Being Focused in the Furnace of Exile

Like much of the rest of the world, The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are living in the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 10 included James 1:1-5 and Daniel 3:13-30

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player just below.  Note that a YouTube link for the entire service appears at the end of this post.

Well, here we are.  It’s been 56 days since many of us worshiped together in this room.  55 days ago the President told us to stay indoors for 15 days.  There have been 37 days since Governor Wolf issued his “stay at home” order for the entire state.  How do you measure how long you’ve been adapting to our current reality?

Today is Mother’s Day.  Many of you who are with us this morning woke up to snow yesterday.  On May 9!  Your pastor, who encouraged you to plant seeds at Easter, is grieving over his kiwi blossoms and sweet potato starts today.

What in the blue blazes is going on here?

In the midst of a long day, when there was seemingly one challenge after another, the saintly woman we know as Mother Theresa was frustrated and exasperated.  At one point she let out a long sigh and said, “I know that God won’t give me anything more than I can handle…but there are some days when I wish God didn’t trust me so much.”

Do you know that?  Have you felt that?  Have you been down a road of pain and suffering and frustration and cried out to the Lord?  If you have, then you have learned one of the greatest lessons of the Christian faith.

The last time I preached to you, we talked about the fact that the Book of Daniel teaches us something that goes against our American culture.  Do you remember?  We said that although the culture insists that I am a free agent, I am the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship… the scriptures teach that God is in control and in fact God tells me who I am.

Today’s readings are similarly challenging.  Whereas much of our world believes that suffering is evil; or that it is punishment; and that it is to be avoided at all costs – the scripture teaches us that suffering is not meaningless.  In fact, if the Bible teaches us anything, it is in fact that suffering, far from being evil, can be redemptive.  That suffering can be a path to blessing.  Did you hear James?  “Consider it nothing but joy…”, he says!  Seriously?

Do you remember last week when I suggested that the story of Daniel was meant to remind people of the story of Joseph?  Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers?  “You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people…” (Gen. 50:20 NCV)

And now today we walk into the furnace with these three kids who have been taken away from anything that they ever thought was “normal”.  Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire!”  And yet the witness of scripture seems to be clear: suffering is not meaningless.

When we started this series of messages, I described for you the context in which the Book of Daniel was first read.  Do you remember?  We talked about the terrible difficulties that the people of faith had already endured: they’d been exiled, quarantined, forced to adapt to different schedules, different diets, living in a climate of political turmoil and fear day after day. And to these people, beset by one trial after another, God reveals the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

As we consider this tale, I need to say that we’ve lost our ability to hear an important part of this story.  Our culture is one that insists upon, and rushes towards, a happy ending.  We know that their suffering will not last – and so we basically skip it altogether.  When we tell our children this story, we don’t dwell in the horrors of the furnace, we skip to the happy ending that we know is coming.  Yet it’s a story about profound suffering that carries with it profound truth.

The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon of the Novgorod school).

What is the place of suffering in Daniel 3? The first thing that we see is that this trial provides an opportunity for these three boys to be faithful to the Lord.  Think: what do the young men say to the King when he threatens them with the furnace? My hunch is that we remember them saying something like this: “Our God will save us from the fire, O king.”  But that’s not it at all.  From the text, it’s plain to see that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have no certainty about their future.

A faithful translation of verses 16-18 might go something like this:  “…King Nebuchadnezzar, Your threat means nothing to us.  If you throw us into the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king.  But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king.  We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (The Message)  Do you see?  They acknowledge that they don’t know whether God will save them or not – and they don’t seem to think that’s the most important part of the story. What is the most important thing for these boys?  Obeying God!

Do you remember the first commandment?  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surely did.  What about the second?  That’s what they were thinking.  Nebuchadnezzar was sure that they’d try to save their lives, but all they were thinking was, “Have no gods before me” and “do not worship idols”.  The trial in front of the fiery furnace was a chance for these three young men of faith to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing to obey the commands of God

So, in Daniel, suffering provides a chance to be faithful to God.  But that’s not all.  It also puts us in a place where we can shed the things that are unimportant or even harmful to us.  Look again at the reading from Daniel.  Old Nebuchadnezzar heats up the furnace all right, but what happens when the three boys are tossed in?  Who dies?  The Babylonian guards.

And what actually gets burnt up in the fire?  When these kids are thrown into that fire, the cords that have constricted them are consumed by the blaze.  As a result of being thrown into the furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become untied.  When they emerge from the furnace, they are freer than they were when they went into it.

Now I want to be very, very careful as I say this, and I hope that you are listening carefully as well.  I am NOT saying that God sends us terrible pain or experiences or death or disease because God wants us to somehow get loosened up because of those things.  That is not what I’m saying at all.  And yet I am saying that the kinds of disruption and disorientation that accompany suffering and trials can sometimes free us to experience things in a new way.

To be crystal clear: Pastor Dave is not preaching that the God sent us the coronavirus to teach us a lesson.  That God unleashed this pandemic in order that we might be attentive and straighten up and fly right.  Nope.  Nope.  Nope.

And yet, here we are – in the middle of this experience that has been deadly for hundreds of thousands, frightening for millions, and inconvenient for billions.  While I’m saying that God didn’t do this to teach us a lesson, I would also say that we would be fools to ignore what may be learned while we’re here.

One of the most disturbing refrains in recent weeks is “Can’t we please just get back to normal?”  As if the experience we shared in February is the nirvana toward which we are all striving, and the measure of perfection that defines the best humanity can do.

Do I need to remind you that in February, an unarmed African-American man was out jogging and apparently hunted down and slaughtered by two white men?  Or that a civil war in Syria was raging, involving not only warring factions within that nation but Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, and the USA?  That the pace of our lives and our thirst for energy was consuming us and destroying the planet?

Here’s my point: we are in a difficult, difficult place.  Many people we love are far worse off than we.  We want the lockdown to end, the virus to die, and to be restored to our jobs and our friends and families.  But let’s not settle for going “back to normal”.  “Normal” wasn’t the best for us any more than the situation just prior to the furnace was the best for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Let’s use this time of separation and isolation and disruption to imagine a new normal.  To think about moving forward to the next best thing, rather than simply going back to how it used to be.  To think of new ways to be present and attentive to ourselves and our neighbors; to pray for a new imagination; to seek new patterns of shopping, consumption, and growth; to search for new avenues in which to oppose racism and other evils.

What I’m saying is that maybe there is something about suffering and trial that can make us better able to hear the voice of the Lord – something about painful situations and loss that can help us to lose the bonds that have held us back and be free to move – even in the midst of the fire.  How does this happen?  When we realize that we are not in the midst of the fire alone – but that God himself is there with us.

Because that is what happens in our story!  Nebuchadnezzar himself points out that there is a fourth person in the fire.  Now, think about that for a moment.  For some reason, God does not prevent the young men from facing the ordeal of the furnace – yet we must note that God does not allow them to go through it alone.  God is present with them every step of the way.  So much so that when they come out of the furnace, they don’t even smell like smoke!

Beloved, remember that you are not now, and you never will be truly alone. When you feel as though things are so awfully hard to bear, remember that you are not in a position where you are holding them all by yourself.  I believe that one of the reasons we have been given this story is that we might be assured by the promise and the presence of the Holy One in the midst of the crucible of suffering.

Why do we remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego?  Why do we tell these stories to our children?  After all, there’s not a person in this room who has been threatened with death in a fiery furnace.  We are not in the same situation as those boys, nor as the original hearers of the story.

I would suggest that one of the reasons we tell these stories to the people we love is because we want to remind them – and ourselves, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to us.

When I was a boy, and my mother would go to work as a nurse, there would be times when I would hear her talk about her patients.  One day, I remember her saying about a friend, “But what if she doesn’t die?  That might be really terrible…”  And I remember looking at her as if she were crazy – after all, what could possibly be worse than death?  And she read my mind, because she looked at me and said, “You know, David, there are many things worse than dying.”

My mother was right.  Giving up is worse than dying.  Living a life without purpose or meaning is worse than dying.  Refusing to let go of the cords that bind you up is worse than dying.

Are you in the midst of suffering and pain?  Can you cry out to God?  Can you hold onto God?  Will you look for God’s presence in the midst of the furnace that you’re in?  Will you remember that your story isn’t finished yet?

I’m told that a bar of steel weighing several pounds is worth, say, $10.  If you take that same steel and shape it into several horseshoes, the value rises to $25.  Make it into nails, and it’s worth a little more.  Fashion it into sewing needles and the value rises to $350.   Yet if you take that same amount of steel and fashion it into delicate springs for expensive watches, it’s worth more than $250,000.  The same bar of steel is made more valuable by being cut to its proper size, passed through one furnace after another, again and again.  It is hammered, beaten, ground, finished, polished, and manipulated until it’s ready for a delicate task.

What about you?  Are you being heated, pounded, shaped?  You don’t need to run from it, you know.  Just look for the One who calls you.  Look around the furnace for the one who is faithful.  Cry out.  Do your part, and trust the One who made you and who is with you still to do the rest.  Let us look forward, in hope, to a new kind of normal in the months to come.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

Being Faithful in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 19, 2020 to continue the celebration of Easter.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it important  to share the good news as is found in Daniel 1 (excerpted below) and I Corinthians 9:24-27.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a YouTube link for the entire worship at the end of this entry.

Perhaps you know the story about the skeptic sitting in an airplane next to an elderly woman who was reading her Bible.  She leafed through the well-worn volume, evidently looking for encouragement and hope.  He said, “Ma’am, you know that there’s nothing in that book that can help you.  You’re just going to have to trust the pilot and the engineers.”

She responded by saying that she had great faith in the bible.  He sneered, “What a bunch of rubbish!  I mean, how can you believe that?  Do you honestly think that, for instance, there was a man named Jonah, and he was swallowed by a fish, and he somehow lived inside that fish for three days?  How could such a thing ever happen?”

She paused for a moment and said, “You know, that’s an excellent question.  I think that I’ll ask Jonah that when I see him in heaven.”

The skeptic replied, “Oh, sure.  Well what if Jonah’s not even IN heaven when you get there?  What if for some reason he’s in hell?”

She set the Bible on her lap and looked at the man and said, “Well, then, I guess you can just ask him yourself!”

You know, sometimes you show up at church and the preacher hands you a whopper and expects you to believe it. Here you are, trying to be a responsible citizen of the 21st century, and you never know when you walk in here whether someone is going to be talking about miraculous healings, a talking donkey, or even a person who comes back from the dead!

This week, we’re going to begin a series of messages that focus on a story that took place a long, long time ago in an empire far, far away.  I have to warn you, this story may stretch you.

I mean, it’s an incredible tale about a group of people whose lives were upended.  They were forced into a quarantine, isolated from their families, unable to participate in their regular school or occupational activities.  They had to deal with new food regulations and new ways of interacting with each other in public.

And it’s not just a small group, either.  This situation affected people all over the known world.  And don’t even get me started on the political situation then – it was a red hot mess.  There were leaders talking out of both sides of their mouths; clowns and buffoons who were arrogant, ill-informed, self-serving, and at times downright evil.  Many aspects of that society were characterized by instability, uncertainty, fear, anger, boredom, and isolation.

Can you even imagine a world like that?  I know, the Bible is filled with some crazy stories, right?  But it’s here.  Listen to the Book of Daniel, starting in chapter 1.

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 

Daniel and His Friends, Artist unknown

So who is Daniel? When our story begins, he’s a boy of 13 or 15 years old.  He’s been born into a prominent family in Jerusalem, and enrolled in the program for the gifted.  He’s been identified as a future leader, a kid with potential – and when the nation falls, he’s kidnapped by the Empire and forced to relocate to Babylon where along with a small group of his peers, he endures isolation and is subject to an entirely new culture and lifestyle.

More than that, there is a plot afoot to re-educate, to re-mold, to re-make Daniel.  The book continues:

The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

We’re told that he and his companions were given new names.  Sometimes, we do that, don’t we?  When we meet someone from Malawi, and find that her name is Chimwemwe – well, that’s just hard to say, and so she says, “Just call me ‘Joy’”.  In her own language, Chimwemwe means joy.  But that’s not what happens here.  Daniel is a fine Jewish name, and it means something like, “God is my judge.”  But when he’s taken to Babylon, people start calling him Belteshazzar, which can be translated as “may the goddess protect the king”.

Do you see what’s happening here?  This is not a shift in moniker so that people’s tongues can pronounce a name more easily; it represents, instead, an attempted shift in identity.  All his life, Daniel’s been told – every time his name is uttered – that he is a child of God and a participant in a promise.  Now, he’s told that he’s an investment; a commodity; a slave; an insurance policy.

Some of you know how that feels.  For a long time, you thought you knew who you were.  You had your identity in a series of relationships: you were a teacher, a student; a grandparent, a host.  And now someone is telling you that you can’t act that way right now.

Or maybe your identity came from what you do on what you’d think of as a “normal” day.  You think that you sell houses, or cut hair, or make doughnuts… but now you can’t do those things.  And if you can’t do them, are you still you?

And all the while we’re getting messages from those in authority: remember, you’re an American!  Remember, you’ve got to go out and BUY stuff, because you’re a consumer. You’ve got to SHOP, people!

Who are you, anyhow?  And who gets to tell you who you are?

In the book that bears his name, Daniel refuses to let the Empire define him.  Listen:

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.

There’s an old proverb in the Middle East that says, “I saw them eating, and I knew who they were.” That doesn’t make much sense in our culture of dining out and sampling a variety of ethnic delicacies, but in that part of the world, at that time, what you ate and who you ate it with spoke volumes.  Eating was, in many ways, something that was done religiously.  So note that in this section, not only does Daniel refuse his Empire-given name, he refuses to share the King’s table.

Essentially, Daniel is saying, “I know that I belong to God, and will not become dependent on Nebuchadnezzar or anyone other than the Lord.”

Now, this does not make Ashpenaz, the Palace Master – the head of all the captives – a happy camper. He knows that if something bad happens to Daniel or his friends, that it will be his job – his head – on the line.  So he doesn’t want any part of tinkering with Daniel’s diet.

His underling, however, is a different story.  It seems as though the head guard and Daniel arrange a deal: Daniel and his friends will trade the rich meat and fine wine from the king’s table for some fresh fruits and vegetables that this steward is willing to bring in.  It’s a great deal for the guard, who had probably never seen that kind of meat in his life.  And it allows Daniel and his friends to remain loyal to God.

Daniel realized that saying “yes” to God would mean saying “no” to certain things in his world, and he did so.  And the result, as we see it here at the end of chapter one, is that Daniel and the boys ended up getting straight A’s on their final exams – in everything from gym class to calculus, they were ahead of the others.  God saw what they were doing and blessed them because of it.

And right now, it would be nice if I would wrap this sermon up with a little moralistic lesson.  Right now, you wish I could say, “See, friends, that’s the kind of God we serve.  You treat God right, and you’ll be blessed with success and riches. After all, that’s what happened in Daniel, right?”

That is the Good News, is it not?

It is the Good News… but it’s not all of the Good News.  In our New Testament reading for today, we hear from the Apostle Paul.  We’re not exactly sure where he’s writing from, but I can tell you it’s not the Presidential Suite at the Crowne Plaza.  He’s in prison somewhere, waiting for word on his fate.  He’s been faithful to Jesus, and so far that faithfulness has gotten him beaten up, spat upon, cursed, and jailed.  And he keeps on writing, because Paul knew that faithfulness doesn’t always lead to a new car, a date for the prom, or the corner office.

Paul and Daniel served the same God, belonged to the same people, and faced the same dilemma: how is it possible to maintain or regain my true self in a world where everything seems to be shifted?  How do I live faithfully when all of the markers seem to be re-arranged?

Have you found yourself asking questions like that in the past month? I can’t imagine that you have not!  Let me offer a few observations based on my reading of Daniel and Paul that might be of help to us in the age of Coronavirus.

Let us remember, beloved, who (and whose) we are.  You are called by God.  You have been named by God.  I know, we are taught over and over again by the Empire to find our worth in what we have… but how can we do that when our savings are plummeting and our resources appear to be more finite than ever?  We have been taught over and over again by the Empire to define ourselves by how we look… but how can we do that when we can’t get to the barber shop or buy new clothes?

And there are some in the Empire who are unable to remember the deeper truths.  And so there were people out protesting the other day because their need for validation as those who have independence and agency as defined by what they buy and how they look has been compromised by a stay-at-home mandate from the health officials.

Seriously?  Your ‘right’ to get rid of the gray in your roots, or to eat chicken wings at a bar is so significant that you want to put other people at risk with foolhardy behavior?  You are not what you own, where you shop, or how you look.  You’re not.

And remember, beloved, that you are not alone.  Daniel formed a pact with his peers, and we’ll hear more about that in the weeks to come.  Paul was always traveling with someone, and in I Corinthians we know that he’s with Sothsenes even as he reaches out to a larger community.

Can we seek to redefine our sense of community and what it means to connect?  I am profoundly grateful for the social media that allows us to connect in worship with a sense of immediacy and presence even as we are unable to gather in person.  Will you remember that you are connected?  Will you practice that connection by showing up for the Zoom youth group meeting or the Wednesday night discussion group?  And let’s not forget that most of you have one of these [cell phones].  There’s a really cool app that comes pre-installed on every single one of these devices, no matter how old it is.  Did you know that you can hold it, punch in a series of numbers, and actually talk to another living human being?  You don’t have to use this just to broadcast texts or tweets or status updates.  You can talk to each other on these things.  It’s amazing!

And lastly, let me encourage you to join our brothers Daniel and Paul in remembering to stay focused.  In the current state of affairs, we, no less than they, are called to remember that we are in it for the long haul.

I’ve been corresponding for a year or so with someone who has experienced a debilitating illness, and it nearly killed them.  I reflected the other day that early in this process, I was sending messages that were filled with caution against panic and fear.  I was trying to beat down the notion that this terrible thing was going to swallow my friend up.  When it became clear that death was not imminent, I noticed that my messages were more likely to be filled with verses that pointed to hope – to remembering that there is good ahead.  And even more lately, as recovery inches ever closer, I find that my counsel is that of patience – of not getting ahead of ourselves.

I think that’s where we are, in some respects, with the experience of COVID-19. Much of the original panic gave way to a need to be reminded that we could get through whatever was coming, and that in turn has begun to yield to an impatience that just wants things to get back to “normal” again.

Paul writes of the importance of self-discipline.  Of training himself to be faithful and ready in any situation.  Daniel lived that kind of life.  There is one final verse in Daniel chapter one that doesn’t really make sense to our modern ears.  We are told that

Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Because we’re not Chaldean or Babylonian, we don’t know what that means.  Let me tell you: Daniel arrived in Babylon in the third year of King Jehoiakim of Judah.  By our modern reckoning, that would be 605 BC.  King Cyrus came to power in about 539 BC.  Daniel lived this life of exile for more than sixty years.  It would be like saying he arrived in the USA when Harry Truman was president, and he stayed until after the election of Donald Trump.

Friends, we are a people who have known – who have always known – that we belong to a God who tells us who we are. We are a part of a story that is taking a long time to tell.  And this is a difficult part of that story for many of us.

Listen: give yourself a break.  It’s ok to grieve what you’re missing.  It’s all right if you are not as ‘productive’ as you wish you were or think you ought to be.  You don’t want this.  I don’t think anyone does.

But at the same time, let me encourage you not to languish or waste away.  Find something that will reconnect you to who you are in your inner self.  Plant some seeds.  Take a walk.  Write a letter.  Try something new.

And remember, beloved.  Remember who you are.  Remember that you are never alone. And remember that this will end.  Your call, and mine, is to be faithful in the days that we have been given, one day at a time.

In one of the truest laments in one of the most insightful books ever written, a hobbit called Frodo looks at his mentor, a wizard named Gandalf, and says,

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’…
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”[1]

And so, beloved, it is with us.  We are not in a position to wish away the virus, and we are not free to ignore it.  Let us then choose to live prudently and wisely in the days we have been given, remembering who, and whose we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Below you will find the links to the YouTube recording of this morning’s worship.  Because we had a glitch in the Facebook feed, the service is divided into two parts.  Part one, above, consists of everything from the Call to Worship to the beginning of the Prayers (including the scripture, children’s sermon, and sermon).  Part two, below, picks up with the prayers and goes until the benediction and response.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton-Mifflin, 1955, p. 76).

It Just Isn’t Right

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29) this year.  We considered the interaction that Jesus had with the people of Bethany as described in John 11:1-44, and sought to make sense of the call to unbind Lazarus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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

Not too long ago (although, to be honest, any time that includes me being out in my car and making visits seems like an awfully long time ago) when the COVID 19 virus was just beginning to hit the USA, I happened to be out, and I happened to be wearing my clerical collar. A woman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you a chaplain?”

I replied that I was a pastor, and asked if I could help.

She looked down, and then engaged my eyes, and as her own eyes filled with tears she said, “I just have a quick question, if that’s OK.”

I assured her that it was more than OK.  She looked toward the doors of the nearby hospital, and continued, “Well, Pastor, it’s just this… I mean, why did God send this?  Why is God doing this? Why must I suffer like this?”

My first response was to scold her (with a smile): “You said a quick question, and I’ve been working an answer to that one for 40 years…”  But then I continued. I must confess that in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my off-the-cuff answer, and I wish she were present this morning.

You may not be a pastor, but I suspect that you’ve heard this question in the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of those who purport to speak on the Lord’s behalf these days.  Perhaps you’ve run across one of the dozens of news stories reporting that a famous clergyperson has alleged that the Almighty has visited the globe with this virus because God is so angry with humans for one of a dozen reasons.  Interestingly enough, it appears as though these men (and yes, they are mostly men) are pretty well-convinced that God happens to hate all of the same people and things that they hate: those who have sought or provided abortions, sexual and gender minorities (and those who support them), immigrants, environmentalists, or who knows what else?

As if God is known for whom or for what God hates.  As if God’s primary means of self-revelation is to destroy those things that God hates.

I want to distance myself in every possible way – socially, theologically, spiritually – from a theology that is presumptive enough to offer a rationale for this virus based on who or what God hates.  Such conversation is simply incompatible with the Divine love that I see cascading in and through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s look at the gospel.  This is a well-known story, isn’t it?  What’s happening here?

There has been a death in the village.  And, unfortunately, not just any death, but a tragic death.  Lazarus has died an untimely death.  He has left behind him two sisters – women who were evidently unmarried, and thus dependent on their brother in all sorts of ways.  His sisters are now apparently without their father, without husbands or sons, and now without a brother.  There is no man in their life on whom they can rely to conduct business on their behalf, to protect them, to provide for them in the midst of this society that is incredibly gender-biased and sexist.  The road ahead of Mary and Martha would seem to be filled with one barrier after another now that they are essentially alone.

Recognizing their plight, the village has stopped everything and has gathered in shared grief.  There is a heaviness and a despair that seems to pervade everything.

I find this passage interesting because it not only tells us what’s happening, but it also lets us in on how people are feeling.  There is a lot of emotional language in John 11.  What are people feeling?

Let’s start with the easy one.  Lazarus is, as they say, feeling no pain.  He’s dead.  He’s totally and completely disconnected from the situation. The barrier between Lazarus and everyone else seems impenetrable.  He is wrapped up, bound up, locked up in a grave.

Mary and Martha are, as we have said, stricken with grief.  John says that when Jesus strolled into town they fell at his feet.  They are bound up just as tightly as was Lazarus – only theirs are not graveclothes, but grieving clothes.  They are not only sad, they appear to have some anger:  “If YOU HAD BEEN HERE, Jesus, my brother wouldn’t have died…” Martha and Mary are filled, as we might expect, with intense emotions.

The townspeople – our translation calls them “the Jews” – were also clearly saddened by the loss of Lazarus.  But more than that, they seem to share in the sisters’ frustration and disappointment.  “This man opened the eyes of the blind!  We thought surely he could keep his friend from dying.”  They saw Jesus as a miracle worker – a hero of sorts.  And now, he had not only let his friends down, he had let his public down.  There was not going to be a show, they thought.  Jesus could have done something, but he didn’t. 

Jesus Wept (James Tissot between 1886-1894)

And Jesus himself – how does he feel?  Well, we can start with an easy one.  You may know this story as the answer to a trivia question:  “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?”  The answer is here:  John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  His friend had died, and he was sad.  This passage speaks to that in several places.  In both verses 33 and 38, we find that Jesus was “deeply moved” in his spirit, and that he was troubled.  There’s a word that’s repeated in each of these verses: embriaomai. It’s a Greek word that initially was used to describe the snorting of horses.  You’ve seen that – when a horse lets out some sort of involuntary snort that, if you’re not paying attention, can really surprise you.  This is what embriaomai was first used to describe, but as time passed the word came to be understood as a deep response to a strong and powerful emotion – a kind of inarticulate groaning or sighing.  And interestingly enough, it carries with it a sense of anger. 

My hunch is that Jesus was frustrated – grieving, saddened, and angry that things were so wrong.  Lazarus’ death was, for Jesus, an intensely personal example of the reason for which he had come into the world: to be the resurrection and the life, that all who believe in him even though they die, they might live.  Jesus had come, according to the gospel, in response to all of the deaths in the world, and now, here, he has to look one particular death square in the eye.

And what does Jesus DO?  There are at least four verbs here worth talking about.  Jesus becomes disturbed or frustrated.  Jesus weeps.  Jesus prays.  And finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and orders him to be unbound.  Jesus brings resurrection to Lazarus, his family, and that community.

Why?

What I’m asking is this: why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  I want to emphasize that he doesn’t do it for the reasons that I would do it.  He doesn’t do it because he loves Lazarus, and he doesn’t do it because he’s worried about what might happen to Mary and Martha without a man around the house.  He doesn’t do it in order to delight his friends and give them some sort of a happy reunion – even though his own emotional connection makes it clear that this would make bring him joy, too.  And he surely doesn’t do it to sell tickets for his upcoming tour, because Jesus knows exactly where his road is leading.

Jesus is clear: he raises Lazarus for the exact same reason that he healed the blind man in the reading we shared last Sunday.  “Didn’t I tell you, Martha, that if you believed you would SEE THE GLORY OF GOD?”    Why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  So that people would believe that Jesus was sent from God. So that people would pay attention to him, not as some sort of a miracle worker or magician (“for my next trick…”) – but so that people would know that God had not forgotten the promise to send a deliverer, a redeemer, a savior.

Another question: what’s the good news for us here?  What do we learn, where can we grow, from participating in this scripture today?

I, for one, am fascinated by the frustration and anger and weeping of Jesus. That involuntary “arghhhhhh” that he lets out before he bursts into tears.  What is this about?  I mean, Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus.

This is what it reminded me of.  What was Jesus’ job, do you think, before he started his ministry?  Well, most translations tell us that his dad, Joseph, was a carpenter.  The Greek word for that, tekton, is a little broader.  A tekton is someone who makes things.  In that part of the world, most of the making was done with stone – wood was in relatively short supply. 

At any rate, Jesus, presumably, went into the family business as a young adult.  So what did he do?  He made things.  He put things together.

Did you ever make something, and it turned out just right?  You assembled it, glued it, stained it, whatever, and it was just perfect.  It worked beautifully.  And then someone did something to mess it up.  Maybe you made the perfect birthday cake and you put it on the counter and the next person into the kitchen opened a cupboard and knocked the salt and pepper shakers right into the middle of your cake. Maybe you just finished shoveling the walk and clearing a path out and here comes the plow BOOM covering your entryway with three feet of snow and ice.  Maybe you just finished the perfect term paper on the computer but before you hit the “save” button, your sister decides that she needs to download an entire season of her favorite show at the same time that your dad is streaming a work call…and the internet fails.  What is your response in these situations? Arghhhhh! Embriaomai!!! 

Do you remember how John’s gospel opens?  How he talks about Jesus?  “He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  Do you see!  Jesus wasn’t just Lazarus’ friend – he was Lazarus’ maker!  And something had messed up his Lazarus!  Doesn’t that just tick you off when you go to all the trouble of creating a universe and making people and calling them your own special children and then someone goes and screws it up!  Man, I hate that!  And clearly, Jesus did too.

Beloved, the good news of the gospel is this: Jesus reveals the heart of God as he is frustrated and saddened by things that don’t work right.  What does that mean?  It means when Jesus see you weeping at the grave of one that you thought you could not live without, embriaomai!  When Jesus sees people fighting for breath on respirators, embriaomai! When Jesus  sees his beloved children, created for joy and generosity descending into hoarding and pettiness, embriaomai!

Beloved, we can and we will see the Glory of God.  Not because of our denomination, or ethnicity, or citizenship.  We will not, most likely, see the glory of God when everything in our lives works out just perfectly.  I am here to say that we are more likely to see the glory of God when we encounter the God who loves us enough to weep over the imperfections and the broken places of our lives.  The God who groans when he sees how stained we are with sin and how deeply the pain of the world has infected us.

So to you, un-named woman I met on the street: you know there is much in your life that is broken.  There are barriers between where you are now and God’s intentions for your life.  You may be held down by grief, you or someone you love may be trapped in a body that doesn’t work the way you wish it did, you may be watching a relationship you have cared about deeply wither away. Embriaomai!  That hurts!

People of God, wherever you are, will you join me in holding onto the truth that there is nothing in your life that is so broken that God cannot make you whole and use you to display God’s glory to the world around you?  Will you join me in proclaiming to the world that the grief and pain that so often enters our lives is not the final word?

The news today is not that God is so angry that the best idea God has is to send a virus that causes fear and indiscriminate death. That is a lie.  The news today is that wherever you are in the midst of this pandemic, you are not alone.  Yes, I know, you may feel alone.  You may be locked in your home, or even worse, a hospital bed.  You may be craving human contact and a return to whatever “normalcy” looks like for you.  The good news is that at this moment, God is present to and with you in the person of Jesus.   

This is what I want to do to end this sermon.  I want to pray that we might in fact find some display of God’s glory in the face of grief and barriers. Beloved people of God, today let me encourage you to give your God the embriaomai places of your life.  Ask God to unbind him.  To unbind her.  To unbind you.  And let us, today, look for the glory of God.  And let us pray that we might believe it when we see it and even that we might be instruments of its appearing in our world.

Thanks be to God for the promise that no binding is eternal.  Amen.

If you’d like, you can watch the entire worship service on YouTube!  See the link below or paste this link https://youtu.be/A5GNldxpujc into your browser window.   

The Church of the Empty Pews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithful Living in a Fearful Age

The saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights chose to gather in varied ways on March 15.  Some of us were present in “real time” and others joined in virtually via a simulcast.  Still others are participating by reading or hearing the message here.  As we join our world in considering what it means to live a faithful response to COVID-19 we listened to the ancient words of Psalm 27 as well as the counsel of Jesus in Matthew 10:28-31.

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

If you know me at all, you know that from time to time I find myself gripped by what I call “the fever”, and I am compelled to engage in a rigorous course of hydrotherapy.  When it gets really bad, I have to drive to a special spot near Lake Erie and soak my feet in cold water for six or eight hours at a time.  I find that when I am holding a fishing rod, such treatment for steelhead fever is 100% effective.

THIS is a steelhead – the result of “hydrotherapy!”

One day I invited a friend to join me for the experience.  Although this person had gone fishing before, including some visits to the river with me, this was her first trip for steelhead.  As we stood side by side in the creek, throwing the same bait at the same school of fish, I became aware of an uncomfortable truth:  I caught three or four really nice fish, while my friend’s bait had not gotten any attention at all.  I wasn’t sure what to say when she broached the subject herself, saying, “You know what, Dave? This is a fantastic day.  I mean, I wish I was catching fish, but the weather is fine, I’m with my friend, and the countryside is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter that I haven’t caught anything.  Thank you so much for bringing me!”

Well, as you can imagine, that really made me feel better. I turned, and said, “I’m relieved to hear you say that, because I was afraid that you weren’t enjoying yourself…”  And as I was speaking, my line tightened with yet another good-size fish.  She threw her rod aside, came over to me, and said, “All right, just give me that #*&% fishing pole!”  She jerked the line, and sought to get the fish to land, but it broke off.  She returned the rod to me without a word, and I knew enough to be sure that I wasn’t going to say anything.

And then five minutes later, her own bobber went under, and she set the hook and managed to land a really nice fish.  As I scooped it up with the net, she let out a whoop and a holler and exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! Oh, this feels so great!”  She plopped down on the bank, and I sat next to her and helped her to unhook the fish.  Feigning wonder, I said, “I don’t get it.  What about ‘it doesn’t matter who catches fish and who doesn’t’ and ‘it’s a great day no matter what’?”  She stared me down and said, “Yeah, well, that.  It’s all BS Dave. Trust me.  This is better.”

Why do I tell you that story today?

Because we live in a time when our theories (“it doesn’t really matter who catches a fish”) are coming face to face with our behaviors (“gimme that #*&% pole right now!”).  Stuff is getting very, very real here in the 15205, and if it hasn’t hit you already, it will very soon.  In the wake of the COVID-19 “coronavirus”, the stock market has plunged, and some of you are really concerned about your savings.  Schools and universities have closed, parades and events are cancelled; we are fighting over toilet paper and denuding the supermarket shelves – and all of that happened when the closest verified case was in Cleveland.  We were already responding, not only with wisdom and prudence but we had begun to lose our minds when it wasn’t even here yet!

What’s going to happen when you find out that your child’s teacher, your neighbor, your pastor – has tested positive for the virus?

It’s bad.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s going to get worse.  And it is not pretty.  One of you told me earlier this week about your doctor’s office.  The staff had set out a hundred masks as a courtesy to those who were in the waiting room.  Within moments, the box was emptied by frantic parents stashing them away for personal use.  You’ve seen the toilet paper aisles. From hand sanitizer to canned food to spaghetti, we are hoarding resources.

It is not a good look, friends, particularly when so many of those who are panicking are claiming to adhere to some version of the Christian faith.

What are we supposed to do when the virus comes to our street?

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989.

For many years, I showed a particular film clip to confirmation classes.  In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero has come to an ancient archeological dig in search of the Holy Grail – the cup that Christ used at the last supper.  The Nazis, seeking the cup for their own purposes, are convinced that Jones can find it – but know that he won’t help them.  So they shoot Indy’s father, wounding him mortally, and turn to the adventurer and say, “Now, Dr. Jones, is the time for you to decide what you believe.”

In other words, for Indiana Jones, the moment that his father is lying there bleeding, the question of whether there is healing in the cup is no longer merely academic speculation.  Is there hope and healing to be found, or not?

Similarly, many of us in Pittsburgh at the start of the 21st century have led such charmed lives that we have never seen a threat like the coronavirus before.  If you look at the panic on the internet, the fear in people’s eyes, and the hoarding at the grocery stores, it’s as if we’ve never seen pain and discomfort like this before.

That’s a lie.

Today, I need to stand here as your pastor and remind you that you have, in fact, seen pain, and fear, and discomfort before.  While there is a lot that is new in this current situation, the underlying emotion and tension is not new.  In the past, when you’ve encountered fear and difficulty, has it led you to question your faith, to doubt God, or to take stock of your relationships?  For some of you, the answer is yes.  And in some cases, you may have found your own faith strengthened as a result of trial.

In any case, my point is this: while COVID-19 is evidently a new phenomenon, we’ve all been here before.  And when we’ve stood at the brink of pain and fear and loss and even death before, what did we think?

Historically, we have held to the truth that God is here.  Pain is real, but pain is not forever.

In fact, 3000 years ago the Psalmist wrote that fear is not God’s intention for God’s children.  We are created, he says, for confidence, for community, and for compassion.  Psalm 27 is a bold hymn of hope and assurance giving voice to the fundamental truth that I need not live in fear, I need not live in loneliness, and I need not live in hostility.  Because God is here, the Psalmist writes, these things can be banished.  Because God is present, he affirms, I can be confident of seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living.

And yet, here’s the thing: the guy who wrote that Psalm? He’s dead.  He is no longer a resident of “the land of the living”.  And it’s not just him.  Everyone who sang that song with him – gone.  All of the folks who heard Jesus say, “God will protect you…you are worth more than a sparrow – in fact the hairs on your head are numbered…” – all of those folks have succumbed to something or other.

So what?

Does this mean that they had a faulty belief structure? Were they wrong? Was their theology bad?  I mean, let’s be honest: God did not save them from war, pestilence, or persecution.

And the faithful of their age – and, I would argue, every age – would say, “No, we were not wrong!  We came to see a greater truth: that in these finite, limited lives we’ve been given we can get a glimpse into how it ought to be, how it’s meant to be, and how it’s going to be.  In the weakness of our present state, we affirm that weakness is not God’s intent – but we also affirm that even now, in all our brokenness, we can begin to participate in the fulness of life as it is meant to be.”

In times of crisis, pain, fear, and death, we can act as those who trust in God; we can choose to behave as those who believe that goodness is the Divine intent and the ultimate end for all of creation.

This is the time to get it right, beloved!  Today is the day to act like we actually believe what we’ve said all along!

Look, let’s say that they come up with a cure for COVID-19 tomorrow.  They come through your neighborhood with a giant can of something or other and spray the stuff all over everything and by lunchtime tomorrow the disease is totally wiped out.

Even if that were to happen, is there anyone in this room who seriously believes that the next twelve months will bring only good?  If somehow we eliminate the coronavirus, will we be spared from all pain, loss, and grief?

Of course not!  No matter what happens with this virus, the one thing of which you and I can be assured is that in the coming weeks and months we will experience trouble.  We will be tempted to give into fear and allow selfishness and greed to define our behavior.

So dear ones, please, please, please – let us remember today, and tomorrow, and six months from now when most of us will be standing on the other side of this thing that God has NOT created us for fear or for selfishness, but rather for confidence, community, and compassion.

If we can agree with the Psalmist and the Gospel Writer that these are God’s intentions for us, then let us live into these values and traits today.  Let us commit ourselves to participating in those aspects of eternity that have been opened to us at this very moment!

You know this! For centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of living graciously and generously, reminding people that God’s care and love are always present, even in the darkest of hours.  Followers of Jesus have built hospitals and shared food; we have prayed with the sick, the dying, and the outcast; we have sought to bring comfort to the afflicted.

Let us live into those best parts of ourselves and our story today and in all the days to come as we seek to love our neighbors.  Love them as you wash your hands, as you act prudently when you are compelled to be out and about, and as you live with the sure and certain hope that what we can see is not all there is and it is certainly not forever.

The 27th Psalm ends by saying that the writer would have given up hope if he had not believed that he would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Beloved, the charge to you this week is simple: be that hope.  Be that goodness as you shop, and as you stay at home; as you reach out via a card or call or FaceTime to someone for whom the isolation would be crippling or even deadly. Be that Christ in the world this week.

If we cannot live this way this week, we will sound just as disingenuous and hollow as my friend at the fishing hole.  This is NOT just a load of BS.  This is why we were made.  Thanks be to God for who God has been, and for who God is, and for the ways in which God continues to come to us. Live your faith like you mean it, my friends.  And push me to do the same.  Amen.

A Bigger Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M: Good.  Let them in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi, Abraham Bloemaert (1624)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, “It’s my turn! I’m going first!”

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

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

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

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

The Road to Emmaus, He Qi (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the mystery of our faith, beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Numbers 20:14-21

[2] Deuteronomy 23:3

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

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

There He Goes Again!

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights ended 2019, as did much of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, by hearing the awful news of the “slaughter of the innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-23.  The second reading was Hebrews 2:10-18.  

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

Well, you almost made it.  Almost, but not quite.  You did very well, I must say.  You’ve survived the gauntlet of Christmas.  For some of you, it was tough, I know.  You didn’t know how you’d get through – it was so foggy, and there was so much going on, it seems.  Maybe you had some time with friends.  I suspect you spent some time alone.  And perhaps you managed to temper, for the most part, your great expectations for the entire holiday season.  And even if you can’t say you can say had a great Christmas, you made it.  And now you duck in here to close out the year, you come to church looking for a little peace and quiet, one last shot at “good will toward men,” and perhaps a couple of carols, and the preacher goes a pulls something like this.

Pulpit image in the Cathedral of Pisa, Italy, carved by Giovanni Pisano 1302-1311.

What kind of gospel reading is this, anyway?  You’d think that once — just once, we could come into church and not have somebody bleeding all over the carpet.  What is it with this place, anyway?  Why is it that every time we open the Bible, somebody’s dying, somebody’s smiting, or somebody’s getting smitten?

And while I’m at it, this is some God, too.  It wasn’t a month ago that we opened the scriptures and found Mary singing the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;  He has filled the hungry with good things.”  We sang with her on December 15: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the world is about to turn!”  Were you here? Isn’t that an amazing song, and a better word from the Lord?

Massacre of the Innocents, León Cognlet (1824)

So excuse me for asking, but is this the same God?  Mary, are you sure?  Who is going to tell that to those mothers in Bethlehem?  Who was on duty in heaven the day that old Herod went through Bethlehem and killed all those kids?

What about the pictures on the front of all those Christmas cards?  What about GENTLE JESUS MEEK AND MILD?

I’ve got to tell you, this is a hard text for me to listen to this week.  For a long time now, I’ve been aware that the Christmas story ends with this reading.  For weeks, I’ve been walking around it, sticking it here, probing it there.  For the most part, it’s defied me.  I come into my devotional time and it sits there and laughs at me.  “All right preacher, what will you do with me????”

I have not been able to escape from the wailing of those mothers.  Everywhere I go, I hear that loud lamentation — during dinner, walking through the Heights, in the hospital, watching the news, at the Funeral home, laying in bed trying to get some sleep.  Everywhere I look, I see the mothers and I hear their wailing.  I ask myself, didn’t Jesus come to bring hope?  To share joy?  How is it, then, that this first Christmas has cost the town of Bethlehem so dearly?

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1566). The artist re-imagines the scene depicting an attack on Flemish families by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries in the Eighty Years’ War.

And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if somehow I could leapfrog to the end of the story and see Jesus trashing Herod soundly.  But you know what happens — they get Jesus, too.  Mary’s voice is added to the chorus of mothers weeping for their children.  And as far as I can tell, the innocents keep getting slaughtered.  There’s Jesus, yes.  But don’t forget Stephen.  Paul.  Joan of Arc.  Dietrich Bonhoffer.  Martin Luther King.  The children from Sandy Hook School.  Millions of other women and men and children — all killed.  It sure is a funny way to bring in a kingdom.

So I sat, and I glared at the text.  Suddenly, it came to me.  Why don’t I skip this one?  Preach out of something else, Dave!  Forget about all that gory stuff.  My fingers fairly flew as I rifled the pages from Matthew to Revelation.  But the story stayed with me.

And then it hit me.  The news in Matthew’s story is not that some cut-throat dictator had a couple of dozen babies killed in a fit of jealous rage.  Heck, Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers.  He had iced his own wife and three of his sons.  In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem.  No, it’s no great surprise that tinhorn power-mongers get violent.

Here’s what is news:  that God cares about those babies that died.  And God cares about Paul, and Joan, and Martin, too.  And God cares about children stuck in cages and South Sudanese whose lives are imperiled every day.  You heard it in the reading from the epistle: Hebrews tells us that because of his own sufferings, Jesus is able to remember yours and mine, and that he is able to help us bear the load of grief.  The news in this story is that God knows where you and I hurt.

Dove of the Holy Spirit, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Jean Vanier, in his wonderful little book From Brokenness to Community , describes how our discovery of our own pain can lead us to God.  “The cry makes us touch our inner pain.  We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us . . . It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God.  And then we meet the ‘Paraclete’ whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send to us.”[1] We often translate “paraclete” as the comforter, or the Holy Spirit, but Vanier points out that it literally means “the one who answers the cry.”  He suggests that it is not possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit unless we cry out, and unless that cry comes from the awareness of our own brokenness and pain.

And that’s a dilemma for us.  How is it that we cry?  And how is it that we are heard?  And why is it that there is often such a long time between the cry and the recognition of its being heard?  There are so many ways to look at this.

I am, to many of you anyway, a friend.  I am your brother in Christ.  And in the context of that relationship, I am one who cries out.  You have helped me to find the broken places in my own life and to raise them, sometimes with cracking voice, to God.  Many of you in this room have pointed me toward hope when I wasn’t sure where to look.

And I am a pastor to you as well.  It has been my privilege to cry with you, to struggle with you, to wait with you as together we look for meaning in the face of suffering.  You have invited me into deep, sometimes dark, sometimes frightening places in your world and asked me to stand with you while something unimaginable was happening.

But this day I am also a preacher, and I have the honor of announcing that in the end, cries are heard and comfort is felt.  The hard part is, that sense of peace can only come after the shock is gone, after the sobbing has muted, after the wrestling match with God is over.  Perhaps you have heard of a young man who received substantial injuries in the Civil War.  For the rest of his life, he cried to God, asking to know where God was in the midst of his pain.  At the end of his struggling, he is said to have penned these lines:

I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, and yet everything that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

Where are your deep aches this day?  A dream unfulfilled?  A cancer-ravaged friend?  A vacant chair at the breakfast table?  A lost job?  A broken marriage?  Welcome to the family, dear friend.  Your cries have been heard, and they are remembered.  And you can be re-membered.  I like that word: re-membered.  Often, we use it as the opposite of “forgotten”.  We say, “Oh, no! It’s your birthday! I forgot! I can’t believe I didn’t remember.”  But it’s also the opposite of another word: dismember.  When we dis-member something or someone, we take it apart, often with violence, hatred, or evil.  Dis-membering is cruel and gruesome.  We have, some of us, been dis-membered in a metaphorical sense; we have had bits of ourselves hacked off or plucked out or walk away.  But as your pastor, I am here to tell you that those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered.  What has been lost will be found, and what has been cut off will be restored.

Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico (c. 1442)

You know, Matthew is the only gospel to mention the slaughter of the innocents.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, to note that when the Gospel writers talk about the resurrection, Matthew is the only one to mention that when Jesus rose, “the tombs also were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised … they came out of the tombs and appeared in the holy city” (27:52

Sheesh — there he goes again.  Why is it that I can’t even walk into this place without dead people rising up?  It’s so messy, so confusing all the time.  Why can’t they just stay dead?

No.  Not with Jesus.  The bad news is that we’re all dead or dying in one way or another.  The good news is that Jesus gives us life each day – in spite of the death that we share.

So when you walk into this room, remember, that yes, it is a room of death.  We do wind up bleeding on the carpet a good deal of the time.  But remember, too, that it is a room of resurrection.  The cross is empty and the table is set.  We have the promise of our brother, Jesus, that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to resurrection — for children who die too soon, for saints, for me, and for you.  Do not marvel that we die, or that difficulties come; be grateful that we have lived!  Thanks be to God for the gift of life and the promise of hope to come! Amen.

[1] From Brokenness to Community , Paulist Press, 1992.

Finding Her Voice

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 many of 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.  This year’s story was influenced by a number of stories it’s been my privilege to encounter in recent years, and is anchored in the declaration and promises found in Isaiah 40:1-9

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.

What’s in a name?  Or, more to my point: what’s in a nickname?  Often a nickname can be ironic, as when the 350 pound security guard is called “Tiny”, or the way that people sometimes call a bald man “Curly.”  A nickname can be cruel or sarcastic, such as when the kid with dental problems gets referred to as “Bucky” all through middle school.  But sometimes, well, they just fit.

That’s how it was for Bertha Evans.  She was named after her grandmother, who lived next door, and even when she was a baby, “little” Bertha was called “Byrdie” so that people knew which Bertha they were talking about.

When someone carries a name like Byrdie, you might think that person is musical.  In this case, you’d be right.  I don’t know this for certain, but it’s been said that Byrdie learned to sing before she could speak.  Growing up, people would say, “Oh, Byrdie, you were born to sing!”  As she matured, she developed a lovely, flowing soprano voice that would put an angel to shame.  Her nickname became even more appropriate when at the age of 24 she married a man named William Finch.  That’s right.  From then on, she was Byrdie Finch.

Now, because she had been born blind, Byrdie didn’t read music in the traditional sense.  However, between recordings and Braille sheet music, there was nothing that she couldn’t tackle vocally.

She sang in a couple of bands when she was younger, and people say that she could have “made it”, but I always had the sense that she wanted to sing mostly because it made her happy, not because she wanted people to clap for her.  In recent decades, she’s sung most frequently in the church choir.  On occasion, she could be counted on to offer the Anthem or “God, Bless America” at a sporting event or parade.

Byrdie would tell you that she had a great life.  Her marriage seemed really healthy; her children were everything she’d hoped that they could be; she had a fulfilling career and great neighbors… Yes, life was just perfect… right up until the point that it wasn’t.

It was a January evening a couple of years ago.  She was heading home from the Arena, where she’d been asked to sing the National Anthems for the hockey game.  A drunk driver T-boned the car in which she was riding, and for a while it seemed as if that would be the end for Byrdie.  She lingered in the ICU for ten days, dealing with broken bones and massive internal injury.  She endured several surgeries in that precarious fortnight.  And then, she emerged from the twilight and regained herself.  The doctors were pleased not only with themselves, but with Byrdie’s recovery.

There was just one thing: while she was in the ICU and enduring those surgeries, they had to put a breathing tube down her throat.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to have one of those, but I’m here to tell you that as essential as they are at times, they are anything but comfortable.

When Byrdie came out of the ICU and was removed from the respirator, she struggled to speak. The physicians assured her that it was normal, and that there had been a great deal of trauma, and that if she was just patient, everything would work out all right. Well, she tried hard to be patient, but things were most assuredly not all right.  Three weeks after the tube was removed it was all she could do to whisper.  After two months, they did some tests and determined that the intubation had damaged her vocal cords.

By April of that year, Byrdie was pretty much out of the woods in terms of her major injuries.  That allowed her time to undergo a series of surgeries on her vocal cords and voice box in an attempt to restore her speech.  She tolerated those procedures well, and before long she was able to get around much as she had prior to the accident, and was fully independent – or should have been.  The problem was that her frustration with her voice was so significant that it plunged her into a deep depression.  Byrdie could have left the house, and she could have rejoined her social circle, and she could have attended her granddaughter’s preschool graduation – in fact, she could have gone back to much of her own life – but to do most of those things, she had to talk, and there was nothing she disliked more in those days than the sound of her own voice.

As the months went by, that voice regained strength, but it was most definitely not the same.  It seemed to have dropped at least an octave.  People did not recognize her voice: when she she answered the phone, people thought it was her son. She was ashamed and embarrassed.  She spent most of that summer, alone and silent, on her back porch. There, she did a little reading, a little knitting, and a lot of sitting.

In September, her neighbor and friend, Naomi Jones, invited Byrdie to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History.  She wasn’t crazy about it, but Naomi was persistent and without even knowing the topic, Byrdie capitulated and trudged along to the fourth row of a lecture she didn’t want to hear, on a subject she didn’t know, being offered by a scientist she’d never heard of.  Byrdie was, for all intents and purposes, a “captive audience”.  “The things I do for you, Naomi”, she mumbled as she waited for the thing to end.

Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Except something caught her ear.  The presenter was a young researcher from a Canadian university who was reporting on some field work he’d done recently.  His team visited a secluded island on the Canadian coast with the aim of determining whether it was possible to teach adult songbirds a new “language”.  He presented a lot of complicated methodology and science, but the thing that fascinated the folks at the Audubon Society was this: a significant percentage of adult savannah sparrows successfully learned “new” mating calls over the course of a summer. The ornithologists played recordings of a different population of this species over and over and lo and behold, the local birds started picking up on the new tunes.[1]

When the lecture had finished, the researcher seemed quite pleased with himself, Naomi felt a burst of accomplishment at having coaxed Byrdie out of her back yard, and Byrdie, well, Byrdie was quiet… which was nothing really new.

Here’s what I do know: that three weeks after the lecture, the new choir director called Byrdie and invited her to choir practice.  She laughed at him and then hung up.  A few days later, the pastor called.  “Byrdie, be honest.  You have a voice.  It’s not the voice you’ve always had, and it’s going to take some practice – but we both know that you’ve forgotten more about music than any of the rest of that bunch will ever learn.”  There was a pause, and the pastor added, “And besides… I know how much you love Handel’s Messiah.”

Oh.  Messiah.

If you had ever heard Byrdie sing, you would have thought that the soprano part of Messiah had been written with her in mind.  I mean, when Byrdie sang out recitatives like “and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” and “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”, well, no matter who you were you were ready to launch into the chorus of “Glory to God!”  In that community, Byrdie Finch was synonymous with Messiah.  And now someone else was going to voice the angel.  It was more than she could bear.  However, she agreed to attend the practice, and offered to do what she could to coach the soprano section, but she knew that she’d be unable to sing a note.

When the evening of the rehearsal came, however, the choir faced an unexpected challenge.  Due to the fact that several members had gone off to college, one had moved, and another had a nasty cold, there was not a single alto in attendance at choir practice.

Did Byrdie remember the lecture about the savannah sparrows?  Did Naomi nudge her? I don’t know.  But I do know that Byrdie didn’t leave, and that she said that if she could get her new voice box to cooperate, she’d try to sight read the alto line.  And so the rehearsal began.

The tenors started, as always, by singing about God’s comfort, and about valleys being exalted.  About halfway through that piece, it occurred to Byrdie that the first time the altos sang anything in the entire Messiah was when they, and they alone, would announce “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”  When that piece starts, there is no chorus to hide behind, and no heavy instrumentation to lean on – just the pure tones of the alto voice – a voice that Byrdie wasn’t sure that she had.  And in her anxiety, she requested that they skip that number for the first rehearsal.  And, as it turns out, for the second.

But here is what happened: as each rehearsal began, she listened to the tenor.  I mean to tell you, she listened.  Even for a person like Byrdie, for whom listening was a lifeline on a minute-by-minute basis – she listened to the words of the tenor.  And she heard.

Byrdie heard in those ancient words that God’s desire is that creation be comforted.  She heard, as if for the first time, that reconciliation was at hand.  She knew that voice crying in the wilderness, and she dreamed of mountains being made low, valleys that were exalted, and rough places that were made plain.

The words stuck with her – a voice, crying in the wilderness.  She thought about the immense and intense work and effort of reconciliation and healing.  She went back and she read and re-read Isaiah and came to understand that the line to be voiced first by the alto about the glory of the Lord being revealed could only be heard after the tenor sang of the years of suffering and estrangement and pain and injury and loss.

Sitting in the upstairs choir room listening to her old friends do their level best to master one of the greatest musical scores of any age, Byrdie finally grasped this truth: that the glory of the Lord is revealed to people who have lost – and then found – everything.

For her entire life, Byrdie had been in such a hurry to be the angel singing of glad tidings that she had missed out on the fact that valleys were not exalted in a day and mountains were not brought low overnight.  After her accident, and after losing her voice, and after losing herself… she knew the truth she had always known, but she somehow understood it more deeply – that in the midst of great loss and pain to the point of being incapacitated – at that time, and to those people would the glory of the Lord be revealed.

She had known the lyrics since she could read: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And in that room, she finally knew the score.  All flesh shall see it together.  Don’t think that line was lost on Byrdie Finch, either.

And so for the rest of the Fall, Byrdie continued to spend time on her back porch.  Only now instead of knitting, she had her tablet out, and she was listening to, and then singing along with, some YouTube videos that featured the Alto parts for Handel’s Messiah.  She found that as her familiarity with the part grew, her voice sounded less grating.  She began to talk more, and even laugh. She read stories to her grandchildren again, and found that she was even looking forward to choir practice.

On the last Sunday of Advent that year, Byrdie Finch walked with the choir, as usual, to the front of the sanctuary.  And for the first time ever, she sat to the far rightof the chancel – where altos sit.

And after the plaintive wailing of the tenor, the crying in the wilderness, and the promise that literally moves heaven and earth, Byrdie sang out in an alto voice the words she had come to love.  And what the altos started, the choir finished – adriving chorus in ¾ time, written in A major with an Allegro tempo, announcing the coming glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, Byrdie took the congregation to new places with a solo they had never heard her sing before: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Because Byrdie knew.  She had lived through the exile, borne witness to the glory of the Lord, and knew that she could, without fear, lift up her voice with strength and even encourage others to do the same.

And you might think that is the end of this story, and it might be an appropriate place for me to stop.

Except for this: you see, Byrdie retired earlier this year. Like a lot of folks in their sixties, she thought that she’d find all sorts of things to do.  She read.  She puttered around the house.  She played with the grandkids.  And she loved all of those things.  But she wanted something else.  Something more.

So now she volunteers twice a week.  Byrdie Finch is a docent at the Aviary – one of those lovely people who greet you, who help you to learn something about a particular bird or perhaps locate a species if you’re in one of the large rooms.

You might be surprised to find a blind person guiding a bunch of birdwatchers. Some of them sure are – and others have no idea that she can’t actually see what she’s talking about.  Someone will say, “But where are the blue-bellied rollers?”, and Byrdie will listen, and then point in the direction of those gorgeous creatures.  Photos will be snapped, children amused, and tours will continue.

And every now and then someone will see her name tag and say something like, “Byrdie Finch eh?  Wow, you were born for this!”

“I don’t know whether I was born to do this or not,” is her standard reply.  “But I know that I can, and I will gladly do it today.”

After everything, Byrdie Finch has learned to find and to point others toward beauty and comfort.  She never dreamed she’d be singing alto or spotting birds, but in the midst of the valleys and the mountains the glory of the Lord was revealed to her and through her.  And after traveling through all the valleys and the mountains, Byrdie Finch learned a new song. My hunch is, so can you. So can we all.  Thanks be to God whose glory is revealed!  Amen.

Listen to the Glory of the Lord as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…

[1] So this really is a thing: you can learn about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/an-experiment-teach-sparrows-new-songs-proved-wild-success

Can’t We All Get Along?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series concluded on December 22 as we read someone else’s mail: Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter/sermon in which Paul invited the church to take responsibility for healing in relationships.  Our scripture consisted of Philippians 4:1-9 as well as Psalm 122.

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

Not long ago I attended a worship service to mark the installation of a colleague as pastor of a local congregation. To be honest, it was a tough day for me, and I was mostly going because I’d promised I’d go.  When I saw that my friend Saleem was the preacher for the day, I perked up.  And when he made a point in the sermon, and then said something like, “my friend Dave Carver is a wonderful example of this kind of living”… Well, let me say that it was humbling, affirming, and really turned the whole day around for me.

That’s a “shout out”.  You know, when you’re in church (or some other crowd) and you’re sort of daydreaming along and the preacher mentions you by name and everyone smiles and you are lifted up as a positive example.  That feels pretty great.

How about the other end of the spectrum?  Instead of a “shout out”, have you ever seen a “call out”?  You know, the pastor is up there preaching a sermon entitled something like, “Stupid Things That Horrible People Do” and then you hear your name lifted up as an example? Yikes.  That does not feel too good… Nobody wants to be called out in the morning’s message.

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)

The Apostle Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, near the end of his life.  He gets news from a church that he started some time ago in Philippi, and he takes the time to write a letter.  When that letter is delivered, it is, in all probability, read to the community as a whole – it is the morning’s sermon.  It is, by and large, a lovely message.  He seeks to put his friends’ minds at ease by assuring them of his own welfare; he encourages them to grow in humility and grace and to follow the footsteps of Jesus, and he warns them about the dangers of false teaching and heresy.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through the morning message, Pastor Paul drops a bunch of names in what becomes a “daily double” of both call out and shout out.  First, he names two women who are apparently having some sort of a conflict and says, essentially, “Look, Euodia and Syntyche – you can do better than this…”  And then he mentions another name, Syzygus, which is often simply translated as “loyal yokefellow”, and then offers another man named Clement a shout out in dealing with difficult situations.

Wow.  I don’t know how often I’ve ever called out anyone from the pulpit, but I can’t imagine that would feel good.  And that’s just in this little church in a small neighborhood.  What would it be like to be called out by the guy who wrote half of the New Testament?  And for us to be reading about it two thousand years later?  That seems kind of harsh.

How do you like hearing your name when you’re in a crowd?  When would that make sense?

I think in this case, Paul is naming a situation of which everyone in the congregation is aware, and then he’s making a very simple point: that the church ought to play a role in bringing about the healing and reconciliation that is needed.

Paul mentions these folks by name, not in order to shame anyone, but to compel the church to action.  It’s as if the old apostle is saying, “Listen up, church: you know these people, and you love them.  You need to help them find a way to work through this pain.  What we have here is not good for anyone.”

So who are these people? This is the only time in the Bible that we read these names, and on the surface we don’t know much about these folks.  But we can say this: both Euodia (which can mean “pleasant journey”) and Syntyche (which translates roughly to “good luck”) are respected leaders in their community.  On Paul’s first trip to Philippi, an account of which is contained in the book of Acts, we find him preaching to a group of women gathered outside the city.  Paul’s usual practice was to preach to the Jews in a town first, and to do that, he’d go to a synagogue.  Most scholars believe that the fact that he goes straight to a gathering of women indicates the fact that the Roman colony of Philippi did not have ten adult men who were willing to identify as Jews, and therefore Philippi did not have a synagogue in which anyone could preach.

While some of the men were apparently reticent or simply absent, there is a rich tradition supporting the leadership of women in this congregation. The first person in all of Europe to respond to an invitation to hear more about Jesus was a businesswoman and entrepreneur named Lydia.  She welcomes Paul and his companions into her home and circle of friends, and it seems logical that the first church in Europe, there in Philippi, grew from that gathering.

In his letter to that community, Paul commends – he offers a shout out to – Euodia and Syntyche for the fact that they “contended with me for the Gospel”.  That’s the exact same phrase that he used earlier when he was describing the importance of the ministries of his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus.  Using language that is parallel at every turn, Paul emphasizes the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would not exist without the selfless service and valuable leadership offered by women such as Syntyche and Euodia.  And more than being leaders, they are his friends, and he laments this brokenness in the fabric of relationship in the household of God.

Paul goes on to invite a particular person, Syzygus or “loyal yokefellow” to work with these two women in reconciling their differences.  In doing so, Paul is putting this person in a difficult spot – literally inserting him in the midst of what is now a public conflict.  Why would Paul do this?  It seems as though the only explanation is that Paul believes that this person has the tools, the skills, and the relational capital to help move this situation towards health.  While he is in prison and therefore unable to deal with this himself, Paul deputizes Syzygus to lead the church in bringing healing – because his core belief is that the current state of affairs isn’t good for anyone.

In the past three weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to look at some fairly detailed biblical narratives of people enmeshed in conflict.  In the lives of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the “Prodigal Son” and his family, we saw several ways in which conflict can eat away at the bonds of family and friendship. I hope we also noted some ways in which we can take steps to effect reconciliation and healing when we’ve been wounded.  This morning, I’d like to invite you to consider the ways in which you might be called to be Syzygus in the lives of those around you.  It’s pretty simple: Paul implies that even those who are not directly embroiled in pain are called to help lead the community out of it.  How can we assist other people in times of conflict?

We can do that by remembering who we are.  We are Syzygus. Are we, in some way, equipped to encourage a healthy resolution to a nagging problem?  Note that even as he calls these women out, Paul avoids anything that even looks like gossip.  He presents each party in a very positive light and emphasizes the gifts and integrity of each.  He does not take sides nor encourage Syzygus to do so. If there is an attack to be launched, it is on the problem at hand, and not the people involved.  At the end of the day, it is not about demonstrating who is “right” and who is “wrong”, but rather how we can get to a place where everyone is contributing toward the ministry of Christ.

In addition to remembering who we are, we do well to remember where we are.  I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who notices things like this, but in these nine brief verses, Paul reminds those who are struggling that they are “in the Lord” three times and “in Christ Jesus” once.  You might say that’s just a literary device, but I will suggest that it’s an important way of remembering that the landscape is different when we are actively dwelling “in the Lord.”

Many years ago I was learning how to drive a car in Africa.  Now, I’d been driving for more than twenty years in the USA before I ever took the keys anywhere else.  But here’s the deal: in South Africa and in Malawi, traffic proceeds on the LEFT – as in England, it’s the opposite of the way we do things in the USA.  And I remember driving down a deserted street in Johannesburg South Africa with Erin in the car, turning left onto a divided road, and being so confused that I stopped the car and called for a vote as to which side of the road I was supposed to be on.

When we are navigating tricky situations, it’s important to remember where we are – in what context are we having these discussions? Our perception of what should be done and who can do it might change when we are able to center ourselves with a proper perspective.  When we are “in the Lord”, our own personal agendas and ideas can and should often take a back seat for the greater good.

Similarly, those of us who are called Syzygus and thereby seeking to help community through conflict will find it essential to reflect on why we are here.  If you follow any kind of social media, you are familiar with the phrase or the meme, “I’m just here for the comments.”  Someone has posted a message that has made a stringent point, and another person has found fault with that post, and then the comments light up!  People attack each other’s credibility, politics, family structure, educational background – you name it – and lots of us follow along not necessarily because we care about the issue raised by the original post, but because we want to be entertained by the conflict that ensues.

We are here, Paul would say, to point to what God is doing in the world.  We are here to do what we can to move the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ forward in the world.   As we do so, we are called to do all that we can to dispel anxiety, to rebuke harshness, and to speak against fear.  Last week I asked our confirmation class to read this passage and tell me what I should say to you about it.  One of the most cogent comments was this: “It’s right there, Pastor Dave.  ‘The Lord is near.’” Everything else needs to be understood in light of the fact that God is close to us and those who are currently struggling.  It may very well be that the reason we are where we are right now is to remind those who struggle that they are close to the heart of God.

And lastly, we have to remember what we are doing as we stand with those who are conflicted.  As the church of Jesus Christ, we who are in the Lord are called to embody the unity that God intends for all creation.  In a few moments you will find a phrase rolling off your tongue without a thought: you will join me in praying that the fullness of God’s presence and authority might be shown “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Who do you suppose is responsible for the “on earth” part of that sentence?  The world needs us to have our acts together – if we are constantly picking at each other, or standing idly by while others in our community are hurting, then our entire witness toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will be meaningless.

The reading from the Psalms really emphasizes this point as over and over again we are told to ‘pray for the shalom of the community’.  I love the way that song ends: “For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.”  We are not commended for simply staying out of conflict; we are not invited to ignore one another.  No, the model is clear: we are to seek one another’s good.  We are here to actively promote healing and wholeness, wherever the dis-ease began.

As our new members began their study of what it means to be the church, we considered the call of Abram and Sarai, and we emphasized the fact that since then, those who have understood themselves to be called by God are called out for service; we are called out in order to be a blessing to the world around us; we are called to give all that we can in order that the world might be a better, healthier, more just, and loving place as we seek to give away that which we have received in abundance from our God in Christ Jesus.

Beloved in the Lord, let me encourage you to live into the calling to be one who promotes peace by doing your best to create a scenario whereby everyone can realize that same call.  It starts, as it must, with each one of us. With Syzygus. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Speak Kindly

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 8 with an exploration of the healing of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  This can be found in Genesis 50:15-26. We also considered Paul’s call to reconciliation in II Corinthians 5:16-21

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

Last week, we began to talk about the ways that Advent is a season for reconciliation – healing in our relationships with each other as well as with the Divine.  Maybe you were here when we talked about the relationship between Jacob and Esau.  Well, if you thought things between Jacob and his brother were difficult, wait until you get a load of how things were between Jacob’s sons.

Maybe you know what happened in that family, but here’s the skinny: Jacob had twelve sons.  One of them, Joseph, was so clearly the favorite that his brothers decided that life would be better without him, so they sold him off into slavery and told the old man that he was dead.  Joseph found himself enslaved in Egypt, where he spent decades being alternately reviled and honored and at the end of the day, he found himself elevated to the position of, essentially, Prime Minister. As luck (or God) would have it, his brothers come cringing to him to save their sorry skins in the midst of a famine, and he does, and so Jacob and all the boys move to Egypt.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear a description of what happens in Jacob’s family after the old schemer dies.  Look at the ways that the brothers are described.  What are some words that you might use to describe these eleven men?  Afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, guilty…  These guys are not at their best right now, are they?  I should hope not!  They are small, they are petty, they are obsessed with the past.  So far as we can tell, they’ve been stewing on this for two decades.

Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Burgeois (1863)

Now, think about some words that you might use to describe Joseph.  Confident, comforting, generous, reassuring, forgiving… Joseph clearly is at his best, isn’t he?  I mean, this kid has been through a lot: he was born into a tragic and dysfunctional family; he was attacked by his brothers, sold as a slave at 17, spent at least a decade in involuntary slavery or as a prisoner, and finally ends up as the vice-governor of Egypt.  Amazing!  He is not at all worried about the past, is he?  He’s at peace and looking ahead!

Another question.  If you got to choose…if you could be afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, like the brothers….or confident, generous, forgiving, and at peace like Joseph, who do you want to be?  What kind of character do you wish you had?  Who do you want to be like?

While you’re mulling that over, let me throw out a couple more examples:

Mahatma Gandhi was on a speaking tour across India, as part of his non-violent struggle for independence from the British.  At that time, the only affordable mode of travel across the country was by rail. When there were no whites waiting for a train, the British rail company, in an effort to save the expense and time of actually stopping at the station, would merely slow the trains long enough for passengers of color to run along-side and hop on. (This racist policy was part of what Gandhi was protesting…)  One day, Gandhi was running to get on a train, and as he jumped up, a sandal slipped from his foot. Though he reached, he ended up watching helplessly as it fell behind him on the tracks. Quickly, he grabbed the other sandal and threw it back down the tracks towards the first shoe.

People who saw this thought perhaps Gandhi had taken leave of his senses. His response to their mystified expressions was: “At least now if a poor person finds my shoe he will soon come across its mate and end up with a good pair of shoes.  A single sandal does neither of us any good.”  There you have it…Ghandi’s character coming through.

Do you remember the day about a decade ago when a man went into the West Nickel Mines School and brutally slaughtered five innocent Amish schoolgirls?  Before the blood was dry on the floor of that building, the parents of one of those girls sent a message of forgiveness to the shooter’s family.  Within twelve hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were visiting and seeking to care for the children of the murderer.  When the assailant was buried Amish mourners outnumbered non-Amish.  And the Amish established a fund for the assassin’s family.

How to you get to be like that? Joseph appears to be genuinely surprised and hurt that his brothers even thought that he might be harboring revenge in his heart.  He hears their doubts – and he weeps!  If Gandhi had waited another moment he would have lost the opportunity; what poor person would continue for miles along the tracks in search of a matching shoe? For the Amish to extend forgiveness on the spot – and think it normal?  To have such an immediate reaction, a person has to reach such a place that behavior is not a thought out process; it’s almost instinctive. How can the average person aspire to reach such a level of human behavior? That’s the kind of person that I want to be…but how do I get there?

It reminds me of the old joke that is supposedly true:  master violinist Jascha Heifitz was hurrying along a sidewalk in New York City when a man yelled out of a cab: “Hey, pal, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  And without breaking stride, Heifitz is said to have replied, “Practice”.

How do you develop the kind of character that shows up in people like Joseph, or Ghandi, or the Amish?  Practice.  Or, to be more precise, practices.

In recent months, I have tried to use the time I’m afforded in your pulpit to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.  There’s not a person in this room who is unacquainted with estrangement in one way or another.  If we are going to follow Christ, we are going to have to learn how to forgive and make for healing.

But lots of times, we don’t want to forgive, and we think that it’s only someone else who needs healing.  We’re not interested. Or maybe we think it’s impossible – we just cannot do that.

Which is, of course, one of the fundamentally hard things about trying to live like a Christian.  We are essentially trying to be, or at least become, something that we are not.  How does that happen?

Some years ago I had the chance to spend some time with pastor and author Brian McLaren.  He said this to a group of us at the Pittsburgh Seminary as we were wrestling with this very problem:

Spiritual practices are actions that are within our power which we do to train ourselves to do things that are currently beyond our power so that we can become people we are currently incapable of being. 

You see, faithful behavior does not come automatically once we sense that God is calling us to be people of faith… Some of us might say that our hearts were changed instantly by Jesus, but all of us have to learn how to act like Christ-followers, don’t we?  We need practice.

Joseph was shaped by his whole life story.  He didn’t ask to be born into a family torn apart by jealousy and favoritism.  He didn’t ask for those amazing dreams, or to be sold as a slave, or to be cast into prison, or even to be elevated into a post in Pharaoh’s government.  That stuff happened to him.  But the ways that he responded to those things and the practices that he adopted allowed him to be shaped in such a way that he became a person of grace and forgiveness.

From everything we can tell, Joseph was a listener.  He was humble.  He was a learner.  He sought God.  And he did that wherever he was: in the fields with his father’s sheep, in Potiphar’s home, in jail, and in the royal palace, you get the sense that Joseph had a series of practices that kept him centered: prayer.  Hard work.  Service to others.  Submission to God.  And what was the result?  At the end of the day, he was confident, comforting, generous, peaceful, forgiving…all of those words we mentioned earlier.  His daily practices shaped and made him who he was.

The same, of course, is true of Ghandi or the Amish.  It’s not like the Amish live day to day full of anger and trying to cheat each other, but when the worst thing ever happens, they say, “You know, let’s try something different now…”  No.  Their lives are shaped by the daily pursuit of grace and forgiveness.  The non-violence with which Ghandi conquered the British Empire was borne out of hundreds of decisions that he made every day and that came to bear fruit in his life.

I want to speak further about the implications of these practices, but first let me make two further observations about forgiveness as we see it in the Joseph story.  One of the things that we can see plainly here is that reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was not dependent on a confession.  Did you hear what his brothers said?  Nobody said, “Wow, we were pretty harsh, dude…”  Nobody apologized.  Instead, they came up with this crazy story about something that their father told them before he died.  Yeah, they threw the dead guy under the bus so that they could patch things up with their brother… and it didn’t matter to Joseph.  He treated them with grace.

Similarly, we can draw from this that forgiveness is not always dependent on a shared understanding of the past.  I suspect that Joseph and each of his brothers would tell a different version of the things that had happened.  Nowhere do we see them coming up with a timeline to which everyone can agree.  Rather, they decide that hashing through the sequence of events is not as important as living into the days that remain.

So what about those practices?  I hope that you are convinced that you’d like to dive more deeply into them, but as we do so, I wonder why you want that.

Let’s say that there are two men who decide that they’d like to get in a little better shape.  They can’t walk from here to Giant Eagle and back without getting winded and so each one says to himself, “Wow. I’ve let myself go.  I’ve got to get back on track.”

The first man does so because he wants to shovel snow for his elderly neighbor, to play with his grandchildren, and to be more fully alive in the world around him.

The second man embraces the exact same regimen of workout and diet, but these things do not come from a place of strength and hope.  Rather, he is ashamed of how he looks, and as he gets healthier, he is more and more pleased with what he sees in the mirror.  He becomes vain, and begins to make sarcastic comments to his friends who are not as fit as he.

Do you see? Each of these men is doing what is fundamentally a good thing, and engaging in sound and wise practices, but one of them is acting far more ethically than the other.

In our day, there is a narrative about forgiveness that relates to this example and leads to an unhealthy exaltation of the self.  You have suffered some great wound; you have been wronged greatly; and in response, you declare publicly that you are going to be the better person, and have a bigger heart.  You engage in a campaign in which you do all you can to ensure that everyone knows how deeply you have been wounded, and how Ghandi-esque, how Christ-like you are because you are willing and able to forgive even a loser like that person…

That is neither true forgiveness nor reconciliation because it keeps your neighbor in your debt, it perpetuates pain, and it builds your pride and ego at the expense of your neighbor’s shame.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in love and trust in God’s provision.  We see that in the narrative about Joseph, when he goes so far as to envision a new reality with his brothers and their families.  He invites them to make a promise to him!  He holds out the possibility of renewed trust.

Authentic forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in proper understanding of who we are and who our neighbor is.  In II Corinthians, Paul points out that we have to give up scorekeeping.  There is no sense, he would say, in trying to come to a consensus as to who is the “bigger person” because none of us can really measure up.

Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, put it this way: when it comes to living the Christian life, we are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. The path to true reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement that the only way I can even contemplate forgiveness is by recognizing that I have learned it from Jesus.  We seek to be reconcilers not in order to inflate our own ego or reputation, but because reconciliation is the arrow that points the universe toward God.

This is Advent.  This is the time when most of us prepare for Christmas, and in so doing, we engage in a number of practices.  We shop.  We send out greetings.  We plan hospitality.  This year, I’d like to challenge you to include one more Advent practice: practice forgiveness.  Practice reconciliation.  Spend some time each day asking God, by the power of the Spirit, to show you – “how can I give this gift of reconciliation away?  How do I practice forgiveness in my daily life so that I get good at it?”

And in particular, let me invite you to hone in on one particular area: look at your speech.  What do you say to and about other people – in real time, or online, or through social media?  Genesis sums it up by saying that Joseph “spoke kindly to his brothers”.

For Christ’s sake, friends – truly, for Christ’s sake, not mine or yours – can we seek to grow this week in our ability to speak kindly to and about one another? Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation we have received in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.