Does This Happen Often?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s what we know to be true:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Report from South Sudan

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.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

The pendulum has indeed swung!  A week ago, I was in the midst of frantically helping a group of 13 young pilgrims debrief our very intense and active visit to our friends in the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian’s Synod of Blantyre. In a way, it was an extrovert’s dream – meeting in groups, talking about big ideas, engaging in one-on-one sidebars, and always taking in new experience!  When I waved goodbye to the young people, I set my sights on preparing for an official visit to our partners in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, on which I would be joined by three Malawian colleagues.  That, too, was an adventure in rich conversation and dreaming about possibilities for ministry in a variety of groups and contexts.  Earlier this week, however, I escorted those brothers to the airport here in Juba and am now settling in for the last phase of my African pilgrimage: traveling in South Sudan and Ethiopia by myself (although within a well-defined and well-equipped web of friends, guides, and mentors).  Before I fully enter that place, however, I’d like to share a bit about the visit in Juba in the hopes that those who are invested in one of these churches or our partnership might be encouraged and challenged.

Our little team arrived at the Juba airport on Saturday morning, and we were enthusiastically greeted by a team of pastors and elders from the SSPEC.  After making sure we’d taken care of all the legal formalities, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we would stay, not at the ECS Episcopal Guest House that had been “home base” on my previous visits, but rather the Aron Hotel. This gracious gesture by our hosts gave us the opportunity to maintain contact with friends at home via wifi and have a great deal of privacy as well as space for meeting as a team.

Rev. Philip welcoming our team at Juba Airport.

Saturday evening’s agenda included a much-longer-than-anticipated gathering with most of the SSPEC Executive Council at the SSPEC Headquarters in Juba.  This was very helpful for our team, as I am the only member of the visiting delegation to have been in South Sudan before.  My friend Abuna  (pastor) Madut gave a brief introduction to the history of the SSPEC.  Most of these Christians have roots in Sudan (“the north”), particularly around Khartoum.  One of the outcomes of the decisive and historic referendum that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s youngest nation in 2011 was that these men and thousands upon thousands of others were forced to leave their homes, their ministries, and their positions in the north and take up residence in South Sudan.  It was a mass migration to a place that in many ways (infrastructure and development) was not equipped to handle it.  They left well-built churches and schools and homes to come to a place that didn’t have much of that at all.  As Madut said, “We came empty-handed, but God has provided.”

Circle time with the “elders” of the SSPEC and the CCAP (and one old guy from the PCUSA to boot!).

Elder Daniel added, “When we were in the north, life and faith – it was too easy for us.  Here, we are challenged. I think it is better.”  Abuna James Par Tap, the Moderator of SSPEC, summed it up this way: “We are here. We are OK.  We are doing fine.”

Our conversation that evening covered many things, from updates on Trauma Healing Workshops being conducted in several places to a sense of cooperation with their sister denomination the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan to the idea of leadership training through the Nile Theological College.  These leaders talked to us about the church’s attempts to buy land in various areas throughout the south, so that when the peace is finally realized, they will be in a position to take root and grow.

My Malawian colleagues were very engaged in this discussion, and enthusiastic participants (if you know me at all, you can presume that I, too, was engaged and probably talked more than I should have.  You should just assume that about me in most places…).  Blantyre Synod Moderator Masauko Mbolembole brought up the fact that for some time, there has been discussion about twinning congregations in the CCAP and SSPEC.  He pushed that conversation hard, and pledged that such would happen in the next few months.  This was welcome news, and the South Sudanese were really excited about the prospect of having a church partner on the same continent.  Billy Gama, Convenor for the Partnership Steering Committee, reminded the group of the idea of seconding an SSPEC pastor to Blantyre Synod for a period of 6 months – 1 year.  Again, that was met by nods of assent and affirmation.  As we discussed these and other issues further, Elder Thomas of the SSPEC said, “There’s a new school here.  The PCUSA and the CCAP are older, better developed churches, but SSPEC is coming along.  Let us learn together: how can we benefit each other?  We are a mixture of large, poor congregations and small wealthy ones in both the USA and in Africa.  How do we grow? How do we encourage and include the women and the youth?”  Again, there were deep affirmations of this quest.  As the night fell and we ran out of time, Abuna Madut (while holding a copy of The Writings of Immanuel Kant) said, “It comes back to, as it always does, the question of philosophy.  Here in Africa, we have a philosophy that is called Ubuntu.  When we unite, we succeed.  We are a tripartite partnership.  Surely God is behind this.”  As he said this, I remembered an African proverb that says, “A person is a person through other people.”

Madut and Thomas

It was just about too dark to see when our conversation finally broke up. We didn’t finish, but we had to stop.

Sunday morning was dedicated to sharing congregational life in varied contexts.  The Malawian team was each sent to a congregation in Juba that has expressed a desire to partner with churches in Blantyre.  I was honored to accept an invitation to preach at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp #1 (you can see photos from that and in fact hear my sermon by looking at the previous post on this blog).  Worship was followed, in most cases, by meeting with the leadership councils of those congregations and exploring possibilities for partnership.

Sunday evening was a festive occasion as members from several congregations around Juba hosted us for a dinner on the banks of the Nile.  While the seasonal rains drove us indoors, they only dampened our clothes and not our spirits.  We were privileged to be joined by my good friend the Rev. Michael Weller, a PCUSA Mission Co-Worker who is serving in Ethiopia but who has come to Juba to teach an intensive course at the Nile Theological College.  In addition, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Ross, a pastor and professor who has spent a great deal of time in Malawi but is here to join Weller for the course at NTC, was on hand to enjoy this time.  Great food was enjoyed, deep laughter was experienced, and, of course, gifts were exchanged and speeches were made!

Just a few tourists visiting the Nile…

Lydia (Philip’s wife) presents me with a memorable keepsake necklace while Pastor Deng uses an unorthodox photographic technique!

Michael Weller

 

A welcome from Mama Achol!

Monday morning was similarly full: my Malawian brothers and I were accorded an audience with the Honorable Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the Minister of Health for South Sudan.  He told us some of the political history of the country and narrated his own involvement with the independence movement, working with John Garang in the decades leading up to independence. Our conversation was animated and political, and then he surprised us all by expressing a deep and lasting gratitude to the people of Malawi.  He said that in 2009, there were a total of 9 midwives to be identified in all of South Sudan.  Malawi, he said, was the first nation to accept South Sudanese midwives, nurses, anesthesiologists, and clinical officers for advanced training.  Now there are more than 9,000 midwives in this nation of approximately 12 million people.

At the Ministry of Health

We were also glad to visit the Juba campus of the Nile Theological College, where we were welcomed by their Principal, the Rev. Michael Obat.  Once more, the notion of intra-continental collaboration was discussed with great excitement.  Too often, the notion of acquiring an advanced degree is equated with study in Europe or North America – a costly endeavor that sometimes results in “brain drain” as many of the brightest and best students find it easier to remain in their adopted country than to return to their own.  I listened with joy and anticipation as the conversation explored ways in which institutions such as NTC, Zomba Theological College, the University of Blantyre Synod, and even places like the University of Juba or Chancellor College in Malawi might join together in providing education that is affordable and contextualized.

I was further privileged to return to NTC and sit with Rev. Michael for a couple of hours this morning.  We talked about Presbyterian Polity and contextualized worship and theology and dealing with prickly issues in congregations and growing partnerships that are sincere and affirming and characterized by mutuality.  It is my deep prayer that fruit will come from these conversations and the ones that I hope will follow.

Dr. Lanjesi along with Rev. Obat at NTC.

The library at the Juba Campus of NTC.

With that, the “formal” time in South Sudan ended, and I was free to hole up in an apartment being graciously lent to me by PCUSA Mission Co-Workers Lynn and Sharon Kandel, to walk to dinner adventures with Michael and Kenneth, to join those brothers in prayer and sharing, and to reflect on what has been and what is to come. I have discovered that while the news from South Sudan is often discouraging, life in Juba is vibrant and growing.  In fact, I texted my wife that the part of the city in which I’m located reminds me of Cairo – it is loud, noisy, fast, dusty, and busy, busy, busy.  There is much to be done, for sure, and we must continue to join our hearts and minds in prayers for peace – but I can also tell you that this is a different city than the one I visited in 2015.  This time, and indeed this life, is a great gift.  Thanks be to God!

One of the great joys of these few days is a bit of concentrated time with Michael Weller and Ken Ross. While I’ve just met Ken, Michael has been a dear friend of the heart for some years. It is a privilege to be here with him now (“here” being the guest dining room at the Nile Theological College, aka the veranda, aka the front entryway aka the shadiest spot around!).

The Case of the Unauthorized Exorcist

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 October 21, we followed Jesus and his disciples into a small home in Capernaum where they learned an important lesson. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:33-41. We also heard from Numbers 11:26-30.

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

If you’ve ever done any work with children at all, the scene will be familiar to you. Everyone is in a certain place (say, Fellowship Hall), and then you need to group to move to the next place (say, the Sanctuary).  You stand by the door and say, “All right, let’s get ready to go.  Everyone who is in my group, line up over here.”  And where does every single child want to be? At the front of the line!  Everyone wants to be first, right?  And how do they solve this? Usually there is some shouting, some pushing, and some pouting.

Jesus and his followers have been spending some time in the far north of Israel, near the community of Caesarea Philippi.  Today, though, we read that they are on the move – headed south through the Galilee.  You know this: when Jesus and his followers went from one place to another, how did they move?  They sure didn’t Uber or take a bus!  They walked. And when they walked, it was impossible for them to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. The narrow paths and steep terrain wouldn’t permit it.  So what do they do? They line up, and they follow.

They finally get to the place where they’re staying for the night and Jesus asks a question.  Now, if that question sounded familiar to you, congratulations, because the same exact question came before us the last time we opened Mark’s Gospel.  For the second time in two days, Jesus looks at his followers and is forced to ask, “What were you arguing about?”

I wonder, Church, if we’ve given him any cause to ask us anything different in 2018?  I mean, he’s just given them some amazing (and difficult) teaching.  They could have been talking about what it meant when Jesus had spoken about the fact that the Son of Man was destined to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die.  But that’s not what they were talking about. They could have been reflecting on the teaching he’d given them when he healed the boy with the seizures, wherein Jesus had emphasized the importance of prayer and other spiritual practices.

But that’s not what they were arguing about, is it, Church?  And my first question for you all today is simply this: Has the quality of church arguments improved in the last 2000 years, or would we we just as likely to sit in embarrassed silence if he were to ask US what we’ve been spending so much time and energy on lately?

When no one can answer him, Mark tells us that Jesus sat down.  I will tell you that is not the sign of a weary man looking to take a load off his feet.  When an ancient Rabbi sat down in the presence of his disciples, it was a sign that he was ready to begin a formal teaching session. Jesus sat down in such a way as to communicate, “All right, boys, listen up.  This is going to be important.”

“Suffer the Children” (detail), Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

And it was.  He addresses the core of their behavior on the road, and he does so bluntly.  “Do you want to be first? Do you want to be great? Here’s the trick: become a servant. If you want to be first – get in the last place.”  And in order to emphasize his point, he calls a child into the circle, takes that child into his arms, and says, “the true mark of discipleship is how you treat someone like this – anonymous, weak, ‘inconsequential’ in the world’s eyes.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian man who, after experiencing some of the horrors of World War II, served with distinction in the Royal Navy.  He was unsettled, though, and left the military to pursue a career in academia.  He earned a PhD in Philosophy and wrote books on the importance of Aristotle and ethics. However, he became disenchanted with the life of a scholar and happened upon a community of severely disabled adults – and in this group he found his true vocation.  He formed an intentional community, called “L’Arche”, in France, where he dedicated his life to serving and learning from these who have been most marginalized. He writes,

[These men] do not have a consciousness of power. Because of this perhaps their capacity for love is more immediate, lively and developed than that of other men. They cannot be men of ambition and action in society and so develop a capacity for friendship rather than for efficiency. They are indeed weak and easily influenced, because they confidently give themselves to others; they are simple certainly, but often with a very attractive simplicity. Their first reaction is often one of welcome and not of rejection or criticism. Full of trust, they commit themselves deeply. Who amongst us has not been moved when met by the warm welcome of our boys and girls, by their smiles, their confidence and their outstretched arms. Free from the bonds of conventional society, and of ambition, they are free, not with the ambitious freedom of reason, but with an interior freedom, that of friendship. Who has not been struck by the rightness of their judgments upon the goodness or evil of men, by their profound intuition on certain human truths, by the truth and simplicity of their nature which seeks not so much to appear to be, as to be.[1]

I think that Vanier was paying attention to Jesus, even if the disciples were not.  Look in particular at verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Do you see that? Four times in a single sentence wherein Jesus is seeking to communicate the essence of discipleship he uses the word “welcome”.  Do you think that he understood that to be an important hallmark of the community that would follow him?

How well did the disciples hear the voice of their master?  We don’t have to wait long to find out: as soon as Jesus finishes the sentence in which he uses the word “welcome” four straight times, John – who is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – the one who, if Jesus had a best friend, it was probably him – John can’t wait to say, “Oooh oooh oooh – hey Jesus, we saw a guy who was using your name but not doing everything the way we do, and so we made him stop!”

You just have to know that if Jesus ever did a face-palm, it was here.  “Seriously, John? All this conversation about welcoming and hospitality and humility, and the best thing that you can think to say at this very moment is this? Great googly-moogly.”

It’s telling to see what John said.  He had to shut the guy down, he said.  Why? “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”  Not, “he wasn’t following you, Jesus…” Nope.  Those guys who were arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are still worried about it now, even after Jesus told them of the call to welcome and receive.

This situation echoes the one to which we referred in our Old Testament reading: there, Moses had felt the burden of leadership, and the Lord had told him to gather some of the elders who would join in the ministry with him.  They were all to go to a certain spot and the Lord would pour out His spirit upon them. So far, so good.  But then, lo and behold, a couple of the fellows who were not there wound up getting touched by the Spirit as well!  Good news, right?  Not to young Joshua, Moses’ assistant.  Just as the disciples of Jesus tried to hush the man who wasn’t with the Lord, so Joshua attempted to prevent these men from exercising the gifts they’d received from God. In both cases, the response is the same: “Why in the world would you want to silence the Spirit of God just because it’s coming from a place that surprises you?”

Beloved, I think that there is a word from God for us here today.  The call to be a disciple is a call to share, to adapt, and to grow.

Let me tell you a part of my own story.  For a long time, I prided myself on a certain point of my theology. I knew what I believed and why I believed it. I could throw six or eight Bible passages at anyone who questioned me.  I was devout, I was orthodox, I was, well, right. I spoke out about my own beliefs, and I wrote about them.

There was another person who had a different take on this issue.  She sought to befriend me.  At first, I was wary.  Why would she want to talk? “Don’t waste your breath trying to win me over to your side,” I told her.  “I’m not interested in being converted.”  She told me that was the farthest thing from her mind – she told me that she wanted to know how my spirit was touched by this thing.  We met occasionally for coffee and conversation.

Not long after that, she was brought before a church court on charges relating to her position on this issue.  I was called to serve as a “judge” at the trial that followed.  Throughout the affair, she was never less than gracious or hospitable.  I thought she was wrong – but she was never smug or accusatory.

I saw her once in the airport.  When I greeted her, she mentioned that her husband was seriously ill.  I asked if I could pray for him, and if we could pray there in the airport.  At that moment, I realized that we were not merely two sides of an argument – we were two children of God seeking to make our way in a universe that is seemingly opposed to the intentions of God far too often.  She received my offer to pray as it was intended, and our friendship grew.

We still don’t agree on everything. But I know that because God limited my ability to see her only as “the other”, the mistaken, the wrong… I was able to grow and adapt in my own walk of faith. My ideas have changed.  I have grown – in my intellect, in my faith, in my spirit.

I believe that the call of Jesus, echoed by Moses, is to resist any pattern that would have the church define itself by the ideas we are against, the people we want to keep out, or the things that we hate.  Let us refuse the temptation – so common in America’s political and cultural climate in 2018 – to “other” someone else.  Whether we call it tribalism or white supremacy or Islamophobia or racism or ethnocentrism – any practice that perpetuates or even encourages us to draw stark lines between “us” and “them” can only lead to more entrenched marginalization and the fracturing of the human family.  Instead, let us, as followers of Jesus Christ, commit ourselves to welcoming and even embracing those for whom Christ has died.

Edwin Markham was an American poet who was active around the turn of the last century.  He captures the heart of this part of the gospel call in his whimsical little piece called “Outwitted”.

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in![2]

Beloved, let us never, ever, give into the temptation to add to those things that divide us.  Instead, let us seek to create and contribute to a culture of tolerance, embrace, and hospitality to the end that all people might be touched by the Spirit and love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[3]Jean Vanier, Eruption to Hope(1971)

[2]“Outwitted”, by Edwin Markham in The Shoes of Happiness And Other Poems (1913).

Glory!

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 September 30 we stepped away from the liturgical calendar and explored the wonder of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Our gospel reading was from Mark 9:2-13. 

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

Well, it’s official – this is “wedding season”.  Maybe you’ve gone to one or two already this fall.  If it seems like more and more people are getting married at this time of year, you’re right.  Nine of the top ten wedding dates in 2018 are in September or October (yesterday was #4, by the way).  If I was a part of your wedding, you’ll know that I have a standard fee for conducting the ceremony: I ask for a photo of the three of us for the “wall of fame” in my study.

Wedding pictures.  What a tradition.  You may have been in some, and I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch.  There are some pretty outlandish ones being taken these days…

As I contemplate the photos of so many of you that line my study, I ask myself, “Why do we take so many pictures at our weddings?”  Surely the reason can’t be simply to remember the fact that we got married.  There are a hundred reminders of that every day.  In addition, have you ever met someone who had forgotten that they got married?  I don’t think that’s the purpose.  There has to be more to it than simply remembering the event.  Why do we get ourselves all gussied up and stand in front of the cameras for a very long time on what are often incredibly hot days, smiling as if we are as cool as cucumbers who aren’t worried about whether the DJ will pronounce the names correctly or how we’re going to feed 239 of our best friends?

Here’s my theory: I think we stand up there and take the photos because we want to somehow “mark” the day. We want to remember that it is a special day.  But not just the day – we want to acknowledge our hopes and our dreams.  We want to remember, when the dishes are piling up in the sink and the kids are screaming and the power goes out and the snow needs to be shoveled and the dog messed the carpet (again!) that when we started this adventure, we had some incredibly high hopes and we were surrounded by some amazing people – friends and relatives who had gone to great expense and trouble just to be there with us and for us on this incredible day. I think we take photos at these formal times so that we can remember not only how we looked, but all that we have hoped and dreamed.

The Transfiguration of The Christ, Earl Mott (contemporary)

I think that’s why Peter tries to get the Lord to allow him to set up some tents on the mountain. You know, there are a lot of reasons to love Peter in the scripture, but today’s reading is one of my favorites.  Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to come with him for an incredible experience, and Peter is overawed.  I love the fact that just after recording Peter’s request to set up a few tents, the author of Mark says, “He did not know what to say…” It’s a clear acknowledgement that sometimes, Peter just can’t help himself. He knows he’s out of his league, but he just can’t shut up.  I know how he feels…

He just wants it to last a little longer.  Clearly, neither Jesus, nor Moses, nor Elijah needs any kind of extra shelter…but Peter just wants to stay there.  “It’s so good – to be in the presence of the Lord, and to see these figures from the past, representing the Law and the Prophets – WOW!  Don’t let it end, Jesus!  I know that sooner or later you’re going to start talking about dying again, and we’re going to have to leave…but let’s not rush, huh?”

You can’t blame him.  Peter is awash in the light; basking in the heavenly voice, overwhelmed by the moment. After all, he and the other disciples have just witnessed a Christophany; that is, a physical manifestation or revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Only six days prior to this, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ.  Here, the Divine voice, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, confirms what Peter has named.  He sees the light; he loves the light; and he wants to stay there.  You can’t blame him for that.

But unfortunately for Peter, the moment does not last, and the vision fades, and it’s just them and Jesus, coming down the mountain.  As they do so, Jesus tells them what he’s told just about everyone else in the past nine chapters of this Gospel: “Don’t say anything about this.” We’ve heard this talk of the “messianic secret” before, and it appears to be the Lord’s way of saying to Peter and to the rest of us – “Look, I know you are in love with the idea of me being the Messiah, but you don’t really get it yet.  And whatever you do, don’t try to tell this story until you know how it ends. When you really ‘get it’, you’ll be able to tell it well.  But for now, mum’s the word.”  What is interesting to me at this point is that this is the final time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells people to keep his identity a secret.  He is entering an increasingly public phase of his ministry and preparing for his death.  There are to be no more secrets in the days ahead.

Messiah’s Entry Into Jerusalem, Siegmund Forst (1965)

As they come down the mountain, the disciples raise questions about the role of Elijah.  Most of the rabbis at that time taught that when the Messiah finally came, he would be unmistakable in part because God would send Elijah to earth to announce the Messiah’s coming.  According to these teachers, one day Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, weeping at the desolation he saw.  Then in a voice that would be heard from one end of the earth to the other, he would cry out “Peace comes to the world!”  On the second day, he would cry out to all creation, “Good comes to the world!” And on the third day he would cry “Yshua (salvation) comes to the world!”  And then Elijah would come and make things right so that the Messiah would come into a kingdom that has been properly prepared.[1]

Now remember that the twelve had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and now here they see Elijah – and so they ask Jesus, is it going to be like that?  And Jesus says, “No – not exactly.  Elijah has already come” – a reference to the role of John the Baptist in announcing the ministry and work of Jesus.  Jesus continues by saying, essentially, “You know, they didn’t get John’s ministry, they sure as shooting won’t understand me.” The world and the culture were limited in what they believed and could understand about God – and anyone who imposed those limits on John and on Jesus was unable to see God’s working in John’s and in Jesus’ lives.

Jesus, though, uses this event – we call it “the transfiguration” to teach his followers to remove that kind of limitation.  Peter, James, and John had literally “seen the light”.  They were different for having been in that place, even if they couldn’t fully realize it. Jesus allowed them to see him, and themselves, and each other in a different light – and they never, ever forgot it.

The Transfiguration, Sieger Köder

Have you “seen the light”?  What I mean is, have you ever been made acutely aware of who you are, where you are, and what that means?

Try this. Please, folks, don’t say anything out loud here.  But think with me…

Think of a time when you were made aware of your own sinfulness.  A time when you saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were not who you wanted to be, or thought you were, or wanted someone else to believe that you were – a time when you were broken by this kind of awareness.

It may be been the day that you realized you were addicted.

Or the day that you took credit for work that was not yours, and were caught in it.

Perhaps it was when you were caught having an affair, or the shame you felt when you raised your hand to your child.  It may be, for someone in this room, an awareness of shame that has come upon you in light of the national conversation regarding the #metoo movement.

Look, I don’t know exactly when it was for most of you, but I’m betting that I don’t have to convince you that you’ve had days where you realized that you’ve blown it.  Do you remember that day?  That pain? That shame?

As odd as it may sound, that was the light of Christ shining in your life. It illuminated a part of your world that had been dark, revealing a truth that you’d been hiding from others and perhaps yourself for a long time.

Stay in that pain for a moment.

Now, I want you to remember a time when you experienced great grace.  A sense of your life being something that you did not deserve – a gift that came to you and you knew it was not the result of your own charm, wittiness, or rakish good looks.

Maybe it was the time he told you he loved you, or the birth of a child or grandchild.

It could be that time she stuck with you after you both knew you’d screwed up.

Maybe it was the day you heard about an amazing scholarship, or saw that relative who had written you off for dead, or somehow felt accepted in spite of your brokenness.

Can you remember a day like that?

That, too is light – coming from outside of you and revealing truth by illuminating the reality of your heart.  You have seen the light – no less than the apostles did on the mount of transfiguration.  I know you have.

This passage records the church’s commemoration of the time when Jesus’ face was set ablaze by the presence of the holy on top of the mountain. It reminds disciples – then and now – of how Moses’ face was radiant following his conversations with the Lord.

Our witnesses to this event did not produce that light.  They did not invent it or manufacture it or manipulate it. They simply stayed in it.  They allowed it to change them.  The light shone on them, and they stood in the light.

If I’m right about your best day and your worst day, you know something about standing in the light, too.  So let me ask you, what happens when you stand in the light? Can you be changed?

What I really want to know is this:  what if you were able to live in the deep awareness of the light of God penetrating your life – both your deepest sin and greatest brokenness andyour ultimate joy and amazement at the undeserved grace that God has put in your life?  What if you walked around every day convinced that you were terribly flawed, a great sinner in need of a great saving while at the same time you were absolutely sure that you were receiving some unmerited favor, some great gift that you did not deserve but clearly enjoy?

What if you had the self-awareness every day to say, and to believe, that “I am a great sinner whose life has been marked by grave misjudgments and boneheaded mistakes.  And I am also a child of God whose life is filled with blessing that does not originate in me, and whose sin and mistakes cannot define.”

If you or I had the presence of mind to live like that, well, we’d be living like the transfiguration wasn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.

Listen: if you are sure that you’ve been broken by sin, then how in the world will you judge your neighbor?  What makes you any better than that person you’re ready to throw under the bus?  We both know the answer to that question.

Again: if you are convinced that God’s grace has been brought into your life, and that you are aware of the power of God’s life, light, and peace – how will you hold that in, and think it only applies to you?

Oh, that the church might be full of those who are so grateful for what they’ve received that they are sold out for others!  That we might be so defined by gratitude and so overwhelmed by the grace that we’ve received that we have no option but to extend that graciousness, that hospitality, to others.

My prayer for this day is that God will reveal to each of us who we are, and where we are. That we will claim that identity and dwell in it.  And that the love of God might flow freely in and through us in ways that allow our neighbors to see the grace and forgiveness of Christ, whom we love and serve by loving and serving those amongst whom he has placed us. Thanks be to God for the light that has not stopped shining!  Amen.

[1] Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Mark(Westminster, 1956), p. 218.

 

The Life Of The Party

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

Practicing Gratitude

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.

My Neighbor is a Sinner

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 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the 
media player below

OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.