The Church of the Empty Pews

Like most of the rest of the country, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually for worship on March 22.  We had a skeleton crew inside the building (practicing good social distancing) and a vibrant connection with a community spread across three continents via Facebook live.  Our texts included Psalm 25:16-22 and John 9:1-17. 

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

To view the entire service as it was live-streamed on FaceBook, try clicking this link.  It is my understanding that one need not have FaceBook in order to view the recording.

Well, beloved, it has been a week, hasn’t it?  I am sure that you have experienced the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainties every bit as much as have I.  We watch the news, we talk to friends, we worry, we wonder, we wait and we watch.

“Stay home!”, we are told.  How fortunate we are, how blessed, to be living in this age of technology.  To think that we can comply with the mandate for “social distancing” and yet still somehow gather virtually in this fashion is, well, amazing.  And the device that you’re using right now – well, that is incredible.  To think – all of the wisdom of all of the ages; the great literature, the incomparable art, the profound knowledge that is available on this device – and yet we so often use it to post cat videos or share pictures of our food.

And we ask questions! If you have a social media account, you’ve seen people looking for recommendations to various dilemmas in their lives, or filling out quizzes as to which bands are the best, or wondering how many of the fifty states you’ve been to and how that compares with their lists.

We are questioners.  In fact, I saw recently that the average four-year-old asks a staggering 437 questions in a single day.  I suspect that some of you who are spending unexpected long stretches with the littles in your lives will back me up on this one.

Do you know who loved questions? Well, I am in church, and the answer is… Jesus.  One writer (who must’ve had time even before the age of social distancing kicked in) has indicated that Jesus asked 307 questions in the gospels.[1]  He was asked 163 questions.  Perhaps infuriatingly, for those in the room at any point, he often responded to a question with one of his own.  You know that!

The disciples ask, “where could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?” and Jesus replies, “how many loaves do you have?” (MT 15:32-34)

The jar of perfume was broken, and some present wondered, “why was this ointment wasted, when it could have been sold to benefit the poor?”  Jesus answered by asking, “Why are you bothering this woman?” (MT 26:6-10)

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (LK 4:38-40)

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)

The same writer says that Jesus only responded directly to a question with an answer a handful of times.  Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times. He’s asked a straightforward question: “Look at that blind fella, Jesus.  Who’s fault is it that he was born that way?  His? Or his folks’?”

And Jesus gives a direct answer: “Look, friends: the man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone sinning.  He was born so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”

After  announcing the works of God, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate them.  He reenacts the creation story from Genesis by taking the dust of the ground and using it to bring life and wholeness.  He brings new possibilities to this man, who has been marginalized for so long, and instructs him to rejoin, and to regain, his community. In his act of healing, Jesus opens a new pathway of wholeness and life for this man, his family, and the neighborhood.

The un-named man takes Jesus’ at his word and does just that – he re-engages with his family and his community… and then the questions really begin.  In the next ten verses, we find that the crowd asks at least three questions (“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”, “How were your eyes opened?”, and “Where is this man?”), while the religious leaders add “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” and “What do you have to say about him?”

Everybody in town wants to know something.  You see, everybody has a theory, or an idea.  Everyone has a point to prove, a judgment to pass, “fake news” to dispel.  Everybody is talking… except the guy we expect the questions from – Jesus.  He is finished talking.  He’s responded to his disciples; he’s healed the man, and he’s sent the man to be more fully himself.  For once, the questioner is silent.

Now, although I want to be a follower of Jesus, I would never attempt to put myself in the same category as Jesus.  I want to learn from him, and to grow.  And one of Jesus’ habits that I’ve picked up along the way – one which is, I know, deeply irritating to many of you – is asking questions.

Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was preparing to drive two high school students somewhere.  As they approached the car, one of them dove for the back seat, saying to her friend, “Look, you take shotgun.  I never know how to respond to all those questions Dave asks all the time.”

And it’s true.  I ask questions.  If you have a friend dealing with a traumatic illness, after we pray together, I might say, “I wonder – how does this sickness affect you?”.  A young woman lost the child she was carrying, and I asked, “how will life be different from what you had hoped?”  A student announced that he’d gotten into the college of his dreams, and I asked, “What will change about your life as a result of this?”  One of you came to me and talked about how difficult your life had been recently, and I asked, “Do you think you’d experience things otherwise if you drank less?”  I don’t always ask the right question, and I’m sure that not every question that I asks feels good… but I’m seeking to do so with sincere hopes that these questions will lead you more deeply into God’s best for yourself.

And so in that spirit, I want you to think about this.  We are in an age of pandemic.  You know people who have, or who will have, the COVID 19 virus.  You may have it right now and not even know.  How will that virus affect you?  How will it affect us?

And you can say – in all honesty and sincerity – “Geez, Pastor Dave, I don’t know.  We’ve never been here before.  This is all uncharted waters to us.”  And you’re right.  Most of us have not been here.  But the Church has.  We have gone through plagues and pestilence – while remaining ourselves.

And that is the question we need to discern, beloved.  How do we live into the calling to be the body of Christ – a very corporeal word – the BODY of Christ – at a time when corporate – bodily – gatherings are at least discouraged and probably downright dangerous?  I was speaking with a younger pastor earlier this week who said, “I don’t know, Dave… How are we gonna do this?  I mean, when people are hit by hard news – when tragedy strikes – we’re supposed to get together, aren’t we? We have special services and vigils and candles.  Are we supposed to do all this alone?”

Yes.

On the day I was ordained, I received a small calligraphy that has been on the wall of my study ever since.  In its most basic sense, it is my job description.  It is our job description.  Look:

Listen, beloved: none of that has changed.  I think that Jesus expects that we are doing those things.  The “what” has not changed… but the “how” must change, at least in the short run.  How do we do these things that we’ve always done when we can’t act the ways we’ve always acted?

Thomas Pettepiece was an Irish Methodist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his book Visions of a World Hungry he recounts his experience of an Easter Sunday that taught him that we can do what we have always been called to do even when we don’t think we have what we have always had.  Listen:

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion— without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [Another man] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.”[2]

We who have always had the benefit of being able to gather freely, and to share abundantly, and to hug warmly – we are crying out: “How can we do this?  How in the world are we supposed to give to the work of the Lord when there are not even any collection plates, and when we’re not sure what is happening with our jobs?  How can we notice who’s missing when none of us are supposed to be here?  How do we love when we can’t even see each other?”

Oh, beloved… let us ask God to unleash creativity in the church today.  Let us press to discover new ways of doing these eternal tasks.  Let us commit to intentional connectivity, to seeking windows of vulnerability, to read and reflect and pray as though those things really matter, and to give as generously as we can in ways that make a difference in the world today.

And above all else, dear people of God, I charge you this day to remember how deep and dark and cold and desperate these days feel.  I charge you to remember how scared you have been, or how desperately you have really wanted to know, or be, or do something other than that which has been open to you in the past few days.  I charge you to remember the depths of pain and loss that you see in your neighbors – the people you love – today.  Remember these things – and when it gets better, as it surely will, remember these things the next time you are tempted to scorn a refugee or scoff at someone who is running for their lives. Remember that in our neighborhood, many of us were fighting over toilet paper.  How will this experience affect us? I hope and pray that it makes us better human beings, more able to recognize and live into the Divine Image in which we are each created.

And in your remembering, dear ones, I charge you to live lightly this day.  To do all that you can to treat the earth well, and to seek to heal it, rather than to dominate it.  I charge you to deal gently and kindly with your neighbors – the ones you already love and those whom you’ve been instructed to love but you haven’t quite gotten there yet.  And I charge to you behave as though you expect that the presence and glory of God is revealed in the ways that you and I enact the love of Jesus in this world.

If we can live in those ways, dear ones… then we will become the church of the empty pews and the full hearts.  Thanks be to the God who has called us to be his own.  Amen.

After the sermon, I shared with the congregation a rendition of a song that has meant a great deal to me in trying times.  It is James Ward’s take on “Rock of Ages”, and if you’d like you can hear me sing it by using the media player below.

[1] Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That He Answered, Martin Copenhaver (Abingdon, 2014).

[2] From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas Pettepiece, quoted in A Guide to Prayer (Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 143-144.

The God Who Sees

Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”.  This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda.  In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal.  I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me.  My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar.  You can read more about that in Genesis 16.

While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.  

As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name.  Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called?  Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what.  For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”.  My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right.  For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me.  Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life.  You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.

Think about the names for God.  There are many in Hebrew:

  • El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

  • El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
  • YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
    God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
  • YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
  • Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power.  It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))

As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is?  How do you think of God?  What do you call God?

I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy.  You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away.  Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider.  She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship.  At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property.  Hagar is an outsider.  A slave. A marginalized person.  A victim of human trafficking and abuse.

Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai.  Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.

Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name.  In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”.  In 16:6, Abram does the same.  To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person.  She was a uterus.  And she became inconvenient.

Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away.  She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8).  Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord.  She is then asked two questions:

  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

“Hagar in the Wilderness” Rivkah M. Walton, Sculptor (2008)

Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”?  Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future.  She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying.  Maybe she even wants to die.  Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.

And so the Divine One answers the second question for her.  Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous!  How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain.  And how can Hagar manage to go back?

She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God.  Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself…  There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses).  She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother…  And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded.  Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard.  Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord.  Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram.  It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman.  She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi.  You are the God who sees.”

I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13.  There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase.  I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:

“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)

Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me.  Death has been a constant companion.  I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent.  There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away.  And it included a lot time alone.  I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time.  There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.

And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself.  I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me.  And it was OK.

Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self.  God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named.  God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace.  God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.

In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son.  She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.

Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come.  Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand.  We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.

Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.

I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day.  There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth.  Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

 

And Now for Something Completely Different

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.  This time has been divided roughly into thirds.  For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries).  I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries).  In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake Park  in Eastern Ohio.

As I write these lines, I am deeply aware of the privilege I enjoy in being “on Sabbatical”.  Most of my friends do not have the opportunity to simply step away from the day-to-day-ness of their work and family in order to wander and wonder in ways such as I have done.  I know some folks in academia who are given “sabbatical time”, but they are expected to produce something at the end of that: a book, a groundbreaking insight in their field study, or a fat grant for the university.  Clergy Sabbaticals, however, are different.  The purpose of these seasons (I last was granted one in 2010) is to intentionally step away from the practice and context of ministry for a specific amount of time.  There are several benefits for this to both the clergy and the worshiping community:

  • Such intentional disconnection is a great antidote to burnout
  • There is a great relief and release that comes from not having to “produce” something 24/7/365 – by design, I am not supposed to be coming up with sermon ideas, outreach programs, policy manuals, etc.
  • The congregation is forced to consider who they are going to be in the absence of a long-time pastor. Let’s face it – I have an inordinate influence on the day-to-day life of the community. For three months, someone else is picking the songs, preaching the Word, tending the sick, crafting the policies, and changing the light bulbs.

A Sabbatical, at least for me, is really different from a vacation. A vacation is a brief escape either from something difficult (“Wow, the pressure from this job is really building. I just need to get away!”) or to  something marvelous (“Who knew that there were so many birds in Costa Rica?”).  As most of you reading this will recognize, when one takes a vacation, it’s an interruption of normal tasks and duties for a brief span and then those are all re-engaged fairly quickly upon re-entry.

With a Sabbatical, though, it’s a more intentional setting aside of the daily practices, behaviors, and in my case, environment. I didn’t plant a garden this summer, because I’m not going to be home.  This week, I’m missing (like nobody’s business, I might add) the Youth Group Mission Trip.  I can’t  preach, lead Session meetings, or do Fall program planning.

And so instead, I wander. I wonder.  The first month of this Sabbatical was a wonderful healing time with my wife.  In the past three years or so, there have been some traumatic events in the community and in the lives of people about whom I care deeply.  When something horrible happens, I remember what a privilege it is to be a pastor… and yet, each time I enter into the grief of one I love, I battle enemies with names like “loss”, “depression”, “anger”, or “burn-out”.  Taking a few weeks and not worrying about what day it was or who would remember to let the gas company in or turn off the exhaust fan after worship was a wonderful way for Sharon and me to remember that before we said “yes” to either Carnegie Mellon or the Crafton Heights church, we said “I do” to each other.

“Home Sweet Home” for the next three weeks.

The view from the porch…

The time in Africa was strenuous in a number of ways, and yes, I did engage in a number of behaviors and practices that required a lot of concentration and energy and leadership. However, the nature of that work was such that it was virtually all done in a context that was new.  I was so busy in Malawi, South Sudan, and Ethiopia that I literally didn’t have time to worry about what was happening in Crafton Heights. I prayed for folks there every day, but I was forced by virtue of distance and geography to fully disengage from the ongoing ministry of that place.  Those who know me well will gladly point out that I can be a “hoverer”.   I’m involved. I’m always around, always “nudging”, tweaking, and inserting myself.  I simply couldn’t do that while in Africa, and that meant that while I was tired at the end of the days, I was not as exhausted from the level of emotional investment and involvement.

The final leg of this Sabbatical experience will be a huge shift again.  For most of these next three weeks, I’ll be alone in a small cabin in Eastern Ohio.  There’s a big lake, and I’ve got a dock for my boat.  I’ve brought a pile of books, a few crossword puzzles, some exercise equipment, and my binoculars.  My goal for August is to stretch and to grow and to improve my inner life so that when I am granted the privilege of re-engaging in my “normal” life, I’ll be able to do so from a posture of strength and health with plenty of reserve.

Because most of my days will look the same, and I won’t be running to catch flights in tiny airports or encountering amazing new natural wonders each day, these blog posts will be different.  I hope to share a few images of my life here, to be sure; but I also hope to share with you some of the ideas and content that will be shaping me.  There’s a separate “page” on this blog that is labeled “What I’m Reading”, and I try to update that once a month or so.  But I’ll be more intentional about offering reflections on a more accelerated reading schedule this month.  I suspect that will be of more interest to some of you than others, but that’s my life…

Today I’ll consider one of the most important books I have ever read.  It’s an incredibly slim volume (about 50 pages) entitled From Brokenness to Community.  The author, Jean Vanier, had been a Naval Officer in two countries (Canada and the UK), a Philosopher, and a University Professor. However in 1964 he invited two men with mental disabilities to move into his home with him in France.  From that humble beginning arose a network of communities known as L’Arche– or, “The Ark”.  He began a movement recognizing the power and dignity of the disabled, and developed an amazing theology of power and wholeness that is rooted in the understanding that some of the most precious human gifts are rooted in weakness and in welcoming the poorest and most vulnerable into our midst, it is we ourselves who are blessed.  From Brokenness to Community  (one of two books I had with me during my week in Ethiopia without luggage) is a transcript of two lectures that Vanier gave at Harvard University in November 1988.

There are a lot of sections of this brief work that are underlined, but this morning I’ll focus on just this: “…we believe that our knowledge and theology are important only so long as they are used to serve and honor the poor.”

That is who I want to be! I read this book on a plane flight from Rochester NY to Washington DC in the early 1990’s.  It was so long ago that this is what I did: I got off the plane and I found a pay phone  in the airport and I called the church where I was serving. I gave the secretary there the name and publisher of the book, and I asked her to try to find out how to order me 15 copies so I could share them with my friends.  Can you imagine? No cell phone, no Google, no Amazon… just words that seared themselves into my soul and changed my life.  If you want a copy, you can find it by clicking here. Or, if you want to go “old school”, send me an email or a text and I’ll send you a copy myself.  It is a deep and profound work, and I would commend it to your reading!

Of course, the other thing I need to say about the last month of Sabbatical is that this State Park was not chosen entirely at random!  It’s situated about halfway between our home in Pittsbugh and my daughter’s family in Ohio.  That means that from time to time, I’ll be able to entertain visitors from either Pittsburgh or Ohio.  Yesterday gave me the opportunity to re-connect with some pretty amazing and special people who I haven’t seen for a long, long time.  And it was good!

Ariel and Drew and Violet touring the lake…

Ice Cream is a staple, and, well, “sharing is caring!”

One of the best parts of being “Grampy” is having plenty of lap space. While Violet was up here teaching me how to “high five”…

…her sister Lucia was down here playing ‘hide and seek’!

Chimwemwe To The World

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included all the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  They included Isaiah 21:6-8 (which, by the way, is the passage that served as the inspiration for the title of Harper Lee’s Go, Set A Watchman) and John 1:6-18.  

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

Chimwemwe rushed into the room.  Although the small home was lit only by candles and kerosene lamps, her face made it light up as though there were floodlights! This thirteen year old girl, whose name means “Joy” in their local language, was the embodiment of light.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said.  “Can we go?”

“We can go when your sister and brother are ready,” replied her father, as he put down a newspaper.

She jumped into his lap – which was not as easy as it had been a few years ago.  “Madala, I can’t wait! This is my favorite night of the whole year!”

Although he knew the answer, her father played the game.  “Why is that?”, he asked.

“Because!” she exclaimed.  “It’s almost time to see if we were right!  Tonight we will know the truth about what we thought we saw!  We will know if we’ve been good watchers!”

The girl’s mother called from the other room.  “Oh, you four and your watching.  What will you see tonight?” she asked.

Chimwemwe concentrated for a moment, and then said, “Well, Dalitso noticed that the old woman who lives across from the maize-flour mill has had the thatch from her roof blow off. He thinks she needs new-”

She was interrupted as her ten year old brother burst into the room and completed the sentence, saying, “he knowsthat new iron sheets will keep her dry for the entire rainy season.”  Dalitso, whose name means “blessings”, sought to join his sister in their father’s lap.

Chimwemwe continued as if there was no little brother.  “Chikondi has selected some new books for the teacher’s library that was burnt in the fire, and we have some chickens to deliver to Mr. Mphatso, the watchman.  While he was at work a few weeks ago, the baboons came and took all of his chickens and now there are no eggs for his children.”

The father hugged his children tightly and said, “You know that I’m always proud of you, but this year it means even more to me. You have touched me deeply.”

The children looked at him quizzically, and he said, “You don’t know this, but a long time ago – before you were born – I was a watchman myself.”

The kids were incredulous.  “You? How could that be?  You run a newspaper!”

“I do now, but I have not always.  Listen, since it seems as though your sister will be a while, let me tell you a story.”

“When I was a child, life was very, very difficult.”

The children chimed in as if in chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We know.  You lived in the village.  There was no electric, and you had to fetch water-”

Now it was father’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, that’s true,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He held up his right arm, and there where his hand should have been was something that looked as though it could have been the idea for a hand, or maybe the rough draft of a hand, but it was not a hand such as you are accustomed to seeing on folks every day.  There were only three parts of it that might conceivably have been called “fingers”, and even then, the bone structure was quite different.

“When I was born,” he went on, “there was a problem.  Even before the midwife was called to help my mother, she knew that my birth would be difficult.  And while usually the first part of a baby to be born into the world is the head, with me it was this arm that came out first.  I obviously don’t remember this part, but I’m told that there was a lot of yelling and crying, and that people were afraid of this baby to be born.”

Chimwemwe took her father’s hand and said, “Madala, it’s just your hand.  It was just a little baby hand.  Sure, it looks different, but it’s fine!”

Her father said, “Well, we know that now, but this was a long time ago, and in the village. There were not as many doctors. People thought differently.  And so it was that when I was born, my father took one look at me and called me ‘Mabvuto’, which means ‘trouble’ in the local language. And for a long time, everyone – including me – thought that the name was perfect.  Because I wastrouble.”

“Can you imagine growing up with a hand like this?  Can you think how the other children would have teased me? Do you know that they made fun of me and even ran away from me?  On my inside – I wanted to help, I wanted to be a friend – but they could only see my different hand.”

“Now in those days there was a company that was called Secure-Corps or something like that. When I saw them, I saw athletic young men wearing matching uniforms driving fast trucks. They were guards hired by rich people, and when an alarm sounded, truckloads of these men would rush through the streets in order to save a home from being robbed or a person from being beaten.  I wanted to work for them.  I just knewthat if I was a Secure-Corps guard, people would be happy to see me coming!”

Dalitso – ‘Blessings’ – looked at his father and said, “So is thatwhen you were a guard, Madala?”

“No!,” was his father’s quick reply.  “I could never work for that company.  I was never a guard; I never had a uniform or one of those fast trucks.  You see, in order to be a guard for that company, you had to be able to read.  My father wouldn’t pay to send me to school.  He said, ‘Why bother, for such trouble?  Mabvuto – look at him.  Look at that hand.  What can he do with a hand like that?’”

“For a long time, it was so hard.  I was always angry.  I was getting mean.  But one day, it was my grandmother – Agogo – who helped me.”

“She surprised me in the bush one day.  I was staring at my hand, and I had taken some small sticks and was trying to hold them there to see what my hand might look like if I had five fingers.  She took the sticks and threw them and then grabbed me to herself.  ‘Oh, Mabvuto,’ she cried.  ‘Why do you keep on looking for something that is not there?  Do you think that if you stare long enough or hard enough that those fingers will appear?’”

“We sat in the grass for a long time, and if we said anything, I don’t remember it.  As the sun was setting, she asked me to help her back into her hut.  It was getting dark, and she almost stepped on it, but at the last minute I saw it – a snake – a poisonous black mamba – and I pulled her back. I grabbed a hoe and I killed the snake.”

“My Agogo hugged me and she said, ‘That’s my Mabvuto – so observant.’”

“’Observant?’ What’s ‘observant?’  She told me it meant that I was good at noticing things, and at watching.”

“And I was.  I couldn’t be a guard, so I became a watchman, and I discovered that I think I liked that even better than being a guard. Guards, you see, were always rushing around in times of trouble, but watchmen were just always there.  Guards were hired by rich people to protect them from bad things, but as a watchman I would see all kinds of things.  I noticed when the hippos left the river to eat and when they returned.  I learned all about the stars.  I would watch and listen as people ran into a house when a new baby was being born.”

“Do you see? As a watchman, I had to keep an eye out for problems, but I also got to observe – to watch – beautiful and powerful things that might have seemed small. Instead of looking only at bad things, or concentrating only on what was missing, I could tell stories about what I did see.”

“When I got home, my sisters and then my cousins would come around me and listen to me tell them about the things I’d seen.  When I got older, I taught myself how to read and write.  I wanted to share the stories that I had, and so I opened my own company…”

“The paper!” his children shouted.  “Nkani Yabwino!  The ‘good news’ paper!”

“Well, yes,” he said. “It wasn’t a newspaper at first. It was just copies of some of the good things that I saw – and it taught me how to be a better watcher.”

“And now, Chimwemwe and Dalitso, and even little Chikondi – you are all better watchers than I am!  You see everything, and you look for ways to make things better or stronger.  I know, you like tonight because we will go out and share some iron sheets, or books, or chickens… but every day we have the chance to look for things that no one else sees.  We try to straighten what is bent, to point out what is great, and to share in people’s lives.”

“But why do we do this tonight, Daddy?” asked Chimwemwe.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve, my daughter!  It’s your birthday!  Do you remember what your name means when we say it in English?  It is ‘JOY’ – because on that night there is always a lot of JOY.  There is joy because we see that God watches with the people who watch-”

His children cried in unison: “the shepherds!”

“There is joy because God sends people to honor and bless the poor-”

“The Wise Men!”

“Mostly, there’s joy because we know God didn’t set out to guard the earth, but to be in it, to watch it, and to teach people how to see!”

The mood of the room changed quickly with the arrival of the youngest child, a girl called Chikondi. And you might want to know what happened next.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you were looking for.

The men down at the Secure-Corps headquarters who watched the surveillance camera footage could tell you that they saw a middle-aged man who appeared to be favoring one hand take 3 kids – later determined to be named Chimwemwe, Dalitso, and Chikondi – around town delivering parcels.

The families of a poor old woman, and a teacher, and a night watchman later said that they’d been visited by angels who came to them and said that God had noticed them in the midst of their trouble.

And me? I saw someone called Mabvuto who once thought that he had been born for trouble make a way for Joy, Blessings, and Love to shine in the darkness on Christmas Eve.

Well, that was a long time ago.  And it was in a place that’s pretty far away.  But keep your eyes open.  Watch. You never know what you’ll see, and who you can tell about it. Thanks be to God, who watches over us, and invites us to do the same with each other!  Amen.

There IS A Balm

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 the first Sunday of Advent, December 2 2018, we talked about the second occasion in that Gospel wherein Jesus restores sight to one who has been blind. We noticed that this passage is intended by the editor of Mark to be a commentary on discipleship and faith – it was so in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first as well.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 10:46-52.  We also referenced Jeremiah 8:18-22.

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

I’ve come to notice something over the years, and perhaps you have, too. Often times when I am getting toward the end of a sermon, our musicians will slide into place behind their instruments. Sometimes I wonder how they know I’m getting close – they don’t have an advance copy or anything – but they pick up on my rhythm or content or pace and often find themselves in position at the close of the message.  Our friend Brian Buckley was a master at this – it was mystifying, and a little spooky, how good he was at knowing when I was done.  In fact, he was so good at it that there were a couple of times when I heard him slide onto the organ bench behind me when I still had a page and a half to go on the message that I wondered, “Wait…should I be done now?”

Of course, if you ask the musicians, they’ll say, “Gee, you listen to a guy for a couple of years/decades, and you kind of get a feel for where he’s going.  There are clues to be heard…”  And because they pick up on these clues, there are shifts in the content and direction of our worship that day.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, Robert Hodgell, c. 1960

I bring that up this morning because as we hear our Gospel reading for today, we ought to be attentive to some clues that are there.  This is the second and last time that Mark reports the healing of a person who was blind.  I think that when Mark mentions the fact that Bartimaeus was blind, he wants us to think back to the lasttime a person’s sight was restored.  In chapter 8, the healing of the man in Bethsaida marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Prior to that miracle, Jesus seemed to be focusing his ministry on a proclamation of the Good News throughout the Galilee that often featured large groups and great wonders (such as the feeding of the 5000).  The incident in Bethsaida effectively closed that part of Jesus’ ministry and led to a new emphasis: one that was focused more intentionally on the disciples and those around him.  After the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, we hear Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, we see the transfiguration, and we listen to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection as he leaves the Galilee and walks toward his destiny in Jerusalem.

Today’s passage – another encounter with a sightless person – therefore is meant to send another signal: there are changes ahead.  We see that Jesus is in Jericho, which is only fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem, and so we ought to expect this story to serve as a bridge between that which we’ve already experienced in the Gospel and that which is to come.

And, in a lot of ways, the encounter with Bartimaeus is a commentary on what has come before.  We meet him and we are told that he is a blind beggar.  In Jesus’ day and age, that is a bit of repetition. If a person was blind, of course that person would be a beggar. There weren’t many other options for folk who experienced disability in that day.  Saying that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar is every bit as redundant as it would be for me to say, “Here, would you like some cold ice?”, or “this is a delicious blueberry pie”, or “I’d like you to meet my friend, who is a disappointed Browns fan…”  You see? Saying one thing (he was blind) implies the other (he was a beggar). Mark’s point is that Bartimaeus was an outsider, and, more than that, he was a no-account outsider.  He’s not a Pharisee, he’s not a rich young ruler. He’s on the fringes of society.

And Bartimaeus is not just any marginalized person, he’s experiencing this marginalization in Jericho.  Jericho, as previously noted, is about fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem. At that time, Jericho was home to a large contingent of priests and Levites – professional workers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a “bedroom community” for the religious elite, if you will. Bartimaeus was a sightless, marginalized, seemingly irrelevant person living in a community that was home to thousands of people who were being paid to watch for and point to the coming Savior of God – the One who, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, would be the “balm” of healing for God’s people.  And yet in spite of the fact that there were all of these professional religious people on hand, it falls to a marginalized, sightless, economically disadvantaged member of the community to be the first person in the Gospel of Mark to call Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.”

Furthermore, you might remember that previously in Mark’s Gospel, whenever someone did call out Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus would hush that person.  This is the first time that Jesus accepts a public acknowledgment of his role.  This is new in the Gospel of Mark.  And it happens in Jericho – home to the religious professionals.  And he’s recognized by someone who is, to say the least, surprising.

Bartimaeus, sculpture by Gurdon Brewster. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/index.html

In addition, Bartimaeus refuses to be hindered in his approach to Jesus.  Do you remember when the children were being brought to the Lord? The disciples kept them away.  Do you remember when the rich young man came and asked to follow? He could not, because his possessions weighed him down.  Bartimaeus won’t let either the crowd or his belongings slow him down, and so he shouts above the thron and throws aside his cloak – which, as a beggar, would have been his most prized possession and a symbol of his identity – and he leaps to his feet and rushes to Jesus’ side.  Do you see how this story is a commentary on what has come before?

There’s another clue that this is not an isolated event, but rather one meant to be read in context.  Just a few verses ago, Jesus looked at the men who had been following him the longest and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here, he looks at a man he’s just met and uses the exact same words.  James and John call Jesus by a professional title, “master”, and ask for positions of power and honor in the kingdom that is to come.  Yet when Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question, the sightless man calls Jesus “Rabbouni”, and says simply, “I’d like to see again”.

Whereas lots of people call Jesus “Rabbi”, which means “teacher”, there are only two people who call him “Rabbouni”, which means “myteacher: Bartimaeus (as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem) and Mary Magdalene (when she recognizes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection).  My point is that Mark intends us to notice that Bartimaeus, for all of his limitations and marginalization, as eager to align his life to God’s will.

In all of this, I am suggesting that the writer of Mark’s Gospel intended this encounter with Bartimaeus to be a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  In these few verses, Jesus calls and invites a person to new possibilities for this life with the understanding and expectation that these new possibilities will change the realities for the one who answers the call. When Bartimaeus received from Jesus the thing for which he’d asked, he understood that the Lord had not healed him so that he could be a sightedbeggar.  When he regained his vision, he left his cloak on the ground for someone who needed it more, and he followed Jesus on the way.  This meeting in Jericho gives Mark the chance to show his readers how disciples ought to respond to the intrusion of the Divine in their lives.

So… in the words of that renowned theologian Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

For a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine Jesus drawing near to you, and opening up new possibilities in yourlife. When the Son of David says to you, “What do you want me to do for you?”, how do you answer? I hope you noticed that when Jesus encountered Bartimaeus, he was respectful.  He didn’t presume to speak for Bartimaeus – instead, he allowed the man to speak for himself.  Similarly, when we celebrate communion in a few moments, there will be an invitation to receive – but there is not ever a “force feeding”.  What do you want Jesus to do for you?  Think about that.

And as you imagine Jesus asking you you, consider this: what will you need to leave behind?  Bartimaeus was in such a hurry to reach the Lord that he threw his cloak aside.  What about you?  What do you need to leave be in order to approach Jesus unhindered?

Some folks might think that is glaringly obvious. You’ve battled a demon – and maybe carried it around with you – for far too long.  A friend of mine told me that he once asked a convert to the faith, “What’s different about your life now that you’re following Jesus?” The new disciple, who had come out of a street gang, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t shoot as many people now as I used to…”

And that’s good.  That’s very good.  But what about you?  Is there a pattern in your life that is contrary to the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?  I suspect you don’t shoot many people, either… but what about your worry?  Or your anxiety? Or your fear?  Can you set those down as you seek to follow?

What about your arrogance or your temper? Can you ask Jesus to give you a spirit of humility?

“What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking.  And as you hear that question, consider who it is that is asking. Is it Jesus the enforcer, the sheriff, the one who’s here to make sure you get what’s coming to you?  Or is it Jesus the Wizard of Oz, who promises you escape and enchantment?  Or is it Jesus the rabbouni, the one who is your teacher?

This morning, this week, this Advent – hold onto those questions. Reflect.  Anticipate.  And praise God for healing that does come.  Praise God that there isa balm in Gilead.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Why Are We Doing This?

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 World Communion Sunday, October 7, we walked into a religious dispute between the followers of Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. On a rare day for our congregation, we participated in both the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our gospel reading was Mark 9:14-32.

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

My wife and I were traveling in a strange and wonderful place, and we’d seen and experienced many amazing things.  We’d been told to be in a certain place for dinner, and that the meal would have many local flavors.

Our hosts were not kidding!  We showed up and there were tables spread with all kinds of food! Every color of the rainbow, every point of the food pyramid – wow, it was delicious!  After we’d eaten quite a bit, a bunch of people showed up and took all that food away… and brought in morefood!  Soups and breads and cheeses.  We stepped up to the plate and dove in.  When that was done, we sat back, exhausted… and they brought out plates of meat and fish and eggs… And later – you guessed it – dessert.

If we’d have known what was coming, we’d have paced ourselves better.  In the interest of pacing, I am going to do my best to fly through one of my favorite passages in the gospel – there is a great deal to see here, but I want to make sure you have room for baptism and communion today, so hold on…

Jesus is coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration and he finds his disciples engaged in an argument with the religious leaders. When he asks what the disagreement is about, they introduce him to a parent who is in great pain.

The Transfiguration, Raffaello Sanzio (16th century). I am especially taken by the lines of sight amongst the various participants in this drama and the pathos of the boy and his father.

Look at what’s happened here: a father who is experiencing tremendous distress comes to the followers of Jesus and makes them aware of his pain and his need.  When he did this, someone at least attempted a response.  Evidently, someone else took issue with the nature and content of that response, which prompted some defensiveness and hostility on the part of the first group. Before you know it, there’s a big argument about who is right about how to respond to this pain.  And the person in pain? The person with the problem? That person is excluded from the conversation, because it’s now a contest to be right.

Until Jesus shows up and asks what’s going on.  At this point, the warring factions are silenced and the father speaks up. “It’s my boy.  He’s in bad shape.  I brought him here, but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.”

Now here’s something: All my life, I’ve heard this passage and I’ve heard it read, “IF you can do anything, please help us…”  But today, for the first time, it struck me that perhaps this is the cry of a desperate parent: “Oh, sweet Jesus – none of THESE knuckleheads can do anything… but if YOU can do anything, please help us…”

In Mark 8:29, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah.  In Mark 9:7, the Divine Voice says, “This is my son – listen to him”. Today, a father looking for someone – anyone – who can bring him boy some peace, looks at Jesus and says, “If YOU can…”  And Jesus, secure in the truth to which his friend had pointed and his Father pronounced, says, “IF? There’s no IF here…”  And that leads to the heart-wrenching cry: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

I know that I’m not the only person in this room who has voiced that same cry: Oh, Jesus, I want to be there.  I want to be with you.  I am with you.  But not as I want to be.

And I wish I could talk for 15 minutes about that, but we’ve got a big old helping of worship in front of us, so I want to spend my remaining time talking about the end of this episode.  After the young man is restored, the disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Hey, master, what’s the deal?  Why couldn’t we do that?”

“This kind can come out only in prayer.” Jesus’ response implies that the disciples were not praying.

They were so busy being disciples– you know, planning meetings, setting up flow charts, printing up sign-in forms – that they didn’t have time to pray.

They were so busy being right – you know, defending their ideas and practices in front of those other people who were so clearly wrong – that they had neglected to bring themselves, and that boy, and his dad to God.

Do you hear what I’m saying, church?

Jesus confronts the disciples.  He’s already given them great power and authority – and for some reason, they haven’t bothered to contemplate what it really meant.  The followers of Jesus were so busy minding the religion shop that they failed to meet a person in the midst of great brokenness.

Are you with me on this, church?

“This kind can come out only in prayer.”

So far as I can tell, this is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus talks with his followers about prayer.  He’s modeled it for them; he seems to assume that they’re acquainted with the concept; but here he mentions it.

In Mark, prayer is not a divine shopping list wherein we jot down a few things that would be really nice and then we sweet-talk God into giving them to us.  In this Gospel, prayer is wrestling in the wilderness with the Evil One.  Prayer is submitting the self to God over and over again and again, seeking to align my heart and will and intentions with those of the Holy One.

That distinction is important today because not only are we praying, but we are engaging in the historic practices of the people of God: for the first time in years, we’ll be sharing baptism and communion in the very same service.

Why do we do these things?  Why has the church spent so much time and energy talking about and engaging in prayer, baptism, and communion?

Much of American Christianity would lead us to believe that prayer and the sacraments are all about bringing us the assurance and comfort we crave as we walk through this vail of toil and pain.  They are insurance policies or pick-me-ups…

“I’d like to have my baby baptized, so, you know… just in case… well, in case something happens… and then he’ll make it to heaven.”

“I love communion because it makes me feel all special and warm inside – like I really do matter to someone.”

“Ooooh, I love to pray.  If I didn’t have my morning quiet time, well, I wouldn’t be able to feel like Jesus was close to me.”

All right – let me be plain: I don’t have anything against going to heaven, feeling loved, and feeling close to God.  But beloved know this: that is not why we do any of these things!

Work with me here.  Who remembers? What is the theme of the Gospel of Mark?

The Kingdom of God is at hand!  God is near!  Look! Act like it matters!

If that’s the heart of the message; if that’s what Jesus is about – then why do we do these things? Prayer, baptism, and communion are practices that are helpful to the extent that they reveal the nearness of the Kingdom.

We’ll have communion today – and we’ll do so not as a nice ritual that allows us to remember that there’s really something quite remarkable about us and this community, but so that we remember that we are a part of the body of Christ that is broken and cast into the world.  Especially on this world-wide communion Sunday, we remember that the body of Christ is bigger than we can imagine! I know, I know, you’ll get the plate from someone who looks like Erlina Mae or Matt Adler, but I’m telling you that the bread we share also belongs to the undocumented immigrant; to the believer who is holed up in hiding under an oppressive regime; to the person who has been used, abused, and disbelieved time and time again; to that one who is lost in a fog of mental illness and anguish.  We do this not justwith each other, but with the whole body of Christ from all times and all places.

We’re going to sprinkle little Stella today and parade her around the room, not simply because her great-great grandparents were here before any of us, but because we need to confess that her identity does not come only or even primarily from her parents, grandparents, or any of us… It is given first and foremost in Jesus Christ.  She needs to know – today and every day moving forward – that before she is a redhead, before she is a Democrat or a Republican or gay or straight or trans or cis or rich or poor – before she is anything at all – she is God’s.

As are you.

As am I.

And prayer – the prayer we share this morning and the prayer in which you take part through the week – that is not your own personal little exercise that is designed to make you feel all Jesus-y and holier than you used to be.  It is an exercise in which we participate to the end that the Kingdom of God might be revealed and our neighbor blessed.  If my praying does not result in a life that points toward God’s intentions and the encouragement of my neighbor, I must be doing it wrong.

To review: we pray so that our neighbor might be blessed.  We share communion in order that we might remember who our neighbor is. And we celebrate baptism so that we never forget that the Kingdom of God is, in fact, God’s idea, not mine.  I am brought to it, helpless and vulnerable and sometimes screaming like nobody’s business – and in the context of a communion-sharing, praying community, I’m equipped to grow into the kind of pray-er that blesses his neighbors.  Thanks be to God for these, the gifts of God!  Amen.

 

Can You See Anything?

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 July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness.  Our gospel lesson was from  Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.

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

In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident.  The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?”  He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom.  I love my dad.  I will get better.”  The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin.  His parents couldn’t understand him.  And he could no longer speak English.  In an instant, he was transformed.  After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.[1]

The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception.  She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed.  Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared.  Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.[2]

A man came to me following a worship service I’d led.  He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious.  But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation.  “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me.  I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true.  I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”

Have you heard stories like this?  Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?

And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December.  We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’.  He even brought back a little girl from the dead.  So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”

Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Eduourd Leon Edy-Legrand, 1950

Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different.  The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark.  All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed.  Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.

But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique.  Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one.  Did that strike you as strange?  Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?

There are a few interesting theories out there.  One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him.  However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right.  He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.

Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again.  Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.

So what is going on here?  Why a two-stage healing?

Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing?  There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.

I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich.  Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?”  He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.

That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.

The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.

I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once.  There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.

That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament.  The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith.  In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…”  Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.

I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.”  Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete.  If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.

Did you pray the prayer?  Did you “accept Jesus”?  Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps.  But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.

Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus.  Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion.  There are colors.  In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.

It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time.  He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up?  I mean, what if it gets worse?  Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”

But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand.  Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat.  Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.

This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured.  There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere.  Confrontation is the order of the day.  Fear is endemic – it is all around us.  And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels.  To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night.  We are compelled to defend our ideas.  To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…

I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone.  In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”.  A statue of a deer.

While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury.  May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.

I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is.  And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.

Jesu Healing the Blind Man, Ethiopian Icon

This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus.  If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged.  And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.

As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him.  May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.

I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar.  If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud!  Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice?  What’s wrong with me?”

Of course not.  I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match.  But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be.  Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.medicaldaily.com/australian-man-comes-out-coma-able-speak-mandarin-fluently-not-english-302046

[2]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150306-the-mystery-of-vanishing-cancer