The Proof of the Pudding

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26.  The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self.  Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going.  Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid?  Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.”  But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove?  It was always good!

I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried.  When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order.  After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.

As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works.  As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse.  Here’s what I mean by that…

When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.”  The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart.  These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart.  The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.  When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.

My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.”  A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient.  For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further.  In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet.  If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?

James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.

I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.

Now, hold on, Pastor Dave.  What could be worse than something that kills me?  Isn’t that about as low as we can go?

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.

When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know.  We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions.  We see that in many ways.

For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best.  He must have needed another angel up in heaven.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all?  And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?

Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years.  There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”.  Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right?  Those are just not disaster-worthy sins?  These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.

You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries.  In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people.  His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that.  Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.

The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me.  I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.”  Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together.  I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.

Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire.  Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.

Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”.  Fulfill the law of love.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?

It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire.  We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs.  Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.

We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give.  We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.

What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020?  If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.

Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances.  And that is surely the case here.  Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now.  Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins.  So if you have what you need, you are blessed.  This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.

But it’s not just your money, you know.  You can also be generous with your time.  Are you the parent of a young child?  Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now.  If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow.  I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus.  But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer.  If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime.  Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.

Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others.  Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise.  Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now.  Seek to live with others in mind.

When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter.  He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers.  The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day.  “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved?  Are you a believer?”

The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”

The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question.  The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil.  He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine.  Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian.  Ask them.  You can trust them.  They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”[1]

May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time.  And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born.  Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors.  Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.

Being Faithful and Rooted in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 26, 2020 to continue the celebration of the season of Eastertide.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts this week included Daniel 2:25-49, and we also heard from Paul to his friends in Rome, Romans 12:3-5

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire service at the end of this blog.

So at the Ash Wednesday service, the congregation prepared for the usual prayer of confession.  The preacher started off as usual, but apparently got so caught up in the moment that he stepped away from the elegant pulpit, threw himself on the chancel, and began to weep loudly.  As he did so, he cried out, “Nothing, God, nothing! Before you, I am nothing!”

The congregation was visibly moved by this show of humility, and in a moment the leader of the worship team throws herself down next to the pastor and begins to imitate him, wailing, “I’m nothing, Lord! Before you, I am nothing…”  After a moment, there’s a bit of a stir in the back when the town drunk steps into the aisle and kneels, and cries out, “O Lord, before you, I am nothing!”

While the congregation stares, the worship leader nudges the pastor and says, “Well get a load of this! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This morning, I’d like to talk about who we are, who we think we are, how we understand ourselves, and the notion of humility.  And as I start I’ll confess that this is a difficult message because the more I talk about humility, the less you’re convinced that I have any of it.

“Daniel Interprets the Dream of King Nebuchadnezzar”, William Brassey Hole (1846-1907)

We are continuing to read in the Book of Daniel, listening for ways in which God’s presence and truth was revealed to a people who were sent to a place they didn’t want to go, held by a power they didn’t acknowledge, and asked to define themselves in ways that they couldn’t understand.  Last week, we read about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar had had a vision in the night and he was just about ready to slaughter every one of his advisors before young Daniel announced that, with God’s help, he knew the dream and its interpretation.  He rushed to tell the executioner, Arioch, that God had given him the answer and that the wise men’s lives could be spared.

Did you notice what happened in the reading today?  Arioch leads Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar and begins by saying, “I have found a man who can solve your problem, O King.”  Seriously? The only thing Arioch did was to not kill Daniel – but he wants the king to associate whatever success Daniel has with Arioch himself.  Not what I’d call a lesson in humility.

Then, as you heard, Daniel tells the truth.  That is, he not only reveals Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but he interprets the dream.  It’s a long and complicated vision, and, quite frankly, not the point of this morning’s sermon.  If you’d like to talk with me about the four kingdoms and the ways in which they may or may not be representative of various historical realities, well, give me a call and maybe we’ll both have had enough of the Coronavirus boredom to make that an interesting conversation.  But the emphasis for today is this – that the king puts an apparently impossible demand in front of his lackeys and Daniel is the only one who brings him any satisfaction.  Nebuchadnezzar accepts Daniel’s explanations and our text indicates that he worships Daniel.

When many of us gathered for our Wednesday night Bible study this past week, we talked about the word “worship”, and how it is a natural attribute of humanity.  When we “worship” someone, we usually use that word to mean a celebration of someone’s strength or other attributes, or an adoration of that person, or pointing to the power or accomplishments of the individual. I say this because when the Bible says that the king “worshiped” Daniel it is not implying that the King somehow “accepted Daniel into his heart” or began a new religion.  Rather, it’s a way of saying that the king acknowledged that Daniel was a great guy who told the truth.

The king goes on to acclaim Daniel’s God, YHWH, as the God of gods and the Lord of kings, and he promotes Daniel to be, essentially, vice-king.  He also elevates Daniel’s other companions to offices of respect and power.  I assume you got that from the reading today, right?

Question: did any of that sound vaguely familiar?  Look at the arc of the story: a young man is taken away from his home and his family and sent to the capital of the Empire.  While there he is imprisoned, threatened with harm, and attempts are made to convert him to the Empire’s way of thinking and style of life.  The king, however, experiences a disquieting dream and, against all odds, the young captive from Israel is brought in to interpret the dream.  The grateful king celebrates the wisdom of this outsider and elevates him to a position of great rank and authority in the Empire, recognizing his wisdom and the superiority of his God.  Have you seen this movie before?

Of course you have!  Isn’t that the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt but rising as the vice-chancellor to save the people?  This type of an account, which might be called a “court story”, is central to the Old Testament narrative.  In fact, we’ll see it again next week as we walk into the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Why are these stories important in the Bible?  I’d suggest that there are at least three things that the court stories do.

First, they serve to remind everyone – the people of God, mostly, but the whole human family in general – that God is sovereign.  That is, they affirm the truth that the great I AM is the one true God.

Secondly, it would follow from this that those who learn from YHWH and who are faithful to YHWH have access to a wisdom that is superior to wisdom that comes from other sources.

And thirdly, these court stories are told and re-told to remind those who follow and serve YHWH that they can be encouraged and even hopeful in the midst of situations that might be otherwise untenable.  As Andrew Lloyd Webber put it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,

Close every door to me,
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own peace of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own

These court stories inform the collective memory of the people of God in such a way that nurtures and sustains hope, especially when things look dire.

All right, so if that’s what we’re looking at when we consider this story from Daniel – a “court story” that reminds us of what is true even when our own immediate experience might suggest something else – then what are to do with it?  In what ways can we apply Daniel’s experience to our own?

Well, how does our brother Daniel behave when he finds himself facing a traumatic event in his own life?  As we’ve noted, Daniel is uprooted from his normal routine, taken away from his regular school or work, given a new diet, forced to learn a new language, expected to participate in a reality that is not of his choosing…  How does he respond?

One key aspect of Daniel’s personality that shines through here is his remarkable humility.  You heard it a moment ago – several times when the king is seeking to praise him, Daniel deflects and says, essentially, “Look, it’s not me or any other human; it’s YHWH.”  You could argue, correctly, I’d say, that Daniel does not get into a deep kind of self-abasement or lowering; he does accept the king’s gratitude for the role that he played.  Humility is like that, isn’t it?  As Paul says, it’s a proper assessment of who we are. We take an honest look at who we are and we think about how the gifts we’ve been given equip us to participate in what God is doing.

Frederick Buechner writes about humility, saying

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a [card] player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.  If you really aren’t much of a [card] player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly.  This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.  True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.  It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.[1]

A few weeks ago I suggested that we could learn something from Daniel when it comes to living in the age of Coronavirus.  What would it look like for us to practice humility during these times of social distancing and virtual community?  Well, I can think of at least three things.

I don’t know what your screen time has been like, but 76% of us are reporting an increase in smartphone and tablet use during the lockdown.  47% of these folks say that their use of social media has increased significantly.[2]  Do you know what that means?  It means that you’re more likely to come into contact with fools.  It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a shocker.  The internet is full of idiots, half-baked ideas, and misinformation.  One aspect of humility is having the strength to avoid arguments with fools.

Look at what Daniel did.  He was surrounded by people who mocked him for his belief, who belittled him for his diet, or who couldn’t pronounce his name.  His continued faithfulness was not demonstrated by trying to prove to these guys that what he knew was superior to what they knew; instead, he went about his business and focused on being the person that God was calling him to be.  In fact, as we saw last week, not only did he refuse to get sucked into anything with the idiots around him, he actually saved their lives!

Another way in which we can see Daniel demonstrating humility is his refusal to compare himself with those around him. Again, last week we saw him drawing near to his colleagues, inviting them to pray with him and to seek the power and presence of YHWH.  You don’t hear Daniel pointing out how either Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego have it somehow better than he, or how his suffering is more or less than the others.  He recognizes that they are in this together.

One of the temptations in our current reality is for those of us in some areas of the nation or world where the effects of the virus are not as pronounced is to look at other people and say, “Suck it up, buttercup!  It’s not that bad.  Quit being such a baby!”  And yet when we do that, we diminish the real pain and suffering in those communities where death has been a too-frequent visitor and the danger of infection is a matter of critical importance.

And finally, one of the most significant lessons we will learn and re-learn from our brother Daniel is that God, not we ourselves, assigns our identity.  Imagine this: that Daniel went into the bedchamber of the most powerful man in the universe and said, “Look, your majesty, you’re pretty big – I’ll give you that… but even you live in a universe that is governed by the God that I worship; that God is the one who raised you up and that God is the one who knows when you’ll fall.”  Daniel consistently points to a God who is sovereign over human history.

And if there is anything that sounds un-American in the Bible, well, that is it.  We are raised to think of ourselves as self-determining.  All around us these days are people who are proclaiming, in the name of something called “liberty”, that they, and they alone, will determine if they’ll go to the Target, if they’ll wear a mask, if they’ll respect social distancing… because, well, freedom.  “Nobody tells me what to do,” we say.

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas were college professors when their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony was published.  They write,

Our culture has perverted “liberation” to mean freedom from the demands of others in order to be free to follow the demands of the self… Why do you think that we’re all here at the university?  To get liberated!  To stand alone, on our own two feet, autonomous, liberated!  And when we finish…here at the university… you will not need mother, father, husband, wife, children, God, anybody.  We call it “education.”
…It’s tough out there.  Paganism is the air we breathe, the water we drink… Paganism defined as the worship of false gods who promise us results.  [As a person of faith], You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms… So we must gather on a regular basis, for worship.  To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God.  We must speak to one another as beloved brothers and sisters in a world which encourages us to live as strangers.  We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world that teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.  In such a world, what we do here on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death.[3]

Beloved, know this: that if there is one thing of which this lockdown has reminded us, it is that we are no more self-sufficient or all-powerful than was Nebuchadnezzar.  We, no less than Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are interconnected, interdependent, and belong to each other.

We need each other.  We have the ability, in some cases literally right now, to save each other’s lives.  We have the ability to crush each other’s spirits.  How will we treat that portion of the creation with which we’ve been drawn close?  How will we treat those around us?  May we have the grace and wisdom to learn humility from our brothers Daniel and Paul and live with it onscreen and in real life, to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.  Thanks be to God, who rules and reigns forever.  Amen.

Here is the YouTube recording of the entire worship service:

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper San Francisco, 1973) p. 40.

[2] https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/04/24/report-most-important-data-on-digital-audiences-during-coronavirus/

[3] Resident Aliens, p. 153-154.

The Church of the Empty Pews

Like most of the rest of the country, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually for worship on March 22.  We had a skeleton crew inside the building (practicing good social distancing) and a vibrant connection with a community spread across three continents via Facebook live.  Our texts included Psalm 25:16-22 and John 9:1-17. 

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

To view the entire service as it was live-streamed on FaceBook, try clicking this link.  It is my understanding that one need not have FaceBook in order to view the recording.

Well, beloved, it has been a week, hasn’t it?  I am sure that you have experienced the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainties every bit as much as have I.  We watch the news, we talk to friends, we worry, we wonder, we wait and we watch.

“Stay home!”, we are told.  How fortunate we are, how blessed, to be living in this age of technology.  To think that we can comply with the mandate for “social distancing” and yet still somehow gather virtually in this fashion is, well, amazing.  And the device that you’re using right now – well, that is incredible.  To think – all of the wisdom of all of the ages; the great literature, the incomparable art, the profound knowledge that is available on this device – and yet we so often use it to post cat videos or share pictures of our food.

And we ask questions! If you have a social media account, you’ve seen people looking for recommendations to various dilemmas in their lives, or filling out quizzes as to which bands are the best, or wondering how many of the fifty states you’ve been to and how that compares with their lists.

We are questioners.  In fact, I saw recently that the average four-year-old asks a staggering 437 questions in a single day.  I suspect that some of you who are spending unexpected long stretches with the littles in your lives will back me up on this one.

Do you know who loved questions? Well, I am in church, and the answer is… Jesus.  One writer (who must’ve had time even before the age of social distancing kicked in) has indicated that Jesus asked 307 questions in the gospels.[1]  He was asked 163 questions.  Perhaps infuriatingly, for those in the room at any point, he often responded to a question with one of his own.  You know that!

The disciples ask, “where could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?” and Jesus replies, “how many loaves do you have?” (MT 15:32-34)

The jar of perfume was broken, and some present wondered, “why was this ointment wasted, when it could have been sold to benefit the poor?”  Jesus answered by asking, “Why are you bothering this woman?” (MT 26:6-10)

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (LK 4:38-40)

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)

The same writer says that Jesus only responded directly to a question with an answer a handful of times.  Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times. He’s asked a straightforward question: “Look at that blind fella, Jesus.  Who’s fault is it that he was born that way?  His? Or his folks’?”

And Jesus gives a direct answer: “Look, friends: the man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone sinning.  He was born so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”

After  announcing the works of God, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate them.  He reenacts the creation story from Genesis by taking the dust of the ground and using it to bring life and wholeness.  He brings new possibilities to this man, who has been marginalized for so long, and instructs him to rejoin, and to regain, his community. In his act of healing, Jesus opens a new pathway of wholeness and life for this man, his family, and the neighborhood.

The un-named man takes Jesus’ at his word and does just that – he re-engages with his family and his community… and then the questions really begin.  In the next ten verses, we find that the crowd asks at least three questions (“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”, “How were your eyes opened?”, and “Where is this man?”), while the religious leaders add “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” and “What do you have to say about him?”

Everybody in town wants to know something.  You see, everybody has a theory, or an idea.  Everyone has a point to prove, a judgment to pass, “fake news” to dispel.  Everybody is talking… except the guy we expect the questions from – Jesus.  He is finished talking.  He’s responded to his disciples; he’s healed the man, and he’s sent the man to be more fully himself.  For once, the questioner is silent.

Now, although I want to be a follower of Jesus, I would never attempt to put myself in the same category as Jesus.  I want to learn from him, and to grow.  And one of Jesus’ habits that I’ve picked up along the way – one which is, I know, deeply irritating to many of you – is asking questions.

Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was preparing to drive two high school students somewhere.  As they approached the car, one of them dove for the back seat, saying to her friend, “Look, you take shotgun.  I never know how to respond to all those questions Dave asks all the time.”

And it’s true.  I ask questions.  If you have a friend dealing with a traumatic illness, after we pray together, I might say, “I wonder – how does this sickness affect you?”.  A young woman lost the child she was carrying, and I asked, “how will life be different from what you had hoped?”  A student announced that he’d gotten into the college of his dreams, and I asked, “What will change about your life as a result of this?”  One of you came to me and talked about how difficult your life had been recently, and I asked, “Do you think you’d experience things otherwise if you drank less?”  I don’t always ask the right question, and I’m sure that not every question that I asks feels good… but I’m seeking to do so with sincere hopes that these questions will lead you more deeply into God’s best for yourself.

And so in that spirit, I want you to think about this.  We are in an age of pandemic.  You know people who have, or who will have, the COVID 19 virus.  You may have it right now and not even know.  How will that virus affect you?  How will it affect us?

And you can say – in all honesty and sincerity – “Geez, Pastor Dave, I don’t know.  We’ve never been here before.  This is all uncharted waters to us.”  And you’re right.  Most of us have not been here.  But the Church has.  We have gone through plagues and pestilence – while remaining ourselves.

And that is the question we need to discern, beloved.  How do we live into the calling to be the body of Christ – a very corporeal word – the BODY of Christ – at a time when corporate – bodily – gatherings are at least discouraged and probably downright dangerous?  I was speaking with a younger pastor earlier this week who said, “I don’t know, Dave… How are we gonna do this?  I mean, when people are hit by hard news – when tragedy strikes – we’re supposed to get together, aren’t we? We have special services and vigils and candles.  Are we supposed to do all this alone?”

Yes.

On the day I was ordained, I received a small calligraphy that has been on the wall of my study ever since.  In its most basic sense, it is my job description.  It is our job description.  Look:

Listen, beloved: none of that has changed.  I think that Jesus expects that we are doing those things.  The “what” has not changed… but the “how” must change, at least in the short run.  How do we do these things that we’ve always done when we can’t act the ways we’ve always acted?

Thomas Pettepiece was an Irish Methodist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his book Visions of a World Hungry he recounts his experience of an Easter Sunday that taught him that we can do what we have always been called to do even when we don’t think we have what we have always had.  Listen:

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion— without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [Another man] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.”[2]

We who have always had the benefit of being able to gather freely, and to share abundantly, and to hug warmly – we are crying out: “How can we do this?  How in the world are we supposed to give to the work of the Lord when there are not even any collection plates, and when we’re not sure what is happening with our jobs?  How can we notice who’s missing when none of us are supposed to be here?  How do we love when we can’t even see each other?”

Oh, beloved… let us ask God to unleash creativity in the church today.  Let us press to discover new ways of doing these eternal tasks.  Let us commit to intentional connectivity, to seeking windows of vulnerability, to read and reflect and pray as though those things really matter, and to give as generously as we can in ways that make a difference in the world today.

And above all else, dear people of God, I charge you this day to remember how deep and dark and cold and desperate these days feel.  I charge you to remember how scared you have been, or how desperately you have really wanted to know, or be, or do something other than that which has been open to you in the past few days.  I charge you to remember the depths of pain and loss that you see in your neighbors – the people you love – today.  Remember these things – and when it gets better, as it surely will, remember these things the next time you are tempted to scorn a refugee or scoff at someone who is running for their lives. Remember that in our neighborhood, many of us were fighting over toilet paper.  How will this experience affect us? I hope and pray that it makes us better human beings, more able to recognize and live into the Divine Image in which we are each created.

And in your remembering, dear ones, I charge you to live lightly this day.  To do all that you can to treat the earth well, and to seek to heal it, rather than to dominate it.  I charge you to deal gently and kindly with your neighbors – the ones you already love and those whom you’ve been instructed to love but you haven’t quite gotten there yet.  And I charge to you behave as though you expect that the presence and glory of God is revealed in the ways that you and I enact the love of Jesus in this world.

If we can live in those ways, dear ones… then we will become the church of the empty pews and the full hearts.  Thanks be to the God who has called us to be his own.  Amen.

After the sermon, I shared with the congregation a rendition of a song that has meant a great deal to me in trying times.  It is James Ward’s take on “Rock of Ages”, and if you’d like you can hear me sing it by using the media player below.

[1] Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That He Answered, Martin Copenhaver (Abingdon, 2014).

[2] From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas Pettepiece, quoted in A Guide to Prayer (Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 143-144.

Faithful Living in a Fearful Age

The saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights chose to gather in varied ways on March 15.  Some of us were present in “real time” and others joined in virtually via a simulcast.  Still others are participating by reading or hearing the message here.  As we join our world in considering what it means to live a faithful response to COVID-19 we listened to the ancient words of Psalm 27 as well as the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 10:28-31.

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

If you know me at all, you know that from time to time I find myself gripped by what I call “the fever”, and I am compelled to engage in a rigorous course of hydrotherapy.  When it gets really bad, I have to drive to a special spot near Lake Erie and soak my feet in cold water for six or eight hours at a time.  I find that when I am holding a fishing rod, such treatment for steelhead fever is 100% effective.

THIS is a steelhead – the result of “hydrotherapy!”

One day I invited a friend to join me for the experience.  Although this person had gone fishing before, including some visits to the river with me, this was her first trip for steelhead.  As we stood side by side in the creek, throwing the same bait at the same school of fish, I became aware of an uncomfortable truth:  I caught three or four really nice fish, while my friend’s bait had not gotten any attention at all.  I wasn’t sure what to say when she broached the subject herself, saying, “You know what, Dave? This is a fantastic day.  I mean, I wish I was catching fish, but the weather is fine, I’m with my friend, and the countryside is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter that I haven’t caught anything.  Thank you so much for bringing me!”

Well, as you can imagine, that really made me feel better. I turned, and said, “I’m relieved to hear you say that, because I was afraid that you weren’t enjoying yourself…”  And as I was speaking, my line tightened with yet another good-size fish.  She threw her rod aside, came over to me, and said, “All right, just give me that #*&% fishing pole!”  She jerked the line, and sought to get the fish to land, but it broke off.  She returned the rod to me without a word, and I knew enough to be sure that I wasn’t going to say anything.

And then five minutes later, her own bobber went under, and she set the hook and managed to land a really nice fish.  As I scooped it up with the net, she let out a whoop and a holler and exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! Oh, this feels so great!”  She plopped down on the bank, and I sat next to her and helped her to unhook the fish.  Feigning wonder, I said, “I don’t get it.  What about ‘it doesn’t matter who catches fish and who doesn’t’ and ‘it’s a great day no matter what’?”  She stared me down and said, “Yeah, well, that.  It’s all BS Dave. Trust me.  This is better.”

Why do I tell you that story today?

Because we live in a time when our theories (“it doesn’t really matter who catches a fish”) are coming face to face with our behaviors (“gimme that #*&% pole right now!”).  Stuff is getting very, very real here in the 15205, and if it hasn’t hit you already, it will very soon.  In the wake of the COVID-19 “coronavirus”, the stock market has plunged, and some of you are really concerned about your savings.  Schools and universities have closed, parades and events are cancelled; we are fighting over toilet paper and denuding the supermarket shelves – and all of that happened when the closest verified case was in Cleveland.  We were already responding, not only with wisdom and prudence but we had begun to lose our minds when it wasn’t even here yet!

What’s going to happen when you find out that your child’s teacher, your neighbor, your pastor – has tested positive for the virus?

It’s bad.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s going to get worse.  And it is not pretty.  One of you told me earlier this week about your doctor’s office.  The staff had set out a hundred masks as a courtesy to those who were in the waiting room.  Within moments, the box was emptied by frantic parents stashing them away for personal use.  You’ve seen the toilet paper aisles. From hand sanitizer to canned food to spaghetti, we are hoarding resources.

It is not a good look, friends, particularly when so many of those who are panicking are claiming to adhere to some version of the Christian faith.

What are we supposed to do when the virus comes to our street?

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.

For many years, I showed a particular film clip to confirmation classes.  In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero has come to an ancient archeological dig in search of the Holy Grail – the cup that Christ used at the last supper.  The Nazis, seeking the cup for their own purposes, are convinced that Jones can find it – but know that he won’t help them.  So they shoot Indy’s father, wounding him mortally, and turn to the adventurer and say, “Now, Dr. Jones, is the time for you to decide what you believe.”

In other words, for Indiana Jones, the moment that his father is lying there bleeding, the question of whether there is healing in the cup is no longer merely academic speculation.  Is there hope and healing to be found, or not?

Similarly, many of us in Pittsburgh at the start of the 21st century have led such charmed lives that we have never seen a threat like the coronavirus before.  If you look at the panic on the internet, the fear in people’s eyes, and the hoarding at the grocery stores, it’s as if we’ve never seen pain and discomfort like this before.

That’s a lie.

Today, I need to stand here as your pastor and remind you that you have, in fact, seen pain, and fear, and discomfort before.  While there is a lot that is new in this current situation, the underlying emotion and tension is not new.  In the past, when you’ve encountered fear and difficulty, has it led you to question your faith, to doubt God, or to take stock of your relationships?  For some of you, the answer is yes.  And in some cases, you may have found your own faith strengthened as a result of trial.

In any case, my point is this: while COVID-19 is evidently a new phenomenon, we’ve all been here before.  And when we’ve stood at the brink of pain and fear and loss and even death before, what did we think?

Historically, we have held to the truth that God is here.  Pain is real, but pain is not forever.

In fact, 3000 years ago the Psalmist wrote that fear is not God’s intention for God’s children.  We are created, he says, for confidence, for community, and for compassion.  Psalm 27 is a bold hymn of hope and assurance giving voice to the fundamental truth that I need not live in fear, I need not live in loneliness, and I need not live in hostility.  Because God is here, the Psalmist writes, these things can be banished.  Because God is present, he affirms, I can be confident of seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living.

And yet, here’s the thing: the guy who wrote that Psalm? He’s dead.  He is no longer a resident of “the land of the living”.  And it’s not just him.  Everyone who sang that song with him – gone.  All of the folks who heard Jesus say, “God will protect you…you are worth more than a sparrow – in fact the hairs on your head are numbered…” – all of those folks have succumbed to something or other.

So what?

Does this mean that they had a faulty belief structure? Were they wrong? Was their theology bad?  I mean, let’s be honest: God did not save them from war, pestilence, or persecution.

And the faithful of their age – and, I would argue, every age – would say, “No, we were not wrong!  We came to see a greater truth: that in these finite, limited lives we’ve been given we can get a glimpse into how it ought to be, how it’s meant to be, and how it’s going to be.  In the weakness of our present state, we affirm that weakness is not God’s intent – but we also affirm that even now, in all our brokenness, we can begin to participate in the fulness of life as it is meant to be.”

In times of crisis, pain, fear, and death, we can act as those who trust in God; we can choose to behave as those who believe that goodness is the Divine intent and the ultimate end for all of creation.

This is the time to get it right, beloved!  Today is the day to act like we actually believe what we’ve said all along!

Look, let’s say that they come up with a cure for COVID-19 tomorrow.  They come through your neighborhood with a giant can of something or other and spray the stuff all over everything and by lunchtime tomorrow the disease is totally wiped out.

Even if that were to happen, is there anyone in this room who seriously believes that the next twelve months will bring only good?  If somehow we eliminate the coronavirus, will we be spared from all pain, loss, and grief?

Of course not!  No matter what happens with this virus, the one thing of which you and I can be assured is that in the coming weeks and months we will experience trouble.  We will be tempted to give into fear and allow selfishness and greed to define our behavior.

So dear ones, please, please, please – let us remember today, and tomorrow, and six months from now when most of us will be standing on the other side of this thing that God has NOT created us for fear or for selfishness, but rather for confidence, community, and compassion.

If we can agree with the Psalmist and the Gospel Writer that these are God’s intentions for us, then let us live into these values and traits today.  Let us commit ourselves to participating in those aspects of eternity that have been opened to us at this very moment!

You know this! For centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of living graciously and generously, reminding people that God’s care and love are always present, even in the darkest of hours.  Followers of Jesus have built hospitals and shared food; we have prayed with the sick, the dying, and the outcast; we have sought to bring comfort to the afflicted.

Let us live into those best parts of ourselves and our story today and in all the days to come as we seek to love our neighbors.  Love them as you wash your hands, as you act prudently when you are compelled to be out and about, and as you live with the sure and certain hope that what we can see is not all there is and it is certainly not forever.

The 27th Psalm ends by saying that the writer would have given up hope if he had not believed that he would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Beloved, the charge to you this week is simple: be that hope.  Be that goodness as you shop, and as you stay at home; as you reach out via a card or call or FaceTime to someone for whom the isolation would be crippling or even deadly. Be that Christ in the world this week.

If we cannot live this way this week, we will sound just as disingenuous and hollow as my friend at the fishing hole.  This is NOT just a load of BS.  This is why we were made.  Thanks be to God for who God has been, and for who God is, and for the ways in which God continues to come to us. Live your faith like you mean it, my friends.  And push me to do the same.  Amen.

Decently and In Order

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On January 26, we considered The Second Helvetic Confession, written in Switzerland in the mid-1500’s. We centered our worship on selected verses from I Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:19-25.

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

This morning we are going to return to a theme that we left off before Christmas: we are looking at some of the great creeds of the church.  You may remember that nearly all of these statements came out of a church fight somewhere or other.  There are a dozen such documents in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions, and we are in the process of touching each of them.

Portrait of The Elector Frederick III “The Pious” of Saxony, artist unknown, c. 1550

I hope you remember the last time we considered this topic: we were in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1559 where there was, quite literally, a church fight.  Do you remember how the senior pastor, Tileman Heshusius, and his associate, Wilhelm Klebitz, exchanged punches during communion while leading worship in Heidelberg?  And how the regional governor, Frederick III, Elector of Germany, sent them both packing and brought in a couple of young guys to write a statement that would be more accessible to the youth in the church? We call that statement The Heidelberg Catechism.

I know that this might shock you, but, well, it turns out that not everyone was happy with the fact that their church was changing.  Can you believe it?

Sure, Frederick III thought that he’d settled the matter and went on doing whatever it is that “Electors” do in their spare time.  And everything was great… until… dah dah dah…

Someone took it upon themselves to write a snooty letter to Maximilian II, who was the Archduke of Austria, the King of Bohemia, Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, and the Holy Roman Emperor.  He was kind of a big deal, and he was Frederick’s boss.  Maximilian was a Catholic, but he supported freedom of religion as long as the religion we were talking about was Christianity.

On January 14, 1566, Maximilian called for the Imperial Diet to convene (This may be the reason that even  now, 450 years later, everyone starts a diet in January).  The Diet was the  deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire.  The reason for this gathering, according to Maximilian, was to determine whether Frederick III was a heretic.  He’d been accused of betraying the Gospel and by supporting a new statement of faith, leading the people of Germany astray.  The Diet would convene to consider that charge, and if so, what punishment might be leveled.  Should Frederick be removed from office? Banned from the Empire? Imprisoned? Even killed?

I know, I know, it’s crazy to think that a group of people would be critical of their government, and want to hold their leaders to account, and investigate charges against a head of state, but evidently, it happens some times…

Anyway, Frederick gets a letter from Maximilian indicating the charges against him and telling him he’d better come up with a defense and prove that he was not a filthy heretic, or worse, a Lutheran.

Frederick panicked, and reached out to a friend, a Swiss church leader named Heinrich Bullinger. “Heinrich”, he said, “I need a statement! I need something that will clear my name and show that the things I’ve said are consistent with the faith… and I need it fast!  The Emperor is expecting me in less than four months!”

Heinrich Bullinger, at the time, was 62 years old.  He was nearing the end of a stellar career in which he’d been an eyewitness to church history: he had been a close associate of Ulrich Zwingli, a colleague of John Calvin, and a mentor of sorts to John Knox of Scotland.  A couple of years previous, there had been an outbreak of the plague in Switzerland, and Bullinger had spent months and months tending to the sick and burying the dead.  He knew that his days were numbered, and when he returned to his home each evening, he worked to write a personal memoir.  He completed it in 1564 and set it in an envelope, along with his will, so that it might be shared as a testimony to his personal faith upon his death.  He did not intend the document to be a public statement, at least in his lifetime.

But now he had to make a choice: his friend was in trouble, and there was no time to draft a new creed.  Could he share his personal reflections with Frederick III?  Would that be enough to satisfy Maximilian and the Diet?  Could Bullinger’s statement save Frederick from banishment, imprisonment, or even death?

At the end of the day, Bullinger sent a copy of his statement to Frederick, who was so impressed with it that he had it published in March of 1566.  It was accepted by Emperor Maximilian and became the new standard for Reformed confessions of faith.

Bullinger’s document has become known as The Second Helvetic Confession.  “Helvetic” means “Swiss”, so if you want to impress the folks at the deli next time, ask for a ham and Helvetic sandwich…  see what happens…

At any rate, this was not a short statement.  The Second Helvetic Confession contains 30 chapters.  The first sixteen of them deal with matters of scripture, theology, and church doctrine, while the second half consider the ordering of church life.  There are chapters on church leadership, the sacraments, worship, holy days, confirmation, funerals, and marriage.  The Confession is deeply personal, and is in the first person voice: affirmations begin with the word “we”.  The central emphasis, I think, is the notion that what “we”, the church, do – well, it matters.

And I suspect that even if there are those of you in the room who found the account of the church fight in Heidelberg and the accusations against Frederick to be mildly interesting, at least for church, that right about now your eyes might be glazing over and you’re sighing, “So what?  That booklet is more than 450 years old, written in another era to a different people.  What does it have to do with us?”

If I had the time, I’d suggest that any number of those 30 chapters might be worth the church’s consideration in 2020, but let me offer you two “C’s” that seem to stand out in the Second Helvetic Confession.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c. 1512).

The first is the notion of covenant.  We, the church of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury are here, just as were our siblings in the 17th century, participating in a journey towards faith that is, in large part, given to us.  God has invited us to participate in the drama of history, and we are called to play a role in world events as they occur.

On the one hand, this is a great freedom, and it means that we are not in a position where we have to make stuff up.  Our identity is given to us.  We are told that we are made, fearfully and wonderfully, to be in God’s own image.  We are included in a body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church – that is sent out into the world as agents of what God is doing in that world.  We, though many, are called into one body to be an expression of the love of Jesus in the places where we are sent.  Do you see?  We don’t have to invent ourselves or our church out of thin air!  We accept what is given to us, and we seek to live into it with authenticity and integrity.

And while we don’t have to make stuff up, we don’t get to make stuff up, either.  The Apostle Paul was writing to a church in Corinth where a few folks had decided that they were the ones to call the shots, deciding what things God could tolerate and which were simply beyond the pale, and in so doing they came up with a list of things of which God approved.  Paul had to remind that congregation, in chapter 13 of that letter, that our first obligation is always to love; in the context of that love, Paul wrote, we could do things “decently and in order” – but we had to accept the notion that God, not us, is the One who puts things in order.

When we say, with the Second Helvetic Confession, that we are a “covenantal” body, we are saying that we must allow God the freedom to be God.  We affirm our willingness to accept the fact that we are made in the Divine image, even though it’s often so much easier to imagine that God is in our image, and therefore hates all the same people that I hate and is really, really fussy about all the things that just so happen to irritate me, too.  The call to participate in a covenant is a call to grow in our understandings of what it means to be faithful to the God who calls us, rather than simply more entrenched in our own ideas and practices.

The second “C” I’d like to highlight from this confession is the notion of community.  In spending so much time and energy outlining practices such as local church leadership and marriage and baptism and funerals, the Second Helvetic Confession stands against the notion that the Christian Faith is fundamentally the ability to say “yes” to a certain number of theological propositions or intellectual ideals.  Far from it!  We are, together, the body of Christ, and we are gathered into local congregations.  Each of these gatherings consists of individual people – people who have names, and stories, and hopes, and fears, and dreams, and failures.  We are not an idea – we are a people.  We are us.  We are who we are.  And we are God’s.

And we – us – this particular congregation of named people who gather at a particular time in a specific place – we are called to live the lives that we’ve been given in such a way that people might see in those lives something of the Holy One.  The ways that we come together in this community, and practice the faith that we’ve been given in the covenant, ought to point others to the Giver of all good gifts and the Author of every story.  In this context of this congregational community, we commit to loving each other.

Listen, I’m here to tell you that the Second Helvetic Confession can be tedious reading.  I get that.  But in giving 14 chapters to the ordering of congregational life, this document establishes the truth that the ways that we treat each other in common interactions like birth and marriage and death and community – that the ways that we treat each other reflect whether or not we have truly “gotten it” in terms of being agents of the Divine Love in the world.

As a community, then, we gather not to carp or criticize, not to elevate ourselves at the expense of another, but rather (as it says in the letter to the Hebrews), to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  We gather, not in order to show the world how holy we are, or how God is especially pleased with the ways that we happen to run things, but because each day, each of us needs to be encouraged to be more loving and more generous in heart, mind, and spirit.

God forbid that we come in here and assert that because we have some particular corner on the truth that our marriages are stronger, our baptisms more valid, or our funeral luncheons are more delicious!  The only reason the church is called to be together is so that our love for one another might somehow reflect the love of God for the world and that our neighbors might therefore be more likely to recognize the blessings of community, justice, and shalom that God intends for all of creation.  The way we point to that big thing, says Bullinger in this confession, is by doing the little things with integrity and honor.

So let us keep on, saints!  Not because we alone know the truth, or because we are always right, or because the songs that we like are the only ones worth singing.  Let us keep on so that we ourselves might be formed more fully into a covenant community that reflects the Divine Intention of love in the world all day, every day, to everybody.  Thanks be to God for this church fight that led us closer to living the truth.  Amen.

Wearing the Uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding to Love

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 6, World Communion Sunday, we considered the call to practice kindness.  Scriptures included Deuteronomy 22:1-4 and John 13:34-35.  

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

Demetri Martin is a comedian and author who has what I consider to be a particularly keen eye for human behavior and our foibles.  In one of my favorite routines, he talks about getting dressed in the morning.  In it, he says, “I think vests are all about protection. You know what I mean? Like a life-vest protects you from drowning and a bullet-proof vest protects you from getting shot and the sweater-vest protects you from pretty girls. ‘Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m cold just right here?’”

Or this observation: “I think that when you get dressed in the morning, sometimes you’re really making a decision about your behavior for the day. Like if you put on flipflops, you’re saying: ‘Hope I don’t get chased today.’”

I’ve been thinking about clothes lately because we’re in the midst of these sermons that I’m calling “The Dress Code”. I hope that you were here a couple of weeks back when we read from Paul’s letter to his friends in Colossae.  As he was helping them through a particularly difficult time in their life together, he said this: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  A couple of weeks ago we talked about the practice of “compassion”, which can be literally taken to mean “suffering with”.  Today, I’d like to think about what it would mean for us to be a people who practice clothing ourselves with kindness as we present ourselves to each other and to the world.

Often, we use the word “kind” in a very vague, non-specific way.  When we say someone is “kind”, it’s like saying that they are “nice”.  It can be a way of damning someone with faint praise.

Yet the word at hand in today’s reading is the Greek chrestotes.  That word shows up ten times in our New Testaments, and always carries with it a sense of moral goodness and integrity.  In fact, it is used in Ephesians, Titus, and Romans, to describe the ways that God has acted toward us.  Chrestotes is a word that refers to a root conviction, an attribute, or a decision that of necessity displays itself in action.  So, rather than being a vague compliment, this word is used to imply the following: God has acted toward us with goodness, kindness, and integrity.  We are made in the Divine Image.  Therefore, it is only sensible that I am called to choose to treat you well.

And perhaps you say, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll buy that… but what does it look like?”

Think with me about the passage you heard from Deuteronomy.  It describes a mundane scene of rural village life: you’re out walking around, minding your own business, and you see a stray animal.  You recognize it to be your neighbor’s.  What do you do?  Well, three times in those four verses there is a simple imperative: “do not ignore it”.  The scripture is clear: you cannot know about something bad that happens to a neighbor and choose to ignore it.

Aw, geez, I hate scripture sometimes!  I know that I’m not the only one who, on some days, could pass for a professional ignorer!

You have a friend who has experienced some real trouble.  You don’t know what to do, or how to do it, and all of a sudden you see them at the grocery store or the bus stop…and you are tempted to run into the next aisle or duck behind a building.  Please tell me that I’m not the only one who thinks that those are viable options…

And yet there it is, right in Deuteronomy.  In fact, the word that is used means literally, “do not hide yourself”.

CRAP!

That’s what we do, isn’t it?  Think about when a fellow student drops a tray in the school lunchroom, or a server spills a plate at the restaurant. We look away, and pretend it didn’t happen, don’t we?  There’s a kid with a world-class temper tantrum going on in the drugstore, or a person sitting by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Homeless – anything can help”.  We avert our eyes.  We pretend not to see anything.  We repeat, “Not my circus, not my monkeys…”

And that, my friends, is a problem, especially as we seek to live in community with one another.

If you were a part of the All-Church retreat last weekend, you may remember the conversation we had about the fact that the only name for God that is given by a human being is when the Egyptian slave-girl Hagar is met by God and she says, “You are El-Roi – you are ‘the God who sees’”.  The fact that God is a God who sees is great news for Hagar, for Ishmael, and for all who struggle.  It is reassuring to know that God sees you – that God cares for you – that God is aware of the pain in which you find yourself.

And, at risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again: one of the cornerstones of our theology is this: we are made in the image of God.  If God sees, then we see.  If the seeing nature of God is held up as a positive attribute of the Holy One, if we worship a creator who is beneficently observant, then it only follows that we are called to be those who are similarly motivated to notice what is going on around us.

This seems like a simple truth, beloved in Christ, but I think it is one to which we need to be re-oriented time and time again.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to put on kindness in our dealings with each other.  We are implored to be ready to see the lives of those around us and to act daily in love for and with the people around us.

This kind of behavior is not reactive – at its best, it is anticipatory and pro-active.  A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas.  People were fleeing the islands.  But a man named Jose Andres, a professional chef, was busy taking people and food and water to that nation.  With members of his organization, World Central Kitchen, he pre-positioned himself in Nassau.  When asked why, he said, “We are learning that pre-positioning yourself in a hurricane buys you precious time. You know…we’re in the business of feeding people after a hurricane. Sometimes in some parts people obviously they can be OK one, two, three days later. But for some people, sometimes three days is way too much. Some people don’t have any food at home or if they had, they lost it because the hurricane.”[1]  This man planned to love – and he lived kindness by taking food to a place close to where it would be needed so that it would be available sooner.  We can do that – we can plan to be kind even before we know what specific kindness will be needed.

The Last Supper, Hyatt Moore (2000)(for more – or for Moore – visit https://www.hyattmoore.com)

When Jesus was talking with his disciples – at the meal we commemorate this morning – he put it simply: “A new command I give you, that you love one another.”  And when you heard that, you nodded and you said, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”  But think about it for a moment.  “Love one another”?  Isn’t that all over the earlier parts of Jesus’ teaching?  Isn’t that infused throughout the Hebrew Bible?  Where does Jesus get off saying that this is a “new command”?  Is this first century Fake News?

“Love one another” is not a new command.  Keep reading.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not saying, “Hey, fellas, here’s a new idea: love each other.”  The new part is what comes next.  “Love each other the way that I have loved you.  Do love the way that I do love.  Do love in the feeding, healing, foot-washing, forgiving, reconciling way that I do love.

Back to the dress code: put on kindness.  That’s not a way to say “be nice” or “don’t offend people”.  It’s an imperative to actively seek ways to bring about love in the world.

  • Take a moment more to listen before you speak.
  • Offer a gift before it’s requested or needed.
  • Be a person who offers forgiveness and seeks reconciliation.

You know this! The reading from Deuteronomy was clear: you can’t leave a neighbor’s donkey in a ditch – it doesn’t matter how it got there: if you see it, you’re called to help lift it out.

Does the Lord care about people any less? If your relationship with a sister or a brother is in the ditch, you are not free to ignore that, or even worse, to make the ditch deeper.  You are called reach out.

I say that with this caveat: you are not called to return to an abusive relationship, and your pastor is not saying that you ought to continue to enable a destructive person.

Having said that, though, I will say that you don’t get to decide to leave someone else in a ditch because you disagree with them or because they irritated you.  We are called to follow Christ in the practice of chrestotes – of living toward, and acting toward, and loving toward other people.  As those who bear the name of Christ, we are expected to let go of our past resentment and become living reminders for the world of the hope that is love.

The world is a painful place.  Paul, and Jesus, and Moses, seem to expect that the church should be less painful.

Demetri Martin, like most good comics, told the truth: when you get dressed in the morning, you are making a decision about your behavior for the rest of the day.

Have you decided to wear kindness today?  If so, you will find that it’s harder to hold onto a grudge, or nurse a resentment, or feed a rumor.  You can’t do those things while you are wearing kindness any better than you can run while wearing flip-flops.

I’m here, as your pastor and friend and neighbor, to ask you to make a decision about what you’re going to wear.  To ask you, as did our brother Paul, to put on kindness.  For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the person you see in the mirror each day, put on kindness.  Thanks be to God, for God’s kindness toward us. Amen.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/04/757420239/chef-jose-andres-is-in-the-bahamas-preparing-to-feed-dorian-victims

The God Who Sees

Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”.  This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda.  In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal.  I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me.  My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar.  You can read more about that in Genesis 16.

While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.  

As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name.  Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called?  Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what.  For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”.  My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right.  For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me.  Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life.  You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.

Think about the names for God.  There are many in Hebrew:

  • El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

  • El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
  • YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
    God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
  • YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
  • Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power.  It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))

As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is?  How do you think of God?  What do you call God?

I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy.  You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away.  Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider.  She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship.  At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property.  Hagar is an outsider.  A slave. A marginalized person.  A victim of human trafficking and abuse.

Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai.  Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.

Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name.  In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”.  In 16:6, Abram does the same.  To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person.  She was a uterus.  And she became inconvenient.

Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away.  She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8).  Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord.  She is then asked two questions:

  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

“Hagar in the Wilderness” Rivkah M. Walton, Sculptor (2008)

Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”?  Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future.  She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying.  Maybe she even wants to die.  Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.

And so the Divine One answers the second question for her.  Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous!  How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain.  And how can Hagar manage to go back?

She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God.  Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself…  There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses).  She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother…  And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded.  Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard.  Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord.  Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram.  It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman.  She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi.  You are the God who sees.”

I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13.  There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase.  I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:

“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)

Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me.  Death has been a constant companion.  I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent.  There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away.  And it included a lot time alone.  I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time.  There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.

And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself.  I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me.  And it was OK.

Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self.  God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named.  God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace.  God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.

In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son.  She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.

Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come.  Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand.  We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.

Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.

I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day.  There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth.  Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

 

The Dress Code: Compassion

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On September 15 we considered the need for compassion.  Scriptures were Colossians 3:12-17 as well as Zechariah 7:8-14.

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

A few years back, I was invited to a luncheon at a place called The Pittsburgh Athletic Association.  The invitation looked pretty fancy, and the speaker was one I’d been eager to hear. As I prepared, I was struck by a thought: what does one wear to lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association?  I know, I know – you’ve seen me around this neighborhood for decades and most days it doesn’t appear as though I give much thought to what I’m supposed to be wearing, but hey – it happens every now and then.  I’d never been inside the place, and I didn’t know anyone who had.  It came to this: do I dress according to the fanciness of the invitation, or in line with the fact that it’s an “athletic club”?  I couldn’t bring myself to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt, so I settled on khakis and a polo.

I had an inkling that I’d made a mistake when I arrived and the guy who held the door for me was wearing a suit and tie.  My suspicions were confirmed when, after asking for directions to the room where the luncheon was to be held, the host said, “Certainly, sir. But before we go to the dining room, would sir like a jacket and tie?”  Before I could think about it, I said, “No thanks, I’m good.”  The host was persistent.  “Sir”, he intoned, “The Association has a dress code.  It would appear as though sir was not aware of that. In order to enter the dining room, one must be suitably attired.  Therefore, would sir like to borrow a jacket and tie?”

Well, I did.  And here’s the deal: I don’t remember who spoke that day.  I don’t remember what was said.  I don’t remember who I sat with or what I ate.  But I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed because I didn’t choose to wear the right thing.

Maybe that’s never happened to you.  I hope it hasn’t.  But I would imagine that each of us, at some point, have wondered, “Am I doing this right? Does this look OK on me?”

Frieze of the Prophets, mural on the East Wall of Boston Public Library, John Singer c. 1893

On December 7, 518 BC[1]a delegation of visitors arrived in Jerusalem. Sharezer and Regem-melech, along with their entourage, represented a group of faithful Jews who were returning to Israel following decades of exile in Babylon.  They had a specific religious question, and they wanted a prophetic answer.  You see, ever since the fall of the Temple some seventy years or so previous, the people of faith had been observing four days of lamentation and fasting each year. There was a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem, another to mark the day that the city’s walls were destroyed, an observance of the destruction of the temple, and a final fast commemorating the murder of the governor.

But now, since the temple is being rebuilt, the visitors want someone to tell them: are we still expected to mourn the loss of the old temple?  What, exactly, are we supposed to do now?  It is a fair question.

The prophet Zechariah happens to be around on that day, and when he hears this request for a word from the Lord, he provides one – only, as it often happens in church, the question he answers is not really the question that was asked. The query brought by Sharezer and the boys is pretty narrow and specific, and the answer provided by the prophet is broad and far-reaching.  Instead of giving a simple “yes or no” answer (which is, by the way, insanely popular in religious circles), the prophet seizes upon the question of the returning exiles to launch into a class on ethics – and his answer lasts at least a chapter and a half.

Zechariah, in his response, encourages the people to give up on their robotic and nearly-meaningless ritual observances and instead live with an awareness of the fact that we live for and serve with a God who is always coming. We are not called to gather together for hallowed remembrances of something that God used to do, or some time when God showed up in our lives – we are called to live in hope that the God who came is the God who shows up and is always unveiling and revealing the Divine Self.  Because we are creatures of time and space, our worship – and everything else – is rooted in the present.  But we look forward in hope to the reality which continues to unfold.

And then Zechariah describes the kind of people who live in that kind of hope: in the present day, in the neighborhood and country where they live, they are to administer justice, to constantly display compassion and mercy, and to refuse to contribute toward the oppression of those who are marginalized, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, or the poor.  The call of God is not to remember that once upon a time God acted, but that every day, God calls us to transform the world around us with the power that we have.  Our faith drives us toward embracing a lifestyle, and not merely a specific list of dos and don’ts.  It is a masterful sermon, and I’d encourage you to read all of Zechariah 7 and 8.

Hundreds of years later, the small Christian community in the town of Colossae is faced by an insidious threat.  This group, formed by the teaching and power of those who had first followed Jesus, had been infiltrated by some teaching that could cause the congregation to abandon its calling and integrity.  The threat was both philosophical or theological as well as practical.

The theoretical danger was that apparently someone had come into the church teaching that while Jesus was by all accounts an incredible guy, he was more a symbolof what God was trying to do and not really an expressionof the depth of God’s self.  In fact, Christ was a sign that pointed to God, but, let’s be honest, just one of many signs.  In fact, similar insight into the Divine reality could be gained from the worship of stars, or spirits, or angels, or some other aspect of creation.  There was something amazing about Jesus, but it was not necessarily singular.

Apostle Paul, Anonymous, Italian 18th c.

The Apostle Paul’s response to that line of thought is unequivocal.  He reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the One through whom creation itself was accomplished.  In Christ, the old apostle wrote, we live and move and have our being. He is not an option on a religious menu – he is the one who holds all things together.

Now the practical danger to Christian community was felt in this way: if people came to accept that the power and presence of God was to be found through a personal revelation from the stars or angels, then each individual person should follow a process to prepare for her or his own true, authentic heavenly vision.  That led to a plethora of religious coaches teaching people to somehow mortify their bodies, to fast, to practice abstinence or celibacy or some sort of asceticism and self-denial because only in ignoring your worldly surroundings could the true, authentic God be found.

Paul addresses this by echoing not only Zechariah, but Isaiah and Deuteronomy in affirming that true worship of God is not primarily an escape to some other-worldly bliss but rather a full and rich engagement with those with whom we are connected. If you were to read through the entire letter to the Colossians, you might sense that chapters 1 and 2 are a grand theological grounding of who Jesus is, and they are followed by chapters 3 and 4 that contain a “so what”, or an ethical guideline for daily life.

In particular, Colossians 3:12 (the key text in our reading for today) contains specific guidelines for those who would follow Jesus.  Paul calls his friends “chosen by God, holy and dearly loved.” In this verse, he provides them with a “dress code” for the Christian community.  What should we wear when we come together, and when we encounter the world in our day-to-day lives?  Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Just as a jacket and tie are the marks that defined the proper male diner at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, so these characteristics are the marks of the Christian in the world.  And in the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at these qualities.

Today, I’d like to focus in on the practice of compassion.  In the original Greek, Paul tells his friends to put on splagxna oiktirmou. Literally, this means, “bowels of mercies”.  In Greek thought, the core of one’s being was centered in the bowels, or as we might say today, the “guts”.  If an ancient heard you described as “good-hearted”, he might be mystified, or think that you were really excited about your last EKG.  But if you were a person with strong bowels – well, she’d be impressed, she would…

Some of that language carries over into our use of the words having to do with “viscera”.  If someone has a “visceral” understanding of a concept, then we say that she really “gets” it, and she knows it in her innermost self.  If a person is “eviscerated”, then we understand that either figuratively or literally, the most important part of him – the guts – has been removed.

Paul, in writing to a congregation that appears to have been told that the best way to holiness is by focusing on your best self and looking for an other-worldly escape, says that the most important thing that we can wear as followers of Jesus is compassion.

I would suggest that a good definition of compassion is an ability and a willingness to fully enter into the experience of another, and in particular, the pain or suffering of another.  Our English word “compassion” comes from a pair of Latin roots: com, which means “with”, and pati,which means “to suffer”.  Compassion = “suffer with”.

A couple of the older translations of this verse use the word “pity” instead of “compassion”, but I think that is insufficient because when one “pities” someone one can maintain an emotional distance and stand over, or around, but not with someone else.  “Compassion” says, “Wow, this must be incredibly difficult right now.  I’m sorry that you’re in this place, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.”  “Pity” says, often, “Oh, you poor thing!” or even worse, “sucks to be you.”

Earlier this year I was the recipient of some amazing compassion.  I presented myself for my annual physical and must have looked a wreck because Dr. Hall sat and listened to me for forty minutes before he ever got around to touching me.  There was a set of situations and symptoms that gave me some real anxiety and that blessed man just sat there and encouraged me before he made the slightest suggestion of what I needed to do to “fix” anything.

You’ve seen compassion like that in action, and I want to encourage us to model it more and more as we continue through 2019 here at Crafton Heights church. Specifically, I want to challenge us to continue to grow in our ability to become a congregation of people who are willing to listen to each other.  Give each other the gift of your best time and your best attention – or be honest enough to admit that you can’t do that right now.  Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to. If you are going to say, “Hey! How are you doing?”, be ready to act like someone who cares what the answer to that question is.  If you don’t have time or energy to fully enter into someone’s day, simply say “Hello” or “I hope you are well today”.

Taking that a step further, let me challenge us to be known as a congregation that will stand with and for each other.  Can you seek to give yourself to someone else in such a way as to allow yourself to see the world from their perspective?

For instance, one of the best days of my 2019 Sabbatical (and there were a lot of them) was Monday, August 19.  It was a banner day at “Camp Grampy”, and Lucia and I spent time together doing puzzles, swimming, reading, and fishing.  As we prepared for our camp out on the boat, I took her photo.  She asked why I was doing that, and I said, “Because I always want to remember how you look today.”  A few moments later she asked for my phone and said, “Grampy, I’m going to take your picture.  Please send it to mama’s phone because I always want to remember how you look today.”

Here’s the photo she took.

 

Do you see?  That’s her perspective.  Often, that’s how the world looks to a five-year old.  A heart of compassion teaches us to seek to get an understanding of another’s perspective even if we do not share that perspective.  Perhaps you’ve never been widowed, or hungry, or abused, or addicted, or abandoned – but can you listen to someone else’s story intently enough to be able to sense at least a part of what that must feel like?

So often we skip that part of compassion.  We see someone in a tough situation and we want to proscribe, prescribe, or describe.  We want to tell them what their problem is and how they should fix it.  Maybe there is a place for that – but it is not the first thing we do.  Remember that when Job had the worst of all days, his friends came and simply sat with him for seven days before they even opened their mouths.  Once they started talking, everything went downhill in a hurry.

Putting on an outfit woven from the fibers of compassion means striving to see others the way that Christ sees them, and then seeking to treat them the way that Christ would treat them.  That’s the first part of our “dress code” for being in the community here at Crafton Heights.

And I have to tell you something that you already know.  The reason that I wore a polo shirt and khakis to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is because that’s a heck of a lot easier for me to put on than a suit and tie.  Come Saturday, I’ll be officiating at an elaborate wedding.  I’m here to tell you that the folks standing up in front of that wedding will not be wearing the clothes that are the easiest to put on – but they will do so because that’s the expectation of the group on that particular day.  It is the dress code.

In the same way, having a heart of compassion is not always the first or easiest thing for us to put on, especially in times of conflict or anxiety. But it is right, and it is what our heavenly Host expects of and hopes for us.  And it is what we all need.  Thanks be to God for those who have lived compassionately amongst us!  Amen.

 

[1] Dating based on work of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zechariah in the Interpretation: Nahum-MalachiCommentary Series (John Knox, 1986), p. 134

 

Does This Happen Often?

On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical.  As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.

 

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

My wife and I were out for a quiet evening.  As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced.  She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept.  We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?”  I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying?  That seems odd to me.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.

As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place.  There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences.  The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.  We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.

So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May.  And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened.  If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.

But other things happened, too.  You didn’t read about them on the internet.  Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.

I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back.  The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.

As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered.  I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here.  I think I just ran away from home.”

I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad.  I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me.  If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me.  So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”

Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have.  A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake.  One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from.  After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away.  I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”

The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving.  Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be.  My dad… it’s really rough.  Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”

A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next.  A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.

Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan.  You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail.  Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.

Why?

Because that’s where we live.  That’s who we are.  The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence.  I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm.  That’s just where we are.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour.  They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law.  I mean, things were really looking good.  They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry.  The storm erupts, and these people panic.

In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die.  They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on.  They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”  And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby.  Do you even care?”

Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here.  I’m dying.  Do you notice that?  Do you even care?”  If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world.  And the disciples came to know that.

But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.

And that’s why we’re here, right?  We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world.  We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.

And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers.  He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…”  It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi.  It is not, at first glance, a compliment.

And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord.  These are the 12 we’re talking about here.  These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?

The Gospels use that word five times.[1]Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.

Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith.  Oligopistoi.”  Never.

The Tempest – Peace, Be Still, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2015 Used by permission. See more at https://jorgecocco.com

To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church.  Us.  It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more.  There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.

Oligopistoi.  That is why we are here.  We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.

So here’s what we know to be true:

  • We cannot escape the storm
  • There is one who can and does calm storms
  • Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.

And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation.  In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other.  In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit.  Why were they there?  Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.

In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released.  Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.

This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.

I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink.  Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us.  We hurt each other.  We disappoint ourselves.  We make mistakes.  We blow up. We crash and burn.  We act like, well, oligopistoi.  We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.

And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed.  This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”

Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.

Does this happen often?  Yes. You know that it does.  And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.