The Power of One

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 13, 2018, we considered the reunion that Jesus had with his disciples after their “mission trips”, the feeding of the 5,000, and the power of one individual to make a difference.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Colossians 4:2-6.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media browser below, or past the following URL into your browser: https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/scene1_2018-05-13_11-28-11_t001_in1.mp3
Those who listen to the sermon will hear a special introduction about standing on tiptoe whilst reading scripture.

As we begin the next installment of our walk through the Gospel of Mark this morning, let me tell you about two men of whom you’ve probably never heard.  Each is an amazing testament to the power of the individual to accomplish that which we might think to be impossible.

Dean Karnazes is a 55 year old man from California who likes to run.  A lot.  I know that many of you in the congregation this morning took part in some part of last week’s Pittsburgh Marathon, and so you might be impressed if I told you that in 2006, Mr. Karnazes ran 50 complete marathons.  You might be more impressed if I told you that he ran those 50 marathons on 50 consecutive days, and each was in a different state.  And yet what cements this man in my Hall of Fame for individual achievements is the fact that on Wednesday morning, October 12, 2005, he dropped his kids off at school in San Francisco and started running.  He ran and ran and ran – for 80 hours and 44 minutes, without sleeping, weaving his way through Northern California, until he arrived at Stanford University in Palo Alto, having covered 350 miles.

On the other side of the world, a gentleman named Dashrath Manjhi tells us a different story of individual achievement.  In 1959, this landless peasant farmer’s wife, Falguni Devi, died because she was unable to obtain medical care. People in her village had to follow a path that wound for 70 kilometers (43 ½ miles) to get to the clinic.  In 1960, Mr. Manji took a hammer and a chisel and started to attack the rock hillside that separated the village from the clinic.  He worked by himself until 1982 to carve a path through the Gehlour hills.  When he was finished, he’d reduced the distance from 70 kilometers to one – just over half a mile.

I’m telling you these stories because I want you to think about the limits of possibility for one person.  What can one man, one woman, do?  And what difference does it make?

At this point, I’m going to interrupt this sermon for a geography lesson, because understanding the whereof today’s Gospel is crucial to our ability to process the whatand the how.

If you’ve ever traveled, you’ve probably had a conversation with someone that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re from Pennsylvania? My cousin lives in Pennsylvania. His name is James… Maybe you know him?”

When this happens, we roll our eyes and quietly judge that person for being a complete moron, and then three days later we meet someone from Malawi and say, “Oh, Malawi? Yeah, I’ve got friends there, and my pastor goes there all the time.  Do you know a guy named Fletcher?”

Here’s a quick review of the geography of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus began his ministry in that part of Palestine known as the Galilee. This was a strongly Jewish-influenced area that was north of the capital, Jerusalem, and west of the Jordan river.  Nearly all of the significant action in the first three years of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilean communities like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Cana.

Even though it was removed from the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, Galilee was a stronghold of the faith.  It was surrounded by non-Jewish areas like Samaria, Phoenicia, and the region of the Decapolis.  These names don’t sound much different to you and to me than the towns where Jesus worked, but I’m here to tell you that if I was a good little Jewish boy driving through the Decapolis at that time, my mother would tell me to lock the doors and avoid eye contact.  Good and faithful Galileans did everything they could to stay in Galilee, and when they had to go to Jerusalem to worship, they stayed close to the Jordan River and went that way.

Most of Jesus’ ministry, in terms of time and area, took place in and around the Galilee. The deepest parts of Jesus’ ministry, including his crucifixion and resurrection, happened in Jerusalem.  And yet some of the most amazing testimony to the power of Jesus’ comes to us from the detours he made to “the other side” – those regions outside of either Galilee or Jerusalem.

Today’s reading picks up a narrative that was left off earlier in Chapter six.  Jesus is hard at work in his ministry with the disciples in the Galilee.  You might remember that he’d just finished a visit to his own hometown in Nazareth when he sent the twelve disciples out to visit the other communities in that region. There’s an interlude during which Jesus reflects on the suffering and death of John the Baptist, and then the twelve return to him, eager to report on what they’d seen and done.

The Exhortation to the Apostles, James Tissot (c. 1890)

He sees their enthusiasm, and suggests that they all go on a retreat.  Various translations tell us that they’re looking for a quiet, or a solitary, or a deserted place.  They get into the boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee into the Decapolis.

So far as we know from Mark, the team had been there at least once before.  You might remember that back in Chapter 5 they went and visited the graveyard and met the man who was beset by demons.  Jesus healed the man, but in the process wound up sending a couple of thousand pigs off the side of a cliff and the local authorities came out and asked him to take his religion back to his side of the sea.  The only man there who actually wanted to be with Jesus at that point was the man who had been healed, and Jesus didn’t allow him to join the mission; instead, he told the man to “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

So it might seem to the disciples that this was a fair presumption – if they were looking for a little “down” time with Jesus, if there is anyplace that they could go to be alone, well, it’s there.  The people in that part of the world hated Jesus last time he was here.

Except that’s not exactly how it works out, is it? We read in verse 32 that as they were arriving in this “deserted” and “solitary” place, they were recognized.  In fact, Mark tells us that “a large crowd” gathered there. The disciples, who were irritated and hungry to begin with, take this as long as they can, but finally interrupt Jesus and say, “Send these people away.”

Jesus responds, as you’ve heard, by saying, “We’ll do no such thing.  In fact, why don’t you go ahead and feed them.”

The Twelve are incredulous at this point. “Us? Here? How? It’s not likely – no, it’s not possible, Jesus.”

Christ Feeding the 5000, Eric Feather (http://ericfeather.com/index.html)

[3]And Jesus says, “Here, hold my wineskin…”, and the result, as you’ve heard, is the feeding of the 5,000 – the only miracle to be mentioned in all four of the Gospels.

I’m here to point out that this miraculous feeding of the nearly-uncountable throng was all made possible because one person did what Jesus had asked him to do.  It was not, apparently, what the person had wantedto do; we’ve already acknowledged that the man who seemingly told everyone he knew about what Jesus had done for him would have preferred to become the 13thdisciple.  Yet when Jesus told him to stay put and offer testimony to the work of the Holy One in his life, well, that’s what he did.

I don’t want the significance of this event to be lost on us.  I mean, we don’t even know this person’s name – but somehow, his presence in that region allowed for a transition from “Jesus! Will you please get out of there now, and take your disciples with you!” to “Oh, wow! Thank God! You’re here.  Jesus is here.  He’s really here!”

What is the vehicle for that transition?  What allowed that to happen?  Go back and scrutinize the events that took place between Mark 5:19 and Mark 6:30, and you’ll see that Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working was essentially unchanged.  He didn’t do anything after 5:19 that he hadn’t already been doing.

But the behavior of those who followed him hadchanged.  The one man who had been healed had gone “to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him…and all the people were amazed…”  The twelve whom Jesus had kept with him had walked through their fear in order to bear witness to the power of the Christ in their own homes and communities.

Do you see what’s happening here?  In this section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is talking about crossing boundaries and is calling his followers to do so; once they are on “the other side”, he simply urges them to “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”

The one man in the region who had been healed had quite a story to tell.

So do you.

In what ways has the life, death, resurrection, love, and presence of Jesus of Nazareth touched your life?

I know that some of you have had some really splashy healings from addiction, or depression, or abuse, or other form of brokenness.

And I know that others in this room have experienced significant shifts of the heart as the power and presence of the Lord has grown in your own lives.

In any case, the core narrative of the follower of Jesus who has experienced any growth in her or his own life is pretty much the same: at the end of the day, we can look in the mirror and say, “You know, I used to be that way…but now it’s more like this…”

To put it another way, each of us has a narrative that could be expressed by filling in these blanks: “I once was _____, but now I’m ______.”

If you were asked what words you’d use in that phrase, which would you choose?  In what ways has God positioned you to speak of your experience in the places where you’ve been?

And you say, “Yeah, about that, Pastor Dave.  Look, I’m not really much of a speaker.  And I’m not one of those zealots, fundies, or born-agains.  I hate to speak in public…  I just don’t think I can tell a story like that.”

Listen: bearing witness to the ways that you have grown and changed is not a super-human feat of individual strength and perseverance akin to running 350 miles without a nap or building a road through the mountain with a hammer.  You don’t need special training.  More importantly, you are never, ever alone.

The charge for today is for you to consider how you have experienced the power of the risen Christ. You, in the midst of your community, surrounded by others who have stories that are similar to, yet not the same as, yours – have had the opportunity to grow in faith.  This week, will you take an hour or so to contemplate the ways that your experience of this life is richer, deeper, better, or has more integrity because of the presence of Jesus in that life?

And then, will you find a way to bear witness to that enriching, deepening, improving, or empowering in your daily life?  Can you do as Jesus asked that man in the Decapolis two thousand years ago: can you “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”? Share your reflections with someone who is close to you.  Be present in the life and worship of this and other communities.  Look for ways in which you can take part in new ministries in ways that shape and stretch you.

My sense is that when we are able to do this, we will find that we, no less than the bread that Jesus broke on that hillside, will be far more nourishing and effective than any one of us might have predicted.

What is your story? And who have you told?

The Hardest Mission Trip of All

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 April 29, we looked at an episode the theologians call “The Rejection at Nazareth” – and thought about the ways that we are not amateurs when it comes to rejecting.  Our texts included Mark 6:1-13 and Romans 15:1-7.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon04-29-2018.mp3 into your browser

On December 27, 1992, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills played the Houston Oilers in the final game of the regular season.  The Oilers not only crushed the Bills by a score of 27-3, they also knocked out the Bills starting quarterback, Jim Kelly. When the teams met in the first round of the playoffs the following week, the Bills were relying on second-string quarterback Frank Reich.  It did not start well, and by just after halftime, the Bills were lifeless, having fallen behind 35-3.  The temperature in Rich Stadium that day was just about freezing, and apparently many fans agreed with the radio broadcaster who said, “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”  The arena started to empty.  One reporter said, the fans are “pouring out of the gates, getting in their cars, driving home”.

But then, improbably, the home team scored a touchdown.  And another. And another. And another.  All in the 3rdquarter.  The fans who had walked away in disgust were now clamoring for re-entry, and even climbing the fences until the Bills went against league policy and allowed people to re-enter the stadium.  The ones who were there can say that they witnessed what is simply known as “the comeback” – the Bills winning the game 41-38 in overtime. Later, Bills coach Marv Levy said, “70,000 people were at that game. I’ve already met 400,000 of them”.

I lived in Western New York at that time, and was watching the game on TV.  For the next few weeks, all anyone could talk about was the fact that so many people had left the game early.  How many times have you heard someone say, “Can you believe that they did that?  If I’d have been there, things would have been different. There’s no way I’d have acted like that!”  Whether we’re disgusted with the way that fans treat a team, shocked by the behavior of a crowd, or appalled by the silence of so many during the Civil Rights movement or the Holocaust, it’s easy for us to say, “Not me.  I’d have done things differently.”

Of course, Christians like to play this game, too.  We’re not too far removed from the events of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and we remember reading of the religious leaders who mocked Jesus, or the crowds that called for his torture.  “Not us!”, we say.

Today’s gospel lesson relates an incident in Jesus’ life known as “the rejection at Nazareth”. Jesus has had some acclaim as a teacher and a wonder-worker, and now he’s come back to his hometown, where he is roundly and quickly dismissed.  We hear this story, and we say, “How could people act like this?  If I’d have been there, I’d have believed.  I’m with you, Jesus.”

We who sit in these pews 20 centuries later find it easy to get offended on Jesus’ account. We may even find ourselves nursing some anger at the fact that these people, who ought to have known Jesus the best, were doubting him, questioning him, and even “taking offense” at him. We see the rejection at Nazareth as a scandal or embarrassment that should never have happened, and wouldn’t have, if we’d have been there.

When I catch myself thinking these things, I am caught short because in many ways, in my mind, the first-century rejection AT Nazareth has been replaced by the twenty-first century rejection OF Nazareth.

Here’s what I mean: many of us have found our way to some spiritual awareness or awakening.  We have, somehow, been deeply moved or had a conversion experience of one kind or another.  We find that we are more passionate about the faith or some aspect of it now than we ever have been.  Maybe it’s a personal renewal of our spirit, or a newfound embrace of the environment; we are filled with compassion for the poor or have grown a heart for racial reconciliation.  Somehow, the Good News of which Jesus spoke has come to take root in some place in our hearts, and we find ourselves among the converted.  We are ready!

And when that happens, how tempting is it for us to live only with those who share our goals, views, and ideals?  Isn’t it easy to want to spend all our time with those who are hungry for the same interpretation as we, or who are filled with the same kinds of compassion or fire for justice?  Don’t we find it really easy to get irritated with, offended by, or angry at the folks who think differently than we do?

How easy is it to perceive that those who are not “sold” on the same things that we are are simply people in our way, or distractions?  We find excuses to ignore or belittle them even as we seek to follow or respect or share with the people who are more “like us” in some way.

When this happens, of course, we aren’t really living in a true community – we’re existing in some sort of a “silo” or even a “ghetto” where everyone is just like us. We dismiss many of the people who are, geographically or biologically, at any rate, the closest to us.  “Him? Oh, he’s a gun nut.” “Her? Please.  She’s a baby-killer.”  “Them? Wow, let me tell you about them. They are pretty over the top…”

Here’s my point: Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth, to be with the people who knew him best, and with whom he enjoyed the closest physical proximity, and he was himself. And in doing so, he found that that self was rejected by his neighbors.  It’s taken us 2000 years, but I’m afraid that now many of those who claim to be the followers of Jesus have turned that situation entirely around and it is we who refuse to dwell with our families or our neighbors; it is we who reject our own Nazareths.

In light of that, I am fascinated with what Jesus does next.  Immediately after he experiences the rejection of his hometown, he calls his closest disciples together.  So far as we know, each of these men comes from somewhere in the Galilee – from Capernaum, Bethsaida, or Cana.  And when Jesus calls them to himself, what does he do? He sends them out, two by two, “to the surrounding villages”.

What was he thinking? He himself had been rejected, and now he sets them up to experience the same treatment.

I wonder how it felt to the twelve?  They’d watched as he was attacked or accused or belittled or mocked by his hometown, and now he’s sending them out to the same place, presumably so that they might receive the same treatment.

I was not able to discern the artist for this work on the sending of the twelve. I’d love to know if you can help me.

And, to give him credit, Jesus is simply living into his own paradigm.  I mean, he is responding to the rejection that he’s experienced in Nazareth and Galilee with an embrace and an affirmation.  This should not be all that surprising, really: this is the man who told his followers that the Kingdom ethic involved loving the neighbor, praying for the persecutor, and, in general, giving better than you got.  So in many ways, his sending out of the twelve is simply a concrete expression of this theology, right?  His neighbors have rejected him and his message, and his response is to send out what is, by all accounts, the “B” team.

Except for this…

Look at what happens: the Junior Varsity outscores the star.  In verse 5, Mark tells us that Jesus could not do anything.  And yet, the ones who we often perceive to be the stumbling, bumbling, can’t-quite-get-it-right followers of Jesus show up in verses 12 and 13 preaching the good news, curing all kinds of people, and driving out many evil spirits.

These twelve people simply walk along the roads with which they are familiar, show up in communities where they’ve been before, and repeat the words of Jesus… and find that – lo and behold – this stuff works!  Right there, in the midst of their everyday, normal, walking-around-town lives, the Good News of Jesus bears fruit in places where they might have expected otherwise.

I find this to be particularly interesting because in the past ten days, there is one thing that people have said to me far more than anything else.  Almost every conversation I’ve had with anyone has included the words, “Well, Dave, how was the trip?”  It’s gratifying, on one level, to know that people have an awareness of my travel to Africa and some discussion of the issues surrounding our international partnership, and justice, and famine relief.

And yet, there is at the heart of this magnificent greeting at least the glimmer of a suspicion or confession: when a hundred people greet me and say, “Hey! How was the trip?”, someone might be tempted to believe that I alone have been privileged to make a journey, that I alone have been called or sent out into the world in order to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.  In some ways, it might be tempting for me or for someone who asks that question to begin to think, “It’s the trips to Africa or somewhere else exotic that count… maybe most of us, most of the time, aren’t being sent anywhere.”

The reality of the fact, as I believe it is underscored by today’s Gospel reading, is that each and every one of us are sent each and every day.  Sometimes, there may be big, splashy trips that require vaccinations or passports, but mostly, we get the call to go and be faithful to the people who know us best and who surround us in the places with which we are very familiar.  Each of us is called and sent to work, or school, or family each and every day.

Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are not the places where you are somehow stuck while you’re waiting for Jesus to send you to that one amazing place where you’ll have a life-changing experience.  That’s not how the life of discipleship works!  Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are the places to which you are being sent TODAY!

Let me offer some encouragement to treat each of these sendings in the way that we regard my having gone to Africa a few weeks ago.

When I found myself landing in Malawi, I was vigilant: I wanted to learn and remember the names of the people around me.  I felt as though it was important to hear their stories, and to share a few of my own. I needed to be attentive to the ways that they were experiencing the world that was around them.  I saw that they had some things to teach me, and believed that I, in turn, had some things of importance to share with them.

In the same way, can we be committed to actually being present in the places to which we’re being sent this day? Do you know the names of your neighbors, or the folks in your biology class, or the woman who sits at the receptionist’s desk in your building? Can we take the time to really listen for the stories of our neighbors and co-workers and fellow students?  I know that sometimes, I can be pretty critical of the ways that we behave on social media, but this is an instance where we can, in fact, be socially engaged.  Look at the photos your neighbors post.  “Like” them, if it’s appropriate.  Ask questions so that you’ll get stories.  This is a great tool we’ve been given that can help us to come to know and love the people amongst whom God has placed us.

As you wander through your neighborhood – both geographic and virtual – ask God to use you to bring encouragement, or Good News, or healing in these places.

And you say, “Ah, come on, Dave… what good can it do?  I can’t do much…”  Maybe. But maybe “not much” is better than “nothing.”

On the recent Youth Retreat, Tim Salinetro planted a thought in my mind that’s been rolling around for a few weeks.  He pointed out that in all of the science fiction movies that involve time travel, everyone is always really careful not to change even the tiniest detail because if they do, then perhaps that will result in some huge and radical change in our present circumstances.  Maybe you remember the scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly risks everything by interfering with the meeting between his parents…  In this view of the world, everythingabout the present can be changed by one tiny little aspect of the past, right?

We can wrap our heads around that, for some reason, but hardly anyone in the present ever thinks that they can change the future much, if at all, by doing something small today.  That’s too bad.

Listen: we believe that God is up to something here and now, in lives like ours, in places like this.  God forbid that we reject our neighbor or colleague or fellow student out of a fear or insecurity or laziness or refusal to believe that the tasks that lie ahead of us this day and this week are somehow unworthy of the divine attention.

Charles Spurgeon was one of the dominant preachers in the English language in the 19thcentury, and he once said “every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”  May we have the grace to see that we are being invited to walk through the world we’ve been given bearing witness to the Christ who is in us, and may we have the sense to not reject that world.  Thanks be to God for the Good News at work in us.  Amen.

Stay With Us

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me!

On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights began the day by recalling the first time anyone ever showed up in a room and tried to convince their friends that there was something really, fundamentally, exceptional about the circumstances surrounding Jesus death and burial.  The women who discover the empty grave are dismissed as being out of their minds; a generation later, Paul meets the same fate when he testifies before Agrippa and Festus.  What’s the difference between the best April Fool prank ever and the best Good News ever?  Thoughts that are based on Luke 24:1-12 and Acts 26:22-31.

 

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

 

Think about your best April Fool joke ever. Who was involved? Who did you get? Or who got you?

The last time April Fool’s fell on a Sunday, elder Simcox replaced the water in my glass with vodka.  Being filled with the Spirit, I’m sure, I forgot to drink that day, and so I dodged that prank.

On this date in 1957, the good people at the British Broadcasting Corporation pulled off what is often regarded as the best April Fool joke of all time.  Watch this three minute clip, and see if you agree. [if the player below does not work, please use https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU]

I should point out that in post-war Britain, spaghetti was uncommon, and so the fact that many people actually believed this “news story” isn’t quite as ridiculous as it would be if this was aired today.  Perhaps what I love most about this story, though, is the fact that when people flooded the network with calls asking for instructions on how to grow their own spaghetti, they were told, “put a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”[1]

It seems to me that the essence of a good April Fool joke is when you say something that you know to be untrue, and you laugh at the poor suckers who fall for it.  When you’ve gotten someone, you feel a little proud of yourself; it’s empowering, and in the best circumstances, everyone has a good laugh.

But what about when things are directly opposite of that? Have you ever had an experience where you were telling the truth, and no one believed you?  You may have heard me speak of the day in college when my roommate died; I remember trying to tell some classmates that he’d had a heart attack and they thought I was kidding them.  I’m sure you know of victims of assault or bullying who are unable to get a hearing because nobody can believe it.

Today’s scriptures each contain instances where someone’s experience or testimony was disbelieved by the people who simply could not accept it as fact.

The Empty Tomb, He Qi (2001) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

In the reading from Luke, some of the women from Jesus’ inner circle go to complete the burial rites.  When they get to the tomb, they are surprised by two angelic beings…who also appear to be caught off-guard.  “You?” they say, “What are you doing here? Don’t you remember what he told you?”

And, as you’ve heard, the women doremember and are able to accept the emptiness of the tomb as a validation of what Jesus had told them earlier: that he would rise from the dead.  Armed with the memory of what he had said along with the knowledge of the empty tomb, these women hurry back to tell the Apostles.

Except, as you know, that when they get there and tell the eleven of the wonders they’ve heard and seen, well, the men think that the women are simply out of their minds.

If you were following along in your bibles as the scripture was read, you may have noticed a footnote after verse 12 – the sentence that reads “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”  The footnote in many bibles informs us that the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel do not contain verse 12.  It would appear as though some of the ancient scribes added this detail that comes from John’s account of the empty tomb.  No matter where it came from, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the reality of the fact that according to Luke’s gospel, the essential truth of the first Easter morning is that some people got it, and were able to grasp what had happened, while others did not.

Trial of the Apostle Paul
Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875

In the second volume of his account of Jesus’ life, ministry, and impact, Luke records another incident that happened several decades later.  The Apostle Paul is on trial before Herod Agrippa, the man Rome appointed to be king of Judea, and Festus, the Roman Procurator who was a successor to Pontius Pilate.  Paul tells the story of his rather surprising and deeply personal encounter with the risen Christ.  Herod and Festus hear him tell the story, and they look at each other and burst out laughing. Clearly, they think that this grizzled old missionary is insane.

So, if you’re keeping score: thus far in our bible studies, we have discerned that the eleven men who were, arguably, the closest friends that Jesus had on earth heard tell of his resurrection from the dead and they just could not believe it. A generation later, the two pre-eminent powerful men in the region heard that story, and they, too, found it to be incredulous.

Which means that if you arrived at this 8:30 service of worship and heard the claim that Jesus has risen and were not quite able to wrap your head around that… well, you’re surely not alone.  It would seem as though it’s not uncommon for those who hear about Jesus’ resurrection to find it difficult to swallow.

Of course, you may know that the eleven came to believe so deeply in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection that they all died confessing that as the central truth of their lives. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Festus or Agrippa ever changed his mind.  What’s the difference in these scenarios?

Well, it would appear as though the Apostles were willing to place themselves in positions where, like the women, they could have a confirming experience.  That is to say that they’d heard the claimto resurrection, and perhaps they even remembered Jesus’ conversation about the possibility some years earlier.  Each of them, however, needed to have his own transforming moment when the theoretical became the actual.  Later this morning, we’ll consider the remainder of Luke 24, and the ways that the resurrection came to have meaning in the lives of these men.

Paul, for instance, had heard the claims of Jesus and his followers, but it wasn’t until he experienced the nearness of the risen Christ that he was able to make the move from being persecutor of the church to instigator within the church.

On the other hand, from everything we can tell, Felix and Herod Agrippa wiped the tears of laughter from their eyes and went back to business as usual.  They could not conceive of a way in which resurrection might be true.  I have always been captivated by the language of the old King James translation at this point, wherein Agrippa quips to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian…”

Paul’s response is quick: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.”

In other words, Paul looks at the king of his region and says, “You’re not seeing things clearly, your majesty.  I wish that you could see things as well as I can – and I wish that you had the kind of joy that is available to me…”  At this the king has no choice but to leave, because in his mind, Paul is clearly simply making no sense.

Too much of today’s Christianity has a narrative that goes something like this: for years, my life was simply horrible. Then, I found Jesus, and now my life is great.  I’ve gotten over that horrible thing that happened to me, or I was forgiven for those violent or disgusting things that I once did, and now it’s just smooth sailing.

That just does not make sense with the Biblical narrative.  Imagine someone going up to Peter or Paul and saying, “Wow! You knew Jesus! Tell us all about the amazingly great things that have happened in your life since you accepted Jesus into your heart…” The answer would have to be, “Well, first I got struck blind, but then I survived the first assassination attempt. I got the tar beaten out of me fairly regularly, and I was stoned a few times and left for dead, and, well, one thing led to another, and now here I am on death row in Rome…”

That’s the truth, and that’s what happened… but you’re not likely to see that in Christian media much today.  The reality of the Biblical story is that more often than not, people don’t “find” Jesus; they are “found out” by the love and grace and mercy of the Lord.

My own story, and I know some of yours, is that faith does not come as a result of choosing to embrace a series of theological propositions or religious theories… but rather when our hearts and minds are somehow quickened to discern that God has reached out to us and is longing for us to reach out to the world.

A friend of mine had a medical condition that very nearly ended in her death.  As a result of some quick diagnostic work, an alert medical team, and amazing technology, she is alive today.  When she was reflecting on this with me, she said, “For a long time, I was unsure about who or what God was.  But when I came through this experience, I saw that while science saved my life, it hasn’t given me anything to live for.  God is the only one who can do that.”

When Paul looks at old Agrippa and says, “I wish that not only you, but everyone in earshot, were both almost, and altogether such as I am…”, he’s saying that he hopes his audience will find themselves acquainted with the power and presence of the risen Christ, not for Paul’s sake, but for their own.

Similarly, this is my 24thEaster behind this podium.  For many of you, for most of your lives I’ve stood here and said, “Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!”.  I hope that over the decades, you’ve become aware of the fact that I’m not hoping to talk you into anything, and I’m not trying to sell you on anything.

That’s what makes a sermon different than an April Fool’s joke.  The power of an April Fool’s prank is that I want to make you look silly, or gullible, or foolish so that I look better.  The main way that happens is if I am able to somehow persuade you into believe that which is untrue.  April Fool’s involves me trying to convince you of something.

Listen: I’m not trying to sell you anything.  I’m only trying to do what those women did on the first Easter – to stand up here and tell you that my experience confirms the things that I heard Jesus say.  I have become convinced that hope is stronger than memory, that forgiveness is stronger than bitterness, that reconciliation is stronger than hatred.  I know that the empty tomb has more power than the bloody cross, and that the dead Jesus has risen to rule the world.

Has becoming convinced of this solved all my problems, kept me from screwing up, made me an incredibly productive fisherman, or brought me wealth and fame? Hardly.  Yet I would not and could not trade it for anything.  And this Easter morning my wish for each of you is that you might find yourselves in places where, if you haven’t seen the power of resurrection yet, you will.  I’m not kidding you or anyone else: my hope is that we are each altogether bound up in the foolishness of Christ as we engage the joy and sorrow of our days. Thanks be to God, he has risen. Amen.

[1]https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/spaghetti-tree-hoax-april-fools_us_56fe89e7e4b083f5c6077279

 

What Are We Celebrating, Exactly?

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 Palm Sunday (March 25) we talked about parades and protests and pigs – and our texts included the story of Palm Sunday as told in Luke 19:29-40 and the curious story of the suicidal swine as found in Mark 5:1-20.  

To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 

 

Did you go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade last weekend? Not me. I saw some photos of you – at least, the captions claimed that it was you. Most of the bodies I saw were pretty bundled up. I’m telling you, it was cold that morning!

In all probability, it was pleasant and sunny on that spring day in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It usually is at this time of year. Maybe the residents of that city, unlike our own, have a preference for scheduling their parades on days when it’s fun to be outside.

Screen Shot from “Ben-Hur” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures, 2016).

At any rate, on this particular day, there were two separate processions that came into the Holy City. The gates of the western wall are flung open and the population greets the Imperial procession of Pontius Pilate. He lives in Caesarea by the Sea, but today, accompanied by hundreds of his security force, he makes the sixty mile journey to Jerusalem to be present for the beginning of the Jewish Passover. He’s not interested in atonement or hearing the ancient stories. He has come on this holy day to remind the people who is really in charge. The streets are lined with thousands of people, some of whom are throwing garlands and flowers, all of whom are eager to have some brush with real power. It is a massive display of military might, designed to bring awe, respect, and fear to the inhabitants of this occupied town. And it does.

Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Aleksandr Antonym (2008). Used by permission of the artist. For more visit http://iconart.com.ua/en/artists/artist-14/oleksandr-antonyuk

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, there’s a small procession arriving through the back gate. An itinerant Rabbi arrives to the shouting of a few dozen, or maybe even a couple of hundred hardy souls. He’s planned it out to be just about the exact opposite of Pilate’s grand entry, however. He’s sitting on the back of a young donkey, wearing no armor, carrying no weapon. It is an intentional, subversive act that is designed to remind everyone that there is indeed a king, but that the king is neither Pilate nor Caesar. This Rabbi points to incredible power, but proclaims that it comes not from Rome, but from the One who created Rome, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire cosmos.

The local religious leaders see this procession led by Rabbi Jesus, and they try to stop it before it can gather much steam.

Which, when you come to think about it, ought to strike you as odd. The Pharisees worship the Lord. They knew that Caesar’s claims to divinity were invalid; they recognized that the religion of Rome was in direct contrast to faith in YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They and Jesus had memorized the same scriptures, participated in the same festivals, and shared the same history of God having called his people to be a blessing in the world.

Except…

Except that they were afraid…

Of what?

The Romans had an interesting view on religion. Officially, they claimed that the Caesar was the son of the gods. Officially, they pointed to the twelve great gods – beings like Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and Mars – as worthy of worship. And yet when the Roman Empire took over a new territory, it permitted the practice of any ancient religion. If you and your neighbors have a faith, and Rome conquers your nation, you’re free to continue with your tradition, so long as you a) offer a pinch of incense to the emperor once a year, and b) don’t start any new religions.

Which meant that when the Romans occupied Palestine, the Jews were not forced to adopt the Roman religion. In fact, Rome made it easy on the Jewish leaders. According to the Jewish law, priests were not to own any property, but rather to subsist on the provision of God and the hospitality of God’s people.

But Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, built an incredible Temple for the Jews. He gave the priests land on which to build their own houses. Herod provided the upper echelons of the religious leadership with incomes, and respect, and power. And all he asked in return was that when the time came, they simply remember who gave them all that great, shiny stuff. Not God. Him.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, mosaic in the Palace of the Normans in Palermo, Sicily.

These religious leaders weren’t bad people – but they had sold out, and they lived in fear of losing what they’d come to love. And so when Jesus comes into town, quoting the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, telling people that YHWH is the source of all power and authority, pointing out that God alone is to be revered, and reminding them that the Kingdom of God is the only Kingdom that truly stretches from shore to shore… well, you know that’s going to raise some eyebrows.

To make matters worse, he’s bringing with him a ragtag assembly of disciples – a collection of unlettered fishermen and those who are blind, poor, excluded, and marginalized.

It’s no wonder that the religious leaders show up as soon as Jesus enters town yelling, “Hey! Rabbi! Ix-nay on the ingdom-kay alk-tay! What are you trying to do, get us all killed? Ruin this for everyone?”

And Jesus, essentially, replies, “Look, fellas, if you won’t see or recognize when God is on the move in such powerful ways, well, maybe you’re already dead… Maybe the rocks and stones that pave this highway have more life than you do.” And he continues his procession – or counter-procession, if you will.

Processions and gatherings are in the news a lot these days. As we mentioned, last week Pittsburgh hosted what is according to the organizers the second-biggest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Yesterday, millions of people participated in what was called the “March for our Lives” to counter gun violence in schools. Some of you hope for a Stanley Cup parade in June. And the President is talking about putting together a big military parade with tanks and guns and all kinds of power.

Some of those things are called “parades”, while others are deemed to be “protests”. What would you say the difference between those things is? Is there a difference between 22,000 of your neighbors putting on shamrocks and walking through town, and groups of citizens carrying signs about gun legislation, and the US military strolling through the nation’s capitol?

I’d like to suggest that a parade is designed to celebrate one particular aspect of a people’s culture, history, or achievement. A protest, on the other hand, is meant to offer a critique of the status quo – a plea, or a demand, that we do better.

Jerusalem, on that spring day 2000 years ago, had both. Pontius Pilate, barging in the front door, put all of Roman power and wealth on display in what was unmistakably a parade. And Jesus, sliding down the hill and into the back door, led a protest that raised a hope for a different future.

We remember both of those processions as we turn to the next installment in our ongoing study of Mark’s gospel – a reading which, at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with the events described in your reading from Luke. I would suggest, however, that there is a connection with some striking parallels.

When we last saw Jesus and his followers, they were out at sea in the middle of the night. They’d survived the storm (but barely, if you’d ask some of them) and were now headed over to what Mark has euphemistically referred to as “the other side” – the place where those people live – in order to proclaim Jesus’ Gospel message of the nearness of God’s kingdom.

And you might think that that’d be great, but look at what happens next. As soon as they make landfall – which just about has to be in the darkness of the night – they find themselves in the graveyard. And it’s not just any cemetery, but it’s the place where the local madman has taken up residence. He’s incredibly strong, he’s rejected (or been rejected by) society, and roams the tombs as he grapples with his demons day after day, night after night.

When he lays eyes on Jesus, he tries to send him away. Jesus, however, heals the man – however unwilling he may appear to be – and allows the demons to send a herd of 2000 pigs careening off the nearby cliffs. It’s neither the procession of Pilate through the Western gates nor the triumphal entry of Jesus through the Eastern gates, but there’s a parade all the same that night as this herd runs to its death.

The Gerasene Demoniac, Sebastian Bourdon (1653)

And early the next morning, the town council comes out to see what all the fuss is about. You can imagine that perhaps there were those demanding a study about the environmental impact of 2000 dead pigs in prime fishing waters, or a police report concerning the theft of property or services. When all of that is completed, these local leaders issue a firm request that Jesus get out of town as soon as possible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have found this man “clothed and in his right mind”, but it’s surely caused more problems than it’s worth. Mark tells us that they “begged him to leave.”

It would seem that in the country of the Gerasenes, as well as in Jerusalem, Jesus is bad for business. He is at least a challenge, if not a threat, to the status quo.

And here, on “the other side”, he accepts their verdict. He tells his followers to get the boat ready because they’re shoving off… and now it’s someone else’s turn to beg Jesus. The man who has been healed wants more than anything to go with Jesus. And look at what happens: the man who didn’t want to be healed, but was, is now pleading to be allowed become a disciple – and he’s told to stay put.

Spoiler alert: we’ve not seen the last of this guy. You can believe me when I tell you that we’ll talk about him in the weeks to come.

So that’s the story. Two gospel readings – a couple of parades in Jerusalem and another off a cliff to the north. Here we are in Pittsburgh, 2000 years later – and it seems to me that all of this could have happened yesterday.

Presidents and Prime Ministers still insist on barging through the front gates, eager to display their power and to have us satisfy their egos. Nations still routinely kill their own citizens and support the interests of the few at untold cost to the many. Refugee camps are crowded beyond capacity because nobody wants those people anywhere near their homes. Banks and corporations plunder the poor and pillage the environment because, well, there’s money to be made there.

And over here, by the back gate, are the ones who are left out, shot up, shouted down, or beaten up.

Where is Jesus now?

The events of this week that is to come demonstrate that our world, and God’s own people, don’t always treat prophets well. Whether this is your first Palm Sunday or your eighty-first, it should come as no surprise to any of us that the Son of God is hanging on a tree by Friday afternoon.

Oh, we try to do our bit for the cause. Maybe some of you marched yesterday, or contributed to the kids who are away on their famine fund-raiser. Some of you might have set aside some time later this month to do a little work for the less fortunate, and a few of us will even post about it on social media.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sooner or later, we are going to have to make a choice as to whether we are going to raise our voices, risk our bank accounts, and offer ourselves. Are we willing to stand in front of Pilate’s weaponry armed only with hope, love, and the message of a Kingdom of peace?

As we said last week, we are called to become the righteousness of God in a world that doesn’t want that righteousness any more than the Gerasene demoniac wanted to be healed or the people of that region wanted to hear what Jesus had to say for himself. We are called to do the work of Christ in the places we are in the time that we’ve been given.

What will we do? What will we say? I hope to God that I will find the courage to echo once again, “Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place… as long as I’m alive I’ll glorify his holy name.” May we have the courage and grace to look beyond ourselves to the One who claims us, calls us, and sends us in his name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Does He Even Care?

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 March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our text was the story about the calming of the sea in  Mark 4:35-41.  We also considered Paul’s letter to his friends in II Corinthians 5:16-6:2.To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 

As we start the message this morning, I’d like to ask each of you to imagine or remember a time when you were in a group of people that was about to go on a trip somewhere. It doesn’t matter where – maybe it was Grandma’s house, or Kennywood, or camping. Think about a time when, in your mind, you knew it was going to be a great time. You knew where you were going, why you wanted to go, and what you hoped to accomplish.

And let’s say that this was a trip you were excited about – but not everyone in your group shared that enthusiasm. Now, if you’ve never been on a trip where you were excited and other people were bored or argumentative, first off – congratulations, and secondly – keep that to yourself and use your imagination here.

You’re on the way to the campground. You’ve got all the stuff packed – sleeping bags and marshmallows and fishing rods… and then it begins to drizzle.

Now, you want to go. You have a vision. And maybe you’ve even checked the long-range forecast and are aware that this is a three-hour rain event. So maybe you start offering a narrative that goes something like this: “Oh, hey! It looks like some of those showers found us after all. Well, that’s all right! Let’s get that stuff out of the way now and we’ll have all week…”

But you know that sooner or later there will be another voice: “Ah, seriously? Rain? This is just perfect. Why are we even doing this? Who wants to go stupid camping, anyway? I can’t believe you made me leave home to do this.”

Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

If you can imagine that situation, you can imagine the scene in Mark 4. Jesus has just finished a very, very long day of teaching. The crowds have been so large, in fact, that he’s had to preach from a boat for the entire time. And now, as evening falls and most people think that it’s time to head for home, he turns to his followers and says, “Hey, guys! Here’s a thought: let’s go that way!” And as he does so, he points to the east – to what Mark calls “the other side”.

As they’ve done innumerable times in the past, the disciples glance at each other. I don’t know if anyone actually says it, but they’re thinking it: “Seriously, Lord? There? You’ve gotta be kidding, Jesus. There’s nobody there… nobody, I mean, except for those people. The Gerasenes. The pagans. The unclean people. They’re not like us over there, Jesus.”

But Jesus is happy as a clam and either doesn’t notice or pretends not to notice and smiles, points to the other side, and slides into the place of honor in the back of the boat where he promptly falls asleep.

Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

As he slumbers, the storm comes up and these seasoned fishermen begin to whine and worry more and more. I can imagine every now and then one of them will jostle him just a little bit in the hopes that he’ll wake up and come to his senses, but that doesn’t happen. Finally, with a note of accusation and rebuke in their voices, they cry out, “Lord, do you even give a darn about the fact that we’re all going to die! Do you care? Wake up!”

This would probably be a really good time for me to interject and remind those of you who are here every week about the fact that our operating premise is that the Gospel of Mark was written first for a group of Christian believers in Rome who were the target of some pretty vicious persecution at the hand of the Emperor Nero. As they watched their loved ones being martyred, as they endured the loss of their homes, as they had to flee for their lives, I think it’s fair to say that they were acquainted with storms, and fear, and even the urge to lob an accusatory question in the direction of their Lord.

The first readers of the Gospel of Mark had to have been wondering – “Does he even know what’s going on here? Does he care? Where is Jesus now, when we need him?

The fellas in the boat found out the answer to that in a hurry. He is roused and he stands up and speaks two words to the tempest, saying essentially, “Stop! Be muzzled!”

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The disciples had to remember when he came across the man with an evil spirit back in chapter one and said very similar things, because they repeated the question that the earlier crowd had asked: “Who is this guy? And how does he do this?

I find Jesus’ choice of words here pretty instructive. “Siopa – ‘Hush’! – pephimoso – ‘be muzzled’!” I think about the animals I’ve been around who were muzzled, and it occurs to me that such an animal can still strike a lot of fear into my heart. There’s snarling, lunging, thrashing…but if that muzzle is on right – there are no teeth to deal with. The power to intimidate is present, but the power to destroy is diminished.

My sense is that the first readers of the Gospel of Mark heard this story and were reminded of the fact that even someone as mighty as Nero had limited power and would be of no eternal consequence.

I would imagine that there are those of us in the room today who long to hear a similar word. Some of us need the assurance that Jesus is still in the business of calming storms. You might remember that one of the ways that the people in scripture experience terror is as a result of the whirlwind, or the chaos, or the storm. Jesus’ disciples here are tossed about by circumstances beyond their control, and they are petrified and angry.

Some of you know how that chaos feels. And I have good news: the one who muzzled the storm on that day is present with us today, and he does care for you. There is a word of deep and powerful assurance for us.

Yet even as we cling to that promise of the presence, we must also hear a word of challenge. The disciples wake Jesus and they say, “Don’t you even care about us?”

And then Jesus does two things. First, as we’ve mentioned, he speaks to their fear. He calms the storm in which they find themselves. He cares for them. We love that part of the story.

But second, he keeps sailing. He keeps the boat filled with wet, hungry men who may or may not have fresh stains in the seats of their togas heading eastward in the middle of the night, sailing toward ‘the other side.’

With these actions, he proves to his disciples that yes, in fact, he does care for them. But equally, he demonstrates his care for the folks in the region to which they are heading. Look at what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t say, “Well, that was quite a shocker, eh boys? Look, we’ve all had a long day. What do you say? Let’s head back to Capernaum and we’ll think about crossing this sea some other time.”

No. He not only continues to move in the direction of the excluded, the marginalized, and the ignored, but he keeps dragging these disciples along with him. And so they sail into the night, toward the uncertain and unloved shores that lie ahead.

The passage from Corinthians demonstrates the fact that the Apostle Paul heard that challenge from Jesus loud and clear. In the reading you’ve just shared, he states emphatically that we are not free to look upon anyone or anything as beyond the care of God.

In Christ, he says, there is a new creation. There is a cosmic “do-over”. The Lord who has done so much in terms of reigning in the power of chaos in our lives is now charging us with the same ministry of reconciliation in the world.

Paul tells his congregation – and ours – that we are not free to merely acknowledge the power of Jesus in our own lives and go about our daily business full of thanksgiving for that relationship. No! We are, of course, called to notice that care, and to celebrate it – but then we are commissioned to be those who actively share it in the world around us.

Did you catch the last sentence of chapter 5? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Look – being in the boat as the storm becomes stilled does more than simply save our bacon – it changes us. We, who claim to be followers of Jesus, are not called to know about the righteousness of God. We are not called to believe in it, or to receive it. We’re not supposed to point to or even share the righteousness of God. What does Paul say? “…in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I believe that Jesus looked at the boys in the boat, and he looked at Paul, and he’s looking at you and at me, and he’s saying, “Look, you’re not just along for the ride, here. You’re not just being dragged along, hoping that I get past this ‘love your neighbor’ phase you are afraid I’m going through. YOU are the way that I am loving my neighbor! You are the ambassadors for reconciliation. You are the righteousness of God in the world today.”

Listen, I’m not discounting the need for us to be glad for those days when Jesus comes in and helps us get through the crisis that seeks to overwhelm us. Not at all.

But if that’s all we do, then we’d be like those who wanted to turn the boat around and head for home after things got scary. I think that in part, Jesus is helping us to recognize his power and authority in every sphere of creation so that we can invite others to notice and grow through those times too.

How do we do that? Here are two ideas to start with. First, I think that becoming the righteousness of God in the world today means that we are willing to engage with those whose experience is different from ours. For instance, the elders of the church are, in addition to the significant task of providing care and oversight to all the ministries of the congregation, dedicating a portion of each meeting to discussing the hope of racial reconciliation in our world today. Because our congregation is predominately white, and because each of our current elders is white, we have chosen to be led by Daniel Hill’s recent book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White. In so doing, we hope to remember that while our experiences are, well, our experiences, those experiences are not necessarily universal. We want to first consider, remember, and reflect upon who we are and how we got here, and then, we pray, be open to thinking about the fact that not everyone’s story is the same as ours.

Listen to this: when we got together earlier this week, I had to ask the elders to stop talking about the book so that they could do their work as elders. Moreover, when I made them stop discussing the book, they asked if they could come early to the next meeting so that we’d have more time to consider the power of Christ to inform and heal the racial divide that is so apparent in our world today.

In the same way, each of us can choose to consciously invest ourselves in seeking to understand something of the stories of the people who are in our lives. We can be attentive to the injustices that we see; we can extend ourselves in gestures that reflect the righteousness of God.

In addition to seeking to be more willing to engage with those whose experiences differ from ours, I want to challenge you, in the name of God, to refuse to dehumanize those whose opinions are at odds with your own.

This happens with alarming frequency on social media, but even those of us who swear we can’t be bothered with Facebook or Twitter or Insta-chat or whatever are more than willing to be sucked into this practice by whatever media and allegiances with which we choose to engage.

Look, I get it. You believe that the other person is wrong when it comes to gun rights or abortion or the Trump administration or freedom of speech or the willingness of the Pittsburgh Pirates to make any meaningful attempt to field a competitive team. You have your opinion. They have theirs. So talk about it. Or don’t.

But for the love of God, people – seriously – for the love of God – do not demean someone for whom Christ died by referring to them in terms that are degrading and dehumanizing. In what ways does calling someone a “wingnut”, a “libtard”, a “deplorable”, a “Trumpster”, or a “POS” help you to become the righteousness of God in the world today?

“Ah, relax, Pastor Dave. I’m just trolling people. I’m just trying to get a rise out of him… It’s nothing.”

So when you use your speech to demean, insult, attack, or ostracize me, it’s nothing… but when you use that same speech to tell me that Jesus loves me and cares for me in the midst of the storm, I should pay attention? That seems confusing to me, and is certainly not helpful to your cause.

Listen: on the night that Jesus took his friends out and they nearly got killed by the storm the boat was full of people who wondered if God really cared about them. I’m here to remind you that every boat, or car, or bus, or office, or schoolroom you walk into this week will be just as full of people asking the same question. You know the truth: Jesus does care. He wants to express that care so deeply that he has sent you to do it.

Remember that. And be care-full. And be grateful. Thanks be to God, who comes to us in the midst of the storms, and sends us through them. Amen.

 

[1] Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

[2] Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

[3] Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The Secret Smallness

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 March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our texts included Mark 4:21-34 as well as Zechariah 4:6-10a. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

This is a photo of one of my favorite trees in the world, the baobab. Baobabs are found in many parts of Africa, as well as in India, Ceylon, and Australia. They are curious and majestic trees for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that they grow slowly and deliberately and can seemingly live forever. It’s estimated that a mature tree such as this could be as many as 5,000 years old. In fact, I once saw a photo of some of the first Scottish missionaries posing under a baobab tree near Lake Malawi in the late 1800’s. Next to that was a picture of their descendants in the same spot that was taken a hundred years later. If a viewer were to compare the photos, that person would discover that the individual branches of the tree are essentially unchanged – even after the passing of a full century. These trees are seemingly impermeable to change. Remember that.

The Calling of Saint John and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Since Advent, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of Mark. We heard in chapter one, verse one, that it contains the good news of Jesus, the Son of God. Thus far, we’ve gotten a little bit of background on Jesus and, more importantly, we’ve gotten to see him at work. After bursting onto the scene announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, He’s healed people, driven out demons, garnered great attention, elicited significant reactions, and gained both followers and foes. In the first section of his Gospel, Mark is crying out to the reader, “Look! Pay attention! Something really big is happening! This guy is worth listening to!”

And, in chapter four, we get to hear what he says. Mark 4 represents the longest stretch of teaching about the Kingdom from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel. We’ve been told that it’s important, and we’ve been told that it’s at hand. Last week, we heard the single longest parable about the Kingdom as we listened to the story about the farmer and the seeds and the various types of soil. In that, we heard that the Kingdom is God’s idea, and that we are called to be receptive to it and to allow that Kingdom to do its work in us, on us, to us, and through us.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues this teaching by apparently piling on the parables of the Kingdom as if they were bullet points – three quick comparisons given in short order.

Just after explaining the parable of the sower to his followers, he says, “You know, as I think about it, this stuff is like a lamp. It’s significant. It’s out there in the open. It’s public!” As soon as he’s finished talking about the necessity for those who would follow him to be receptive to the work of the Kingdom in their lives, he warns them that this is all to be done for all to see; that nothing is secret forever, and that their lives will be visible to the world.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Practicing Resurrection, says much the same thing about those who would live out the Kingdom ethic in our world:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

I think that Peterson is spot-on when he talks about a real community – with named persons engaged in intentional practices. It’s not just an idea – if the Kingdom is visible anywhere, it’s visible in time and space through the lives of people – people like, well, you and me.

Now, understand me: this part is not in the Gospel of Mark, but here’s what I think happens next: I think that Jesus uses the parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God and then he offers these warnings about everything happening out in the open and people paying attention and having ears to hear and that causes at least some of his followers to shift their feet a little and maybe start avoiding eye contact. I think that more than a couple of these fellows get a little nervous and glance at him questioningly as if to say, “Um, you see, Lord, well, the thing is… do you know us? Because, er, we’re not really all that special. We screw up. A lot. And most of us can be pretty unreliable at times. If you’re counting on your named, particular followers to be doing all this stuff in public, well, you might want to rethink a few things. You might have to find some new followers who aren’t as likely to, you know, get it wrong.”

The reason I think that something like that must have happened is because of the tenor that Jesus’ teaching takes next: he goes right back to the language of farmers and seeds.

“Maybe you didn’t get it during that last story,” he says, “so here it is again. The Kingdom is like a seed that is scattered on the ground.” He tells a story about a seed that is self-contained and sufficient. The seed, he says, has everything it needs to produce fruit. As he tells this story about the man who scatters seed and then goes about his daily business, he’s reminding his disciples (then and now) that the Kingdom doesn’t need us to somehow try harder in order for it to work. Somehow, mysteriously, the seed is set into the soil and the seed itself – the Kingdom – does its work. And when the seed is lodged in soil that is receptive, amazing things happen – things that the farmer can’t begin to understand.

“Don’t worry that sometimes you can be such knuckleheads,” Jesus is apparently saying. “This isn’t about you. It’s about what God is doing in and through the Kingdom.”

He then takes a quick breath and dives into another comparison. “Not only is the Kingdom like a seed,” he says, “it’s like a mustard seed.

You probably know something about mustard seeds. If you’ve ever bought pickles, you’ve probably seen some of them swirling around in the jar. They may not be the tiniest seeds, but they’re pretty small. And yet when planted, they become a shrub or bush – sometimes getting to be ten feet tall. In addition to providing these seeds, the greens and even shoots of the mustard plant can be eaten and thus provide nourishment for humans and animals.

So, let’s follow Jesus’ teaching here… the Kingdom is like something that is given or placed amongst us and it grows on its own. It is self-contained and mysterious, but if we allow it to flourish in our midst, it will produce fruit that is useful. Moreover, Jesus says, there will be such abundant growth that this Kingdom blessing will spill over into other spheres. Birds will have perches and shade.

But here’s something that maybe you didn’t know: mustard is an annual plant. That is to say, it has to be planted every year. Unlike the oak tree in your yard and certainly unlike the baobab tree that I love, a mustard shrub lasts for a single season. And while it may be large by garden standards, a ten-foot mustard plant cannot compare with the magnolia out front of this building or the pine tree in my yard. Compared with these, the mustard is a tender, vulnerable plant.

So here’s the good news for today, at least as far as I’m concerned. Do you remember that big baobab I talked about? The large, leafy, majestic tree that seems to last forever? According to Jesus, in this context, that’s a horrible tree with which to compare the Kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that in my mind’s eye, I want the Kingdom to be like that. More specifically, I want the kingdom in my life – or in your life – to look like that. I want it to be tall, strong, unchanging and unbending. I want it to survive centuries of conflict and human error. And, in some other places, Jesus tells us things that lead us to affirm that the Kingdom of God is able to do that.

But here, he seems to be saying that the Kingdom is planted in and designed to take root in lives that are vulnerable. It grows in people who are, in some ways, well, shaky. Sure, a bird can perch in the branches of a mustard bush, but you’re not going to want to live in a house made out of that plant.

If you plant a maple seed or a baobab, you might get something big. But it’s going to take a long time before you even know if anything is happening, and a really, really long time before you wind up with anything useful.

But the Kingdom of God, in this scenario, at least, is not like that. Instead, we are invited to participate in a Kingdom that appears to be small and mysterious; as an annual plant, mustard depends on new growth coming each year, and new seeds being produced, and then sown, and grown, and harvested, and then the whole process starts again next year. What a relief that is to losers like the disciples, and me, and you!

Listen: your life of faith is not meant to resemble some sort of statuesque tree that once upon a time had a single planting and since then has thrived through decades of unbroken growth and stability.

I think that instead, our lives of faith are reflective of the fact that the Kingdom calls us to be changeable, flexible, growing, and giving. That is an encouragement because when I sense that I’m in a period that’s difficult, I don’t have to give up, or think, “Well, this life of faith clearly isn’t for me, or else I’d look like that perfectly formed statue of the ideal Christian…” Rather, I claim the truth that Zechariah espoused: that the Kingdom is rooted in God’s power, and in God’s power, small things can win the day.

I’m afraid that too many of us, too much of the time, see the life of faith as a list of answers to be memorized or a series of principles to be learned or, even worse, a series of behaviors to do in front of my neighbors so that they see how holy I am.

But I think that Jesus calls us to a life that is characterized by a willingness to continue to start at the beginning, to look for ways to grow in insight and then apply this insight to new situations, and thereby to grow fruit in season after season of life.

20th-century philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” I think that in these teachings about the smallness and vulnerability of the Kingdom, Jesus is encouraging his followers to become learners, rather than learned; to be those who know the importance of asking the right questions as opposed to spouting off the right answers; to be those who are willing to engage in the process of the journey and not merely obsess about where we’re going and when are we going to get there.

So here’s the deal, beloved! Give yourselves a break. Let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect. Instead, give yourself ever more to the Kingdom that is growing amongst you. Offer shade where you can. Keep throwing seeds, even when sometimes you wonder if it’s doing any good. And keep asking questions. In doing these things, we are becoming, day by day, more fit disciples of Jesus the Christ, and – by his grace – better able to live in the world that will greet us tomorrow. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12