It’s the Only Way

It’s an odd Easter, to be sure!  Instead of cramming into church with our friends and family, we are scattered on sofas and at tables on laptops, phones, and television screens.  The format of our observance may have changed, but the core message has not.  With that in mind, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually to share the good news as is found in Jeremiah 31 and John 20:1-18.

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

Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog.

Have you heard about The Carnegie Club?  I don’t mean the ritzy nightclub in New York City, where a $40 cover charge and two drink minimum guarantees you the chance to smoke cigars and listen to folks sing covers of old Frank Sinatra tunes.

No, I’m talking about The Carnegie Club that is based at Skibo castle in Dornoch Scotland.  It’s one of the most exclusive venues in the world, founded, as one might suspect, by Andrew Carnegie – one of the richest people in the history of people.  Here, members can truly retreat and relax as they play golf, go horseback riding through the Scottish moors, shoot skeet, and learn falconry.  All this can be had for a one-time joining fee of $35,000 and membership dues that are currently approximately $11,000 per year.

Maybe you’d like something a little more urban and sophisticated.  If that’s the case, let me recommend the 1930’s Club in Milan, Italy.  This exclusive watering hole has no phone, no published address, and the only way in is through a secret door in a rather humdrum bar on the first floor.  If you make it through that entry, you’ll be greeted by a doorman who will want to see your membership card, which contains features that are only visible under ultraviolet light.  For high-end networking and outrageous cocktails, the 1930’s Club is the place to be.

And maybe you don’t care about that.  Maybe you’re thinking about how to get into the college that is best for you; maybe in this time of social distancing you’re just thinking about that sign at Kennywood that tells you that anyone can ride the Swing Shot as long as they are 48” tall.

Do you know that feeling of wanting to belong?  I think that all of us, deep down, want to know that we’re “in”.  That we’ve got what it takes, somehow, to get through the process and into the club – whatever the club might be.  We long to know that we are special enough to belong.

If that idea of membership and exclusivity resonates with you, well, I’m afraid that you might not like this sermon very much.

I think I’m not stretching it when I say that for many of us, being human means that we want to earn our way, to deserve special treatment, or to achieve some level of recognition.  We see that as a hallmark of some of the world’s great religions.  There’s a tradition within Judaism that the world itself exists because there are 36 Lamed Vavniks – individuals who are themselves so righteous and holy that they ensure the survival of the planet.  There is the Hindu notion of samsara, which is a way of describing reincarnation, where a soul is born and reborn into the mortal world a number of times, each time achieving growth and new levels of maturity in its own karma.  And, of course, there are certain branches of Christianity that seem to indicate that while anyone can get into heaven, there’s a special class of people who have been, somehow, superior believers.  Most of the rest of us buy into this hierarchical notion when we say things like, “Well, I mean, I’m no saint, but for crying out loud, Karen, even I know better than to be like him…”

All of these exclusive clubs and hierarchical religious notions are problematic for a number of reasons, but particularly more so today, as we celebrate Easter Sunday.  I don’t have to tell you what Easter is – it’s the high holy day of the Christian faith.  It’s our “super bowl” – or, most years, anyway.  It is the festival of the resurrection of our Lord.

And here’s the thing about resurrection – there is only one simple requirement.  There’s not a lot of mystery here – if you’re gonna have a resurrection, there is one thing that you can’t do without: death.  If you want to participate in a resurrection, you’ve got to be dead. There are simply no exceptions to that rule.

And we hate that.

We hate that because a) I don’t particularly want to die, and b) everybody dies – what’s so special about that?

It’s pretty plain and simple, as much as we don’t like it.  “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus.  He invites us to follow him, learn from him, grow with him while we can; he calls us to love and serve our neighbors and to give what we can (as we discussed on Thursday night), but at the end of the day, to really get in on the biggest deal of all, we’ve got to die.  Not even Jesus can work a resurrection with somebody who isn’t dead.

And fundamentally, Christians teach that this is why Jesus came.  He came to bring hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless.  To fundamentally initiate what he called “The Kingdom”.  A whole new manner of existence.

And because most of us don’t like contemplating death very long – our own or those of our beloved – we think about other reasons that Jesus might have come.  Maybe Jesus came so that you would clean up your act a little bit.  Maybe Jesus wants you to try a little harder at school or drink a little less or do something about that mess in your room.  Maybe Jesus came to reform the reformable or to rearrange the furniture of your life or to shore up something that has been in bad shape (like the sound system on these livestream broadcasts in recent weeks).

Theologian Robert Capon points out that we say those things, not because they’re true (because they are not), but because they are a little more acceptable to us than acknowledging that the fundamental work of Jesus was to “proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem.”[1]

The historical record is pretty clear.  Being called “The People of God” hasn’t ever done anybody much good.  Jeremiah was called to proclaim the Word of the Lord to a people who had already been defeated in war and carried off into exile and slavery.  Most of the book that bears his name is filled with news that is heavy and dispiriting, to say the least.

Except for these four brief chapters in the middle of Jeremiah.  They are called “the book of hope” by some, and that only goes to show you that hope is a relative thing.  In our reading for today, he tells them that the folks who survived the sword (yay) will find grace.  Wow, that is good news.  What a relief!

Except, the prophet continues, the relief will come in the wilderness.

What? You’ve got to be kidding, Jeremiah!  Who wants to go to the wilderness?  Everybody knows that the wilderness is the place of desolation, disease, and death.  The city is where it’s at – the wilderness is a chaotic, random place…

And then the prophet goes on to point out that Israel’s ability to survive as a people is rooted in – not the people’s ability to be better tomorrow than they were today, not the people’s spunk and stick-to-it-iveness, not the people’s ability to progress as moral and ethical creatures… their ability to survive rests solely on the basis of the Divine promise.  God looks at God’s people and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  The perseverance and commitment is not human in origin, but heavenly.  God’s faithfulness to the creation is noted and then there are five times where the word “shall” appears in connection with new birth and new life and new hope.

This new birth and new life and new hope comes to the People of God not when they are in Jerusalem or even in Babylon, but when they are sent into the depths of the isolating wilderness and desolation.

And I’m here to tell you that it only gets worse with Jesus.  Jesus does not make it easy for people to follow him.  I have to tell you that many people whom I love dearly and respect greatly have left the Christian faith.  They read the gospel and they just can’t figure how it works out.

I don’t blame them.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the things that we are here to proclaim as the central events of human history this morning – have made no apparent difference in the way that this world is running.  My friends want to know where God was when the COVID-19 virus mutated.  Couldn’t God have stopped that?, they say.  Where is God in the refugee camps, the carnage, the oppression, the inhumanity?  And, at the end of the day, I’m still dying.  We all get sick, and we all die.

Again, listen to Robert Capon:

It is not an easy Gospel to proclaim: it looks for all the world as if we are not only trying to sell a pig in a poke, but an invisible pig at that. The temptation, of course, is by hook or by crook to produce a visible pig for the world’s inspection to prove that trust in Jesus heals the sick, spares the endangered, fattens the wallet, or finds the lost keys.  But it does not. And it does not because the work of Jesus is not a transaction – not a repair job on the world as it is now, but an invitation of the world as it now is into the death out of which it rises only in him.[2]

On Thursday night I told you that the current state of the world invites us to imagine a new way of being Christian. That’s all we have, beloved – our imagination.  We don’t know what is coming, and we don’t always know how to make sense out of what is – we can only carry on in wild, reckless hope that Jesus is who he said he was and who his best friends found him to be.

Mary Magdalene in the Garden, Sieger Koder

I can’t prove this idea of resurrection to you.  We have some great songs about it, and there are a lot of folks more eloquent than I who’ve spoken about it over the last two thousand years.  But at the end of the day – and, frankly, at the end of our lives – we’re simply going to have to step forward in imagination and trust.  The idea that the God who has been with me every step of my way in this world has promised to be with me in richer, deeper, more complete ways in the next – well, that’s an image I want to get in on.

For some of you, these are frightening times.  For many of us, they are at best irritating, if not alarming.  Where do I get off proclaiming that Jesus is risen and, in the words of the old hymn, “the strife is o’er, the battle done”?

All I can say, beloved, is that if we walk together, I promise you that we will see some signs of hope, some glimpses of Divine love, some evidence of Holy intent, some places where the Splendor of heaven breaks into this sphere.

It’s not a club, my friends. It’s a story. It is the best story I know.  And at the end of the day, we all have to choose a story by which to live – and in which we’ll die.

I choose Jesus.

More to the point, I am grateful that Jesus has chosen me. I believe that Jesus has chosen each of us.  His is the only story that makes any sense to me.  And so if you’ll come, too, we can move forward one day at a time in trust and hope.  There’s no annual fee.  There’s no membership requirement.  Trust him.  Thanks be to God, there’s nothing else to do.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 175-176.

[2] The Parables of Judgment, pp. 179-180.

Below is the entire worship service from Easter Sunday. https://youtu.be/G7ukXYxNF8c

A Bigger Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M: Good.  Let them in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi, Abraham Bloemaert (1624)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, “It’s my turn! I’m going first!”

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

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

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

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

The Road to Emmaus, He Qi (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the mystery of our faith, beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Numbers 20:14-21

[2] Deuteronomy 23:3

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

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

Wearing the Uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.