Is He Talking to ME?

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 November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

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

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

What’s The Big Deal About Hell?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the city of Pittsburgh in shock and grief following the brutal murders of 11 of our neighbors as they were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.  As has been previously noted in this space, we are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On October 28, we wondered what the Hell was going on – literally. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:42-50.  On a personal note, it was also the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ.  

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

I remember the question vividly – and terrifyingly.  I was about fourteen years old and attending a “Jesus People” music festival.  An older teen pulled me aside and after a little chat asked me, “But seriously, Dave – if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?”

I remember being scared to death.  First, I was afraid of dying. Then, I was afraid of going to sleep that night.  Mostly, I was afraid of Hell.  I mean, I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to have a coke, let alone be there forever.  So I asked my friend: “Um, how do I get around this ‘spending Hell in eternity’ thing?”

He told me about “the sinner’s prayer”, in which all I had to do was ask Jesus into my heart, accept his forgiveness, and then – BAM! I was in the club. No Hell for this guy! Say this.  Believe that.  Get saved.

I liked it, for a while.  It felt good to be living without fear of going to Hell. After all, I had my ticket punched.  Jesus and I were good.  I wasn’t particularly interested in Christian growth or discipleship, and I only stuck around the church because there was a cute girl there… But mostly, I was in it to get out of Hell.  Amen. Thank you Jesus.

And I was not alone.  For many people, that is the essence of the Christian walk.  In fact, that question is at the heart of “Evangelism Explosion”, a training program that has been called “the best known and most widely used evangelism training curriculum in church history.”  According to officials at Evangelism Explosion, more than 10.7 million people were “saved” through this strategy in 2016 alone.[1]

We are afraid of Hell, aren’t we?  And we are fascinated with it at the same time.  And once we’re “saved” from it, we really get worked up about it, and make it our business to decide who’s going there and who’s not.

My formative conscious experience with the Christian faith was rooted in a fear of eternal torment. How interesting to note, then, that Jesus has been walking around the Holy Land proclaiming the Kingdom of God for years before he gets around to addressing the topic of Hell.  In fact, the passage you’ve heard is the only time that Mark mentions Jesus ever referring to Hell.

There are a couple of things that are worth mentioning as we encounter the text this morning.  First, you may or may not have noticed as the scripture was read, but almost all of your Bibles omit verses 44 and 46 from the reading. Why? Because the oldest copies of the Book of Mark do not include those verses.  When the first copyists were sharing this gospel, they could not help themselves. They were so entranced by Jesus’ description of the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” that they had to add that phrase twice more.  They, like many of us, found the idea of eternal torment – particularly eternal torment of other, less-correct, people – to be so fascinating that they had to keep talking about it.

So what does the Master actually say about Hell?

For starters, he doesn’t really use the word “Hell”.  In fact, the word isn’t in the Bible.  Ever. I know, you may think that your Bible says “hell”, and it sure sounded like Peter said “Hell” a moment ago, but that word isn’t in Jesus’ vocabulary.  There are four words that show up in various translations as “Hell”: Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.  The first two might be more appropriately translated as “the grave”; Tartarus is used a single time and it refers to a Greek concept having to do with a place of darkness that is below the dead.

When Jesus speaks about a place of torment here (and elsewhere in the Gospels), he uses the word “Gehenna”.  Gehenna is a place – a valley near Jerusalem that was once the site of human sacrifice. Hundreds of years before Jesus, God’s people committed the abomination of offering their children to the fire god, Molech (II Chronicles 28:3).  In Jesus’ own day, the place had become the town dump, and it was full of smoldering refuse as any kind of filth – including human remains – was burned.  There was so much death and disease in this place that the worms would never run out of food; there was so much garbage being added day after day that the fires would not go out.

When Jesus used the word “Gehenna”, he surely intended to communicate the idea of a place that was evil, painful, and, well, one of sheer torment.

So what is it, Church, that provokes the Lord of Life, the One who was always so quick to talk about the proclamation of “the Kingdom”, to call to mind the most disgusting place in Jerusalem when talking to his followers?

Well, let’s remember where we’ve been.  Last week, Jesus set forward a practice of discipleship that is built around the concepts of welcome and embrace and tolerance – particularly welcome, embrace, and tolerance for those who are at the greatest risk of being marginalized or disempowered.  Do you remember? He called a child into their midst and talked about welcoming and assisting the weak, the vulnerable, the accused, the left out.

Now this is huge, Beloved, and I hope that you can hear it. Although the concept of eternal torment was big in my introduction to theology, Jesus himself doesn’t bring it up…until when?  Until he perceives amongst his followers a temptation to abuse the vulnerable, neglect the weak, or reject the stranger.

In fact, Jesus says, if you do something like abusing the vulnerable, neglecting the weak, or rejecting the stranger, it would be better for you to disappear forever than to face the consequences of that.

Listen to me: Jesus doesn’t promise Hell to people who don’t believe the right stuff about him!  He warns of Gehenna as the logical destination for those who would sacrifice children or ignore the suffering of the vulnerable.

And look at the scale that’s involved:  if you so much as cause someone to stumble; if you place a small stone in their path that might bring them to disorientation or distress, it would be better for you if a “millstone” was tied to your neck.

In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of grinding stones. The first, perhaps more common, was a hand-held stone that women would use to pulverize grain into flour.  The second was much larger and required the strength of an animal to turn on a spoke. Guess which word Jesus used?

In other words, if you cause even some small offense to one of these whom Jesus calls “these little ones” – if you were to place a stumbling block in their path – then it would be better for you to have a giant millstone tied around your neck as you are sent to swim with the fishes.

Then Jesus launches into one of the most gruesome and confusing teachings of all, wherein he talks about self-dismemberment as a strategy for discipleship.  There is a common thread in many of the Bible’s teachings that has come to be known as the “better than” proverb.  In fact, we sang one such proverb last week: “better is one day in your house than thousands elsewhere…”  Here, Jesus makes use of the familiar “better than” form but infuses it with a dose of hyperbole and exaggeration for emphasis.  It is better, he says, for one to have a millstone tied around the neck, or to cut off one’s own hand or foot, or to pluck out one’s own eye, than it is to possess an entire body but to be consigned to Gehenna, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

Does Jesus intend for people to take him literally here? Well, no.  And yes.

No, I do not think that Jesus is lifting up self-mutilation as a healthy spiritual practice.  As a child, I tried a variation of the literal interpretation of these verses. I’d smack my brother until he cried, and then he’d call on my grandmother or my mom, and I’d say, “No, of course, I didn’t hit Tommy.”  The adult would say, “Well, why is he crying? How did he get that bruise?”  And I would hold out my arm and say as innocently as I could, “I didn’t hit him.  My hand did.”

Here’s what I think that Jesus means when he gets into all that business about millstones and mutilation: I think he’s asking us if we are willing to consider the weak, the vulnerable, the “outsider” as being of greater importance that those other things that we hold dear.  Are you so attached to something that might be cause for distress for someone else that it will wind up leading you straight into Hell?

Jesus has preached about “the kingdom”.  Here, he talks about entering “life” twice and the “kingdom” once.  I take that to mean that he is focused on the Divine intention for our existence and our willingness to accept less than that intention because we are so in love with something that is other than God’s will.

How does this look in real life? Well, I spent last evening weeping in the rain with thousands of other people at the vigil in memory of those who were gunned down while they were at worship in Squirrel Hill. Let’s talk about that.

Can we see in this passage that refers at least obliquely to child sacrifice a call to at least engage in conversations that will lead us to talk about and search for ways to reduce the gun violence that leads to the deaths of far too many children of God every blessed year?

If Jesus were preaching today, might he say, “If your unwillingness to even talk about your interpretation of the Second Amendment causes you to stumble, then rip it up”? Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go hunting or shoot skeet, but we have to find a way to figure out how to deal with this.  We have to be open to conversation, and I don’t think that giving more guns to more people is the way that Jesus would solve this problem.

And you might hate me for saying this, but I can’t help myself, sisters and brothers.  Jesus has just finished a teaching in which he lifts up a child and says the word “welcome” four times in a single sentence.  Then he talks about the fact that anyone who interferes with the progress of one of these “little ones” would be better off dead. How does that square with the ways that so many in our world today are demonizing refugees and immigrants or those of a different faith; people who are looking for ways to exclude foreigners or anyone who isn’t “just like us”?

Please hear me, Church: I am not arguing for or against any particular side of any issue. I am trying to point out the ways in which the call of the Gospel is a call to live for and toward the other; a call to accept responsibility for the welfare of another.

O. Henry was an American writer of short stories known for their surprise endings. He tells the story of a little girl being raised by her father after her mother died. Every day, dad would come home from work and put his feet up; every day his daughter would come in and ask her father to play with her, to read to her, or to spend some time together in any fashion.Every day, he would reply that he was too tired, too busy, too weary – he asked for “peace”, and he sent her outside to play in the streets of the city.  The more he did this, the more she became a creature of the streets: hardened, embittered, and tarnished.  She died. When she arrived at the gates of judgment, St. Peter said to Jesus, “Master, here is a woman who is no good.  I suppose she’s headed for Hell?”  Jesus looked at Peter and replied quickly, “No, of course not.  Let her in.” And then Jesus’ eyes grew fierce and he told St. Peter, “But now go and look for a man who refused to play with his little girl, and instead sent her to the streets.  Send that oneto Hell.”

I think that the storyteller is on to something here – that the walk of faith is not about avoiding Hell, but embracing life according to the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.  What are we doing to create a world wherein “the little ones” are given the best opportunity to embrace the fullness of life as God intended it to be?

I think that’s what Jesus means by his closing comments about salt and fire. It’s a summary to the teaching that we have heard these past three weeks.  As one writer says, “disciples whose lives are not characterized by lowly service nor by openness to Christians who are different nor by care for those who are young in the faith nor by rigorous self-discipline are like flavorless salt. They have lost the sharpness which sets them apart from their environment and which constitutes their usefulness…Christians… are to be harder on themselves than on others”[2]– those whom they welcome and assist in the process of discovering life in the Kingdom.

I think this is a hard word for us to hear, my friends, because we have a lot of attitudes and privileges and ideas and, well,stuffthat we enjoy. May we not enjoy them so much that we risk losing everything. Thanks be to God who gives us the opportunity to walk alongside the master in paths of humility and openness. Amen.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelism_Explosion

[2]Lamar Williamson Jr., Interpretation Commentary on Mark(Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 172

Glory!

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 September 30 we stepped away from the liturgical calendar and explored the wonder of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Our gospel reading was from Mark 9:2-13. 

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

Well, it’s official – this is “wedding season”.  Maybe you’ve gone to one or two already this fall.  If it seems like more and more people are getting married at this time of year, you’re right.  Nine of the top ten wedding dates in 2018 are in September or October (yesterday was #4, by the way).  If I was a part of your wedding, you’ll know that I have a standard fee for conducting the ceremony: I ask for a photo of the three of us for the “wall of fame” in my study.

Wedding pictures.  What a tradition.  You may have been in some, and I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch.  There are some pretty outlandish ones being taken these days…

As I contemplate the photos of so many of you that line my study, I ask myself, “Why do we take so many pictures at our weddings?”  Surely the reason can’t be simply to remember the fact that we got married.  There are a hundred reminders of that every day.  In addition, have you ever met someone who had forgotten that they got married?  I don’t think that’s the purpose.  There has to be more to it than simply remembering the event.  Why do we get ourselves all gussied up and stand in front of the cameras for a very long time on what are often incredibly hot days, smiling as if we are as cool as cucumbers who aren’t worried about whether the DJ will pronounce the names correctly or how we’re going to feed 239 of our best friends?

Here’s my theory: I think we stand up there and take the photos because we want to somehow “mark” the day. We want to remember that it is a special day.  But not just the day – we want to acknowledge our hopes and our dreams.  We want to remember, when the dishes are piling up in the sink and the kids are screaming and the power goes out and the snow needs to be shoveled and the dog messed the carpet (again!) that when we started this adventure, we had some incredibly high hopes and we were surrounded by some amazing people – friends and relatives who had gone to great expense and trouble just to be there with us and for us on this incredible day. I think we take photos at these formal times so that we can remember not only how we looked, but all that we have hoped and dreamed.

The Transfiguration of The Christ, Earl Mott (contemporary)

I think that’s why Peter tries to get the Lord to allow him to set up some tents on the mountain. You know, there are a lot of reasons to love Peter in the scripture, but today’s reading is one of my favorites.  Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to come with him for an incredible experience, and Peter is overawed.  I love the fact that just after recording Peter’s request to set up a few tents, the author of Mark says, “He did not know what to say…” It’s a clear acknowledgement that sometimes, Peter just can’t help himself. He knows he’s out of his league, but he just can’t shut up.  I know how he feels…

He just wants it to last a little longer.  Clearly, neither Jesus, nor Moses, nor Elijah needs any kind of extra shelter…but Peter just wants to stay there.  “It’s so good – to be in the presence of the Lord, and to see these figures from the past, representing the Law and the Prophets – WOW!  Don’t let it end, Jesus!  I know that sooner or later you’re going to start talking about dying again, and we’re going to have to leave…but let’s not rush, huh?”

You can’t blame him.  Peter is awash in the light; basking in the heavenly voice, overwhelmed by the moment. After all, he and the other disciples have just witnessed a Christophany; that is, a physical manifestation or revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Only six days prior to this, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ.  Here, the Divine voice, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, confirms what Peter has named.  He sees the light; he loves the light; and he wants to stay there.  You can’t blame him for that.

But unfortunately for Peter, the moment does not last, and the vision fades, and it’s just them and Jesus, coming down the mountain.  As they do so, Jesus tells them what he’s told just about everyone else in the past nine chapters of this Gospel: “Don’t say anything about this.” We’ve heard this talk of the “messianic secret” before, and it appears to be the Lord’s way of saying to Peter and to the rest of us – “Look, I know you are in love with the idea of me being the Messiah, but you don’t really get it yet.  And whatever you do, don’t try to tell this story until you know how it ends. When you really ‘get it’, you’ll be able to tell it well.  But for now, mum’s the word.”  What is interesting to me at this point is that this is the final time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells people to keep his identity a secret.  He is entering an increasingly public phase of his ministry and preparing for his death.  There are to be no more secrets in the days ahead.

Messiah’s Entry Into Jerusalem, Siegmund Forst (1965)

As they come down the mountain, the disciples raise questions about the role of Elijah.  Most of the rabbis at that time taught that when the Messiah finally came, he would be unmistakable in part because God would send Elijah to earth to announce the Messiah’s coming.  According to these teachers, one day Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, weeping at the desolation he saw.  Then in a voice that would be heard from one end of the earth to the other, he would cry out “Peace comes to the world!”  On the second day, he would cry out to all creation, “Good comes to the world!” And on the third day he would cry “Yshua (salvation) comes to the world!”  And then Elijah would come and make things right so that the Messiah would come into a kingdom that has been properly prepared.[1]

Now remember that the twelve had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and now here they see Elijah – and so they ask Jesus, is it going to be like that?  And Jesus says, “No – not exactly.  Elijah has already come” – a reference to the role of John the Baptist in announcing the ministry and work of Jesus.  Jesus continues by saying, essentially, “You know, they didn’t get John’s ministry, they sure as shooting won’t understand me.” The world and the culture were limited in what they believed and could understand about God – and anyone who imposed those limits on John and on Jesus was unable to see God’s working in John’s and in Jesus’ lives.

Jesus, though, uses this event – we call it “the transfiguration” to teach his followers to remove that kind of limitation.  Peter, James, and John had literally “seen the light”.  They were different for having been in that place, even if they couldn’t fully realize it. Jesus allowed them to see him, and themselves, and each other in a different light – and they never, ever forgot it.

The Transfiguration, Sieger Köder

Have you “seen the light”?  What I mean is, have you ever been made acutely aware of who you are, where you are, and what that means?

Try this. Please, folks, don’t say anything out loud here.  But think with me…

Think of a time when you were made aware of your own sinfulness.  A time when you saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were not who you wanted to be, or thought you were, or wanted someone else to believe that you were – a time when you were broken by this kind of awareness.

It may be been the day that you realized you were addicted.

Or the day that you took credit for work that was not yours, and were caught in it.

Perhaps it was when you were caught having an affair, or the shame you felt when you raised your hand to your child.  It may be, for someone in this room, an awareness of shame that has come upon you in light of the national conversation regarding the #metoo movement.

Look, I don’t know exactly when it was for most of you, but I’m betting that I don’t have to convince you that you’ve had days where you realized that you’ve blown it.  Do you remember that day?  That pain? That shame?

As odd as it may sound, that was the light of Christ shining in your life. It illuminated a part of your world that had been dark, revealing a truth that you’d been hiding from others and perhaps yourself for a long time.

Stay in that pain for a moment.

Now, I want you to remember a time when you experienced great grace.  A sense of your life being something that you did not deserve – a gift that came to you and you knew it was not the result of your own charm, wittiness, or rakish good looks.

Maybe it was the time he told you he loved you, or the birth of a child or grandchild.

It could be that time she stuck with you after you both knew you’d screwed up.

Maybe it was the day you heard about an amazing scholarship, or saw that relative who had written you off for dead, or somehow felt accepted in spite of your brokenness.

Can you remember a day like that?

That, too is light – coming from outside of you and revealing truth by illuminating the reality of your heart.  You have seen the light – no less than the apostles did on the mount of transfiguration.  I know you have.

This passage records the church’s commemoration of the time when Jesus’ face was set ablaze by the presence of the holy on top of the mountain. It reminds disciples – then and now – of how Moses’ face was radiant following his conversations with the Lord.

Our witnesses to this event did not produce that light.  They did not invent it or manufacture it or manipulate it. They simply stayed in it.  They allowed it to change them.  The light shone on them, and they stood in the light.

If I’m right about your best day and your worst day, you know something about standing in the light, too.  So let me ask you, what happens when you stand in the light? Can you be changed?

What I really want to know is this:  what if you were able to live in the deep awareness of the light of God penetrating your life – both your deepest sin and greatest brokenness andyour ultimate joy and amazement at the undeserved grace that God has put in your life?  What if you walked around every day convinced that you were terribly flawed, a great sinner in need of a great saving while at the same time you were absolutely sure that you were receiving some unmerited favor, some great gift that you did not deserve but clearly enjoy?

What if you had the self-awareness every day to say, and to believe, that “I am a great sinner whose life has been marked by grave misjudgments and boneheaded mistakes.  And I am also a child of God whose life is filled with blessing that does not originate in me, and whose sin and mistakes cannot define.”

If you or I had the presence of mind to live like that, well, we’d be living like the transfiguration wasn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.

Listen: if you are sure that you’ve been broken by sin, then how in the world will you judge your neighbor?  What makes you any better than that person you’re ready to throw under the bus?  We both know the answer to that question.

Again: if you are convinced that God’s grace has been brought into your life, and that you are aware of the power of God’s life, light, and peace – how will you hold that in, and think it only applies to you?

Oh, that the church might be full of those who are so grateful for what they’ve received that they are sold out for others!  That we might be so defined by gratitude and so overwhelmed by the grace that we’ve received that we have no option but to extend that graciousness, that hospitality, to others.

My prayer for this day is that God will reveal to each of us who we are, and where we are. That we will claim that identity and dwell in it.  And that the love of God might flow freely in and through us in ways that allow our neighbors to see the grace and forgiveness of Christ, whom we love and serve by loving and serving those amongst whom he has placed us. Thanks be to God for the light that has not stopped shining!  Amen.

[1] Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Mark(Westminster, 1956), p. 218.

 

Shhhhhh….

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 June 10, that meant following Jesus from Tyre to the Decapolis by way of Sidon – and ending up in one of the grossest healing stories we’ve seen. Jesus is a lolligagger who seems to go just about anywhere…and in so doing reveals even more of the Kingdom that is already at hand. I found this to be helpful as we were commissioning our Cross Trainers Summer Mission Team – a group of young adults who are ready to lead our congregation’s six week day camp for kids in our neighborhood.  You can read these stories for yourself in Mark 7:31-37.  We pointed back to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 35:1-7. 

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

Have you ever noticed while watching a film or television program that oftentimes a subtle shift in the background music will alert the viewer to a substantive change before the characters in the story are aware that such a change is coming? Maybe you’re watching Star Warsand the characters in the film appear to believe that everything is going well, but then you hear the Darth Vader theme and youknow that things are going to get dicey; or during a particularly tense moment in an Indiana Jonesmovie you hear the subtle strains of the triumphant theme and you just know that it’s going to work out all right for Dr. Jones and his friends.

Mark chapter seven brings us close to the mid-point in the Gospel writer’s attempt to give us the Jesus message. While there is no soundtrack for our reading today, there are a lot of clues that indicate that our author is building toward a crucial moment in the narrative.  This subtle change is, perhaps, more apparent to those of us who have the gift of hindsight than it might have been to those who are actually living the story.

There is a curious incident reported at the end of Mark 7 that, in my mind, alerts us to the fact that the narrative of the story will be changing.  These verses have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the scholarly and theological community over the years, and I believe that they are of great importance to us as we stand on the brink of a summer program here in Crafton Heights.  Let’s look at where Jesus goes, what he does, and what he says.

Our text tells us that Jesus is on the move again – this time, we read that he’s leaving Tyre, and he is heading toward the Sea of Galilee and back to the region of the Decapolis.  On his way, Mark says, Jesus decides to visit Sidon.

And because we’re not from there, that little note just rolls right past us.  Jesus is a grown man.  He can go where he wants to go.  But imagine if you asked me for a ride downtown and the Arts Festival today, and I said, “Hey, sure.  I’m happy to take you to the park.  On the way, though, I’ve got to swing past the airport and then pick up a buddy in Cranberry Township.

If you know anything about the geography of our region, you’ll roll your eyes at me and say, “Come on, Dave, those places are hardly on the way to town.  In fact, they’re the exact opposite!”

But that’s what Mark says Jesus is doing here.  In order to head southwest, he first goes due north, then due south, and finally to the west. It’s just ridiculous and inefficient.

In fact, many scholars have looked at this passage as bona fide proof that Mark didn’t know what he was talking about.  Clearly, the author is an idiot who is unacquainted with the area about which he’s writing, these folks would say.  Nobody in their right mind would travel from Tyre to the Decapolis and say that Sidon was “on the way”.  That would add weeks, if not months, to the journey.

I would respond by saying that clearly these scholars are not well acquainted with the ways of Jesus, who, when given half a chance, always seemed to take the slow way, the long route, and the back door.  After all, this is the same man who preached love for the enemy and the power of yeast and seeds, who reached out time and time again to those who had been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and who proclaimed that the ultimate power of God is best demonstrated in submission to torture and death on a Roman cross.  I have absolutely NO problem believing that Jesus thought that the best way to get from Tyre to the Decapolis was to go through Sidon.  It’s one of the glorious inefficiencies that makes sense in the Gospel economy – but is hard to sell in the 21stcentury.

For instance, last week Marla and I got into a car with McKenna and Lindsay because we had some questions about the upcoming Youth Group mission trip to the Seneca nation of Indians in Western New York.  We drove three and a half hours for what turned out to be a 45 minute meeting. On the surface, that’s a bad choice, right? Four fairly gifted, very busy people, spending seven hours in the car to do what one might think could be accomplished in a phone call and a couple of emails?  When we got back to Pittsburgh that night, every single one of us thought we had made the exact right choice – spending the day in the car was the only way that we could lay eyes on our work site, shake hands with our hosts, and begin to dream a little bit about what that week might look like.

In seeking to be followers of Jesus in the 21stcentury, we could all learn a little bit from this messiah who often chose the slow, indirect route.  Parents: let me encourage you to put the phones down, and to allow the dishes or laundry to pile up just a little bit longer.  I’m here to tell you that while some of the days may seem incredibly long, the years are oh-so-short.

Cross Trainer staff, as you try to fit everything into a brief summer camp, let me remind you that the ultimate goal of this experience is love – and that love is a most wildly inefficient yet ultimately amazingly effective practice in changing the world for young people.

That’s where Jesus is going.  What does he do when he gets there?  I’m not sure if you were really paying attention at all, but this is an incredibly weird healing story.  Did Jesus really give the man a “wet willie” in the process of this healing miracle? No, no, the text clearly indicates that he didn’t spit on his fingers until after he removed them from the man’s ears… he didn’t spit on his fingers until he went to touch the man’s tongue…

Seriously, what’s up with this healing story? Just a few verses ago, we heard of a young girl who was plagued by an evil spirit, and Jesus wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as she – and yet he granted her healing.  In today’s reading, though, there is a multisensory healing with many stages.  It would appear to be, at the least, another example of the inefficiency of Jesus.

I’d like to invite us to pay attention to a single word in our Greek text this morning.  The word is mogilalon, and it’s translated as “could hardly talk” in the NIV, and as “speech impediment” in other versions.  It is a peculiar word that indicates that the sufferer has difficulty speaking.  I find that curious, because in the bibles that have topic headings, and when we talk about this miracle, we often see this as “the time that Jesus healed the deaf-mute.”  That’s not true.  Mogilalonis not the word for “mute” – it means something different.

Jesus meets this man who is afflicted with mogilalon and engages him fully.  He touches him, he uses the most basic of his own bodily fluids by spitting into his hands and touching the man’s tongue and in so doing frees the man to hear and speak well.

The word mogilalonis used only one other time in the Greek translation of the Bible: that comes in our reading from Isaiah 35.  Because this word is so unusual, and because it only occurs one other time in the Bible, I’m suggesting that Mark chose to use it intentionally so as to remind his readers of the context of Isaiah 35. The Old Testament reading you heard earlier is an amazing passage about the real presence and reign of God. The prophet has spoken at length about God’s promises to come and dwell with his people and to bring about the ultimate healing of the world. In answer to the question, “when will this happen?”, he says, “look for these kinds of things: the opening of blind eyes, the unstopping of deaf ears, and the freeing on tongues that are mogilalon.”

Way back in chapter 1, Mark told us that Jesus was preaching aboutthe nearness of God’s kingdom; now here in chapter 7, he is demonstrating that kingdom.

For me, that begs the question: how am I not only talking about and preaching about the intentions of God, but living them in the world today?  None of my words – and none of yours – mean a blessed thing if we are unwilling not only to talkabout loving our neighbor but to actually demonstrate in the lives of our neighbors the care of God.

So after Jesus gets to where he’s going and does what he’s been asked to do, he speaks to those who have gathered.  Specifically, he tells them, “shhhhhhhh.  Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.”

This is a prime example of what we can call “the Messianic secret” in the second Gospel.  Time and time again Jesus does something amazing and then says, “Look, let’s keep this amongst ourselves, OK?  No need to go telling everyone…”

Again, this is a great example of Jesus acting in ways I would not.  I mean, seriously, if I did something like that, I’d be tempted to tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and call the newspaper.  And if, in a burst of modesty, I actually refrained from doing any of those things, I’d hope that you’d do that stuff and tag me in it.  But Jesus does not.  He discourages the disciples from publicizing this stuff at this point.  Why?  What is the point of this secret?

Could it be that here, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, fellas, you don’t know the whole story yet.  Don’t try to talk about what this means because you don’t really get it – all of it – yet. Right now, your speech about me is about as accurate and helpful as this guy’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address half an hour ago.  You can make some sounds, but you can’t really get the whole message out because it’s still unfolding…I’m afraid that you might have spiritual or theological mogilalon…”

Sometimes, an incomplete message is less helpful than no message.  As we prepare to engage in the work of ministry this summer, let us be slow, and be active, and resist the temptation to make global pronouncements. Instead, let us merely point to the things that we cansee and invite the people who are around us to make connections in their own lives.

As I indicated in my comments at the beginning of this message, the feeling in the text is that there is something more, something substantive to come.  Clearly, for those of you who are being commissioned as Cross Trainers today, there must be a feeling of anticipation and maybe even some anxiety.  We are on the brink of something… and we might know something about it, but I guarantee it will be different from what we expect in many ways.

My deep hope and prayer as we stand on this tenth day of June in 2018 is that we might see ourselves in every aspect of this passage.  May we be willing to stick with Jesus even as he takes what seems to be the longest possible way around… may we be willing to allow him intimate proximity to our very selves so that we are better able to perceive his action in the world… may we be able to speak of what we know even while we wait for what we don’t know… and may we be willing to live the faith such a way so as to be a blessing to the ones God has given as our neighbors.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Cliffhanger!

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 June 3, we heard one of the truly difficult stories about Jesus: his encounter with a woman pleading for the welfare of her daughter. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:24-30.  Our second reading came from I Thessalonians 5:10-18.

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

Most Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1966 – 1968, you could find me perched in front of our family’s old black-and-white television following the adventures of Gotham City’s Caped Crusaders.  The original Batmantelevision show aired two thirty-minute episodes each week.  On Wednesdays, Batman and Robin would typically encounter some diabolical plot by the Joker, the Riddler, or the Penguin, and on Thursdays they’d find a way to save the city.

Will the dynamic duo survive? Wait and see…

Almost every Wednesday night episode ended in the same way: the dynamic duo would be in a precarious situation, apparently headed toward certain destruction, and then a very dramatic voiceover would remind viewers that if we wanted to see how the storyline resolved, we’d have to tune in tomorrow – same bat time, same bat channel.

This was my introduction to the concept of a “cliffhanger” – stopping a story at a crucial instant in the drama for the sole purpose of making sure that the viewer or the reader would come back for more at a subsequent time.  You’ve seen this in all kinds of ways.

I will suggest that the scripture from Mark’s Gospel this morning presents us with a cliffhanger of sorts.  Here’s what I mean:

In recent episodes, we’ve seen Jesus come into his hometown of Nazareth and reveal himself to be the manifestation of God’s power in the world.  Then, he learns of and reacts to the death of John the Baptist; no doubt it is a sobering time of reflection for him as he anticipates that which is to come in his own life.  He sends out the twelve, which leads directly to the feeding of the 5,000, which in turn brings about a significant confrontation with the religious authorities.  All of these things must have contributed to Jesus’ expressed desire to get away from the pressures of the crowds and the religious and political leadership so that he can be alone with and prepare his disciples.

We know that Jesus wanted to get away because we read that he went to a community known as Tyre. In so doing, Jesus is moving away from Jerusalem (the seat of Jewish power at that time), away from Galilee (the center of his ministry for much of the past three years) and away from the Decapolis (his previous “retreat” spot, but one wherein he’d become quite a celebrity in recent months).

We also know that Jesus wanted to get away because Mark tells us so in verse 24: “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.”

However, Jesus’ hopes to keep this retreat on the down-low appear to be immediately thwarted when he is recognized by a stranger.  And this is no ordinary passer-by: the Gospel writer goes to great pains to make sure that we know that this is an encounter with an outsider. One of them.

We are told that the stranger is a woman. Moreover, she was a Greekor aGentile.  And she had been born in Syrophoenicia.  The Gospel writer did everything but hang a sign on this poor woman’s neck reading “not one of us”.

The One With The Crumby Dog, Ally Barrett (2017). More at https://reverendally.org/art/

Nevertheless, she persisted.  For a man intent on finding some down time with his friends, Jesus is attracting a lot of attention.  He apparently ignores the woman, but that doesn’t do anything except increase the volume of her appeal.  In fact, the when the author of Matthew tells this story, he mentions that she is creating such a ruckus that the disciples implore Jesus to do something just to shut her up.

When he finally does engage her in conversation, Jesus apparently follows the culturally accepted rules of engagement: Jews like himself are God’s favorite; Gentiles like this woman are no better than dogs in the street.  A couple of weeks ago, we asked the question, “Was Jesus a jerk?”, and here we see behavior that seemingly points in that direction.  This conversation is cringe-worthy; particularly when we consider that it came from the same mouth that gave us the Beatitudes and the story of the Good Samaritan.  What is Jesus up to here?

The accepted conclusion is that Jesus is testing this woman’s faith.  But why would he do this?

Is it because he enjoys seeing her crawl along and beg? Is his self-esteem so low that he needs to have this woman plead for the life of her daughter so pathetically?  I can’t see this as being consistent with Jesus’ character.

There are some who have suggested that the Lord went through the motions of this conversation because he hoped that it would demonstrate the foolishness of the prevailing prejudices in that culture.  In essence, these people are saying that Jesus treated this woman contemptibly so that his disciples could recognize, and then reject, contempt as a basis for relationahip.

I’d like to go a little further and say that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith neither to satisfy his own curiosity about the woman nor to make a cultural statement about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles.  I think that he was testing her faith in a public fashion in order to allow his disciples to see beyond the shadow of a doubt that her faith was authentic and her claim legitimate.

Some years ago I was in Turkey and one of my friends was looking to buy a leather jacket. When he put it on, the vendor went to great lengths to demonstrate the quality of material and workmanship. While Dan was wearing the jacket, the salesman tested it in every way: he poured water on it, he stretched the seams, and he even held a lighter under Dan’s elbow to prove that this was a rugged and durable garment.

I think that Jesus was allowing this conversation with the Syrophoenician woman to go on so long for precisely the same reason: he wanted to allow the disciples to conclude that this woman was indeed passionate about and beloved of God. In so doing, Jesus taught them a lesson they would not forget about the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God.

Once her faith is demonstrated, Jesus acknowledges the woman’s place in his Kingdom and announces that he has healed her daughter.  She goes home and discovers that such is indeed the case.  That’s the end of the story.

Um, Pastor Dave? You called this sermon “Cliffhanger.”  You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means…  There is no cliffhanger here, Pastor Dave.  Jesus comes, the woman begs, Jesus seizes a teachable moment for his disciples, a daughter is healed, and the woman goes home.

Exactly.  But what happens next?

Next? There is no next.  Her story is done.

And that’s the problem.  The story ends with the one who began as an outsider remaining an outsider.  I’m saying it’s a cliffhanger because I want to know what the twelve did next.  Did they reach out to her?  Was she eventually included among the followers of Jesus?

The Limits of Tyre, Vasily Polenov (1911)

I’m afraid that the answer to that must be “no”.  If this woman or her daughter was ever included in the body, I suspect that we’d know her name.  Do you remember later in the Gospel, when the man carries the cross for Jesus, Mark tells us that he was Simon, the father of Rufus and Alexander… Lots of people who encounter Jesus are remembered – because they become part of the story. Nicodemus.  Joseph of Arimathea.  Mary Magdalene.  Blind Bartimaeus.  The fact that this woman and her daughter are still anonymous when Mark is writing the Gospel indicates to me that nobody remembers her name nowbecause nobody really knew her then.

And when I read this story of Jesus healing a woman because his disciples urge him to do so in order to keep her quiet… then I’m reminded of all the times that I have “helped” someone while secretly wishing that they’d just leave.  I am embarrassed by the number of times I have given some groceries or helped with a financial burden – but begrudgingly.  “Here…” I say, “This is for you.”  And then I don’t say it out loud, but the next phrase is “now leave me alone.”  I can’t wait to get to the “mission project” and then I count the hours until it’s done and I get to go home and take a shower and do what I want to do… because I am not interested in really including any of those peoplein my life.

So what’s your point, Dave? What are you asking us to do?

I thought about using this passage to get myself and a least a few of you all worked up into a lather about the ways that refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers are being treated in our nation these days.  I thought about telling you the true story of a young mother who was abused and threatened and feared for her life and that of her daughter in the dangerous nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She was so afraid that last year she scooped up her six year-old daughter and fled to the United States, where she went directly to the immigration authorities and requested political asylum.  Her case was declared valid, and she was allowed to enter the country. She followed all the rules.  She was not “illegal”; she was not a terrorist. But four days after her arrival in San Diego, they took her daughter from her, slapped her in handcuffs, and sent the daughter (age 6) to a “facility” in Chicago – two thousand miles away.  In the next four months, she’d have the chance to speak with this child six times.

But if the point of this message is to get you all excited about some kind of political action then, to be honest, it’s less than the Gospel, and this isn’t worship, it’s a rally.

Here’s what I think about this passage:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this story about a mother who was terrified by a situation that her family faced is an old story, or ancient history.  The Gospel reading resonates with us because many of us have lived this story, and each of us has seen it.

Furthermore, let’s not pretend that we can insert ourselves into the Biblical narrative and try to role-play: are you more like Jesus, or a disciple, or the woman, or her daughter? We are all over the place in that regard.  And, more importantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the disciples “got” where Jesus was going with this, at least initially.

Instead, I’d like to direct your attention to the epistle reading for the day.  Let’s listen to Paul, who as much as anyone in the first century, was a real mover and shaker.  He was a political creature – a citizen of Rome who knew how to use that identity and his passport.  There aretimes where Paul seems to encourage those in leadership and authority to do what is right.  But when he spoke to a real live church, he didn’t tell them to sit down and write a bunch of letters to Nero or to seek to overthrow the Roman garrisons in Thessalonica or Philippi.

No, he spoke very plainly.  Remember who you are, who you were, and who you will be.  Encourage one another, and strengthen each other.  Encourage those who are afraid.  Help the weak.  Be patient with everyone. Always try to do good for each other and for everyone.

Look: I’m not here to put the badmouth on political action in the name of the Gospel.  If you want to write the President about immigration or the governor about abortion, well, knock yourself out. But just don’t be an activist without any action.

Listen: in two weeks, the Cross Trainers camp will start here in Crafton Heights.  There will be 60 young people coming in and out of our buildings for six weeks.  Some of them are in a great place.  Others are in a world of hurt. Most of them, if you give them half a chance, will get on your last nerve.

Re-read the Gospel for today, and then ask yourself: do these kids really belong here?  Is this church for them and for their families?  Is there grace and hope and love and acceptance and guidance and challenge for themhere?

If so… how will they know?  Because we’re paying half a dozen people like Carly and Katie to be nice to them for a few weeks this summer?  Will they be authentically included in the purposes of God because we “let” them show up here and we’re nice to them for a few hours?  Or is there a deeper response that might be indicated on our part?

It’s a cliffhanger.

When I watched Batman, I had to wait an entire day to see how he and Robin solved the problem. When it comes to discipleship, I’d suggest that the true measure of our faithfulness is whether the young people who are here this summer will be remembered by and connected with the community of faith in ten years.  What can wedo about that?

Stay tuned.

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #8

Deep and wide.

Breadth and depth.

Those are good matrices for a number of human experiences, and partnership is surely one of them.  The last couple of days have given us a chance to experience the deep reaches of partnership experiences, ranging from intensely personal to those instances where we simply do not know, and cannot guess what might occur.

Lauren Mack is a member of the Crafton Heights church who has been serving since August as a teacher at the St. Andrews Mission Secondary School in Mulanje.  This gave us a perfect excuse to drive down to Mulanje for a day and a half so that we might be able to appreciate the mission and purpose of that institution, see where Lauren and her friend and colleague Brooke are staying, and connect with some of those involved in the Partnership in that area.  Our initial stops included the historic Mulanje Mission Hospital, the St. Andrew’s manse, and dinner with the Presbytery partnership committee.

Lauren is greeted by Ms. Chirwa, chair of the Mulanje Presbytery Partnership team.

 

Touring the Mulanje Mission Hospital.

 

Meeting at the manse with Abusa Paul Mawaya

 

Partnership meal!

On Friday we awoke determined to climb, at least partially, up the side of Mount Mulanje with the notion of taking a quick dip in the icy waters of Nkhalambe Falls.  This pool is both broad and deep… and icy!  Nevertheless, Lauren and I took our chance to say we swam in the waters of an amazingly beautiful African stream.

Climbing up Mt. Mulanje

 

I told her we should pause for a photo. Meanwhile, I was dying for breath! I asked our photographer to take an extra half-dozen or so just so I could rest…

 

After about an hour, we make it to the falls!

 

And about four minutes later, here we were! Since the water flows out of the mountain, it is extremely cold year round.

 

Not long after we got in, a police unit came by. They couldn’t figure out why knuckleheads like us insisted on swimming on a cool, rainy day… so the took some photos of us swimming for the folks back home!

After our morning hike, we headed back to Blantyre but first took a stopover in Mpemba, where Mrs. Sophie Mnensa lives.  Sophie and her late husband, Ralph, were our colleagues on the Presbytery’s first pastor exchange program in 1998, when our families spent about 12 – 14 weeks together, half in each home.  This was an example of the depth of the partnership in our lives – to see how fully we have been able to engage with and for one another over two decades…

Greeting Sophie…

 

Sophie is able to video chat with her sister, Sharon – all the way in Pittsburgh!

 

Can you tell it’s not just Sophie who’s excited to see Sharon?

 

In 1998, the Carvers stayed with the Mnensas and spent a lot of time with two little boys – Gregory and Gamaliel (aged 2 and 4). In the same year, the Mnensas stayed with the Carvers and spent a lot of time with a three year old girl named Lauren. How exciting to see those kids together today? Who would have thought our friendship and partnership could have brought us this far?

 

Ralph died in 2002, but Sophie asks me to walk with her to his grave each time we visit. it is an honor to do so.

We arrived in town to see that our friends from Blantyre Synod had set up a banquet honoring the arrival of team from the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique.  This church body, like Blantyre Synod, traces its roots back to the early Scottish missionaries.  Several years ago, when we were beginning to envision a tripartite arrangement between South Sudan, America, and Malawi, members of the CCAP Blantyre Synod were exploring the reality of coming alongside this Presbyterian denomination in their closest neighbor.  That work is culminating this weekend as well over a dozen congregations will become formally twinned with one another – Mozambican and Malawian.  While this is not “our” partnership, it was a thrill to bear witness to the birth of a new reality in shared mission.  In many ways, this is the “breadth” of the church – it’s more than Pittsburgh can do right now, but we sure loved sitting on the sidelines and cheering on our brothers and sisters.

Brian, seated at “the Mozambican table”, brings greetings to the assembly.

 

The Moderator of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique

 

I can’t get over the fact that on Wednesday, we had lunch with South Sudanese, and just a few days later, we’re having dinner with Mozambicans. What a joy indeed!

This has been a day! But thanks be to God, we’ve had the resources to thrive throughout it.  Thanks for your prayers!

Stay With Us

On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights spent the second worship of the morning retracing the steps of a long journey on a horrible day – the walk to Emma’s (and back!).  Thoughts on the ways that we fear isolation and loneliness, and the impact those things can have on our hearts… and wondering why the Gospels are so soft on explanations but so big on presence. This message is based on Luke 24:13-35 as well as Isaiah 25:6-9. 

 

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

 

In January of 1987 I was invited to take part in a two week course in Southern California.  I was so excited to be able to participate!  We were given a day off, and while many of my colleagues went to see Hollywood or the Pacific Ocean, I went to Disneyland.  I don’t know whether it says more about my colleagues or me that I couldn’t convince anyone else to go, but the short story is that I went to Disneyland by myself.  And it was miserable.  Every single time I stepped foot anywhere, I kept thinking, “You know who would really like this?”  I found people looking at me as the creepy guy who had to fill in the extra seat on the rides.  It was so bad that on three different occasions that day I found a pay phone and called a friend just to tell them that I wished that they were there – and that I thought that they’d be having fun.

(For those of you who are under 40 years old, I should say that once upon a time, we didn’t all have phones in our pockets. If we were away from home and needed to make a call, we had to find a machine, put money in it, remember the phone number, and dial our friends, hoping that they were home to answer their phones – that’s what life was like back in the dark ages).

What about the rest of you? Can you think of a time when you definitely did notwant to be alone?  What about when you were in the ICU waiting room? Or maybe it’s a big holiday, and you don’t have anywhere to go… Have you ever longed for the company of family or friends on Thanksgiving or a birthday or an anniversary?

When we find ourselves in a situation where we are sure that we shouldn’t be alone, what do we do?

Well, if we’re smart, and honest with ourselves, we own that fact and we do something about it.  We reach out to friends or neighbors and explain, saying, “Wow, you know, this is really hard right now.  I’d prefer not to be alone.  I’m really anxious, or depressed, or frightened.  I wonder if you’d be willing to come and wait with me…”

Of course, how often are we smart and honest with ourselves? Not as often as we should be, are we? And so oftentimes on those days when we know we should not be alone, we act as if it’s no big deal, or we’re simply afraid to bother anyone else.  So we pretend that we’re notanxious or depressed or afraid.  We sit at home and eat half a gallon of ice cream by ourselves, or we pretend that we’re just going to sit at the computer for a while and check Facebook for a moment and wind up getting sucked into the muck of internet porn, or we think that we unwind with a beer but wind up having 12 of them and that leads to going to bed with a stranger… in short, there are times when we are so pained by being alone that we do whatever we can to numb that pain, that isolation, that fear, that anxiety.

The power of isolation is real, and loneliness can lead to incredibly destructive behaviors and attitudes.  We all experience pain and fear – but how we respond to them can make all the difference.

The disciples who we met in our reading from Luke, for instance, were two individuals who may have been traveling together, but in many ways, they were alone.  They had lost everything that had mattered to them, the most important of which was the hope that up until three days ago had carried their spirits. And now, this Sunday morning, they are trudging back to their homes.  They walk together, but they are fundamentally alone.

On the Road to Emmaus (used by permission of the artist) ©Paul Oman, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.paulomanfineart.com

A stranger approaches, and engages them in conversation.  Before they know it, the day is gone and they stand in front of the home that is their destination.  Now, they’ve got some deciding to do.  Clearly, this conversation has had some sort of an impact on them.  Neither one of these folks has processed it yet, but each is aware that the presence of the stranger has mattered.

As they stand at the gate of the home in Emmaus, it would have been perfectly acceptable for them to shake hands with this stranger and wish him well as he continued his travel.  After all, there is nothing about their situation that has changed in the least.  From their perspective, reality is unchanged: they’d left everything to follow Jesus; they’d given up their jobs, their homes, their dreams in order to follow the one whom they’d imagined could make such a difference, only to see him give himself so willingly to the humiliation of execution on a Roman cross.

I’d imagine that it would have been easy for these disciples to have felt as though they’d been schnookered – that they’d fallen for something that proved not to be true, as if they’d become the victims of a terrible April Fool.

Do you see what I mean? Even after traveling all day with this stranger, nothing about their lives was substantively different than it had been that morning. Spending the day in conversation with this man hasn’t fixed anything.

And yet, somehow, it’s better.  Nothing about their external situation has changed, but each of them senses that somehow, there is something that has happened in on the inside.

So they have to decide.  What will they do with this stranger?

They turn to him, and they plead: “Stay with us.”

That’s all they say.  “Look, it’s getting dark.  Stay here.  Please.” And he enters the home.

And the briefest of pleas (“stay!”) leads to a shared meal.  I might have skipped that part, had I been them…  The meal leads to an occasion for recognition as to who this stranger really is. That recognition leads to an incredible moment of honesty with themselves and each other.  Again, I’m not sure I’d have been courageous enough to risk being that open with my friend.

At that point, I think that I look at my friend, and he’s looking at me, and he starts to say, “Did you…I mean, while he was talking on the road, was there…”  And in my head, I’m thinking, “I think that guy was Jesus!” but there’s no way I’m going to go THERE.  I saw Jesus die.  He’s not coming back.

And so if I’m the one on the road to Emmaus, I give my buddy the look that says, “Don’t go talking crazy around me, fella.” And that shuts him up. And if I’m one of the people on the road to Emmaus, maybe the other disciples never, ever hear about the conversation on the road or the breaking of the bread.

But because these people are able to be honest with each other, they are able to engage on an even greater risk – and they return to Jerusalem to speak with the other disciples.  Remember, these folks had probably been there when the women came in talking about the empty tomb, and they probably knew that everyone thought that these women had lost their minds.  Now, they are willing to go back and risk that same treatment because of the experience that they themselves had had.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make with this – that throughout this day, the realities these disciples faced did not change substantially.  There was no part of their circumstances that had been radically altered, so far as they had been able to know in that moment.

And yet, in the experience of simply trying to stay close to Jesus, everything was different.  And in that trying to stick close to Jesus, they find that they are able to make decisions that are, somehow, incrementally better.

When I think about this idea of just trying to stick close to Jesus, I’m reminded of a story that Garrison Keillor told about the time that 24 Lutheran Pastors visited Lake Wobegon, MN as a part of a study tour to understand the problems of life in rural America.  Pastor Ingqvist agrees that they guys could use a night out, and so he accepts Wally’s invitation to host the 24 pastors on his 26 foot pontoon boat. What could go wrong, right?

Well, the folks quickly discover that putting so many middle aged, portly, bearded Lutheran pastors on a boat that size is not wise.  As Keillor tells it,

…They had reached the edge of the laws of physics.  They lurched to the starboard side and there – in full view of the town – the boat pitched forward and dumped some ballast: [a batch of] Lutheran ministers in full informal garb took their step for total immersion.

As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives for Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer…

The ministers stood perfectly still in the water and didn’t say much at all.  Five feet of water, and some of them not six feet tall, so their faces were upraised to the bright blue sky.  They didn’t dare walk for fear of drop-offs, and their clothes were too heavy to swim in…

Keillor describes how these men were unsuited to this problem; they were not used to asking anyone for help, and so they had to practice crying out in their rich baritone voices… “um, help… help… help…”  He tells us of “…twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.”

But then there is a new voice: “Clint [Bunsen’s] little nephew Brian waded out to them.  ‘It’s not deep this way’, he said.  He stood about fifteen feet away, a little boy up to his waist.”[1]  The pastors gingerly edged toward the sound of the boy’s voice and gradually found their way to a place where they could first stand, and then walk, out of the lake – twenty-four pastors dripping wet, covered by clothes that would have sunk them, but ready to participate in the rest of the conference.

Maybe I’m reading into that little story too much, but it seems to me that it’s a fitting parable for the Christian experience.  I do not know of anyone who has lived a life of faith and been spared trouble or difficulty.  I am unacquainted with anyone who has accepted Jesus and thereby avoided suffering.

In my experience, the life of faith is not about accepting all of the right doctrines or finding a way to agree intellectually with all of the appropriate “isms”.  Instead, it’s more like finding myself up to my neck in pain or doubt or confusion and hearing a voice that I believe I can trust telling me that the ground might be a little firmer over this direction… It’s about sticking as close as I can to Jesus and holding onto him when I can.

Supper at Yummaus
Barry Motes (used by permission of the artist). More at https://www.jbmotesart.com

And because I know what it feels like to be swamped and gasping for air, every now and then I feel as though I have the opportunity to lift my voice and call out, “You know, I think it’s a little shallower over here.  It’s not quite as overwhelming in this direction.”

[4]The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when justice would be shared, death defeated, and alienation and anxiety swallowed up.  The key component of that day, we’ve heard, is that people will say “we have waited for God.”  They do notsay, “Aha! We were right all along, and those suckers were wrong.”  There is no cry of exultation because all of their doctrine was correct.  Instead, there is a confession that all of this has happened because they were able to keep close, somehow, to the Lord.

Jesus’ friends looked back on Isaiah’s prophecy and said, “You know, we are closer now than we were then.  We can see more evidence of death being swallowed and hope being brought to light.  In Jesus, we have a glimpse of what God is like and we have an inkling of what God is doing. So we’re going to keep waiting, keep hoping, and keep doing our best to stick close to him.”

Look – this is Easter Sunday.  I’m not sure why you’re in church today, but I can tell you this: if you are here expecting answers, hoping that you’ve come to a place where you can have everything explained to you… or, worse, if you’ve come because you havea lot of answers that you can’t wait to lay down on all of the rest of us… well, give it a break.

I’m not interested in talking with anyone who thinks that they can explain things – especially things like suffering and violence and injustice and death.

But if you’ve come because you’re willing to watch, to wait, and to stay close to Jesus – well maybe together we can learn a little more about the power and implications of hope and resurrection in our lives and in our world. And if we do that, then maybe we’ll be better equipped to help each other find a place to stand that isn’t quite so treacherous or frightening.  And maybe God might even use us to remind someone else that it might just be possible to get through this thing together.  Thanks be to God for the Christ who is willing to stay with us as we wait on the promises of God.  Amen.

[1]Quotes from “Pontoon Boat” in Leaving Home(Penguin Press, 1990).