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


Shhhhhh….

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 June 10, that meant following Jesus from Tyre to the Decapolis by way of Sidon – and ending up in one of the grossest healing stories we’ve seen. Jesus is a lolligagger who seems to go just about anywhere…and in so doing reveals even more of the Kingdom that is already at hand. I found this to be helpful as we were commissioning our Cross Trainers Summer Mission Team – a group of young adults who are ready to lead our congregation’s six week day camp for kids in our neighborhood.  You can read these stories for yourself in Mark 7:31-37.  We pointed back to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 35:1-7. 

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

Have you ever noticed while watching a film or television program that oftentimes a subtle shift in the background music will alert the viewer to a substantive change before the characters in the story are aware that such a change is coming? Maybe you’re watching Star Warsand the characters in the film appear to believe that everything is going well, but then you hear the Darth Vader theme and youknow that things are going to get dicey; or during a particularly tense moment in an Indiana Jonesmovie you hear the subtle strains of the triumphant theme and you just know that it’s going to work out all right for Dr. Jones and his friends.

Mark chapter seven brings us close to the mid-point in the Gospel writer’s attempt to give us the Jesus message. While there is no soundtrack for our reading today, there are a lot of clues that indicate that our author is building toward a crucial moment in the narrative.  This subtle change is, perhaps, more apparent to those of us who have the gift of hindsight than it might have been to those who are actually living the story.

There is a curious incident reported at the end of Mark 7 that, in my mind, alerts us to the fact that the narrative of the story will be changing.  These verses have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the scholarly and theological community over the years, and I believe that they are of great importance to us as we stand on the brink of a summer program here in Crafton Heights.  Let’s look at where Jesus goes, what he does, and what he says.

Our text tells us that Jesus is on the move again – this time, we read that he’s leaving Tyre, and he is heading toward the Sea of Galilee and back to the region of the Decapolis.  On his way, Mark says, Jesus decides to visit Sidon.

And because we’re not from there, that little note just rolls right past us.  Jesus is a grown man.  He can go where he wants to go.  But imagine if you asked me for a ride downtown and the Arts Festival today, and I said, “Hey, sure.  I’m happy to take you to the park.  On the way, though, I’ve got to swing past the airport and then pick up a buddy in Cranberry Township.

If you know anything about the geography of our region, you’ll roll your eyes at me and say, “Come on, Dave, those places are hardly on the way to town.  In fact, they’re the exact opposite!”

But that’s what Mark says Jesus is doing here.  In order to head southwest, he first goes due north, then due south, and finally to the west. It’s just ridiculous and inefficient.

In fact, many scholars have looked at this passage as bona fide proof that Mark didn’t know what he was talking about.  Clearly, the author is an idiot who is unacquainted with the area about which he’s writing, these folks would say.  Nobody in their right mind would travel from Tyre to the Decapolis and say that Sidon was “on the way”.  That would add weeks, if not months, to the journey.

I would respond by saying that clearly these scholars are not well acquainted with the ways of Jesus, who, when given half a chance, always seemed to take the slow way, the long route, and the back door.  After all, this is the same man who preached love for the enemy and the power of yeast and seeds, who reached out time and time again to those who had been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and who proclaimed that the ultimate power of God is best demonstrated in submission to torture and death on a Roman cross.  I have absolutely NO problem believing that Jesus thought that the best way to get from Tyre to the Decapolis was to go through Sidon.  It’s one of the glorious inefficiencies that makes sense in the Gospel economy – but is hard to sell in the 21stcentury.

For instance, last week Marla and I got into a car with McKenna and Lindsay because we had some questions about the upcoming Youth Group mission trip to the Seneca nation of Indians in Western New York.  We drove three and a half hours for what turned out to be a 45 minute meeting. On the surface, that’s a bad choice, right? Four fairly gifted, very busy people, spending seven hours in the car to do what one might think could be accomplished in a phone call and a couple of emails?  When we got back to Pittsburgh that night, every single one of us thought we had made the exact right choice – spending the day in the car was the only way that we could lay eyes on our work site, shake hands with our hosts, and begin to dream a little bit about what that week might look like.

In seeking to be followers of Jesus in the 21stcentury, we could all learn a little bit from this messiah who often chose the slow, indirect route.  Parents: let me encourage you to put the phones down, and to allow the dishes or laundry to pile up just a little bit longer.  I’m here to tell you that while some of the days may seem incredibly long, the years are oh-so-short.

Cross Trainer staff, as you try to fit everything into a brief summer camp, let me remind you that the ultimate goal of this experience is love – and that love is a most wildly inefficient yet ultimately amazingly effective practice in changing the world for young people.

That’s where Jesus is going.  What does he do when he gets there?  I’m not sure if you were really paying attention at all, but this is an incredibly weird healing story.  Did Jesus really give the man a “wet willie” in the process of this healing miracle? No, no, the text clearly indicates that he didn’t spit on his fingers until after he removed them from the man’s ears… he didn’t spit on his fingers until he went to touch the man’s tongue…

Seriously, what’s up with this healing story? Just a few verses ago, we heard of a young girl who was plagued by an evil spirit, and Jesus wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as she – and yet he granted her healing.  In today’s reading, though, there is a multisensory healing with many stages.  It would appear to be, at the least, another example of the inefficiency of Jesus.

I’d like to invite us to pay attention to a single word in our Greek text this morning.  The word is mogilalon, and it’s translated as “could hardly talk” in the NIV, and as “speech impediment” in other versions.  It is a peculiar word that indicates that the sufferer has difficulty speaking.  I find that curious, because in the bibles that have topic headings, and when we talk about this miracle, we often see this as “the time that Jesus healed the deaf-mute.”  That’s not true.  Mogilalonis not the word for “mute” – it means something different.

Jesus meets this man who is afflicted with mogilalon and engages him fully.  He touches him, he uses the most basic of his own bodily fluids by spitting into his hands and touching the man’s tongue and in so doing frees the man to hear and speak well.

The word mogilalonis used only one other time in the Greek translation of the Bible: that comes in our reading from Isaiah 35.  Because this word is so unusual, and because it only occurs one other time in the Bible, I’m suggesting that Mark chose to use it intentionally so as to remind his readers of the context of Isaiah 35. The Old Testament reading you heard earlier is an amazing passage about the real presence and reign of God. The prophet has spoken at length about God’s promises to come and dwell with his people and to bring about the ultimate healing of the world. In answer to the question, “when will this happen?”, he says, “look for these kinds of things: the opening of blind eyes, the unstopping of deaf ears, and the freeing on tongues that are mogilalon.”

Way back in chapter 1, Mark told us that Jesus was preaching aboutthe nearness of God’s kingdom; now here in chapter 7, he is demonstrating that kingdom.

For me, that begs the question: how am I not only talking about and preaching about the intentions of God, but living them in the world today?  None of my words – and none of yours – mean a blessed thing if we are unwilling not only to talkabout loving our neighbor but to actually demonstrate in the lives of our neighbors the care of God.

So after Jesus gets to where he’s going and does what he’s been asked to do, he speaks to those who have gathered.  Specifically, he tells them, “shhhhhhhh.  Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen.”

This is a prime example of what we can call “the Messianic secret” in the second Gospel.  Time and time again Jesus does something amazing and then says, “Look, let’s keep this amongst ourselves, OK?  No need to go telling everyone…”

Again, this is a great example of Jesus acting in ways I would not.  I mean, seriously, if I did something like that, I’d be tempted to tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and call the newspaper.  And if, in a burst of modesty, I actually refrained from doing any of those things, I’d hope that you’d do that stuff and tag me in it.  But Jesus does not.  He discourages the disciples from publicizing this stuff at this point.  Why?  What is the point of this secret?

Could it be that here, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, fellas, you don’t know the whole story yet.  Don’t try to talk about what this means because you don’t really get it – all of it – yet. Right now, your speech about me is about as accurate and helpful as this guy’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address half an hour ago.  You can make some sounds, but you can’t really get the whole message out because it’s still unfolding…I’m afraid that you might have spiritual or theological mogilalon…”

Sometimes, an incomplete message is less helpful than no message.  As we prepare to engage in the work of ministry this summer, let us be slow, and be active, and resist the temptation to make global pronouncements. Instead, let us merely point to the things that we cansee and invite the people who are around us to make connections in their own lives.

As I indicated in my comments at the beginning of this message, the feeling in the text is that there is something more, something substantive to come.  Clearly, for those of you who are being commissioned as Cross Trainers today, there must be a feeling of anticipation and maybe even some anxiety.  We are on the brink of something… and we might know something about it, but I guarantee it will be different from what we expect in many ways.

My deep hope and prayer as we stand on this tenth day of June in 2018 is that we might see ourselves in every aspect of this passage.  May we be willing to stick with Jesus even as he takes what seems to be the longest possible way around… may we be willing to allow him intimate proximity to our very selves so that we are better able to perceive his action in the world… may we be able to speak of what we know even while we wait for what we don’t know… and may we be willing to live the faith such a way so as to be a blessing to the ones God has given as our neighbors.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Cliffhanger!

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 June 3, we heard one of the truly difficult stories about Jesus: his encounter with a woman pleading for the welfare of her daughter. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:24-30.  Our second reading came from I Thessalonians 5:10-18.

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

Most Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1966 – 1968, you could find me perched in front of our family’s old black-and-white television following the adventures of Gotham City’s Caped Crusaders.  The original Batmantelevision show aired two thirty-minute episodes each week.  On Wednesdays, Batman and Robin would typically encounter some diabolical plot by the Joker, the Riddler, or the Penguin, and on Thursdays they’d find a way to save the city.

Will the dynamic duo survive? Wait and see…

Almost every Wednesday night episode ended in the same way: the dynamic duo would be in a precarious situation, apparently headed toward certain destruction, and then a very dramatic voiceover would remind viewers that if we wanted to see how the storyline resolved, we’d have to tune in tomorrow – same bat time, same bat channel.

This was my introduction to the concept of a “cliffhanger” – stopping a story at a crucial instant in the drama for the sole purpose of making sure that the viewer or the reader would come back for more at a subsequent time.  You’ve seen this in all kinds of ways.

I will suggest that the scripture from Mark’s Gospel this morning presents us with a cliffhanger of sorts.  Here’s what I mean:

In recent episodes, we’ve seen Jesus come into his hometown of Nazareth and reveal himself to be the manifestation of God’s power in the world.  Then, he learns of and reacts to the death of John the Baptist; no doubt it is a sobering time of reflection for him as he anticipates that which is to come in his own life.  He sends out the twelve, which leads directly to the feeding of the 5,000, which in turn brings about a significant confrontation with the religious authorities.  All of these things must have contributed to Jesus’ expressed desire to get away from the pressures of the crowds and the religious and political leadership so that he can be alone with and prepare his disciples.

We know that Jesus wanted to get away because we read that he went to a community known as Tyre. In so doing, Jesus is moving away from Jerusalem (the seat of Jewish power at that time), away from Galilee (the center of his ministry for much of the past three years) and away from the Decapolis (his previous “retreat” spot, but one wherein he’d become quite a celebrity in recent months).

We also know that Jesus wanted to get away because Mark tells us so in verse 24: “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.”

However, Jesus’ hopes to keep this retreat on the down-low appear to be immediately thwarted when he is recognized by a stranger.  And this is no ordinary passer-by: the Gospel writer goes to great pains to make sure that we know that this is an encounter with an outsider. One of them.

We are told that the stranger is a woman. Moreover, she was a Greekor aGentile.  And she had been born in Syrophoenicia.  The Gospel writer did everything but hang a sign on this poor woman’s neck reading “not one of us”.

The One With The Crumby Dog, Ally Barrett (2017). More at https://reverendally.org/art/

Nevertheless, she persisted.  For a man intent on finding some down time with his friends, Jesus is attracting a lot of attention.  He apparently ignores the woman, but that doesn’t do anything except increase the volume of her appeal.  In fact, the when the author of Matthew tells this story, he mentions that she is creating such a ruckus that the disciples implore Jesus to do something just to shut her up.

When he finally does engage her in conversation, Jesus apparently follows the culturally accepted rules of engagement: Jews like himself are God’s favorite; Gentiles like this woman are no better than dogs in the street.  A couple of weeks ago, we asked the question, “Was Jesus a jerk?”, and here we see behavior that seemingly points in that direction.  This conversation is cringe-worthy; particularly when we consider that it came from the same mouth that gave us the Beatitudes and the story of the Good Samaritan.  What is Jesus up to here?

The accepted conclusion is that Jesus is testing this woman’s faith.  But why would he do this?

Is it because he enjoys seeing her crawl along and beg? Is his self-esteem so low that he needs to have this woman plead for the life of her daughter so pathetically?  I can’t see this as being consistent with Jesus’ character.

There are some who have suggested that the Lord went through the motions of this conversation because he hoped that it would demonstrate the foolishness of the prevailing prejudices in that culture.  In essence, these people are saying that Jesus treated this woman contemptibly so that his disciples could recognize, and then reject, contempt as a basis for relationahip.

I’d like to go a little further and say that Jesus was testing this woman’s faith neither to satisfy his own curiosity about the woman nor to make a cultural statement about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles.  I think that he was testing her faith in a public fashion in order to allow his disciples to see beyond the shadow of a doubt that her faith was authentic and her claim legitimate.

Some years ago I was in Turkey and one of my friends was looking to buy a leather jacket. When he put it on, the vendor went to great lengths to demonstrate the quality of material and workmanship. While Dan was wearing the jacket, the salesman tested it in every way: he poured water on it, he stretched the seams, and he even held a lighter under Dan’s elbow to prove that this was a rugged and durable garment.

I think that Jesus was allowing this conversation with the Syrophoenician woman to go on so long for precisely the same reason: he wanted to allow the disciples to conclude that this woman was indeed passionate about and beloved of God. In so doing, Jesus taught them a lesson they would not forget about the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God.

Once her faith is demonstrated, Jesus acknowledges the woman’s place in his Kingdom and announces that he has healed her daughter.  She goes home and discovers that such is indeed the case.  That’s the end of the story.

Um, Pastor Dave? You called this sermon “Cliffhanger.”  You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means…  There is no cliffhanger here, Pastor Dave.  Jesus comes, the woman begs, Jesus seizes a teachable moment for his disciples, a daughter is healed, and the woman goes home.

Exactly.  But what happens next?

Next? There is no next.  Her story is done.

And that’s the problem.  The story ends with the one who began as an outsider remaining an outsider.  I’m saying it’s a cliffhanger because I want to know what the twelve did next.  Did they reach out to her?  Was she eventually included among the followers of Jesus?

The Limits of Tyre, Vasily Polenov (1911)

I’m afraid that the answer to that must be “no”.  If this woman or her daughter was ever included in the body, I suspect that we’d know her name.  Do you remember later in the Gospel, when the man carries the cross for Jesus, Mark tells us that he was Simon, the father of Rufus and Alexander… Lots of people who encounter Jesus are remembered – because they become part of the story. Nicodemus.  Joseph of Arimathea.  Mary Magdalene.  Blind Bartimaeus.  The fact that this woman and her daughter are still anonymous when Mark is writing the Gospel indicates to me that nobody remembers her name nowbecause nobody really knew her then.

And when I read this story of Jesus healing a woman because his disciples urge him to do so in order to keep her quiet… then I’m reminded of all the times that I have “helped” someone while secretly wishing that they’d just leave.  I am embarrassed by the number of times I have given some groceries or helped with a financial burden – but begrudgingly.  “Here…” I say, “This is for you.”  And then I don’t say it out loud, but the next phrase is “now leave me alone.”  I can’t wait to get to the “mission project” and then I count the hours until it’s done and I get to go home and take a shower and do what I want to do… because I am not interested in really including any of those peoplein my life.

So what’s your point, Dave? What are you asking us to do?

I thought about using this passage to get myself and a least a few of you all worked up into a lather about the ways that refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers are being treated in our nation these days.  I thought about telling you the true story of a young mother who was abused and threatened and feared for her life and that of her daughter in the dangerous nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She was so afraid that last year she scooped up her six year-old daughter and fled to the United States, where she went directly to the immigration authorities and requested political asylum.  Her case was declared valid, and she was allowed to enter the country. She followed all the rules.  She was not “illegal”; she was not a terrorist. But four days after her arrival in San Diego, they took her daughter from her, slapped her in handcuffs, and sent the daughter (age 6) to a “facility” in Chicago – two thousand miles away.  In the next four months, she’d have the chance to speak with this child six times.

But if the point of this message is to get you all excited about some kind of political action then, to be honest, it’s less than the Gospel, and this isn’t worship, it’s a rally.

Here’s what I think about this passage:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this story about a mother who was terrified by a situation that her family faced is an old story, or ancient history.  The Gospel reading resonates with us because many of us have lived this story, and each of us has seen it.

Furthermore, let’s not pretend that we can insert ourselves into the Biblical narrative and try to role-play: are you more like Jesus, or a disciple, or the woman, or her daughter? We are all over the place in that regard.  And, more importantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the disciples “got” where Jesus was going with this, at least initially.

Instead, I’d like to direct your attention to the epistle reading for the day.  Let’s listen to Paul, who as much as anyone in the first century, was a real mover and shaker.  He was a political creature – a citizen of Rome who knew how to use that identity and his passport.  There aretimes where Paul seems to encourage those in leadership and authority to do what is right.  But when he spoke to a real live church, he didn’t tell them to sit down and write a bunch of letters to Nero or to seek to overthrow the Roman garrisons in Thessalonica or Philippi.

No, he spoke very plainly.  Remember who you are, who you were, and who you will be.  Encourage one another, and strengthen each other.  Encourage those who are afraid.  Help the weak.  Be patient with everyone. Always try to do good for each other and for everyone.

Look: I’m not here to put the badmouth on political action in the name of the Gospel.  If you want to write the President about immigration or the governor about abortion, well, knock yourself out. But just don’t be an activist without any action.

Listen: in two weeks, the Cross Trainers camp will start here in Crafton Heights.  There will be 60 young people coming in and out of our buildings for six weeks.  Some of them are in a great place.  Others are in a world of hurt. Most of them, if you give them half a chance, will get on your last nerve.

Re-read the Gospel for today, and then ask yourself: do these kids really belong here?  Is this church for them and for their families?  Is there grace and hope and love and acceptance and guidance and challenge for themhere?

If so… how will they know?  Because we’re paying half a dozen people like Carly and Katie to be nice to them for a few weeks this summer?  Will they be authentically included in the purposes of God because we “let” them show up here and we’re nice to them for a few hours?  Or is there a deeper response that might be indicated on our part?

It’s a cliffhanger.

When I watched Batman, I had to wait an entire day to see how he and Robin solved the problem. When it comes to discipleship, I’d suggest that the true measure of our faithfulness is whether the young people who are here this summer will be remembered by and connected with the community of faith in ten years.  What can wedo about that?

Stay tuned.

Does He Even Care?

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 March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our text was the story about the calming of the sea in  Mark 4:35-41.  We also considered Paul’s letter to his friends in II Corinthians 5:16-6:2.To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 

As we start the message this morning, I’d like to ask each of you to imagine or remember a time when you were in a group of people that was about to go on a trip somewhere. It doesn’t matter where – maybe it was Grandma’s house, or Kennywood, or camping. Think about a time when, in your mind, you knew it was going to be a great time. You knew where you were going, why you wanted to go, and what you hoped to accomplish.

And let’s say that this was a trip you were excited about – but not everyone in your group shared that enthusiasm. Now, if you’ve never been on a trip where you were excited and other people were bored or argumentative, first off – congratulations, and secondly – keep that to yourself and use your imagination here.

You’re on the way to the campground. You’ve got all the stuff packed – sleeping bags and marshmallows and fishing rods… and then it begins to drizzle.

Now, you want to go. You have a vision. And maybe you’ve even checked the long-range forecast and are aware that this is a three-hour rain event. So maybe you start offering a narrative that goes something like this: “Oh, hey! It looks like some of those showers found us after all. Well, that’s all right! Let’s get that stuff out of the way now and we’ll have all week…”

But you know that sooner or later there will be another voice: “Ah, seriously? Rain? This is just perfect. Why are we even doing this? Who wants to go stupid camping, anyway? I can’t believe you made me leave home to do this.”

Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

If you can imagine that situation, you can imagine the scene in Mark 4. Jesus has just finished a very, very long day of teaching. The crowds have been so large, in fact, that he’s had to preach from a boat for the entire time. And now, as evening falls and most people think that it’s time to head for home, he turns to his followers and says, “Hey, guys! Here’s a thought: let’s go that way!” And as he does so, he points to the east – to what Mark calls “the other side”.

As they’ve done innumerable times in the past, the disciples glance at each other. I don’t know if anyone actually says it, but they’re thinking it: “Seriously, Lord? There? You’ve gotta be kidding, Jesus. There’s nobody there… nobody, I mean, except for those people. The Gerasenes. The pagans. The unclean people. They’re not like us over there, Jesus.”

But Jesus is happy as a clam and either doesn’t notice or pretends not to notice and smiles, points to the other side, and slides into the place of honor in the back of the boat where he promptly falls asleep.

Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

As he slumbers, the storm comes up and these seasoned fishermen begin to whine and worry more and more. I can imagine every now and then one of them will jostle him just a little bit in the hopes that he’ll wake up and come to his senses, but that doesn’t happen. Finally, with a note of accusation and rebuke in their voices, they cry out, “Lord, do you even give a darn about the fact that we’re all going to die! Do you care? Wake up!”

This would probably be a really good time for me to interject and remind those of you who are here every week about the fact that our operating premise is that the Gospel of Mark was written first for a group of Christian believers in Rome who were the target of some pretty vicious persecution at the hand of the Emperor Nero. As they watched their loved ones being martyred, as they endured the loss of their homes, as they had to flee for their lives, I think it’s fair to say that they were acquainted with storms, and fear, and even the urge to lob an accusatory question in the direction of their Lord.

The first readers of the Gospel of Mark had to have been wondering – “Does he even know what’s going on here? Does he care? Where is Jesus now, when we need him?

The fellas in the boat found out the answer to that in a hurry. He is roused and he stands up and speaks two words to the tempest, saying essentially, “Stop! Be muzzled!”

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The disciples had to remember when he came across the man with an evil spirit back in chapter one and said very similar things, because they repeated the question that the earlier crowd had asked: “Who is this guy? And how does he do this?

I find Jesus’ choice of words here pretty instructive. “Siopa – ‘Hush’! – pephimoso – ‘be muzzled’!” I think about the animals I’ve been around who were muzzled, and it occurs to me that such an animal can still strike a lot of fear into my heart. There’s snarling, lunging, thrashing…but if that muzzle is on right – there are no teeth to deal with. The power to intimidate is present, but the power to destroy is diminished.

My sense is that the first readers of the Gospel of Mark heard this story and were reminded of the fact that even someone as mighty as Nero had limited power and would be of no eternal consequence.

I would imagine that there are those of us in the room today who long to hear a similar word. Some of us need the assurance that Jesus is still in the business of calming storms. You might remember that one of the ways that the people in scripture experience terror is as a result of the whirlwind, or the chaos, or the storm. Jesus’ disciples here are tossed about by circumstances beyond their control, and they are petrified and angry.

Some of you know how that chaos feels. And I have good news: the one who muzzled the storm on that day is present with us today, and he does care for you. There is a word of deep and powerful assurance for us.

Yet even as we cling to that promise of the presence, we must also hear a word of challenge. The disciples wake Jesus and they say, “Don’t you even care about us?”

And then Jesus does two things. First, as we’ve mentioned, he speaks to their fear. He calms the storm in which they find themselves. He cares for them. We love that part of the story.

But second, he keeps sailing. He keeps the boat filled with wet, hungry men who may or may not have fresh stains in the seats of their togas heading eastward in the middle of the night, sailing toward ‘the other side.’

With these actions, he proves to his disciples that yes, in fact, he does care for them. But equally, he demonstrates his care for the folks in the region to which they are heading. Look at what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t say, “Well, that was quite a shocker, eh boys? Look, we’ve all had a long day. What do you say? Let’s head back to Capernaum and we’ll think about crossing this sea some other time.”

No. He not only continues to move in the direction of the excluded, the marginalized, and the ignored, but he keeps dragging these disciples along with him. And so they sail into the night, toward the uncertain and unloved shores that lie ahead.

The passage from Corinthians demonstrates the fact that the Apostle Paul heard that challenge from Jesus loud and clear. In the reading you’ve just shared, he states emphatically that we are not free to look upon anyone or anything as beyond the care of God.

In Christ, he says, there is a new creation. There is a cosmic “do-over”. The Lord who has done so much in terms of reigning in the power of chaos in our lives is now charging us with the same ministry of reconciliation in the world.

Paul tells his congregation – and ours – that we are not free to merely acknowledge the power of Jesus in our own lives and go about our daily business full of thanksgiving for that relationship. No! We are, of course, called to notice that care, and to celebrate it – but then we are commissioned to be those who actively share it in the world around us.

Did you catch the last sentence of chapter 5? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Look – being in the boat as the storm becomes stilled does more than simply save our bacon – it changes us. We, who claim to be followers of Jesus, are not called to know about the righteousness of God. We are not called to believe in it, or to receive it. We’re not supposed to point to or even share the righteousness of God. What does Paul say? “…in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I believe that Jesus looked at the boys in the boat, and he looked at Paul, and he’s looking at you and at me, and he’s saying, “Look, you’re not just along for the ride, here. You’re not just being dragged along, hoping that I get past this ‘love your neighbor’ phase you are afraid I’m going through. YOU are the way that I am loving my neighbor! You are the ambassadors for reconciliation. You are the righteousness of God in the world today.”

Listen, I’m not discounting the need for us to be glad for those days when Jesus comes in and helps us get through the crisis that seeks to overwhelm us. Not at all.

But if that’s all we do, then we’d be like those who wanted to turn the boat around and head for home after things got scary. I think that in part, Jesus is helping us to recognize his power and authority in every sphere of creation so that we can invite others to notice and grow through those times too.

How do we do that? Here are two ideas to start with. First, I think that becoming the righteousness of God in the world today means that we are willing to engage with those whose experience is different from ours. For instance, the elders of the church are, in addition to the significant task of providing care and oversight to all the ministries of the congregation, dedicating a portion of each meeting to discussing the hope of racial reconciliation in our world today. Because our congregation is predominately white, and because each of our current elders is white, we have chosen to be led by Daniel Hill’s recent book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White. In so doing, we hope to remember that while our experiences are, well, our experiences, those experiences are not necessarily universal. We want to first consider, remember, and reflect upon who we are and how we got here, and then, we pray, be open to thinking about the fact that not everyone’s story is the same as ours.

Listen to this: when we got together earlier this week, I had to ask the elders to stop talking about the book so that they could do their work as elders. Moreover, when I made them stop discussing the book, they asked if they could come early to the next meeting so that we’d have more time to consider the power of Christ to inform and heal the racial divide that is so apparent in our world today.

In the same way, each of us can choose to consciously invest ourselves in seeking to understand something of the stories of the people who are in our lives. We can be attentive to the injustices that we see; we can extend ourselves in gestures that reflect the righteousness of God.

In addition to seeking to be more willing to engage with those whose experiences differ from ours, I want to challenge you, in the name of God, to refuse to dehumanize those whose opinions are at odds with your own.

This happens with alarming frequency on social media, but even those of us who swear we can’t be bothered with Facebook or Twitter or Insta-chat or whatever are more than willing to be sucked into this practice by whatever media and allegiances with which we choose to engage.

Look, I get it. You believe that the other person is wrong when it comes to gun rights or abortion or the Trump administration or freedom of speech or the willingness of the Pittsburgh Pirates to make any meaningful attempt to field a competitive team. You have your opinion. They have theirs. So talk about it. Or don’t.

But for the love of God, people – seriously – for the love of God – do not demean someone for whom Christ died by referring to them in terms that are degrading and dehumanizing. In what ways does calling someone a “wingnut”, a “libtard”, a “deplorable”, a “Trumpster”, or a “POS” help you to become the righteousness of God in the world today?

“Ah, relax, Pastor Dave. I’m just trolling people. I’m just trying to get a rise out of him… It’s nothing.”

So when you use your speech to demean, insult, attack, or ostracize me, it’s nothing… but when you use that same speech to tell me that Jesus loves me and cares for me in the midst of the storm, I should pay attention? That seems confusing to me, and is certainly not helpful to your cause.

Listen: on the night that Jesus took his friends out and they nearly got killed by the storm the boat was full of people who wondered if God really cared about them. I’m here to remind you that every boat, or car, or bus, or office, or schoolroom you walk into this week will be just as full of people asking the same question. You know the truth: Jesus does care. He wants to express that care so deeply that he has sent you to do it.

Remember that. And be care-full. And be grateful. Thanks be to God, who comes to us in the midst of the storms, and sends us through them. Amen.

 

[1] Jesus Teaching From a Boat, Carl Schmidt (1885-1969)

[2] Christ on the Sea of Galilee, Eugene Delacroix (1841)

[3] Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (c. 1955)

The Lord of the Sabbath

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 February 4 we joined with Peter in remembering the ways that Jesus confronted the power structures and pointed us towards practices that can restore our own lives.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:23-3:6.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

If you had come upon me in the college dining hall that evening and asked me how it was that I came to be wearing that lovely collage of mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate pudding, and coke, I might have said that I had no idea. But I’d have been lying.

A group of us were sitting around and, as often happens, began teasing one of our number. We fed on each other’s energy and wit, and failed to see that the more animated we became, the more sullen and withdrawn our victim was. I’m ashamed to say that I carried on more than most, and some of my peers were trying to get my attention – waving and gesturing to knock it off. During one interlude, the object of our jokes looked around and said, “One more time. Go ahead, say that one more time.” Would you believe me if I told you that four out of five college students were smart enough to shut up at that point?

But not me! I had to say it, one more time. And before I knew what was happening, my friend had flipped the trays off the table, covering me with the remains of his dinner, and walked out of the room.

My companions looked at me and laughed, and then said, “Come on, Dave, didn’t you see it? Man, he had the look. You gotta know that when he’s giving you that look, you better stop… or something messy could happen.”

None of you were there that day, but I think you know what I mean. Do you know someone who has “a look”? I know for a fact that some of you have “a look” – a way of glancing around the room and communicating that whatever is happening right now is serious stuff, and the rest of us had best pay attention…

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

According to one of the men who knew him best, Jesus had a “look”. We heard about it in the morning’s Gospel reading, where we’re told that Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

You may have been here the morning we started our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, where I suggested that even though we believe Mark to have been the writer, the source of this narrative is the Apostle Peter. When Peter is remembering this incident from Jesus’ life so many years before, he chooses a particular word. Where we have translated “look around”, the Greek uses periblepomai. It’s an unusual word, and we find that Mark uses it five times in his Gospel. Apart from one place where Luke is quoting this story, these are the only places in the New Testament where that word occurs.

My hunch is that the old fisherman didn’t remember everything, and he surely didn’t remember everything well (for instance, in our reading for today he mistakenly says that Abiathar was the High Priest, when in fact it was Ahimelek – and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the fact that all those Old Testament names were confusing to even one of the twelve apostles…) – but Peter would never forget the way that Jesus could hold a group with his eyes and give them the look that said so much more than words could ever say. To his dying day, the disciple remembered the searching, sweeping, examination that came from Jesus to those around him.

The Man With the Withered Hand (James Tissot, 1896)

The occasion for “the look” was a worship service. Jesus had begun to engage some of the religious and political leaders of his day about the appropriate ways to honor God and the commandments – especially the command to keep the Sabbath. I think that what really gets Jesus going here is the fact that these folks who claim to be on the side of holiness and righteousness are so willing to shamelessly use a man who would have been on the fringes of society to accomplish their ends.

They’ve invited “Lefty”, the fellow from down the street with a handicapped arm – a man whose ability to provide for his family would have been seriously limited in that day and age – and they use this man as bait to see whether or not Jesus will “break” the Sabbath again and try to heal this man’s hand. There is no hint of interest in actually making this poor guy’s life any better – he’s a tool they’re using to see whether their hatred for Jesus is “justified”.

Furthermore, Jesus calls these men out for pulling this stunt on the very day that they’re claiming to honor, saying, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”, knowing that they are, in fact, using the Sabbath to look for a way to destroy him (even though they’re cloaking everything in religious language).

So Jesus sees the trap that they’ve laid for him and simply glares at them, and then he goes ahead and brings healing to this man and his community. And now, these leaders have to make a choice. They could have celebrated that the man’s arm was now whole and he had a new kind of freedom. They could have asked Jesus how this sort of healing related to the Kingdom of which he spoke. They could have praised God. But you know what they did – verse six: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

I’m sure that you remember this really well, but for the sake of the person sitting next to you who’s a little fuzzy on all of these Bible names, let me remind you that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They oversaw worship and served as spiritual guides. The Herodians were a political party – they were people who were affiliated with and drew some benefit from their support of King Herod – the puppet governor that the Romans had set up to rule this part of the world.

It seems to me that this passage is just another reminder to us – and people of every age – that when the religious leaders and the political leaders get in bed with each other, it’s usually bad news for Jesus. Some things never change.

The broader context for this interchange has been set in the first part of our reading, the end of Mark 2. The disciples are walking through a field and as they do so, they grab a little fast food to munch as they walk. Immediately, the Pharisees point out that this is a violation of one of the rules – “everybody knows” that you can’t do that kind of work on the Sabbath. The “law” to which they refer isn’t found in the Bible, but rather a book of rules that humans had produced over the years to make sure that God’s rules weren’t being broken. You heard the commandment: God said to rest on the Sabbath, and use that day to remember God’s provision. This book to which the religious people point took that rule and broke it down. For instance, they said that you couldn’t walk on the grass on the Sabbath, because walking on the grass pressed it down, and pressing it down was like cutting it, and cutting it was work, and work was prohibited. A woman couldn’t look in the mirror on the Sabbath because if she did, she might see a grey hair, and then she might pluck it, and plucking a hair was work, which was not allowed. Pulling a stalk of grain and munching it as they walked was an example of this kind of violation, and the religious leaders are all over Jesus for being “soft” on the Sabbath.

Don’t we love doing that kind of thing? We take something that God has said and we put it in a box and wrap it up and say, “Well, of course, this is what God really meant to say… You know, God can be a little confusing sometimes, so don’t bother trying to figure it out on your own… just trust me. I know what God really meant – and you are wrong!”

God in a box is incredibly appealing for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we will never, ever get “the look” from a God we have gotten so well figured out that he’ll fit into our little box.

The truth is, of course, that a “god” who can fit into one of my little boxes isn’t really any kind of God at all. A god in a box is a god who will not surprise us, does not ask for anything from us, and ultimately has only as much power as we ourselves do.

Jesus modeled a life that was open to – and hopeful for – God’s intrusion. Jesus taught us to look for and to welcome God’s surprising appearances in our lives. While we want to say “yes” to that kind of faith the reality is that so often our existence is so crowded and so filled with work and obsessions and toys and screens and getting and spending that there is simply no room for God to interrupt. As a result, our lives themselves become increasingly difficult to interpret and decreasingly meaningful…

Here’s an example. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written late in the first century. It would have been written in Greek and on a scroll or a papyrus. Here’s an image of one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, called Papyrus 46:

A folio from
P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Can you make heads or tails of that? You say, “Of course not, Dave, it looks like Greek or something. I can’t read that.”

OK, so here’s the same text, translated into English. How’s this? Is that any better?

Maybe a little, but it’s tough, right? It’s all capitals, and there are no spaces or punctuation. Let’s try one more time.

Here’s the same passage, this time in English with punctuation and spaces. Does this make more sense?

Of course it does.

What’s different? The final version, in addition to being in English, has more “white space”. Although we would say that all of the heavy lifting in this image is being done by the dark print, the fact of the matter is that the message is actually conveyed because there is sufficient “white space” for our minds and eyes to be able to take in the content and process it. The white spaces on the pages of our books and magazines make it possible for us to glean meaning and purpose – we can get the message that the author intended in part because of the spaces that have been left blank.

Let me suggest that the practice of Sabbath as given by the Lord and upheld by Jesus is one of the best means by which we will be able to insert some “white space” into our own lives – a way in which we can reduce some of the clutter we encounter and therefore allow God some space that is out of the box in which to help us discern how best to honor him and serve our neighbor.

Choosing to honor God’s creational intent by setting aside some time for reflection and awareness will permit us to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity trusting that God can bring order out of chaos (it’s what he does, after all).

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century, said, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[1]

What I think that means for us is that we can get out of our own boxes by consciously setting aside some time to engage and be engaged by the Lord. Look for opportunities to wonder and to wander, and to lay down our insistence to be creating and making and spending and doing all the time.

If we do that, there’s a chance that we can get rid of our boxes as we recognize the truth that there is more to God than I can ever grasp, and there is more to life in God’s world than that of which I am currently aware.

You see, the fear that ruled the lives of the Pharisees and Herodians threatens each of us every day: what if God is bigger than we can imagine God to be?

The folks in the Synagogue that day had some idea of what God’s messiah would look like. They had it all figured out. But Jesus didn’t fit that image. And so Jesus had to die.

What about you? What about me? Am I open to God teaching me new things? I am willing to let Jesus shape me and change me? Or am I too comfortable with my own set of little beliefs and practices and I don’t really want to think about them too much, thanks all the same…

In Genesis, we learn that God created humanity in his own image. It was good. It was very good. The problem is that ever since then, we’ve been trying to create God in our own image – a god who fits in our own little boxes. And so we worship a god who has been, at times in the last couple of thousand years, a racist god, a violent god, a god who wants to make me rich, a god who tells me that I’m better than you…

Peter remembered Jesus giving “the look”. And while some of those present might have come to associate that only with the anger of Jesus, my sense is that Peter remembered it because it was so meaningful, so inviting, so searching that it changed him to his very core. May you and I this week seek to live and move and dwell in a rhythm that includes the Sabbath to the end that we might see and perceive the glance of the Savior as inviting us to new places of joy and participation. My charge for you this week is simple: find some time to sit still and allow Jesus to wrap you in his “look”. I suspect that you will be changed by that. Peter was. I know that I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 3)

With Friends Like These…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.