One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.
One of my great hopes when I came out to this part of the country was that I’d be able to do a little fishing, especially for some of the wild trout that fill these lakes and streams. One of my great fears was that, while I know a thing or two about fishing EAST of the Rockies, I’ve never tried fresh water angling west of the Mississippi. My hopes and my fears were both amplified when my friend Gabe presented me with a lovely rod to take with me on this trip – “Good luck, buddy!”, he said.
Well, I thought I’d need more than luck. Who wants to waste a day in the Grand Tetons fishing with the wrong gear in the wrong spot? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! So I decided that I better learn from someone smarter than I am. Fortunately, there are a number of those folks around at any given moment. I hired “Captain Phil” to take me on a two hour fishing excursion on Jackson Lake. Turns out that the price was the same for one angler as for two, so Sharon Carver bought herself a fishing license!?! Ya never know.
Captain Phil’s boat is clean and well-appointed; it’s comfortable; it seems like a great retirement gig for this kind man from California. It’s just that, well, we did waaaaay more “fishing” than “catching”. Oh, it was a pleasant enough couple of hours, but I had hoped for more. Near the end of our trolling, we ended up each reeling in a nice-sized lake trout. It was a great tour and a delightful couple of hours, but I didn’t really feel as though I’d “fished”.
Look who’s into a Lake Trout!
She was happy to reel it in, but she wasn’t gonna hold it just so YOU could see…
Crusing with Captain Phil. You’ll understand when I said it didn’t really feel like “fishing”…
Luckily, I ran into a very helpful clerk at a visitor’s center who told me about a great spot – just below the dam on Jackson Lake. He suggested where I should stand, and what I might throw. I had happened to bring a small tackle box with me, and I had four suitable lures. “Great!” I thought. “Now let’s fish!”
Could this be the “honey hole”?
I got to the spot and I saw a few fellas with stringers that were full. That boded well. On my first cast, I lost what I thought was my best lure. Sigh. A couple of casts later, I was very excited to get a hit on my line, but disappointed when I discovered that I’d foul-hooked a fish whose name I forget, but it’s related to a carp or a sucker – in other words, not a “keeper.” I managed to land a small rainbow trout, but also managed to lose two more lures – my line was bad. I switched reels (yeah, I brought two on vacation – don’t judge me!) and then things turned around. Using my last spinner – a white Rooster Tail, I brought in four very nice lake trout. It was the best trout fishing day I’d ever had (not counting steelhead)! Ya never know!
Oh, I think “YES!” Gabe will tell you “it’s all in the equipment…”
Dinner! And Lunch! And Dinner again!!
There was a young man who saw me catching these fish and he crept closer and closer to me. He asked what I was using. He brought his tackle box to me and asked me to help him choose his lure. Still, I was reeling them in and he was cursing quietly and politely. Finally, I had accomplished something in two hours that I rarely accomplish: I caught more fish than the Carvers could eat. Ya never know! It was time to pack it in and head for the campsite (those fish weren’t gonna clean themselves!). I cut my line, gave the Rooster Tail to the young man next to me, and rejoined my bride.
It seems to me that fishing, and life, are better when we share what we have and what we know. Gabe didn’t need to give me a fishing rod – but he did. The clerk didn’t have to tell me where he fishes and what he uses, but he did – and it made my day so much better! My fishing companion was surprised when I gave him my lure – but really, I’d been given so much already it seemed like literally the least I could do. And maybe he’ll do the same some day.
Don’t worry, I didn’t spend my whole time in the Grand Teton National Park fishing. We covered a good bit of the park in our RV and saw some amazing wildlife. We took an exhilarating hike around the shore of Jenny Lake. We saw a grizzly with her cubs, some elk and antelope, and a host of other beautiful sights.
Overlooking Jenny Lake
An Elk shared the trail with us for a bit…
Hidden Falls at Jenny Lake
This little Marmot didn’t know what to do about us sharing his rock!
My hope is that you’ll find some unexpected gifts – either received, or to share – in this day, and that something small might turn out to be something big. Because…ya never know.
A White-Crowned Sparrow on our trail.
PS: I did get up early this morning and drive to a tackle shop. I might have bought a few more lures. I might have caught and released four very nice lake trout because our freezer is full. Ya never know.
This guy and three of his friends made it back into the water thanks to my full freezer this morning!
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 November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow. What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was Mark 10:17-31.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
Ah, Jesus. I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks. Don’t you? Doesn’t everybody?
Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You bet Lord. I’m working on that. “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.” Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus. We hear them, and we try to do them. They make sense. “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Yep! You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.
“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”
Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about? Are you talking to me?
Let me tell you something, friends. I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen. Wow, that’s great stuff! Good news!”
But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm. Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here. What do you think he could possibly have meant?”
Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.
The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)
As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble. But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him. Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments: “You know what to do,” Jesus says. “Everybody knows.”
Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.
Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.
First, he “looks” at the man. In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally. In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him. His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence. I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.
We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do! Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group. This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.
So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.
Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow. You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.” This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.
Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it. And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment. Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.
If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here. All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering. The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.
Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him? I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference. And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.
As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed. Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan. Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations. Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.
So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before. Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington. Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up. This is an example.
So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough. We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too! We’re religious! We worship God, too! But we don’t call him Jesus. We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”
At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.
The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us? It will make things much easier to understand.”
So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat. As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine. Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.
We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”
And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen. Blessed be the name!”
And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same. There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;
and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah. Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”
And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!” But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.
Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday). Do you fear for his soul? Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?
Well, probably not. You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.
Vintage Postcard, artist unknown
I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved. What is your attitude toward money and possessions? Are they an object of worship? Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you? Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?
Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.
But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?
Ah, but HOW do we do that? How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?
Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money). In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.
When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.
In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.
In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially. I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus. To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth. And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”
This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.
On Sunday, November 26, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights concluded our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the practice commanded in Deuteronomy for the people to bring their offerings with great joy. In addition, we listened to the very familiar story of the prodigal son… Our scriptures included Deuteronomy 14:22-27 and Luke 15:11-32
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.
Every time a group of people chooses to become “Covenant Members” at the church, whether it’s because of Confirmation Class or as a result of some other conversations, I always ask the same question: what is your favorite part of worship? When we assemble in God’s name, we do a lot of things – from the gathering hymn to the benediction, which is your favorite? This morning, let me invite you to give that some thought and simply turn to your neighbor and answer that question: what is one thing you look forward to when we come into this room for worship?
Did you say the candles at Christmas Eve? Or when we get to sing your favorite song? Or maybe when we get to stop singing your neighbor’s favorite song?
I can’t say that this is my absolute favorite, but one of the most special aspects of worship here at Crafton Heights is what I like to call “the dance of the meerkats”. It’s listed in your bulletin as “receiving our tithes and offerings”.
The church wherein I grew up had a team of twelve men, each of whom accepted responsibility to facilitate the collection for a given month. These men recruited, plotted, and sometimes planned their vacation time around the Sundays for which they’d be on duty as ushers.
The Crafton Heights U.P. Church of 30 years ago elected a single man as “Head Usher”, and it was the responsibility of that office bearer to make sure that there were four men who were appropriately prepared to come forward at the correct time and receive the morning offering.
But this morning, as on most Sunday mornings here at CHUP, I suspect that this will happen. The music will start playing, and then heads start popping up, like meerkats out of their burrows, as people seek to make eye contact in trying to assess whether or not they are needed for this important ministry. Through some sort of signals unknown to linguists, two, or three, or five or six of you will rise and walk toward the back of the room. The fifth person there generally pretends to be going to get a drink so that no one will think that he doesn’t know the signal.
Worship at our sister church, the Mbenjere CCAP in Malawi, Central Africa
At any rate, a crew is assembled and the offering is received. I am teasing, of course, but that’s because it reminds me that giving really is a joyful and blessed aspect of our life together. We tend to forget that in the United States some times, but when folks travel to Africa with me, they almost always react to the joy with which the people bring forward their gifts. Whether it’s in small churches in remote villages or large complexes in the middle of town, there is a sense of profound gratitude that marks the giving of the offering. People are excited because they are able to give.
Too often in the American church, we are taught that our giving is rooted in one of three beliefs: one, we give out of duty. We are consumers of religious services, and so we better pay up to cover our costs. That’s the thinking that lay behind the car ride wherein the young boy left church with his folks and said, “Wow, that was really good. I’m glad we came!” His father was less impressed, and commented that the sermon was a little long and the second hymn was off key. “Oh, come on, Dad!”, sighed the boy. “You gotta admit, it was pretty good for a dollar!”
The second stream of giving in many of our churches is from those who are so pleased with how things have been going for them lately that they’d like to offer the Man Upstairs a tip as a gesture of appreciation. Folks think, “I like my life, and God has done all right by me, so here you go, Big Guy – get yourself something nice on me…”
The other reason that I see folks being asked to give in the North American church is because giving is seen to be an investment strategy. The worship leader promises that if you give to God, then God will bless you. There’s a promise held out that seems to indicate if you give a little, you’ll get a little, but if you give a lot, you’ll be deeply enriched.
Firstfruits offering: illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company circa 1896
There are a number of models for giving set forth in scripture, but none are impersonal and very few are based primarily on appeals to either greed or duty. More often, as is the case in our reading from Deuteronomy, we see that giving is a response to what God has done in the world.
In the passage you heard, the people are commanded to set aside a tenth of their produce and take it all down to the church and live it up with the gathered community. If you live too far from church, or you have such a big harvest that this is impractical, then go ahead and sell your tenth and stop at a Sheetz or a Get-Go along the way. The party is to include everyone, and is to be centered in giving thanks to God for what God has done in the world.
Other parts of the Bible offer a rationale for giving that includes the expectation that people will take part in funding what needs to happen for the upkeep of the temple and the financial provision for the worship leaders, and many passages indicate the need to be attentive to God’s call to care for the poor. There are many, many places where the Bible talks about money – in fact, Jesus spoke more about our finances than he did about hell, or about sex, or even about love. The scripture is full of exhortation to give generously to the Lord’s work.
I’ve told you some of my story, and you’ve heard from Ed, Stacey, Karen, and – in a little while – Ron. Today, I’d like to affirm that giving out of gratitude is a fundamentally good thing that – as we learn to do it better and better – will bring us great joy. I’ve taken as my text for this a very well-known story of Jesus that we often call “the parable of the prodigal son”, or sometimes “the loving father”.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn c. 1661-1669
When we hear these familiar words, we usually focus on the profound vision of forgiveness that is offered here. A son essentially wishes his father dead, and then blows through his inheritance, and is finally restored by the father’s willingness to make things work. At the same time, there is a different son who is lost to the family as a result of a self-induced fog of pride, legalism, resentment, and self-righteousness.
This week, though, as we are thinking about gratitude all month long, I’d like to ask you to consider which character in the parable is the most grateful? I’ll suggest that it is, in fact, the father – a man so excited about the turn of events that he throws a heck of a party and brings in all the neighbors. There is music, feasting, joy, and laughter – the whole thing, to tell you the truth, is pretty Deuteronomic. It’s as if Luke 15 is a vision of Deuteronomy 13.
But you interrupt me and say, “Wait a second, Pastor! How can God be grateful? To whom would God be grateful? Is it even possible for God to be grateful?”
And, on the one hand, I’d say that you have a valid point, particularly if your vision of gratitude looks like a child who has received a gift from a relative and whose mother drags that child in front of that giver and commands, “Now, listen to me, child! Before you even think about using that gift, you’re going to say a proper thank you!” Nobody likes that kind of experience – not the giver, not the recipient, and not the one who feels obliged to make sure that the “thank you” gets said.
But what if gratitude is being glad for what is, or has been, or could be with an eye toward the one who made it possible? In the parable, the father is so happy about the restored relationship with his boy that he wants the world to witness it. In this context, we could even say that the father is, in some way, grateful to the son as well as to those who come forward to share in the joy. The father is supremely happy for how things are, or for who is there, or for what can happen as a result of these things…
Listen, I had some experience of this as a father – when some interaction between my daughter and myself allowed me to break out of the dull routine of my normal life and see myself as profoundly blessed… but I have to tell you that no matter how I experienced this a generation ago, I am simply killing it as a grandparent. I mean, there I am bounding one of those little girls on my knee and all of a sudden I’ll blurt out, “Oooooh, look! The baby spit up on me!” A blonde four year old will ask me a question, and I’ll say, “Do I want to go out in the rain and play in the mud? You betcha!”
One of the great gifts I have received at this season of my life is that of joy in shared activities, in sharing – in relationship. Listen – there is not a blessed thing that either one of my granddaughters can actually do for me in any practical sense. They cost me money, energy, sleep, fishing time, and more. And, of course, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
In the same way, the father in the parable is a paragon of joy and gratitude because he is glad for the chance to participate in relationship. Because he is so blessed in this fashion, he finds himself giving, and giving, and then giving some more. The whole shooting match is his – and yet he is the most grateful person at the party.
This week, we’re presenting our Intention of Giving cards as a part of our worship. In a few moments, the elaborate dance of the meerkats will begin and you’ll be invited to place one of those green cards in the plate. I want to remind you that we are doing all of this with the full awareness of the fact that there is a whole lot of 2018 that is outside of our control. We don’t know what will happen in our lives or in the lives of those whom we love. And yet in spite of that uncertainty, we will declare our intent – we will decide and proclaim – that so far as it depends on us, we want to live like the Father. We want to be like God.
We want to laugh with the people of God.
We want to rejoice in the possibility of relationships with each other, with God, and with God’s world. We want to be givers.
In the fall of 1983 a Dutch Catholic priest and theologian named Henri Nouwen had just finished what he called an exhausting trip through the United States wherein he spoke as often as he could urging Christians to do whatever was in their power to stop bloodshed in Central America. He later wrote,
I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk. I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy. During the trip I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear. But after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry. As soon as the cheering or cursing crowds were gone, I experienced a devastating loneliness and could easily have surrendered myself to the seductive voices that promised emotional and physical rest.
By chance, he happened to be invited to a meeting with a woman who had a copy of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. He stared at the poster for the entire meeting, and later made arrangements to visit the museum to see the original. He sat with the painting for four days, and as he did, he was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s call on his life. As he reflected on both this experience and the ways that it shaped him, he said,
In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
I am here to suggest that the father in the story that Jesus told, that Jesus himself, and that the One of whom Jesus spoke so often all point to a reality in which we experience gratitude as both an awareness of that we’ve received as well as a discipline to practice in our interactions with each other, those around us, and the Lord. As we think about who we are called to be these days, may we be those who are called “grateful”, “joyous”, “generous”. Thanks be to God! Amen.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 4.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 85.
On Sunday, November 5, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began a month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. Because of a death in the family, I was unable to be there myself, but this sermon was read by my dear friend Karen. I do not have an audio file to post. The scriptures for the morning included Deuteronomy 16:13-17 and Colossians 1:15-20.
When I was a kid, my sister and brother and I had to wait on the top step of the home until both mom and dad were awake on Christmas morning. Dad had to be the first one downstairs, allegedly to check and make sure that Mr. Claus had safely come and gone (although I do remember the smell of coffee wafting up the steps on those mornings, too).
Once Dad gave the OK, we were allowed to go downstairs, but all of us had to walk right past the presents that were under the tree and make our way to the stockings. After everyone had unpacked their stockings, then the family moved to the kitchen for breakfast (and, as I recall, more coffee for the grown-ups). Usually, the orange at the “toe” of the stocking made up part of the holiday breakfast.
After breakfast, we kids were finally allowed to go in and investigate the gifts under the tree. Presents were opened, one by one, with each person taking a turn while the rest of the family watched.
Why did the Carvers “do” Christmas in this way? Well, for starters, it made the day last longer. Some years, there were not many gifts under the tree, and a deliberate pace stretched the celebration out. In addition, the practice of moving slowly through the gifts helped the family to remember that the things under the tree were not the most important part of the day.
Not surprisingly, those rules followed me from Wilmington DE to Pittsburgh and became a part of the practices that Sharon and I gave to Ariel. They were never written down, and often times not even discussed. They just were… things happened that way because that’s how they always happened.
You know that there is no “right” way to do Christmas, but that the ways that I was shown as a child shaped my view of Christmas, gifts, priorities, and led me to practices as an adult. The fruit of the practice of a deliberate and slow-paced Christmas was, for me, gratitude and appreciation for the gift of a family.
Every culture and every family has rules and practices and “a way that we do things here…” Like the Carver Christmas, they’re not often written – but they are all taught and learned.
In Leviticus chapter 23, the Israelites are getting ready to enter into the Promised Land and God says, “You want to be my people? I’ll tell you how to be my people. Remember these days and keep them holy.” And then God goes on to lay out seven Holy Days on which people are commanded to feast. Many of these days you know: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, The Feast of the Trumpets, Yom Kippur (or “The Day of Atonement”), and Sukkot. Why does God give the Jews these feasts? So that they remember the Passover, remember the flight from Egypt into the desert; remember the provision of God in the midst of their journey. God wants them to remember that they lived in tents in the desert and to remember that they are forgiven by His grace. Why does God give them the commandment to have these feast days? So that on the feast days, they will have the opportunity and responsibility to tell their children the stories and their children will learn who they are.
Deuteronomy 16 gives a little more information about one particular feast – the celebration of Sukkot – also called the Feast of the Ingathering, the Feast of Booths, or the Festival of the Tabernacle. For seven days, the people of God were called to move out of their homes into sukkah – meaning “booth” or “tabernacle” – a temporary structure where they were to dwell for seven days and nights. A sukkah was to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It could be of any size, so long as it is large enough for one to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. The roof must be left loose, not tied down, and the covering must be thin enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade.
Let me interrupt this description of the booths to ask, doesn’t this make Judaism sound like the coolest religion ever, especially for eight year olds? Seriously, what child hasn’t begged to sleep out in the yard – to have a camp out, in a tent, all night long? And here, God commands it – for a whole week! How cool is that?
The gift of Sukkot is designed to remind the Israelites, and to encourage them to teach their children and grandchildren, the practice of thankfulness. They are called to remember and re-enact, physically, the truth that we are all always utterly dependent on God. The flimsiness of these dwellings is a reminder that it is not the bricks of our homes that provide us shelter, but rather the grace and goodwill of God.
This idea of leaving something substantial and dwelling in something less substantial is heightened in the New Testament. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we read that “the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth.” (Young’s Literal Translation). Our reading this morning from Colossians tells us that in Jesus, the completeness and fullness of God was pleased to dwell – to tabernacle – in the person of Jesus. Somehow, in the fragility of the human form, the essence of the Divine moved out of eternity and entered into time. Just as the Jews were to move out of their substantial homes and into a fragile structure with a leaky roof, so too did the Son of God leave the majesty of heaven and enter into our reality.
And, of course, in other sections of the bible we read that the church – you and I – is called the body of Christ. Given that, it’s not too much of a stretch to put it together like this:
God is the source of all that is, and God provides, guides, leads, protects, and sustains the creation.
The Israelites are commanded to remember this core truth about God, and to teach it to their children by cultivating a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving.
That remembering and teaching includes the practice of dwelling or tabernacling.
God reminds us of that truth by coming to dwell, or tabernacle, with us in the person of Christ.
Christ sends the church to be his fragile, temporary dwelling in the world and commands us to model gratitude, share grace, and point to the generosity of God.
Because we, in fact, have been made for gratitude and thanksgiving.
Do you see how those lines are connected? It begins with God and ends with our thanksgiving.
How will we practice that kind of a lifestyle? How do we teach our children and this in our community the importance of being grateful and gracious? We can insist that they say “please” and “thank you”, of course. We can take part in meal time prayers. But I suspect that there needs to be more to it than that. The challenge that Dave will put before us all month long is to model a life of gratitude and thanksgiving for the way that God meets us in the midst of what we need.
It’s a little chilly to be camping out on the front lawn in Western PA right now, but what about adopting the simple practice of writing one thank-you note a day every day for the next four weeks? Some of you have participated in a social media exercise called “Thirty Days of Gratitude”, wherein each day you put up a post on Facebook or Instagram indicating that you are grateful for running water, or democracy, or toilet paper. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just not what we’re talking about this morning.
I’m suggesting that once a day for the next 28 days you write a personal note to someone else thanking that person for some way in which she or he has been a blessing to you. It needn’t be deep, but it should be personal. Write a note and tuck it inside your child’s lunchbox. Track down a former teacher. Think about the ways that someone at school or work has been helpful to you. Notice those things. And name them.
There are about 150 cards in baskets in the back of the sanctuary. They are there to help get you started. In fact, if you’re stumped, your first attempt could be to write a note to Pastor Dave saying “thanks for getting these cards for us to use this month…”
Each day, think about who you can thank. In your homes, or when you’re with friends, ask each other: “Did you write a note today? To whom? Why?” This will help us to develop a vocabulary of gratitude.
Thanksgiving is a great holiday, and we’ll get to it soon enough this month. But if thanksgiving is only one day that is marked by overindulgence and eagerness to get out the door for the Black Friday sales, well, then, we’ve done it wrong.
Can we remember that we were created to dwell in gratitude? Can we tabernacle in Thanksgiving? Can we, as a community, be a living, breathing sukkah – a reminder of God’s care and presence in the world? A fragile dwelling, connected to something more substantial, perhaps, that points to the truth that all that we have, all that we are, and all that we ever will be comes from God?
Let us be grateful. And let us practice in such a way that will allow us to cultivate that attribute in our children – to the end that the world may see the grace and glory of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.
I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones. I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous. This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of those sayings. The scriptures for September 3 included Luke 1:46-55 and selected verses from Psalm 40.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below. Please note that because I’m an idiot with all things technological, there are approximately 20 seconds of silence before the recording starts. Don’t get your hopes up, people. I actually do preach a whole sermon here…
I have a friend – a preaching colleague of mine, actually – who stood up in front of a huge crowd and told an amazingly powerful story. He shared a narrative that was filled with emotion and drama, and was a perfect illustration for the scriptural point he was trying to make. It had its intended effect, and at the end of his message, people were crying, signing up for profound commitments, and more. It was a great story.
We were chatting afterward, and his son – who had been mentioned in the story – cleared his throat and said, “Um, dad? That story you ended with? Can I say something?”
“Of course!” was his father’s quick reply.
“Well, it was a good story, only… well, it didn’t happen that way.” And the son went on to recount the incident as he remembered it. When he was finished, his father looked at him and said, “Hmph. So, it didn’t happen the way I said it did, huh?” His son shook his head. The father paused for a moment and said. “Hmph. Well, it should have.”
I’m sure that all of you have forgotten things that have happened. How many of us remember things that didn’t happen? Who knows something that isn’t true?
I have a question for you, but I do not want you to raise your hands. It is a trick question. How many of you remember reading the Bible verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves?”
Now, how many of you know someone who believes that phrase is found in the Bible? Everyone needs to raise your hands now, because a recent survey indicated that an astounding 82% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
And you might smile to yourself and say, “Well, of course, if we’re talking about all Americans here. Real believers know better. And you’re right. Only 81% of people who identify themselves as “born again Christians” think that’s a verse from the Bible.
Four out of five people think that this phrase is scriptural! I’m here to tell you that you won’t find it in the Bible. If you look, you can find it in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Ben probably borrowed it from Aesop’s Fables, wherein we find something very similar.
But… but… it just sounds so true, doesn’t it? It sounds really Bible-ish. You might be looking at me and saying, “Seriously, Dave, I swear I read something like that in the Bible…”
And you’re close. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” That verse was used a couple of years ago by a member of Congress who was looking to cut food stamp benefits to hungry families. The context in Thessalonians, however, is more complex. There were people in that community who were so convinced of the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world that they had stopped participating in the responsibilities of daily life. They quit their jobs, they stopped caring for their gardens, and more. After all, if Jesus is coming back on Tuesday, why bother going to work today? Let’s just enjoy this moment!
In fact, the larger context of Paul’s letter is actually a rebuke to the people in Thessalonica to start acting more like Jesus would in terms of caring for each other and the world around them.
When someone says, “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s almost always from the perspective of one who is in a position of being able to help, but who chooses not to. You drive across the bridge and you see a panhandler. You turn on the news and are irritated by the fact that someone is using your tax dollars to pay for groceries or utilities. I find myself getting angry at those who are lazy, freeloading, good-for-nothings, and then I say, “After all, God helps those who help themselves…” It is a justification for me not to act, because in my refusal to help, I am being like God.
As such, then, “God helps those who help themselves” is a statement that is rooted in privilege. Think about all the aspects of your existence right now that are rooted in some sort of a privilege or advantage that you enjoy. Many of us are beneficiaries of what is called “white privilege”. Among other things, I can walk through a Family Dollar without being shadowed, or pull over with absolute confidence when I’m stopped by the police in any municipality in the USA. I enjoy “male” privilege, and I see this when I’m visiting in a hospital room and the Dr. speaks directly to me about the patient’s condition, rather than to the mother, wife, or daughter of the patient. I know that I am economically privileged, because if you told me this morning that the price of gasoline was going up a dollar a gallon because of hurricane Harvey, I’d still hop in the car and drive to visit my granddaughter this afternoon.
Can you read? Were you greeted by a friend today? Did you grow up in a community of faith? Did you wake up this morning in a residence that had both working electricity and running water? If any of those things are true, then you join me in having access to privileges that much, if not most, of the world can only dream about. If we start to think about those things as something we have “earned” or “deserved”, we run the risk of becoming blind to the many gifts that we have received.
Can we please realize how rooted in privilege the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is? It’s ludicrous.
Who looks at those people in Texas, hanging onto rooftops, seeking shelter anywhere they can find it, and shrugs, “Well, that stinks. They better get crack-a-lackin, because, you know, God helps those who help themselves…”?
Who walks past a woman using a walker at the Giant Eagle who is struggling to reach that can on the top shelf and thinks, “Well, if you just tried a little harder, lady…”?
Journalist George Monbiot points out the fallacy of this line of thinking by saying simply, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
When we say “God helps those who help themselves”, it sounds much like a disavowal of the other. “You – you’re in a jam? Hey, help yourself. Get a job. Be more like me.” That kind of language is insulating, divisive, and cancerous.
I’m suggesting that we redeem some of that same language, but we do so that it might be an invitation rather than a dismissal.
Every person in this room has been, I hope, in a situation where there is some bounty – a feast, a garden, a craft table, a clothes closet – where the opportunity is extended: “Do you see this? Help yourself! This is for you. Take what you need, or want, or can use…”
Do you see what I mean? They are the same words – but instead of help yourself coming across as a selfish statement of isolation or derision, it conveys an invitation to participate in a deeper, more generous relationship.
When we say “help yourself” in this way, we are in fact behaving more like God. The scriptures all point to the glorious truth that God, in fact, helps those who cannot help themselves.
The Psalmist testifies that he was in a pit, lower than low, when God reached out to help. It was slippery, and every single place he tried to find a foothold, he wound up sinking deeper and deeper… And then, by the grace of God, he found a place to stand! He gives witness to the truth that we are poor and needy, and God is the deliverer.
When Mary discovers the identity of the Christ child within her, her spirit soars as she belts out the song we have come to call “The Magnificat”. “God lifts up the humble! God fills the hungry with good things!”
Every page of the Bible is filled with the affirmation that God does what God can do, but does not have to do. We learn over and over that it is in God’s nature to be giving, forgiving, filling, satisfying, and empowering to those who find themselves to be in need, or distress, or marginalized. The theological term for this attribute and behavior of God is “grace”.
Grace is God’s decision to meet us where we are and help us to get to where we need to be, or could be, or should be. In grace, God sets God’s self before us and says, “Help yourself. Dive in. This is who I am…”
And if that is true, then by implication we are called to be people who consider the generosity and graciousness of God in our lives and seek to share that with others. And that means that there are strategies that we can employ in our own lives.
When you are in charge of the buffet, what do you do? Don’t you set out what you hope will be more than enough of everything? You might reserve some of the things that you absolutely need for yourself, but by and large, you want to make sure that you’re offering what is needed and appreciated, right? You don’t offer the things that are likely to embarrass you – the burnt edges, the moldy fruit, or the sour milk. You offer as much as you can as well as you can.
What if we sought to do that, not just when it’s our turn to host the thanksgiving meal, but every day? In some ways, that might turn our discipleship – and our lives – upside down.
For instance, in the area of personal finance, we often come to church thinking, “Well, what can I afford to donate today? What is the amount I should give? I don’t want to cramp my style or be racked with guilt. What is the least I can do and still feel good about myself?”
What if we approached our lives from the other end: what do I need in order to be me, and how can I make the rest of it available for God’s purposes? When I was a 17 year old high school student, I committed myself to doing my best to tithe any income I received. When we got married, I said, “Honey, the first 10% belongs to God…” And we did that. But then we figured out that, actually, all 100% belongs to God. And we didn’t need 90% to live on. So for many years now, Sharon and I have been privileged to make more than 10% of our income available for the Lord’s work.
It’s the same when we come to think about the time that we have. You have been given an amazing gift of a life… how are you spending it? Are you looking for ways to share yourself freely and deeply as you seek to grow in your ability to serve and be in relationship with others? Or are you bored and restless? You know, I’ve done a lot of funerals, and I’ve sat with a lot of folks who were dying. No one has ever said to me, “You know what, Dave? I wish I’d have had the chance to watch more pre-season football…” Nobody’s ever said, “You know, my house was spotless while those kids were growing up, and they were proud of that, you betcha…” But so often, those are the things that seem so important in the moment. How do you anticipate investing the hours you’ve been given today, this week, and this year? Can you do so in ways that bring life and hope and joy?
Last week, when I introduced this series of messages, I said that phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “God helps those who help themselves” are half-true, or true-ish.
The reality is that this phrase is anchored in something that is eternally true. It’s just that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is, perhaps like this sermon, simply too long.
That is true. It always has been, and always will be.
So this week, can we look at the world around us, and act like God? God helps, and so will we, to the extent that we are empowered and privileged to do so. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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 November 13, 2016 we considered the place of gratitude and thanksgiving as appropriate responses to a climate of fear. Our texts included I Samuel 23:1-12 (contained within the text of this message) as well as I Samuel 22:6-23 as well as II Corinthians 9:6-11.
In case you missed it, there was an election in the United States earlier this week. It was in all of the papers and some of the television networks even mentioned it.
I don’t know if you were glued to the returns or lost on Netflix on Tuesday evening, but I was fascinated by one thing. There were rows of desks full of people who were talking about what was happening, and then someone like George Stephanopoulos or Lester Holt would turn to a colleague and say, “Tell us about what’s happening in Wautaga County, North Carolina, Bill…”, or “Let’s take a quick look at Macomb County, Michigan.” And the analyst would throw a map of this obscure (to me, at any rate) county on the board and we’d be bombarded with information about how many left-handed, college-educated, men in that area played lawn tennis and changed their own oil. Well, maybe not exactly, but we’d hear demographics about these counties and we were told that these were “bellwether communities”. That is, these regions were supposed to be able to help the entire nation contextualize a larger question, or help us see how this particular group of “real Americans” address one of the issues of our day. The whole map seemed too daunting, but a glimpse into one of these towns helped us to process what was or wasn’t happening.
This morning, we’ll leave the election behind but I will invite you to visit another bellwether community. Let’s take a look at the citadel of Keilah, a small fortress in the lowlands of Judah. This community was on the fringes of the nation of Israel, at the base of the mountains that led upward to Jerusalem.
David and his men – about six hundred of them – are pretty well-occupied with fleeing King Saul. The murderous and troubled monarch has just finished wiping out all the priests (and indeed the entire town) in Nob, and he is hot for David’s blood. David and his army, along with the one surviving priest, Abiathar, are holed up in the wilderness. All of a sudden, they get a distress call. Listen for the Word of the Lord in I Samuel:
When David was told, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors”
This is bad news. These are Israelites – children of God – who are being attacked by the Philistines, or “sea people”. This is a particularly vicious attack because they are targeting the threshing floors. That means the Philistines are not only bringing violence to the city, they are stealing the food that the community will need from now until the next harvest. This is already a problem, and if help doesn’t come soon, it’ll be a disaster.
David’s response is interesting. Remember, he has a priest with him now, and so he makes use of that resource:
… he inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?”
The Lord answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.”
In previous stories about David, we’ve heard of his faith in God and his trust in God to protect him; now we overhear this conversation which reveals David to be a man who is totally at ease with God and reliant on God for direction. And it’s pretty plain to David – God says, “go!”
But David’s men are not so sure:
But David’s men said to him, “Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!”
They’re incredulous. “You’ve gotta be kidding us, Boss! Saul’s already trying to kill us – and now you want to antagonize the Philistines, too?”
David returns to the Lord and is reassured:
Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, “Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand.” So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved the people of Keilah. (Now Abiathar son of Ahimelek had brought the ephod down with him when he fled to David at Keilah.)
This is good news on several fronts, isn’t it? David, even while he is running for his life from an irrational King Saul, does what real kings ought to do. He seeks the Lord; he puts himself on the line in service of those who are weak or vulnerable; and he defeats the enemy.
But that’s not to say that everything is honky-dory. Even though the Philistines are, at least for the moment, taken care of, Saul is still breathing murderous threats against David.
Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, “God has delivered him into my hands, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.”And Saul called up all his forces for battle, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men.
David and his men had been on the run in the wide-open desert. When they responded to the cry of the Keilahites, that placed them in a much more vulnerable, contained position. They are essentially sitting ducks in a small town that is surrounded by walls and gates. Once more, David turns to the Lord:
When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod.”David said, “Lord, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me.Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.”
And the Lord said, “He will.”
Yes, this is not necessarily good news for our hero. However, it gets worse in a hurry:
Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?”
And the Lord said, “They will.”
Even though David and his men had just come and saved their bacon (although I suppose that being Jewish, there wasn’t much actual bacon to be found), the Lord tells David that the inhabitants of Keilah will hand him over to Saul in a heartbeat.
Doesn’t that just take the frosting right off your flakes? Let that sink in a bit… David is minding his own business, trying to protect himself and his men in the desert. The town council sends out the Bat-signal and, at great risk to themselves, David and the boys show up in the nick of time and rescue the children, save the women, and preserve the harvest. The town is saved – yay!
And how does Keilah repay David? By throwing him under the bus…or the chariot…or the camel…or whatever. They’re preparing to turn him over to King Saul.
Fortunately, David is warned of this plan by God, and he gets out of town as quickly as he can and goes to hide in the wilderness near the town of Ziph. He’s not even unpacked there when the Council of that town sends a message to Saul that David and his men are there, ripe for the picking.
Seriously? Who does that? Obviously, people who are afraid. Saul, so far as anyone knows, is still the King. Saul runs the army. He’s the Commander in Chief. Saul could really hurt us – we don’t want to mess with Saul. I mean, don’t get me wrong – we really appreciate what David and the fellas did for us, but… let’s be real. We’ve got to think practically here.
The inhabitants of Keilah and Ziph probably feel at least some level of discomfort about what they’re doing to David, but the reality is that their fear of Saul was stronger than their gratitude to David. They had the opportunity here to choose their own story and to write themselves in their own narrative. What if they had said, “Yo, Saul… don’t bother. David is our guy. David saved us”?
We’ll never know, of course, because in this instance fear won the day. Fear and insecurity are powerful forces in our world.
So let me ask you: Is Keilah a bellwether? Is that little community an accurate predictor of what is or should be? Do you think that fear is stronger than gratitude?
And don’t tell me you don’t know anything about this kind of fear. This has been a long week for everyone in the USA. Some of us were paralyzed prior to Tuesday night, and others afterwards. Change is on the horizon, and it appears to be a significant change. You can feel the anxiety in the air in lots of places. Tension is everywhere. Families are arguing, friendships are being challenged, allegiances are being tested, and everywhere we go, uncertainty seems to raise its head.
And in the midst of that, you got a letter from the church saying that it’s time for us to think about our giving for 2017.
How in the world are we supposed to think clearly about that right now? The markets are all volatile and economies are unsteady. Is now the time we want to talk about money in the church?
Well, now is the time I’d like to talk with you about what kind of people you would like to be; or, to put it another way: now is the time for you to decide who you’re going to be – which story you will choose to write as you enter the next chapter of your life.
Keilah and Ziph had a choice: will we live into our fears, or will we respond to the anxiety in our lives with gratitude and hope?
As we turn the page toward Advent and Christmas and even 2017, which story will you choose? Will we allow fear and uncertainty to reign in us, or will we act like people who trust in the Lord of all creation, the maker of all that is, seen and unseen?
Things were pretty rocky when Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth and challenged them to be people of generosity in a time of famine. When the region around them was faced with uncertainty and lack of resources, he reminded them that kindness and encouragement and generosity are the things for which we are created. He invited them to live into a narrative that brought out those things in their character.
What’s going to happen?
I don’t know what happened to Keilah – the Bible doesn’t really say anything else about after David saved it and they thanked him by throwing him out. But David turned out all right, didn’t he?
I know that the Corinthians heeded Paul’s advice and the church of Jesus Christ went from being a loose affiliation of a couple of dozen scattered faith communities to being the visible expression of Christ around the world.
What’s going to happen in our homes? In our neighborhood and world in the year to come?
I don’t know the answer to any of that. I sure can’t control most of it.
But this is what I do know: on Tuesday evening I’ll be getting on a plane and flying to South America, where I’ll be preaching at the wedding of a young woman who was here for a year and changed for a lifetime because people in this community invested in her. While I’m in South America, I’ll be taking my granddaughter to visit a community of indigenous people in Chile so that she can learn something about appreciating a culture that is really different than the one in which she’s being raised.
On Christmas, I’ll be taking a group of amazing and courageous young adults to one of the hardest, most difficult places on the planet because they want to go there. They have sensed God’s call on their lives to grow in service and hope and love.
And sometime in between these trips, Sharon and I will fill out our “estimate of giving” card. I’m telling you now that in this time of uncertainty and fear, I’ll be doing my level best to write a larger number in there than I did last year.
In the year to come, I hope to learn how to be more generous with my time and resources and love. I want to give blood. To love my neighbors – the ones who are like me and the ones who are unlike me; the ones with whom I agree and the ones with whom I disagree. To look for birds. To pray for my country. To work to protect the environment. To treasure life – every life – all life.
In short, in 2017 I want to choose to be closer to God’s purposes of generosity and gratitude than I am now, and I’m going to use this little card as a tool to help me get there. I’m going to choose to enter into the story that has main characters named “Gratitude” and “Generosity”, and I will try to reject the ones named “Fear” and “Selfishness.”
I trust that I will not be alone. Thanks be to God, we are never alone. Amen.
For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On January 31, we considered the implications of Jesus’ assumption that his followers will engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, as rooted in the portion of that message contained in Matthew 6:19-24. The call to discipline was echoed in James 1:22-27.
You’ve seen it a million times. A man. A woman. They eye each other from across the room. Is something happening? Could there be a spark? Some excitement?
Hair is flipped. Legs or arms are folded or not. Eyebrows are raised, and heads tilted.
Laughter and … “Oh, hello, there, handsome…” “Who, me? Handsome, well, I don’t really know about that…”
Conversation. Innuendo. Risk. Suggestion.
Flirting. I’ve been working with adolescents for almost 40 years. I usually recognize it when I see it.
On the one hand, there is a certain helpfulness and utility to flirting. Somehow, in order for the species to survive, we need to establish interest in one another. The ability to “catch someone’s eye” is useful in determining whether there is a possibility of a real relationship with another person.
But when the flirt goes on too long, it can become counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Signals are mixed. It can lead to harm – emotional, spiritual, and physical.
But we all know people who are really good at it, don’t we? People who seem to enjoy using a system of signals and actions that are designed to confuse, or toy with, or manipulate others. In fact, the two top definitions of “flirt” in Google’s dictionary are:
behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.
experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.
Again, most of us have flirted in relationships at some time in the past. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are, relationally. But sooner or later, most of us stop flirting and dive in.
Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)
In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We are told of how he comes to adulthood in the shadow of his more prominent cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. He comes to engage his community and the world by launching a ministry of teaching and healing. In so doing, Jesus catches the world’s eye – and he caught the eye of those who would become his first followers. There’s a miracle over here, or a profound message over there, and the social media is buzzing… “Hey, check this guy out…”
And then we get to Matthew chapter five and begin to hear the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a definitive pronouncement that we are not called to be primarily those who flirt with either God or the world.
The Sermon contains, as we have heard, a description of living the Jesus way – as peacemakers, or those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, and so on. Living the Jesus way, apparently, means developing an awareness of the power that anger, lust, deceit, selfishness, or hatred can have in one’s life. The Sermon on the Mount, with its call to a life of integrity and intentionality, is not for the faint of heart. And I can picture Jesus eyeing his followers and saying, “Look, if you are here only because you liked the healings or the miracles, then you’d better keep walking, because the life of discipleship is intense. There is no room for flirting.”
Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)
And because the life to which Jesus calls his followers is so all-encompassing, he gives them three practices with which to engage their world and their Lord: generous giving, faithful prayer, and sincere fasting. These are behaviors, says Jesus, that will equip us to adopt this kind of lifestyle.
If we want to live lives that are reflective of God’s intentions for us as expressed in chapter 5, then we’ve got to be good at giving, praying, and fasting – because these are the disciplines that will mold us into faithful followers of Jesus.
We picked up this morning where we left off last week, in the middle of chapter 6. After giving his followers the mindset and behaviors that will allow us to live more like he does, he explores the danger of relying too much on what we have as we seek to define who we are. Material goods and money, he says, are to be used, rather than collected.
He takes an example from Middle Eastern culture. Judaism, Islam, and other traditions from that area all hold to some form of belief that if we look at the world around us or at each other with a malicious glare – what we might call today a “stink eye” – that we will wind up with harsh, judgmental, or miserly spirits. The opposite of an “evil eye” is the “simple eye” or the “single eye”, one that denotes an attitude of good will or kindness. If we have an eye that is trained in this fashion, Jesus says, we are more likely to be able to live by the light of God’s presence in the world.
Our reading for today concludes with the familiar passage in verse 24 about serving God and mammon. When Jesus uses this word, he was apparently using a word that, in his time, simply referred to money, although in the years after his death and resurrection, mammon came to represent a personification of the evil and idolatrous aspects of materialism and greed that seek to control us. Key to any understanding of this teaching of Jesus is his use of the word “serve”, as in the phrase, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” In choosing this vocabulary, Jesus is presuming the captivity of the human heart and spirit. Each of us will fall in line behind and serve something or someone. That is not in question. The question is, what will it be? Ourselves? Our own beaty or wisdom or fear or riches or worry? Our insecurities? Or God? We all live for something or someone, and we are all willing to direct our energies toward that thing or person. The question is not “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?”
If we allow ourselves to think that being a disciple is a part time hobby, then we miss the boat. God created us for, and expects from us, singularity of purpose and faithfulness.
In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to adopt patterns of behavior that will transform us into the kinds of people that God intends us to be. That exortation is echoed in the letter from James, who reminds us that it’s not enough to simply hear the Word, we’ve got to internalize it and practice it. The way that we exercise our ability to choose to serve God rather than mammon or some other idol is to engage in behaviors like giving, prayer, and fasting.
I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with someone who is unable to worship here, but who faithfully reads the sermons online each week. He said to me, “Dave, I think you had a good, strong message about fasting last week, but to be honest, I wish you would have gone a little harder. You didn’t leave me wanting to fast. I’m not sure it sounded all that attractive.”
Listen: I don’t really want you to be a person who just loves fasting, or is proud of the fact that you prayed an extra thirty seconds yesterday, or that you bought the homeless guy a sandwich. I mean, those are good things – but they’re not the point. The point is that I want you to be a person who is like Jesus. Fasting and praying and giving are all merely exercises that allow us to get to be that way – they are not ends in themselves. I am happy to teach you more about doing any of those things – but not because they are somehow super attractive to us.
I get piles of advertising material for youth and children’s curriculum and retreat centers and special events. I wish I had a nickel for every time I read the words “awesome” or “dynamic” or “intense” or “thrilling” in the context of advertisement for church youth events. I hate it.
Maybe you should come to the CHUP youth group some time. Those words are not always the fairest way to describe what we do or how we do it. Sometimes, youth group is boring. Sometimes, we play games that bomb. Often, we sing songs that are corny. There are lots of nights where youth group isn’t “awesome” or “thrilling”.
Even if you’ve never been to the CHUP youth group, you probably believe me when I say that, because, well, lots of you have been bored to tears in this very room. You’ve been irritated by other people’s children and frustrated at having to endure songs that you didn’t get to select. And don’t even get me started on how hard these pews are, how cold it is in February or how hot it is in July.
And yet, here you are. Why?
Because none of that is why you are here. As a kid, when your mom dies or your parents divorce or a classmate overdoses, you’re not looking for “awesome” or “intense” when you come to youth group. And when the rest of you get a call about your plant shutting down or have high hopes for your kids that are dashed or get that horrible call from the doctor’s office or have to come up with a framework to think about racism or ethnic violence, well, the songs that we sing here or the noise that those kids make suddenly look a lot less important than the destination of faithful living to which we are traveling together.
You know this: we are not here to be entertained (and that’s a good thing for you, Carver!).
We are here because we think that this is the best place to be molded, reminded, nagged, prompted, prodded, or encouraged into following Jesus a little longer or a little better.
And you know this: that sometimes following Jesus can look a lot like a slow, boring advance in righteousness.
And that’s OK.
Jesus is not here to flirt with us, and he doesn’t have much time for people who are merely looking to be coy with him. Jesus came in order to give all of himself for all of creation in the expectation that we would do the same for him, for each other, and for our neighbor.
We praise God for the times that the life of discipleship is “awesome”!
More importantly, we praise God for the process of discipleship that equips us to do hard things, to grow fruit in each season, and to hear and act on what we have heard. May our lives this week be an opportunity to exercise our faith in the hopes that we look and act a little more like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.