Anybody Want a Sandwich?

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.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Nothing But Dirt…

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 4 we delved into the parable of Jesus which receives the “marquee billing” not only in Mark, but in Luke and Matthew as well: the Parable of the Sower.  Our scriptures included Mark 4:1-20 and I Corinthians 3:5-9.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

In recent months, we have begun an intensive and intentional exploration of the Good News – the euangellion – the Gospel of Mark. In this time, we’ve seen the urgency with which this writer describes the ministry of Jesus. Mark doesn’t spend any time telling us about Jesus’ birth or childhood; most of the ink that has been spilled thus far has told us about what Jesus did and how people reacted to him. Some embraced him with great enthusiasm and even gave up everything to become his followers (disciples) or emissaries (apostles). Some, on the other hand, rejected him outright and thought of him as a threat. And some, not surprisingly, didn’t care much one way or the other.

Mark 4 represents a significant shift on the part of the author because it presents one of the longest sections of Jesus’ actual teaching contained in the gospel. For the first time, we are not reading about what Jesus said or did, but rather, we are given a front-row seat to one of the informal teaching sessions on the beach. If Mark decides that this is the time to stop talking about Jesus and start listening to Jesus, well, it must be significant.

To illustrate my point, I’ll mention that the author of the Gospel of Luke loved the parables of Jesus so much that we can find as many as twenty-seven such stories there. The Gospel of Matthew contains twenty-three parables. Mark, on the other hand, gives us only nine sayings that could be called parables, and only two of those are longer than four verses in our Bibles. Half of the parables in Mark are located in chapter 4, and the Parable of the Sower gets the most elaborate treatment of any such story in this Gospel. Given that the Gospels are emphatic in their assertion that Jesus often taught in parables, it would make sense for us to explore the one that Mark seemed to think was the most important of the bunch.

As we listen to this story, we hear some very familiar words, at least for some of us. Most of us know this tale about the man who scatters seeds and the conditions that threaten to limit his harvest. In that familiarity, we have a problem. The more we know a thing, the more we think we understand it, the more familiar we are with it, the more we think we have it tamed. So when the preacher mentions the sower and the soil and the seed, heads in the sanctuary nod approvingly and lovingly. “Oh, the one about the seeds – that’s my favorite!”, we gush.

But, as I’ve said, there’s a problem there- because the more that we domesticate the words of Jesus, the less able we are to hear them in the midst of our daily journeys. The Jesus of the Gospels is a Jesus who often spoke, thought, and acted in some very controversial ways. He was confusing. He was threatening. He was irritating – and the things that he said often did more to confuse his listeners than they did to clarify things. People came to Jesus looking for a book of rules, a checklist, an easy guide – and he spoke to them about farms and fishnets and fig trees.

And what’s worse, in the parables anyway, things never come out the way that we think they should. As theologian Robert Capon has said,

They set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat out of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Tax collector, the Prodigal, the Unjust steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Son, the Diligent workers); God’s response to a prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (The Friend at midnight), and, in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (The Wedding feast, Lazarus and the Rich Man)[1]

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes we hear a thing so often and we think we’ve got it figured out and it loses its power to really impact us.

The Sower, Van Gogh (1888)

Our reading for today, the Parable of the Sower, is given the Marquee Billing in the collections of Jesus’ parables that Matthew, Mark, and Luke put together. It is the one story to which they give the most attention and the greatest amount of space.

You’ve heard what happens. First, Jesus tells a story. Then, there are questions from the disciples about parables, and about this parable in particular. Then, Jesus interprets the parable for them.

Because we are so familiar with this story, we don’t think of it as surprising or irritating that Jesus should gather a crowd around him and then go on to tell a pretty straightforward story about a farmer, tell the folks that it was really important, and then sit down. But I think if I came up here and read you a paragraph or two from Architectural Digest or The Burpee Seed Catalogue and then sat down, you’d react in pretty much the same way that the disciples did. Why are you doing this? Is that supposed to make sense or something? But that’s what Jesus does. And that’s what the disciples do.

And then Jesus, rather than simply clarifying the whole mess like we’d really prefer him to do, muddles it even further. “Look,” he says, “You don’t understand much of anything about this Kingdom of God movement, do you? But one thing you DO get is the fact that it works in very mysterious ways. And as you go through your journey, the fact that you know it is a mystery will help you understand it. There are some people who can’t accept mysteries at all. Those people, when they journey through life, will find that less and less seems to be making sense to them – even the things that they used to think they understood.” And then Jesus sighs a bit and says, “You know, I think old Isaiah had it right. The more they depend only on their eyes and only on their ears, the less they are able to see and to hear. But you, you have the gift of me. Listen up, and I’ll tell you what I meant with that last story.”

And then Jesus proceeds to talk about the parable. But instead of providing his students with a nice little explanation about a straightforward farming story, his discussion introduces new interpretations that are anything but simple. If we are honest in our approach to this story, we’ll see that rather than providing us with an open-and-shut exposition, Jesus asks us to look at things in a whole new light.

For instance, who is the farmer in the parable? Because it’s church, our first guess is that it has to be Jesus – the one who goes about scattering his seeds. And I’ve also heard some sermons that tell us that now, the church – you and I are the sowers. It is our task, these messages say, to take the seeds of the gospel to new places and plant it on God’s behalf. Well, we have been commissioned to take the gospel, but you don’t find that in here. What you find here is a farmer, planting his seed.

Allow me to suggest that the farmer in this parable represents God the Father – the One who walks throughout his creation planting the seed, which is the Word. And God is not a sparing planter, either. He takes handfuls of the seed and throws it as high and as far as he can. God is a generous, flagrant, lavish sower who tosses the seed everywhere in creation.

And what is the seed? As Jesus said, the seed is the word. The LOGOS. And when the New Testament speaks of the Word, who is it talking about? Jesus, the word become flesh who dwelt among us. Jesus, the word become flesh who was literally buried. Jesus is the seed that is being so generously scattered throughout creation. Jesus is the seed that comes from the hand of God the Father – the seed that is being planted in the hearts of people everywhere.

The Parable of the Sower, Leighton Autrey (c. 2012)

And what’s left? The dirt. That’s us – the creation of God. Jesus goes on to say that there are four kinds of dirt – four types of people – in the world. Some of us have been hardened, for whatever reason, and are not able to let anything break the shell with which we have surrounded ourselves. And so the word that God so desperately longs to speak to us bounces off our thick exterior and is taken away from us.

Some of us are shallow. We want so badly to be receptive, to be able to open up, but sooner or later we pull back. The seed that we thought was going to be such a beautiful plant ends up as something else, or maybe we really can’t afford to give of ourselves, and so the seed dies within us, because there’s not enough space in our lives for it to take root.

And some of us are cluttered. Oh, great, give me some of that seed, we cry out. Plant it in us. Let it take hold. But sooner or later, we see so many other things that we want – that we need. There’s too much happening, and the word of God simply gets crowded out of our lives.

And some of us are fertile soil, says Jesus. Some of us are able to receive the seed, tuck it inside, and wait for it to grow, for it to spread its roots. In some of us the seed – the word of God – is free to do what seeds are supposed to do, and because of that, the seed turns into a plant that bears great fruit.

Now, if that’s true – if the sower is God the Father, the seed is the word of God and the word is Jesus Christ, and we are the dirt – if that is true, then what does it mean? What are the implications?

First, I think we need to recognize that the word of God is at work in the world all the time, everywhere, in everyone. Many of Jesus’ hearers were angry at him, because they wanted to know that Israel was superior in the eyes of God; they wanted to lock those other people out. And here is Jesus, telling a story that seems to include the whole world as candidates for receiving the attention and love of God. One thing that Jesus might be saying in this parable is that there is no need for we Christians to adopt a condescending posture towards the world – the world that must wait for us to bring the seeds to it – because the world has already had the seed scattered in and through it. And, like the seed, the Word of God is complete. It has everything it needs to grow – the Word can grow without someone like me hovering around all the time.

If that’s true, then how does that affect the way that I think about the young people who are a part of our After School program? How do I look into the eyes of the children who crowd into Pre School each morning? I am able to encounter these folks holding on to the truth that Jesus says there is already a seed of the word of God planted there by his Father. And it’s not just these kids, either. How do you approach your ex-wife, or that teacher you really can’t stand, or that boss who mistreats you? How do you pray for those folks? The kingdom of God is at work in them. The seed has been placed in their hearts. The Kingdom of God is active in our world — all over our world.

And that’s another implication of this parable: like a seed, the Kingdom works in a mysterious way. When I plant my beans or peas, I take a seed and I hide it in the earth. It disappears from my sight. It grows in secret. As you and I observe the fields that lie all around us, we have no right to judge where the seed has failed and where it has not — because we are not privy to the mystery of the kingdom. We act in as faithful a way as we know how, and then we realize that the end result is up to God – and we need to be prepared to be surprised by the results. The Kingdom of Heaven grows in secret, and in places we do not know.

And perhaps the most important implication for us this morning is the recognition of what is necessary for the seed that is planted to bear fruit. Please note that the ground that does host the seed that is fruitful does nothing — the only thing that it does is to NOT get in the way!

For centuries, we have been tempted to think of the Christian life as amassing a resume of good deeds. According to this parable, that’s not true. The Christian life is more a matter of letting the seed that has been planted in us grip us, take root in us, and bear fruit in us. It’s about nurturing the gift of God that is within you.

In the course of my ministry, I’ve had a number of really tired folks come into my study. I’m tired of trying, pastor. I’m tired of never matching up to what they expect of me. I’m tired of never feeling good enough for my parents. I’m tired of being poor. I’m tired of being tired. To tell you the truth, pastor, there are some times when I feel as though I’m nothing but dirt.

Imagine our surprise when, after saying something like that, God leaps up and says, “EXACTLY!! You are nothing but dirt. I am the farmer. My Son is the seed. So be good dirt – don’t crowd out the seed, don’t choke it, but let it do what seeds are designed to do. Don’t get in the way! The seed will grow – not you. But as the seed grows and bears fruit, you will be changed – your very essence will be different. You will be full of roots and covered with fruit. But let the seed in, and let it grow. You worry about being good dirt.”

The Apostle Paul catches that theme when he writes to the Corinthians: “You,” he says, “are God’s field. There is something going on in you – and it is God, not you, who is making it happen.”

Lent is a time for remembering that I’m nothing but dirt. Lent is an opportunity for me, and for you, to consciously explore the ways that we are called to receive the person and work of Christ. This week, I hope that you can find some time and space to reflect on the ways that your life is able to be receptive to the mission of Jesus. Let’s look for time in which we can do the work of confession and repentance and sorting out that can open the way for the surprising and miraculous work of God in Christ. Amen.

[1]Capon, Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985), p.10

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.

The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Return To Sender

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 10 I Corinthians 10:11-13 and Isaiah 43:1-7.

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

In 1962 Elvis Presley made a fairly forgettable movie entitled Girls, Girls, Girls in which he sang one of his best-selling songs, Return to Sender. I bet that many of you have heard this little ditty, which presupposes a reality wherein one party attempts to give another a message or letter, but the second party refuses, saying that she wants nothing to do with either the message or the one who sent it.

That song and phrase came to my mind as I was considering the theme of this week’s message. I don’t know about the stuff that you have to worry about when you go into work. I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard for construction workers to have debris fall on them, or for a fisherman to fall overboard, or for a nurse to get accidentally stuck by a needle. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you have to smile blandly through all kinds of terrible theology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with someone through a situation that is simply horrible – a devastating medical diagnosis, the sudden death of one who was greatly loved, the loss of a job… and some well-meaning person comes alongside and says, “Well, just remember… God won’t give you more than you can handle…”

And maybe it’s because it’s September and football season is upon us, but when I hear that I want to get out my little yellow bandanna and yell, “Flag on the play! That right there is a theology foul. You’re not allowed to say anything else for fifteen minutes!” Have you heard that one before? In keeping with our September theme of “Half Truths”, there is something that is vaguely spiritual and maybe even true-ish about this, but really, there are just so many reasons why this phrase is wrong…

Before we get to the theological foul, though, let’s consider where it might come from. Why do people say it, and how might they think that it’s connected to the Bible?

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

When God called the Apostle Paul to share the good news of Christ’s love in Europe, one of the places that Paul went was the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was an important center of shipping and commerce, and a real “melting pot” of the Roman Empire. There were all sorts of people with all kinds of ideas from all over the world who had gathered there. In many ways, Corinth was a “Navy Town” – a lot of sailors in and out, many of them looking to have a good time while they were ashore. In fact, in 50 AD if you were to say that someone was “living like a Corinthian”, you meant to imply that they were drunk and promiscuous.

In this context, Paul tries to launch a little church. He writes to those who had come to believe that they are to live lives centered in the holiness of God and the love of Christ. They respond, apparently, by saying, “Um, Paul, do you remember what it’s like here? How in the world can we stay faithful in a place like this? There’s no way we can be the kinds of people God wants us to be when we are surrounded by this kind of decadence and decay.”

Paul reminds them that it is possible to say “no”, and that, in fact, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” In other words, the Apostle is saying, when you are going about your daily business, you can always do what is right. God will not place you in a position where it is impossible for you to be a disciple.

And somehow, “God won’t send you to a place where it is impossible to be faithful” has shifted to “Anything that happens to you is from God and he will pull you through it.” That is, essentially, what we are saying when we say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, right? If you wake up one morning and you have this huge ball of ugliness staring you in the face, this is the “truth” to which many would have you turn: You have to get through this… after all, God won’t give you more than you can handle, right?

Just think about that for a moment, and then think about this week’s news, or your life. That hurricane that just wiped out your town… That unspeakable event that occurred when you were nine…and eleven…and thirteen… Those cancer cells that are tearing apart your loved one’s brain… Are they “gifts” from God? Did God send them to people? Did God give them?

If we say that “God won’t give me more than I can handle”, then we’re saying that any and all pain and struggle and dis-ease I might experience is, in fact, a gift from God.

And if hurricanes, abuse, and cancer are sent… do we have the option of simply refusing delivery and saying, “Return to sender….”? Can we say, “That is not acceptable. I want a different life, please…”

I suspect that some of you have tried that strategy. In the words of the famous theologian, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Here’s the truth: I often turn to I Corinthians 10 when I am faced with a moral choice, or when I want to give up in the face of adversity. These verses are really helpful to me – as they were intended to be to the original recipients – when I am trying to chart a course of moral behavior in the midst of confusing times. This message from Paul is a great reminder that you and I have the power to choose how we might respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

But when I need to make sense of a situation in which some part of my world is apparently going to hell in a handbasket, I find that Isaiah 43 is more useful. Here, the prophet is speaking to a group who have witnessed and lived through the unspeakable. They are returning from an exile in a foreign land, and they see the devastation of their homes. They have to be asking themselves and each other, “What’s going on here? Is YHWH really in charge? Or are the gods of Babylon and Assyria more powerful? What has happened? What are we going to do?”

Isaiah begins by anchoring his message in who God is – God is sovereign and mighty. God is the force behind all that is – God is the creator. More than that, YHWH is a God of power. He calls us by name – we do not have to invent ourselves, God tells us who we are. And then, after we understand who God is and who we are, the prophet tells us where God is. God is with us, it says in verse 3. Do you remember the phrase that Isaiah used earlier to describe the presence of God? Immanuel. God with us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and our God – is not a deity who sits on a lofty throne, scoffing at the creation, occasionally tossing lightning bolts at people when they get out of line. Far from it.

In fact, Isaiah names the fears that these vulnerable people have: the rising flood waters, the burning flames – elements that will consume us in a heartbeat – and says, “When (not IF) these things happen, I am with you.

Why? Why would YHWH, why would our God, act this way? The answer to that comes at the very center of today’s reading, verse 4: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I want to show you a graphic that I made up while I was studying this passage. I know that it’s a lot of words, and it’s a little nerdy, but remember that I was an English Major in college, and that you love me. I want to show you how the shape of Isaiah 43 reinforces the meaning.

This passage appears to be written in the form of a chiasm – that is, a literary style where there is a key point that is surrounded by a series of mirrored phrases or themes. If I’m right about this, then the core message of Isaiah 43:1-7 is that you are loved and cared for by God – the God who promises to be with you, who calls to you, and who has in fact created you. This passage starts and ends with the power of God in creation, but is centered on the notion that wherever you are, God is right there with you.

If that’s true, then, the promise is not that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, but rather “Whatever mess you find yourself in right now, you can get through, because you are not alone.” You can have strength for the battles you fight every day; you can have endurance and stamina for the daily grind; and you can have hope for the days and situations that you cannot yet see.

I began this message by citing Elvis Presley, and suggesting that there might be times where we wish we could take some portion of our life and mark it “return to sender – no such number…” Perhaps the message of this morning needs to be a reminder that it is, in fact, we who are being “returned to sender”. Could that be what is being said in the last few verses of our reading from Isaiah? That God will call all that he has made, everything that bears his name, and that he will give an ultimate place, context, and home to the creation?

Hear me, people of God – I do not want to get all “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” on you. I do not want to say, “Oh, come on, you can make it – I mean, it won’t matter that you’re suffering now because heaven is going to be so great.” That is not what I’m saying here.

However, we must realize that there is always more to our lives, the workings of the world, and the movement of the creation, than we can see. We confess that our perspective is limited and finite, but that God’s is neither. I think that means that we come to worship trusting in the ultimate and eternal intentions of our creator even as we do our best to face the challenges of any particular day.

So to those of you who are feeling as though you are stuck in a place of unspeakability right now – those of you who find that it is difficult to see much of anything in terms of God’s eternal purpose and design… let me simply encourage you to hold God to his promise. Here’s a prayer you can use: “God, you said that you love me. You said that you’d be with me. How are you with me? Where is your love?” Ask God those questions.

And to those of you are are not stuck right now, but live in a world that is filled with horrible places, let me encourage you to ask God how you might be an answer to the prayers that his children are calling into the darkness. If you have the presence and love of God, you can share that love and presence. And when you’re in the grip of terror or pain, sometimes just being with someone who can bear witness to the presence and love is enough. So please, beloved, ask God where you need to show up in the days to come.

God doesn’t “give” hurricanes, or drunk drivers, or abuse. And yet our lives are interrupted by those things in ways that seem horrible. Thanks be to God that God does give us each other. And thanks be to God that God does promise his love and his presence. May we share those things in abundance as we encounter the trials of this day, this week, and this year. Amen.

Deal Gently…

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  June 25, we rejoined that narrative and considered the ways that David reacted to the rebellion of his beloved son, Absalom.  The text was from II Samuel 18:1-8 and we also considered John 13:34-35.

 

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

 

Do you remember being in a place or time where you saw something happening that you thought was just terrible, but you felt as though you were powerless to stop it because you were too young, or too recently hired, or too inexperienced, or something similar? Maybe you were playing in a youth ball game and the coach totally belittled a player who’d made an error, and you thought, “When I get to be coach, I’ll never do that!” It could be that you watched your parents relate (or fail to relate) with each other and you made a vow that if you ever got married, things would be different in your house. Or maybe you had just been hired and your supervisor threw you under the bus at the budget meeting, causing you to vow, “When I’m in charge, this will not happen!” Does anyone remember something like that? More to my point, can you think of something you do now, consciously, as a result of such an experience?

“Saul Wishes to Slay Jonathan” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

I’m asking because as we return to our year-long study of King David, I’m pretty sure that the events of this part of the story are framed by David’s experiences as a young man. Perhaps you’ll recall back in October, when we listened to the part of the story that took place prior to David’s installation as king of Israel. He was living with Saul, the acknowledged king, and more than anything, Saul wanted his son, Jonathan, to be king after him. Jonathan and David were best friends – like brothers, really – and while Jonathan could see God’s hand of blessing on David, and the future of a Davidic kingship, Saul was blinded with rage. In fact, not only did Saul repeatedly try to murder David so as to ensure that Jonathan would succeed him, when he thought that Jonathan was helping David he actually tried to kill his own son, too. I can only imagine a young David thinking to himself, “If and when I make it to the throne, I will never, ever treat my son like that…” Those experiences had to have left some vivid scars on David!

“Absalom Leaves David To Start a Conspiracy,” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

The last time we heard from this story, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had been killed by his younger brother, Absalom. Following that, Absalom fled the country and even when he returned after three years, his father wouldn’t speak to him for two more years. David is apparently overwhelmed with depression or lethargy or something, and Absalom decides that he’d really like to be king – even if the office isn’t vacant yet. The prince wins the support of the military and many of the people of Israel, and then declares war on his father. Absalom has the advantage of numbers, perhaps, but David is more experienced and has a much better network and strategy.

II Samuel chapters 15 – 17 describe the lead-up to the battle that everyone knows is coming, and so it seems a little anticlimactic when the entire conflict is summarized in two verses you heard earlier – David and his men put down the rebellion.

What strikes me about today’s reading, however, is the conversation that David has with his key leaders on the eve of the battle. He proposes one strategy, and they make a counter-proposal that he humbly accepts. Then he issues a direct order: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

David has thousands of men assembled to go out and protect him from this son who is trying to kill him… and he says, “Deal gently…” David remembers a father who sought to slay his own son, and he wants no part of this – no matter what Absalom has done. One translator renders this verse as “For my sake, be sure that Absalom comes back unharmed.” (CEV) Let’s unpack this phrase and consider some of its implications for us today.

The first imperative is, of course, “deal”. Absalom has created a huge problem, and that problem has got to be dealt with. David is unwilling to simply roll over and pretend that he’s not king anymore. Absalom has made a serious threat to David and the entire nation, and that has got to be named, taken seriously, and resolved.

But there’s an adverb – a word that is used to express the means by which the imperative is to be carried out. By all means, deal with the situation – but do so gently. Do not be harsh or cruel to the young man…

And the order ends with what the grammarians call a “subordinate clause”. The dealing that needs to be done, and the gentleness in which it is hoped to occur, are to be carried out “for my sake”. Of course, David recognizes that Absalom is dead wrong here. But David hopes that the breach is not beyond repair. “Don’t give Absalom what he deserves”, the king says. “For my sake, treat him better than that…”

So what can we learn from this for our own lives today?

Well, again, let’s start at the top. Deal. You and I encounter a host of issues in our lives every day. Most of them, thankfully, don’t rise to the level of having one of our children try to kill us in cold blood, but each of us faces challenges, slights, wounds, and attacks from others. Many of these are not significant enough to bother with – and you can walk away and let them roll off your back without causing anyone any damage.

But, beloved, you know that there are some attacks, some offenses that have wounded and continue to grieve you. If you pretend otherwise, you are simply allowing an open sore to fester and become infected with resentment and perhaps lead to a greater disaster in the days ahead. After all, David sought to ignore the difficulty with Absalom for years – and found that his son’s resentment grew every day.

Look at your life, look at your situations, and seek to discern what it is that you need to deal with. What is there that is happening to you or around you (or maybe because of you) that cannot be excused or ignored and must, instead, be named and dealt with. If you are being mistreated by a colleague at work, or in an abusive relationship, or otherwise being marginalized or diminished, it may be time for you to come up with a plan to address and improve this situation.

When you see that, make sure that your plan for correction includes humility. Deal – but deal gently. How can you move towards healing and changed relationship in a way that doesn’t do violence to someone else? Not long ago, I had to ask a friend to write a letter to a pastoral colleague in another state. The reason I had to do this was because many years ago, an issue developed between the two of us. I was quick to name the issue, and I spoke truth to the person who was in the wrong. But listen to me, people of God: even though I spoke truth, I did so harshly and clumsily. I wounded my colleague to the extent that she ended our relationship. Because of my arrogance, a friendship was broken unnecessarily.

As you seek to address the situations in your lives with humility and honesty, know that you need to do so for your own sake. Even the boss that is mistreating you, or the spouse who abuses you… if you do not find a way to let go of the pain or resentment, it will become a cancer inside of you that will overwhelm you. You may be 100% correct, and have all the virtues of truth and justice on your side… but if you do not seek to overcome the pain or work through the grief, you will be weighed down forever. Any resentment that you harbor will ferment into toxicity. A few of us were talking not long ago about a quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” No matter who was at fault, no matter where the blame lay – if you cannot find some way to deal with it, pain and bitterness will eventually consume you.

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

Deal gently…for your own sake. That sounds pretty easy. Six little words. But how do you do that when the problem is as big as an abusive relationship or an addiction that is sucking the life from an entire family? How do you do that when you are filled with shame or depression or fear?

We can take another lesson from David here. In the chapters leading up to our reading from II Samuel, there is an account of the ways that David and Absalom prepared for this clash.

Absalom was hungry for power; he told people what they wanted to hear, and he surrounded himself with those who did the same for him. He made as though he was going to worship the Lord, but he did so only as a ruse – for Absalom, faith, humility, and integrity were foreign concepts. Life was a show, and as long as the spotlight was on Absalom, things were good.

We’ve talked enough about David to know that he, the people of Israel, and anyone else knew that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch. He was deeply flawed; he both gave and received significant pain. Yet on this occasion, David sought to surround himself with people he knew and trusted were committed not only to him, but to the Lord. Some of these people had been with him for years, and he’d trusted them with his life on many occasions – men like Joab and Abishai. But others were newcomers who had impressed him with their faithfulness and wisdom. In fact, the third commander that David entrusted on this day was Ittai, a Philistine man who had only been in town for a couple of days – but David recognized that he had gifts and wisdom that would help the nation. And when these three men heard David’s plan, they helped him to see the flaws in it and he allowed them to re-shape the strategy that wound up allowing his monarchy to survive despite being desperately outnumbered.

Beloved, are you surrounded by trustworthy companions who will help you do what you need to do? Are you humble enough to hear the thoughtful encouragement and good counsel of others? Is there someone in your life who can tell you not just what you want to hear, but the truth?

Moreover, is there someone who will walk with you into the difficult places when you’re not sure you can get there on your own? If you are trapped in an abusive relationship, who will help you be strong enough to leave it? Who loves you enough to not only tell you the truth about the damage that addiction is doing in your family or circle of friends, but to go with you to an AA or Al-Anon meeting? Is there someone who will care enough for you to sit with you in the midst of your depression or anger and then not leave you there all alone?

The story of Absalom’s rebellion does not end well for anyone, really. Absalom is caught up in his own scheming and pride, and eventually Joab runs him through without blinking an eye; David was restored to the palace in Jerusalem, and sought to make peace with those who had rebelled – even issuing a general amnesty. It was a painful time, and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come. For now, I want to emphasize the fact that each of us have situations in our personal and professional lives that need to be dealt with and addressed with gentleness and humility so that they will not overwhelm the things that God is trying to accomplish in and through us. We seek out good counsel from old and new friends and hope to find a way to live into that which is best.

Jesus showed us how to do this. On the night that he was arrested, he watched his friend Judas get up from the table and embark on his traitorous mission. And then he looked his followers square in the eyes and said, “Listen: the only way we’re going to get anything done is if you love each other the way that I love you. The only way any of this is going to make sense to anyone else is if you can put aside all of your fears and failures and give yourselves fully to each other and to the work I’ve put before you. Love each other.”

At the end of the day, Absalom lay dead and the old king’s heart was nearly broken. David cried out, “Oh Absalom, my son! If only I had died instead of you… my son… my son.” As Frederick Buechner points out, David meant every word of that. “If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”[1]

In David’s love for both his people and his son, we see something of God’s love for us and for our world. Let us learn from that love, and let us share that love in the days we’ve been given. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures:A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6