Count the Cost

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 16 we heard some of the first words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after accepting Peter’s acclamation of his messiah-ship.  If Jesus is the savior, then what is our response? Our gospel reading was from Mark 8:34-9:1.

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

What Do People Think About Me?, Vasely Polenov (c. 1900)

Last week we picked up in our exploration of Mark’s Gospel by noting that the middle of Chapter 8 is essentially the opening episode in “Season II” of the Jesus story.  We noted that Jesus has taken the group to the farthest reaches of Jewish territory, in the community of Caesarea Philippi along the Lebanese border.  In this remote location, Peter almost hits one out of the park when he acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then loses his footing when he denies Jesus the opportunity to define what “Messiah” and “Savior” mean.

In this way, Peter is actually echoing something that had happened in the last episode of “season I”.  You’ll remember that on their way to Caesarea Philippi the band stopped in a place called Bethsaida.  As they went through, Jesus encountered a blind man and we heard a remarkable story of a two-stage healing.  Jesus touched him, and he could see – but not perfectly.  He reported that human beings looked like trees to him.  It took another touch of the Savior’s hands to bring complete clarity to the man.

I’d like to suggest that last week’s reading in which Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then turns around and needs to be set straight almost right away is an echo of that healing.  Peter could see, but it was imperfect.  Like the sightless man in Bethsaida, he needed the “second touch”.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues to elaborate for Peter and the rest of the group what it will mean to live a life of faithful discipleship. As he first instructed Peter to “Get behind me!” in v. 33, he now uses the same exact word in telling those around him that discipleship is all about following. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Follow me” is the same word in Greek as “get behind me.” The life of discipleship is all about perspective – and the Lord is saying that if we define ourselves as his “followers” it can only make sense if we are willing to, well, followhim.

I’d like to suggest that Jesus chose this remote place in Northern Israel to bring forward what might be the hardest part of his teaching on discipleship. He’s starting, not with the crowds that might have adored him in his home town, nor with the masses who were happy to accept a free lunch, but with those hardy folk who had engaged in a long and circuitous route to this town somewhere past the middle of nowhere.

“If you want to get serious,” Jesus said, “You have to talk about discipleship.”  And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is the death of the old self which is the result of one’s encounter with Christ.  As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls to us, he bids us come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at Christ’s call.[1]

In the first teaching on discipleship after accepting the acclamation of Peter and designating himself “the Son of Man”, Jesus points out that discipleship by its very definition means giving up our ability or perceived need to set the direction, to be in charge, or to “call the shots”.  The beginning of a walk in faith, then, is to yield to God in all things.

We are called let go of our fear.  We are called to seek God’s best in the reality of each new day.  And we are called to a denial of self.

I want to point out here that when Jesus talks about denying oneself, he does not say “deny some things to yourself” (the English majors amongst us will realize that is making the self an indirect object).  If we were to read it that way, we might be tempted to think that there is some real chance that God might be impressed by my ability to “just say no” to sweet treats or fancy cars or front-row seats at the game.

No, he says, “deny yourself.”  The “self” is the direct object.  There are only two objects here – the self and the Christ.  In order to follow the one, I must deny, or leave, or turn away from the other.   Following Jesus means a willingness to relinquish life on my own terms and to stop pursuing my own ends.

I’d like to take advantage of this moment to point out that none of this ought to be a surprise to anyone who has sought to be a disciple of Jesus here in Crafton Heights.  On the day that you were born – some of you, anyway – I read from Psalm 139 and reminded you that you were not an accident of nature nor are you the result of some careful human design.  In that scripture we heard – again – that you were made.  You were made fearfully and wonderfully in the Divine image.  You were given an identity by your Creator.

A central task of the Christian life is discovering what it means to be faithful to God in the context of the image that has been given; I am called to discern, understand, and seek out what it means to be the me who is at this place and this time, and that can be hard work.  But I never, ever have to inventan identity.  I live a life of faith in which I seek to discover how to be the self that God made me to be.

And now, you might be thinking, “All right, Dave, this is interesting – or at least, it’s not deathly boring… But what does it look like in real life? Give us an example.”

I’m glad you asked!  Let me tell you a little bit about a hero named Epaphroditus.  Do you know that I have at least two books on my shelves which claim to be some version of Who’s Who in the Bible– and yet neither one of them mentions this young man who was commended by Paul in Philippians 2.  Listen:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (Philippians 2:25-30)

I wonder – is there anyone here who has heard of this man before?  I’m here to tell you he is an amazing example of the self-denying, Christ-serving disciple of which Jesus spoke in Mark 8.  Paul has been imprisoned for some time, and the church in Philippi has become concerned for his welfare.  It’s not practical or possible for the entire congregation to go and check on the old Apostle, so Epaphroditus volunteers to go.  He finds Paul in a tough spot, and immediately dives in to try to make life better for Paul.  He does, but in the process he loses his own health and in fact nearly dies.  Through prayer and the care of others, the young man’s health is restored and now Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi, full of news and encouragement.  And please note that when Paul sends him back he does so with a lot of powerful words: Epaphroditus is an apostle, a fellow worker, a soldier for the Lord.  He proves this, says Paul, because he was willing to serve Jesus even at risk to himself. In fact, Paul chooses to use a word here that is used only this once in the entire Bible: he says that Epaphroditus “risked his life” or “exposed his life” for the sake of the gospel: the word is paraballo.  Can you see how in this little story from his own files, Paul gives us a great description of one who lived into the narrative of Mark 8? That Epaphroditus was more concerned about following Jesus in the service of others than he was about saving his own neck?

That might be interesting enough, but then in the fifth century we find a couple of very curious references to an order of disciples who were called the Parabolani. From what we can tell, this group began as a community of Christ-followers who saw their special mission as being to care for the sick – even at risk to themselves.  The Parabolaniwere so eager to reach out to those on the margins that they walked freely amongst those with deadly and communicative diseases offering the same hope and love and care as Epaphroditus gave to Paul.  Isn’t that awesome?

Yes.  Almost. But something happened.

The longer this small society pursued this mission, the more difficult it became. As they became more well-known, they were revered and honored.  They were admired.  Soon, someone would see one or two of them walking down the street wearing the little emblem of the Parabolaniand a crowd would gather.  “Hey, guys – seriously – thanks for all you do.  We don’t know what we’d do without you.  The world is better because you’re here…”

Along the way, in addition to being respected and admired, some fear crept in.  It may have been well-placed; I mean, if I think you’ve been out treating people with tuberculosis or hepatitis I am not sure that I want you making my tuna salad sandwich…  So eventually the bands of Parabolani created a bit of a stir wherever they showed up.

Maybe you can guess where this is leading.  It didn’t take all that much time for the group that had been established on the basis of selfless and anonymous service to those who were in horrible places to become transformed into a “goon squad” of enforcers sent out by the religious establishment.  The last mention of the Parabolani indicates that the local Bishop had them show up at a council meeting in order to ensure that everything went the way that the Bishop wanted…

Isn’t that the way of things?  We come to Christ, and we seek healing and life and we find hope and we are filled with joy that we didn’t think we could know.  We dive into the life of discipleship – sometimes by means of denying ourselves.  We yield privileges.  We give up what we want for the good of the group and the joy of our neighbor.

And sometimes, when we do this, people notice.  And they mention it.  And the first few times, I protest: “Ah, don’t mention it,” I say.  “It’s nothing.”

But inside, it feels pretty good to be noticed.  In fact, I like it.  I like it so much that I keep on doing those things that show me as kind and compassionate and caring… and I do them in places where you can see me, and where you can affirm me for it.  That kind of affirmation can be like a drug to me, and I crave it.  I start to abuse it.  And before you know it, I’ve left Christ behind me.

You’ve seen it.  The person who started an incredible charity for the homeless is revealed to be living in a mansion that costs millions of dollars.  The youth worker who started out wanting nothing more than to help kids discover the love of Jesus winds up “falling in love” with some fourteen year-old and using that child to fill some perceived need in his life… The so-called “suffering servant” at the church who doesn’t mind doing all of the lowly jobs as long as he gets noticed doing them, credited for taking care of them, and thanked for being so humble and selfless.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  Because it seems to me like a lot of that is my story over and over again.  This is, for me, the hardest part of discipleship – wanting to want the right things for the right reasons.  Wanting to stay in line behind Jesus, rather than getting out where you can see how good, how noble, how “Christ-like” I am.  For crying out loud, Dave, let them see Jesus – not you!

The path of discipleship may begin with something specific.  Maybe you remember one day when you “asked Jesus to come into your heart”.  Maybe you woke up in a fog, not remembering where you’d been the night before, and you said, “That’s enough.  Starting now, things are going to be different.”

In that way, following Jesus is a lot like any other relationship: it began with a simple act, a specific conversation, a seemingly “chance” meeting. All of our relationships are like that – friendships and marriages and parenting – they all begin with something that is observable.  And yet each of them requires the daily, if not hourly, embrace of a set of behaviors and ideals and commitments.  The life of discipleship requires that we constantly and consistently turn our eyes to the man who went to the cross.

Sitting amidst the symbols of power and wealth in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, plainly, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

That does not mean that we quietly walk towards oblivion because we are not important.  Rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “…the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”[2]

In my discipleship, I am invited and called to live for Jesus in hope and in victory every day, not because of how good, noble, or holy I am or think that I am; but because he knows me, he formed me, he shaped me, and he invited me to follow him into goodness, nobility, and holiness. As a disciple, I’ve just got to remember my place.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1]The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan paperback 1963, p. 99 (edited for gender inclusivity).

[2]Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony(Abingdon, 1989), p. 47.

2018 Youth Mission #5

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective. This is the final update from this year’s trip.

For as long as I can remember, if someone asks me “What is the purpose of Youth Group?”, one of my top three answers has been “making memories”.  When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that spiritual growth is not essential or that passing on the faith is unimportant.  To the contrary, I am deeply convinced that the Christian Faith is, in the words of the late Dale Milligan, “better ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.”  We help form the spiritual lives of the children we love by enculturation – by helping them not only to know the story, but to see how they can fit into the story.  And so each mission trip provides us with an amazing chance to create both individual and shared memories of sacred space, time, and stories.

One of the ways that we did this on Friday was to spend a few hours in the morning tending to some last-minute details on our work site and then taking advantage of our proximity to Niagara Falls by visiting one of the great wonders of the world together.  We drove through the heart of Buffalo (remembering several mission trips to that fair city in previous years) and then sailed on the “Maid of the Mist”, hiked up the steps, pondered our own insignificance as well as the amazing power and majesty of God (no surprise that Marla opted to read Psalm 29 in our devotion), and laughed an awful lot.  In the process, I trust, we added to our storehouse of shared experiences and celebrated the connections that place us in each other’s memories.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not convinced that too many of the young people at whose sleeping forms I’m now staring while I pen these lines will process this in this way – but I am sure that they will at some point.

The reason I’m sure of that is because of what happened after we got back from the Falls.  We enjoyed some wonderful tacos, and then sat together for our final debriefing time.  It is a tradition for us to invite the seniors to address the group at the end of each mission trip.  There are often a lot of tears, and Friday night was no exception.  It was wonderful and humbling to hear Tommy, McKenna, and Lindsay  talk about the ways in which connection with this group has been formative and life-giving over the years.  Each of them chose to speak of Youth Group as a place of safety and joy in a world that is often thin in both of those places; each pointed to stories of previous trips or experiences as evidence of God’s willingness to meet them in this context.  I was filled with pride and joy as I watched them share with their younger sisters and brothers – and as the younger ones soaked in the affirmation, challenge, and gratitude that was shared.

Each morning I wake up at the old-man-ish hour of six and write this.  This year, since we’re all in one room for our sleeping, eating, and recreation, I am watching them sleep each day.  It’s not creepy.  I look at the young person who was paralyzed with fright earlier this week, but worked through it; at a girl who found the bravery and the courage to step outside her comfort zone in service or speaking; at someone who is here for the first time but has, I hope, developed some bonds that will last during a difficult future; at several young people who go to great lengths to be a part of the youth group experience each week; at the one who has been told every day that she/he is insignificant and doesn’t matter; at the one who is always measured by what she/he achieves or does, but finds in Youth Group a chance just to be and be loved anyway…  I am filled with gratitude for my brother Tim Salinetro, who has come on more trips like this with me than I can even count, and I marvel at the ways that he opens path of joy for young people… I celebrate the gifts of Marla Barrett, who thinks, “why wouldn’t I spend a week with these kids two months before I get married” and does so with great humor and deep passion… I’m glad for Josie Miller and her willingness to dive into this craziness as she offers herself with joy and encouragement each day.

I say, not as often as I should, that it’s a good life, and we ought to be grateful.  Today, I am deeply grateful, and also hopeful.  Thanks for your prayers and support on behalf of these young people!

Maddy and Lindsay taping the drywall while sharing a smile…

Marla sealing the joints

Evan helping to supervise the clean-up at the church

Our team on the finished wheelchair ramp

One view from “The Maid of the Mist”

… and another…

We were told that “niagara” is derived from a native word meaning “the water thunders”. I believe it!

This is an inadequate photo of a sacred circle – a place of trust, confidence, joy, hope, gratitude – and now, for some – memory.

Can You See Anything?

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 July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness.  Our gospel lesson was from  Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.

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

In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident.  The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?”  He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom.  I love my dad.  I will get better.”  The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin.  His parents couldn’t understand him.  And he could no longer speak English.  In an instant, he was transformed.  After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.[1]

The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception.  She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed.  Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared.  Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.[2]

A man came to me following a worship service I’d led.  He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious.  But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation.  “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me.  I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true.  I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”

Have you heard stories like this?  Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?

And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December.  We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’.  He even brought back a little girl from the dead.  So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”

Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Eduourd Leon Edy-Legrand, 1950

Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different.  The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark.  All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed.  Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.

But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique.  Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one.  Did that strike you as strange?  Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?

There are a few interesting theories out there.  One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him.  However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right.  He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.

Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again.  Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.

So what is going on here?  Why a two-stage healing?

Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing?  There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.

I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich.  Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?”  He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.

That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.

The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.

I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once.  There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.

That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament.  The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith.  In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…”  Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.

I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.”  Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete.  If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.

Did you pray the prayer?  Did you “accept Jesus”?  Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps.  But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.

Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus.  Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion.  There are colors.  In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.

It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time.  He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up?  I mean, what if it gets worse?  Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”

But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand.  Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat.  Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.

This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured.  There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere.  Confrontation is the order of the day.  Fear is endemic – it is all around us.  And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels.  To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night.  We are compelled to defend our ideas.  To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…

I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone.  In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”.  A statue of a deer.

While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury.  May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.

I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is.  And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.

Jesu Healing the Blind Man, Ethiopian Icon

This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus.  If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged.  And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.

As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him.  May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.

I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar.  If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud!  Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice?  What’s wrong with me?”

Of course not.  I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match.  But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be.  Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.medicaldaily.com/australian-man-comes-out-coma-able-speak-mandarin-fluently-not-english-302046

[2]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150306-the-mystery-of-vanishing-cancer


On Staying in the Boat

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 24, we considered the final teaching that Jesus offered to his disciples in the region of the Galilee.  What did this team need to know before the next, most difficult part, of their journey began.  Our gospel lesson was from Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from I John 2:12-14.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/sermon06-24-18.mp3 into your browser…

So let me ask you to think about this – and it’s a rhetorical question.  No need to answer out loud.  But why did you come here this morning?  What motivated you to get yourself out of the house and into the pew today?

I ask that because it seems to me that is a crucial question in the gospel reading at hand.  This is, at its core, the story of two different motivations for hanging around with Jesus.

When we left Jesus and his followers last week, they were “on the other side” – that is to say, in the region of the Decapolis, the land of the Gentile, the outsider, the “other”. The last thing we saw on Sunday was Jesus and his friends getting into the boat following the feeding of the 4,000. They were heading toward the region of Dalmanutha – a town on “our” side of the lake in the area of Galilee.

No sooner do they make landfall than they are greeted by a welcoming committee of Pharisees.  These religious leaders are eager to see Jesus – and they are primed for a fight.  Mark says that they came to “question” Jesus.  The Greek is a little more emphatic.  They were looking to argue, or even to “tempt” Jesus.  They wanted to know – was Jesus really who he appeared to be?  There were those who were claiming that he was Divine. Was he?  They’d know, if only he’d give them the right sign.  They’d know, if only he’d fit into their God-shaped box.

And I love what happens next.  Jesus “sighed deeply”.  It’s a word that implies some level of frustration and even anger. They have come to argue, but he won’t fall into the trap.  He sighs, he rolls his eyes, and then he says, “All right, boys.  Here we go.  Back into the boat.”

At this, the disciples (who, presumably, are doing most of the rowing here)have got to be thinking, “Are you kidding me?  I get it – you know a lot about healing, and feeding, and miracles, but you are a lousy sailor, Jesus. For crying out loud, make up your mind…” But they follow his directive and get back into the boat.

I think I know how they felt.  Many years ago I took a class on ministry and stress, and a part of that class involved a wilderness trek. We had a group of about 18 folks, and every day, a different pair was in charge of leading the group.  That meant reading the map, using the compass, and getting us to our next campsite. I’ll never forget the day that a couple of inexperienced folks had the map and we crossed the same stream – carrying 60 pound packs – six times. When they called us together to indicate yet another crossing, I lost my cool.  “Listen,” I said.  “I have one pair of dry socks left to last me the entire week.  I’ll cross that stream because you’re the leader, but if you tell me we have to cross it again today, I’m not going to be happy!”  It was not my proudest moment, I can tell you that…

But the disciples were not hanging around Jesus because he was such a great sailor; and they were not hanging around him because he always made sense.  If you’d have asked them that day, I suspect, they might not have been able to give you a clear answer as to exactly whythey were still following Jesus… but they were. There was something in him that was growing in them.  So this time, they got back into the boat and started rowing.

But there’s a problem. In all of the coming and going, unpacking and packing, somebody forget their lunches.  All that bread that was left from the other day… forgotten. Given the events of recent days, however, nobody was going to bring that up to Jesus.

If you’ve been here in the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard me say that the theme music in the Gospel is beginning to change.  There are indicators that something is in the wind, and change is afoot.  That becomes a little more pronounced – although the disciples still didn’t realize it fully – as today we read about the final teaching that Jesus gave to his followers in the region of Galilee.  Whether the others know it or not, Jesus is about to give them the last lesson in this area that has been home to most of them for their entire lives.

Of course, he chooses to use a metaphor about baking.  “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod!”

The disciples have to be thinking, “Oh, geez, who told him about the bread?  Now we’re going to hear it for sure!”

But instead, Jesus hurls a series of questions at them – at least eight or nine, depending on which translation you’re using.  And he ends with the frustrated cry of every teacher at some point or another: “For crying out loud, don’t you get it?”

Get what?  The teaching about the yeast.  What was Jesus talking about when in this last ever teaching session in Galilee, he talked to them about yeast?

I suspect that you know what yeast is – a microscopic organism that converts sugar into alcohol or carbon dioxide.  I know that some of you are quite familiar with, and grateful for, the yeasts in your lives…  You know that a tiny amount of yeast, left undisturbed, will radically change a large amount of whatever that yeast is in.  Put a quarter of a teaspoon of yeast in fifty pounds of flour and leave it in there long enough, and soon the entire quantity of flour has been transformed.

Jesus said “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod…”  In other words, be careful about the ways that their thinking affects your thinking.

The Pharisees were the religious group that had all the power in the daily lives of the people. There was a lot of what they did and held to that was good and noble… but… but… they had come to stand for an expression of the faith that was all but hollow and therefore meaningless. They carried around the Law and pointed to it in order to demonstrate the failings of those around them, but they never applied that same law to themselves.  The Pharisees used religion as a weapon against other people rather than a tool to shape their own lives.

And we’ve talked about Herod in recent weeks as we considered his murder of John the Baptist. He took what was meant to be a good thing – the rule of law – and turned it into an instrument of terror.  He completely separated morality (what is right) from what was legal.

The Pharisees enforcedthe religious laws on others, but disregarded them themselves; Herod enforced the laws of Rome not to bring order and safety, but to exalt his own personal power.  In both of these cases, Jesus said, there is a leaven, there is some yeastiness at work. Just as yeast works through a pile of dough and gives shape to the loaf that results, so too these false understandings of how to live work through the lives of those who practice them and wind up mis-shaping the lives of those who live that way.  Both Herod and the Pharisees had double standards – they said one thing, but they lived something else.

More than that, both the Pharisees and Herod used religion as a cover for doing what they really wanted to do anyway.  They made some decisions about how they were going to live, and then they selectively applied some religious-sounding language to make it seem as though they were just following through with God’s ideas.

Here’s the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod: you might start out thinking that you have been made in the image of God, but before too long you start worshiping a god who is just like you; a god who wants to give you all the things you want; a god who hates all the people you hate.  Whenever we come to worship in order to baptize our politics and our prejudices, then we are using the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.

And Jesus says, in what is his final teaching in the region of Galilee, “No! Stop! Beware! Don’t be that way!”

Well, what are we to do?

Jesus gave us questions.  Eight or nine of them in this passage alone.

Questions? That is fantastic! I love questions!  In fact, I have a lot of questions!  Does following Jesus mean I get to ask questions, too? Here are some that all of us have had to live with in the past week:

  • what are we going to do with those babies that are locked up?
  • Is it possible to have security at the border? What does that even look like?
  • Why are so many young men of color killed by members of the law enforcement community?
  • What do we do about the fact that less than a mile from here is a group of people who have called themselves the “Greenway Boy Killas” – 29 of whom were indicted for drug trafficking, home invasion, violence…?
  • What are we to do about the flooding that has come so close to home? Is this climate change, or just a fluke? What will happen in the days and years to come?

It’s not just those, of course.  There are some that are a little more specific to individual circumstances…

  • what about those lab results? Will I ever hear good news?
  • What do I do about my child’s addiction?
  • How can I tell my parents about the real reason I failed that class?
  • Will I be able to forgive that man for what he did to me?

Man! Those are huge questions.  What does discipleship look like here?  How do I follow Jesus in questions like that?

For starters, I think we’ve got to remember the caution to avoid the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.  For me, that means that I can’t just parrot a simple answer.  It’s not good enough to say, “Well, just follow the rules.  As long as you obey the law, you’ll be ok.” That’s a bunch of baloney – because there are unjust laws and corrupt officers of the law. Not every law is good and right.  Slavery was legal.  Everything Hitler did was legal.  Jim Crow was legal.  Calling something “legal” doesn’t make it right.

Equally, though, I’m not free to simply say, “Ah, those people who disagree with me are all morons.  Get rid of them all!”  Dismissing people in that manner is not helpful because it diminishes my ability to see anything of the Divine image in that person.

So what do we do?

The first disciples, I think, had it right.  They stayed in the boat, even when they weren’t sure where Jesus was telling them to go.  Stay in the boat, and ask your questions.  And look at Jesus while you ask them.  At whom does Jesus look? Who does Jesus embrace?  To whom does Jesus extend himself?  Where does Jesus line up?

 I chose the reading from I John to be included with this passage because, frankly, that message has always troubled me a bit.  John says, quite plainly, “Look: you’ve got this.  You know who you are. You know where you’re headed.  You know who’s in charge. You know how to act.  Can’t you be brave enough to act that way?  Can’t you simply follow the path you know to be true?”  The leaven of Jesus – the yeast of Christ – is more effective and truer than that of the Pharisees or of Herod.

My point is that neither the Pharisees nor the Disciples had a clue what Jesus was up to here…but look at how differently they responded.  The Pharisees couldn’t see, and they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, that’s it. This man needs to die.”  And they looked to escalate the conflict.

The disciples couldn’t see, and so they kept talking about it amongst themselves…they stuck with him…they asked him questions…they made more mistakes…they ended up following him, as we will see in the weeks to come, into Jerusalem….and up the hill to Calvary, where they watched him die…they followed him to the graveyard, and they were there when he rose from the dead…and they were still trying to figure it out when he ascended into heaven…and somewhere, somehow, some way in the midst of that sticking with Jesus, it clicked for them.  They had ears, and they heard.  They had eyes, and they saw.

Beloved, I am here to tell you that God is at work in your world.  The God who sent his son to be born as a child on earth, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead – the power that made the blind see and the deaf hear, the hands that broke bread for Jew and for Gentile alike – that God is calling to you.

And I fully acknowledge that you may not totally understand all this right now.  There are some confusing things about your life and how God fits into it right now.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure that I am the one who can necessarily explain how God is moving in your world.  I don’t know, always, where God is moving in the world.

But as your pastor, all I can do is to ask you this – I can ask you to stick with him.  Don’t give into disappointment or depression, frustration or anger because God isn’t fitting into your box right now.  Instead, ask God to show you a new way of seeing him.  Ask God to show you his goodness.  Ask God to show you how he intends to use you to bring about his purposes in the world.

“Do you not yet understand?” That’s ok. Keep asking.  Keep walking. Keep looking.  And when you see which direction to go – by God’s grace, and for God’s sake – get moving. May God bless you on that journey to be like him. Amen

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.

Tradition!

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 May 27, we considered an encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with some of the leading religious scholars of their day.  On the surface, it was a discussion about some ceremonial cleaning laws – but my sense is that the real conflict is about something deeper. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:1-23

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

I remember the first time I ever paid a dry-cleaning bill.  I was student at Hanby Jr. High School and the time, and my introduction to the world of professional cleaning services came as a result of an incident that occurred at lunch the previous week. I had liberally doused a school-issued “tater tot” with ketchup and thrown it across the cafeteria, where it made an astonishingly vivid imprint on the brand-new purple dress being worn by my classmate Tricia.

Food fights. We’ve all seen them.  Some of us have started them.  When we got down to the Principal’s office following a cafeteria altercation, all of us probably had the same conversation:
“Why did you do that, young man?  What possessed you to throw processed potato product at the girls’ table?”
[Shrug].  “I dunno.”

Of course, most of the time, we doknow what starts food fights. They are almost always a diversion – an attempt to draw someone’s attention from one thing to another thing.
– I can’t say that I have a crush on that person, so I’ll launch an attack of candy corn and veggie sticks.
– I’m not ready for the test that’s coming up next period, so I’ll try to get sent to the office instead.
– Something scary is about to occur, so I’ll create an alternative scenario that will attract more adults into the room and prevent that other thing from happening…

Mark takes only 16 chapters to tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry, and yet he devotes at least half a chapter to describing a first-century food fight.  Out of all the stories he could have told about Jesus, why does he tell this one?

Sadducees and Pharisees, James Tissot, c. 1890

It would appear as though the story we’ve heard this morning is here to help readers in the first century – as well as the rest of us – to consider the ways that Jesus understood the core responsibilities of those who would walk with God.

We’re told of a confrontation between the disciples of Jesus and a group of Pharisees and Scribes. In this corner, we have the men and women to whom Jesus has dedicated the best and last years of his earthly life as he sought to equip and train them to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom and the Gospel message.  In the other corner, there are the big guns – the theological heavyweights of the day, including at least a few who have been sent up to Galilee by the religious headquarters in Jerusalem.

The apparent conflict is over a small detail of tradition: why don’t Jesus’ followers wash their hands the way that we’ve always been taught to wash our hands?

I should point out here that nobody, including the boys from Jerusalem, is implying that the disciples are eating with dirty hands.  No, the bone of contention is that the followers of Jesus had not participated in the ceremonial cleansing that had become the practice of the day. It’s not a concern about hygiene – rather, it’s a complaint about orthodoxy, authority, and tradition.

The real question is, “Jesus, why don’t you teach your followers to act like us?  Why don’t you tell them to live the way that we live?” The Pharisees and the Scribes are relying on their position of privilege, looking at the followers of Jesus as though they are some sort of backwater hicks – deplorables, if you will.  They are dismissive of the disciples and of Jesus, and they couch their derision and criticism in an appeal to tradition and to the Bible.

Pharisees, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

Jesus, as you’ve heard, responds by pointing out that one can do all sorts of horrible things (like neglecting one’s parents, for instance) while claiming to be doing other, wonderful things (like paying for a new roof for the temple while getting a nice fat tax write-off at the same time, for instance).

In the conversation that ensues, Jesus apparently dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the dietary regulations) while pointing to the reality that a key aspect and indeed responsibility of living in the Kingdom is seeking to grow more deeply in our concern for and attentiveness to the things that are of ultimate importance.

The early Christian community heard the story of this food fight and assumed that it meant that none of the Old Testament laws concerning keeping a kosher kitchen had any relevance in the new understanding of faith.  We know that this is what they thought because the author of Mark, speaking for the community, says so right there in verse 19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And for centuries, those who would follow Jesus have found this to be a very serviceable, helpful interpretation.  It flows nicely from the text; it makes sense; and I get to eat all the bacon I want. Talk about your win-win situations!

But is that allthat this text means?  I would propose that such a reading is incomplete, and in fact suggest that in the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus engages the Pharisees, the Scribes, the disciples, the first Christians, and us in a discussion on the role and authority of scripture in our lives.

Hands holding Bible on a wooden desk background.

Think about it: is the purpose of the Bible to control what you do? That is, is the primary concern that lies behind the giving of God’s word that of making sure that you don’t eat shrimp, always tell the truth, and don’t forget to give your money to God?

Or is the Bible more concerned with seeking to engage us as to what kind of people we should be?  That is, helping us to realize the call to be generous, respectful, and loving?

For a number of weeks, a small group of us have been meeting in a Faithbuilders group to consider some thinking by a church leader named Brian McLaren, who in his book A New Kind of Christianitypoints out that those who saw themselves as Jesus’ opponents on that day were treating the Bible and the traditions of God’s people as a constitution of sorts.  That is, a collection of sayings and laws that are given to us to help us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is permissible and what is not.  In this view – which is at least as prevalent today as it was 2000 years ago, the Bible is an unchanging document designed to establish who’s in and who’s out.  Oh, and spoiler alert: we’re on top.  We’re God’s favorites.

Jesus brings to the discussion the notion that the purpose of Scripture is rather to point toward the heart of God even while revealing the strengths and weaknesses of those whom God has used to help craft, record, and preserve the scriptures. He goes on to accuse the religious leaders of his (and, I’d submit, subsequent) day of hiding behind a particular Bible verse or two in order to defend their own positions, preserve their own power, or get their own way.  Isn’t it convenient when I am free to interpret the Bible in such a way as to indicate that God is actually commanding me to do something that I was already planning to do anyway?

What if the purpose of the Bible is not to provide us with a seamless set of codes of conduct for every situation, or a litmus test for religious or theological purity, or recipes for how to be happy and wealthy because we always do exactly what God tells us to do?

Rather, what if scripture is a record of a people who engage (or are engaged by) the presence of the Divine in such a way as to stimulate their own faith, to enhance their abilities to walk with Jesus more faithfully, and to respond to the world around them as if God cared for, created, and was in fact active in that world?

To put it a different way, what if the Bible is not so much a rulebook listing for you and me every eventuality that we are to face in life and offering us instructions as to exactly what to do or think in that situation, but is instead more like a diary or a blog written by people who had caught glimpses of God at work in their lives or in the world and offering us clues as to how we might be better equipped to be God’s people in the world right now?

I’d like you to try something.  I’m going to be quiet for 15 seconds.  In that time, I’d like for you to think of an instance where your mind or awareness has substantively changed on a particular issue in the last 10 or 15 years.  I’m not looking for reflections like, “You know, I always thought that beets were disgusting, but then I tried that recipe I saw on The Chewand WOW!  Delicious!”

I’m talking about something real and important in some way.  Maybe your thinking about homosexuality and the faith, or issues about race, or thoughts about the environment or our economy.

In the next 15 seconds, ask yourselves, “Where has my mind changed?”

When you think of something, then ask, “What role, if any, has scripture played in that shift?

Here’s what I think: if we see the Bible or the interpretation of that Bible that we’ve received as being more like a rule book or a constitution, then any change from that is a mistake.  If the Bible is an unchanging code of conduct that tells us what is up and what is down, what is black and what is white, and what is right and what is wrong… then if our understanding of those rules has changed, we are questioning the very basics of the faith.  In a system where the Word is the Word, where God said it and I believe it and that settles it – then if my thinking on, say, divorce and remarriage has changed, well, I must be getting soft on scripture and its authority in my life.  I know this because I can think of half a dozen places where my own thinking has changed, and I could name scores of people who would be happy to tell you that I am devaluing the unchanging and inerrant word of God and departing from the truth in some way.

But if we see the Bible as a living, breathing document with which I am called to interact so that I might grow in my ability to really walk with Jesus, then perhaps at least some changes could be understood to be fruit – and therefore, not something to be feared, but rather something to be explored or cultivated.

The call for this day is for us to look for ways in which we can engage with, or be engaged by scripture, each other, and the world as a means to grow deeper in our appreciation for and investment in the things that matter to God.  I think that means that we will have to reject the temptation to treat specific Bible verses or ancient teachings of the community as creative or convenient means by which we can sidestep or avoid the intentions of God.

It’s easy to get sidetracked and not even know it.  For instance, I experience an inner pang of revulsion and distaste when I hear someone referring to immigrants or refugees as animals, or using terms that make those people less than human.  Such conversation does not resonate with any of my experience, my understanding of scripture, or even my political leanings.

However, when that language is used, and someone else refers to the speaker by saying, “Oh, for crying out loud! Thatguy? What a pig!”… am I equally offended?  That is to say, am I as troubled by the dehumanization of the one with whom I disagree as I am by the dehumanization of the one for whom I have some affinity? If not, then I think I have some growing to do.

The fellas from the head office came up to Galilee that day and told Jesus that they were going to keep an eye on him – that they wanted to see how he and his disciples were “walking” and “living.”  He gave them an earful – but so far as I can tell, he didn’t do anything to discourage them from sticking around.  My hope and my prayer is that you and I might be smart enough to stick close to Jesus, to learn to walk as he walked so that we might live as he lived.  I know that means that I’ve got some growing to do, and I suspect that the same is true for you as well.  Thanks be to God for the gift of this community that enables us to engage in this practice together.  Amen.