The Baptism of Hope

On June 5, 2016 God’s people at the Crafton Heights Church were privileged to celebrate the baptism of three delightful young children, and to know that the embrace of God includes, enfolds, and changes us.  Prior to sprinkling my young friends, we read about our brother John the Baptist’s ministry as recorded in Mark 1:1-8.  Then I spun what I hope was an imaginative yarn about the power of baptism and the place of hope in our lives.

 

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

Do you remember that day, so many years ago? Do you remember the time that the angry young preacher came around? He was so . . . so different. He was so . .. . so appealing and repulsive at the same time. While most of the preachers we had ever known dressed in fine clothes and stayed in the city, the one they called John wore rags and lived in the desert. The ones that we were used to were polite to a fault, and called us “Sir” and “Ma’am” and acted like they appreciated the offerings we put in the basket, but John yelled at us. Everybody knew that people who had been in the church all their lives needed to be ceremonially washed every now and then, and only the pagans needed to be baptized, but John claimed that everyone needed to repent, and everyone needed to be forgiven. Why, it was just unheard of.

I know that you know a lot about that day that John stood by the banks of the Jordan and hollered about baptism. But here is something that you may not have known.

In the crowd on this particular day was a widow woman, whose name was Susanna. She had come to hear the preacher because her life was hard, and she was hoping for something to make it easier. In fact, she forced her three sons to come with her, even though none of these teenagers would have gone along if the choice were theirs to make. Today, I’ll tell you the story of what happened to Susanna and her sons as a result of meeting John they call “the baptizer”.

As I have said, Susanna was curious. Nothing more, really. She was just wondering if maybe there could be some real hope and substance in a religion. She had tried to believe, but it seemed so unreal. But what she saw and heard that day touched her in a way that nothing else had, and so Susanna waded into the murky waters of the Jordan and asked John to bring her to the “one who was to come”.

Her oldest son, Simon, was appalled to see his mother associating with such a religious lunatic, and he made no secret of his shame and scorn. Oh, she was his mother, and he continued to treat her with some measure of respect, but it was a respect of the hands and feet, not of the heart. Weeks and even months after they returned to the village, he was filled with disgust at the notion of his mother falling for such hucksterism. As soon as he could, he left the village and moved to the city of Antioch, where he became a cloth merchant. Because he was her son, and because she was his mother, she continued to receive packages from him, and twice he went to visit her — twice, in the course of the 27 years until she died — twice, he took her money and tolerated her religion . . . but he could never really accept her again.

 

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I'd appreciate knowing.

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I’d appreciate knowing.

Now, the middle boy, whose name was Jacob, that was a different story altogether. Although he was only 17 the day that he was dragged out into the wilderness, you could tell that it was a day he would never forget. Jacob had been running with a group of young men who were enraged by the presence of a Roman army in the Promised Land. While their parents and grandparents seemed to be happy waiting for some miraculous deliverance, Jacob and his friends knew that nothing would happen unless the faithful took charge.

So when he heard John preaching about someone to come, someone who would be great and who would deliver the power of the Holy Spirit, well, Jacob just about ran into that water. He glared at John and practically demanded baptism, and as he came out of the water, he raised both hands high in the air and gave a shout – I’m not sure even now if it was a shout of joy or a prayer, but it was a shout that matched the determination on his face.

It was only a week or two after the baptism that Jacob and his friends formed an alliance with a group known as the Zealots – a political party that urged radical steps to overthrow the Roman government. They looked and waited for an opportunity to shake off the yoke of oppression – and always Jacob was looking for this powerful deliverer. There was a teacher who came to town, a man they called Yshua, or Jesus, who was really quite captivating to Susanna and to Jacob’s younger brother, Nathaniel. But Jacob thought that he was soft on the Romans and could not be the Promised One.

About two years after meeting John, Jacob and several of his friends were caught trying to cut the bridge out from under a Roman Garrison passing through the gorge. They were executed on the spot and their bodies left for the vultures and the jackals. It was three weeks before Susanna knew what had happened.

 

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

And the youngest son, whose name was Nathaniel, he was the most thoughtful one. When their mother ran into the water for baptism, he was not ashamed, like Simon. Neither was he eager to follow, as had Jacob. Nathaniel just watched. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he went back the next day, and the next. Something about what the preacher was saying had him hooked – but he wasn’t sure what.

Finally, about three weeks after he had first seen John, Nathaniel asked to be baptized. And when he left, he went straight home and asked his mother to be released from his duties at home so that he might follow John and learn from him. Although Susanna was afraid, she knew that Nathaniel would do what Nathaniel would do, and so she gave him her blessing and off he went.

He had been gone for a few months when he returned home to report that John had been killed by Herod, but that he was now following a new rabbi, a teacher named Yshua – Jesus. He was the one, Nathaniel said. Jesus was the salvation of which John had spoken. He was sure of it.

After that, Susanna met with Nathaniel a few times, and even hosted Jesus and his friends once or twice. And, like her boy, she came to admire and even love the carpenter’s son. But after a few years, Jesus was killed, and instead of returning home, Nathaniel became more convinced than ever of his faith. He claimed to have eaten and spoken with Jesus after he had died. He left the country altogether, and was never heard from again. There were rumors that he was killed by a tribal council in Greece, but nobody knows. He just disappeared.

And so years later, in the twilight of her life, Susanna runs into an old man she thinks she recognizes. His name is Simon, called Peter. And he was a friend of Nathaniel’s. He was a friend of Jesus’. He was, in fact the leader of the group that was now called “The Way”.

And this old lady pours her heart out to the preacher. “What do I do now?” she asked. “How can I believe? What is there left for me to hope for, really? This baptism, this faith, this Jesus — it has alienated me from one son and killed my other sons. When will the promise come true? How many more sons will disappear?”

 

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

And Peter, grizzled, hot-tempered, smelly, old Peter responded to this woman. One translator words his statement this way:

God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change . . . since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down on that day, but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promise . . . So my dear friends, since this is what you have to look forward to, do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace. Interpret our Master’s patient restraint for what it is: salvation.[1]

At the end of the day, the old preacher said, really, all we can do is hope. And we’ve got to act like we have hope. He didn’t answer the old woman’s question, exactly. He just tried to encourage her, he tried to help her to see that she doesn’t see the whole picture, but that soon she will. “Hang on and keep trying” is what he essentially said.

Now why in the world would I spin this yarn for you on this baptism Sunday, the first Sunday in June, in the year of our Lord 2016? Because there’s a new preacher on the block who rants and raves? Because I suspect that there’s someone here who’s ready to join the rebellion?

No, that’s not it. I’m telling you what might have happened because I think that the world in which we live is a lot like the one in which Susanna and her sons lived. It’s a world that has lost hope. We live in a culture that can’t imagine what real health and healing and wholeness might look like, and so we spin our wheels. We are unsure about the future – we look at the coming election and we shake our heads; we think about terror attacks and gun violence and refugee crises and healthcare costs and… well, many of us don’t like to think of what will happen. It seems pretty out of control sometimes.

When we get lost in our fear about the future, we lose hope. And because we lose hope, we don’t have any reason for big changes in our lives. “Rather than make big moves, we relax, settle into present arrangements, old habits, circular movements. We cling tightly to what is rather than dare to dream about what we ought to be.”[2]

 

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Now listen to me, beloved. I am not John the Baptist. I am not the voice crying in the desert, eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair.

I am Dave Carver. I am a pastor. I tell stories. I walk with God’s people in Crafton Heights, and in Malawi, and in a few places in between. I am more apt to be eating wings and wearing khakis.

But today, today, let me play the part of John the Baptist. Let’s make this a grand production, and let me be the person who will yell about the One who is far greater than I! Let me tell you about the One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. Let me be the one to spread the waters of baptism on unsuspecting little girls this day…

And in a sense, let me even pretend that I am more than John the Baptist, because John could only look forward, dimly, to a time when a man would come and assume his ministry and lead the people forward. But where John had the sands of the Jordan river for his platform, I have the rough-hewn rock door of an empty tomb as mine; where John promised that God was coming, I can tell you that God has come — that Immanuel – that God is with us. John had words to say, and I have words to say, but Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of life, the message of love and hope from God the Father.

You see, that’s worth hoping about. That’s worth getting excited about. Because just as my made-up friend Susanna was not forgotten by God in the length of her days, neither have you nor I been forgotten by God in the stories that we have lived. We are not beyond him. We are not too far away. We have reason for hope.

 

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980's

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s

In 1987, I had the privilege to go to Germany. While there, I spent hours driving through East Germany to the city of West Berlin. Some of you may know that in those days, there were two Germanies: the free and democratic West and the poor and communist East. Two governments, two nations – separated by an ugly cement structure called the Berlin Wall. And I drove and walked along the Berlin wall. I saw “Checkpoint Charlie”, where visitors could gain access from one side to the other — if the guards felt like it. I saw markers indicating the spot where children had been shot trying to make it from one side of the wall to the other. I saw mile after mile of razor wire, I saw tanks and guns and ugliness. And I saw what hatred looked like.

And not 500 yards from the wall, in West Berlin, I saw several brand new office buildings going up. And I asked my German friend, “Why in the world would you want to build those things so close to this wall? Is it to show the people in the East that you are succeeding and that your way of life is better than theirs?”

She was quick to reply. “No, that’s not it at all. We are building these here now because when the wall comes down and we are once again a single country, then the office buildings will be in the middle of town.”

wall-1I saw years of hatred and razor wire and people being shot. She saw a nation healed. I laughed at her idealism. She had a party about two years later when the Berlin wall was removed. And now, how many Germanies are there? And what’s the capital of Germany?

Where are the walls in your life? Where is hope held hostage? People of God, beloved, will you let me play John the Baptist today? Will you let me rant and rave a little bit, as long as you feel the water of hope splashing on you?

Our God has not forgotten . Our God is gracious, and waiting even for me and for you. So hope. And act like you have hope. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message 2 Peter 3:8 ff.

[2] Will Willimon, Proclamation 5, Series B 1993, p. 21

Unhindered

Some thoughts on bringing babies to Jesus – and what keeps them away from his intentions.  Our worship on August 23 was anchored in Luke 18:15-17, Colossians 3:21, and Proverbs 22:6

It’s been a busy week here at the Crafton Heights Church. As we creep closer and closer to September, there is more and more activity in and around this building. This week we had painting and Preschool planning and staff conversations and the newsletter was published and lots more – including a Session meeting. At that meeting, the elders of this congregation approved a six-page document called “The Safe Church Policy of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights”. This is a statement regarding the protection of minors while they are in our building or attending church-related events.

safe_church_0The “Safe Church Policy” was made necessary by some sweeping changes in the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These changes resulted from a number of high-profile cases wherein adults have done unspeakable things to children.

This is not a new problem, of course. There are many people in this room who are survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. And this is not a distinctively American problem – all around the world, people do horrible things to children. And so, under the rallying cry of “Somebody ought to do something,”, the lawmakers and insurance companies got together and created these new regulations that will result in a host of new policies and practices at virtually every facility that serves children.

Here at Crafton Heights, that means that there will be more open doors, an increased need for adult volunteers, a heightened screening of those volunteers and staff, more paperwork and increased oversight as well as additional fees. And we are fine with that – because we want to do it right.

But here’s the deal, beloved: Our goal is not simply to comply with the law. Our objective is not to create a paper trail that will make it harder for us to be sued. That’s aiming too low. Our calling is to be a blessing to children and youth. To nurture, protect, and guide these children as they grow. To love them as God in Christ has loved us. That’s what we want to do – keeping them safe is simply a part of that.

jesus-children-clipart-6I would imagine that just about everyone in the room is familiar with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus blesses the little children. It’s the stuff of Sunday School posters and bad artwork for longer than any of us have been alive. We know that about Jesus. Jesus blesses children – of course he does. That what Jesus is all about, right?

Christ Blessing the Children Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

Christ Blessing the Children
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

In his day and age, Jesus’ attentiveness to children was counter-cultural. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for unwanted children to be left to die of exposure or given away to those who would raise them as gladiators or beggars, yet Jesus points to the weakest members of society and honors them. Luke heightens this emphasis, for whereas Mark and Matthew say that people bring their “children” to see Jesus, Luke points out that they are bringing babies. Jesus’ blessing of such babies is entirely consistent with his affinity for standing up for those who are on the fringes.

This morning, though, I don’t really want to look at what Jesus does; I’d like to consider what he says. In this brief passage, Jesus gives pretty explicit instructions to his followers: “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

Let’s talk about that word, “hinder”. In the game of racquetball, if I get between you and the ball such that you can’t reach it, instead of me getting the point for being such an amazing athlete, we have to replay the point because I have “hindered” you. That is, I’ve gotten your way; I’ve cut off your access to the ball. The Greek word kaluo is a key word in the Luke’s writing. At least twelve times in the two-volume work that forms Luke and Acts, he uses this word to communicate something important about the Gospel.

In Luke 6, Jesus says that we are not to hinder another person’s access to the things that he or she needs, even if that thing is “ours”. In Luke 9, Jesus scolds his disciples for “hindering” someone who is doing God’s work simply because he’s not doing it the way that they expect him to. Later, Jesus charges the Pharisees with “hindering” people’s ability to live faithfully.

When Luke was writing Acts, he mentioned that the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know if there was anything that “hindered” him from being baptized, and he uses the same language in the conversations around Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius – there is no reason, apparently, to “hinder” the progress of God’s truth. In fact, the very last word in the book of Acts is the negative form of this word: akaluo. Luke finishes telling the story of Jesus and the early church by saying that the Gospel itself is “unhindered” as it is set free in the world.

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. Used by permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. http://www.Jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA

So when Jesus says, “don’t hinder the children”, he’s saying more than simply “keep out of their way”. I think that he’s telling his followers that these children deserve unfettered access to the love of God in Christ, and that disciples of Jesus are called to do everything in our power to give children the opportunity to be embraced by the Lord.

So of course, we need to have a “Safe Church” policy. But we need to remember that protecting children from physical abuse is the starting point – the ground floor of this enterprise. What else are we going to do?

Well, I can promise you several things that will be true as long as I am the pastor of this congregation.

If you and I are talking and someone who is less than four feet tall comes and starts to tug on my robe, I can pretty much guarantee that you and I will be interrupted, because I want that little person to know that Pastor Dave is interested in what she or he has to say.

You need to know that children are going to cry during worship, God willing. I know, it’s very important that we nurture and instruct our kids in the art of sitting in and participating in the worship service – but the fact of the matter is that not all of us are good at that all the time, and neither are our children. And we will not banish children who make a little noise.

This congregation will work to create meaningful experiences outside of this room wherein children can be welcomed: FaithBuilder classes and toddler care rooms and other places where faith can be nurtured and intergenerational friendships can flourish.

Through the ministries of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool and The Open Door, we will enlarge the circle of caring by providing excellent role models and mentors and safe places to grow and learn what faith looks like and how we practice it on the playground and on at Youth Group Mission Trips.

Those are the policies and procedures and programs that we will continue to work on as we strive to make this church a “safe place” for all children. If you see something going on here that is hindering someone’s access to the love and blessing of Jesus, I hope that you’ll tell me what it is. Because if the Gospel is unhindered in the Roman world, it sure as heck ought to be unhindered here in Crafton Heights.

But the reality is that it’s not enough for the leaders and volunteers here to seek to remove hindrances. There are some obstacles to faith that are rooted in the home.

One of the most significant barriers between children and the embrace of Jesus is a demon whose name is “perfectionism”. We do our children and grandchildren a disservice when we expect them to do everything right all the time, or when we think that the way that they will live into their discipleship has to look exactly like the path that we have followed. Parents, don’t expect your children, your family, or your church to be perfect. Again, look to Jesus: he lived with and shared grace all the time – surely we can too. The reading from Colossians indicates that even crusty old Apostle Paul took time to write to the parents in his churches and remind them that it’s important to give the next generation a break every now and then.

Another word that I would have for parents in this regard is to please, please, please be attentive to the schedules that you are building for your children’s lives. Activities and extra-curricular events are important and wonderful opportunities for children of any age, but we have to make sure that worship and time with family are anchors for the week. Karate and football and music lessons and dance are foundational experiences in so many ways, but my hope and prayer is that they would find their meaning in the context of a life that is rooted in Sabbath, worship, and other rhythms that nurture the child in Jesus’ love and embrace.

JesusAndChildrenAnd even if we as a congregation have an amazing set of programs and policies, and individual families are diligent when it comes to establishing patterns that point children directly into the arms of Jesus, there are some larger cultural issues to which we ought to dedicate ourselves.

None of what I’m going to say now will surprise you. We want to work for that which promotes peace and justice and hope. We have to support structures that educate and feed and shelter those who are at risk. We must be diligent in our willingness to stand with those who are oppressed and do what we can to remove anything that would hinder their experience of Jesus’ blessing.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy week here at Crafton Heights. But the truth of the matter is that writing out a “Safe Church Policy” is the easy part. By all means, go over and see Jason and Cheri. Fill out the paperwork. Give your fingerprints to the FBI if you need to. Go ahead and check all that stuff off your list.

But know this, beloved: filling out the forms and making the insurance company happy is not the same as blessing the children in Jesus’ name. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

May we – as a congregation, as a community of families, and as a culture – commit ourselves to doing the things that will take time, energy, love, and creativity as we seek to bring the children with whom God has entrusted us to a place where they will have access to the fullness of his love. Thanks be to God for the children we’ve been given and for the mercy under which we live. Amen.

Youth Mission 2015 Update #4

 

In a few hours we’ll be loading up the vans and heading for Pittsburgh. Most of us are a little sore. All of us will be ready for a good night’s sleep. And if we did it right, none of us will be the same. As has become my tradition, I’d like to allow the young people to write this final “Mission Trip Update”. Last night, I asked them to think about what it meant for them to be able to spend a week in this community called “Deep Roots” with each other and the folks who are calling it home right now. Here are their responses, and I’ve given the names of the people who are willing to be so designated.

This is a wonderful trip and I hope we can do this again. It’s nice to try. We helped.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group.  Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group. Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

This trip changed me on Day One when John [our site coordinator] told us at orientation to put the idea of service out of our heads. From that point we were no longer here to serve the less fortunate, we were just here to share some things we were able to do for each other. It has less to do with who has more cards in their hand and more to do with humbly and willingly evening out the playing field. If you’ve got more, you want to help out however you can. You don’t want to make a big deal of ‘serving the less fortunate’ because it just makes it more obvious that you place yourself higher than them.

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good...

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good…

...but Noah was a master.  He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

…but Noah was a master. He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

If I have learned anything from this trip, it’s not to appreciate the things I don’t have. It’s to be thankful for the people who don’t mind throwing themselves into a bucket of paint or under a building just to make a person’s life easier. I love every person that came on this trip and all of those who couldn’t come too.

This photo does not do the job justice.  The building looks brand new!

This photo does not do the job justice. The building looks brand new!

My favorite thing on every mission trip is the stories that are made, told, and heard. I enjoy everything that I learn from them. I think I learn more from the stories made with the youth group than I do in school.

This mission trip meant a lot to me because like I said [in closing devotions on Friday night] I was in a depression stage and didn’t think a lot meant to me and I thought I was at the lowest of the los but helping people who needed help really hit me and I was like I have a reason. God created me to help people who need it and I decided to come help these people before I get my own help. But helping others I would do again and again but this mission trip means a lot to me. (Tim W)

This trip was one of the best trips that I have been on. The work was great and I felt like we really made a difference. The group was amazing and we all could contribute something. (Katie P)

My first mission trip. I had lots of fun. I had much more fun moving mulch than painting the building.

Loading all of S's possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Loading all of S’s possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Out of 6 mission trips this was the hardest. The work was not hard but the circumstances we saw were hard (although definitely not as hard as Dave’s experiences in South Sudan). Watching these people who live here made me very frustrated. I felt like we needed to show the kids a lot of attention because the parents were not always doing that. Then helping S. move into her new home I became frustrated with the idea of her kids living in that area and being away from Deep Roots. Coming into this trip I expected to do some work and learn someone’s story. But we did more than work and I did not learn a story. I know our work and me alone could not change these families’ situations but it did open my eyes to more things I can change about myself. Overall the tripo was a success and it allowed me to do a lot of thinking, learning, and reflecting. (Rachael P.)

I was excited to join this group for the first time and I was not disappointed. The work that everyone did with each other was inspirational. I was happy to wake up every morning and serve with these people. (Nick V)

Our evening Bible Study.

Our evening Bible Study.

I really haven’t formulated a thought on this trip. I had good days and I’ve had bad days but I truly learned so much about myself. I did things I never thought possible and I wanna thank everyone for the wonderful work they’ve done here and I look forward to next year’s. (Ricky L)

It is a privilege to be with such amazing young people who care for each other and those they encounter. This group adds so much joy to my life and for that I am so thankful!

This has been a complete eye-opening experience seeing the people that live here and how little they have but also how much they have to give. It makes you appreciate what you have been given. (Josh D)

The "underneath", with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

The “underneath”, with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

This trip has been one of, if not the best trip, I have ever been on. Productively I feel that it has been the most successful, and it has also changed me spiritually. It has changed the way I look at my everyday life and I feel it has changed me for the best. Can’t wait for next year! (David S)

While painting was not Evan's favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I'm proud of him for that.

While painting was not Evan’s favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I’m proud of him for that.

I have mixed emotions about Deep Roots or, as other people know it, Meeting Ground. Day 1: Everything was great and it was hot. Day 2: Lots of mulching. Day 3: BEACH = awesome. Day 4: A lot of paint and dirt. Day 5: Three-quarter day and then we swam in the lake. (Evan W)

In this past week I have realized that the littlest things can make a difference in lives. Like how we put down mulch in the playground and later on Pastor Dave told a story how one of the residents said that it made a big difference because of the weeds growing so fast, and how when it rained it was too muddy to play in and when it doesn’t rain the ground is too hard to play on. (Caleb C)

This group works well together and works hard. People look out for each other and look for how they can contribute and serve to make things better for the residents here.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Friday was my favorite work day because I got to help someone who has lived in Deep Roots for a couple of months to finally move into a new home. As she was leaving a lot of her friends were saying their goodbyes and had tears in their eyes. It made me realize that while people are living here they make real connections with each other and even become an odd type of family. It made me very grateful for my own family. (Carly B)

This mission trip I feel like I accomplished the most not only physically but this year spiritually too. The group worked very hard this past week and I am very grateful that I was able to come.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions - it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions – it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

There you have it – in their own words – a small hint of the stories that God is writing in the lives of these fifteen young people and five of their leaders. Many of the kids paid $125 to get here for the week. Others were not able to afford that. None of us could have gotten here if it were not for generous donations from people who came to the baked potato luncheon or who made other gifts that allowed us to rent the vans, to buy the meals, and to offer a day at the beach. As I said in the first post, it’s one of my favorite weeks of the whole year (I am, however, ready to spend a few nights in my own bed!). Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip.  I'm not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips.

Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip. I’m not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips. You probably can’t read the writing on my shirt, but it has the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s motto on it: “Out of chaos, hope”.  For too many of the kids who came with me on this trip, life is chaotic.  In the past couple of years we have buried too many parents and seen too much grief…we’ve had trouble in school and made horrific mistakes…and we’ve seen great joy and made wonderful strides.  In the same way, Deep Roots brings a sense of hope and purpose to the lives of even the littlest residents, and the opportunity to think that we can make positive steps in the days, months, and years to come.  That’s not insignificant – not at all.  It’s a little step, some days, but at least we’re walking into hope.

Asaph, Titus, and Us

The message presented here was shared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary celebration of my ministry with the good people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  It was preached on November 10, 2013.  Texts included Psalm 78:1-8 and Titus 1:5, 2:1-7.  

OTHeroesLet’s pretend that I’ve asked you to write a booklet entitled “Great Heroes of the Old Testament”.  Who do you include?  Abraham? Joseph? Noah? David? Solomon? Deborah? Elijah?  You can come up with quite a list, can’t you?

How long would that list have to be before you got around to including Asaph?

Who?

Exactly.

The Choristers by James Tissot

The Choristers by James Tissot

Asaph was a young man who was brought into the limelight by David when he was a little more than twenty years old.  He started out in the percussion section, where he played the cymbals as the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles.  Not long afterward, he was promoted to “Chief Musician.”  King David appointed Asaph to be the worship leader in the “Tent of Meeting”.

How intimidating would that be? David, who was a skilled musician, a “man after God’s own heart”, asked Asaph to lead the music.  That’d be like Sidney Crosby asking Ron Gielarowski to take a couple of his shifts while he was working on something else, or maybe Paul McCartney asking Jon to fill in on bass while he played the piano.

But that’s what Asaph did.  For four decades, he was called to remind people of God’s grace; to lead them in giving thanks; and to help them express their grief when times got tough.  He was there when they were meeting in the Tent and he was there when they dedicated Solomon’s temple.  In many ways, Asaph became the consummate religious insider.  He watched David’s rise from rebel leader to King; he saw him fall in the scandal that surrounded his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah; he was on hand for Absalom’s revolt and he witnessed the decay of the nation’s faith when David’s son Solomon started to worship false gods.  Asaph is noted as the author of twelve Psalms, which means that he’s credited with writing more of the Bible than Abraham, Elijah, or most of the twelve apostles.

Asaph is not on anyone’s list of great Bible heroes.  Well, he’s on mine.  Because all he did was to keep pointing to the Lord.  All he did was to remind people that it’s a good thing to give thanks.  All he did was to pray fervently that the Story would live on in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

Psalm 78 is an amazing bit of truth-telling in the midst of the Bible.  Asaph presents himself as a teacher who points to God’s amazing goodness…and to the ways that we, God’s people, have fallen short.  He says, “Look, we have to keep saying the hard things to make sure that we don’t hide anything from the next generation – we want them to grow up knowing God.  In fact, we want them to grow up being better than we are.”

I have to interrupt Asaph right there and say that’s not a very Christian attitude.  Specifically, it’s not a very 21st-century American Christian attitude.

Here’s what I mean: in my experience, very few believers expect anything in the church to be better fifteen or twenty years in the future.  The story of the American church in the last century is to think about how it was last year, or five or ten years ago, and then try to figure out a way to make what we’re doing this year almost as good.  As if we’re stockpiling our supply of God’s grace and power, and we don’t want to blow it all at once.  As if God can’t use our children more powerfully than God uses us.  And so on our best days, we hope that our children are like us. Or, to be honest, almost as good as we are.

But Asaph reminds us that the call of God is to give the next generation all that we are and all that we have and all that we know so that they will not, in fact, be like us…but that they will be better.  God’s call is that the next generation is not to be stubborn and rebellious, but that they might be more faithful than we.  More generous than we.  More obedient than we.

And because Asaph looks at my parents, and me, and then at my daughter and my unborn grandchild like that, and expects God to continue working in a family like mine…Asaph is one of my heroes.

NTHeroesNow, let’s pretend that the volume of Old Testament Heroes sold so well that you’ve been commissioned to write a sequel, which I’ll imaginatively call “Great Heroes of the New Testament”.  Who do you include in that work?  Jesus, of course.  Mary?  Peter? Paul? John? Zacchaeus? John the Baptist?

How long would it have to be before that list got around to including Titus?

I would imagine more people have heard of Titus than Asaph.  Titus was a young follower of the Apostle Paul.  They must have made an odd pair.  Paul was a crusty old Pharisee who had been classically trained by one of the greatest minds in the first century, the Rabbi Gamaliel.  His entire life was focused on preserving ancient truth and the traditions of the ancestors.  Paul was a Jew’s Jew.  He was a hothead.  He was always on the go.  And he wrote half of the New Testament.

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

And somehow Paul becomes involved in a life-changing relationship with Titus, a man who was much younger than he, who wasn’t even Jewish, never became a Jew, and didn’t write a single verse of the Bible.  If Asaph was the consummate insider, Titus was the consummate outsider.  He wasn’t even allowed into the Temple in which Asaph served for four decades.  By the rules that Paul taught for most of his life, Titus wasn’t good enough to carry Paul’s lunchbox around for him – and definitely couldn’t share lunch with Paul.

And yet, somehow, Paul calls Titus “my true child in the faith”.  How intimidating would that be? To have the guy who’s pictured in all the stained-glass windows and has his fingerprints all over the original copies of the New Testament point his finger at you and say, “You, son…you’re next.  You’re amazing.”  But that’s what it says.  I mean, it’s my own translation, and a loose one, but that’s essentially what’s happening here.

Titus was Paul’s emissary on numerous trips to churches around Asia and Europe.  He corrected the Corinthians.  He took up offerings for the church in Jerusalem.  And this morning we read of how he was sent to Crete to establish and nurture a Christian community there.

How did Titus do that? By employing the same methods that Asaph used. He met people where they were and valued them for who they were.  He told the people the truth about who they were – good and bad – and he loved them.  He trained them and he equipped them to grow.  Titus expected those people to live into the fullness of their identity as Christ’s body on earth, the church.

OK, let’s imagine one more time.  Our series of Biblical Heroes books has sold so well that we’ve been commissioned to do one further volume: “The Greatest Churches in North America Since 1900.”

PreachersI hate to break this to you, but just like Asaph and Titus aren’t on most people’s lists of Biblical heroes, you’re not going to find The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights included in any retrospective of significant developments in ecclesiology over the past century.  And if you Google “most influential pastor in America” you get three quarters of a million “hits”.  If you Google “most influential pastor in America” and “Dave Carver”, you get…um, zero “hits.”

We know the truth, don’t we, my friends?  Who are we?  We’re us.  We know we’re not all that.  Come on, if I walked into the room and said, “OK, we’re going to ‘CHUP it up’ a little bit”, most of you would know what I mean by that – we’re going to find a way to make the thing work – we’re going to look for God’s grace and celebrate his love…but it might not be pretty.  Let’s CHUP it up.

We know that we are closer to Asaph and Titus than we are to the power of David, the glory of Solomon, or to the wisdom of Paul, aren’t we?

Isn’t that great?  I can think of no better comrades for our journey in this time and this place than Asaph and Titus.  Here’s why:

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that one of the defining characteristics of the Christian community is that we always want to compare ourselves to others – and that leads to the kind of intimidation I mentioned might have been present with Asaph and David or Titus and Paul.  Bonhoeffer speaks of the passage where Luke records that “an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest”.  According to Bonhoeffer, “…no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord.”[1]

That tendency to compare – to think, “I’m not as holy as so and so, but man, am I better than you know who” is corrosive to our ability to be the kind of community that Asaph, Titus, and indeed Christ envision.  When we can release that tendency, then we discover great freedoms.

One is the freedom to truly love each other.  When we refuse to compare or judge, Bonhoeffer says, “…each individual will make a matchless discovery.  He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person…and thus doing violence to him as a person.  Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be…God did not make this person as I would have made him…God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image.”[2]  When I celebrate that image, then I love both God and the other.

Another freedom we gain from refusing to compare ourselves is the freedom to listen to each other.  Again, turning to Bonhoeffer: “Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others…[that] they forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking…There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.  It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person…We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”[3]

And when we refuse to compare ourselves with others, and therefore are free to love and to listen, we become free to proclaim the mystery of grace to one another.  One more quote from Bonhoeffer on this:  “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.  We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go…Why should we be afraid of each other, since both of us have only God to fear?…Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition?  Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?”[4]

Beloved, can you see some of us in those quotes?  That when we are at our best, we acknowledge that we are not the most amazing faith community with the best structure and the greatest pastor in the world today.  That’s OK, because we are not called to be those things.  We are called to be loving and listening and proclaiming the Truth in this place with these people at this time so that the world will change.

Speaking of painting, if you haven't seen the new paint job at CHUP, you've been away too long...

One of my favorite examples of this truth is the time that one of the pastors from a very large, wealthy, and influential church sat with a small group of us back in the parlor and quizzed us for 45 minutes as to what we were doing and how we were doing it.  At the end of the time he said, “Thank you so much for sharing this.  This means a lot, because my church thinks that it can’t do very much, but what you are doing…and the way you are doing it.  I mean, don’t be offended by this, but the truth is, if CHUP can do it, anybody can.”

EXACTLY!  If Asaph and Titus teach us anything, it’s that with God’s help, anybody can do this!

Listen:  this weekend we are having a good time celebrating two decades of shared ministry as pastor and people.  We are aware of the fact that for 26 of the last 31 years we have been together.  That is rare in the church in North America, and it should be noted.

But the reality is that although it is rare, things are as they should be.  That is to say, what you are doing here is passing along the gifts of Asaph and Titus: one generation seeks to take its strength, its hope, its gifts, and hand them to the next.  It’s God’s plan.  It works.

As the committee came to me with the suggestion that this morning’s service include a time of celebration of shared ministry, the one thing that was clear to me was that this service is not about me, and it’s not about us.  It is about the power of God to work in and through the Body of Christ.

As I have reflected in recent weeks, I am personally deeply humbled and profoundly grateful that I have been allowed to participate in these ministries.  The stories you have told me…the trust you have placed in me…the horrors we have faced together…the babies we have buried…the children we have witnessed soaring above us…the games we have played…the sin that has been exposed and forgiven…the friends who have brought us here or joined us on the way…the mission trips and retreats that have changed us…the profoundly broken people who have been such amazing vessels of Christ’s love and grace to us…the photos that line my study and the memories that fill our heads – these are all reminders of the fact that we have never, ever been alone on this journey.

And so like Asaph and Titus, we echo and we do not forget the works of God.  We name them.  We celebrate them.  We share them.  We are blessed – and that is wonderful.  But we never forget that we are blessed in order that we might become a blessing to others.  Let’s celebrate where we are, and dream about where we are going, because there are amazing things ahead of us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

To help celebrate this anniversary, my dear friend Adam Simcox composed an original song to be sung as a part of the worship experience on November 10.  I have his permission to share the lyrics with you here, and if I can come up with a way to get the recording online, I’ll do that, too.

Out On The Water

Sidewalks don’t change but the faces come and go / having lost their own way some barely pulling through.

hands that reach out and pull us in tight / when we rest in your love on those long dark nights.

(you continue to fight)

all alone lost in the fray / accepting a lie we’ve gone too far away

I’m not worthy and clearly not worth it / My motives don’t always measure up

At times I feel so helpless they look to me for “holy” / Will my efforts ever be enough

On my own I am nothing / In you I’m made complete 

CHORUS: But you’re already there out on the water calling my name

should I walk out in faith it’s so easy to falter / I hear your voice speaking to me

your hand reaching to the deep setting me free

we’re all in the same boat floating along / longing for the deeper in this life.

I’m just a man and they’re just someones / we hope for a glimpse with these crippled eyes

to your purpose to your plan / each small step your holding our hands

chorus

Each day I wake up help me to live / into your plan into your will

you see each one not for what they are / but for who you’ve meant them to be

who you’ve made us to be / won’t you please help us to see

chorus

During the Service, my beautiful bride presented me with a gift symbolizing twenty years of ministry in the congregation.  It is a handmade stole, reflecting the artistry of our friend Jenny at Carrot Top Studio in Pittsburgh.  It’s white, the color for celebration and resurrection.  It has on it handprints from 25 children who have been baptized or dedicated over the years – an incomplete sample, to be sure – but an amazing symbol nonetheless.  There is even a handprint for a little guy who has been born, but has yet to be baptized – my little friend Brogan (thus making 26 prints).  Jon, at 25, is the oldest “child” represented; and Brogan is of course the youngest.  It is simply amazing.  Here are a couple of images:

Carver-anniversary-front


Carver-anniversary-back

[1]Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954) p. 90

[2] Life Together pp. 92-93.

[3] Life Together pp. 97-99.

[4] Life Together p. 106.

The Job Corps

On June 16, 2013 we explored the role of men in the church, and of dads in faith formation — and the fact that the church is called to engage and love the children among whom we have been placed.  Our scriptures included Job 1:1-5 and I John 2:12-17 

johnpaul2macarthurLBJNixon

What do Douglas MacArthur, Lyndon Johnson, ObamaRichard Nixon, Pope John Paul II, and Barack Obama have in common?

Every year, the Gallup Poll asks Americans, without any prompting, to answer this question: “What man and what woman, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?”  Each of these men has been named as “The Most Admired Man” according that poll.

Why?  What makes those men worthy of our admiration?  It can’t be their moral fiber – sure, you’ve got Billy Graham on the list, but you’ve also got two impeached presidents.  Do we look up to them because they have great power or wealth?  Maybe.  Almost everyone on the list has those things.

Mostly, it seems to me, it has to do with their address.  54 of the 66 “winners” have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and been sitting US Presidents at the time of the poll.  So maybe it’s an accident of geography.

2558942822_2714908f1aI’d like to tell you about a man who isn’t on the list.  Of course, the list only goes back to 1946.  If it went back three or four thousand years, this guy would be a lock to make it.  In fact, it says so right in verse three of our first reading: that Job was “the greatest man in all the east”.

Well, isn’t that a little like saying that Johnny’s makes the best pizza, or that Dave Carver is the best-fielding pastor in the history of CHUP softball?  How do you back a statement like that up?  “Greatest man in the east?” How do you know that?

The author of Job anticipated your question and gave you an answer: if you want to know what made Job so great, look at the way he treated his kids.  Every year, when they would celebrate their birthdays, he would be holding them in prayer, making sacrifices on their behalf, and seeking to protect them from harm.  Job was the greatest, according to the Bible, because he did right by his children in the eyes of the Lord.

I thought about this passage a few weeks ago when we were having communion.  I noticed a young dad in our congregation sitting with two boys – his son and a friend – and teaching them how to worship and what made communion so important.  At that moment, I thought, “Maybe there is nothing we do that is more important than helping men to teach boys how to worship and respect the Lord.”

I did a little research, and discovered that it’s not just me that thinks this way.  A study reported in The Baptist Press indicated that if a man is the first in his family to become a Christian, there is a 93% probability that everyone else in the family will claim Christ.  That compares with a 17% probability if the wife is the first to become a Christian and a 3.5% chance if the first to believe is a child.

The Journal of Child Development reports that fathers have twice the influence of mothers when it comes to helping teens stave off risky behaviors.  This doesn’t say that moms don’t have a role – only that dads have twice as much influence on their teens.

And a study done by the government of Switzerland determined that if a mother goes to church without the father, 2% of the children are liable to participate regularly in church as adults.  However, when the father goes without the mother, 44% of the children will grow up and join a church.  Men matter when it comes to the life of faith, and the church needs to be attentive to that.

And someone is crying “Shenanigans!”  We didn’t hear a Mother’s Day sermon, but we’re getting a Father’s Day sermon?  That’s sexist!

Probably.  But it’s been my experience that I don’t need to encourage women to nurture children in the faith as I do the men.  And the truth is, my friends, that I know way too many people who have had insufficient parenting from both their fathers and their mothers…but I know more people who have been wounded by poor fathering.  And the statistics would seem to bear me out on this:

1/3 of the children in the USA are currently living in homes without their fathers present.  Children who are being raised in father-absent homes are four times more likely to be poor than their peers.  90% of the nation’s homeless or runaway children are from fatherless homes.  85% of the children who have been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder are children with no father in their lives.  63% of youth suicides are children whose father is absent.[1]

Now look – none of these statistics predicts anything about a particular child, and clearly, we have men and women in our midst who were raised without their fathers present and who have done magnificent things.  So what does this mean?  It means that we as a church – and we as a society – have a stake in supporting and encouraging men to be the best dads that they can be.

St John005Which leads me to our New Testament passage for the day.  We call this letter “I John”, although it doesn’t say anywhere in the text itself who wrote it.  The author is an unnamed person connected with the circle of Apostles.  He appears to be an older man, one with authority and some personal knowledge of Jesus.  He could very well be the John who was named in the Gospels as one of the first disciples.  He could be another church leader named John.  The point is, he’s a man with status and influence in the church, and here, he writes to three different generations within the church.

In a rambling, repetitive, poetic address, the elder speaks to “fathers”, “young men”, and “children”.  You probably noticed that all of the pronouns in this translation are male – just like many of them in this sermon.  I would suggest that in John’s culture, it was appropriate to use masculine imagery when referring to everyone in the room – and I would further suggest that what he has to say applies to each of us as well.

He writes to the children, he says, because they have had their sin forgiven, and they know the power of God’s love in their lives.

The young adults he commends for being strong in their faith, and for standing up to “the evil one” in a difficult time.

And he reminds the so-called “fathers” that they knew Jesus in the flesh – these were older adults who were of his own generation.

So the “why” is this: I write to you because you know the grace of God, you struggle with the evil of this world, and you know the power of Jesus…

What does he actually say?  What’s the message he’s trying to get across?

It’s simple, actually: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.”

Wow, doesn’t that sound…well, pretty rigid?  I mean, it could be the ground rule for a whole puritanical lifestyle.  “Do not love the world or the things of the world…” sounds like John could be saying, “Don’t smoke, don’t go to the movies, don’t dance, and watch out for that liquor!”

While John may or may not approve of any of those things, that’s almost certainly not what he meant to say this passage.  He deepens his message in the next verse, when he warns against “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”.  Historically, the church has said that the prime dangers to faithful living are money, sex, and power – specifically, money, sexuality, and power that is twisted and abused.  And if we think of those categories, I think we’re closer to what John means.

“Do not love the world…”  The word John uses for “world” is “cosmos” – and it means the created order.  In the New Testament, “cosmos” is always finite and limited.  Of course it is, because the cosmos is created.

What John is saying to the church of his day is that they dare not love – that is, give themselves to – something that has been created.  Do not give to a creature that allegiance, respect, loyalty, and devotion that belongs only to the Creator.  John would say that you cannot give yourself away, because you already belong to God.

So, what are the implications for the church?  It seems to me that every congregation, in John’s time and in our own, needs to be a community wherein one generation teaches the next to celebrate forgiveness, to struggle with evil and to know Jesus.  We are blessed with children who are led by young adults and supported by their elders.  That’s how it’s supposed to be, right?

According to the most recent census data, there are 1,262 children who live in Crafton Heights.  Of those, 492 are children who live in a home with “female householder, no father present”.  Many of these women are among the bravest, toughest, most courageous people I know.  Their task is herculean.  But they cannot – and they should not – be doing this alone.

The call from today’s scripture reading is for the people of God to be fatherly – whether or not we are biological fathers.  What does this mean?  I think it means that we follow the pattern laid out by Job: we engage children spiritually.  We don’t just run a program: we nurture the child.  And we don’t just “love kids”: we pour ourselves out for specific children who are known to and loved by God. We pray with and for the children in our midst.  And we are not only willing, but eager to make sacrifices on behalf of our children.

The stereotypical question to a child is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And we all smile when some gap-toothed eight year old says, “I’m gonna be the President of the United States!”  That answer, statistically speaking, gives you the best shot at being the most admired man or woman in the world.

It would be cool if one of our kids grew up and lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  But it would be better, I think, if a few of them grew up to be Job.

Job and His Family, Watercolor by William Blake (pub. 1826)

Job and His Family, Watercolor by William Blake (pub. 1826)

In fact, I dream of a congregation that could be “The Job Corps” (rhyme with “robe corps).  Now, you know that The Job Corps is a government program designed to help young people find a career and earn a living.  Great.  But the Job Corps is an expression of the church that could and should go wider and deeper and broader than any of that – the Job Corps could be that expression of the body of Christ that values children with and without fathers enough to model faith for them, to live in covenant love with them, and to guide them into faith themselves.

I’m preaching to you, Church.  I’m preaching to you, children, who know the truth – who can sing along that “Jesus loves me, this I know”, or “Jesus is my firm foundation – I know I can stand secure…”

I’m preaching to you, my younger brothers and sisters, who struggle to find time and balance and energy in your lives.  You who are becoming Cross Trainer staff for the summer and you who are parents of young children; you who are fathers, you who are married to amazing dads, and you who wish that your child’s father could be bothered to take more of an interest in that child’s life; I’m preaching to you because you know the struggle against evil, and yet you know that the word of God can abide in you!

And I’m preaching to you, mature adults.  You may not be of Christ’s generation, but you know the Lord.  You have seen and sensed him at work in your lives.  Your task as biological parents may have finished, or at least be winding down.  But I know at least 492 children in census tracts # 2814 and 2815 who need someone like you to help with the Faithbuilders program, or to volunteer afterschool, or to pray with the Youth Group.  You have known Christ.  Now, make him known to those who follow you and him.  And may God bless you as you become the Job Corps in this time and place.  Amen.

Hold Fast

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  On this, the first Sunday of Eastertide, we began an exploration of the ways that the first believers lived their way into the Good News.  In doing so, we considered I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

If you were to order the books of the New Testament according to the date on which they were written, you wouldn’t start with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  You wouldn’t start with one of those big impressive epistles that lay out so neatly what it means to believe in Christ and how we come to saving faith in his name.

Nope, if you wanted to lay out the books of the New Testament in order, you’d start with a little note from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the town of Thessalonica.  Last week, we celebrated the resurrection.  This is the first written record we have of the ways that people in the first century responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it dates from about 51 AD.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to be spending some time reading other people’s mail – looking at this letter in the hopes that we can grow in our understanding of the faith by considering the example of our earliest brothers and sisters.

Did you ever have one of those days when nobody notices anything that you do right, and when things start to go poorly for you, it seems like nobody cares?  The Apostle Paul was having one of those years.

Paul, as you might remember, was not one of the original followers of Jesus.  In fact, he was out to kill Christians in the days just following Jesus’ resurrection.  He had a vision of the risen Christ, however, that changed his life and he began preaching like nobody’s business.  Everyone he met, from peasants to kings, heard about the amazing power and grace of Jesus.  And if you read the New Testament, you’ll see that he got pretty good at it…but it started rough.  Here’s what happened to Paul right before he wrote this little booklet of I Thessalonians.

Paul's journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

Paul’s journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

First, he was over in Asia – a part of what we call Turkey now.  He had a vision to go over to preach in Macedonia and Greece in Europe.  So he made the journey across the Aegean Sea and wound up in Philippi.  He was beaten and arrested and eventually escorted out of town.  So he headed south a few miles and found himself in Thessalonica, the capital and largest city of the region of Macedonia.  It sat squarely on the highway called the Via Egnatia, a road that connected Rome to the important seaports that lined the Aegean.  Thessalonica was a thriving town that had a population of close to a hundred thousand, including a sizable number of Jews.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008.  The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008. The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

Paul was received well by the community, but after a few weeks, he had managed to alienate some significant leaders in the Jewish community, and when he tried to preach they incited a mob to turn against him.  He was hustled out of town and went a little further south to Berea.  He picked up where he left off, until some of the Thessalonians heard where he was and they sent a mob off to rough him up a bit.  His friends Silas and Timothy figured that he needed to get out of town, and so they shipped him down to Athens and told him to stay out of trouble.

Right.

He started preaching in Athens, but became “deeply distressed” by the lack of belief and the number of people who simply scoffed at his appeal.  He left Athens and made his way to Corinth, where he was so disheartened that he was only able to preach with what he called “weakness and fear and much trembling”.  That is hardly a description of the bombastic sort that he is often made out to be!  But when you stop to think about it, for a period of some months, he had been beaten down, figuratively and literally, in every place.  He was sure that God had called him to come over to Europe, but he had seen nothing but difficulty.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

After a few weeks in Corinth, he had a visit from Timothy, who brought news from the Christians in Thessalonica.  Now, remember, the last time Paul saw Thessalonica, he was being dragged out of town by the police.  The last people he saw from Thessalonica were the tough guys who came down to Berea to make sure that he forgot where Thessalonica was.  So what is Timothy’s report going to say?

Maybe the word from Thessalonica is, “You know, Paul, this is great!  Since we began to follow in the Way of Christ, all our problems are gone!  The Romans – turns out they’re not such bad guys.  Those religious people that tried to kill you? They came to the pot luck last night.  Things down at the salt mine are better, we have more money than ever before, our children are better behaved – the Lord is really just blessing our socks off.  Thanks for telling us about Jesus, Paul….”

Nope.  That’s most definitely NOT what Timothy said.

Here’s what he did say – that the believers in Thessalonica can see God at work.  It’s tough going, they say, but they knew that going into it – they’d seen as much in Paul, as a matter of fact.  There is some persecution, there are some significant challenges – but they are carrying on.  The bottom line, they say, is that they are a changed people – NOT because they hit the cosmic lottery or because God has sent them amazing prosperity as a reward for believing the right things about him – they are a changed people because Christ has become real to and among them.

What has happened in the lives of these men and women from Thessalonica is that there has been a complete turnaround.  The God of the Bible – in fact, the Bible itself – was unknown to them.  Verse 9 tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” – in other words, it’s not as if they were Jews who knew and accepted the truth of the Old Testament and then saw Jesus as its fulfillment.  No, they had been totally outsiders to the faith, and now have come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How significant was the change in their lives?  Well, consider this.  In verse 4, Paul uses a little word to describe the believers in Thessalonica: he calls them “brothers.”  In fact, if someone with a lot of time on his hands, say, some preacher in the midst of the “slow week” after Easter…if someone like that was to go through the first and second letters to the Thessalonians, he would discover that Paul uses that word – “brothers” – twenty four times­ in these five pages. That’s more often than Paul uses the word “brothers” anywhere else, with the exception of 1 Corinthians, which is nearly three times as long.

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles, Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles , Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Do you see? Paul is simply overwhelmed.  Paul, this proud old Pharisee with an stellar education and an outstanding lineage, is writing to a group of former pagans and slaves and intellectuals and merchants – those whom he used to see as adversaries or contemptible and unclean…and he can’t stop calling them “brother” or “sister”.  What happened here?  What would change a relationship like that?

The power of Christ revealed in suffering. They were not changed from Paul’s tormentors or adversaries to Paul’s brothers because they hit the lottery.  They were transformed by sharing in the hard times.

How do you act when things get tough?  What does struggling reveal about your character?  In some way, isn’t it the difficult times that make us who we are?

Just think for a moment about a time in your life when you felt as if you grew somehow.  A time when you knew that somehow, you had become a better person.  I would imagine that more often than not, that has been a time rooted in challenge or difficulty – you faced something frightening or daunting, you worked through it, and you came out on the other side better equipped to live the life that God has for you.

When I say that the Bible talks about “faith, hope, and love,” what do you think of?  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)  That’s from the “Wedding Hall of Fame,” right?  We know faith, hope, and love!  We get a little teary just thinking about them.

But look at how Paul speaks to those three in this letter – the letter that was, need I remind you, written prior to I Corinthians.  He remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”  These three qualities are not little presents that we find under the tree at Christmas or even in the box of cards at a wedding…in fact, they are not, in this sense, things that we possess at all.  Instead, they are disciplines that we seek to practice.  They are qualities in which we seek to be active.

The Thessalonians were transformed, not because God came and sprinkled a little Jesus Joy on top of them and made everything all better, but because they had learned, from Paul, that it’s possible to stick things out and to see the power of resurrection in the every day trials of life.  And they were able to see this power, says Paul, because they practiced it.  They sought to become better at being people of faith; they sought to grow in their ability to be people who loved; they sought to improve the quality and quantity of their hope.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to dozens of other stories and works of theology, got it right when he said this:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.[1]

We are now in the season of Eastertide – the six weeks following the resurrection where the church not only rejoices in the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave, but actually decide to live as if that resurrection mattered in our own lives.  It is important for us to remember that faith is not a waiting game wherein we watch the blessings pile up because God is just so crazy about us.  The life of faith, the life of resurrection is shown in how we deal with each challenge, each day, and each other.

If we get this right – if we acquire this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope – then we, too get to be “brothers and sisters”.  We, too, experience a change that comes from becoming the people that God intended us to be. And when we become “brothers and sisters”, then, just as it happened in that little town in Macedonia, God’s name is praised.  And when that happens, then the world really changes.

It started with an empty tomb, and we celebrated that last week.  Today, I need to know, where are the struggles that you face, and whether you think that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to deal with the challenges in your life…and whether you will choose to grow in the practices of faith, love, and hope to the end that the resurrection power of God is not confined to a Palestinian cemetery 2000 years ago, but is unleashed in our neighborhood today.

May God bless us as we move into this joyous season of Eastertide, and may he be with us in our challenges and in the ways in which we respond.  Amen.


[1] From Mere Christianity.

What Do You Say?

The Jebel Evangelical Church

The Jebel Evangelical Ch

So, what do you preach when you are asked to stand in front of a group of people you have never met, whose language you do not know, and whose culture and habits are unlike you own? Several of you have asked me that, either in preparation for this trip or in emails as we’ve been walking through it.

The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) is a “daughter” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), so it should not be a surprise that the worship is similar to ours in many respects. We open with a hymn (on 1/27 we stood up, stood up for Jesus in the Nuer language), and then we confess our sin. We share the apostle’s creed and there are a couple of anthems from the choir (our drummer, Ron, has nothing on some of these guys!). There was another hymn (Jesus loves me), and then the Clerk of Session shared the announcements. Scripture was read, the morning’s prayer was offered, and then I preached (more on that in a minute). After the sermon, a little more singing from both choir and congregation as the offering is collected, some more prayers, and then the benediction.

At the conclusion of worship, the preacher comes out and shakes hands. The first person out shakes the preacher’s hand and stands next to him. Everyone who comes out shakes the hands of those who are there, and then joins the line – so by the time we have all come out, we have all shaken each other’s hands. W are then standing in a curling line around the front of the church. When we are lined up like that, then the choir comes out and sings one more song in the middle of the circle. It was wonderful!

With the choir from Jebel Church

With the choir from Jebel Church


But to the question: what did I preach?

I chose as my texts Ephesians 4:14-21 (the call to live as Christ’s own) and Matthew 12:46-50 (Jesus’ mother and brothers). And then, because I am not sure I have any right to speak into this culture, I told a story about my own – my family, actually.

I had two great-aunts who lived in the same tiny town. Aunt Marian had 21 children, and she lived in a small house in town. 21 children! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met many of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them. By the time of her death, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered, and when I ate breakfast in a restaurant, I mentioned that I was a member of her family. Someone I never met exclaimed, “really? Me too!” In fact, every time I turned around, I was bumping into relatives that I had never known.

Of course, that has been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. People who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas – we are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!

I had another great-Aunt – Aunt Mae. She and her husband lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. She never seemed particularly happy to see me, but if I was in town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry all the time.

As I grew up, I discovered a little about Aunt Mae, and I came to see that she wasn’t really mad at me. She was mad at the world, frustrated with God, disappointed in herself…because she never had any children. Here her sister-in-law had 21, and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.

Which leads me to my second point: there are people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. I have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to one in my family who aches and ask our Father to bring the kind of healing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do.

And here is the third thing I told my brothers and sisters about my family in the USA: when mean, grouchy Aunt Mae died, every one of Aunt Marian’s children showed up for the funeral. I heard stories like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them.

And this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return. It seems to me that what my family at home has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other. When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “The one who does the will of my Father – that one is my mother, my sister, my brother.”

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

Part of your family in Juba, South Sudan

So my family is bigger than I can imagine. And it hurts in ways that I do not always understand. But my responsibility is to treat each one in love. To share kindness and grace as best I can. To ask them to put up with me where I fall short, and to try to offer them the same courtesy.

I told my family that I was glad to meet them, and that I would pray for them when they hurt and celebrate with them when they rejoiced, and that I would do my best to extend the love that Christ gave to me in the places where He sent me.

It was a good worship. And you have a beautiful family. Thanks be to God! Amen.