With Friends Like These…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Paying the Price

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 30, 2016 we considered the implications of Jonathan’s embrace of what God was doing in David’s life, and wondered how we could cultivate that spirit of humility, service, and discipleship in our own lives.  Our texts included I Samuel 20:24-42 and Luke 14:25-27.

This was an endorsement that not many people saw coming. I’m not talking about Angelina Jolie’s decision to become a spokesperson for Louis Vuitton or any of the celebrities that are lining up behind one of the contenders for political office in 2016. We could see most of those coming, and frankly, we’re a little tired of all the commercials.

But the one we just heard about – now that was a shocker. Who saw this coming? Jonathan… that would be Prince Jonathan, the son of King Saul of Israel, comes to the man that his father hates more than anyone else, David the son of Jesse, and says, “Look… No matter what happens, I’m with you.” In fact, a couple of verses prior to the beginning of our reading for the day, we hear him say, “‘May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.’ And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.” (I Samuel 20:16-17).

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

Wow! The son of the king – the man who was next in line for the throne – says, “David, I want you to succeed. God is clearly with you, and you’ve got to do this thing.” Who saw that coming?

Of course, Jonathan wasn’t the first one in his family to sense David’s ascendancy. Last week we read about his sister, Michal… Princess Michal, who warned David as her father tried to have him killed, thus keeping him alive so that he’d be free to live into the promised future that God had laid out for him. Today’s reading is simply a description of another child of Saul moving toward David.

But note how he does this. This is not a public endorsement intended for the newspapers or television camera. Instead, it is a deeply personal and private conversation in which Jonathan seeks to confirm for David all of the things that old Samuel had told the boy so many years before… before the Philistine wars… before the battle with Goliath… before all the conflicts with Saul, and before the wedding to Saul’s daughter… On this moonlight night at the shooting range, Jonathan pulls David aside and says, “Look, David, you have got to see this through.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

Without Jonathan, David was at risk of either abandoning his vocation and returning to the simple life of tending sheep or developing a murderous spirit of retaliation to get even with the man who despising the best that was within him. He did nether. He accepted Jonathan’s friendship and in receiving it received confirmation of Samuel’s earlier anointing to kingwork and the God-dominated imagination that made it possible to live in and by God’s Spirit in song and story.[1]

In short, for the second week in a row, we have a child of King Saul saving the life of the man who would replace him – knowing that in the eyes of the world, Jonathan is acting against his own best interests. There is something deeply admirable about Jonathan’s behavior and principles here. I wonder how Jonathan got to be this kind of a human being – the kind of man who is able to look not only to his own interests, but to the greater good; a man who is eager to sense how and where and when God is moving and to share in that, even if it brings him to a place of disruption or personal pain. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be a person like that.

But how? How do I grow into having that kind of persona?

I think it starts with learning how to say “no”, and perhaps more precisely, knowing what to say “no” to.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that Jonathan’s enthusiastic embrace of David is due, at least in part, to something amazingly wonderful and captivating about David. This is a special, special kid, and you’d have to be willfully ignorant to miss that.

But Jonathan’s actions here are more than merely looking at David’s amazing gifts and affirming them. He invests himself deeply in David’s life, and the only way that is possible is because Jonathan is willing to train himself to say “no” to some parts of this world that have a deep attraction for him. In the space that those denials provide him, he is able to add his emphatic “yes” to God’s future in the life of his friend David.

Our reading for this morning offers us a glimpse into a conversion of sorts. At the beginning of chapter 20, Jonathan is trying hard to be both a dutiful son and a good friend. Saul’s behavior – including the attempted murder of this dutiful son in a fit of rage – drives Jonathan to the place where he expresses his desire to follow David, not Saul, into an uncertain future. As Jonathan expresses his loyalty to David, he is living into the words of Jesus in Luke 14: ““If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

In our culture, we often think of the word “hate” as the opposite of the word “love”. When we say “I love NCIS but I sure do hate Jeopardy”, we are saying that we have an attraction toward police drama and are repulsed by quiz shows. In the Semitic world, however, the meaning was a little bit different. To “hate” someone or something was to turn away from it or to detach oneself from it. When Jesus called his followers, he was inviting them to turn away from any allegiances that would stand in the way of their full-time discipleship and to love him more than anyone or anything else.

As Jonathan came to see what was going on in his own household, including the mad ambition, the spiritual depravity, and the murderous jealousy of his father, he had to “hate” that. He had to turn himself away from those things and detach himself from that kind of a heritage. And because he turned his back on those things, he was able to embrace the thing that God was doing in David. Jonathan confirmed God’s call on David’s life and he pledged himself to helping David realize the totality of that call.

And 700 years or so later, Jesus, the Son of David, finds himself marching toward Jerusalem in the last months of his life. He knows that he is walking towards his death, the great sacrifice for the sake of the world. Jesus has challenged the status quo, he has stood up to religious charlatans who were eager to jump into bed with the Empire, and he has sought to proclaim the outrageous love and grace of God. Jesus knows exactly where he is heading, and he knows exactly what will happen to him when he gets there. And as he keeps marching, he turns around and seems surprised that there is a crowd behind him.

He speaks: “Are you all sure about this? Do you know where this trip ends? Don’t come with me unless you know where we’re headed. Following me means turning away from what you have held most dear. Saying ‘Yes’ to the movement of God and the rule of the Spirit means saying ‘No’ to unhealthy habits, long-cherished notions, and a life centered on pleasing yourself.”

And those words of the Savior are not only for that crowd 2000 years ago. They are for us. How do we learn from Jonathan? How do we follow the Savior? Where do we need to say “no” so that our “yes” will mean something?

Some of us need to unplug. That is to say, we need to dial back on the devices that are seeking to control us or are having an unhealthy impact on us. That could mean cutting down on your investment in social media. We are so transfixed by what happens in this little alternate reality that we become unable to function in the real plane of our existence. We check our feeds, we wait for our followers to react, and we have alerts sent to remind us when someone we love or loathe does something to bless or irritate us. As a result, we find that we are more antagonistic, our blood pressure rises, we’re more irritable, and we are so concerned with the virtual world that we find it hard to be attentive to the actual world that is in front of our noses. I have friends who have deactivated Facebook because it’s taken them to places they don’t want to go; there are those who find that the anonymity and immediacy of Twitter means that it’s far too easy to become vile and hateful; and still others among us are so tethered to our email that we have to check it six or eight times an hour. And maybe you scoff at all of these technologies but at the same time can’t wait to turn on the talk radio or get to your favorite cable news station…which, in fact, do the same things to you. Some of us need to unplug.

And speaking of plugging, there are those among us who might actually be helped by getting a little better connected. That is to say it may be that the current cesspool of cyberspace in which you’re trapped may be online pornography or gambling. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to upgrade to Snapchat or Pinterest as possible alternatives to the fantasy world in which you are immersing yourself. As I’ve already noted, these platforms are not without their flaws, but at least they’d be a step closer to real relationships with real people.

In addition to unplugging, perhaps we all need to just simmer down a little bit. That’s what my grandmother would say to me when she thought I was getting a little too high on my horse. Actually, I’m not at all sure what she meant by me being on my high horse, but “simmer down” was grandma’s way of saying “chill.” Is it me, or do so many people seem to be so angry so much of the time? Every time you turn around, someone is about to bite your head off… Anger comes from fear: Psychologists tell us that when we are threatened, our natural instincts are to fight or to flee. Anger is half of that equation. I fall in love with my ideas, and when I discover that your ideas are different, I want to argue with you about it. I’m afraid of loss of identity or purpose or integrity; I’m afraid of some threat to my way of life, and rather than acknowledging all of that, I simply call you an idiot, get angry at you, and walk away.

You don’t have to watch too many political ads to see this at work in our lives today, do you? And it’s even worse when we see that getting played out in the church. I have some friends on the left who take some interesting ideas about social justice and fairness and equality and give them a quick baptism and proclaim that Jesus is here, and only here.

On the other hand, I have some friends on the right who start with some deeply held beliefs about God and country and patriotism, and frame those with an appeal to the founding of our so-called “Christian nation” and America as the promised land and pretty soon opposing any of those ideas is the same thing as turning one’s back on God.

And yet to all of my friends I would say, “Relax. Simmer down. Jesus isn’t running for President. And he wasn’t in the primaries, either.” You have your ideas. Great. Vote, of course. Express your opinions – but do all of that thinking, voting, and expressing after you’ve spent time on your knees, waiting in prayer, asking God where God is already moving in the world.

And with the energy and equilibrium that we gain when we unplug and simmer down, perhaps then we will find ourselves in a position to dive in somewhere and make a promise to someone. Eugene Peterson calls us to be Jonathans in the lives of people around us. Listen:

     Each of us has contact with hundreds of people…who take one look at us, make a snap judgment, and then slot us into a category so that they won’t have to deal with us as persons. They treat us as something less than we are; and if we’re in constant association with them, we become less.
And then someone enters our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s really going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us. A friend. It’s a great thing to be a Jonathan.[2]

He’s right, of course. But the only way that we are able to be strong enough to do that is when we detach ourselves from our anger, our fears, or our unhealthy addictions to people, substances, or attitudes.

Or make a promise in a different way: demonstrate your intention to walk in a new path by making a profound promise to commit to giving more of your money to the Lord’s work in the year to come. Too many of us “lowball” it when we come around to thinking about what we’d like to give. We think about what might be a comfortable gift, and then we back off that a little bit and make our promise. What if we led with our best and deepest hopes and then spent the year trying to live into that?

Or maybe your deal isn’t really money: it’s time. Maybe you can make a promise to really endorse someone by simply showing up… again and again. Come in in for the After School program… or be a mentor… or volunteer at The Table.

I realize that none of these things – not service hours, not financial donations, not presence with others – none of these things are the goal. Yet each of them are concrete, active ways to move toward the goal: following Jesus. Letting go of the things that hold us back and detaching ourselves from unhealthy patterns free us to pick up new practices that enable us to grow into the kinds of people who can walk with Jesus on the path to self-sacrifice, humility, and ultimately, resurrection.

I really, really wanted this sermon to be about the virtues of friendship and what an admirable and all-around nice guy Jonathan was. But the text doesn’t lead us there. Instead, it challenges us to consider whether we are willing to let go of anything – whether it’s anger or politics or bitterness or pornography or popularity or public esteem – that would encumber us on our walk with Jesus. We pray that we might be released to see the new hope and purpose that comes in the power of God in person of Jesus. Jonathan saw God at work and let go of some of his deeply held dreams and beliefs. The first followers of Jesus discerned the movement of God’s spirit among them and let go of some long-held allegiances in order to move with the Lord. What in us needs to change if we are to become more faithful disciples? Help us to see that, Lord, and then help us to do it. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, HarperCollins 1997, p. 54-55.

[2] Leap Over A Wall, p. 54.

Shouldn’t I Say Something?

Further thoughts on when and how to engage in meaningful conversation about stuff that matters with someone who you love.  Our scriptures for the day included Proverbs 27:5-6 and Colossians 3:1-17.

 

Perhaps you were here last week, and you heard me preach against publicly shaming other people for what you perceive to be moral failures on their part. I said that we were called to imitate Jesus, who resisted the invitations he constantly received to pile on and point fingers at those who had fallen.

That sermon made sense, at least to some of you. I know that because a few of you said things like, “Thanks for the reminder, Dave,” or “I need to go home and think about my own dirty laundry before I go looking through someone else’s…” I am glad for such feedback.

However, the message was incomplete. Sometimes, you have to say something. Sometimes, you see someone engaged in a behavior, a relationship, that is just wrong. Perhaps it is causing harm or pain to someone else. Maybe it’s self-destructive. At any rate, I don’t want anyone to think, “But wait – did Pastor Dave say we weren’t supposed to say anything?

No, that’s not what I said – or at least, not what I meant to say. As our reading from Proverbs implies, sometimes friendship requires difficult conversation. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to stop pretending that everything is ok and to go ahead and name what is wrong and bring it into the light.

How do we do that? There are many models in scripture; I’d like to look at Colossians 3 as one guide for having difficult conversations.

The first thing that we want to consider is the fact that this part of the Bible is attributed to the Apostle Paul – a man who by all accounts had an incredible track record for irritating other people. He was accused of being a hot-head with a quick temper. I might suggest that at least some of what is written here in Colossians 3 is written after some serious self-reflection.

When it’s time to say something, Paul writes, we need to start by remembering who and where we are. We belong to Christ. We are located with him, or in him. Our primary identity, says Paul, is that of “Christian.” He reminds us to live into our baptisms each and every moment.

OK, that sounds good, but how do we do that? Well, we clean house. We put to death the things that are not right within us. We get rid of pride, lies, anger, and greed. We need to do some serious self-reflection: if I feel compelled to talk with you about something that you are doing, it had best not be because I am envious of you. For instance, if I am secretly jealous of how much money you have, I’m probably not the person who ought to sit down and talk with you about the importance of tithing. Someone else’s attempt to engage you in conversation about the way that you treat your wife ought not to be related to the ways that that person is feeling intensely lonely. Do you see: if the only reason I want to talk with you about some supposed “sin” in your life is because I’m jealous of you for it, or because I need to feel superior to you because of it – then I’m no friend of yours.

I can only approach you in the humility that is born of knowing that I, like you, am a forgiven sinner. I have died to any notion of my own moral superiority. I can only approach you as one who has stripped away all pretense.

But Paul goes on to say that I dare not approach you naked (a bit of advice for which we can all be grateful this morning). No, he says, after I allow all of my own delusions and self-righteousness and self-importance to be stripped away; after I own all of my own baggage, then I am free to put on what Christ gives to me: I can be clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

I’d like to say just a few words about one of those words, “compassion”. It’s a compound word that comes from two roots: pata, meaning “to suffer”, and cum, meaning “with”. We approach each other in compassion.

I think what that means is that unless you have received a specific call from God to be a prophet sent to publicly unmask someone else’s sin, then that’s not your job. The normative thing is for you and I to suffer with those who struggle, not to point out all the places where they are screwed up. Instead, I look to you and I think, “Wow, that must hurt to carry that kind of load… I wonder what has happened to bring you to the point where this was the best choice you could make…

Is your friend in a broken sexual relationship, or hiding in a web of lies, or somehow being engulfed by the darkness? If so, you do not have the right to saunter into that person’s life and turn on the big old Truth Light, point your fingers, and say, “You’re welcome” just before you walk out of the room.

No, you are called to have compassion – to suffer with that person. To look for the pain in her life and to enter into the pain. When you’ve done that, then you can speak the truth in love.

When you’ve come to that person in a profound awareness not only of your deep sinfulness but this other person’s ambiguity, confusion, or pain, then you are prepared to love like Christ and to forgive like Christ.

And when we’ve gotten that far, then, according to verse 16, we can teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. In fact, Paul says, you probably don’t have the right to address a brother or sister’s brokenness unless you are able to sing together.

And, for the record, I know what this sounds like. This sounds like old Pastor Dave is about to get all “Kum ba Yah” on you. This sounds corny. It sounds fake.

I get it. And if you see a child being harmed, or someone being attacked, or some grave danger, then you need to step in and stop that from happening. Sometimes, there’s no time for singing.

But can we, who bear the name of the body of Christ, seek to love each other enough to be friends? Can we care enough more about each other than we care about being right, or about winning the argument?

This morning, we are going to commission the Cross Trainers ministry staff. Let me direct a few words to them by way of example.

TruthInLoveYou guys know that you are about to embark on a full summer program. There will be a number of long, hot days ahead. If you do not know this now, you will by this time next week: sinfulness is not limited to specific age categories. These little angels who will fill our building tomorrow? They can be tough. They can be mean. They can be terribly obnoxious.

And whenever it strikes you just how tough, mean, and obnoxious they can be, your first temptation will be to show them how tough, mean and obnoxious you can be. You’ll say to yourself, “OK, self, it’s time to show them who’s boss.” You will want to take charge. You will want to unleash the power of your voice, your intellect, your presence on them. You will want to lay down the law.

But I’m here to ask you to work a little harder when that happens, and don’t worry so much about laying down the law as about laying down the love.

Your goal this summer is not to run a precision camp populated only by impeccably behaved children who will sit quietly in classrooms because they are afraid of you.

Your goal is to help some beautiful and flawed little children learn something about what it means to fall in love with Jesus. The only real hope that any of these kids have of surviving some of the horrors through which our world has already put them is if they get a glimpse of Jesus.

Some of the kids you’ll meet have an amazingly great grasp on that already. But a lot of them? They’ve never seen Jesus. They’ve never begun to even imagine someone like Jesus… But they’ll see you.

So right now, this morning, in the quietness of this room… Right now, before those kids irritate you, or offend you, or disappoint you in some way – I want to ask you to decide to love them. Love them anyway. Love those kids. Love that neighbor. Approach them as God in Christ has approached you.

It’s been said that people care what you know when they know that you care. Brennan Manning once said, “How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the antiabortion sticker on the bumper of my car.”

Don’t bumper-sticker people. Love them.

Some day – hopefully, a long time from now – you’ll be invited to come into a room and look at a few photos of me. Then you’ll take me out to a field somewhere and throw dirt in my face and come back to this building and eat cheesy potatoes and talk about how it’s too bad that I had to die like that.

And if I did it right, then there will be at least a couple people here who will come sort of grudgingly. If you get them talking, they might say something like, “You know, I didn’t agree with that guy. In fact, I thought he was a real knucklehead some times. But you know what? I think that he loved me.”

If the person you seek to correct is sure that you love them as Christ has loved you, then you have a chance to be heard as you come alongside them. If people are convinced that you love them, we might just have less screaming and more singing. Singing! Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

What Will You Do When You Do Your Worst?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  Our second service on Easter Sunday included a reading from John 21:1-19, and we contrasted the ways that two of Jesus’ closest friends – Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot – returned to Jesus in the last week of his life.

As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to think about this: who has been the absolute worst person in the entire scope of human history?

Hitler? Pol Pot? Osama Bin Laden? Charles Manson? Joseph Stalin? Ted Bundy? Nero?

How would you go about measuring something like “absolute worstness”? There has to be a certain subjectivism involved, doesn’t there?

I did a little research this week, and have come to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler appears to be the current standard for absolute worstness. If you are really appalled by someone and want to really denigrate his character, you say, “Oh, that one? He’s another Hitler…” I mean, I don’t really want to say anything nice about any of these other folks, but how often do you hear someone referred to as “another Vlad the Impaler”?

Let’s focus it down a little bit. Who is the worst person in the entire Bible?

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot

Jezebel? Cain? Herod? Abimilech? Maybe. But my hunch is that most of us pretty much use Judas Iscariot as our go-to in this department, don’t we? I mean, not only did he coldly betray the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Life…but he did so after having shared supper with him and after having had his feet washed by Jesus. Judas? That’s messed up.

Was Peter on anyone’s list for “worst person in the Bible”? The immediate reaction, I’d think, would be, “Hey, no, Pastor Dave! Not Peter! He plays for our team. I mean, sure, he was a little sensitive. Kind of a blowhard, really. But He was an Apostle with a capital ‘A’! He practically started the church!”

So. What did Judas do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

And what did Peter do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

I mean, we can spin it any way we want to but the fact is that on the very same night nearly 2000 years ago, for all intents and purposes, these two men did the same thing.

And if you’ll give me that, then how is it that on the one hand, Judas is often reviled as the greatest scoundrel in history and his mere name is synonymous with treachery, while on the other hand, Peter is the Rock Star of the early Christian movement and even today the most important church in the world is named for him?

Let’s talk about what they did – and I’ll repeat my thesis that I believe they did pretty much the same thing. In fact, you could say that Judas was a little smarter than Peter. First of all, Judas at least got paid for his trouble. 30 pieces of silver was about half a year’s salary – not too bad for one little kiss. Beyond that, of course, it’s possible to make a case that there was some mistaken nobility in Judas’ gesture. Let’s say he really believed that Jesus was the coming Messiah who would destroy Rome and liberate Israel. If Judas had him arrested, that would back Jesus into a corner and then he’d have to unleash the masses and the heavenly host and bring about the kingdom, right? Because if he really is the Messiah, he won’t die, right? I’m not saying I buy that logic, but you have to admit that at least on one level, it holds together.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter

Peter, on the other hand, is just pathetic. And it’s not just one little kiss – it’s three times, yelling and cursing and crying and huddling pathetically there by the fire.

And yet…

Come Friday morning, both Peter and Judas were aware that they had been tragically wrong. At some point in that long, cold weekend, it must have dawned on each of them that they had just done the worst thing they’d ever done in their entire lives.

So if you can accept my thesis that each of these men hit the absolute bottom sometime on Thursday night, why do we remember them so differently?

I would suggest we remember them because of the choices that they made on Friday and Saturday.

The Kiss of Judas Giotto, c. 1305

The Kiss of Judas
Giotto, c. 1305

Judas, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw that Jesus refused to call in the big muscle in order to save himself; when he saw his friend being led like a lamb to the slaughter…well, something snapped. He was filled with shame and remorse and he allowed that to drive him into isolation. He reacted with anger and desperation. Lonely and embittered, he took his own life, believe the worst about himself – believing that he was unredeemable, unforgivable.

Peter’s Denial Robert Leinweber (1845-1915)

Peter, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw how Jesus was unwilling to save himself; when he got a glimpse of Jesus looking right at him through the crowds…when that rooster crowed, he was filled with shame and remorse. The pain was so great that he…that he was driven back to the rest of his friends. He returned to the other ten, and sought consolation not in self-destruction, but in the company of the community. And because he allowed his failure to drive him more deeply into the web of the community, he was in a position to encounter Jesus on that first Easter.

Don’t you think that Jesus would have greeted Judas, had Judas have been there? Or do you suppose that that’s the time Jesus would have chosen to get out the lightning bolts and mete out a little cosmic justice? I can’t see that happening. The only reason Jesus didn’t greet Judas is because Judas wasn’t there…he was hanging by the neck in his own personal hell somewhere.

But Peter was there, wasn’t he? And in the passage from John that you’ve just heard, we see the resurrected Jesus leading Peter gently through to the gift of forgiveness.

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles James Tissot, c. 1890

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles
James Tissot, c. 1890

You know the essence of the story, I think: Jesus goes out looking for Peter. He stands on the shore of Lake Galilee and he calls to him, exactly as he did on the day that they’d met. He welcomes Peter, and then he invites Peter to share what he has brought. He calls Peter by name – not once, but three times. And in the process, Jesus gives Peter the chance to embrace the forgiveness that Jesus has offered. He asks him three questions, and allows Peter to reaffirm the depth of his love three times.

Do you see? Christ wants Peter – Peter, who only days earlier had done his worst – to share in the power of resurrection. Jesus gives Peter a job – the same task he’d assigned Peter earlier in his ministry – to lead the church. For Peter, resurrection life began that day. Peter was brought back from the dead a long time before he was ever hung on a Roman Cross because he wouldn’t stop talking about the grace, love, and power of Jesus.

Judas could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him to hopelessness, despair, and death.

Peter could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him into the depths of the Christian community, who helped him to experience grace, forgiveness, and resurrection.

And what about you? What will you do when you do your worst?

Please note, I’m not asking what is the worst thing you’re liable to do. I mean, that would be a fascinating conversation and probably very interesting, but it’s not really germane to our worship this morning. What I want to know is, whenever you do whatever it is that is the worst thing you’ll do, what will you do next?

Oh, come on, Dave, you don’t mean to suggest that I am like Judas? I mean, seriously, I have my moments, but…

No. And I am serious. You will fail. Some of us have already failed. More than once. All of us will fail again.

I don’t know, and don’t particularly care right now, what will be your worst. I am simply here to guarantee your upcoming failure. And I’m not going to try to rank them as to which is worst – is it the affair or the addiction or the theft or the lying or the inability to treat other people well or selfishness or violence ? Is it interpersonal or academic, work-related or hidden on the internet? For crying out loud, it doesn’t matter. You are going to screw up. You will fail. You will hurt someone else, and you will be hurt.

The question I have for you is not how will you do your worst. The question I have is, in which direction will you turn when you find that you have, in fact, done your worst?

The Good News of Easter is this: Death is turned to life. Sin is forgiven. Your worst is no match for his best. There is therefore no reason to continue to live in that worst, and less reason to wander into isolation, pain, and death.

JesusonBeachYou know, don’t you, that the reason we’ve had this book for 2000 years is that Jesus was not simply having a conversation on the beach with an old friend. He was not only talking with Peter. He was talking with me. He was talking with you.

Take a look around the room right now (and I can tell you, this works in church and in bars and in the stadium and anywhere else…). Look at these people. Some of them would say that beyond a shadow of a doubt they are at the best place of their lives right now. And others are a red hot mess this morning. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks be to God, we can all know the gifts of hope and new life because of the fact that Jesus is alive, walking the beaches of our own lives, calling out our names, and inviting us to bring ourselves to him.

He is risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah. Amen.