A Bigger Table

January 5, 2020, found the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights observing the day of Epiphany – a celebration of God’s light and life in the world. Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks after Christmas as a time to clean up the decorations, or to sing the less-favorite carols, or to look for the big sales.  Epiphany is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to remember that the Light that comes into the world is for ALL people – there’s no “them and us” in this.  During Advent, we considered stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  We revisited this Advent theme as we took a fresh look at the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12) and considered the mystery that is the church (Ephesians 3:1-13).

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

I don’t know if it happened like this, of course, but it could have.  I like to imagine a conversation in a small, dimly lit room on a crowded street in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.

M: Who was it, Joseph? Who was there?

J: It was another group of strangers, outlandish, really.  Outsiders who have nothing better to do than bother peaceful people like us.  I told them to go away.

M: If you told them to go away, why do I hear what sounds like camels snorting and spitting outside the window?

J: I said I told them to go away, not that they actually went away.  They said that they’d wait.

M: Good.  Let them in.

J: Mary, come now – be reasonable.  We don’t know them.  They told me that they were out looking for a king.  Do I look like a king? They are lost and misguided, and we have enough to worry about here.

M: I am pretty sure that they are not looking for you, Joseph, and I think you should let them in.

J: Mary, you know the ancient texts as well as I do.  Do you remember when Moses was leading our people out of Egypt? They asked to cross the land of Edom, and Edom met them with an army – refusing entry.[1]  How can we trust foreigners ever again?

M: And Joseph, you know as well as I do the promise that we have received.  Ours is not an ordinary baby.  What if YHWH has sent these foreigners to worship and greet the child, just as he did the shepherds?

J: But how could that be? Surely you remember the text: no foreigners are to be admitted to worship – down to the tenth generation![2]

M: And yet the great King David was the grandson of a Moabite woman, Ruth!  I’m asking you please, Joseph, to let them in!

It’s easy to understand “Joseph’s” point of view in that presentation, isn’t it?

I mean, sure, he’d seen an angelic vision.  He was trying to move forward in trust with Mary.  But if everything that the angels had said was true… if he could really believe Mary – then what a huge responsibility he had!  If in fact that child was the promised one, then Joseph would need to be on his guard continually; it was up to him to protect Jesus in a hostile world.  In fact, it would be irresponsible not to.

The Adoration of the Magi, Abraham Bloemaert (1624)

Thankfully, if such a discussion ever did occur, then Mary won out.  The Magi did enter, and worshipped, and left their gifts.  And Matthew tells us that they “went home by another way”.

You might say that they took a different path home, and maybe you’d be right; but I’d also suggest that they went home as those who had been changed. Their reality was different because they’d been invited into the presence of the Holy Child, and their worship changed them.

And now we have come to honor their memory on this day of Epiphany.  We remember them as the first gentiles – the first true outsiders – to worship Jesus.  Matthew tells this story, we think, to present these men as outsiders who embraced the Lordship of Jesus even as many who claimed to share his faith would not do so.

I imagined this dialogue between Mary and Joseph because I want to offer a word for those among us who favor prudence and caution.  We are not “nervous”, per se; rather, we are, like Joseph, being reserved; we are taking a conservative approach.  We know how real life can be.

For instance, I’ve had the amazing privilege of hosting my grandchildren for two weeks – 14 sleeps on Cumberland Street.  As the parent of an only child, this may be the most intense unbroken stretch I’ve ever spent with two young children.  Those of you who have multiple children have my deep respect!  If you’ve been there, you know what it sounds like:

“Hey! Don’t eat all of that! I want some!”

“Yes, honey, but you already have some on your plate.”

“But I might want more!  I don’t want it to be gone!”

Or, “Move over! I want to sit in Grampy’s lap, not you.”

Or, “It’s my turn! I’m going first!”

All of these well-founded concerns of my granddaughters are rooted in the concept of scarcity. There is only one lap.  Most meals, there are only so many potatoes that are cooked.  And if there is only a finite amount of lap, or potatoes, or anything else – then it is a prudent and thoughtful child who makes a claim early and often.

In most families, we come to see that such fears of scarcity are groundless.  In my home, for instance, if you leave the table hungry, it’s your own fault.  While Grampy’s lap is not really getting any bigger, there is always space, sooner or later. Everyone who wants a hug can get one.  In most families, we learn about delayed gratification and sharing and taking turns and trusting that there will be enough.

And yet, somehow, it’s hard to apply those concepts to all of our lives.  We live in a world filled with budgets: if we buy this, we cannot buy that.  We plan our days on calendars: if we go now, we will not go then.  Last weekend I had a houseful of visitors and a dozen people wanted to go to the hockey game. As some of us sat in the next-to-last row of the upper deck, we discovered that the PPG Paints Arena is defined by its capacity: for each Penguins game, there are 18,387 seats available, and no more.  That arena, like our lives, seems to be measured by how much it can hold – and what, of necessity, must be excluded. We can do this much – and no more.

Our wallets are filled with “credit limits”, our parking meters are ticking away minute by minute, our vehicles have exactly so many seat belts and no more, and our calorie counters are reminding us that we cannot have more cake, not today, and maybe not ever.

The Road to Emmaus, He Qi (1998)

And then we come in here and hang around with Jesus for a while.  And he looks at us with our fears and limits and capacities and plans and availabilities and he appears to throw all of those notions out the window.

5,000 people show up unexpectedly and want a sandwich? No problem.

Little kids want to receive a divine blessing at the end of a long day of teaching? Bring them over!

Do you remember how he walked around saying such outlandish things as “come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest…”, or “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away…”?

Or the time when he came face-to-face with Zacchaeus, the tax collector we all love to hate – and instead of reaming him out and setting him straight, they went to dinner together?

How he was touched by an unclean woman who was bleeding, or implored by a Canaanite woman who begged shamelessly… and he responded with grace and mercy and healing?

Who is this Jesus, and why is he messing around with things that everyone knows are best left alone?

This is the mystery of our faith, beloved.

In today’s readings, mysteries abound.  Who were these kings? Why did they think that frankincense and myrrh were appropriate baby gifts? What did their worship actually look like?

In the reading from Ephesians, Paul actually uses the word “mystery” four times.  This word occurs twenty-eight times in the New Testament, twenty-one of which are in the letters of Paul.  It nearly always refers to something that was previously concealed for one reason or another, but is now being made known.  That’s important.  When Paul is saying that this is a “mystery”, he’s not saying, “Who can tell? How will we ever know? It’s a mystery!”  Rather, he is saying, “Wow, we’ve struggled with this for a long time, but now we get it – now it makes sense – this mystery!

The letter to the Ephesians seems to indicate that in many ways, the mystery at hand is the church – God’s plan to bring all to participation in the Big Thing that God is doing in the universe.  Paul tells us that the call to the ancestors like Abram and Sarai was a hint at what was to come; the visit of the Magi to the Christ child was another.  In Paul’s time, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the worshiping community was an astonishing indication of how wide the love of God truly was.  And I am here to say that I suspect that even the old Apostle would be flabbergasted to know how big the family of God really is.  There is no reason to exclude any race, class, gender, ethnicity, or orientation from participation in the mysterious fullness of God as expressed in Jesus of Nazareth.  In the church, all of us are invited to become one, and to find our unity not because we share any  one of these external characteristics but rather in Christ alone.

Communion is a symbol of this.  On the outside, it is preposterous.  Have you ever tried to explain communion to a child?  You say it’s the “Last Supper”, but what kind of supper consists of a crumb of bread and a couple of teaspoons of grape juice?  There is nothing “supper-ish” about this so-called meal.

And yet what it signifies! The point is not what is actually on the table, but who is included.  Do you remember that the one time Jesus shared this meal with his friends, he served Judas, and he washed Judas’ feet?  The table is meant to stand for abundance, and inclusion, and the wonder that God would include someone like me AND someone like you in this invitation!

One of my all-time favorite movies is a 1984 film entitled Places in the Heart, wherein Sally Field portrays a young widow who tries to bring in the crop in her Texas farm in the midst of the Great Depression.  That film ends with a scene in the local church where the congregation is taking communion.  As the elements are passed, worshipers whisper “Peace of God” to each other. It takes a minute, but the viewer realizes that there in those pews are not just the heroes of the film, but rather the dead husband and the stingy banker and the lynched African-American and his attackers and the children… Somehow, in that film, everyone in the story gets included in the peace of God. (see the bottom of this post for a link to view that scene for yourself).

Most of my friends haven’t seen that film; some of those who have absolutely hate it.  How can things end like that? How can everyone be included? How can HE be in this film, at the end, getting communion?

But I love it.  It reminds me that no harsh word, no act of hate, no human mistake ever has the power to define us.  No human exclusion can negate the call of God in Christ.

I know that I am preaching to a room full of people, some of whom feel pushed past their limits on a daily basis.  You are tired, you are irritated, you are angry, you are dejected, you are wondering how you can make it to the next payday, or day off, or doctor’s visit, or counseling session.  Maybe you’re just empty.  And maybe some of that emptiness leads you to be offended when you look at the manger and see who all is there – when you come to the table and see who all is invited. You wonder how God can include a person like me, or her, or him, or them, in the promise.  And you wonder, “What is God thinking? What is the world coming to if everybody is ‘in’?”

And yet this morning, let me encourage you to remember that you are defined by more than the things that have hurt you or offended you.  You have been given your identity by the Lord of life and so have I.  You will get through the difficult places where you feel stuck now.  How?  I don’t know.  That may be a mystery.  A glorious mystery, in which we are revealed to belong to, with, and for each other.  So when the trays come to you, just whisper to the person sitting next to you, “Peace of God”.  And trust that it is here, and it is coming.  And do all you can to share that all of that peace with all of the folks who surround you this day and this week. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Numbers 20:14-21

[2] Deuteronomy 23:3

We did indeed share the sacrament of Communion following the sermon.  My friends in the worship team enriched that experience by singing a new song by Idina Menzel as the bread was passed.  I’d encourage you to give it a listen.

Here is the scene from Places in the Heart that has been so meaningful to me.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series concluded on December 22 as we read someone else’s mail: Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter/sermon in which Paul invited the church to take responsibility for healing in relationships.  Our scripture consisted of Philippians 4:1-9 as well as Psalm 122.

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

Not long ago I attended a worship service to mark the installation of a colleague as pastor of a local congregation. To be honest, it was a tough day for me, and I was mostly going because I’d promised I’d go.  When I saw that my friend Saleem was the preacher for the day, I perked up.  And when he made a point in the sermon, and then said something like, “my friend Dave Carver is a wonderful example of this kind of living”… Well, let me say that it was humbling, affirming, and really turned the whole day around for me.

That’s a “shout out”.  You know, when you’re in church (or some other crowd) and you’re sort of daydreaming along and the preacher mentions you by name and everyone smiles and you are lifted up as a positive example.  That feels pretty great.

How about the other end of the spectrum?  Instead of a “shout out”, have you ever seen a “call out”?  You know, the pastor is up there preaching a sermon entitled something like, “Stupid Things That Horrible People Do” and then you hear your name lifted up as an example? Yikes.  That does not feel too good… Nobody wants to be called out in the morning’s message.

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)

The Apostle Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, near the end of his life.  He gets news from a church that he started some time ago in Philippi, and he takes the time to write a letter.  When that letter is delivered, it is, in all probability, read to the community as a whole – it is the morning’s sermon.  It is, by and large, a lovely message.  He seeks to put his friends’ minds at ease by assuring them of his own welfare; he encourages them to grow in humility and grace and to follow the footsteps of Jesus, and he warns them about the dangers of false teaching and heresy.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through the morning message, Pastor Paul drops a bunch of names in what becomes a “daily double” of both call out and shout out.  First, he names two women who are apparently having some sort of a conflict and says, essentially, “Look, Euodia and Syntyche – you can do better than this…”  And then he mentions another name, Syzygus, which is often simply translated as “loyal yokefellow”, and then offers another man named Clement a shout out in dealing with difficult situations.

Wow.  I don’t know how often I’ve ever called out anyone from the pulpit, but I can’t imagine that would feel good.  And that’s just in this little church in a small neighborhood.  What would it be like to be called out by the guy who wrote half of the New Testament?  And for us to be reading about it two thousand years later?  That seems kind of harsh.

How do you like hearing your name when you’re in a crowd?  When would that make sense?

I think in this case, Paul is naming a situation of which everyone in the congregation is aware, and then he’s making a very simple point: that the church ought to play a role in bringing about the healing and reconciliation that is needed.

Paul mentions these folks by name, not in order to shame anyone, but to compel the church to action.  It’s as if the old apostle is saying, “Listen up, church: you know these people, and you love them.  You need to help them find a way to work through this pain.  What we have here is not good for anyone.”

So who are these people? This is the only time in the Bible that we read these names, and on the surface we don’t know much about these folks.  But we can say this: both Euodia (which can mean “pleasant journey”) and Syntyche (which translates roughly to “good luck”) are respected leaders in their community.  On Paul’s first trip to Philippi, an account of which is contained in the book of Acts, we find him preaching to a group of women gathered outside the city.  Paul’s usual practice was to preach to the Jews in a town first, and to do that, he’d go to a synagogue.  Most scholars believe that the fact that he goes straight to a gathering of women indicates the fact that the Roman colony of Philippi did not have ten adult men who were willing to identify as Jews, and therefore Philippi did not have a synagogue in which anyone could preach.

While some of the men were apparently reticent or simply absent, there is a rich tradition supporting the leadership of women in this congregation. The first person in all of Europe to respond to an invitation to hear more about Jesus was a businesswoman and entrepreneur named Lydia.  She welcomes Paul and his companions into her home and circle of friends, and it seems logical that the first church in Europe, there in Philippi, grew from that gathering.

In his letter to that community, Paul commends – he offers a shout out to – Euodia and Syntyche for the fact that they “contended with me for the Gospel”.  That’s the exact same phrase that he used earlier when he was describing the importance of the ministries of his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus.  Using language that is parallel at every turn, Paul emphasizes the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would not exist without the selfless service and valuable leadership offered by women such as Syntyche and Euodia.  And more than being leaders, they are his friends, and he laments this brokenness in the fabric of relationship in the household of God.

Paul goes on to invite a particular person, Syzygus or “loyal yokefellow” to work with these two women in reconciling their differences.  In doing so, Paul is putting this person in a difficult spot – literally inserting him in the midst of what is now a public conflict.  Why would Paul do this?  It seems as though the only explanation is that Paul believes that this person has the tools, the skills, and the relational capital to help move this situation towards health.  While he is in prison and therefore unable to deal with this himself, Paul deputizes Syzygus to lead the church in bringing healing – because his core belief is that the current state of affairs isn’t good for anyone.

In the past three weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to look at some fairly detailed biblical narratives of people enmeshed in conflict.  In the lives of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the “Prodigal Son” and his family, we saw several ways in which conflict can eat away at the bonds of family and friendship. I hope we also noted some ways in which we can take steps to effect reconciliation and healing when we’ve been wounded.  This morning, I’d like to invite you to consider the ways in which you might be called to be Syzygus in the lives of those around you.  It’s pretty simple: Paul implies that even those who are not directly embroiled in pain are called to help lead the community out of it.  How can we assist other people in times of conflict?

We can do that by remembering who we are.  We are Syzygus. Are we, in some way, equipped to encourage a healthy resolution to a nagging problem?  Note that even as he calls these women out, Paul avoids anything that even looks like gossip.  He presents each party in a very positive light and emphasizes the gifts and integrity of each.  He does not take sides nor encourage Syzygus to do so. If there is an attack to be launched, it is on the problem at hand, and not the people involved.  At the end of the day, it is not about demonstrating who is “right” and who is “wrong”, but rather how we can get to a place where everyone is contributing toward the ministry of Christ.

In addition to remembering who we are, we do well to remember where we are.  I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who notices things like this, but in these nine brief verses, Paul reminds those who are struggling that they are “in the Lord” three times and “in Christ Jesus” once.  You might say that’s just a literary device, but I will suggest that it’s an important way of remembering that the landscape is different when we are actively dwelling “in the Lord.”

Many years ago I was learning how to drive a car in Africa.  Now, I’d been driving for more than twenty years in the USA before I ever took the keys anywhere else.  But here’s the deal: in South Africa and in Malawi, traffic proceeds on the LEFT – as in England, it’s the opposite of the way we do things in the USA.  And I remember driving down a deserted street in Johannesburg South Africa with Erin in the car, turning left onto a divided road, and being so confused that I stopped the car and called for a vote as to which side of the road I was supposed to be on.

When we are navigating tricky situations, it’s important to remember where we are – in what context are we having these discussions? Our perception of what should be done and who can do it might change when we are able to center ourselves with a proper perspective.  When we are “in the Lord”, our own personal agendas and ideas can and should often take a back seat for the greater good.

Similarly, those of us who are called Syzygus and thereby seeking to help community through conflict will find it essential to reflect on why we are here.  If you follow any kind of social media, you are familiar with the phrase or the meme, “I’m just here for the comments.”  Someone has posted a message that has made a stringent point, and another person has found fault with that post, and then the comments light up!  People attack each other’s credibility, politics, family structure, educational background – you name it – and lots of us follow along not necessarily because we care about the issue raised by the original post, but because we want to be entertained by the conflict that ensues.

We are here, Paul would say, to point to what God is doing in the world.  We are here to do what we can to move the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ forward in the world.   As we do so, we are called to do all that we can to dispel anxiety, to rebuke harshness, and to speak against fear.  Last week I asked our confirmation class to read this passage and tell me what I should say to you about it.  One of the most cogent comments was this: “It’s right there, Pastor Dave.  ‘The Lord is near.’” Everything else needs to be understood in light of the fact that God is close to us and those who are currently struggling.  It may very well be that the reason we are where we are right now is to remind those who struggle that they are close to the heart of God.

And lastly, we have to remember what we are doing as we stand with those who are conflicted.  As the church of Jesus Christ, we who are in the Lord are called to embody the unity that God intends for all creation.  In a few moments you will find a phrase rolling off your tongue without a thought: you will join me in praying that the fullness of God’s presence and authority might be shown “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Who do you suppose is responsible for the “on earth” part of that sentence?  The world needs us to have our acts together – if we are constantly picking at each other, or standing idly by while others in our community are hurting, then our entire witness toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will be meaningless.

The reading from the Psalms really emphasizes this point as over and over again we are told to ‘pray for the shalom of the community’.  I love the way that song ends: “For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.”  We are not commended for simply staying out of conflict; we are not invited to ignore one another.  No, the model is clear: we are to seek one another’s good.  We are here to actively promote healing and wholeness, wherever the dis-ease began.

As our new members began their study of what it means to be the church, we considered the call of Abram and Sarai, and we emphasized the fact that since then, those who have understood themselves to be called by God are called out for service; we are called out in order to be a blessing to the world around us; we are called to give all that we can in order that the world might be a better, healthier, more just, and loving place as we seek to give away that which we have received in abundance from our God in Christ Jesus.

Beloved in the Lord, let me encourage you to live into the calling to be one who promotes peace by doing your best to create a scenario whereby everyone can realize that same call.  It starts, as it must, with each one of us. With Syzygus. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

And Then What?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 15 with an exercise in “holy imagination” based on the story of the Father with two sons, found in Luke 15:11-32.  We also heard an encouraging word from Psalm 34:1-3.

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

“OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

Do you know someone who begins stories or jokes that way?  Have you ever heard that phrase used? In my experience, it’s wasted air.  Hardly anybody actually interrupts and says, “Yeah, Dave, you mentioned that twice already…” Instead, when someone starts to repeat a story with which we’re familiar, it’s easier to simply disengage.  We think we know where the punchline will be, and we allow our minds to wander.  We’ve heard it before.  Got it.  Thanks.

Here’s another phrase you may have heard: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Yes, you think, that’s what we’re saying.  When someone tells us the same story over and over again, it gets bothersome, and even irritating.  During one of the darkest days in early World War II, England’s Winston Churchill summoned General Montgomery and suggested that the General do a review of logistics.  Bored, Monty replied, “You know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt.”

Churchill waved him off and said, “I would like to remind you, my friend, that without a degree of familiarity we could not breed anything!”

I mention all of this because we’re going to look this morning at one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told: the one about the headstrong son who wished his father dead, squandered his inheritance, and still received a hero’s welcome on his return home.

We do this in the context of an Advent journey that invites us to consider various aspects of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Perhaps you were here two weeks ago, when we saw in the story of Jacob and Esau that a movement toward God’s best for our lives would be irrevocably tied with a drawing near to the brother or sister from whom we might be estranged.  Last week we delved into the same family tree and listened in on Joseph and his brothers.  In doing so, we thought about what it might mean for us to take concrete steps toward healed relationships even when we have been wounded.

This morning, we look at a story that features someone who might be the poster child for forgiveness.  We call this account “The Prodigal Son” or “the Loving Father”, and we love it.  You’ve heard a hundred sermons about it, and maybe you recognize the very end of this passage as being the root of what is arguably the most popular hymn of all time: Amazing Grace! I once was lost, but now am found…”

And it is a favorite passage for a reason.  We do well to remember the story of a son who hit rock bottom and who found his way home again; we ought to celebrate and learn from the astounding love that this father had for his sons as he refused to let pride and circumstance stand in the way of a right relationship.

The trouble is, however, that we’ve heard this story so frequently that when Karlena stands up here and reads it to you again, it’s a little too easy to button up the story, to put it away, and start wondering what hymn we’ll be moving onto next.  And when we do this, we fail to realize that Jesus didn’t tell us how this story ended.

Fred Craddock, who was one of the most important preachers of the last century, talks about the ending this way: “He what? He threw a party for the rascal? I can understand letting him back in, but after what he did he ought to come through the back door and eat in the kitchen for a while. He ought to be put on probation, a trial period, maybe work off some of the money he took from the old man. That boy ought to learn a lesson or two. But a party? Where’s the lesson in that?”[1]

The Prodigal Son, He Qi, 2013

And if we’re paying attention, we usually agree that the lesson winds up being that God loves us as we are, and welcomes us home, and that’s just how God is.  And we’re glad.

Except that when Jesus finishes the story, not everyone is glad. There’s one person who is still out on the back porch stewing about the situation.  This morning, I’d like to think about this not as the story of the Prodigal Son, or the account of the Forgiving Father.  No, for our purposes today I’ll title this the Tale of the Presbyterian Brother.

If you’ve been around here more than thirty seconds or so, you might have noticed that we call ourselves a “Presbyterian” church.  If you ask the right person, that person will tell you that in the Greek language in which the Bible was written, “presbuteros” means “elder” – and since we’re a church governed by elders, we’re a “Presbyterian” church.  Luke uses that same word when he’s talking about the first son of the loving father.  He’s an elder.  He’s Presbyterian, through and through, and if we’re not careful, we’ll wind up repeating some of his mistakes.

I’d like to offer a few observations about the Presbyterian in this morning’s reading.

First of all, did you see how offended he was by the party?  I mean to tell you, he would not set foot inside that house as long as that idiot brother was there! He would not dignify the proceedings by making an appearance.

What we don’t realize is what a breach of etiquette this would have been in an ancient Palestinian village.  In a social situation, no matter what else is going on, the host – particularly the male host – has a supreme obligation to greet the guests even if the host is compelled to spend most of his time doing something else.  A number of you have been in an African home where something like this has happened.  You show up for a meal somewhere and all of a sudden a bunch of people come out of nowhere, shake hands with you, and disappear.  They may have jobs to do, responsibilities to attend, but they will stop all of that at least for a moment and recognize the visitors.

But not here. The Presbyterian brother pouts in the back yard and in failing to greet the guests, he publicly insults both them and his father.  It was a clear signal to all involved that he was standing in judgment over them all.  In this, I think we can see that the older son’s rebellion might be less flashy than the prodigal’s, but it is no less serious.  It points us to a broken relationship.

Another thing we might notice about this Presbyterian brother is that he is inflexible and filled with pride – especially when compared with his dad.  In verse 26, we hear that this irritated older brother “called to one of the servants”.  The root of that word is kaleo.  There are all kinds of forms that this word can take, and when the Presbyterian brother speaks to the servant, the word used is proskaleo – it’s a summons to appear before someone more powerful than you.  When the father goes out to speak to the son, you’d think that the same word would be used – it is a father calling to his child, after all.  But the father approaches the son with love – and Luke uses the word parakaleo – the prefix para meaning, “alongside”.  The Father is saying, “Son, look at things my way. See them how I see them…” But the older brother responds, not in the language of relationship, but of duty.  When his father speaks to him in the language of love, the Presbyterian son replies by saying, “I have served you like a slave… and have obeyed your commands…”

Do you see what’s happening here? He is using transactional language: I did this, and you have to do that for me.  His claim is not one of love or grace, but rather worthiness – worthiness that he is clear to point out does not extend to his worthless younger sibling.

The other thing I’d like to point out about the behavior of this older brother is this: that nothing about what he does or says seems to allow for the possibility of a healed relationship. He cannot even see the guest of honor as a brother: he calls him “this son of yours” instead of “my brother”, and then he goes on to make up a story about how the younger brother must have burned through his inheritance.  He invents a narrative about prostitutes… who said anything about that before? Not Jesus, not Luke, not the younger brother… But in his zeal to be seen as a fine, righteous, upstanding person who is clearly holier than anyone else in the room, the Presbyterian brother has to attack and demean his younger relative.

Not only that, but he implies that he’s taking this principled stance against what he thinks is improper living because the father is too weak to do so himself.  He’s being so tough, he seems to indicate, because everyone knows that the father is too soft and will let the young boy get away with murder.  Someone’s got to take a stand, and it’s going to be the older brother.

So what happens next? After this exchange on the back porch… how does the scene resolve?  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  The parable ends.

Home – The Invitation, Seiger Köder (contemporary)

What do you think?  What will happen between this Presbyterian and the rest of his family? Do you remember a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure?  In each of these books, the reader assumed the role of the main character and made choices that determined the outcome of the plot.  Let’s play.  Choose an ending:

In his groundbreaking work The Cross and the Prodigal, Ken Bailey suggests that the most logical ending would consist of the older brother attacking and beating the father.  The brother can’t bear the shame of being in a family where such poor behavior is tolerated or even encouraged.  In Bailey’s understanding, the younger brother is seen as an enemy and the father, as one who gives aid and comfort to the enemy, must be attacked.  The story ends in bitterness, isolation, and death.

Perhaps you’d prefer a different ending.  Maybe the older brother was eventually won over by the father’s love, and went into the party and had a blast.  He greeted the guests, he took over at the grill and made hamburgers for everyone, and a year or so later, served as the best man at his little brother’s wedding.  Maybe confession and repentance won the day and the whole clan was able to live into this storybook ending.

But, because the brother was a Presbyterian, after all, my hunch is that this story ended somewhere between patricide and “awe, golly, shucks”.  I mean, Presbyterians are nice, after all.  We don’t have many enemies.  In fact we think of “enemy” as a rather distasteful word.  There are certain people one avoids, if possible.  For everyone’s good, after all.

My suspicion is that this story ends without an explosion and yet also apart from the storybook.  I suspect that in the days to come, the characters involved simply pretended that none of this happened.  They moved stiffly, they did their duty, they avoided eye contact and did their best to stand on opposite sides of the room when it came time for group photographs.

In other words, I think that the ending of this story is that the Presbyterian son continued to deny his father the gift of a restored relationship within the family unit; that there was no pattern of interactions that could be characterized as loving, forgiving, or reconciled because the older son simply could not bring himself to be placed in that position.

In other words, this story is a tragedy.

Here’s the challenge of Advent, my friends.  Once again, I’d like to invite you to consider your web of relationships.  Last week, I asked those who were in attendance to pray about their specific situations, and about relationships in which they were involved wherein grace and forgiveness were needed.  Do you remember that?  Can you think of a situation like that?

Can we engage in an Advent discipline that would allow us to

  • Allow God to take the lead; one where you and I seek to follow and act toward the other as God is acting?
  • Resist the temptation to take it as a sacred duty to somehow defend God’s honor or reputation by punishing or vilifying someone else? To commit to telling the truth about the other, and to striving to believe the best about each other?
  • Find it in ourselves to wish for happiness and even joy in the life of the person with whom we have been in conflict?
  • Look for a way to crowd into the party realizing that at the end of the day it has always been about God, God’s love, God’s kindness, God’s abundance. The farm is God’s, the robe, the ring, the prize cow – they are all God’s.  Therefore, any insistence I have on setting ground rules, or proving myself to be worthy, or seeking to act in such a way so that we all know that God likes me a little more than God likes you… that all of that leads only to a diminishment of the party for everyone?

The Psalmist sang, “O magnify the Lord with me! Let us exalt God’s name together!”  I don’t know if I can envision an ending to the parable in which the older brother grasps the younger and says that.  And it really breaks my heart to say that, because the people of God should be able to do better than that.

Can we? Can we do better?  Can we lay down our posturing and our pride and, in this instance, anyway, be a little less Presbyterian?  Can we move toward grace and rejoice when our siblings do, too?  Oh, beloved, I sure hope that we can.  If our relationships with each other are not characterized by this kind of generosity of spirit, why would anyone care to know about our claims to have a relationship with the Divine? Thanks be to God for our siblings in Christ, and for the opportunity to walk with them even on difficult days.  Amen.

[1] “Party Time”, in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (John Knox Press, 2011), p. 173

Speak Kindly

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 8 with an exploration of the healing of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  This can be found in Genesis 50:15-26. We also considered Paul’s call to reconciliation in II Corinthians 5:16-21

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

Last week, we began to talk about the ways that Advent is a season for reconciliation – healing in our relationships with each other as well as with the Divine.  Maybe you were here when we talked about the relationship between Jacob and Esau.  Well, if you thought things between Jacob and his brother were difficult, wait until you get a load of how things were between Jacob’s sons.

Maybe you know what happened in that family, but here’s the skinny: Jacob had twelve sons.  One of them, Joseph, was so clearly the favorite that his brothers decided that life would be better without him, so they sold him off into slavery and told the old man that he was dead.  Joseph found himself enslaved in Egypt, where he spent decades being alternately reviled and honored and at the end of the day, he found himself elevated to the position of, essentially, Prime Minister. As luck (or God) would have it, his brothers come cringing to him to save their sorry skins in the midst of a famine, and he does, and so Jacob and all the boys move to Egypt.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear a description of what happens in Jacob’s family after the old schemer dies.  Look at the ways that the brothers are described.  What are some words that you might use to describe these eleven men?  Afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, guilty…  These guys are not at their best right now, are they?  I should hope not!  They are small, they are petty, they are obsessed with the past.  So far as we can tell, they’ve been stewing on this for two decades.

Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Burgeois (1863)

Now, think about some words that you might use to describe Joseph.  Confident, comforting, generous, reassuring, forgiving… Joseph clearly is at his best, isn’t he?  I mean, this kid has been through a lot: he was born into a tragic and dysfunctional family; he was attacked by his brothers, sold as a slave at 17, spent at least a decade in involuntary slavery or as a prisoner, and finally ends up as the vice-governor of Egypt.  Amazing!  He is not at all worried about the past, is he?  He’s at peace and looking ahead!

Another question.  If you got to choose…if you could be afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, like the brothers….or confident, generous, forgiving, and at peace like Joseph, who do you want to be?  What kind of character do you wish you had?  Who do you want to be like?

While you’re mulling that over, let me throw out a couple more examples:

Mahatma Gandhi was on a speaking tour across India, as part of his non-violent struggle for independence from the British.  At that time, the only affordable mode of travel across the country was by rail. When there were no whites waiting for a train, the British rail company, in an effort to save the expense and time of actually stopping at the station, would merely slow the trains long enough for passengers of color to run along-side and hop on. (This racist policy was part of what Gandhi was protesting…)  One day, Gandhi was running to get on a train, and as he jumped up, a sandal slipped from his foot. Though he reached, he ended up watching helplessly as it fell behind him on the tracks. Quickly, he grabbed the other sandal and threw it back down the tracks towards the first shoe.

People who saw this thought perhaps Gandhi had taken leave of his senses. His response to their mystified expressions was: “At least now if a poor person finds my shoe he will soon come across its mate and end up with a good pair of shoes.  A single sandal does neither of us any good.”  There you have it…Ghandi’s character coming through.

Do you remember the day about a decade ago when a man went into the West Nickel Mines School and brutally slaughtered five innocent Amish schoolgirls?  Before the blood was dry on the floor of that building, the parents of one of those girls sent a message of forgiveness to the shooter’s family.  Within twelve hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were visiting and seeking to care for the children of the murderer.  When the assailant was buried Amish mourners outnumbered non-Amish.  And the Amish established a fund for the assassin’s family.

How to you get to be like that? Joseph appears to be genuinely surprised and hurt that his brothers even thought that he might be harboring revenge in his heart.  He hears their doubts – and he weeps!  If Gandhi had waited another moment he would have lost the opportunity; what poor person would continue for miles along the tracks in search of a matching shoe? For the Amish to extend forgiveness on the spot – and think it normal?  To have such an immediate reaction, a person has to reach such a place that behavior is not a thought out process; it’s almost instinctive. How can the average person aspire to reach such a level of human behavior? That’s the kind of person that I want to be…but how do I get there?

It reminds me of the old joke that is supposedly true:  master violinist Jascha Heifitz was hurrying along a sidewalk in New York City when a man yelled out of a cab: “Hey, pal, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  And without breaking stride, Heifitz is said to have replied, “Practice”.

How do you develop the kind of character that shows up in people like Joseph, or Ghandi, or the Amish?  Practice.  Or, to be more precise, practices.

In recent months, I have tried to use the time I’m afforded in your pulpit to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.  There’s not a person in this room who is unacquainted with estrangement in one way or another.  If we are going to follow Christ, we are going to have to learn how to forgive and make for healing.

But lots of times, we don’t want to forgive, and we think that it’s only someone else who needs healing.  We’re not interested. Or maybe we think it’s impossible – we just cannot do that.

Which is, of course, one of the fundamentally hard things about trying to live like a Christian.  We are essentially trying to be, or at least become, something that we are not.  How does that happen?

Some years ago I had the chance to spend some time with pastor and author Brian McLaren.  He said this to a group of us at the Pittsburgh Seminary as we were wrestling with this very problem:

Spiritual practices are actions that are within our power which we do to train ourselves to do things that are currently beyond our power so that we can become people we are currently incapable of being. 

You see, faithful behavior does not come automatically once we sense that God is calling us to be people of faith… Some of us might say that our hearts were changed instantly by Jesus, but all of us have to learn how to act like Christ-followers, don’t we?  We need practice.

Joseph was shaped by his whole life story.  He didn’t ask to be born into a family torn apart by jealousy and favoritism.  He didn’t ask for those amazing dreams, or to be sold as a slave, or to be cast into prison, or even to be elevated into a post in Pharaoh’s government.  That stuff happened to him.  But the ways that he responded to those things and the practices that he adopted allowed him to be shaped in such a way that he became a person of grace and forgiveness.

From everything we can tell, Joseph was a listener.  He was humble.  He was a learner.  He sought God.  And he did that wherever he was: in the fields with his father’s sheep, in Potiphar’s home, in jail, and in the royal palace, you get the sense that Joseph had a series of practices that kept him centered: prayer.  Hard work.  Service to others.  Submission to God.  And what was the result?  At the end of the day, he was confident, comforting, generous, peaceful, forgiving…all of those words we mentioned earlier.  His daily practices shaped and made him who he was.

The same, of course, is true of Ghandi or the Amish.  It’s not like the Amish live day to day full of anger and trying to cheat each other, but when the worst thing ever happens, they say, “You know, let’s try something different now…”  No.  Their lives are shaped by the daily pursuit of grace and forgiveness.  The non-violence with which Ghandi conquered the British Empire was borne out of hundreds of decisions that he made every day and that came to bear fruit in his life.

I want to speak further about the implications of these practices, but first let me make two further observations about forgiveness as we see it in the Joseph story.  One of the things that we can see plainly here is that reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was not dependent on a confession.  Did you hear what his brothers said?  Nobody said, “Wow, we were pretty harsh, dude…”  Nobody apologized.  Instead, they came up with this crazy story about something that their father told them before he died.  Yeah, they threw the dead guy under the bus so that they could patch things up with their brother… and it didn’t matter to Joseph.  He treated them with grace.

Similarly, we can draw from this that forgiveness is not always dependent on a shared understanding of the past.  I suspect that Joseph and each of his brothers would tell a different version of the things that had happened.  Nowhere do we see them coming up with a timeline to which everyone can agree.  Rather, they decide that hashing through the sequence of events is not as important as living into the days that remain.

So what about those practices?  I hope that you are convinced that you’d like to dive more deeply into them, but as we do so, I wonder why you want that.

Let’s say that there are two men who decide that they’d like to get in a little better shape.  They can’t walk from here to Giant Eagle and back without getting winded and so each one says to himself, “Wow. I’ve let myself go.  I’ve got to get back on track.”

The first man does so because he wants to shovel snow for his elderly neighbor, to play with his grandchildren, and to be more fully alive in the world around him.

The second man embraces the exact same regimen of workout and diet, but these things do not come from a place of strength and hope.  Rather, he is ashamed of how he looks, and as he gets healthier, he is more and more pleased with what he sees in the mirror.  He becomes vain, and begins to make sarcastic comments to his friends who are not as fit as he.

Do you see? Each of these men is doing what is fundamentally a good thing, and engaging in sound and wise practices, but one of them is acting far more ethically than the other.

In our day, there is a narrative about forgiveness that relates to this example and leads to an unhealthy exaltation of the self.  You have suffered some great wound; you have been wronged greatly; and in response, you declare publicly that you are going to be the better person, and have a bigger heart.  You engage in a campaign in which you do all you can to ensure that everyone knows how deeply you have been wounded, and how Ghandi-esque, how Christ-like you are because you are willing and able to forgive even a loser like that person…

That is neither true forgiveness nor reconciliation because it keeps your neighbor in your debt, it perpetuates pain, and it builds your pride and ego at the expense of your neighbor’s shame.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in love and trust in God’s provision.  We see that in the narrative about Joseph, when he goes so far as to envision a new reality with his brothers and their families.  He invites them to make a promise to him!  He holds out the possibility of renewed trust.

Authentic forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in proper understanding of who we are and who our neighbor is.  In II Corinthians, Paul points out that we have to give up scorekeeping.  There is no sense, he would say, in trying to come to a consensus as to who is the “bigger person” because none of us can really measure up.

Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, put it this way: when it comes to living the Christian life, we are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. The path to true reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement that the only way I can even contemplate forgiveness is by recognizing that I have learned it from Jesus.  We seek to be reconcilers not in order to inflate our own ego or reputation, but because reconciliation is the arrow that points the universe toward God.

This is Advent.  This is the time when most of us prepare for Christmas, and in so doing, we engage in a number of practices.  We shop.  We send out greetings.  We plan hospitality.  This year, I’d like to challenge you to include one more Advent practice: practice forgiveness.  Practice reconciliation.  Spend some time each day asking God, by the power of the Spirit, to show you – “how can I give this gift of reconciliation away?  How do I practice forgiveness in my daily life so that I get good at it?”

And in particular, let me invite you to hone in on one particular area: look at your speech.  What do you say to and about other people – in real time, or online, or through social media?  Genesis sums it up by saying that Joseph “spoke kindly to his brothers”.

For Christ’s sake, friends – truly, for Christ’s sake, not mine or yours – can we seek to grow this week in our ability to speak kindly to and about one another? Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation we have received in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Me, My Brother, and God

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series began with a telling of the healing that took place between Jacob and Esau.  Our scriptural focus was from Genesis 32-33.

To hear this message as preached in worship on Dec. 1, 2019 please use this media player:

So, do you have a sibling?  Do you know what it’s like to be irritated, offended, misused, or let down by your sister or brother?  Maybe you heard the story of the pregnant woman who was in a car crash.  She was in a coma for a week.  When she woke up, the nurse told her, “Congratulations!  Not only are you going to pull through from your injuries, but you’ve had twins!”  The woman said, “But who’s taking care of them?  I’m not from around here.”  The nurse said, “Oh, that’s no problem.  Your brother has come, and he’s here helping out.  He’s even named the babies.”  “Oh no!,” the woman thought.  “My brother is a moron!  What are their names?”  The nurse said, “Well, the girl is named Deniece.”  “Oh, I like that,” said the new mother.  “And the boy is named Da Nephew…”

As we begin Advent this morning we’re going to spend a little time talking about brothers and other people who are close to us – morons or not – and how we are called to remain in and repair relationships with them.

Perhaps you remember something of the saga of Jacob and his brother, Esau.  Genesis describes the way in which Jacob took advantage of Esau and connived his way into receiving the blessing of the first-born son.  Not surprisingly, the next episode featured Jacob running for his life when Esau discovered the deception and set out to kill his brother.  Much of season two of that miniseries focused on Jacob’s life in the country near Paddan Aram – a long way from home.  You could say that he was trying to save his own skin.  Esau was a big, strong, angry man.  You could also say that Jacob was waiting for God to keep God’s promises: God has promised him many descendants, and that his descendants would be a blessing, and that his descendants would inherit the land that he had left behind whilst running away from Esau.

Karlena has set up today’s episode pretty well.  In chapter 31, Jacob hears from God that it’s time for him to go home and claim the land.  He leaves his father in law and begins the journey of 500 miles or so.  As Jacob and his wives and his children pack up, he must be filled with fear.  However, he has done a pretty fair job at irritating the folks back in Paddan Aram, and so he’s got to keep going.

The good news is that as Jacob neared his old hometown, he met messengers from God.  That gave him an idea. Look at what’s next – he wants to butter up his brother:

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau, toward the land of Seir, the open country of Edom. He gave them these orders: “Say this to my master Esau. This is the message of your servant Jacob: ‘I’ve lived as an immigrant with Laban, where I’ve stayed till now. I own cattle, donkeys, flocks, men servants, and women servants. I’m sending this message to my master now to ask that he be kind.’”

The messengers returned to Jacob and said, “We went out to your brother Esau, and he’s coming to meet you with four hundred men.”

Jacob was terrified and felt trapped, so he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. He thought, If Esau meets the first camp and attacks it, at least one camp will be left to escape.

Immediately after the message from God, Jacob sends a messenger to Esau, who replies with a messenger of his own.  Do you see how things tie together?  Already, eight verses in, and we are seeing an interconnectedness between me, my brother, and God.

What happens next is unique.  Genesis 32:9-12 is the longest prayer recorded in Genesis.  Think about all of the things that happen in the first book: The Garden of Eden.  The Flood.  The tower of Babel.  The call of Abram.  Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  Yet for some reason, this encounter between Jacob and Esau is the occasion for the longest prayer recorded in the book.  I’d say that’s significant.

Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’”

Jacob Returns to Canaan, Attributed to Charles Amédée Van Loo (18th c.)

Did you hear what Jacob does in this prayer?  He owns the covenant – that is, he puts himself in the midst of God’s promises.  As he does so, he remembers that he is an unlikely recipient of God’s grace – as the second-born, he knows he is not worthy, that he is the “least”.  He asks for God’s help and protection, and announces that he will hold God to the promises that God has already made to Jacob. That’s a great prayer!

Next, Jacob stops praying and starts doing what he’s best at: he plots and strategizes.  He’s just prayed indicating that it’s all up to God, but now he’s planning as if it’s all up to him.  He splits up his flocks and his family and thinks that if Esau is really angry, at least he won’t be able to destroy everything.  And, having prayed and planned, he continues to walk towards his brother.

A funny thing happens, though, before he gets there.  When he got to the Jabbok river, he was overcome by the desire to be alone.  He took his wives and his children and set them up in a campsite, and then he spent the night alone – except as he tried to sleep, he was set upon by One whom he came to understand was God.  They wrestle all night long, and as day breaks, Jacob is left with a limp – but also with the Divine blessing.

Jacob, on his way to reconcile with his brother, first wrestles with God.  Although he isn’t named as God in the text, when Jacob names the place “Peniel”, he says, “I have seen the face of God.”  Before Jacob gets to Esau, there’s some business that he has with the Lord.

This is a crucial theme in the book of Genesis, and all of scripture – the idea that our relationship to the brother (or the sister) influences our relationship with the Lord.   We can see this as we look back at Cain and Abel, or at Noah and his sons, and next week we’ll consider the ways that Joseph and his brothers treat each other.  One of the first and most important lessons in scripture is that we cannot separate the ways that we relate to each other from the ways that we relate to the Lord.

So all night, Jacob and the Lord wrestle with each other.  In the midst of that, what happens?

First, Jacob is re-named.  All his life, he has been known as “Jacob”, which means “the grabber” or “the trickster”.  Now, he’s told that his name is “Israel”, which means “God strives” or “God rules” or “God protects”.  His identity is changing – no longer is he known as the one who relies on his own wits; instead, he is known as the one who demonstrates the presence of God.

Another thing that happens that night is that Jacob receives a wound.  For the rest of his life, he is different somehow.  I think you know something about being changed as you are wounded, don’t you?  You have encountered the Holy in a death or through a surgery or at some other part of your life and you are different.  Some of you cry more easily now than you ever did before.  Some of you are more generous.  Some of you find it easier to let things roll off your back.  Whatever it is, you know what it means to have been changed by an encounter with the Holy One.

And almost as an afterthought, Jacob receives a blessing from God.  He has been blessed before, of course, but here at Peniel he finds that blessing strengthened and renewed as he revives himself by the banks of the Jabbok.

And in the morning, we find Jacob/Israel, limping along, finally ready to meet his brother after having been worked over by God all night long.

Jacob looked up and saw Esau approaching with four hundred men. Jacob divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two women servants. He put the servants and their children first, Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went in front of them and bowed to the ground seven times as he was approaching his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept.

Jacob and Esau, woodcut, Jacob Steinhardt, 1950

What are these passages in Genesis about?  Are they about the long-awaited reconciliation between to brothers?  Yes, partially.  Are they about the terror and power of God, the mystical being who has the ability to heal and to bless and to wound and to re-name?  Yes, partially.  But mostly, I would suggest, they are about the fact that you cannot separate healing with the family from an encounter with the holiness of God.

Professor Walter Brueggemann puts it this way in his comments on the passages at hand.  He notes that Jacob is concerned with seeing Esau’s face in 32:20, and having seen God face-to-face in 32:30.  Then, in 33:10, Jacob says that seeing Esau’s face is exactly like seeing God’s face.  Brueggemann says,

It is hard to identify the players.  In the holy God, there is something of the estranged brother.  And in the forgiving brother, there is something of the blessing God.  Jacob has seen the face of God.  Now he knows that seeing the face of Esau is like that.  We are not told in what ways it is like the face of God.  Perhaps in both it is the experience of relief that one does not die…the crippling is not to death.  The forgiving is not unqualified.[1]

Jacob, in his attempt to be faithful to God, has got to reconcile with Esau.  And Jacob, in his efforts to reconcile with Esau, has got to encounter God.  In each case, there is deep fear – because Jacob knows that both God and Esau can hurt him very badly.  And yet he knows that to be fully himself and to realize the promise, he’s got to move toward both God and Esau.  And, more to the point, it would seem that he cannot divorce his pursuit of God from his relationships to those who surround him.

Who are we, brothers and sisters?  Aren’t we the heirs of Israel?  Aren’t we here to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  We have been called, and blessed, and changed, and wounded.  We are on our way towards an encounter with our brother or sister.  This is a story about us, my friends.

How can we do this?  How can we be this Word of the Lord?  It depends on where you are in the story.

Some of us don’t know what it is to encounter the Holy One – to wrestle with God about something huge.  Oh, we’ve got problems all right.  We sense them nagging at us, weighing us down – but we’re reluctant to spend time alone with them and God.  Maybe you need to camp out on the Jabbok for a few days.  I’m not suggesting that you need to relax, or that you need a day off, or that you should send the kids someplace and pamper yourself and get some “me time”.  I’m saying that you might be in a place where you need to intentionally engage in the presence of God.  Spend a day or two in fasting and in prayer.  Take some time away and disengage yourself from the details of your everyday life.  In my life, that can mean spending a couple of days and nights out of town in a boat or on a cabin; it can also mean skipping lunch and sitting at the Aviary for a few hours.  Maybe you need to rent a room at the Holiday Inn for a night.  If you need some ideas as to where you can go to be alone in the  presence of God, I’d like to help you think that through.  In any case, I hope that you’ll do that – that you will make space for the wrestling to begin.

And some of us simply need to get on the road.  The one constant in these chapters is that Jacob AND Esau are walking slowly and deliberately towards each other.  Think about that.  They didn’t “need” each other at all.  They both had a fistful of wives and children; they were both financially well off.  They had what they needed to get by…except, somehow, they needed each other – and so they walked the road of reconciliation, because they knew that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s call and presence was in a healed relationship.

From whom are you estranged?  With whom do you need to be reconciled?  And what does it look like for you to walk towards that reconciliation?  Do you, like Jacob, need to lower your head and swallow your pride?  Do you need to acknowledge a hurt, and then act with a generosity of spirit?  Do you need to write a letter – or two – or twelve?  Do you need to make a phone call or visit?  Think right now of a relationship that is not the way that God wants it to be… What will you do to move towards wholeness in that relationship?

The Last Supper, Timothy Schmaltz (contemporary).

Because here’s the deal: It’s not just about you and your brother (or sister), you know.  If you want to get close to God, you’ve got to sit next to other people.  There aren’t any other options – you can’t escape it.  When you come to the Lord’s table, “private dining” is not one of your choices.  You’ve got to crowd in here with the rest of us.  May God bless you.  May God make you limp.  May God bring you home.  Amen.

[1] The Interpretation Commentary series on Genesis (John Knox, 1982) p. 272-273.

Walking the Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing the Uniform

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 13 we talked about the virtue and practice of Humility.  Scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 and Philippians 2:1-11.

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

I’d like to start this morning by sharing one of my all-time favorite memories of Christmas.  In the mid-1980’s, before we were parents, Sharon and I spent a day buying clothes for a student at a prestigious private school where Sharon was doing some research. This young lady was a “scholarship” kid who lived in what thirty years ago we called “the projects”.  Most days, she did well at school, but the last Friday of every month was sheer torment for her, because it was “dress down day”.  That meant students were free to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to.  I think that Maddy could tell us something about how nice it feels to be able to choose your own clothes for a day every now and then.

The problem was that this student didn’t really have any other clothes that were nice enough to wear to that school – so she just wore her uniform on those Fridays.  And, because kids are kids, she got ripped apart on those days, and was teased mercilessly. Because my wife is one of the kindest, most generous people I know, she decided that we’d go school shopping for a high school girl.  We bought a couple of bags of clothes, and got a youth group member named Tom Taylor to dress up in my Santa suit and deliver the goods.  It was wonderful to hear Sharon narrate the scene she witnessed on the next “dress down day” at that school.

Now, the Gospels don’t record that Jesus ever had to deal with a posse of “mean girls”, but there was a group who consistently targeted and criticized him for being “not like us”.  They looked at Jesus and they scolded and mocked him, saying, “What’s up with those losers you surround yourself with?  And how can you justify spending your time in that way? And that stuff that you eat? And the people you eat it with? For crying out loud, Jesus, you are embarrassing us.  You are so out of it.  How dare you think of yourself as one of us, Jesus.”

But Jesus looked at that crowd – we know them as The Pharisees – and shot right back.  “Those guys?  Please.  Oh, they may think that they’re all that.  And they’ve got the right uniforms on – their prayer shawls and beads and scripture boxes – but there is no substance there.  They don’t have a clue.  They were born on third base but they walk around like they just hit a triple.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

And then he looked at those who were following him and issued a call to humility. “Don’t be like that,” he said.  “You are to take the lowest place. You are to see yourselves as students, not teachers.  You are to serve each other.”

It’s hard to talk about humility in the church – or anywhere, really.  I mean, if you talk about yourself as someone who is humble, you probably aren’t.  I’m reminded of the time that the congregation surprised their pastor at the end of one Sunday worship service.  They announced that he had been voted the “Most Humble Pastor in America”, and then they presented him with a medal having that inscription.  The next Sunday they took it away from him because he wore it.

As we continue this series of messages on “The Dress Code for Christians,” what does it mean for us to be people who wear humility in our relationship with each other?

Let’s look at a case study: the situation in the First Church of Philippi.  Things were rough there.  We don’t know exactly what was going on, but it’s clear that the place was simmering with conflict. Plenty of people were really irritated with each other.  Paul names two adversaries in chapter 4 of this letter, and so it may be that folks in church were taking sides in this dispute.  Maybe some of the folks were running around saying, “Well, I’m on Syntyche’s side” and others were saying, “Why is that person being so mean to Euodia?”  It could be that what had started as a personal argument was polarizing people in the congregation.

Or maybe there was some conflict around the idea of what made someone a “real” Christian.  Some folks insisted that you couldn’t follow Jesus unless you bought into all of the Jewish Law first, and others insisted that there was no impediment to following Jesus – nothing at all.

And it could have been that some people there were irritated at Paul – they saw him as playing favorites, or as being too close to some people while being distant from others.  Whatever the cause, the content of the letter makes it plain that there was some genuine conflict in the church.  I know, I know, it sounds difficult to believe, but it’s right there in the Bible so I guess we’re going to have to accept that it’s possible for people to argue with and even be petty with each other at church.  Go figure.

So Paul addresses this conflict by constructing a theological argument.  He begins chapter 2 with a sentence that strings together a number of clauses that all begin with the word “if”.  In the Greek, it is ei.  You heard it a moment ago: “if you have any encouragement… if any comfort… if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Now, in English, when we use the word “if”, it’s often in a conditional clause: “If it rains on Saturday…” It might be gonna happen, it might not be gonna happen.  We won’t know until Saturday.  But the Greek language allows for an understanding of “if” as a statement of fact.  Something like, “Look, Andre, if I’m your friend – and we both know that I am – then…”[1]

My point is that Paul is not wondering whether there is encouragement, comfort, commonality of purpose, or compassion to be found in Jesus – he is affirming FOUR TIMES that we all agree that those things are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  So he starts this case study by reminding them of what they all know.

In the second verse, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what ought to happen.  And once again, he re-states the goal four times: be like-minded (this does not necessarily mean that he expects them to agree on everything or vote unanimously, but rather that they are to work toward having the same attitude, or to be looking in the same direction); have the same love for one another; be of one spirit (the literal Greek there says “share the same soul” or “share the same breath”); and be of one mind.

You may think that he’s stretching to make it come out to four by repeating the word “mind” twice in this list, but I’d like to suggest that in repeating the word phroneó, he is actually getting that word into their heads so he can use it again in verse 5.  He calls his congregation to have the same mindset, the same view, to have a commitment to seeing things… how? To seeing things the way that Jesus saw them.  “Be like Jesus,” Paul says.

And then the old Apostle does something that you’ve done a hundred times.  Do you know how sometimes you have something to say, or you want to tell me something that is true, and you’re not quite sure how to put it into words, and then you think of a song that says it exactly right?  You want to remind your spouse of the way that you love her, and so you play “your song” on the car radio.  You are grief-stricken at the cemetery and all you can do is just stand there while “Taps” is played.  You are searching for something true to say at church and the best you can do is say, “Well, Amazing Grace, right?”

That’s what Paul does in Philippians 2.  He either reminds them of a song that they’ve sung before or he writes a new hymn on the spot.  The purpose of this hymn is to point to the humility of Jesus.

So what did humility look like when Jesus wore it? It begins, Paul says in verse 5, with a mindset.  He repeats the word phroneó as a means of affirming that Jesus, in the mystery of his pre-existence within the Trinity, decided something.  Jesus chose to submit himself to the overall purpose and intentions of God.

Now that choice, that mindset, led Jesus to a specific course of action.  When Jesus decided to align himself with God’s purposes, that meant that he was setting down the pathway of obedience.  In this case, obedience means that he yielded his rights, privileges, or place in line so that he might be better able to see, hear, and simply be with people like us.  Obedience for Jesus meant the setting aside of one possible reality in order to fully embrace something else.

Of course, every action has a consequence.  According to the hymn that Paul sang, the result of the action that Jesus took was his death.  He suffered pain that he did not deserve because he had chosen to act in obedience.

However, that action also produced fruit.  Yes, Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. The end result of Jesus’ decision and action was that the entire creation would come to the realization that Jesus, not Caesar, not me, not you, is Lord.

So what?  What are the implications for the people in Philippi? Or for the people in Crafton Heights?

Paul is calling us, as the people of God, to recognize that humility is a part of the uniform that we wear as Christians.  Like any other garment, we must choose to put this thing on.

Paul begged his friends in Philippi to see that humility is a willingness to accept that God, in Jesus, is at work in each life.  In my life.  In your life.  And in affirming that God is at work in my life, I must of necessity acknowledge that the work is not yet complete.  I am a work in progress.  And since I am not yet finished, I cannot (as the Pharisees did) present myself to you or anyone else as a final product.  I am still being molded, shaped, and used as I seek to stay on the path of obedience.

And if God is at work in each life, then God is moving not only in my life, but in yours.  I must acknowledge that you are being molded and shaped by the power of the Spirit that flows through Jesus.

And if THAT is true (and it is), then it is preposterous for me to think that somehow you are in your finished form.  I am not free to treat you as someone who is too high and lofty for me to reach – someone who is out of my league.  And neither can I regard you as one so lost that I shouldn’t even bother reaching out to you.

Like Paul, I’m not above quoting a song lyric that says something meaningful and important.  The late Rich Mullins wrote these lyrics:

My friends ain’t the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother’s keeper[2]

When Paul tells his friends in Philippi, or when he speaks to us through the letter to his friends in Colossae, that we are to wear the uniform of humility when we come to church, he’s saying that we are to look to Jesus in obedience and to each other mercy and kindness.  That’s what Mullins is saying when he says he is his brother’s “keeper”, not “judge”.

John Ruskin was a leading thinker in 18th century Britain. He got to the heart of the matter at hand when he wrote,

“The first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of one’s own power…[but really] great people… have a curious… feeling that… greatness is not in them, but through them… and they see something Divine… in every other person, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”[3]

Humility, therefore, is not thinking less of yourself, but simply thinking of yourself less as you act in kindness and mercy toward others.

Beloved, this is the truth that comes to us from scripture this morning, the truth that echoes through the streets not only of Philippi but Crafton Heights: if your baptism means anything, it means that we are called to care with and for each other in demonstrable, observable ways; that we are charged to invest more in the means of building each other and the whole Body of Christ up than in tearing it down; that anyone who would wear the name “Christian” is by implication someone who is learning every day to adopt the mind of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for the call, the example, and the presence of Jesus on this path of obedience.  Amen. 

[1] Fred Craddock, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) p. 35.

[2] “Brother’s Keeper”, David (Beaker) Strasser | Rich Mullins, © 1995 Kid Brothers Of St. Frank Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

[3] https://ldschurchquotes.com/john-ruskin-on-humility/, edited for inclusivity.