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


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)