The Church of the Empty Pews

Like most of the rest of the country, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually for worship on March 22.  We had a skeleton crew inside the building (practicing good social distancing) and a vibrant connection with a community spread across three continents via Facebook live.  Our texts included Psalm 25:16-22 and John 9:1-17. 

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

To view the entire service as it was live-streamed on FaceBook, try clicking this link.  It is my understanding that one need not have FaceBook in order to view the recording.

Well, beloved, it has been a week, hasn’t it?  I am sure that you have experienced the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainties every bit as much as have I.  We watch the news, we talk to friends, we worry, we wonder, we wait and we watch.

“Stay home!”, we are told.  How fortunate we are, how blessed, to be living in this age of technology.  To think that we can comply with the mandate for “social distancing” and yet still somehow gather virtually in this fashion is, well, amazing.  And the device that you’re using right now – well, that is incredible.  To think – all of the wisdom of all of the ages; the great literature, the incomparable art, the profound knowledge that is available on this device – and yet we so often use it to post cat videos or share pictures of our food.

And we ask questions! If you have a social media account, you’ve seen people looking for recommendations to various dilemmas in their lives, or filling out quizzes as to which bands are the best, or wondering how many of the fifty states you’ve been to and how that compares with their lists.

We are questioners.  In fact, I saw recently that the average four-year-old asks a staggering 437 questions in a single day.  I suspect that some of you who are spending unexpected long stretches with the littles in your lives will back me up on this one.

Do you know who loved questions? Well, I am in church, and the answer is… Jesus.  One writer (who must’ve had time even before the age of social distancing kicked in) has indicated that Jesus asked 307 questions in the gospels.[1]  He was asked 163 questions.  Perhaps infuriatingly, for those in the room at any point, he often responded to a question with one of his own.  You know that!

The disciples ask, “where could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?” and Jesus replies, “how many loaves do you have?” (MT 15:32-34)

The jar of perfume was broken, and some present wondered, “why was this ointment wasted, when it could have been sold to benefit the poor?”  Jesus answered by asking, “Why are you bothering this woman?” (MT 26:6-10)

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (LK 4:38-40)

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)

The same writer says that Jesus only responded directly to a question with an answer a handful of times.  Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times. He’s asked a straightforward question: “Look at that blind fella, Jesus.  Who’s fault is it that he was born that way?  His? Or his folks’?”

And Jesus gives a direct answer: “Look, friends: the man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone sinning.  He was born so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”

After  announcing the works of God, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate them.  He reenacts the creation story from Genesis by taking the dust of the ground and using it to bring life and wholeness.  He brings new possibilities to this man, who has been marginalized for so long, and instructs him to rejoin, and to regain, his community. In his act of healing, Jesus opens a new pathway of wholeness and life for this man, his family, and the neighborhood.

The un-named man takes Jesus’ at his word and does just that – he re-engages with his family and his community… and then the questions really begin.  In the next ten verses, we find that the crowd asks at least three questions (“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”, “How were your eyes opened?”, and “Where is this man?”), while the religious leaders add “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” and “What do you have to say about him?”

Everybody in town wants to know something.  You see, everybody has a theory, or an idea.  Everyone has a point to prove, a judgment to pass, “fake news” to dispel.  Everybody is talking… except the guy we expect the questions from – Jesus.  He is finished talking.  He’s responded to his disciples; he’s healed the man, and he’s sent the man to be more fully himself.  For once, the questioner is silent.

Now, although I want to be a follower of Jesus, I would never attempt to put myself in the same category as Jesus.  I want to learn from him, and to grow.  And one of Jesus’ habits that I’ve picked up along the way – one which is, I know, deeply irritating to many of you – is asking questions.

Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was preparing to drive two high school students somewhere.  As they approached the car, one of them dove for the back seat, saying to her friend, “Look, you take shotgun.  I never know how to respond to all those questions Dave asks all the time.”

And it’s true.  I ask questions.  If you have a friend dealing with a traumatic illness, after we pray together, I might say, “I wonder – how does this sickness affect you?”.  A young woman lost the child she was carrying, and I asked, “how will life be different from what you had hoped?”  A student announced that he’d gotten into the college of his dreams, and I asked, “What will change about your life as a result of this?”  One of you came to me and talked about how difficult your life had been recently, and I asked, “Do you think you’d experience things otherwise if you drank less?”  I don’t always ask the right question, and I’m sure that not every question that I asks feels good… but I’m seeking to do so with sincere hopes that these questions will lead you more deeply into God’s best for yourself.

And so in that spirit, I want you to think about this.  We are in an age of pandemic.  You know people who have, or who will have, the COVID 19 virus.  You may have it right now and not even know.  How will that virus affect you?  How will it affect us?

And you can say – in all honesty and sincerity – “Geez, Pastor Dave, I don’t know.  We’ve never been here before.  This is all uncharted waters to us.”  And you’re right.  Most of us have not been here.  But the Church has.  We have gone through plagues and pestilence – while remaining ourselves.

And that is the question we need to discern, beloved.  How do we live into the calling to be the body of Christ – a very corporeal word – the BODY of Christ – at a time when corporate – bodily – gatherings are at least discouraged and probably downright dangerous?  I was speaking with a younger pastor earlier this week who said, “I don’t know, Dave… How are we gonna do this?  I mean, when people are hit by hard news – when tragedy strikes – we’re supposed to get together, aren’t we? We have special services and vigils and candles.  Are we supposed to do all this alone?”

Yes.

On the day I was ordained, I received a small calligraphy that has been on the wall of my study ever since.  In its most basic sense, it is my job description.  It is our job description.  Look:

Listen, beloved: none of that has changed.  I think that Jesus expects that we are doing those things.  The “what” has not changed… but the “how” must change, at least in the short run.  How do we do these things that we’ve always done when we can’t act the ways we’ve always acted?

Thomas Pettepiece was an Irish Methodist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his book Visions of a World Hungry he recounts his experience of an Easter Sunday that taught him that we can do what we have always been called to do even when we don’t think we have what we have always had.  Listen:

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion— without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [Another man] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.”[2]

We who have always had the benefit of being able to gather freely, and to share abundantly, and to hug warmly – we are crying out: “How can we do this?  How in the world are we supposed to give to the work of the Lord when there are not even any collection plates, and when we’re not sure what is happening with our jobs?  How can we notice who’s missing when none of us are supposed to be here?  How do we love when we can’t even see each other?”

Oh, beloved… let us ask God to unleash creativity in the church today.  Let us press to discover new ways of doing these eternal tasks.  Let us commit to intentional connectivity, to seeking windows of vulnerability, to read and reflect and pray as though those things really matter, and to give as generously as we can in ways that make a difference in the world today.

And above all else, dear people of God, I charge you this day to remember how deep and dark and cold and desperate these days feel.  I charge you to remember how scared you have been, or how desperately you have really wanted to know, or be, or do something other than that which has been open to you in the past few days.  I charge you to remember the depths of pain and loss that you see in your neighbors – the people you love – today.  Remember these things – and when it gets better, as it surely will, remember these things the next time you are tempted to scorn a refugee or scoff at someone who is running for their lives. Remember that in our neighborhood, many of us were fighting over toilet paper.  How will this experience affect us? I hope and pray that it makes us better human beings, more able to recognize and live into the Divine Image in which we are each created.

And in your remembering, dear ones, I charge you to live lightly this day.  To do all that you can to treat the earth well, and to seek to heal it, rather than to dominate it.  I charge you to deal gently and kindly with your neighbors – the ones you already love and those whom you’ve been instructed to love but you haven’t quite gotten there yet.  And I charge to you behave as though you expect that the presence and glory of God is revealed in the ways that you and I enact the love of Jesus in this world.

If we can live in those ways, dear ones… then we will become the church of the empty pews and the full hearts.  Thanks be to the God who has called us to be his own.  Amen.

After the sermon, I shared with the congregation a rendition of a song that has meant a great deal to me in trying times.  It is James Ward’s take on “Rock of Ages”, and if you’d like you can hear me sing it by using the media player below.

[1] Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That He Answered, Martin Copenhaver (Abingdon, 2014).

[2] From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas Pettepiece, quoted in A Guide to Prayer (Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 143-144.

Faithful Living in a Fearful Age

The saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights chose to gather in varied ways on March 15.  Some of us were present in “real time” and others joined in virtually via a simulcast.  Still others are participating by reading or hearing the message here.  As we join our world in considering what it means to live a faithful response to COVID-19 we listened to the ancient words of Psalm 27 as well as the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 10:28-31.

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

If you know me at all, you know that from time to time I find myself gripped by what I call “the fever”, and I am compelled to engage in a rigorous course of hydrotherapy.  When it gets really bad, I have to drive to a special spot near Lake Erie and soak my feet in cold water for six or eight hours at a time.  I find that when I am holding a fishing rod, such treatment for steelhead fever is 100% effective.

THIS is a steelhead – the result of “hydrotherapy!”

One day I invited a friend to join me for the experience.  Although this person had gone fishing before, including some visits to the river with me, this was her first trip for steelhead.  As we stood side by side in the creek, throwing the same bait at the same school of fish, I became aware of an uncomfortable truth:  I caught three or four really nice fish, while my friend’s bait had not gotten any attention at all.  I wasn’t sure what to say when she broached the subject herself, saying, “You know what, Dave? This is a fantastic day.  I mean, I wish I was catching fish, but the weather is fine, I’m with my friend, and the countryside is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter that I haven’t caught anything.  Thank you so much for bringing me!”

Well, as you can imagine, that really made me feel better. I turned, and said, “I’m relieved to hear you say that, because I was afraid that you weren’t enjoying yourself…”  And as I was speaking, my line tightened with yet another good-size fish.  She threw her rod aside, came over to me, and said, “All right, just give me that #*&% fishing pole!”  She jerked the line, and sought to get the fish to land, but it broke off.  She returned the rod to me without a word, and I knew enough to be sure that I wasn’t going to say anything.

And then five minutes later, her own bobber went under, and she set the hook and managed to land a really nice fish.  As I scooped it up with the net, she let out a whoop and a holler and exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! Oh, this feels so great!”  She plopped down on the bank, and I sat next to her and helped her to unhook the fish.  Feigning wonder, I said, “I don’t get it.  What about ‘it doesn’t matter who catches fish and who doesn’t’ and ‘it’s a great day no matter what’?”  She stared me down and said, “Yeah, well, that.  It’s all BS Dave. Trust me.  This is better.”

Why do I tell you that story today?

Because we live in a time when our theories (“it doesn’t really matter who catches a fish”) are coming face to face with our behaviors (“gimme that #*&% pole right now!”).  Stuff is getting very, very real here in the 15205, and if it hasn’t hit you already, it will very soon.  In the wake of the COVID-19 “coronavirus”, the stock market has plunged, and some of you are really concerned about your savings.  Schools and universities have closed, parades and events are cancelled; we are fighting over toilet paper and denuding the supermarket shelves – and all of that happened when the closest verified case was in Cleveland.  We were already responding, not only with wisdom and prudence but we had begun to lose our minds when it wasn’t even here yet!

What’s going to happen when you find out that your child’s teacher, your neighbor, your pastor – has tested positive for the virus?

It’s bad.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s going to get worse.  And it is not pretty.  One of you told me earlier this week about your doctor’s office.  The staff had set out a hundred masks as a courtesy to those who were in the waiting room.  Within moments, the box was emptied by frantic parents stashing them away for personal use.  You’ve seen the toilet paper aisles. From hand sanitizer to canned food to spaghetti, we are hoarding resources.

It is not a good look, friends, particularly when so many of those who are panicking are claiming to adhere to some version of the Christian faith.

What are we supposed to do when the virus comes to our street?

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.

For many years, I showed a particular film clip to confirmation classes.  In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero has come to an ancient archeological dig in search of the Holy Grail – the cup that Christ used at the last supper.  The Nazis, seeking the cup for their own purposes, are convinced that Jones can find it – but know that he won’t help them.  So they shoot Indy’s father, wounding him mortally, and turn to the adventurer and say, “Now, Dr. Jones, is the time for you to decide what you believe.”

In other words, for Indiana Jones, the moment that his father is lying there bleeding, the question of whether there is healing in the cup is no longer merely academic speculation.  Is there hope and healing to be found, or not?

Similarly, many of us in Pittsburgh at the start of the 21st century have led such charmed lives that we have never seen a threat like the coronavirus before.  If you look at the panic on the internet, the fear in people’s eyes, and the hoarding at the grocery stores, it’s as if we’ve never seen pain and discomfort like this before.

That’s a lie.

Today, I need to stand here as your pastor and remind you that you have, in fact, seen pain, and fear, and discomfort before.  While there is a lot that is new in this current situation, the underlying emotion and tension is not new.  In the past, when you’ve encountered fear and difficulty, has it led you to question your faith, to doubt God, or to take stock of your relationships?  For some of you, the answer is yes.  And in some cases, you may have found your own faith strengthened as a result of trial.

In any case, my point is this: while COVID-19 is evidently a new phenomenon, we’ve all been here before.  And when we’ve stood at the brink of pain and fear and loss and even death before, what did we think?

Historically, we have held to the truth that God is here.  Pain is real, but pain is not forever.

In fact, 3000 years ago the Psalmist wrote that fear is not God’s intention for God’s children.  We are created, he says, for confidence, for community, and for compassion.  Psalm 27 is a bold hymn of hope and assurance giving voice to the fundamental truth that I need not live in fear, I need not live in loneliness, and I need not live in hostility.  Because God is here, the Psalmist writes, these things can be banished.  Because God is present, he affirms, I can be confident of seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living.

And yet, here’s the thing: the guy who wrote that Psalm? He’s dead.  He is no longer a resident of “the land of the living”.  And it’s not just him.  Everyone who sang that song with him – gone.  All of the folks who heard Jesus say, “God will protect you…you are worth more than a sparrow – in fact the hairs on your head are numbered…” – all of those folks have succumbed to something or other.

So what?

Does this mean that they had a faulty belief structure? Were they wrong? Was their theology bad?  I mean, let’s be honest: God did not save them from war, pestilence, or persecution.

And the faithful of their age – and, I would argue, every age – would say, “No, we were not wrong!  We came to see a greater truth: that in these finite, limited lives we’ve been given we can get a glimpse into how it ought to be, how it’s meant to be, and how it’s going to be.  In the weakness of our present state, we affirm that weakness is not God’s intent – but we also affirm that even now, in all our brokenness, we can begin to participate in the fulness of life as it is meant to be.”

In times of crisis, pain, fear, and death, we can act as those who trust in God; we can choose to behave as those who believe that goodness is the Divine intent and the ultimate end for all of creation.

This is the time to get it right, beloved!  Today is the day to act like we actually believe what we’ve said all along!

Look, let’s say that they come up with a cure for COVID-19 tomorrow.  They come through your neighborhood with a giant can of something or other and spray the stuff all over everything and by lunchtime tomorrow the disease is totally wiped out.

Even if that were to happen, is there anyone in this room who seriously believes that the next twelve months will bring only good?  If somehow we eliminate the coronavirus, will we be spared from all pain, loss, and grief?

Of course not!  No matter what happens with this virus, the one thing of which you and I can be assured is that in the coming weeks and months we will experience trouble.  We will be tempted to give into fear and allow selfishness and greed to define our behavior.

So dear ones, please, please, please – let us remember today, and tomorrow, and six months from now when most of us will be standing on the other side of this thing that God has NOT created us for fear or for selfishness, but rather for confidence, community, and compassion.

If we can agree with the Psalmist and the Gospel Writer that these are God’s intentions for us, then let us live into these values and traits today.  Let us commit ourselves to participating in those aspects of eternity that have been opened to us at this very moment!

You know this! For centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of living graciously and generously, reminding people that God’s care and love are always present, even in the darkest of hours.  Followers of Jesus have built hospitals and shared food; we have prayed with the sick, the dying, and the outcast; we have sought to bring comfort to the afflicted.

Let us live into those best parts of ourselves and our story today and in all the days to come as we seek to love our neighbors.  Love them as you wash your hands, as you act prudently when you are compelled to be out and about, and as you live with the sure and certain hope that what we can see is not all there is and it is certainly not forever.

The 27th Psalm ends by saying that the writer would have given up hope if he had not believed that he would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Beloved, the charge to you this week is simple: be that hope.  Be that goodness as you shop, and as you stay at home; as you reach out via a card or call or FaceTime to someone for whom the isolation would be crippling or even deadly. Be that Christ in the world this week.

If we cannot live this way this week, we will sound just as disingenuous and hollow as my friend at the fishing hole.  This is NOT just a load of BS.  This is why we were made.  Thanks be to God for who God has been, and for who God is, and for the ways in which God continues to come to us. Live your faith like you mean it, my friends.  And push me to do the same.  Amen.

Walking the Path

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 10, we considered The Apostles’ Creed and sat with the Word of God as found in Matthew 28:16-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4.

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

What do you think of when you I say the word “footpath”?  What are the mental images that brings to you?  I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment now and get a picture of a footpath in your mind – a trail that you have known.  Think about what footpaths have done in your life.

It seems to me that footpaths can fulfill one of two main functions.  There are a number of us who have been thinking of paths that we have followed as escapes and adventures.  We’ve been driving down a main road and at some point, it seemed like a good idea to get out and walk.  Many years ago I was a passenger in a car that Don Prevost was driving.  We were going over the hills in West Virginia, and it was just beautiful.  But then someone saw a little trail leading from the edge of the road, and Don found a place to park.  We clambered out of the car, and followed the path only to discover an incredible vista of huge boulders looking down onto a pristine valley.  Our children – much younger then – discovered wild blueberry bushes, and we spent a couple of hours – unplanned, unanticipated hours – leaping around in the sun, picking berries, and enjoying the world God has made.  The footpath got us there – it led us to a blessing we’d have missed otherwise.

But maybe you are thinking of a different sort of path altogether.  Maybe you remember a camping trip or a hike of some sort, when you got lost in the woods. When you were ready to panic, you saw the blazes painted on the tree nearby and that led you to follow the path that led you to safety.  When you to think of paths, you think of trails that were there to safeguard you from getting lost, to protect you from the dangers that lurked off the beaten path.  I’m remembering a trail that we walked along while in South Africa, and there were crocodiles, hippos, and leopards in the neighborhood.  Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice that it was a bad idea to leave the marked trail – I stayed on that path like nobody’s business – because I believed that the path was the key to my survival.

On the one hand, then, we can think of footpaths as guides that can serve to introduce us to certain aspects of life or our environments that we’d never have a chance to see.  On the other hand, those paths can also serve to protect us from getting overwhelmed by some aspect of our surroundings that could potentially threaten us.

Now I want you to picture a new footpath.  It’s in a cave.  It’s dark.  There are a few torches here and there.  It’s dank, and it smells like there’s not been any fresh air for a while.  You are a part of a procession of Christians going into the catacombs – the caves that surround Rome.  It’s time for worship, and you know that the Emperor has recently murdered several of your friends for the “crime” of confessing Jesus as Lord.  Nevertheless, there are several people with you tonight who are eager to follow in The Way.  They want to declare their faith in Jesus.  Because they are new, it’s the first time that they’ve been into the catacombs with the other believers.  When the worship begins, the leader brings them to the front of the group and asks them to answer publicly the questions of faith: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” he asks.  The converts answer with one word:  “Credo”, which is the Latin word for “I believe.”  “Do you believe in Jesus Christ His Son?”  “Credo”.  And so it goes.  Each element of the church’s teaching is affirmed by the converts as they embrace the truth of the Faith.

Last week we began a series of messages on some of the Creeds of the church.  Do you see why we call them the creeds?  How does the Apostle’s Creed start?  “I believe . . .”  And how would you translate that into Latin?  “Credo”.

The Apostles Receiving Inspiration from The Holy Spirit, illustration from Somme le Roi, a 13th century manuscript.

This morning we’re going to consider the Apostle’s Creed as a footpath to faith that the Christian Church has used for centuries. Unlike the Nicene Creed, which we discussed last week, the Apostle’s Creed did not come out of a single crisis in the church, but rather was developed over a period of about 700 years.  There’s a legend which states that this Creed was authored by the Apostles ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, but that is not the case.  The Apostle’s Creed, like the Nicene before it, was an attempt by the church to come together and provide some uniform statement of belief that could be shared by a number of churches.

For many of us, it’s a well-known pathway.  Some of you probably had to memorize this statement in order to join a church; some of us learned it along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you’d like to look through the faith as I discuss it, you can find it on page 35 of your hymnal.

When the creed was being developed, it served to guide people to a deeper understanding of the faith.  In the early days of Christianity, most of the world was illiterate.  There was no such thing as FaithBuilders or youth group – people learned the faith from one another through relationships and practice.  The creed came to summarize the orthodox faith of the church, and gave people a memorable statement of what was true.  Early Christians thought that the creed helped them to fulfill the command of Jesus in Matthew 28: to “baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded”.

Benediction of God the Father, Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565

As you look at the Apostles’ Creed, you can see it as a pathway that’s deepened people’s understanding of God.  Just the very first line, for instance:  “I believe in God, the Father almighty.”  I have a friend who, upon hearing that line, said, “Wow, that’s a lot of gender right there!”  For some people, referring to God as “Father” raises a real difficulty: we think of “father” in contrast to “mother”, and so we wonder: is the purpose of this sentence to affirm the masculinity of the Divine?  But the early church, along with the cultures who produced the writing that led to the Bible presumed a patriarchal structure.  When the first Christians said that God was “Father”, they were not claiming a gender for God, but rather affirming that the Creator was a personal being who had a parental affection over and involvement in the Creation.  For them, “father” stood in contrast, not to “mother”, but to a distant power or impersonal entity!  The creed begins with an affirmation that God is as close as a loving parent.

The Apostle’s Creed is a footpath that is well worn for many of us, and surely for our predecessors in the faith.  Like some of the best paths you’ve been on, it didn’t develop in a day, or even a week, or even, as was the case for the Nicene Creed last week, in fifty years.  For generations, Christians recited something that sounded a lot like this document, and from time to time as the church needed to, it was edited in order to make sure that nothing important was left out.  For these folks – and for us – the creed is a living document that will help us express what we believe in a changing world.  Let’s talk about a couple of those changes.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661 – 1669.

The earliest versions of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed did not have the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”.  That clause was added in the second and third centuries.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the church has always been about forgiveness!  However, in the early days of our faith, when confessing Christ was considered an act of treason against the Roman emperor, it was not uncommon for individuals to flee the church or deny the faith during a time of intense stress and persecution.  Later, some of those folks returned to their community and said that they wanted to re-claim the faith and to reassert its primacy in their lives.  Church leaders added the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” because every believer needed to know that forgiveness is the air we breathe – it is who we are!

You know, if you were to walk up the stairs behind you and stroll through the Preschool area, you’d see a lot of art hanging on the walls.  If I told you we had a vast art collection upstairs, and you ran up to find something amazing, you’d be disappointed.  Why? Because most of that isn’t, by any objective measure, very good.  It’s not like something you’d expect to find hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in the Louvre.  Of course it isn’t – because it was made by three and four year-olds.  Those are the people we have in the building, making art in this place.

Similarly, if you walk into this place (or any church) expecting to see only perfect models of faithfulness and forgiveness, you’re going to feel let down.  Why? Because the only people you’re going to find at the church are people who know that we are good at sinning and in need of forgiveness.  We have to affirm a faith that knows a liberality of forgiveness because we know the prevalence of brokenness in our lives and in the world. When the church says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” the church is saying that there is always room for people to come home to the church.

And that leads to another modification that was made a couple of hundred years later.  The church in Africa added the phrase, “I believe in the holy catholic church” because they were, at that time, engaged in a vigorous discussion as to who actually could be considered a “member” of the church.  Was the Body of Christ an elite club, reserved for those who had achieved some real distinction in matters of faith and doctrine?  A “who’s who” of faithful superheroes?  Or is the church an inclusive group made up of any who can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

As those sisters and brothers wrestled with that, they came to understand that the church is, by definition, “holy”.  That is, it belongs to God, not to any human.  It is comprised of those who have heard God’s call, not who have been able to pass some sort of theological examination.  And more than that, it is “catholic”.  By this, they meant that it is universal.  It is for all people, in all places and cultures. It does not belong to us.

Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499.

The last edit that I’d like to mention this morning is one that still may catch a few of us off-guard: in the fifth century, the words, “he descended into hell” were written into the creed.  There were a growing number of people who came to be known as “Docetists” that were speaking into the church.  The Greek word dokein can be translated as “to seem”; dokesis can be understood as “an apparition”.  This sect taught that while Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be a regular guy, in reality, he was simply God wearing a man-suit.  The reason he could pull off all those miracles and eventually rise from the dead, the Docetists taught, was that he wasn’t really human to begin with.  He was Divine, and appeared to be a normal guy, but don’t let that fool you.

And when they said that Jesus “descended into hell”, the word for “hell” that is used in the creed is not the word for “Gehenna”, or a place of torture to which unsavory dead are consigned for punishment.  No, the word here is sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek – a word that reflects the state of one who is physically dead.  The church affirmed that the death Jesus entered into was not a “near” death or an “apparent” death, but rather a “really dead” death.  Jesus of Nazareth, who as the letter to the Hebrews affirms is the reflection and image of God the Father, died a real death.  The implication of that is that there is no place, including my own death, where the love of Christ is not present.  Even in the most bereft, the darkest, the most anguished of places – the Light of the World is apparent.

So having heard all of that, let me ask you a few questions: Do you believe in God the Father?  If so, simply follow your ancestors of the faith and say, “Credo”.  Go ahead, use the Latin word!

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, who descended into hell? (“Credo”)

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin and in one holy catholic church? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that God has blessed your life? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that we are called to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? (“Credo”)

And do you believe, like me, that God is longing to use the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights to reach people and to change lives? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that YOU can be a blessing to others? (“Credo”)

Then please, beloved, please, stay on the path that’s been trodden before us.  Live as though you believe what you’ve said.

Go out from this place and live as though you believe that forgiveness is normative.  Act like someone who has needed it, and who has received it.  Practice giving it away.  Join with the church of all ages in remembering that the world, and you, and me – it’s all broken.  And that the world, and you, and me – it’s all made whole in Jesus.

And go out from this place remembering that it is not “yours”.  That you and the rest of these people are not somehow “better”, or holier, or closer to God’s love than the folks who slept in this morning, or who somehow felt unable to be here.  We are a group of seekers whose chief qualification for membership in this place is that we are great sinners in need of a deep healing and we have responded to God’s call by being here.

And go out from this place committed to carrying the light of Christ into the dark corners of your world.  Jesus himself descended into hell… surely you and I can make it through the rough patches that next Tuesday or a week from Thursday might bring to us.  We can know and affirm that here – but you may be the means by which one of your neighbors discovers that there is nothing so dead that it cannot stand in line for resurrection.

Thanks be to God for the pathways that lead us to hope and love because of Jesus, the Christ!  Amen. 

Are You Sure About This, God?

Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.

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

The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time.  Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.

Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water.  The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.

When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero.  He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time:  “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”[1]

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance.  As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning.  Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known.  Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.

My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers.  Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door.  And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.

Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible.  There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts.  Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful.  And God uses Ananias in a huge way.

When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision.  God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.”  What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name.  Any ideas on who that might be?  Who might hear their name?  “Abraham, Abraham.”  “Here I am, Lord.”  “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.”  “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.”  Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.

So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words.  In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone.  Not just anyone, but Saul.  Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus.  God spells it out pretty clearly.  And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news?  This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic.  All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me.  Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”

And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!”  God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.

And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians.  He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.

And look at how he does it!  Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude?  I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved.  And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now!  What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?”  After all, Saul was a bad guy.  Why is Ananias so nice to him?

Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him.  And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly.  “Brother Saul…” he said.  And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.

Whose eyes did the scales fall from?  Saul’s, right?  But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes?  Sure they could have.  It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear.  I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear.  It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight.    Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he?  He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children –  that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.

But it might have been more than that, too.  Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved.  And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change.  I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider.  But he didn’t.  He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.

Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today.  First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved.  Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe.  And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus.  God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience.  No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me.  I’ll take care of him.”

The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it.  The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering.  The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.  He delivered me from all my fears.”  The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.

What are you afraid of?  What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world?  Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do?  Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself?  Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?

There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”  In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way.  Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time.  Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.

The Baptism of St. Paul, mosaic from the Palatine Chapel (Sicily), c. 1140

The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept.  God’s power turns enemies into family.  When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.”  Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.”  The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.

Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one.  Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor.  I know that one.”  One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together.  You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that.  And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001.  And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001.  You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago.  You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to.  But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.

OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out.  When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well.  So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other.  And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet.  And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.

After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again.  He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him.  And then he disappears from our view.  But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes?  You know that he didn’t.  Who will remember you?  And why?

[1]  Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119

Anybody Want a Sandwich?

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.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  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. 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Alive

The people at the Crafton Heights church have been spending this Lent listening to the words of scripture – in particular, the scriptures set to music in the context of Handel’s Messiah.  Many of these ideas are explored in great depth in the excellent Kerygma resource, Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel’s Messiah.  On March 19, our scripture text was The 22nd Psalm.  

 

I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the power of music in your life. How does what you hear shape who you are, what you feel, and how you look at things? I would suggest that for most of us, there are some songs that mean so much to us that when we hear even a snippet of them, we are reminded of something that is much larger, much more important than the few bars of music we encounter.

And, at the risk of losing you for the entire sermon, I’d like to show you what I mean.  Click here and listen to the song…  It’s OK.  I’ll wait…

If you know and like these movies, I bet that right now you are aware of the truth that there are no odds that are insurmountable; you know that you have to stay strong even in defeat; and that you can push yourself – you are reminded of these things simply because you heard a couple of lines of music.

Let’s try it again.  Try this one…

Again, some of you are transported to a place where things are not always as they seem, and where innocence matters, and where self-sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the universe… And the rest of you? You’re just Muggles, that’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

We could go on, but you know where I’m heading… I can tell a lot about you simply by looking at your playlists or seeing your music collection.

Why does this matter today?

Because we are in the season of Lent – a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation that leads us to Holy Week, where we commemorate the suffering, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. And as we approach that week, we do well to note that both Matthew and Mark go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was thinking about a particular song when he died. In fact, each of these Gospels indicates that the last intelligible thing Jesus uttered prior to his death was “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those words form the Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, which you heard (in English) a few moments ago.

It was customary in Jesus’ time, as in our own, to use a few phrases from a song or scripture text to bring the entire passage to mind. Because Jesus died singing Psalm 22, we often look at that scripture and say, “Wow – that song really is all about Jesus: it talks about his death, and his rejection, and the ways that his clothes were divided…”

And when we do that, it’s unfortunate because if we make Psalm 22 some sort of a magic incantation that predicts specific details of Jesus’ life and death a thousand years into the future, we will lose sight of some important truths in both the Psalm and in Jesus’ life.

Psalm 22 is not about Jesus. Jesus was about Psalm 22. The fact that this prayer, this song, was present to him as he endured such torment and that he chose to make that song present to those who waited with and watched him die makes that song important to us this Lent as well.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist – more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Like many other Psalms, this particular scripture is a song of lament. There is a structure. For instance, if you remember anything about poetry, you’ll remember that a Haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged in lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The structure of these poems informs the meaning, and vice-versa.

A typical lament has five parts: there is an invocation, a complaint, a statement of trust, a request for God to act, and a brief expression of praise. When you sing a lament, you are right to expect these things in this order.

Psalm 22 is remarkable among the Psalms of lament because there is really no overt expression of trust in God’s power or presence in the moment. The psalmist, going through one of the most difficult times of his life, knows all of the “right answers” that he learned in Sunday school… but he was still afraid that maybe God was not paying attention to him, or worse –that God didn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows that others have trusted God; he knows that he should trust God, but he finds that such trust is exceedingly difficult to come by at this moment.

Crucifixion (2008) by Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Could that have been why Jesus was thinking about these words as he hung on the cross? Could it be that maybe he was having a very, very difficult time trusting his Father to see this thing through to completion?

Or was it perhaps that he brought this Psalm to mind for the sake of those whom he loved who were watching him die? In raising this particular lament, was he acknowledging to them that faith and trust and hope are sometimes incredibly difficult to come by?

Do you ever feel that way? You want to trust, you want to believe, but WOW is it hard on some days… If I’m right about some of this, then your struggles to always have faith don’t necessarily take you away from Jesus – they may make you more like Jesus.

The other thing that is remarkable about Psalm 22 as a song of lament is the fact that the praise and thanksgiving section is five or ten times longer than in most of the other Psalms of lamentation.

Moreover, the praises here are not limited only to the singer. This Psalm begins with a deeply personal cry for help but it ends with the declaration that praise is due God from not only all of Israel, but those from every nation, and the ends of the earth, and even those who have already died or who are yet to be born.

What starts off as an individual’s heartfelt cry of pain and isolation (“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”) is somehow transformed in the life of the Psalmist to a song of praise that stretches not only across the entire globe but through eternity as well. In mentioning the dead who will praise God, this Psalm offers us a quick glimpse of resurrection hope.

Could it be that Jesus, in calling this psalm to mind at the moment of his own greatest anguish and pain, held out hope to himself and for his followers that pain, suffering, darkness, and crucifixion are not all that there is? Could it be that as he hung on the cross he needed to know – and he needed us to know – that there is more to the song – but we can only experience that “more” after we come through the suffering or the isolation or the grief?

Many churches, including Crafton Heights, have adopted the practice of “burying the alleluias” during Lent. You may have noticed that we’re not singing, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, or any other song that includes the word “Alleluia”. “Alleluia”, of course, is an expression of praise or thanksgiving that is the Hebrew word meaning “praise God”. For many Christians, the word is a spontaneous expression of joy or thanks because of some great blessing that has been received. Churches often “hide” the Alleluia during Lent as a means of saying that there are times of great joy and there are times when our greatest hopes are realized, but there are also times when those things seem so far away. During our Lenten time of reflection and repentance, we practice a “fast” from the Alleluias not because they are not true, but because it’s not time for them right now…

Each of us, at some point in our lives, walks through a season of darkness and pain. We know the horror of betrayal or the anguish of a bad prognosis or the sapping power of doubt and uncertainty… and when we experience these things, the last thing in the world we want to see is some chipper, happy-clappy friend come bounding into the room telling us to get over it, to “turn that frown upside down”, to get busy or distracted and just feel better, gosh darn it…

In each of our lives, there are times when it is all we can do to simply sit in the dark and experience the grief or the shock or the pain. Often, during those times, it’s better if a friend is there to sit with us – not because that person is able to take away the grief or the shock or the pain, but somehow their presence validates our experience of it and offers some sort of mute testimony to the fact that this, too, can be endured.

Psalm 22 is a cry from a dark and painful place that somehow points to a deep hope that, while even though it appears to be hidden or buried, has always been there and will always be there.

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I mentioned on Wednesday night that a number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem with my daughter. One of the most moving experiences came to me in a place of which I’d never heard: The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Most of the church is dedicated to the memory of Peter’s denial of Jesus (“gallicantu” means “cock’s crowing” in Latin). The church was built on what is believed to have been the site of the High Priest’s palace. I found it to be a fascinating place…

The upper levels were interesting enough, but it was the basement that got me.  Down below was a dungeon that dated from the first century.  The signs were clear: We have no way of knowing this, but since this dungeon is fairly close to what was the High Priests’ residence at the time of Jesus, there’s a chance that this is where Jesus, and later the Apostles, would have been imprisoned by the authorities.  In a very subdued manner, the signs explained the way that the dungeon was laid out.  And there, at the darkest, lowest, point of the dungeon was a simple stand with the text of Psalm 88 – like Psalm 22, a Psalm of complaint and lament.

Lower Level, St. Peter Gallicantu

In the dungeon, St. Peter in Gallicantu.

 

The basement of St. Peter’s in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I’d been to the so-called “Upper Room”; I’d visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane; and I’d seen at least two places that claimed to be the empty tomb of the resurrection, but I am here to tell you that it was not until I cried out to God in weakness, in darkness, and in isolation did I have some sense that those deep and hidden places are not the end of the story.

Jesus wanted us to sing the song of despair because he knows that the despair is real and true and has power in our lives. It was thus for the Psalmist in 1000 BC. It was brought to life by Jesus on the day that he died. And I suspect that it is true for you, too – at least some of the time. And on those days when it feels as though the pain will overwhelm you and when the alleluias seem buried forever, then please, beloved know this:

It’s ok to be there.

It’s ok to wonder where God is and how things work.

But know this, too: that the song is not over. You have heard the song – but only a part of it. Lent is not forever. Remember that nothing that is buried – not Jesus, not alleluias, not your or me – nothing stays buried forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen.