Which Story Will You Choose?

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 wautagathis 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.

005-david-saul-caveDavid 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.

Well, Hey, There… Handsome…

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.

 

FlirtYou’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)

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)

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.

 

The Secret Giver

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 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably almsgiving, as found in Matthew 6:1-4.   As we celebrated Epiphany in worship that day, we also considered the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.

BatmanTVseriesMy first foray into cultural or political activism came at the tender age of 8, when I wrote a letter to those mean people at ABC who had cancelled my favorite television series, Batman. My little brother and I savored each episode that had an odd mixture of campy humor, kitschy fight scenes, and not-so-subtle moral lessons about the importance of wearing seatbelts or drinking milk.

When Batman aired, there were two episodes a week. On Wednesday nights, the dynamic duo would be left in a very difficult situation, and on Thursdays, they’d find a way out of it (or at least they did until those knuckleheads at ABC did what the Joker and the Riddler couldn’t do – they stopped Batman…). One of the devices that the series used was a dramatic narrator who would intone phrases such as, “Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor”. There had been an interruption in the story, and now we were returning to the scene where we’d had some action previously.

SermonOnTheMountSo meanwhile, before Advent interrupted us, we were working our way through the most important ethical teaching in the history of words, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You may recall that Matthew 5 starts with the Beatitudes, which we considered to be the “ground rules” for life in the Christian community. The pronouncement of blessing upon the meek, the mourners, and the pure in heart is not an attempt to convince anyone to live that way – it’s simply a description of the kinds of fruit that faithful living produces.

From there we moved on to an examination of the Law and its demands in daily life. Perhaps you’ll recall the series of passages that all began by saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” As we looked at those, we noted that Jesus calls his followers to a “higher righteousness”. In Greek, the word is perisson – the “something more” that is expected of those who bear the mark of the Christ on our lives. And chapter 5 ends with Jesus’ command to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, a call to live lives of integrity and completeness – to follow Jesus wholeheartedly in every area of life.

Today we return, not to stately Wayne Manor, but to the Sermon on the Mount, and begin our reading of chapter six as we listen to Jesus’ description of what faithful living looks like in the religious arena. In particular, he holds up the spiritual practices of giving alms to the poor, prayer, and fasting. In what ways does this perisson – the “something more” affect the way that we engage in religious practice?

Jesus starts this section of the sermon by warning his followers to “beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…”, and that sounds reasonable enough until we remember that less than one page ago, Jesus said, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to stand up tall and proud as we follow you? Or be secretive about it? Both. There’s not really a contradiction here – Jesus is simply warning us about different sins. There are some places where we are tempted to fear and cowardice as we follow the Lord, and in those instances, Jesus would have us follow him with courage and confidence, not worrying about what others might think of us. In other places, though, we are seduced by our own pride and vanity. In that case, Jesus says, remember that we follow him because it is right, and not because we want people to think how holy we are. John Stott suggests a good rule of thumb: when it comes to practicing our faith, we ought to display our faith when we are tempted by cowardice and hide our actions when we are convinced that everyone should know exactly what we’re doing.[1] In any and every case, the reason that we act is so that people can see God at work – not us.

As Jesus discusses the spiritual practices of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting, he uses a very important four-letter word. In Greek, it is otan. In English we say “when”. Followers of Jesus do not have the burden of deciding “if” or “whether” we are givers, prayers, or fasters. When you give, do it like this.

It’s important for us to hear that little word and to consider its importance. Too many times I have been in situations where someone – maybe me, maybe another person – has said, “Wow, I wish I could help, but I just can’t right now.” And surely there are times and places where we can’t help more, or in that place, too. But I am here to tell you that I have tried to walk in Jesus’ footsteps for more than four decades, and in all that time and in all the places I have been, I have never seen anyone who was so poor that they could not give something. I’ve seen people give money, and lots of it. I’ve seen people give eggs and bananas and chickens. I’ve seen people give time and energy and respect. The life of the disciple is one of giving and sharing, of offering and receiving. Jesus does not prescribe what his followers will give, but he surely assumes that they are givers.

In the next sentence, he returns to the theme of secrecy. When we give, he says, we are to be so attentive to both the needs that are in front of us as well as the God who calls us to join him in giving that we don’t bother telling the left hand what the right hand is doing. I would say that it’s important to plan our giving and to know what we have available and where and when is best to share it – but that we do so without a trace of self-consciousness or self-centeredness. Just as he warned against giving to impress other people, such as the hypocrites were doing, here Jesus cautions us against being overly impressed with ourselves or our own religious observances.

And when we get it right, Jesus says – when we are a people who give with humility and passion, with freedom and joy, focused on the Giver of all good gifts and those who can benefit from what has been entrusted to us – then we are rewarded.

As we read verse 4: “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you”, let me speak deliberately against the heresy known as “the prosperity gospel”. A whole lot of preachers have made big piles of money by telling their people that God’s intentions for us include material wealth, and the best and surest way to fatten up the old bank account is to send a “love offering” their way. In this line of thought, God sees the so-called righteous act of giving to the Lord’s work and God rewards that act with a monetary windfall.

One advocate of this theology was preaching in a crowded church. It was well known that this man was worth millions of dollars, and he had the suits and the cars to prove it. He stood before the congregation and he thundered, “I didn’t always have it this good, brothers and sisters. There was a time when I was down on my luck. In fact, I was down to a single $10 bill when I went to church, and I heard the Lord ask me for everything. I didn’t know where I was going to get my next meal, but I knew then that I had to give my all to Jesus. So when the ushers came around with the plate, I did it. I gave it all to the Lord, and I trusted him for tomorrow. That day, I put all the money I had into the offering plate, and look where that has brought me today!”

The church was quiet for a few moments until an elderly woman in the second row piped up: “Amen, brother. Go ahead now. I dare you to do it again!”

The “prosperity gospel” is a lie. I am here to tell you that God does reward those who give, but rarely financially. The reward of which Jesus speaks here is the sense of joy and satisfaction that one receives when one who has ached because of a need is privileged to see that need addressed.

IMG_6851Most of my friends have seen this photo before. If I get hit by a truck this afternoon, you can tell anyone that this is the single greatest photo I’ve ever taken in my life – because it documents the kind of reward of which Jesus speaks here in Matthew 6. Our friends in Malawi had faced an incredible famine, and we were in a position to help. People around Pittsburgh and across the country rallied, in large part behind this congregation, and I was privileged to be a part of the “launch” of a campaign wherein hungry families would receive monthly allotments of food until their gardens came in. This young mother has just received the food that will keep her and her child alive, and now she is walking back to her home to celebrate God’s provision.

Although we had spoken briefly, she is not looking at me – because I do not matter to her. She had a profound need. Through people like you, God addressed that need. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, watching and celebrating how God’s people are privileged to share in the love of God. As she became smaller and smaller in my sight, walking towards her home, I wept that God should include me in that great gift.

In a few moments we will celebrate our Epiphany Communion. We will remember the day when some un-named strangers showed up in the home of a poor family and showered them with gifts. When that baby had grown to be a man, his friends understood that the gifts that he received that day merely pointed to the supreme love that lay behind the Gift that he himself was – the Word becoming flesh and living among us. May we join the Magi in being people who are eager to share what we’ve received in ways that bring blessing to those around us, and may all our gifts point, not to ourselves, but to the one from whom we’ve received everything. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Intervarsity, 1978) p. 127.

I Wish You’d Have Been Here (Malawi Update #11)

I wish you could have been here today. It was wonder-filled.

I wish you had been here at Grace Bandawe Conference Center as the group of visitors from Pittsburgh and South Sudan streamed in through the late morning and early afternoon. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the team had been disbursed individually to a variety of homes and partner churches within the Synod of Blantyre. Some were in the big urban center of Blantyre or Limbe. Others went to smaller towns like Balaka, and still others found themselves in pretty remote areas. For five days, the team visited hospitals or prisons or schools, led worship, preached (for the first time in some cases), administered the sacraments, went on hikes, had long talks with host families, spent quiet afternoons “resting”, ate a lot of chicken, and who knows what else… and today, we reunited. If you’d have been here, you’d have heard the chatter and concern in their voices as they told stories and listened well to each other. I think you would have liked seeing that.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

I wish you would’ve been with us when we were able to tour the studios at Blantyre Synod Radio, and to see the progress that’s been made in only two short years. It was particularly gladdening to my heart to see Gregg Hartung of Presbyterian Media Mission pass along some episodes of his award-winning radio program “Passages”. Gregg was a real encourager to the team from Blantyre Synod several years ago when they first shared the idea of a radio station with us.

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years...

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years…

But mostly, I wish you’d have been here for the “Farewell Banquet” this evening. This event, held in the largest room at Grace Bandawe, offered at least 175 people the chance to enjoy the opportunity to reflect together on journeys in mission and ministry. I say “journeys” because while the focus of the evening was clearly on the 2015 team, there were echoes of many previous visits that are still bearing fruit in the lives of those who have been given the gift of travel.

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Had you been here this evening, you’d have heard things like this:

“I’m taking home much more than I brought with me from South Sudan. I came as a stranger and I was really welcomed and I became one of them, and was really at home. I have learned a lot.”

“Do you remember me? I came to America in 1994 and that really opened my eyes to the world. I have never been the same since then.”

“I wanted to introduce myself to you, Pastor. My wife came on the trip to USA in 2014, and I feel like I already know Pittsburgh because of how excited she was to be there and to learn at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. I already know you, from her; now I want you to know me.”

The Michiru Youth Choir.

The Michiru Youth Choir.

You’d have heard more, of course, including the amazingly outstanding fantastic and splendid Michiru Youth Choir. They sang everything from Siya Hamba to the Hallelujah Chorus to contemporary African choruses and so much else. Oh, how the sound echoed from those plaster walls! You’d have heard laughter – a lot of it – coming from my table where my friend Moyenda Kanjerwa and I got caught up. The clinking of cutlery and the popping of bottles of Cocopina and Cherry Plum…

A relationship is formalized.

A relationship is formalized.

You’d have seen Pastor John Hamilton and Pastor Joseph Maganga sign a covenant of partnership between the Bethany and Chiradzulu congregations. You’d have seen Malawian leaders try to hang on every word of our new partners from South Sudan, and offer ideas as to how to increase the impact of the trans-African nature of this partnership. You’d have seen people show up at the door ten minutes late and be disappointed because there was simply no room for them in this, the biggest room at Grace Bandawe.

I wish you’d have been here. Because I wrote this down and added a few photos, you know some of what happened. But you don’t really – you can’t, really – know what happened here. There was a resonance that was palpable and beautiful.

I wish you’d have been here.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners.  Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners. Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017.  Look and pray for great things!

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017. Look and pray for great things!

 

Water is Ready (Malawi 2015 #9)

Here in the rural districts in Malawi, the first words that are spoken to me in the morning are generally these: “Abusa? Water is ready.”

I remarked to my wife this morning how in so many ways that simple phrase sums up the gifts of the African partnership for me. You see, while “Water is ready” may be the first sentence spoken to me in the morning, it’s not the first thing that I hear. No, far from it.

Sometimes I am awakened by the call to prayer at a local mosque. More often, the first sound to reach my ears is a rooster’s crow. Fair enough, considering how many of his brethren I’ve put away this week (more on that below). But once I’m conscious, the sound that reaches my ears is that of wood being chopped and a fire being kindled right outside my window. Five minutes after the fire is started, I hear the weight of a heavy pot being placed on the fire as five gallons of water have been hefted from the borehole into our compound. Then I hear another pot, this one of cold water, being taken into the bathing room. Once the water on the fire has boiled, it is taken into the same room, which is essentially a four-foot square with a drain on the floor. There are the buckets of hot and cold water, and a third empty bucket in which to mix them to the optimum temperature. Lastly, there is a pitcher or small pot of some sort.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

Our hosts for this week are Pastor Johnson Damalekani and his wife, Charity.

And that’s when I hear the magic words: “Abusa? Water is ready.” Then I climb out from under the mosquito netting and enter the bathing room, where I am free to strip and splash myself with water that is exactly right. As I stand erect and dump the steaming pitcher on my head, I wonder, “Would I be that gracious?” Not only that, but know this, beloved: this ritual happens twice a day. It is not only the manner in which I rise, but it is the expectation that frames my bedtime as well. When I demurred and said, “Ah, no, at home I wash only once a day,” I was told, “Yes, Abusa, but you are in Africa now. It is hot. It is dusty. Please, do not make me feel bad for putting you to bed when you are dusty.”

I have learned so much in Africa in the past twenty years. For instance, I’ve discovered that I really like “Stoney” ginger beer. I’m pretty good at telling jokes to an African crowd. I can barter in the market and baptize babies in Chichewa and drive on the opposite side of the road. But the number one thing that I’ve learned is that I am not as graceful and as hospitable as Christ intends me to be. While I end each worship service at Crafton Heights by saying, “honor all people”, I am a real piker in that department when I compare myself to my African sisters and brothers.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I've driven.  Here, I'm behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni's pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

When I die, and you get around to putting together those photo collages, I hope that one of them will be of roads I’ve driven. Here, I’m behind the wheel of Menes Makuluni’s pick up truck, which he graciously lent us when the first two transport options for the day fell through.

Below are some images of the day. They are fine photos, I know. But a picture can’t capture the warmth with which a cold bottle of Fanta is offered, or the insistence with which I should take another cup of tea after a long worship service. The smiles you see here are two-dimensional, whereas I have been given the gift of being welcomed and honored. I am forever grateful to my African family for teaching me to greet each new face, each new day, each new challenge, each new situation, as an opportunity to show gratitude and honor and joy.

Maybe the reason I keep coming back is that I’m a slow learner. I know that most of the people who are reading this know me only in the USA, where I am prone to rush and criticize and push far more than is necessary. I hope that you will catch me improving in my ability to serve with honor and grace.

Chances are, I will never, ever be able to knock on your door and softly say, while gently rolling my ‘r’s, “Water is ready.” Yet I hope that somehow in my daily life, someone will say, “Hey, that Pastor Dave – he’s noticed how tired I am; he cares for me.”

If that ever happens, remember where I learned it – in worship and in worshipful presence right here, in the Warm Heart of Africa.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Sharon with the women of the Mpasuka Bible Study, from whom she received the gift of a chitenge fabric.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Some of the congregation at Naperi Prayer House welcome us, after having waited for two hours for our arrival.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

Gabe preaching up a storm on the importance of being a follower.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

The Saeya family hosted us for lunch today, and they were really interested in the photos I brought along to share.

Sharon posing with the Munyenye children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening.

Sharon posing with the Munyenyembe children, whom she taught to play UNO this evening after we shared a meal at their home.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

They apologized for the condition of their prayer house, and felt badly about the fact that they had unfinished brick, yet the people of the Khole Prayer house adorned the building with bougainvillea and wire decorations. It was just beautiful.

Malawi 2015 #5

The story of God’s people is one of being called and being sent. Of being invited in and offered welcome and of being charged to go out and follow where God leads. To ask which takes precedence is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Both are essential to the Christian life. To put it in reverse, one who seeks to be a Christian whilst inhabiting only either the call or the commissioning is attempting to do the impossible.

 

Paul puts it this way in writing to his friends in Rome:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Today was a day of investigating the calling and sending in many ways.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women's Guild.

The 3 new pastors are welcomed by the Women’s Guild.

We began by sharing in the celebration of the ordination of three young men to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a three-hour worship service at Mulanje CCAP. In the PC(USA), the Presbyteries typically choose to perform the function of ordinations by means of Administrative Commissions, wherein a token representation of the Presbytery at large comes to a particular congregation to celebrate with the individual who is being ordained. That choice results in an intensely personal and localized experience, which is at once exhilarating and perhaps a little limiting as well. In contrast, the Blantyre Synod ordains by gathering as many members as can come and inviting them to work together to call their new brothers or sisters to the next level of service and discipleship. So rather than a five or six member commission from Presbytery, there were at least 40 pastors in attendance today, plus elder representatives and women’s guild members from at least seven of the Presbyteries in the Synod.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry.  One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

Pastors are typically given bicycles like this as they begin their ministry. One fortunate fellow today was given a motorcycle with which to move through his parish.

 

I was given the honor of preaching at this momentous event, and other members of our team participated in various ways. The word was proclaimed, prayers were offered, and songs were sung in Chichewa, English, and Arabic. Amidst great pomp and not a little bit of ululation, we celebrated the great truth that God, through the Body of Christ, commissions certain persons to certain tasks.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend.  I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I've been on Malawian Broadcasting several times.  We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Our team has attracted a great deal of media attention in Malawi this weekend. I understand that in addition to a few newspaper articles, I’ve been on Malawian Broadcasting several times. We hope that this exposure is good for the Synod and the rural churches.

Following the worship, we were treated to a delicious lunch at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Inglis, each of whom has been to Pittsburgh and who were glad to open their home to our team along with an equal number of Malawian guests. Well-fed in both spirit and body, we then set out to follow the call to serve.

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

Gregg with Mr. and Mrs. Inglis as well as Holiness, a Partnership Committee member

 

One of the dramatic moments during today's revival meeting.

One of the dramatic moments during today’s revival meeting.

For the second day in a row, we visited the rather remote Gondwa Prayer House, where the Christians and their partners from St. James CCAP and the Synod had organized a religious revival meeting. This was a profoundly moving experience. We were privileged to hear two wonderful sermons preached by Malawian elders to a Malawian audience (they were translated for our benefit). Some of the songs featured dramatic activity, and the preachers themselves enacted some of what they proclaimed. By the end of the rally, a hundred or so adults and an equal number of children came forward for prayer and conversation with members of their own community about what it means to walk with the Lord day to day. As those neighbors engaged in conversation, other members of the community brought forward gifts of fruit and fabric for the members of our team. In this context, it ought to go without saying that there was singing. And dancing. A lot of both, in fact. Throughout the experience, there was an amazing spirit of joyfulness.

Sarah reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Sarajane reads the scripture to the crowd at the revival.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

Members of the SSPEC (South Sudan) delegation are leading the celebration.

And oh, the dancing...

And oh, the dancing…

 

As the sun was setting, we climbed back onto our coaster and sank heavily into the seats – it had been a long day. Paul wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news…” If you were to have asked us at that moment, as we contemplated our shoes and ankles covered with the red Malawian dust, I doubt that any of us would have declared our own feet to be “beautiful.” Yet somehow, in responding to the invitation to be sent into the world and to engage with God’s people in that way, we were surely given the opportunity to behold great beauty.

We returned to Blantyre well after dark, two hours behind schedule (surprise!). We were spent and weary, and as a friend of mine would say, we looked as if we’d been “rode hard and put away wet.”

But we were full, and ready for what tomorrow holds. Thanks be to God!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa?  Beauty indeed!

Did I mention that all of this happened in the shadow of Mt. Mulanje, the 3rd-highest peak in all of Africa? Beauty indeed!

First Things First

At our worship on the Day of Pentecost, the folks in Crafton Heights read two accounts of what happened during that celebration: in the original context, as recorded in Leviticus 23, and after the ascension of Jesus in Jerusalem, as described in  Acts 2

This is a photo of someone else hand-pollinating a passion fruit flower. It’s not my hand, nor my flower. Who would pollinate passion flowers? That’s just uncalled for…

This is a curious and wonderful season, in some respects, for me. If you’ve had the privilege to pass by the alley behind Cumberland St, or to see me from the next-door-neighbor’s yard, you’ll have seen me wandering from one paw paw tree to the next with a Q-tip and a small paintbrush, trying to pollenate the trees and bring forth fruit. Every day for the past week, I’ve come home and walked through the house into the back yard, looking to see if today is the day that the kiwi vines are blossoming, and whether this year is the year that the male plant will finally mature. I’m measuring the new peas that my granddaughter and I planted last month.

Every day I come home, I walk out of my house into a land of promise. There is no more fruit, there are no more vegetables there now than there were in December, but at least now I can imagine them. These are months of promise, anticipation, and imagination.

It occurs to me that this is, for me, a season of luxury and of bounty. Will I get cherries this year? Will the blueberries ripen? Great! If not, well, I’ll have to buy them. That will be a disappointment and an inconvenience.

subsistence_farmingMuch of the rest of the world knows nothing of that kind of luxury. We are now in what subsistence farmers around the world call “the hungry season”. The crops that we grew last year were taken in and stored and have gotten us through the winter. We took some of that precious harvest and planted it a few weeks ago, and now the pantry is getting a bit bare. We can see what is coming – the plants are beginning to appear – but nothing is ripe yet. We look at our diminishing reserves, and at the calendar, and at the weather forecast, and we wonder: will there be enough? Can we make it until the harvest is ready?

Again, most of the people in this room know nothing about that kind of lifestyle, but it is the rhythm of the seasons for billions of your neighbors around the world.

It is also the culture that was called to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, or, as it was called by the Jews, the Feast of Weeks. Seven weeks (or fifty days, hence the Greek name Pentecost) after the first barley was harvested, all able-bodied men were required to journey to Jerusalem and worship, bringing with them the first fruits that had appeared in their gardens. These fruits, having been converted to loaves of bread or quarts of olive oil, would be offered freely in worship, with joy and thanksgiving to God.

Think about that for a moment – about the chutzpah of a God who says that the first fruits are what is required to worship fully. Not “some fruit”. Not “whatever you’ve got in your wallet when it’s time for the offering.” But the first. The ones that I am looking for right now as I wander past and wonder whether my Q tip strategy will have worked on the paw paws, or if Lucia’s sweet peas will take hold.

What if those first fruits make it to the harvest, but then there’s a hailstorm that destroys the rest of the crop? What if it doesn’t rain at all in July, and the first fruits make it in in time, but the rest of them shrivel in the heat? I’m supposed to walk past my hungry family, to ignore the worries that my rapidly-emptying pantry brings to mind so that I can offer God that which comes first?

redcordImagine a farmer walking on his acre or two. He’s examining his crops, not with the idle curiosity of Pastor Dave checking out his odd assortment of fruit, but with the desperation of the hungry season upon him. He hears the whimpering of his children, and he sees the evidence of the first barley, or wheat, or grapes, or figs, or olives becoming ripe. And when that farmer sees the evidence of those first mature plants, he reaches into his pocket and he pulls out a red cord and he ties that cord around the earliest part of the harvest, indicating that this portion of the harvest belongs to God.

Weeks later, when it’s finally ripe, he’ll walk through the fields again and collect these first fruits, called bikkurim, into a special basket made of wicker and decorated with strands of color. And these first fruits would not be eaten by the family, but would be prepared and taken to worship.

Bikurim-or-Bikkurim-Basket-of-grapesIt’s a holy day, because it’s the day that we remember that God gets what is first because it is by God’s grace that we’ve made it this far. God gets what is first because that’s a way of demonstrating our trust in the fact that God will continue to provide, as God always has. It is a time of promise, of anticipation, and imagination.

It is no accident that the Holy Spirit came upon the people of God during the Feast of Weeks. Most folks believe that there were about 120 followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem that day, and that these individuals represented the first fruits of a new harvest – the beginning of something new that God was doing.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God had come to this creation and fundamentally changed the nature of our relationship with himself. As John’s gospel reads, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood”. He lived, he taught, he healed, he was crucified, and he died. He was “planted”, quite literally, in a borrowed tomb, around the time of the Passover celebration. And then, three days later, he burst forth from the ground as dramatically and as surely as little Lucia’s sweet peas have done. Jesus is, as Paul says, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (I Corinthians 15:20) The resurrected Jesus was the beginnings of what God intended.

I was unable to find the name of the artist responsible for this piece.  If you know who did it, I would love to credit appropriately.

I was unable to find the name of the artist responsible for this piece. If you know who did it, I would love to credit appropriately.

And then, seven weeks later, the rest of the harvest begins to emerge. The followers of this resurrected Jesus, gathered in a place that was familiar, but not really “home”, experience an inrushing of the Holy Spirit. The little band of Jesus-followers – not yet even called “Christians” – finds themselves equipped for new aspects of life and ministry. It is, indeed, a time of promise, of anticipation, and of imagination.

God chose to inhabit a very old celebration – the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem – in a very new expression of his will, his intention, his purposes for the world. He chose to do this as a demonstration that things like promise, anticipation, and imagination are not only in the past, and for those who came before us, but that promise, anticipation, and imagination are God’s modus operandi. God calls, God delivers, God saves; Christ comes, Christ teaches, Christ rises; the Holy Spirit explodes, the Holy Spirit equips, the Holy Spirit sends out. Again and again and again – in each generation, we can see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit moving in these ways.

Let me say those last two sentences again, because they sound pretty good from the pulpit: God calls, God delivers, God saves; Christ comes, Christ teaches, Christ rises; the Holy Spirit explodes, the Holy Spirit equips, the Holy Spirit sends out. Again and again and again – in each generation, we can see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit moving in these ways.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

But doesn’t that sound pretty distant to many of us?

Here’s the truth, beloved. Not many of us really have gardens. None of us in this room really depends on a garden to get us through the entire year. But every one of us knows something about “the hungry season”.

You who are teachers or students have come a long way from the idealism of your youth or even the dogged determination of October. Those things have been replaced by teaching to some sort of a standardized test that has to be taken on a certain day, and then watching video after video as you are counting the hours and waiting for the days to stop.

You who are in another profession may know the uncertainty of transition. There’s been a reorganization and you know that some positions will be lost. Will yours be among them?

You may have been caring for one who has suffered illness for far too long, you may see your SNAP benefits run out six days before the end of the month, you see the roof leaking and wonder how much they’re going to want to even take a look at it…

We are unfamiliar with the agrarian cycle in which so many around the world are living, but you know what it’s like to be stretched thin and to wonder, “will there be enough?” Will there be enough of me? Will there be enough for me?

You know the hungry season in your heart.

And yet, beloved…and yet…

Can you look for the tender shoots of new growth? Can you see some place in your life where silently, mysteriously, roots are taking hold and change is coming? I know, it probably doesn’t look like much right now. There’s no way that these little sprouts could really change much of anything, let alone be “enough”. But is there something happening?

Can you wander through the thin places in your life and see those tender shoots and gently, carefully, place a red cord around them? Can you see this new thing and say, “I’m not sure what, if anything is going to happen here, but this new thing – this is God’s. This first thing? It belongs to Jesus.”

Can you ask God to work something new in your life – and can you trust him to bring it to bear fruit? Can you ask God to act in you, and to act through you, in the hopes that your world and this world and our world will change as a result?

That kind of trust is not easy, you know. And that kind of growth is not without pain. In fact, 11 of the first 12 followers of Jesus did not die natural deaths. But every one of them would do it again in a second.

Can you give your first, your best, your tenderest, to God? Can you set aside a portion of your income, your time, your energy and ask God to use it in the service of promise, anticipation, and imagination?

Beloved, if you know me at all, you know that I have seen a lot of hungry seasons. I have seen them on African and South American farms; I have seen them in American nursing homes; I have seen them in troubled schools and bankrupt personal lives. And time and time again, I have seen God make a visitation in the midst of a hungry season. And most often, I have seen that visitation occur in the lives of those who are characterized by the attributes mentioned in Acts 2: those with glad and generous hearts. I have come to believe that living this way is, in fact, the only way to survive the hungry seasons of life.

First things first, people. We live in a world of promise, anticipation, and imagination. Let us respond with glad and generous hearts. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is, and his willingness to send a Pentecost to us, here and now, in this hungry season. Thanks be to God. Amen.