There IS A Balm

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of Advent, December 2 2018, we talked about the second occasion in that Gospel wherein Jesus restores sight to one who has been blind. We noticed that this passage is intended by the editor of Mark to be a commentary on discipleship and faith – it was so in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first as well.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 10:46-52.  We also referenced Jeremiah 8:18-22.

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

I’ve come to notice something over the years, and perhaps you have, too. Often times when I am getting toward the end of a sermon, our musicians will slide into place behind their instruments. Sometimes I wonder how they know I’m getting close – they don’t have an advance copy or anything – but they pick up on my rhythm or content or pace and often find themselves in position at the close of the message.  Our friend Brian Buckley was a master at this – it was mystifying, and a little spooky, how good he was at knowing when I was done.  In fact, he was so good at it that there were a couple of times when I heard him slide onto the organ bench behind me when I still had a page and a half to go on the message that I wondered, “Wait…should I be done now?”

Of course, if you ask the musicians, they’ll say, “Gee, you listen to a guy for a couple of years/decades, and you kind of get a feel for where he’s going.  There are clues to be heard…”  And because they pick up on these clues, there are shifts in the content and direction of our worship that day.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, Robert Hodgell, c. 1960

I bring that up this morning because as we hear our Gospel reading for today, we ought to be attentive to some clues that are there.  This is the second and last time that Mark reports the healing of a person who was blind.  I think that when Mark mentions the fact that Bartimaeus was blind, he wants us to think back to the lasttime a person’s sight was restored.  In chapter 8, the healing of the man in Bethsaida marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Prior to that miracle, Jesus seemed to be focusing his ministry on a proclamation of the Good News throughout the Galilee that often featured large groups and great wonders (such as the feeding of the 5000).  The incident in Bethsaida effectively closed that part of Jesus’ ministry and led to a new emphasis: one that was focused more intentionally on the disciples and those around him.  After the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, we hear Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, we see the transfiguration, and we listen to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection as he leaves the Galilee and walks toward his destiny in Jerusalem.

Today’s passage – another encounter with a sightless person – therefore is meant to send another signal: there are changes ahead.  We see that Jesus is in Jericho, which is only fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem, and so we ought to expect this story to serve as a bridge between that which we’ve already experienced in the Gospel and that which is to come.

And, in a lot of ways, the encounter with Bartimaeus is a commentary on what has come before.  We meet him and we are told that he is a blind beggar.  In Jesus’ day and age, that is a bit of repetition. If a person was blind, of course that person would be a beggar. There weren’t many other options for folk who experienced disability in that day.  Saying that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar is every bit as redundant as it would be for me to say, “Here, would you like some cold ice?”, or “this is a delicious blueberry pie”, or “I’d like you to meet my friend, who is a disappointed Browns fan…”  You see? Saying one thing (he was blind) implies the other (he was a beggar). Mark’s point is that Bartimaeus was an outsider, and, more than that, he was a no-account outsider.  He’s not a Pharisee, he’s not a rich young ruler. He’s on the fringes of society.

And Bartimaeus is not just any marginalized person, he’s experiencing this marginalization in Jericho.  Jericho, as previously noted, is about fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem. At that time, Jericho was home to a large contingent of priests and Levites – professional workers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a “bedroom community” for the religious elite, if you will. Bartimaeus was a sightless, marginalized, seemingly irrelevant person living in a community that was home to thousands of people who were being paid to watch for and point to the coming Savior of God – the One who, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, would be the “balm” of healing for God’s people.  And yet in spite of the fact that there were all of these professional religious people on hand, it falls to a marginalized, sightless, economically disadvantaged member of the community to be the first person in the Gospel of Mark to call Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.”

Furthermore, you might remember that previously in Mark’s Gospel, whenever someone did call out Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus would hush that person.  This is the first time that Jesus accepts a public acknowledgment of his role.  This is new in the Gospel of Mark.  And it happens in Jericho – home to the religious professionals.  And he’s recognized by someone who is, to say the least, surprising.

Bartimaeus, sculpture by Gurdon Brewster. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/index.html

In addition, Bartimaeus refuses to be hindered in his approach to Jesus.  Do you remember when the children were being brought to the Lord? The disciples kept them away.  Do you remember when the rich young man came and asked to follow? He could not, because his possessions weighed him down.  Bartimaeus won’t let either the crowd or his belongings slow him down, and so he shouts above the thron and throws aside his cloak – which, as a beggar, would have been his most prized possession and a symbol of his identity – and he leaps to his feet and rushes to Jesus’ side.  Do you see how this story is a commentary on what has come before?

There’s another clue that this is not an isolated event, but rather one meant to be read in context.  Just a few verses ago, Jesus looked at the men who had been following him the longest and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here, he looks at a man he’s just met and uses the exact same words.  James and John call Jesus by a professional title, “master”, and ask for positions of power and honor in the kingdom that is to come.  Yet when Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question, the sightless man calls Jesus “Rabbouni”, and says simply, “I’d like to see again”.

Whereas lots of people call Jesus “Rabbi”, which means “teacher”, there are only two people who call him “Rabbouni”, which means “myteacher: Bartimaeus (as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem) and Mary Magdalene (when she recognizes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection).  My point is that Mark intends us to notice that Bartimaeus, for all of his limitations and marginalization, as eager to align his life to God’s will.

In all of this, I am suggesting that the writer of Mark’s Gospel intended this encounter with Bartimaeus to be a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  In these few verses, Jesus calls and invites a person to new possibilities for this life with the understanding and expectation that these new possibilities will change the realities for the one who answers the call. When Bartimaeus received from Jesus the thing for which he’d asked, he understood that the Lord had not healed him so that he could be a sightedbeggar.  When he regained his vision, he left his cloak on the ground for someone who needed it more, and he followed Jesus on the way.  This meeting in Jericho gives Mark the chance to show his readers how disciples ought to respond to the intrusion of the Divine in their lives.

So… in the words of that renowned theologian Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

For a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine Jesus drawing near to you, and opening up new possibilities in yourlife. When the Son of David says to you, “What do you want me to do for you?”, how do you answer? I hope you noticed that when Jesus encountered Bartimaeus, he was respectful.  He didn’t presume to speak for Bartimaeus – instead, he allowed the man to speak for himself.  Similarly, when we celebrate communion in a few moments, there will be an invitation to receive – but there is not ever a “force feeding”.  What do you want Jesus to do for you?  Think about that.

And as you imagine Jesus asking you you, consider this: what will you need to leave behind?  Bartimaeus was in such a hurry to reach the Lord that he threw his cloak aside.  What about you?  What do you need to leave be in order to approach Jesus unhindered?

Some folks might think that is glaringly obvious. You’ve battled a demon – and maybe carried it around with you – for far too long.  A friend of mine told me that he once asked a convert to the faith, “What’s different about your life now that you’re following Jesus?” The new disciple, who had come out of a street gang, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t shoot as many people now as I used to…”

And that’s good.  That’s very good.  But what about you?  Is there a pattern in your life that is contrary to the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?  I suspect you don’t shoot many people, either… but what about your worry?  Or your anxiety? Or your fear?  Can you set those down as you seek to follow?

What about your arrogance or your temper? Can you ask Jesus to give you a spirit of humility?

“What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking.  And as you hear that question, consider who it is that is asking. Is it Jesus the enforcer, the sheriff, the one who’s here to make sure you get what’s coming to you?  Or is it Jesus the Wizard of Oz, who promises you escape and enchantment?  Or is it Jesus the rabbouni, the one who is your teacher?

This morning, this week, this Advent – hold onto those questions. Reflect.  Anticipate.  And praise God for healing that does come.  Praise God that there isa balm in Gilead.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

A Different Kind of King

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On “Christ the King” Sunday, November 25, we talked about the many, many ways that following Jesus can really screw up your life.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the one who deserves all our allegiance?  Our gospel reading was Mark 10:32-45.

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

When you look at your bulletin, or the screen, or perhaps your handy-dandy pocket liturgical calendar, you’ll see that today is called “Christ the King” Sunday. We’ll talk a little more about how this Feast Day came to be a part of our Christian year later on, but for now, I wonder what you think when we say that Christ is the ‘King’. As welcome New Members into our congregation, please give some thought to how it was that you entered into the path of following Jesus?  Who told you about the Lord? What did they say?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are some who invite others to consider an eternal relationship with their creator using what could be called the “turn or burn, baby” method.  Listeners are urged to clean up their acts and to become holier people – leave sin behind, straighten up and fly right, and become the kind of people that God can like a little better.  Some folk see the Gospel as a call to repentance, which can often mean giving up sin and becoming a little nicer.

Another, more attractive approach to teaching others the good news could be referred to as “Jesus is the answer”.  There was a time in my own life where I encouraged people to turn to Jesus at a point when they were simply tired of all of the problems in their lives.  Their marriages were miserable, or they didn’t have any focus, or there was financial difficulty.  Whatever the problem was, Jesus had come to make it better.  An evangelist who subscribes to this school of thought might say that you should become a Christian because it will help you get rid of, or at least deal with, your problems better.

I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade, and truth be told, I’ve lived in both of these Gospel camps before. But I don’t stay in either of them very often now.  The way of discipleship, at least as it is described in the Gospel of Mark, has little connection with either the “turn or burn” crowd or the “Jesus is the answer” folks. Today, we join up with Jesus and his disciples as they are on the way to Jerusalem.  Most faithful Jewish men in that day and age tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal.  No doubt, that’s what the twelve disciples thought was going on, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to speak of it in other terms.

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus with his followers

This passage from Mark 10 contains the third of Jesus’ predictions about his own suffering and death.  In Mark 8, right after Peter’s confession that Jesus is in fact the Holy One sent by God, Jesus reveals to his most faithful followers that he will suffer and die.  Then in Mark 9, as the group is still basking in the glow of the Transfiguration and the healing of a boy who suffered from seizures, Jesus calls them out of that into a consideration of his impending struggle.  In each of these prior circumstances, the disciples don’t have a clue. They just can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about – how can he be the Messiah and die?  That’s just crazy talk.

He’s back at it today – he’s just laid two heavy teachings on them – one about marriage and divorce and sexual ethics and the other about money. And then he says pretty explicitly that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be forced to go through a sham trial, he’ll be beaten and killed, and he’ll rise on the third day.  In spite of the apparently obvious nature of this prediction, James and John start to daydream about how good it’s going to be when Jesus finally starts acting like a king.  Despite the fact that whenever Jesus has brought this up, he’s had to quell any talk about how great that’s going to be, James and John get so wound up in their discussion that it actually seems like a good idea to them to call “dibs” on the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.  We know that because Jesus looks at them and says, “You fellas just don’t get it, do you?” But then look at what happens next. He doesn’t yell at them.  He doesn’t scold them.  He simply reminds them that they don’t know what the kingdom will be like.  They can’t imagine the crown he’ll be wearing – a crown made of thorns, crushed into his skull.  They haven’t the foggiest notion about what is waiting for Jesus on the hill known as Calvary, where he would be nailed to a tree and hung out to die.  And then, gently, he says, “You don’t understand anything at all about the cup that I will drink, but you will – because you will share that cup.”

And it’s not just James and John who don’t get it.  When the ten other disciples hear that James and John are trying to claim the best spots at the messianic inauguration, they are upset! I suppose you could make the claim that these guys were really looking out for Jesus here and were indignant by the petty request made by their friends…but I think that Mark’s pretty clear that they were irritated because if Jesus didend up giving James & John the two best seats in the house, where were the rest of them supposed to sit?

And again, Jesus sits them down and invites them to a time of teaching wherein he is gentle and patient.  He’s not belittling them, he’s not berating them, and he’s not telling them to straighten up and fly right.  Instead, he’s trying to help them re-shape their expectations.  He’s hanging in there with them.

Why?  Why is he responding like this?

Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the first time that the twelve disciples appear to be slow, dimwitted, selfish, ambitious, and thick-headed. But here they are, following Jesus. They may not grasp all of the details concerning this coming kingdom.  But they are following Jesus.  They are not following Jesus because they want his help in getting rid of a few bad habits, and they are not following him because it’s easier than whatever it was that they used to do before they started following him.  But they arefollowing Jesus.

And listen to this: if the first readers of Mark’s gospel knew anything about following Jesus, it was this: following Jesus can really screw up your life.  After all, remember what we said about this little book when we started this exploration: Mark is written by a man who is jail, on death row, for preaching about Jesus.  The early followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were used as human torches at Nero’s garden parties.  So far as we can tell none of the twelve disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes.  And those first Christians who were not killed were treated as outcasts – they were told over and over again that they did not belong with the Jewish believers, and the Gentiles thought they were crazy – they called them cannibals and incestuous.  If there is one thing that the readers of Mark’s Gospel knew, it was that following Jesus will screw with your head and could really mess up your life.

Twenty-five years ago, I took a group of young people on a mission trip to Mexico.  Two weeks after that trip, I left that church and moved to Pittsburgh.  About five months later, I got a really thick envelope from one of the kids.  I tore open the envelope, expecting to hear sunny news about her life.  Instead, I read,

Dear Dave, I just wanted to thank you for totally ruining my senior year of High School.  My whole life, I’ve looked forward to this year, where we’d be on top.  My friends and I had all kinds of plans for how we were going to rule the school, and for Prom and Homecoming and parties.  But the trip to Mexico changed all that.  My friends are materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – they can’t get their heads out of their butts to save their lives. The things that they want are so small…of course, all of that was true last year, too – only I didn’t know that last year.  The trip to Mexico really opened my eyes, and showed me that I am materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – and I hate that about myself. Why can’t I be lazy and happy like my friends?  But no, I have to care now.  I have to think about other people.  That mission trip really screwed up everything about my senior year….

Do you see?  She got it! Yay!  She had been goingto church all her life…but here she was thinking about followingJesus!  The good thing is that the letter was ten pages long, and by about page eight or nine, she had gotten past some of the anger and had decided that if she had to choose between being selfish and materialistic and following Jesus, she’d rather be with Jesus…but it was a struggle.  Because when she took Jesus seriously, she didn’t fit into any of the really comfortable slots in her high school.

Beloved, if you are here expecting me to scold you into the Kingdom of God, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t think that the reason that Jesus came was so that you wouldn’t drink quite as much, or so you would think about sex a little less often, or write to your grandmother more.  If you need to hear someone say that it’s time to turn or burn, baby, well, I don’t think I’m your guy.

And if you are here because your life is miserable and you think that somehow I can help lobby Jesus onto your side so that you have fewer problems – if you think that if you are able to get yourself cleaned up a little bit then Jesus will reward you with a new car, a better boyfriend, or whiter teeth, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Some People Following Jesus, Gary Bunt, Contemporary British Artist

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are holier than everyone else, if by holy we mean people who smoke less, or cuss less, or fornicate less than the general population.  Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer.

And as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are richer, or better employed, or have fresher breath or fewer neuroses than the general population. He didn’t come to make us more socially acceptable.

Jesus came to be the ransom.  To give his life so that we might have real life.  Jesus came to be God for humanity and to be humanity for God. And as he marches toward his death in Jerusalem, he is imploring the twelve to stick with him.  He’s not promising them anything, and he’s not threatening them.  He’s asking them to stay the course because that is the only way that they will be able to become the community that he is calling them to be.  For a couple of years, he has taught them “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  Now he is equipping them to be the kingdom!  To enflesh that Kingdom in the world!  To be the sign of God’s presence in and through creation.

I hope that each of our new members will recall that in the Presbyterian Church we are governed by both the Bible and a document called The Book of Order.  In the very beginning of that book, it says that the church exists in order to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (F-1.0304)

I love that!  It tells the truth that the only way that your neighbors or mine will know of the grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love of the Savior is if somehow the body of Christ – that’s us – is able to exhibit that grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love.

When the twelve don’t get it – here in Mark chapter ten, or anywhere else in the Gospels – Jesus doesn’t call them morons and tell them to get lost.  No, he calls them together and invites them to try again and to lean on each other and to stick together – because the only way that they’ll be able to make it in the world is if they do stick together.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will do something incredibly difficult.  It will take everything he has.  And he is asking his followers to stay with him when it happens.  And to take over for him when he leaves.

Discipleship is hard work, my friends.  It would be easy if all we had to do was lie a little less often or budget our money a little better.  But it’s all of who we are. Discipleship is not a part-time job. The only way for me to give all of who I am is if I can count on you to help me where I am coming up short.  I can be forgiving if you forgive me.  I can be gracious if you show me grace.  I can love unconditionally if you do that for me.  I can give my life away…if you come, too.

I mentioned that today is “Christ the King” Sunday.  Most of the great “feast days” of the church are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The church has observed Advent and Lent and Easter and Christmas for millennia. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that “Christ the King” was added to the church calendar.  This observance came about because in the aftermath of World War I, much of the world’s population lived in places where tyrants and dictators were gaining strength.  These rulers insisted that Christians ought to somehow compartmentalize their faith, and see “religion” as a nice little hobby, but to give their highest allegiance to the government and the flag of one particular nation.  The church said, “No, it is Christ, not any human or any nation, who is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.”

Beloved, we are called to be committed. We are called to live the Christian ideal – that of following Christ.  Obviously, Jesus is concerned with your personal life and your habits. Obviously, Jesus is concerned with the choices you make.  But these things are not a precondition to becoming disciples – those things are matters for discussion once you are on the road.  Let us join each other in this holy, wholly difficult task of following the Master as we love and serve those among whom he has placed us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Getting Ready to Run

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 2, we considered a “bit part” in that saga, that of Ahimaaz, the messenger who didn’t have a message.  Our texts included II Samuel 18:19-33 as well as Luke 12:35-40.

 

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

My hunch is that to most of you, the name “Ahimaaz, son of Zadok” doesn’t mean a whole lot. Have any of you ever heard or read about Ahimaaz? I didn’t think so. He’s a bit player in scripture. Stands off to the side, although he had a shot at something bigger, perhaps.

From the Maciejowski Bible, 12th c.

Ahimaaz’s story comes to us as a sidebar to the year-long study of David in which we’ve been engaged. Do you remember Absalom, David’s son? Last week, we talked about Absalom’s revolt against his father wherein he captured the capital city of Jerusalem while King David was forced to flee. Ahimaaz was the son of Zadok, one of the priests that was loyal David. When Absalom took over the city, David arranged for a few spies to remain behind. Ahimaaz was the runner who would get the information from the spies and then deliver it to David. There are several episodes in chapters 16 & 17 where this young man acted heroically in the service of his King. In fact, it was Ahimaaz who eventually delivered the information that resulted in Absalom’s defeat.

When we left the story last week, the conflict had ended and the victorious David was heading back to Jerusalem. At this point, David was aware of the outcome of the battle, but knew nothing of Absalom’s fate. Late in the day, Absalom was fleeing and was discovered by a group of David’s men. When they reported this to David’s general, Joab. Joab immediately killed Absalom and in the aftermath, David’s troops gathered round.

One of the young men we see crowding up to the front of the scene is Ahimaaz. You heard this a few moments ago, and you know that even though Ahimaaz has been a trusted messenger during this civil war, Joab sends a stranger to report Absalom’s death, because he knows that David has a habit of killing messengers who bring bad news. Ahimaaz wants to run. He wants to deliver the news that the battle is over. Joab says, “Look, son, run another day. You weren’t here, you didn’t see everything. Just leave it.” And, as you heard, Joab dispatches a foreigner to carry the news to the king. But the more he thinks about it, the more Ahimaaz pesters Joab. Finally, perhaps because the Cushite had had a head start, Joab releases Ahimaaz. Listen:

Ahimaaz son of Zadok again said to Joab, “Come what may, please let me run behind the Cushite.”

But Joab replied, “My son, why do you want to go? You don’t have any news that will bring you a reward.”

He said, “Come what may, I want to run.”

So Joab said, “Run!” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain and outran the Cushite.

While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone. The watchman called out to the king and reported it.

The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.

Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!”

The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”

The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

“He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”

Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king.”

The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.”

The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.

Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”

The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”

    Ahimaaz is so intent on bringing the news that he outpaces the foreigner. He appears, first in the distance, then up close. He finally arrives, breathless, and David asks him what’s happened. Ahimaaz reveals the truth about the outcome of the battle. David say, “What about the boy? How is my son?” And here, Ahimaaz loses his composure. “Ahhhhhh, yes your majesty, there was a crowd, you see. Lot of people . . ..” David implores him for news, and Ahimaaz hems and haws and stammers around until David finally pushes him aside and tells him to shut up. The Cushite runner appears and tells David the good news that is really bad news to this father’s heart, and the last glimpse we have in scripture of Ahimaaz is of a breathless, confused messenger who doesn’t really know what the message is. The one who was so anxious to be involved in the situation becomes irrelevant and powerless. It happens around him, or to him. He is powerless to affect the situation any more.

You might not know who Ahimaaz is, but I bet you know how it feels to be him. It may be that a friend comes to you and says, “I know I’ve blown it. My marriage is in a shambles, and I don’t know where to start. What do you think I should do?” and you find yourself thinking, “Ohhhhhhh, yeah, I know that the Bible says something about relationships. What was the pastor saying that one time?…” Or it may be that you’ve received a call from your local auto repair shop asking you to sign off on a repair order that’s higher than you think it ought to be, but knowing that he’s going to submit it to insurance anyway. You don’t want to offend him, but you’re not sure it’s right…

We know how it feels to be Ahimaaz, I think. It is all too common a situation to find ourselves standing by the wreckage of some situation over which we might have had some control, feeling powerless, not sure of what we should say or do, feeling irrelevant. “I wish I’d known… I couldn’t… Who would have thought that… Isn’t there something…”

 

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, seeking to prepare them for a life of ministry and service in a world that is not always excited about ministry and service, and he tells them to be ready. “Let your loins be girded – be dressed ready for service” he says. Do you remember seeing pictures or movies from Bible times? All the men wearing these loose robe-like things? Now, imagine trying to run a race wearing one of them, or fight a battle, or chase after a wayward child. Couldn’t do it, could you? Neither could they. When someone in scripture talks about “girding his loins” he means, wrapping the robe up a little higher and tighter, allowing more freedom of movement. If your loins are girded already, it means you’re ready to respond in an instant – no delay at all.

Jesus then says that they should let their lamps be burning. Again, this is a signal for action. Finding light in those days was not as easy as flicking a switch, or even striking a match. It took some measure of work and preparation to ensure that you could light your lamp. Jesus says to be ready. Be prepared. You don’t know when you’re going to need it, so have it lit.

         He tells a parable to explain what he’s talking about. The owner of the house is away at a wedding feast. His servants are home, waiting for him, ready to spring to action the moment they hear his keys in the door. Their great fortune is that he is coming home in a fantastic mood, still singing and dancing. He’s got an extra bottle of bubbly in his coat and two sacks full of groceries in his hands. He doesn’t talk about where they’ve failed or how they’ve fallen; he sits them down and cooks up the best: bacon, eggs, Belgian waffles, strawberries, home fries — and serves them all breakfast. He is coming home from a party that he doesn’t want to leave – so he brings the party with him.

If you’ve ever baby-sat, I bet you know a little about this. It’s getting later and later, and they said you could fall asleep, but you don’t want to. Finally, almost 3 in the morning, and here they come. They’ve got a sack of goodies from the party for you to eat, they overpay you, and take you home with the radio blasting. You are rewarded for your faithfulness by being included in the celebration.

Here’s the deal. It’s a typical summer Sunday in Crafton Heights. You’re relieved that we don’t have a super long service planned, you’re irritated by the lack of air conditioning or padding in the pews, and you’re glad to see that the Cross Trainers camp is going pretty well so far. So far, so good. We may have sung your favorite song, or maybe we missed it. It doesn’t really matter… the question is, when we leave here in half an hour or so, what difference will any of this make? What are you going to do — what are you, my parents, my children, my brothers and sisters in the faith — what are you going to do so that the Crafton Heights Church does not end up like Ahimaaz — so that at a time when you or your community most need to know the truth, when you are in the greatest need of being ably to rely upon the message, you are not standing off on the sidelines, out of breath, tired, and irrelevant?

You can be awake. You can have your lamps lit, be aware and on the look-out. And that is no easy task, especially in matters of the spirit. In his memoir, Living Faith, President Jimmy Carter talks of visiting an Amish community. As they gathered for worship, he asked his host who would be delivering the message, and was told “We don’t know”. The host went on to explain that on the table in the front of the room was a stack of hymnals; at the beginning of worship each man would go up and select a book. Whoever got the book with the red ribbon in it was the preacher for the day. Carter said, “Well, how do you know when to be ready?” His host replied, “In my experience, it is always a good idea to be prepared!”

We have a tendency to think that things are “good enough”, and so we leave them be. We get comfortable in our own little lives. A part of being awake, I would suggest, is to try new edges in your life. Where is your faith old and comfortable and maybe even a little bit boring? And what could you do to shake that up a bit? Is it time for you to step forward and participate in a new ministry? To join with some friends in a prayer circle, or volunteer at the Open Door, or ask a friend to recommend a book or a mission experience that could be transformative?

When Christ calls us to be awake, to be alert, I think that it means to avoid becoming so well-rested, so satisfied with where we are that we aren’t able to grow any more. I’m not saying that everything new is great — but will you open yourself up in one way or another to keep growing?

The second thing that Christ mentions is to be ready for action. To have our collective loins girded up.

As a congregation, that’s not so hard. Are our programs ready to nurture and disciple children and young people? Are the Deacons in place and trained to respond to the needs of the congregation and tuned in to the opportunities in Allegheny County and around the world? If I am is doing my job, this church ought to be ready, or moving towards readiness — at least in the way we run our programs.

But what about our private lives?

Are you ready? Do you know the truth for your life that is contained in scripture? Are you studying the Bible in public – with a class or small group — and in private – on your own at home? Because if you don’t know it, you can’t share it. You can’t love it. You can’t teach it. You can’t lean on it. I’m not suggesting that you need to be a Seminary professor. But I am suggesting that a part of readiness includes knowing what the Master wants us to be like.

Are you able to “be real” with another person? Is there a place in your world for you to be honest in your hopes and dreams, in your doubts and fears? That’s a part of being ready too – being able to address the uncomfortable areas in our life.

When I read through this parable in Luke, I found myself cheering for you, rooting you on. I saw you — I want to see you — in the faces of the watchful servants who are awake and ready when the master comes.

Partly, I want this for your sake. I want to see the joy on your faces when you share in the celebration that the master brings home with him. I want you to celebrate the kingdom the way that your Creator has invited you to.

But mostly, I want this for the sake of the people who aren’t in the room right now. People who don’t know the Lord yet, but who, as a result of the ministry that we are sharing, will come to know the Lord. People who form the community around the church. I don’t know most of those folks at all. Yet I know that these people are people with questions. People want to know what’s important. What is worth dying for? What is life about? Who can I trust? What should I do? What do I need to do to be loved?

And you will be here. And too often, do you know what the Christian church looks like? Too many churches in Allegheny County have stood here like Ahimaaz — panting, confused, and irrelevant. And the people in this community – children and adults – who have questions about love, life, values, and priorities will get the answers from someone. At some point, at least some of them will cross paths with you. If you help them find answers, they will be blessed. And if they don’t, they’ll wander away.

You ought to know that I love being your pastor. This is a great place to be, beloved. But let us never forget that we are not called to be here simply to enjoy each other’s company on pleasant Sunday mornings… we are entrusted with a message of hope and reconciliation and power and joy… a message that is ours, not to keep, but to share – again and again and again. When the time for sharing it comes, may we be found to be alert and prepared! Thanks be to God, Amen.

Everything Matters

This Labor Day weekend, the believers at CHUP gathered to consider the ways that we do what we do, when we do it, and where we do it, impact our ability to be followers of Christ.  Our scripture texts for the morning included Luke 14:25-33 and Jeremiah 18:1-11.

Almost twenty-six years ago I was ordained as a “minister of the Word and Sacrament” by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For more than a quarter of a century, I have been paid to be a Christian. My vocation has been an amazing gift and a wonder-filled journey. It is an odd calling, as the people who love me have tried to pin me down as to exactly what I do all day. Everyone has a thought, of course:

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On Labor Day weekend, however, I’d like to take a moment to address two mythologies about my particular line of work.

Every now and then, I’ll get a call from someone who says, “Oh, Reverend, I hate to bother you with something like this, because I know how busy you are, and, well, I really shouldn’t even mention anything, but, well, if you can spare the time – even just a couple of minutes would be amazing – I wonder if you could possibly help me with…” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when my life is hectic and frenzied, but if I’m too busy to pray with you, then maybe I’m not doing it right.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, I am compelled to hear cracks like “Wow, must be nice to get paid a full time salary when you only work an hour a week.”

It is, as I have said, an odd calling. And because of that, I get it – I know the temptation that you have to roll your eyes at me when I stand up here and presume to lecture you about work and employment. “How dare you pretend to know what I go through, Pastor? After all, you work in your nice little bubble of Christianity, where everything is sunshine and roses and unicorns and rainbows. I’m not sure you know how hard it is in the real world…”

“My supervisor looks down her nose at me all day, every day.”

“Do you know how exhausting it is to try to do your job when you’re assigned to work with two or three people who care more about getting their next ‘high’ than they do about getting any work done?”

“I’m afraid to go to the bathroom in my school. How can I pay attention to anything else?”

“There are four positions in my department. As of January 1, there will be three.”

“Now, Pastor Dave, what was that you wanted to say about my job?”

Having recognized the differences in all of our experiences, let me offer two observations, one of which is theological and the other historical.

Theologically, I might remind you that work is a privilege – it’s a part of God’s gift to humanity. In Genesis, it is very clear that we had a job before we knew anything of brokenness. Adam was called to take care of the Garden before there was any mention of sin. We often treat work – especially hard work – as if it’s some sort of punishment, but that’s simply not true. Work is one of the ways that we live into the image of God. Just as God is a creator, a fashioner, a designer, so too we are called to use our strength and energy in ways that bring forth life and grace.

Here I am standing in the ruins of the "Pool of Bethesda" in Jerusalem - note that everything is made of stone!

Here I am standing in the ruins of the “Pool of Bethesda” in Jerusalem – note that everything is made of stone!

And historically, I should point out that Jesus had a job. He was what the locals called a tekton. Our traditional translations indicate that he was a carpenter, but the Greek word simply means “builder”. Since most of the homes in London were made out of wood when the Bible was being translated into English, you can understand how “builder” became “carpenter”. What I noticed when I visited the places where Jesus lived, however, like Capernaum and Jerusalem, is that so much of what exists in that part of the world is built with stone. As a tekton in that place and time, Jesus was surely no stranger to heavy lifting, or sweat, or the frustration you feel when your co-worker gives you measurements that are a quarter of an inch off.

Having said that, then, what do we hear this Labor Day weekend from Jesus, a member of and friend to the working class?

The passage you’ve heard is a difficult one by any measure, and it’s been made more so by some unfortunate translations over the years. Let’s look at what was happening.

The Resurrection of the Widow's Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

Jesus was big news. The crowds were coming out time and time again because, well, Jesus put on a good show. I mean, you never knew what you were going to get: there was water turned into wine; thousands and thousands were fed miraculously; the paralyzed, blind, mute and more were healed; and who could forget the way he took on those religious hypocrites so fearlessly. There is no other way to say it than that Jesus was, well, huge. His popularity was off the charts.

And one day he turns to the crowds that find him so enthralling and he says, “You know, this is serious! This lifestyle of faith – it’s not a diversion. This isn’t a fad or an amusement. It’s not a hobby – it’s the main thing. And because it’s so important, those who follow me are expected to lay everything on the line. The kinds of things that you see me doing are foundational and world-changing – they are reflective of the purposes and intentions of God now and forever. The healings, the miracles, the teaching… all of this points to the ways that God moves and acts and dwells in this world. So if you are ‘following’ me, it has to mean more than standing around and applauding what you see as my latest parlor trick; it has to mean that you are going to care about the things that I care about, do the things that I do, go to the places where I am sent, and act like the presence and call of God has made a difference in your life 24/7/365.” In other words, we dare not “follow” Jesus the way that we “follow” celebrities or athletes on Instagram or Twitter. If we are not willing to go “all in” with Jesus, we are hobbyists or voyeurs.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, made much the same point as he taught Israelites about the power and sovereignty of God. We often hear these words as a statement of God’s absolute freedom and unlimited power and indeed Jeremiah indicates that God spins the history of this planet as a potter turns clay on a wheel. However, there are several places in this passage that reveal the truth that some human response and responsibility is expected. The word “if” appears throughout this text, bringing a conditionality to our relationship with God that does not exist between the potter and the clay. “If” you do this, “then” this will be the result. There is some sort of deep and intimate partnership between the Creator and that which is being crafted. Clearly God is in charge, but just as clearly we have a role to play. What we do, who we are – it all matters.

And because both Jesus and Jeremiah point to the fact that God wants all of us, all the time, there’s no time like Labor Day for the preacher to point out that this life of faith includes not just the religious stuff you do, but the entirety of who you are. Your occupation is a means by which you are called to serve the Lord.

I want to pause here and say that I’ve chosen the word “occupation” intentionally, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of everyone, not merely those who are employed. I want you to hear that word and think about the things with which you are “occupied”. The ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy and ourselves are reflections of the things that we believe to be ultimately true.

Whatever you set your hands to – whether that’s working down at the plant or watching the grandkids or sitting in an AP Biology class – it’s important to strive to do that well. It’s important because the ways that you are who you are while you do what you do will either point people closer to the things that are eternally true in Jesus Christ or distract them from the presence of God in the world.

Regular worshipers will remember, I hope, that we just finished an entire year studying the Sermon on the Mount. Think about the kinds of ways in which we are called to act: with kindness and mercy, in honesty and integrity, with humility and decency as those who are genuine and generous. None of these traits are occupationally specific – anyone can do that.

And you say, “Look, I get that, and I really want to be like that, but to be honest, I hate my occupation. My co-workers annoy me…I can’t wait to graduate…I feel so useless being retired…I resent the circumstances in my life that have forced me into this particular occupation.”

If any those things are true, then I would by all means encourage you to work towards changing your reality, but I would also remind you to refuse to compromise who you are and who you are called to represent as you live out your daily life.

Here’s the deal: if showing up here three or four times a month – or even if you get all “super Christian” on the people around you by serving as an elder or deacon or Sunday School teacher – if that’s the primary way that you show the world who you are and what you believe, then your witness is incomplete and it points to a life that has been adorned, not transformed. Deciding which day you will choose to act like you think a follower of Jesus should act is not unlike taking a bunch of Christian trinkets and decorating your life with them – they’re not really substantive, but they’re eye-catching and have a vaguely positive message.

But if you live out your faith every day at school or work or home and in your interactions with others (including the social media), then people will see a life that is fundamentally and integrally engaged with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Six months before he was assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of students at the Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia. He challenged these young people, and the words he used to address the children ring true to us as well:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Your occupation – the ways in which you are who you are, where you are, doing what you do with whom you do it – is your number one way of serving God and reflecting God’s presence in this world.

And finally on this Labor Day weekend, as you do all of this, remember that as you go about the world conducting your business each and every day that you are constantly interacting with people who are performing their occupation. So think about what you buy and where you buy it. Is your “great deal” on shrimp propping up the slave labor trade in Thailand? Does the place where you shop pay their workers fairly and offer them good working conditions? When you go out to eat, are you a good tipper? If you can’t afford to be generous to the one who is serving your meal and cleaning up your messes, you can’t afford to eat out and you need to stay home. Remember to give your teachers and coworkers a break. You don’t know what kept them up all night. Be nice to the custodian and the receptionist. Because in a perfect world, they are all striving to do the same thing that you and I are doing – to show up each day being our best selves, seeking to reflect God’s love and truth into the world.

This weekend, and each day, show the world who you are – and show the world whose you are – by the efforts you put forth to follow Jesus in the simple tasks of daily life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

(The speech by Dr. King quoted above is entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint”.  Do yourself a favor and invest twenty minutes of your day and watch him issue this challenge to the young people of Philadelphia in 1967.  If you can’t click the link below, you can paste this one into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmtOGXreTOU).

But…How???

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 1, we sat with Jesus as he revisited the topic of prayer in the Sermon.  Our readings included Matthew 7:7-12 as well as Paul’s discussion on “the law of love” in Romans 13:8-10.  A highlight of our worship was the confirmation of seven young people and the baptism of an eighth.  

 

How does prayer work?

I mean, what do you pray for? And how do you get it?

MoneyPrayerSome folks are pretty up front about what they think ought to occupy our prayer time. Joel Osteen writes in his best-selling book, “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity.”[1]

When Gloria Copeland was preaching to an audience in Texas, she said, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you.”   Televangelist Jerry Savelle told the same crowd, “While everybody else is having a famine his covenant people will be having the best of times.”[2]

Comedian Emo Philips has a different theology. He said, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”[3]

Again I’ll ask, how does prayer work? And what in the world are we supposed to make of this next section in the Sermon on the Mount? If we take these verses at face value without paying attention to the context, they sure sound like God is in a hurry to give out all kinds of great stuff – like prayer is a sort of a religious home shopping network. If you’re poor, hungry, or sick, it seems, it must be your own fault. Why didn’t you ask, seek, or knock? What’s wrong with you? Not enough faith?

I’ve known too many people who were poor, hungry, and sick whose faith put mine to shame… so I’m going to suggest that we take a look at the passage in its context and see what’s really going on here.

Sermon_505_396In the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, we are given a long list of seemingly impossible behaviors to master. Jesus tells his followers to let go of anger, to treat the vulnerable with respect and honor, to love the enemy, and to give generously to those who are in need, among other things. The sermon is verse after verse, point after point of what appear to be impossibly high standards.

By this point in the sermon, the disciples must have felt like throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Seriously? Come on, Jesus, how are we supposed to live like that? This is hard!”

After Jesus gives this string of amazingly high expectations, he returns to the topic of prayer. My sense is that Jesus is not urging his followers to pray for more stuff in these verses, but rather he is answering their eye-rolling, “how-in-the-world-are-we-gonna-do-this” questioning by saying, “If you’re going to be a follower of mine, and do the kinds of things that I do, you’re going to have to pray. A lot.”

One of my pet peeves is when people treat prayer as an add-on, a bit of wishful thinking, an insignificant verbal exercise that doesn’t really accomplish much. There has been more than one occasion, for instance, when I’ve been in the hospital praying with someone and a physician barges into the room interrupting me by saying, “All right, good, good, good, but we’ve got to get a move on, Pastor. We’ve got important things to do here.” You know, as if communication with the Lord of heaven and earth was a momentary distraction…

Many of you in this room have casually mentioned to me, “Hey, Dave, if you think of it, say a little prayer for…” And if you’ve done that, you know that my typical response is that I don’t waste my breath or my time on “little” prayers. Prayer is about reshaping me for God’s purposes in the world, and about equipping you and others to be agents of God’s presence and activity in that world. There’s nothing little about that.

And when I read these verses in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to ask, seek, and knock in response to the enormity of the task that he has laid before them, well, I think that Jesus has my back. Prayer is not “little”.

I’d like you to note the escalation of a sense of urgency in the words that Jesus chooses to use. Let’s say that you’re a fourteen year-old boy outside working in the yard, and you discover that you need something that your mother can provide. The windows are open, and what do you do?

You call to her. “Mom!”, you say. “Mom!” And you name the thing that you need. In other words, you ask.

After a moment, however, you notice that nothing has changed. She has not heard you, apparently. Your need is unmet. And so you stop doing whatever important thing it is that you are doing and you walk inside the house. In other words, you seek. Your “asking” has now taken on a little more energy and concentration, hasn’t it? You may still be wailing “Mom!” (OK, let’s be honest, if you’re a typical fourteen year-old boy, you haven’t stopped shouting…), but now you’ve put legs to your questioning, haven’t you? And you’ve changed the ways that you’re interacting with the rest of the world as you do so.

But as you wander through the house, still asking, now seeking, you don’t find your mother. You still need whatever it is that you needed, and so you put a little more of yourself into this exercise and you climb upstairs, where you see her bedroom door is closed. And what do you do? You knock. And in knocking, now, the equation is changed slightly because you’ve got to shut up for a moment and listen. Your level of expectancy changes as you wait to see how you will be answered.

OK, I know that no analogy is perfect, and most of you are not fourteen year-old boys and your mother isn’t God. But do you see what I mean about this progression or escalation? When we are faced with something as difficult as living up to the standards described in the Sermon on the Mount, our only response is to be diligent and motivated in our discipleship and prayer.

I want to be honest: if we had to engage in this level of activity or intensity at a restaurant, we’d never go to that place again. In the restaurant, the customer is always right and the wait-staff and kitchen help are at the beck and call.

But in the life of discipleship, it’s not all about you. It’s about you becoming the person that God made you to be so that the people around you will not be blown away by your anger, violated by your lust, dehumanized by your dishonesty, or marginalized by your selfishness. The Sermon on the Mount and the life of discipleship, with all apologies to Pastors Osteen, Copeland, and Savelle, is not a means by which to make us fatter, happier, richer, or better-looking.

Jesus calls his disciples, and the Spirit God is asking you, to live as Jesus does. To model the lifestyle we see in scripture. So this passage about prayer is not about you getting more shiny stuff, as cool as that sounds. It’s a strategy for you to use as you begin to look, act, and think more like Jesus each day.

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

And then to sum it up, Jesus gives us the headline – the Golden Rule, or as the Apostle Paul put it, the “law of love”. The result of our asking, seeking, and knocking should be that we are better able to respond to situations as Jesus would; that we are more apt to hear with his ears and to share from his heart.

How does this look in real life? Well, here are some ways I’ve seen it active in our community.

The “Law of love” looks like a six or eight year old who says to her parents, “You know, I’m pretty sure that I have enough stuff. Can we plan a birthday party where people come to have fun, but instead of giving me more toys, they bring things for us to take to the animal shelter or money we can use to help hungry people in Africa?”

It looks like an eighteen year-old man who goes out of his way to encourage and walk with some of his classmates who are physically or mentally challenged so that they have the opportunity to experience life in fullness and joy.

When a teacher donates some of her sick days to a colleague who requires surgery, yet has already exhausted his own benefits, it looks like love in action. He is able to care for his own family while fighting cancer, and has one less thing to worry about because someone has responded with Christ-like generosity.

Look, the way of life to which Jesus calls his followers is difficult, if not downright impossible at times. If we are going to be successful in our attempts to follow him, we’ve got to lean into God. We’ve got to be hungry for what only he can offer, and we’ve got to stick together.

I’d like to offer my deep and sincere congratulations to the young people who are making their confirmation today. You all are ready to begin the next phase of your discipleship. I know, I know, you have completed the Confirmation Class, but you need to remember that you are just getting started in so many ways. You probably know that in other places around Pittsburgh today they’re running the marathon. You probably also know that nobody got out of bed this morning and said, “You know what? I’ve got nothing better going on today. Maybe I’ll head on into town and get in on that race.” No, the marathon takes a lot of preparation and a long time to complete.

It’s the same with our lives of discipleship. Making your confirmation is great. It’s moving ahead with the journey that many of you began at a baptism you can’t remember. But being a Christian is not about just showing up and saying, “OK, I’m here, I’ve got this”. It’s about training and running the course and getting stronger; it’s about learning something more about the Jesus way every day; like the marathon, it requires growing, stretching, and even a little aching.

When we do it right, the world looks more the way God intends it to look. Welcome, confirmands. We are glad that you are with us. We need you and the gifts you bring as we share this journey.

I’ll close this sermon with a benediction I’ve used from time to time. My wife really likes it, and I think it fits for this morning – for the young new members and for everyone else who’s on the journey.

The way is long, let us go together.

The way is difficult, let us help each other.

The way is joyful, let us share it.

The way is Christ’s, for Christ is the Way, let us follow.

The way is open before us, let us go:

with the love of God,

the grace of Christ, and

the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner, 2004), p. 5.

[2] “Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich”, The New York Times August 16, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16gospel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/emophilips128947.html

His Name is Faithful

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 20, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is called “Faithful”.  Our texts included Isaiah 49:8-18 and Matthew 1:17-25.  

 

You may have noticed a certain gloom that has fallen over some parts of our city in the last couple of weeks. On December 9, the Pirates announced that Neil Walker, aka “The Pittsburgh Kid”, would be leaving our city, our team, and the storybook “local champ succeeds” career that began at Pine Richland High School. When I heard that Walker was headed to the Mets, I remembered losing Bobby Bonilla to the Mets in 1992. Bonilla signed a fat contract, but his play was disappointing and he was traded a couple of years later. In 1999, he was re-acquired by the Mets, and once again was underwhelming and he was released by the team after that year.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

In spite of his disappointing performance in the field, I’m here to tell you that in 2015, at the age of fifty-two, Bobby Bonilla was the twelfth best-paid person on the Mets payroll. On July 1 of this year, and each year until he is 72 years old, Bobby Bonilla will receive $1.2 million from the New York Mets – all because of a rather creative and very lucrative contract he signed in 2000. It is one of the most bizarre and famous contracts in history.

My hunch is that while you don’t get $1.2 million deposited into your checking account annually, you know a thing or two about contracts. When we buy a car, get a job, or hire someone to fix the roof, we depend on a contract to make sure that our interests are taken care of.

contractThe language of contract is complex, but it boils down to this: you do this and I do that. If you stop doing this, then I’m not going to do that. For example, when you finally decide to redo that bathroom of yours, you get a number of bids and finally select a construction firm to take care of it. As they work, you pay. When the work is done, you finish paying. Your pay depends on their performance, and vice versa, right? That’s how contracts work.

While we use contracts and contractual language all the time, we don’t often do so in the context of worship. The reason for that is that our relationship with God is covenantal, rather than contractual. In a contract, if one party breaks faith, then the entire deal is null and void. If your plumber doesn’t finish the bathroom, you don’t pay him any more.

In a covenant, however, each party agrees to uphold their end of the deal regardless of what the other party does. One of the most famous covenants in our nation’s history is the Declaration of Independence, which ends with these lines: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” John Hancock and Caesar Rodney and Ben Franklin and the rest of those fellows didn’t know which ones, if any, would commit an about-face and side with Britain after all. It didn’t matter to them – they were making that covenant with each other on behalf of the colonies they represented. That’s what a covenant is: you say, “This is what I’m going to do”, and your willingness to keep your word is not dependent on my behavior.

Covenants and contracts are very, very different kinds of agreements.

And you might think that’s pretty interesting, but you know, Dave, it’s December and I’ve got a lot going on and if you could just get to the point, I’d appreciate it…

Here’s the deal: Advent is a reminder of the fact that God invites us to participate in a covenantal, not contractual, relationship with him. In fact, all of the Old Testament is a testing of God’s willingness to keep faith with his people, even when they appear to be more than willing to leave him time after time after time.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

The story of the Garden of Eden reveals that God establishes and blesses his creation and asks humanity to care for it…and we rebel. Noah’s ark is the means by which God saves a people from oblivion and self-destruction, but two chapters later we’re already building a tower of Babel because, hey, who needs God anyway, right? God uses Moses to deliver the people from slavery in Egypt, and before the ink was dry on their passports, they were out there dancing around a golden calf. They enter into the Promised Land, and instead of trusting in God to care for them there, they start building altars to the Baalim and the Asherim and other gods of the Canaanites. Time and time again, God sends prophets and leaders and preachers and judges to remind his people of his love and to warn them of the consequences of disobedience, but it doesn’t seem to do much good.

220px-IsaiahOne of these prophets was a man named Isaiah, who was active in the 8th century BC. Before he started his ministry, God’s people had already been divided by a civil war and he further witnessed the fall of Israel to the Assyrian army. Jerusalem and Judah, the capital city, were on the block, and you could forgive the people for thinking that God had finally gotten tired of them, or worse, had forgotten all about them. While he’s not shy about naming the places where the Jews had left God’s purposes, he takes great pains to remind them of God’s covenantal nature: “How can I forget my promise?”, God wants to know. “Even if a mother could forget her baby, there’s no way I could ever forget the love I have for you. I’ve promised it. I’ll do it.”

Advent, as often as any other time of the year, is the time when we pull out Isaiah’s words to remind us of God’s willingness to be faithful to us in spite of the messiness of our own lives. Advent is a time to remember the Covenant.

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Joseph and Mary had entered into a formalized relationship known as betrothal. That means that they and their families had engaged in a period of negotiation and offer and compromise resulting in a legally-binding contract to become husband and wife. And then, don’t you know, Mary shows up pregnant and it looks as though the whole deal is off – because she appears to have violated at least one of the terms of the agreement. In Matthew 1 we read where Joseph is mentally composing the speech which goes something along the lines of “That’s it, Mary, we’re done. I’m pretty sad about this, but I’m going to have to let you go…It appears as though you’ve decided to move in a different direction, and, well, good luck…”

But before he can even say this speech, God interrupts him and says, “Don’t do that, Joseph. Instead, go ahead and enter into a covenant with Mary – this is the way that I will display my love for and my commitment to the universe.” And so Joseph and Mary enter into the covenant of marriage, and Jesus is born, and the world comes to learn of Emanuel – of God With Us. It’s Christmas.

And as we stand here, it’s easy to celebrate the baby in the manger. Christmas is, for many of us, all warm and fuzzy. But Jesus is not only God with us in precious moments nativity figurines.

Advent reminds us that God is with us in the teaching, healing, discipling ministry of Jesus of Nazareth…and that God is with us during the horror of the betrayal and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth… and that God is with us in the victory of the resurrection… and that God is with us in Jesus’ promise to come again in order to restore the universe to justice, peace, and God’s eternal intentions.

This Advent is a time to remember that all contracts will eventually end. Even Bobby Bonilla (or his heirs) will wake up on July 1, 2037 and NOT get paid by the New York Mets. Contracts come and go.

But the covenant in which God enfolds us is eternal. In Advent we remember that it was here before we were, and it will carry us after we’re gone. We are wrapped in the promise, and God is faithful to that promise.

I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. I know that there are times when we look around our lives or this world and we think that we’re on pretty shaky ground. For some, what was once one of the most joyous seasons of the year is now marked by emptiness or loss. For some, the darkness is heavy.

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year. There will be, here in Pittsburgh, only 9 hours, 16 minutes, and 56 seconds of daylight. And it’ll be just as dark on Tuesday. That darkness matches well the mood of many right now.

But God’s covenantal faithfulness does not depend on your emotions (or anything else that you do). It will be dark tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But Wednesday, you know, will give you four additional seconds of daylight. Thursday will be even longer. And just as light returns to the earth, so too does God keep his promises. Allow the promise and faithfulness of Emanuel to remind you that what we see and experience is not all that there is.

Give thanks, this day and this season, for the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. In Advent and at Christmas, he demonstrated his willingness to enter fully into our lives. And in response to God’s eagerness to embrace us within this covenant, let us then live as people who are grateful for the promises of God. We do not earn the covenant or the promise, but we can respond to them with joyful acts that remind ourselves and our world of God’s intentions for the world and all who dwell within it!

Remember that this week, when you blow it. Remember that this week, when your spouse or child or friends blow it. Remember that we are invited to participate in a manner of life marked by joy and thanksgiving and justice and hope and mercy and love. And look for ways to live into that life – even if it’s dark right now. Thanks be to God! Amen.