.  This is very forward and, again, threatening.

Finally, this guest commands his host to lie for him. 

The chapter concludes with Jael finishing the story, all right.  She deals with this threatening stranger and along the way, she undoes her husband’s treachery (remember that it was her husband, Heber, who alerted Sisera to Barak’s presence), and she declares God’s victory and liberation.

So what’s the good news here?  What can we learn from this difficult story?

The Good news is that here in Judges, just like in Exodus, God acts to save his people who cry out. God’s power brings liberation and release.

Deborah and Jael see this, believe it, and act into it.  These strong women take the steps that they can, using the tools they have at hand, to create a future consistent with God’s intentions for peace and freedom.

The men?  Well, not so much.  Both Barak and Sisera seem very intent on saving their own skins.  Barak, at least, is mildly interested in what the Almighty has going on, but it is clearly secondary to self-preservation. He can’t believe what Deborah says and will not move forward into God’s promise without the “torch lady” lighting a fire under his bum.  Sisera leaves his army, hides in a woman’s tent, and lies about that.

If we were to interpret this chapter in the light of our reading from John, we could say that each of the men sought to save their own necks by playing it safe.  They withheld trust and faith, and it ended up costing each of them.

So the women are faithful and able to walk into God’s purposes, while the men shrink back.  That leads me to another question: How do I respond to the call of God? How do I move forward into a future characterized by the intentions of a liberating, empowering, releasing God?

I know.  I know.  The story in Judges 4 is a nasty, brutish narrative.  It’s written by a people who knew far less of God’s intentions and presence than you do.  Nobody here had the Psalms or the Prophets, let alone the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  Every one of you sitting in the pews this morning knows more about light and life and God’s purposes than anyone in this story ever did.  You have more light than they did.

What are you doing with it?

Barak looked at Deborah, and then at the size of the enemy army, and said, “No way.  I am not going in there.  At least, not alone.  I’m only going if you will come with me, Deborah.”  And she becomes his token, his good-luck charm, his idol, his crutch.

CryOutWhat are you afraid of?  What do you look at and say, “No way.  I can’t do it.  Not gonna happen…”? Is it taking charge of your financial affairs?  Getting clean? Are you afraid of aging or dying?  Do you lack boldness in a relationship?

What do you insist on taking with you into the presence of fear?  Barak took Deborah. Do you take a drink instead of facing your fear directly?  Do you medicate your problems with shopping, or seek to anesthetize them with gambling or television or hiding out in the bedroom?  Do you find that you simply can’t move because you feel incapable and overwhelmed?

I’ve got good news.  In a few moments, you’ll be invited to sit at the Lord’s table.  You’ll have the opportunity to receive the sacrament that more than anything else is a tangible sign of God’s presence with you.  A reminder that God’s intentions are for you.

As you come to the table, you can let go of your good luck charm, your idol, your fear, your crutch.  You can walk toward the future, knowing that God is there, that God is in control.  Barak thought he was helpless unless he had Deborah with him.  Sisera thought he was safe hiding in a lie.  Both of them were wrong.  There is nothing else we need to bring, and no reason to hide.  Come into the light.  What have you got to lose?  No, seriously, I’m pretty sure that most of us need to lose something.  What have you got to lose?  The good news is, you can lose it, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.