Starting Now

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 27, 2019, we followed Jesus back into Jerusalem and considered a confrontation with the religious leaders of the day.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:27 – 12:12, and we listened to the “song of the vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-7  

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

As we continue in our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, let me remind you of some things we’ve already seen.  You’ll recall that the first part of this narrative contains many scenes of Jesus as a healer, a wonder-worker, and a man who was out amongst the crowds.  That time in the Galilee, however, ended when Jesus entered into a time of intentional discipleship with those who were closest to him. Between now and Easter, we’ll be dealing with the third major section in the Gospel, his arrival in Jerusalem on the day we’ve come to call “Palm Sunday” and the events of Holy Week.

Last week we considered a story that might be the “frame” for this whole section – the cleansing of the Temple and the judgment on the fig tree that was a pointed lesson to his disciples on the nature of the religious leaders at that time.  Today we’ll look at the first of five specific confrontations that follow the day when Jesus ran the money-changers and profiteers out of the temple.

Allow me to begin by making a few observations about the text as we have heard it and then I’d like to invite you to think creatively about the parable.

The Chief Priests Ask Jesus by What Right Does He Act in This Way, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Jesus and his friends are coming into Jerusalem and the religious establishment asks him, essentially, “Hey, buddy, who do you think you are, anyway?”  I find that this conversation is in some ways a mirror image of the sacred and powerful time that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?  And who do you say that I am?”  Back in chapter 8, that gave those who were interested the opportunity to confess their faith and give voice to their doubt.  In today’s reading, however, it’s clear that a group of powerful people who felt threatened or irritated by Jesus were seeking to put him in a position of defending himself.

In reality, though, Jesus turns the tables on them by asking them to recall John the Baptist’s invitation to repentance and forgiveness.  Jesus isn’t playing a trick on them here by answering a question with a question: he’s making a serious statement about who he is and what he’s here to do.  He’s essentially saying to them, “Look: you’re not going to believe me whatever I say because you’ve already got your minds made up.”

One little twist that our narrator adds is that we are given all of this dialogue in the “historical present” tense – “They say to him… He says to them…” and so on.  What that means is that when Jesus looks at them and says, “Answer me!”, he is inviting readers of all times and places to do the same thing.  In chapter 8, he asked his first disciples, “Who do you think I am?”  Here in chapters 11 and 12 we have the obligation to reflect on that question in a personal way.

And then, even though he says in verse 33 that he’s not going to tell them under whose authority he’s acting, he goes ahead and tells a story that makes it pretty plain.

You may recall last week, when we talked about the fact that there are several places where the Old Testament speaks of Israel as though it were a fig tree.  This morning you’ve already heard of Isaiah’s referencing the people of God as a vineyard.  And before you get all worked up about mixed metaphors, let me remind you that if your grandmother called you a peach and your grandfather called you the apple of his eye, you would know in a second that they weren’t really talking about healthy snack foods – they were voicing their delight in you.

The “Song of the Vineyard” that begins Isaiah 5 describes God’s disappointment in the crop that has been produced.  It ends with a description of the harvest: the Lord had expected justice (mišpāṭ), but was dismayed to find bloodshed (miśpāḥ); he had hoped for righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ), but found only moaning (ṣĕʻāqâ).

From the Codex Aureus of Echternach, an 11th-century illuminated Gospel

In telling his learned audience a story about a vineyard, Jesus was sure that they would remember this sad song about God’s hopes for his people.  In this current version, however, there is a significant change: the owner of the vineyard is now holding those who had stewardship over the property to be responsible.  He’s not frustrated or angry at the vines themselves; he’s irate because those who he had trusted to tend and care for and nurture his property were not being faithful in their duty.

And so, as you’ve heard, he sends a series of messengers to set them straight, and they respond violently and ultimately kill the landowner’s son.

It’s easy to jump straight to what might be an obvious conclusion: that Jesus is the son who was killed, that John the Baptist and other prophets were the previous messengers who were treated spitefully, and judgment is coming to all who reject the Son.  And if you wanted to say that, I’d award you two points for paying attention and following along.

However, let’s say that you’d like to have ten points, not just the easy two. Let’s dig a little deeper into the story.

The tenants are really making a mess of things, and the owner continues to send them opportunities to make it right.  However, the tenants continue to escalate the situation until finally they kill the landowner’s son.

Think about that for a moment: in what scenario would it possibly make sense for them to murder the son?  The landowner is clearly hot under the collar, and he knows that they are there. How would killing the son going to be of any benefit to the tenants?

The only possible scenario in which that makes sense is if the tenants believe that the owner is so far away, so weak, powerless, or so disengaged that they can get whatever quick profit that they can from the land and then get out of town before the owner comes for them with guns blazing.

Do you see what I mean here? The only reasonable explanation for killing the son is that the tenants hope that by the time news of this crime reaches the rightful owner of the property and he comes to execute judgment, they’ll have taken anything that isn’t nailed down and be long gone.

“But Dave,” you say, still striving for your ten points. “This is not really a story about farmers.  It’s a story about God pronouncing judgment on the leadership of the house of Israel for failing to take care of God’s people.”

And I’d say, “That’s brilliant!  So in that reading, the leadership believes that the judgment day is so far off that they can go ahead and do what they want as long as they want to do it because God is not really going to act now anyway…  Ten points for CHUP!”

So where do we see that in our own world?  What is the relevance of these passages to our own lives?

Well, for starters, I’ll give you the two point answer again: just as Jesus provided the religious leaders the opportunity to confess their faith in him and acknowledge the power that is rightfully his, so too, we are each invited to place our trust in him and give thanks for the presence we have.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  Let me ask you to think about some scenarios in our world where people persist in a pattern of behavior because it seems as though any consequences of such action are either minimal or so far away we don’t have to care about them.

Let’s swing for the fences here – a big, hairy, audacious, ten-point problem… What about climate change and our stewardship of the environment?  Is that a spiritual issue?  Does the church, do people like you and me, have the responsibility to act because we are accountable to the creator?

And you say, “Oh, come on, Dave… that’s too big.  That’s too complicated. And besides, we’ll be dead long before –“

Yep. In other words – it is an issue, and we do have some culpability, but because it’s really big, really complicated, we don’t have time for something like that.  Therefore, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll be so paralyzed by the enormity of the situation that we are more likely to leave a mess for our children or our grandchildren.

I’m 58 years old.  I have a granddaughter who is 1.  Lord willing, Violet will turn 58 in 2076.  What kind of world will she and her friends inherit from us?  If we continue to act the way we’ve always acted, then scientists tell us that heat waves that used to come every 20 years will be annual events in 2076.  Some models indicate that insects, which are vital for pollination and therefore for food production, could lose half their habitat by 2075.  The beach where my granddaughter went swimming this summer could be under six or ten feet of water in 58 years.

Do I have the right to continue to lay waste to this planet simply because I expect that I’ll die before it does? Or does the fact that God set us in a garden, said it was good, and left us in charge imply that I ought to do what I can to be a good steward of that trust so that those who come after me have the opportunity to garden in peace?

Or how about a little closer to home… are there places in your life where things are not great, but you don’t see any easy way out and figure that you’ll just do your best to ignore it until it goes away or all comes crashing down on you?

Maybe it’s a financial issue.  You had those student loans, and then the car payment… insurance is a mess… and now you just feel like it’s hopeless and so the best that you can do is hide out and numb yourself as you watch the numbers spin and spin and spin…

Or maybe it’s more of a personal issue.  There’s a relationship that isn’t the way that you wish that it was, but you’re thinking, “You know what? Forget them!  All the blood, sweat, and tears I poured out and this is what I get?  Never mind!”

Listen, in these cases it seems to me that the call of the Gospel is the same: believe that healing, that resurrection, that change is possible.  Believe in the interest and the presence of the Landowner.  Believe that the vineyard in which you’ve been planted is capable of growing fruit, and hold on to your call to be a steward of this earth, your finances, or that relationship.  Believe that your life, your presence has meaning and purpose.  Believe that God is close at hand – don’t give in to the temptation to believe that God is too far away, or unable to help.  Refuse to believe that anything is beyond God’s reach.

And then let me encourage you to not only believe, but to act like you believe.  Take a step indicating that you think  that even though the situation seems dire – it’s big, it’s huge –  it is not the only possible reality.

Can you commit to reducing your use of fossil fuels? Will you look for ways to use less plastic – actually, to use less everything?  Can you walk a little more, or encourage your neighbors in some of these processes?

When you get that paycheck, can you prioritize where it will go so that you can think of yourself as someone who is making progress toward financial health?

Maybe you need to pick up the phone or write a short note to one whom you’ve wronged, and seek to move past some obstacle that has seemed paralyzing to you in the past.

Look, I have a confession to make.  I am out of touch with popular culture.  I have never seen or listened to Hamilton.  I’m not necessarily proud of this, but up until last week, I thought Cardi B was a diet and workout plan.    Seriously.  But listen: my all-time favorite musical is a really cheesy story – Man of La Mancha. If you want, I’ll walk you through the entire plot and even sing you the best songs, but for now let me say that I love that story because Don Quixote de la Mancha is dismissed as a fool, or treated as though he were insane, because he continues to dream about and attempt to do that which everyone around him knows is impossible.

I know that the prevailing wisdom is to hear this parable as one of judgment – to read these verses and think, “Wow, God is really ticked at these people. He’s going to punish them – and he’s going to punish you, too, if you don’t straighten up and fly right.”  That’s the easiest way to interpret this parable.

But I think that there is something to be gained in remembering that Jesus did not come so that we would all straighten up and fly right.  In the parable, the owner keeps sending messengers and eventually his own child because he can see that the current tenants are bent on overriding and demolishing his intentions for that vineyard.  Jesus came so that we would know that God’s intentions are for fruitfulness and for love.  Let us rejoice in a God who sent prophets, who sent Jesus, who sent people to us, who sends us! A God who is love over and over and over again!  All this, not so that we would fear him, or so that we would hide ourselves or some aspect of our lives from the Lord, but so that we might do the opposite and open ourselves and our lives up to the love for which we were made.

This is grace, friends, and it is for you. Thanks be to God, Amen!

The Mirror of Christ

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. The message for July 14  focuses on the ways that Francis of Assisi helps us to understand the ways that Jesus calls us to consider, and ask, some serious questions.  The scriptures included Psalm 24 and Romans 8:18-25.

Tree_SparrowThink, for a moment, about all the amazingly great ideas in the history of the world that have simply backfired.  For instance, in 1958 the Chinese government decided that since the Eurasian Tree Sparrow population of the country ate more than 10 pounds of grain per year per bird– enough to feed 60,000 people, it would be smart to get rid of the birds.  Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the sparrow became virtually extinct…and then the problems started…because while sparrows do eat grain, they also eat insects.  LOTS of insects.  Because there were no birds to eat the bugs, the bugs ate the plants…and thus began the Great Chinese Famine in which an estimated 30 million people died.

saintsofthechurchAnd the effects of a backfired great idea can last for centuries…like when the church decided, sometime around the fourth century, that while all of us are called to live faithful lives, some people do such an amazingly great job at it that they ought to be recognized…and we started to call people “saints” – people who are such great role models for us that we should notice their lives.  But what happened was that we started paying attention to only the good part of those people’s lives…and when we compared ourselves to them, we think, “Wow, I’m a really lousy Christian compared to the virgin Mary or Augustine… I guess I’m no saint.” And then we let ourselves off the hook, because, after all, only saints can be super holy and really faithful, and so the result is that we wind up compartmentalizing or “taming” some gifted Christ-followers and diminishing our ability to be faithful.

Perhaps no one person, at least to Protestants, is a better example of this than Francis of Assisi.  Have you heard of him?  A 13th century Christian leader who has become associated with a love of nature and animals?  Do you know that prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”?  Yeah, he didn’t write it.  So far as we know, that was written in a French magazine in 1912.  So the one thing that most Americans associate with St. Francis is not accurate…but I am here to tell you that this brother of ours has something to teach the church in the 21st century.

Italy_mapFrancis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, in central Italy, near the end of the 12th century.  Before we say anything about Francis, let me remind you of the state of the world at that time.  The so-called “dark ages” were ending, and the Renaissance was just around the corner.  Humans were leaving feudalism and barbarianism behind and experimenting with democracy and new freedoms for many.  The church at this point was old.  One writer has put it this way:

The Church was already a good deal more than a thousand years old… And she looked old then; almost as old as she does now; possibly older than she does now…The Church had topped her thousand years and turned the corner for the second thousand; she had come through the Dark Ages in which nothing could be done except desperate fighting against the barbarians and the stubborn repitition [sic] of the creed… The Church looked old then as now; and there were some who thought her dying as now…The freshness and freedom of the first Christians seemed then as much as now a lost and almost prehistoric age of gold…[1]

FrancisSoldierInto this world, Francis was born, and he lived what has been described as “a high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man”.  He trained as a soldier to fight in Assisi’s army, and was captured and held hostage for more than a year.  His father paid a ransom and he returned, although in ill health.  After recuperating, at least somewhat, he prepared to set out for battle once more – but the night before he was to depart he had a vision calling him to a life of simplicity and poverty – and in that vision, he was told to rebuild the church.

At first, he assumed that meant to rebuild the church in his hometown, which was suffering from neglect and in sore need of repair.  Francis sold all of his possessions to buy building materials, and when that was not enough, he sold some of his father’s, too.  His father, none too pleased, had him arrested and hauled into court.  The judge was trying to make it easy on Francis, and said, essentially, “Look, apologize and give the money back and there’s no harm…”  But Francis was resolute, and turned his back on his family and his wealth – he stripped his clothes off and left them on the courtroom floor, vowing to never again owe anything to any man.  He began to beg for building supplies, and then came to see that perhaps he was being called to rebuild the church as a whole, rather than the church building.

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

To this end, he attracted some followers and he founded three orders of Christian service.  The first of these, “The Little Brothers”, or “The Order of the Friars Minor”, consisted of men who slept on the ground and ate what they could find as they preached the gospel of peace and reconciliation.  “The Order of St. Clare” was begun for women who experienced a similar call, and later on, the third order allowed for a world-wide following of Francis’ lifestyle.

Francis was known for his commitment to creation and the environment.  There are scores of stories that point to his preaching to the animals and his connection with nature.  In fact, Francis is credited with being the first person to ever set up a nativity scene in which the animals welcomed the birth of the Christ child.

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

As he aged, Francis became increasingly concerned with the rising conflict in the Middle East.  In 1219, he went to Egypt where the Christians from Europe were attacking the Muslims from North Africa.  He begged the Christian commander to stop the assault, and he was refused.  Unarmed, he walked into the Muslim camp and found the Sultan, al-Kamil.  He said to the man, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.”  He said that he would stay with the Sultan and teach him about Christ.  While the Muslim was reputed to have said, “If all Christians were like this, I would most certainly become one!”, in the end, he wavered.  At this point, Francis issued a challenge: light a big fire in the midst of the city, and Francis and one of the Muslim imams would walk into the blaze – Francis was convinced that he would survive unharmed and thus prove the truth of Christ’s claims.  The Sultan turned down this offer, but offered Francis money, which he refused.  Eventually the Sultan asked Francis to leave because he was afraid that his men would be attracted to the Gospel that this funny little Italian was preaching.

Francis returned to Italy and worked to lay the foundations for his religious orders.  As his health diminished, he handed leadership of the movement to others and sought increasing times of solitude and silence.  He died in 1226, leaving a legacy of thousands of followers.

As we look at the life of Francis in our own context, it seems to me that there are several challenges that he might bring to the church and the culture of the 21st century.

The first of these, and perhaps least-surprising given his legacy, is the affirmation brought to us in Romans 8 that the creation matters.  As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of stories about Francis and the animals.  One of the most famous involves the town of Gubbio, which was being terrorized by a vicious wolf that was so ravenous that it ate not only farm animals, but people, too.  The townspeople took up arms and went into the forest to kill all the wolves.  Francis begged them to stop, and went into the woods to find the beast.  He is said to have made the sign of the cross and command the wolf to lay down, and he said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to make peace with the townspeople – you must each stop harming the other.”  The wolf somehow indicated to Francis that he needed to eat, and so he killed.  Francis led the wolf into town, and made the townspeople promise to feed the wolf as they did their own dogs.  Supposedly, the wolf “shook” with Francis and lived among the people, going door to door, for two years until it died of old age.[2]

FrancisStatueIf you see a statue of St. Francis, I can bet he’ll be holding a bird.  And it’ll be in a garden.  We connect Francis with nature.  I wonder what this Christ-follower would say about our culture’s relationship with the environment?  What would you say are the theological implications of genetically modified seeds that are changing the way that the planet eats?  What would you say are the theological implications of the factory farms on which most of our meat is produced?  You may have noticed in the news that our nation’s largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods, is being bought by the Chinese, and that’s setting off a political firestorm.  What would Francis say about the condition of those pigs, and the people who raise them?  Does God’s care for the creation extend to hogs who are confined to crates in which they cannot move, force-fed antibiotics, and create a sea of sewage that is toxic to anything in its path?

I’m not interested in arguing about any specific issue here – but I do want to note that the church of the 21st century needs voices like Francis who will help us think critically about what it means for us to exist with creation, and to steward creation in such a way so that when we are called to account before the Creator we will have a leg to stand on.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337),  St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

The other area in which I find a significant challenge from the life of Francis is echoed in the reading we heard from Psalm 24, about the earth and all its people belonging to the Lord.  I mentioned Francis’ travel to Egypt in response to the carnage that we call the Crusades. You may know that, at the end of the day, “our team” lost, and the Muslims retained control over the Holy Land and much of the Middle East. You may not know, however, that the leaders of Islam reached out to the Franciscan orders and invited them to come and be present in the Holy Land – the only western Christians permitted to remain – because they remembered, and were grateful for, the way that Francis himself treated Muslims with respect and love.

Now, this is crazy talk…and I promise, I’m not intentionally trying to get anyone angry this morning, but let me ask a foolish question.  What do you think would have happened if on the morning of September 12, 2001, we announced that we were going to send one million teachers, nurses, civil engineers, and missionaries to Afghanistan?  What if our campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq was focused, not so much on the superiority of our weaponry as the depth of our love?

I know, I know, I’m a nut job or a whacko or un-American or something terrible for asking the question.  It’s a crazy question, isn’t it?

MQ-9 "Reaper" Drone

MQ-9 “Reaper” Drone

Why?  Who determines that to be so crazy? Why is that crazier than attacking them militarily?  Right now, an MQ-9 Reaper drone costs $12,548,710.60.  In the last five years, we’ve had at least 60 drones crash in Afghanistan and Iraq and a hundred worldwide[3].  For comparison’s sake, the cost of a single drone will provide 110 people a four-year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.  What would happen if we said, “instead of bombing the daylights out of your country, we will give every one of your children a quality education?”

We will never know, of course, because we can’t even ask that kind of question in our world.  I’m a fool to have brought it up.

But Francis walked from Italy to Egypt in the middle of the Crusades because he apparently thought that we might more closely follow Jesus in seeking to make more Christians, rather than destroying all Muslims.  Not every crazy idea is Christ-like, just because it’s crazy.  But I’m here to say that the church of Jesus Christ will need more people in the 21st century who are willing to ask disturbing questions and to walk behind those questions in service to God.

G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and philosopher from the last century, called Francis the “mirror of Christ.”

Saint Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible. Exactly in the same sense Saint Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries…[4]

Francis of Assisi has given many people amazing insight into the life of faith.  He retraced the footsteps of Jesus by seeking to honor the earth and all those whom God made.  Some people who could not see Jesus at all came to love him because of something that they saw in Francis.  The question for the church today is, “Can I follow him, who followed Christ?  Can I follow him in such a way that people might see Christ in me?  Can I live gently in this world that God has made?  Can I love even those people whom I find to be offensive, or who have harmed me?”

474px-Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_by_Jusepe_de_RiberaThose are crazy questions.  Maybe it won’t surprise you to know that one of Francis’ nicknames is Le Jongleur de Dieu – which might translate as “God’s jester” or “the fool of God”.  He called his followers the Jongleurs de Dieu because he claimed for them both innocence and jollity – whilst holding them to telling the truth.  The church needs more fools like that in the 21st century.  I would encourage you to give it a try – to come up with some absolutely crazy questions in the week to come…and to ask them of Christ…and to see where they lead you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Each week during this series, I’ll be providing a one-page handout at the church to help illumine the person considered.  Below is the material that was available on July 14.

Faces at the Reunion: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Francis (from Italy) was the first Christian to set up a nativity scene!  He was a model to the church in terms of taking the words of Christ seriously and seeking to live them in his daily life.  He is widely referred to as both “the mirror of Christ” and “God’s fool”.  He strongly believed in the importance of laypersons reading and studying the Bible in their own language, and he usually wrote in the local language himself.

The Canticle of the Sun by Francis of Assisi

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
 all praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
 To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
 no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

 We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
 especially for Brother Sun,
 who is the day through whom You give us light.
 And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
 of You Most High, he bears your likeness.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars, 
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air, fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
 by which You cherish all that You have made.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire, 
through whom You light the night.
 He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth, who sustains us 
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon, for love of You bear sickness and trial.
 Blessed are those who endure in peace,
 by You Most High, they will be crowned.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
 from whom no-one living can escape.
 Woe to those who die in their sins!
 Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
 No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks, 
and serve You in all humility.

Other quotes from Francis:

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

For a detailed booklet on St. Francis written by famous curmudgeon G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), visit   It is a long read, but fascinating.  Other resources on the life of this “older brother” in the faith can be found here: