What’s Next?

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Palm Sunday (April 5) this year.  We considered Luke’s account of the triumphal entry as well as a reading from Habakkuk 2:9-14.  We explored the discipline of lament in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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

You know, when you think about attending worship on Palm Sunday, you think you know what to expect.  It’s Palm Sunday, after all.  We all know what that means – even people who aren’t all that religious have heard something about Palm Sunday.  We anticipate joining the throngs waving the branches in the air.  Crowds of people flocking to Jesus, social distancing be damned, shouting “Hosanna!” – “Save us now!”.

Do you remember that from the Gospel this morning?  Nope.  No, you don’t.  Call this “Palm Sunday”, do you, when Luke doesn’t say anything about palms, nothing about a city-wide parade, and there’s nary a “Hosanna!” to be heard?  What’s Luke doing with his re-telling of a story that we think we already know?

Now, I’ve got to be honest here.  I chose these scriptures back when I was so naïve as to think that we’d be worshiping in the same room this morning.  And if you had access to my handy-dandy worship planner, you’d see that one of the big things we were hoping for today was to have our confirmation class join the church today, and celebrate Allison’s baptism.  I had a great plan as to how I was going to talk about what it means for our young people, and the rest of us, to be disciples in 2020.

But you’re not here, and the only way I could baptize Allison today is with a squirt gun, and you might be feeling silly sitting on your sofa in your pajamas waving a palm frond.  What can I say to the confirmands, or the rest of you, now?

Friends, let me invite you to listen up.  This is your story.  There is a word for the church in the age of the Coronavirus here.

Luke gives us a litany of faithfulness.  By and large, this is a story about the disciples – the followers of Jesus.

Look at what the disciples do here.  They are the ones who go and get the donkey.  They are the ones who bring it to Jesus.  It’s the disciples who put their own clothes on the donkey, and then they are the ones who put Jesus up on the donkey.  And as the procession winds its way into Jerusalem, it’s the disciples – not a crowd of strangers – who offer all kinds of praise to Jesus.

Sometimes we come into worship and complain about the fickle crowd who chants “Hosanna!” today and “Crucify him!” on Friday.  But Luke doesn’t tell that story.  He focuses on the ones who love Jesus and stuck by him.

We see that they are praising God.  Why?  Luke tells us: “They began to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen…”  Another translation puts it “all the deeds of power they had seen”.  Do you get that?  The disciples were so overcome by what they had seen Jesus do that they broke out into spontaneous praise.  Great.  So what had they seen Jesus do?  What got them in the praising mood?  If you flip back through Luke, you’ll see that in the pages preceding our reading for today, we are told that Jesus had dinner with Zacchaeus, healed a blind man, challenged a rich man to give everything he had to the poor, blessed the children, and healed ten lepers while paying special attention to a Samaritan.

They praised God for what they had seen Jesus do.  What did he do?  Same stories, reverse order:

  • He healed those with a deadly, wasting, isolating disease that cut them off from their society, and in so doing, he singled out the poorest and most despised among them for acting faithfully.
  • He blessed the nobodies – the children who were insignificant in just about everybody’s eyes.
  • He challenged the wealthy to give freely and to abandon their money and follow him.
  • He healed a blind man – and not just any blind man, but a poor blind man who was a pest – a real pain in the neck to the people around him who were just wishing that he’d shut up and give them a little peace and quiet.
  • He embraced Zacchaeus – a tax collector who was hated by the entire community. He called Zacchaeus to participate in the justice of God’s kingdom – he brought the outsider inside and called him to live in responsible relationships with those around him.

Do you see those things?  Those are “mighty works” and “deeds of power”.  In fact, the Greek word is dunameon– dynamite!  The disciples see Jesus doing all of this and they know what it means and they simply erupt with praise!  It’s wonderful!  It’s crazy!  It’s amazing!

And the religious establishment – the Pharisees – notice that his disciples are all worked up and confront Jesus: “Ah, for the love of Pete, Jesus, get these people under control.  Tell them to shut up!  They are making us nervous, and we’re all going to look bad in front of the Romans.”

Jesus replies by saying, “You know, if the people who follow me, who saw what I have done, who know dynamite when they see it – if they were to be quiet, then the stones would cry out.  Somebody has to notice what’s right in the world!”

And we’d like to do that, wouldn’t we?  Who doesn’t want to get the gang back together and point out all the stuff that’s right? But how do we do that now? In some ways, I’ve come to see Palm Sunday as a sort of a Christian “pep rally”.  Let’s remember that we’ve got a big challenge coming up, team, and our opponent is pretty tough, but if we stick together and stay focused, we’ll come to Easter just fine.

What if we had a “pep rally” and everyone stayed home?  In the midst of a global pandemic, how do I bring myself to care about, much less work toward, the kinds of powerful ministries that Jesus himself embodied in the days leading up to that first Palm Sunday? How can I follow this Jesus today?

Let’s stick with the Gospel, shall we?  Let’s follow Jesus away from the city, and see what he does next.  Luke tells us that he sits outside of Jerusalem and looks down on it and he weeps.

Oh, for Pete’s sake.  Two weeks in a row where the Gospel writers talk to us about a weeping Jesus.  What in the world is going on here?  Is this what dunameon looks like?  I’m not sure that’s going to sell, Jesus…

Jesus sits outside of Jerusalem and he weeps because he knows that the people of God are missing an opportunity.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has visited the city with a promise of peace and wholeness, but Jesus knows that the people will reject that peace and choose violence.  When Jesus is weeping, he is doing so in anticipation of what he knows is coming; by the time Luke writes the Gospel, it’s history.  The leaders of Jerusalem take up arms against Rome in sporadic rebellion until finally open war breaks out and by AD 70 the Romans had had enough and destroy the city and the Temple in which God was to be worshiped.

Some of your bibles might have a heading over this part of the Gospel that reads, “Jesus’ Lament Over Jerusalem”. That’s important, because here Jesus is modeling for his disciples – and for us – an important practice of the life of faith.  Right after Jesus notices all the things that are right, and points to the avenues of power, after he names something that is filled with the potential for love and beauty and hope, he then weeps when it does not come to pass.

Is this not, beloved in Christ, a season of lament? To quote a meme that has been going around social media, isn’t this the Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented?  Is this not a time for us to note the ways that our days are not what we thought they would be? If we are honest with ourselves and each other, shouldn’t we weep for that which we’ve lost?

We begin with the obvious: the trip has been canceled, your birthday party was ruined, and it looks like softball season might not even get started.

But if we stay with the idea of lament for a while longer, we’ll see that it gets deeper.  We see jobs that are lost, and marriages that may not have been great a month ago and are under tremendous strain right now.  We know vulnerable people who are close to an edge – a precipice of physical health, or economic well-being, or loneliness, or depression – and we know that this will push people that we love over an edge from which some will not return.

And that’s just the people that we know.  Who has the bandwidth to care about thousands of people crammed into migrant camps along the border, millions who are walking in African villages, or a billion people in India who lack basic medical care and sanitation?

Right now, it seems as though we can’t do a blessed thing.  And we find that disorienting.  And we don’t like it.  As afraid as we may be of the virus, or even death, we are more fearful of this loss of power that we think we have.

That’s why I think that some of us are being, well, stupid.  I know that there are churches who are seeking to be filled this morning, claiming that there is victory over COVID-19 and that their gathering is a bold act of defiance over what they think is an overreaching government, fake news, and a devastating illness. But here’s what I think: I think that churches who want to pack everyone in this morning and people who go for spring break on the beaches and those who refuse to stay at home are not really offering a valiant display of bravery and fearlessness but rather a desperate and vain refusal to acknowledge the brokenness and pain of the world.

Some of us are clinging frantically to the sense of order in our lives because we are unable to acknowledge the pain and disorientation that this pandemic has brought.

One of the most Christ-like things that we can do in this season, beloved, is to join Jesus in lament.  In weeping over the brokenness of the richest nation in the history of nations that cannot, apparently, provide medical care for all of its citizens.  To join in sorrow over the ways that so many of us have worshiped the golden calf of financial success instead of the savior who sought out the last and the lost and the least.  Sometimes being with Jesus means weeping at all the stuff that just isn’t right.

Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote, “Unless the God before whom we sit, and at whom we gaze, and about whom we think – unless that God has the tormented shape of our human existence, he isn’t God enough.”[1]

Jesus left the celebrations on Palm Sunday to enter into a lament about the ways that the world has failed to respond to the Divine gifts of love and peace.  Scattered in our living rooms and on our devices this morning, we do the same thing.  We lament.

But let not our lament lead us into fear, beloved.  Yes, the world is broken.  Yes, the virus is real.  Yes, there is pain all around us and more on the way.  But we dare not respond to those dangers with a fear that incapacitates us, or brings us to despair or a state of being overwhelmed, or to acting like idiots.

Instead, let us respond as disciples always have by seeking to be present and aware, and to look with the eyes of Christ at the world around us.  How do we do that?  I have a few suggestions.

First, let’s take the steps that we know can help.  Let’s remember to wash our hands and continue to practice social distancing.  But let us do these things not as obsessions that are born out of fear, but rather as disciplines that are rooted in love for our neighbor.  Let us be prudent in our actions as a way of sharing with, praying for, and surrounding the vulnerable amongst us, those who provide care for them, and the parents and children of those caregivers, with the love of Jesus.

And let us be aware of what is happening.  You have a moral responsibility to seek out news of what is going on in the world.  But you have an equal responsibility to ensure that you do not obsess over that news.  See what’s happening, and then go into the next part of your day – a day that like every other day is filled with invitation to follow Jesus.

Practice lament in this season.  Give to God your grief over the things that are wrong, the pain that is too real, and the tragedy that every death brings upon us.

And finally, beloved, seek to grow in this Holy Week in your ability to practice empathy.  To be like Jesus – to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, and to stand with those who suffer.  How do you do this?  There are a million ways.  Send a card.  Make a call.  Give some of what you have to someone who has less.  Seek new ways of connecting with people. Care for the earth.  Love your neighbor.

Since November, I’ve often given the confirmation class homework assignments.  This week, I want to give you all some homework: read Luke 17 – 22.  Look at the kinds of things that Jesus was up to in his life.  I dare you to be involved in the same kinds of things.  Look at how Jesus spent himself searching for the lost, the left out, and the dead.  Look for some of those folks yourself, and give yourself to them.

I’ve got to warn you, though…when you go looking for the lost, the left out and the dead during Holy Week…you might be surprised.

I’ll see you at the table for the Lord’s Supper on Thursday night.  And I hope to see you next Sunday, too.  Who knows what could happen?  It’s Holy Week.  Amen.

[1] Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsberg, 1986), p. 34

Below you will find the Youtube video of our worship service.  I apologize for the quality of the audio – we had an issue with the microphone.  The audio for the sermon in the media player at the top of this post is much clearer (but it’s only the sermon).  All music is streamed courtesy of CCLI license #812431.

Faithful Living in a Fearful Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I tell you that story today?

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

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

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

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

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

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.

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

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

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

That’s a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does This Happen Often?

On September 8, 2019 I had the deep joy of being reunited with many of the people from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights following a three-month Sabbatical.  As we gathered to explore the mystery of our connection and the intensity of the storms in which we live, we read from Matthew 8:23-27 and Ephesians 2:19-22.

 

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

My wife and I were out for a quiet evening.  As we waited for our meal to be served, a woman approached the table and when I recognized her, I stood and we embraced.  She began talking, but after a moment she was overwhelmed by the grief in which she walked, and she wept.  We spoke for a few moments, and then she excused herself and our evening continued. A day or two later, we were in the grocery store and I encountered another person and we had a similar exchange. When we got home, Sharon said to me, “Does this happen often?”  I was engrossed in something and I replied, “What? Have the deer been in the garden again?” My bride said, “No – I mean, how often are you out in some public place and someone comes up to you and just starts crying?  That seems odd to me.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it does happen often.

As I return from my time of Sabbatical, let me tell you a few stories. In case you haven’t been around the church very long, I’ll tell you that about 18 months ago I found myself being challenged by the intensity of life in this place.  There were some horrific deaths, significant transitions, as well as some incredibly wonderful occurrences.  The elders and I began to plan for a season in which I might be away for an extended period of time for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection.  We realized that such a time would also result in a potentially painful separation with and disconnection from the day to day life here in the Heights, but we went ahead with the goals of bringing long term healing and strengthening to our shared ministry here.

So after more than a year of planning, I left at the end of May.  And if you’ve read my blog or seen me on Facebook, you know that a lot of wonderful things happened.  If you want me to come over and tell you about amazing adventures through our National Parks, a pilgrimage to Africa, or the world’s best granddaughters, I’ll do that.

But other things happened, too.  You didn’t read about them on the internet.  Not long ago I was with my grandchildren at a public event for families in rural Ohio. I was the only out-of-town guest there; I was also the oldest person present.

I sat on a porch with my toddling granddaughter and one of the other adults came by and placed a young man – maybe about eleven years old – in the seat next to me and instructed him to wait there – he’d be right back.  The boy was flushed, and it appeared he’d been crying. I assumed he’d fallen and needed a band-aid or an ice pack.

As I fixated on my granddaughter, the boy said, “You sure have a nice family.” I nodded in grateful agreement. He continued: “And it’s so big. You have so many grandchildren.” And it occurred to me that he thought that I was the patriarch of this vast clan that had gathered.  I explained that we were all present for an event, and he looked surprised and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that. I just came here.  I think I just ran away from home.”

I asked him if he’d like to tell me more, and he went on: “I live down the road. It’s just me and my mom, and now my step-dad.  I was outside playing, and I heard them fighting, and my step-dad told my mom that she had to get rid of me.  If she didn’t get rid of me, he said, then he would leave and take all our stuff… I got really scared, because I don’t want my mom to get rid of me.  So I ran as fast as I could up the hill and when I got to the fence I heard all of the laughing and playing from your family – I mean, from these people – and I thought this would be a safe place to catch my breath.”

Let me simply say that was not a conversation I expected to have.  A week earlier, I had been in long line with my older granddaughter at a water obstacle course on the lake.  One of the young adolescents in line ahead of us engaged my granddaughter in conversation, and asked where we were from.  After my reply, I asked her the same question. She mentioned the name of a town about 30 minutes away, and then said, “Well, I’m only living there for another week or so. Then I will be living in…” and she named a town about 90 minutes away.  I said, “Wow, you’re moving before school! That must be exciting!”

The young woman said, “Well, actually, my family is not moving.  Things at home are not really good right now, and, well, you know how dads can be.  My dad… it’s really rough.  Because of him, my mom thinks it’s a good idea for me to go live with my aunt and uncle for a year or two.”

A week before that, I’d been leading trauma healing workshops for children who had fled their homes in South Sudan and were holing up in Ethiopia trying to figure out what was next.  A week before that I had preached in a United Nations camp for displaced persons in South Sudan.

Perhaps you are now seeing what I discovered: that there may have been a design flaw in the Sabbatical Plan.  You see, if I had hoped to remove myself from exposure to pain and tragedy and suffering, then the plan was bound to fail.  Oh, there were a few days when Sharon and I were driving through Montana in our own little RV universe listening to a mix tape – but by and large, we continued to find ourselves in the midst of the storms of life.

Why?

Because that’s where we live.  That’s who we are.  The world is a stormy place, filled with great pain and deep violence.  I know – there is deep beauty and great grace, but there is no place that is removed from the storm.  That’s just where we are.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus – it was the beginning of a great “Kingdom of Heaven” tour.  They’d had some amazing teaching – in fact, Jesus had preached “The Sermon on the Mount.” There had been great healings: a person with leprosy, then the Centurion’s servant, then Peter’s Mother-In-Law.  I mean, things were really looking good.  They decide to cap it all off with a boat ride, and that’s when everything went south in a hurry.  The storm erupts, and these people panic.

In spite of all the power they’d seen and experienced, these first followers of Jesus were convinced that they were going to die.  They look around for their leader, and they discover him fast asleep – while the storm rages on.  They yell at him; “SAVE US! LOOK AT US LORD! WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”  And there’s no record that they actually said this, but it’s clear that the implication was, “We are going to die, and you are there sleeping like a baby.  Do you even care?”

Listen, if I learned one thing in the past three months, it is this: I am more certain than ever that I have never met a person who hasn’t, at one time or another, given voice to that cry: “I’m dying here.  I’m dying.  Do you notice that?  Do you even care?”  If the Sabbatical taught me anything, it’s that people cannot outrun or hide from the storms and the pain of this world.  And the disciples came to know that.

But the disciples also got to know this: that their friend Jesus, in an act that amazed and frightened them, quieted the storm.

And that’s why we’re here, right?  We know we live in a world battered by storms and we’ve come here in the hopes that the One who calmed that storm two thousand years ago will take the time to be attentive to our marriages, our sick children, our mean streets, and our violent world.  We want to believe and we want to hope that Jesus cares about the fact that live in and know far too well fear, pain, loss, and regret.

And because we hope that, we have to pay attention to what Jesus says to his first followers.  He looks at them and he says, “You of little faith…”  It’s one word in the Greek: oligopistoi.  It is not, at first glance, a compliment.

And I want to say, “Now hold on a minute there, Lord.  These are the 12 we’re talking about here.  These are the people who have left everything to follow you. And these are the ones that you are calling oligopistoi?

The Gospels use that word five times.[1]Every single time Jesus says this word in the Bible, he’s talking to his disciples.

Now hear me, Church: Jesus never looks at an outsider, a “sinner”, a leper, a wounded person, an addict, and says dismissively, “look at you, you little faith.  Oligopistoi.”  Never.

The Tempest – Peace, Be Still, Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2015 Used by permission. See more at https://jorgecocco.com

To the contrary, every single time Jesus utters that word he is looking at the group of people who have, arguably, the MOST faith of anyone else around. That word is reserved in the Gospels for the twelve, which we should take to mean the church.  Us.  It is only used in conversation with those who have demonstrated something of a desire to be in relationship with the Holy but who long for more.  There is something, but it is small and weak and needs to grow.

Oligopistoi.  That is why we are here.  We want to become, like the twelve in the boat or like our sisters and brothers in Ephesus, a community of those who are becoming a dwelling place for the Holy One.

So here’s what we know to be true:

  • We cannot escape the storm
  • There is one who can and does calm storms
  • Until the storm subsides, our only option is to ride it out together.

And this is also true: God equips us to live in a stormy place by giving us a congregation.  In this particular place, at this particular time, we are called to be with and for each other.  In the reading from Matthew, the disciples were in the boat when the storm hit.  Why were they there?  Because they were following Jesus, and that’s where he was.

In Ephesians, Paul tells his friends to stop arguing with each other, to stop aggravating each other, to stop distrusting or marginalizing or wounding each other because, he says, they are being built up into a place where the fulness of God dwells and the power of God is released.  Paul tells this odd assembly in Ephesus that they are becoming an instrument of hope and healing for the pain of the world.

This is also the truth, my friends: while we cannot escape life’s storms, we are given the gift of congregations in which we can grow in our little faith and become stronger as we seek to follow Jesus more closely.

I know this full well: sometimes congregations can stink.  Sometimes, it is really, really hard to be in congregations because, well, because they are made up of people like us.  We hurt each other.  We disappoint ourselves.  We make mistakes.  We blow up. We crash and burn.  We act like, well, oligopistoi.  We are, in our own eyes and often in each other’s, “little faiths”.

And yet the Divine strategy does not appear to have changed. Congregations and the communities that form them are the means by which the Holy is revealed and the healing is unleashed.  This place – these people – by the grace of God, we are brought together in order that we might become, in the words of my young friend from Ohio, a “safe place to catch your breath for a while.”

Here you are, minding your own business, trying to get through your own stuff, and all of a sudden you are thrust into a place of pain and sorrow and weeping.

Does this happen often?  Yes. You know that it does.  And because we know that to be true, let us pledge to join together in the hopes of riding out the storms until we, and those we love, and those whom no one loves, can see and appreciate the complete healing and peace that comes from the One who has promised not to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 18:8, and Luke 12:28.

We Were Wrong…Let’s Not Do THAT Again

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

While walking through the landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, a sign caught our eyes.  Neither Sharon nor I thought to take a photo of it, but in retrospect it was rather profound in its honesty and humility.  In describing a technique that attempted to control a potential problem with many of the local trees, the sign said simply something like, “This was a mistake.  Many acres of healthy trees were ruined by this mismanagement of our resources.  Park Managers now approach this situation differently and the environment is better for it.”

It struck us as a bit profound: most of the signs and monuments we see are erected in those places where we were right,  or were something great happened, or where some great victory was won.  Who likes to memorialize their mistakes?

I spent the day on June 17 exploring an entire landmark site commemorating one of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history.  The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Powell, Wyoming, is a monument constructed on the location of one of ten “Relocation Centers” built by the United States Government to incarcerate its own citizens during World War II.

Posters like this went up in communities all across the west coast of the USA announcing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

A typical anti-Japanese cartoon and a photo of a US Citizen being arrested by the FBI for the crime of having the “wrong” ancestors.

On February 19, 1942 – about a month and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the US into World War II – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order # 9066.  This led to the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans – at least two-thirds of whom were U.S. Citizens at the time – into what our government called “Relocation Centers” or “Camps”.  A bad political decision fueled by an agenda-driven media that played on public fears meant that United States Citizens were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast, deprived of their possessions and livelihoods, and forced to live in places like, well, Powell, Wyoming or Topaz, Utah or Jerome, Arkansas…the middle of nowhere.  They were crowded into uninsulated pine barracks covered with tar paper and forced into routines that disrupted their family systems and attempted to shame them for their heritage.

Residents of nearby Cody were reluctant to house what many termed “the yellow peril”.

 

This is not what we usually think of when we talk about “sending a child to camp.”

 

Internees at the camp were assigned rooms based on family size – there were 4, 6, or 8 people in a single room. Each room had a coal burning stove. Latrines were outside (in the Wyoming winters) and meals were taken in common mess halls.

A total of 14,025 people lived at the Heart Mountain site from 1942-1945.  That made this concentration camp the third-largest city in Wyoming.  The citizens who lived there were not allowed to vote in Wyoming – but they were permitted to vote by absentee ballot in the state from which they had been removed! They were deprived of their livelihood, and yet they were subject to the draft.  800 of these men and women served in the US military (some with distinction in all-Japanese units that were deployed in the European Theater); others were translators for the government that accused them of harboring sympathy for the enemy; and 85 protestors refused to comply with the draft.  Many of these were convicted and sent to  federal penitentiaries.  Some of the quotes I read indicated that these men thought “Go ahead – arrest me. I’m already in jail.”  One comment reminded me of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali’s stance on the war in Viet Nam: an internee at Heart Mountain said, “Why should I go over there and fight for democracy when I haven’t seen it at home?”

In the “Reflection Room” at the Heart Mountain Center there is a photo of the camp’s barracks in front of a barbed wire fence. Visitors are encouraged to write remembrances of their relatives or friends who lived at the camp and post them on replica ID Tags.

When the war ended and the camp closed, each internee received a “free” train ticket and a whopping $25 in cash.  Many of these folks recovered and built healthy lives; but others never recovered from this experience.  In 1988 (yes, more than four decades later), President Ronald Reagan, speaking on behalf of the US Government, apologized for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans and said that it had been a mistake.

One of the things that shocked me as I prepared for this sabbatical was the number of people who, when I mentioned that I hoped to visit Heart Mountain, said something like, “Oh, no, Dave.  We didn’t do anything like that.  That never happened in America.”

One of the Guard Towers that was manned by armed Military Police at all times.

And yet, my friends, it did. Fearmongering politicians emboldened those prone to racial prejudice and manipulated an often-compliant press into paving the way for this travesty of justice so that it seemed right and prudent to too many Americans.

President Roosevelt rightly declared that December 7, 1941 was a date that would “live in infamy”. The attack on Pearl Harbor was cold, calculated, and evil.  We cannot forget that.  And neither can we forget February 19, 1942 and the days that follow – or else we run the risk of repeating that shameful chapter in our history.  Let us, beloved, stand firm in our resolve to ensure that all Americans retain the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us resolve to be our best selves in all spheres of life.

 

Are You Sure About This, God?

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

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

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

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

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

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Call This GOOD News?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

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

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;

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.