Whaddya Call It?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 11 we considered three groups with whom Jesus was associated: disciples, “unclean spirits”, and apostles.  Our scriptures included Mark 3:7-19 and II Peter 1:16-18 To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Does what you call something affect what it really is? Do job titles matter? These are the things that I think about when you leave me alone for too long.

For instance, did you know that the BAI beverage corporation has a CFO – “Chief Flavor Officer”, and that position is held, I kid you not, by musician Justin Timberlake. Microsoft employs someone with the title of “Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence”. Google pays someone to be their “In-House Philosopher”, and a man named Richard Scheuerman has been featured on the Food Network as a “Shredded Cheese Authority”. Time Magazine recently hired a “Bacon Critic” and Mr. Bernie Paton of Oakland, CA, is a “Bear Biologist and Paper Folder”.

As I thought about that, I remembered the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain. That tells the mostly true story of Taff’s Well, a village near the border between England and Wales. They’d billed themselves as “the first mountain inside Wales”, and had a hospitality industry that catered to climbers from Britain. In 1910, a team of cartographers visited the town and discovered that their peak, Ffynnon Garw, is only 986 feet above sea level and therefore must be termed a “hill” and not a “mountain”. Enraged, and afraid of losing their tourist attraction, the locals conspire to strand the map-makers in the town until they can build a pile of rocks at the top of the hill. The scientists re-measure, and determine that the highest part of the structure is actually 1002 feet and therefore, officially, the first mountain inside Wales.

That matters because in today’s Gospel reading, Mark throws around a lot of labels and job titles, and I think that they have an implication for our lives today.

In Mark 3:9, we see that Jesus counts on a group of people known as “disciples” to get things done. The Greek word that we find there, mathétés, is used to describe one who is a “learner” or a “follower”. When Latin became the official language of the church, mathétés became discipulus, from the root word disco, meaning “to learn”. It also spawned one of the most awesome band names of the 1980’s: the Disco Disciples.

We read of disciples who listen, serve, worship, and generally clear the way for Jesus to do a lot of stuff. Like most Rabbis, Jesus relied on his disciples for a lot of things. In the Gospels, disciples prepare boats, ask fantastic set-up questions, bring friends, fix dinner, and (as we’ve already seen with Levi) throw amazing parties. We like the disciples, Jesus likes the disciples, and everyone agrees that Jesus’ ministry was really strengthened by the team of disciples that he gathered around him.

One of the Earliest Known Images of Jesus – Coptic Museum, Cairo (3rd century)

Because these folks were important to Jesus and to the world around him, we know some of them. So let me ask you, how many disciples did Jesus have? Some people might say 12; Luke mentions a group of either 70 or 72, and later in Acts he says that by that time the group numbered about 120. It seems that the number of disciples was fluid, and increased as Jesus’ ministry matured.

The role of disciple is crucial throughout the history of the church and even today, of course. In fact, if you look at the Annual Report of the congregation, you’ll find that this church has not one, but two groups of people who are officially termed “Discipleship Teams”. We need those who are committed to creating conditions whereby people can become hearers and listeners and learners and doers so that the way is cleared for Jesus’ message to get through. Disciples take care of kids in the church nursery and set up chairs, make copies, and track administrative data. The body of Christ, no less today than two thousand years ago, would be nowhere without faithful disciples.

The next group that Jesus encounters are termed “the unclean spirits”. Whereas most of the people around Jesus either have no clue who he is, or (like the disciples) are just beginning to get an idea about this, the unclean spirits are constantly shouting the truth: Jesus is the Son of God; they know Jesus to be the Holy One. Yet as soon as these spirits begin to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus is, he shuts them up and forbids them from speaking.

Think about that for a moment – he’s constantly gathering followers around him, trying to teach them, helping them to see something of who he is…and much of the time, they don’t get it. Yet as soon as he walks into the room, unclean spirits recognize him for who he is and announce it – and they are told to remain silent.

It seems to me that the implication here is that you don’t get to talk about Jesus until you show that you have listened to Jesus and been shaped by him. These spirits know the truth – but they don’t really know Jesus.

Similarly, our world today is filled with those who claim to speak for, or at least about, Jesus but who seem to be ignorant of what he really was. There are so-called authorities who are happy to yell out that Jesus wants you to be rich, happy, thin, and young. Spirits cry out that Jesus prefers a particular system of government or a political party. We’re told by “leading teachers” that Jesus wants you to protect yourself and your family from “those people” at all costs. Worst of all are the voices who cry out that Jesus hates the gays, the foreigners, those on the left or those on the right.

Before you invest any of your time and energy listening to these people, ask yourself, “Is that person actually spending time with Jesus? Does he or she look, or act, or think, like Jesus would?” When someone claims to tell me who Jesus would hate, or bomb, or ostracize, or destroy… I have to question the spirit that is driving that discussion, and often times it’s hard to believe that it is indeed a spirit of the Christ behind those sentiments.

Ethiopian Icon featuring the Twelve

The third group of folks with whom Jesus spends time in our Gospel reading for today are called apostles, from the Greek word apostolos. That word refers to a messenger, an ambassador, or a delegate: one who has been commissioned to convey a particular message or accomplish a specific task.

Let’s play a game that we’ve already played once this morning: how many apostles did Jesus have?

I know, the “gimme” answer seems to be twelve, because that’s what is listed here. But later on, after Judas abandons his post, the eleven believe that Matthias is called to join their number. Moreover, the New Testament refers to Barnabas, Paul, Andronicus, Junia (who happened to be a woman, by the way!), Timothy, Silas, and Apollos as apostolos.

Like disciples, the apostles were incredibly important to Jesus and to the later church. We should note that in today’s reading, all the apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

The apostles are called to be “with” Jesus. They are given authority to cast out those unclean spirits and demons and to proclaim the message of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles are taking trips on Jesus’ behalf; they are preaching and healing and generally speaking for Jesus (which sets them apart from both the unclean spirits and the disciples). In reflecting on this, Peter wrote to his friends, essentially, “Look, it’s not like we had a choice or anything: we saw it with our own eyes. You can’t make this stuff up! Jesus was the real deal, and we were compelled to share it with you all.”

So what does all of that mean in our context?

Here’s a clue: when the language of the church transitioned from Greek to Latin, the Greek apostolos was sometimes simply shifted to the Latin apostolo; however, the preferred term was often the Latin word missio. As in “mission”, or, in this context, “missionary”.

How many of you here today are anticipating being a part of a Mission Trip this week? Can you believe it? We have seventeen adults who have some level of connection with this congregation who are preparing to leave next Sunday morning for Houston, Texas. When we get to the Pittsburgh Airport, we’ll be joined by another dozen from the John McMillan church in Bethel Park. Almost 30 people who are taking time away from their so-called “normal” lives in order to dwell with each other and the folks on the Gulf coast of Texas who have suffered through the horror of Hurricane Harvey.

And we are calling this a “Mission Trip”. Why? Because we believe that framing walls and cleaning out muck and removing moldy drywall and laying new sewage lines and helping people sift through generations of family mementos and memories are all a part of demonstrating and proclaiming the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. We use that terminology because we have gathered in this place and heard the call of Jesus and sought to follow – that is, we have become disciples; and now we understand that we are being given an opportunity to share in the purposes of God in the context of the Texas Gulf coast, and therefore we are sent as apostolos. The labels matter. If this is indeed a mission trip – and I am convinced that it is – then that makes the 29 of us missionaries, right? We are called to become that which we are sent to accomplish.

So, that takes care of a couple dozen of us… is that what we’re here to talk about? 29 people planning a mission trip this week? What about the rest of us? What are you planning to do?

Let me ask you this:

Is the healing power of Jesus Christ needed on the campus over at CCAC this week?

Are there people with whom you work who need to hear a word of grace, encouragement, or hope?

Would the scene at the grocery store, your family’s dinner table, a blind date, or a board meeting be improved by the presence, spirit, power, and love of Jesus of Nazareth?

In short, would our world be better if the stuff that we talked about while we’re in this room somehow managed to find its way out there? Would the lives of our neighbors be blessed if some of the life and ministry and teaching and love and hope and justice of Jesus was lived and shared and conveyed into the arenas in which those neighbors live and work and play?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… now that you mention it, Pastor, it would. But how is it going to get there? How?

If only there were people in this room today who were willing and able to hear from Jesus; someone who wanted to learn from him and follow him around as he does such amazing things in our world… if only there were people like that who would also be liable to show up on campus or at work or in relationships with neighbors and family later this week. But where could we possibly find people who are both here, with Jesus as followers, and out there in the world that he loves?

You might have come in here willing to be a disciple. And that’s great. It’s a fine job title. Yet I hope and pray that you will find in you a hunger to become an apostle. Next week a fraction of us will be going to Texas. My deep prayer is that each of us would recognize that we are being sent on a mission. Oh, that all of our trips would be mission trips.

Thanks be to God, they can be – because that is who you are.

Hear our prayer, O Lord.

Amen.

The Life Of The Party

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

With Friends Like These…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am worn out from my groaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not really,” the son replied.

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

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

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

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

What Have I Done to You?

n Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the third Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:14-20 and I Kings 19:19-21.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Not long ago I was driving along and I thought I heard singer-songwriter James Taylor doing an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was so taken with it that when I got home, I searched the internet, but could not find it. I couldn’t find it because, apparently, James Taylor hasn’t recorded that tune. I learned that day that James Taylor has a younger brother named Livingston, and now I’m a fan.

Have you ever found yourself reacting to someone you’d never really met before simply because they remind you of someone else? I’m not talking about “mistaken identity”, like when I’ve been asked for my autograph because someone thinks that I’m NFL broadcaster Dan Fouts; I’m talking about how you might treat someone nicer because she sort of looks like your grandmother, or how your neighbor’s child reminds you of the way your brother acted when he was younger.

When the author of Mark was writing his gospel, he went to great lengths to point out to people some of the ways that Jesus might have reminded them of someone that they ought to have known very well.

Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, Northern Russia Icon (c. 1290)

One of the most important characters in the entire Bible, and in our own faith story, is a shadowy figure named Elijah the Tishbite. He was widely regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet. He arose, seemingly, out of nowhere and called an unrighteous monarchy to account. He pushed the leadership of the people and the people themselves for purity in their spiritual lives. Elijah is one of two people mentioned in the Bible who did not die – rather, he was “taken up into heaven” in a fiery chariot.

Because of his reputation as a prophet, and because of the story of his having been taken directly to heaven, the people in Israel began to speak of Elijah’s return as the time when God would come and really set things straight once and for all. Four or five hundred years after Elijah’s death, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return at “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). When faithful Jews observe the Seder meal at Passover, it is customary to set a place at the table for Elijah – the one who comes to announce the presence of the Lord.

Mark wants us to remember Elijah. The prophet himself will figure prominently in the gospel in later chapters, but even here at the beginning, our narrator intends for us to see echoes of the Elijah story. Here’s a bit of that story to jog your memory.

As I mentioned, Elijah’s concern was defeating the idolatry that plagued his people. One day, he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown of faith – one that ended very badly for them and for their “god”. While that may have been a very good thing for a number of reasons, the fact is that the King and Queen of Israel were Baal worshipers, and when he humiliated them, they put his name on their “public enemies” list. He fled to the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and 40 nights bemoaning his fate. At the end of that time, God came to Elijah when Elijah was alone, and spoke to him as to what to do next.

The old prophet leaves his mountain hideout and re-enters the community, where he encounters Elisha. He places his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, and in so doing, invites him to come along. It might not seem like it to our 21st-century ears, but placing the prophet’s mantle on Elisha was a very concrete invitation. It would be as if I asked Lydia to come over here, and I took off my robe and stole and put them on her – it would be an indication of what I thought her future might hold, wouldn’t it?

And Elisha doesn’t miss the message. He goes through a very public display of leaving his home, his family, and his career and then follows Elijah.

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (in 1886-1894)

In last week’s reading from Mark, we read of another man who wandered into the wilderness. Jesus left Nazareth and found John the Baptist; after their encounter, Jesus alone hears a voice and sees a vision that directs him. He then spends – how long? Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following which he engages in his ministry. The first thing he does when he leaves the wilderness, according to Mark, is to come into Galilee preaching and teaching. Simon, Andrew, James and John all see Jesus and make a very public display of leaving their own homes, families, and careers in order to follow Jesus.

Do you see how the reading from Mark is set up to parallel the story of Elijah? Why would he do that? What does that mean to us?

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago when we began this study we noted that Mark invented the genre we call “Gospel”. Chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” So far, we have encountered John the Baptist and seen Jesus. Now, in verse fourteen, we actually hear the Gospel: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!”

The first announcement of the Gospel as recorded in the first Gospel to be written consists of two announcements (“the time has come” and “the Kingdom of God has come near”) and two imperatives (“repent” and “believe”). The thing that God has long-intended to do is here! Pay attention. How do we pay attention? We repent. The Greek word that Mark uses is metanoia, and it means, literally “change of mind”. It speaks of being transformed, and re-orientation. And once we become open to this transformation, we live into it by believing. Pisteuete – have confidence in this thing; act as if it were true; depend on it – in short: believe!

Ah, but how do we do those things? What do “repent” and “believe” look like in our world?

Too often in modern and post-modern American culture, the word “repent” is used as a guided missile. An “evangelist” (literally, someone who is entrusted to carry the Good News) encounters a “non-believer” and hurls the invective: “You! Yes, you! Turn or burn, baby. You are so filthy, so miserable, so sinful… well, you make God sick! You better straighten up, buddy! You’d better get with the program like the rest of us holy people!” Yep, Good News all around!

And if that is how “repent” is interpreted, then the second part of the pronouncement to “believe” can often be heard as a call to abandon the intellect, turn your back on science, and just accept whatever I tell you to be true, you ninny.

Yet when we place those words in the context of Jesus (and Elijah, for that matter), we see that there is an entirely different mood and outcome.

Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, who asks a question. The old prophet immediately responds by saying, “Look? What did I do to you? This is between you and God. It’s not about keeping me happy. You do what you need to do.”

Jesus stands on the beach and calls out to the fishermen: “Come, follow me…” According to Mark, this is one of only three times that Jesus uses this particular word. It’s not the regular word for “follow”, but more appropriately “come along with me”, or “join me” or even “share this journey with me”. In other words, the call to repentance and belief is an invitation that is extended by one who wishes to share in the process, not browbeat some helpless people into theological submission.

I had a great example of this kind of invitation earlier this week. I was at my desk when I got a text from Marla (I’m still not sure how I feel about people who are in the same building, or even the same room as I am who send texts rather than simply walking over and conversing, but that could simply mean that I’m really old). The message read, “Come down to the side door. You’re gonna want to see this.”

That brief message had so much good in it: there was invitation, intrigue, presence, and anticipation. There was no sense of a threat; there was no scolding. My friend was inviting me to join her in a place she thought I would appreciate. So you know what I did: I got up and hightailed it to the side door – because I trust Marla. If she said I would want to see it, then I wanted to see it.

She showed me the back of her car, filled with nearly 300 brand new books that had been donated to the Open Door for distribution to the children of this community. She was right! I did want to see it. She had good news, and she showed me the good news. She also made me help her unload the good news into the church, but that’s another sermon I suppose).

Jesus, fresh from the vision and voice of God, fresh from his time of testing in the wilderness, walks over to the edge of the water and calls to those who are working hard: “Hey, fellas! Check this out! Come and see!” He walks a little farther, where he encounters a couple more men who are nearly finished with their daily tasks and says, “You’re gonna want to see this…” And they do! They get up and they follow.

I want to note at this point that the calls from Elijah and Jesus do not come at the time of optimum convenience. Nobody shows up at the house, or stops by the beach on a day when you are just hanging around with all of your stuff done, wondering “I wonder if anyone has anything interesting they’d like to show me? I mean, I’ve got a lot of extra time and energy right now. Maybe someone will invite me into a new place to serve…”

The call to walk with Jesus (as with Elijah) rarely seems to come when people are feeling exceptionally well-rested, well-funded, or well-equipped.

The call to walk with Jesus often requires a leaving of sorts. Sometimes this is dramatic, as when we are invited to battle through an addiction or interrupt an occupation. Sometimes it is disappointing, as when we are encouraged to let go of a relationship that we treasure, but we know to be toxic. Oftentimes, it is frustrating, as we think about getting up earlier on yet another day, or spending time at one more meeting… And we realize that leaving what we have known and come to love and trust is always filled with some kind of grief, even when we are pretty sure that we are moving into something that is better for us (that’s why we cry not only at funerals, but at weddings: we hope for what will be, but we kind of love what is…).

Yet the call from Jesus is personal, genuine, and non-threatening. “Come with me. You’re going to want to see this. Let me show you that for which you are longing. Enter into this new way of life with me.”

I was struck by an example of this kind of invitation to a new way of life as I reflected on the opportunities I have had to travel internationally. Someone says, “Hey, come to Africa!”, and you think, “Wow! What a change that would be!”

There are a whole series of announcements: I’d like to go… I’m getting ready to go… It’s time to go: the trip is at hand!

You find yourself milling around the terminal at Dulles airport, where it seems as though the whole world has gathered. There are voices everywhere, and monitors all around you. Some people hear an announcement that flight #877 is leaving for Addis Ababa, and they get up and go to gate A23. Some people, presumably, don’t want to go to Addis, and they keep on walking. Still others don’t understand the language in which the announcement is made, and so they continue in confusion.

You get to Addis, and you find yourself in an airport that is, to your mind, incredibly crowded, overwhelmingly smelly, and poorly laid out. It is filled with strange sounds, and the PA system seems to work about 1/3 of the time. If you can find one, you settle into a seat, hoping that you’ll be able to make sense of what is going on… and then you realize that the one who invited you to come on this journey is sitting right next to you. What a relief it is to travel with someone who has been there before. It’s still a little scary, but you can catch your breath because you know it’s not all up to you! What a relief, right?

The Gospel – the good news – is this: the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near to you! So come on! Jesus is inviting you and me into the rest of Mark. He seems to think that there are things that we’ll want to see.

None of us are going alone. I know, you think, “Well, it’s not really a great time for me to be thinking about making major life changes.” Yeah. Join the club. But it will never be a perfect time. So let’s see what there is to see. Let’s leave our boats, our nets, our current fascinations and walk a while with Jesus into the nuances of discipleship. It may be that we will find the life of deeper discipleship to be that one for which we are made! It may be that the purposes to which we are called reflect those we were given at our birth.

What has he done to you? He’s invited you. Thanks be to God, he’s invited all of us. May we have the grace to follow with him today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below:

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).