Wearing the Uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding to Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRAP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God Who Sees

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

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

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

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

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

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

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

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

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

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

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

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

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

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

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

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Dress Code: Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apostle Paul, Anonymous, Italian 18th c.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the photo she took.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Does This Happen Often?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s what we know to be true:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa Pilgrimage Update #10

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

Friday, July 12 brought a whole new experience to the 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi.  Whereas the previous posts concerning this journey have all contained stories about the team gathered– that is, together as we participated in youth conferences, wandered and wondered over amazing terrain, and visited historic sites together– on this day the team split into five components.  Groups were sent to their partner churches (or, if they don’t currently have partner churches in Malawi, they went to congregations that would host them for the weekend).  Since I am one lone blogger and haven’t quite mastered the art of being in more than one place at one time (frankly, sometimes I’m pretty shaky at being in only  one place at one time), this entry will focus on the three of us from Crafton Heights who were the guests at the congregation with which we’ve been partnered since 1995 – the Mbenjere CCAP in Ntaja, Machinga, Malawi.  While the specifics of each location will vary, and if you know other travelers on this journey you’ll want to hear more about their particular host weekend, our experience will surely qualify as typical for the purposes of this journey.

For starters, Ntaja, and all of the other locations where we’ve been hosted, is more rural and less-developed than Blantyre and even Mulanje.  While Ntaja is a primary trading center, it is also a crowded, dusty place in a corner of Malawi that is not usually on people’s itinerary.

I’ve often thought I want to write a book featuring photos of “roads” I’ve driven. Here’s a snap of downtown Ntaja at rush hour. “Rush” meaning “It’s market day and why is that crazy abusa driving his car through the ‘mall’?”

 

We were welcomed by the pastor and some church leaders with a fine meal at the manse; following that we were escorted to our host family’s home.  In our case, the Makuluni family has been blessed with quite a large home, and so each of the three of us had our own bedroom. Menes and Edith have each travelled to Crafton Heights before, and I’ve stayed in their various homes many times. It is a wonderful place to learn about our sister congregation, Mbenjere CCAP, and we were treated royally.

Our hosts, Menes and Edith Makuluni.

Saturday morning found us up and out early, as we toured the church campus and saw not only the “old” and “new” church buildings, but also the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School (which has more than 4000 students and class sizes ranging from 100 – 200), the borehole that Crafton Heights and Bower Hill helped construct about ten years ago, and the environs.  We then met with representatives of the youth department, and combined singing, bible study, games, and small group question/answer time.  After lunch, the program called for us to visit a prayer house, but our vehicle broke down and I had to take it to a village mechanic and a shoemaker (trust me, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post in and of itself).  The girls stayed at the church with a few elders and the youth group members for an impromptu chat that they each agreed was the highlight of their day.  We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Makuluni home and retired comparatively early (but not before we taught our hosts to play “Crazy Dice!).

A tour of the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School. The school buildings are in the background, and the headmaster is the gentleman in the gray coat. We are standing in a “classroom” under the trees – a situation mandated by the intense overcrowding at the school.

Discussions with the Youth Team.

Just as we do at CHUP, the young people play games as icebreakers and conversation starters. Here is a variant on “the shoe game”.

Getting a lesson in “Bao”, a very popular game in these parts.

Sunday was a whirlwind!  We arrived at church at 8:30 for the 9:00 service.  In addition to everything you’d THINK you’d experience at a typical Presbyterian service of worship (a few hymns, children’s sermon, offering, sermon, announcements, etc.), our time of worship included these highlights:

  • A lengthy introduction of the visitors of the day, which included not only our team, but a group of Roman Catholic Nuns from a neighboring town who thought they’d pray like Presbyterians today.
  • The commissioning of the new headmaster of the Primary School, along with his deputies.
  • There were five choirs that sang.
  • We held a service of reconciliation, in which some members who had been put on church discipline were welcomed back to the full communicant membership.
  • Approximately 30 new members were confirmed, and a confirmation class was examined.
  • I was privileged to administer the Sacrament of Baptism to 9 adults and two infants
  • We dedicated a uniform to be worn by a member of the Amayi Mvano, the Women’s Guild of the congregation.
  • There was an exchange of gifts between the congregations.
  • And, in a special “bonus round” of worship after the first benediction, we had a separate service of Holy Communion.

Suffice to say, it was NOT a one hour service.  We finally broke up at about 1 pm, weary but also encouraged and appreciative of what we’d experienced.

Being greeted during the “passing of the peace” at worship.

Gift-giving and receiving is an important part of the partnership experience. Here we are presenting Abusa Noah Banda with a symbol of faith.

We ate very well at our friend Fletcher Tewesa’s new home and rekindled a relationship that has been long and fruitful.  Fletcher has also been a guest at Crafton Heights.

Fletcher and a part of his family at their new home in Ntaja.

A testimony to the power of physical presence and personal visits in partnership:  Fletcher moved into a new house several months ago. He has exactly ONE photo already hung up in his home. That single photo is one I took when the team of 5 young people from Crafton Heights visited in 2016-2017. He was so deeply touched by that experience, and it showed on visiting his home. I was deeply moved when I saw this.

After going back to the church for a Youth Bible Study, we then were escorted to the manse for a farewell dinner.

A portion of the youth who gathered for Bible Study.

There were many contrasts in this visit – some of our time was incredibly engaging, while other aspects of it seemed to drag as we waited for the hosts to choreograph their next activities.  Our friends in Ntaja are so eager to make sure that we have everything that we need that sometimes the pace of some activities (NOT WORSHIP) makes it seem like we’re going inordinately slow – but we have to realize and remember that this is a pace that is rooted in grace, welcome, and hospitality.

Sunday evening after the “farewell dinner” we spent a great deal of time laughing with our hosts, learning to makensima – a corn-based porridge that is the staple food – and learning to dress like a Malawian.  It has been a rich and full time, and I know that these young women, this congregation, and the folks at Crafton Heights will have been glad that it occurred.  I can only hope that the other delegations had as powerful an experience as did we!

Rayna gets put on potato peeling duty at home!

Danielle is trying HARD to get a good recipe for nsima.

The girls each learned how to wear a chitenge properly.

After we left Ntaja, we made a quick stop in the Liwonde National Park.  I’m disappointed to say that we failed to find a single elephant, but we did have a great time exploring the countryside and seeing some of God’s rich creation!

Danielle looking eagerly for something wild!

A warthog crosses our path!

A pair of waterbuck size us up.

This impala is waiting patiently to be groomed by an oxpecker – these birds remove ticks and other parasites from their furry friends.

 

Africa Pilgrimage Update #9

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

When the topic of arranging a youth group trip to Malawi was broached in partnership discussions a couple of years ago, we asked, “Well, what would a trip like that be for?  What would happen  on that kind of a journey?  What would we hope to happen?”  As we brainstormed, a vision came into clarity fairly quickly.  We would want to put young Malawians and Pittsburghers together in a place where neither was necessarily “home”, but each was equally comfortable. We wanted to create a space that was accessible to youth in both cultures and invite them to think creatively and meaningfully about their own spiritual walk, the call to work together to create a world that was more in line with the Divine Intent, and their role as citizens of the world.  We wanted it to be a place that was wonder-filled, but in such a way as to be drawing us closer together, rather than “othering” someone.

July 11 was the real deal.  It all happened.  And it was glorious.

We have stayed for two nights at the Likhubula House, a camp/conference center owned and operated by the Synod of Blantyre.  We are shoehorned into a very crowded camp with two large groups of the Church of Scotland “Boy’s Brigade” Youth Group, who are in Malawi building a school with some of their counterparts in Malawi.  If that wasn’t interesting enough, we started our day by being joined by 54 CCAP students and youth workers.  The 68 of us crowded into a hall that must have been designed to hold at least 70 people (i.e., we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room), and we convened our third of three Youth Conferences on the topic of “Developing Leadership Through Partnership”.  We changed things up a bit this morning by beginning with singing, and then having Eddie Willson lead off the teaching with a session on dealing with anxiety and pressure. This was a good multi-faceted approach to covering the topic, and Eddie did a phenomenal job at making sure that our small group reflection times were cross-cultural and deep.  After a break, Abusa Paul Mawaya of the St. Andrew’s Parish in Mulanje offered a very smart and timely powerpoint presentation on the challenges that the youth in Blantyre Synod face and then he invited our small groups to consider how such challenges related to the American Youth.  The discussion was lively, personal, and honest. It was a room full of God’s children seeking to find common ground in the hopes that we would be better together than walking our own roads.

Eddie gets the conference energized…

Delaney shares with her small group.

The small group conversations were a joy to watch!

Greta and T.K. mug for the camera…

Our Malawian facilitator, Abusa Mawaya (center), with Davies Lanjesi and myself.

(most of) the assembled group!

Immediately following the conference, everyone stayed and had lunch together: rice, chicken, and bananas topped the menu and the meal was truly sacramental.  Some of the small groups ate together; there were clusters of “selfies” and a lot of contact information was shared.  When all had eaten enough, the grounds were filled with chatter and laughter.

And if that were not enough, three or four dozen pilgrims of all ages met at the base of the trail for a brief hike into the lower elevations of Mount Mulanje.  The climb was initially pretty steep, but then after a while it leveled out as we wandered through the trees and looked out onto the valley at the base of the mountain.  After an hour or so, we arrived at the lovelyNgarambe waterfall and pool.  This is the point where the small river springs forth from the mountain, and so to say that the water was cold would be an understatement.  It was bracingly, breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly cold.

So, of course, a few of us jumped in.  I mean, when are these kids going to get the chance to do that again?  We jumped, and we swam as fast as we could back onto the rocks, where we warmed up in the 70 degree air.

And we laughed.  And played. And splashed.  And encouraged each other to try new things, to take new paths, and to risk ourselves just a bit.  And. It. Was. Wonder-filled. 

The Crafton Heights Team en route to the top.

Kemp shows the crowd how to enter the pool!

Even Holiness got into the act and decided to take the plunge (that’s Danielle and Rayna coming up for air in the background)!

Coleman asked me if we could swim all the way to the waterfall.
(we couldn’t – not and feel our extremities anymore!)

The setting at Likhubula House was perfect because it is very accessible to our Malawian colleagues and yet it is so amazingly African that it was captivating to the American souls as well.  The mixture of mental, physical, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation was the perfect combination to allow the groups of kids to mix it up in all sorts of ways.

I cannot imagine that there is anyone, American or Malawian, who will soon forget this day or the lessons learned, questions asked, and laughter shared during it. And I can’t help but think that in these memories lies the seed of something that could be sacred and formative for life.

I have a couple of friends who, when asked “Hey, how are things?”, their standard reply is, “I’m living the dream…”  Know this: on July 11, 2019, a group of folks from villages in Malawi and suburbs of Western Pennsylvania and towns in Africa and the City of Pittsburgh lived the dream. I wish you could have been here. I hope that these stories and photos will give you at least a glimpse of what it was like.

And if you know someone who was here today, then make a not to ask them about it in a couple of weeks.  Not now, when it’s so fresh, but in a few weeks after we’ve had time to reflect and digest on what we’ve been.  And be grateful.  It’s a good life, my friends – a good life indeed.  Thanks be to God!

POSTSCRIPT: We are entering the phase of our journey wherein we will split up and go to five various congregations for the next three days.  Internet access is not guaranteed, and the blog reports may be sketchy.  I’ll try to post from Ntaja, but I can’t be sure.  If you’re a parent or friend and are looking forward to these, don’t worry. Silence is a part of every pilgrimage!

What better way to finish the day than a game of “Crazy Dice” with our friends from Balaka CCAP?