Rules Are Rules

 

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 4, we took some time to think about one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, the one regarding divorce and remarriage. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:1-12.  

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

As we begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to test your baseball knowledge.  Let’s say that I’m the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, I’m still dreaming…). I’m up to bat, and Jon Lester of the Cubs throws two fastballs right past me.  I’m in the hole.  But somehow, I manage to stay alive and have an at-bat for the ages.  He throws me 17 more pitches, and I foul off 14 of them while three are for balls. Now, it’s full count, and I’m on the verge of breaking the MLB record for the longest at-bat ever.  On the 20thpitch to me, I swing awkwardly, and I manage to foul off yet another pitch, but in so doing I wrench my back horribly. After laying in the dirt a few moments, it’s obvious I can’t play any further. Clint Hurdle comes out and helps me off the field and you come in to replace me.  Lester eyes you up and throws a change-up – a grapefruit – right down the middle of the plate.  You watch it go by for strike 3.

When the records of this game are finalized, who has to carry that strikeout on his record? Me.  According to Rule #10.17(b), “ When the batter leaves the game with two strikes against him, and the substitute batter completes a strikeout, charge the strikeout and the time at bat to the first batter.”

But let’s say that you DON’T do that.  Let’s say that you come in and you take a pitch that is so, so close – but you let it go by for ball 4, and you head down to first base.  In this instance, even though I’ve endured the first 20 pitches of the at-bat, youget credit for the base on balls.  The same rule that makes me liable for the negative result gives you credit for the positive one – even though our actions are unchanged.  It doesn’t seem right.

Rules are rules. Most of the time, we want them. We need them to guide us.  We rely on them to help us keep things straight.

Sometimes, we ignore them.  Sometimes, we twist them to get what we want.  Oftentimes, we wish they were different.

Rules are rules.

The Pharisees and Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Our reading from Mark invites us to overhear a conversation between Jesus and some members of the Pharisees.  Although they have a bit of a bad reputation nowadays, I suspect that most of the Pharisees were good people, and I further suspect that Jesus had more respect for most Pharisees than he did for other religious groups in his day.  He argued a lot with them, but I think that’s because he thought that they were on to something – they were almost there – but they couldn’t quite see where Jesus was going.

More than anyone else, the Pharisees sought to codify what it meant to be faithful to God. Do this.  Don’t do that.

So these very religious folks come to Jesus and they have a question about the rules.  It seems like a pretty easy yes/no question: is a man allowed to divorce his wife?  That seems like a pretty cut and dried question.

However, a closer reading of the text would indicate that they were not interested in merely acquiring knowledge.  Mark says that they asked him this question in order to test him.  I suspect that they are looking for a way to put Jesus in a bad spot.  He has come through the Galilee into Judea as he is walking toward his death in Jerusalem, and they interrupt this pilgrimage by asking about divorce.  In King Herod’s back yard.  You may recall that the last time we read about divorce in Mark, it was when John the Baptist was beheaded for being critical of the fact that the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had divorced his first wife in order to marry his brother’s wife.  I suspect that in asking this question at this time, the Pharisees are hoping that Jesus might say something that would attract Herod’s attention in such a way as to induce the monarch to attempt to silence the Rabbi.

Moreover, at that time there was a significant disagreement within the community about the ethics of divorce.  As the Pharisees rightly pointed out, the rules (aka the commandments of God) allowed for divorce, but only a) if it is initiated by the man and b) if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Hillel and Shammai, Artist Unknown

Most of the faithful in that time agreed that divorce was possible. There was conflict, though, as folks disagreed about what “uncleanness” meant.  A very influential teacher named Shammai said that when the Law allowed for divorce, the only acceptable form of “uncleanness” was infidelity.  Adultery was the only permissible reason for a man to send his wife away.

Not long after that, another teacher by the name of Hillel said that “uncleanness” could cover a multitude of offenses, such as if the wife spilled food on her husband, or if she spoke ill of his family, or even if he saw someone who was more attractive to him than wife #1.  Any of these reasons, and a hundred more, were sufficient cause, according to Hillel, to dissolve a marriage.

I’ll give you one guess whose views were more popular amongst the men in that region at that time.  Hillel’s teaching was carrying the day, and divorce was rampant.

“Hey, Jesus? Can we get a divorce? Moses said we could!  Rules are rules, right?”

And I can hear Jesus sigh and say, “Yeah, Moses said that because he knew that you were a bunch of knuckleheads.”  He then offers a teaching that takes the discussion to a whole new level.

Jesus’ teaching about divorce makes the most sense in, and speaks most plainly to, a culture in which divorce is an issue of justice for the marginalized, rather than a straightforward legal procedure between two equals.  When a man sought to “send his wife away”, he was often condemning her to poverty, to shame, and to alienation.  Divorce in Jesus’ day was overwhelmingly an injustice to the woman, who was most frequently thought of as a “thing”, one who was subject to the whims of the male head of her family.

Christ and the Pharisees, Ernst Zimmerman (1870 – 1944)

In this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, and he talks to them about marriage. They were looking at problems.  He was looking at the plan, and reminds them of the creational intent for human relationships as found not in Deuteronomy, but further back, in Genesis.

Then, Jesus takes the disciples aside and elaborates.  “If a man divorces his wife,” says Jesus, “he commits adultery. And if a woman divorces her husband”, which was virtually impossible in that day and age, “she commits adultery.” Rules are rules.

But people are people.  I think that what Jesus was saying to the people in the room is that if a man attempts to discredit, disempower, or disenfranchise his wife (or injure his family) based on his own whims, then he becomes the one who is unclean or impure. Humans matter.  Relationships of intimacy are important – important for those who share them as well as for those who bear witness to them and who find their lives shaped by them.

So how do we read this in 21stCentury America?  What about divorce now?

Before I say anything, I want to recognize and claim the fact that I am speaking from a certain position.  I enjoy a number of privileges: I am white.  I am male. I am heterosexual, and have participated in one marriage.  Compared to many in this room, and many in the room with Jesus two thousand years ago, my life has been easy and uncomplicated.  I have to admit that if I had not committed to preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, I’d probably have skipped this passage.

But here we are, listening to a first-century Rabbi try to encounter this difficult question in his day and age, and not only that, but seeking to draw some ultimate meaning and truth from it.

Here’s what I think: in answering a question about Moses with a scripture about creation, Jesus is indicating that relationships are a part of our creational identity, and therefore an invitation to practice godliness in everyday life.  In pointing to the way things were at the beginning, he is affirming that the ways that we treat each other (and ourselves) matter.  And he is pointing out that breaking troth with each other – practicing faithlessness – has consequences.

However, I would further suggest that Jesus does not allow any of us to be in a position to be sanctimonious or judgmental.  In some traditions, participation in a divorce, no matter what the cause, excludes people from full participation in the life of the community.

I had a friend who felt this way.  She was married at a young age to a man who seemed so much more sophisticated than she. They had a quick courtship and they were married.  He betrayed their vows on their wedding night!  She was heartbroken, and eventually he filed for a divorce (which she did not contest).

Not only did she never marry or seek a meaningful intimate relationship again, she spent the rest of her life feeling guilty at having divorced.  She was a hard-liner, and she was a hard-liner on herself as well as anyone else.  She saw her divorce as a great stain on her life, a sin that prevented her from full participation in the life for which God made her.

And there are those who might say, “Of course! How could she do otherwise?  Look at the scripture! Jesus says that those who are involved in divorce are equivalent to adulterers.”

Maybe.  But if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to be ready to take a look at how Jesus treated adulterers. The most well-known of the stories involving Jesus and one accused of adultery ended with Jesus speaking words of compassion, grace, and encouragement to the woman who lay before him.

My hunch is that most of my friends who are younger than me have a hard time understanding the perspective of my friend who felt stained by divorce.  For many in our culture, divorce is not a deal-breaker. It happens, they say.

These people, if they claim faith in Christ, are able to see Jesus in this passage as pointing toward the Divine intent of using our relationships to honor the other, and to set up truth and beauty and integrity and faithfulness as hallmarks with which we are to treat each other.

I am certain that Jesus is nottrying to beat up anyone in this teaching, and I would caution that anyone who would use this passage for that reason does so at their own peril.

What is the take-away that we can glean from this conversation?  That life and relationships are given as a gift.  We ought to seek to honor other people every chance we get.  We are called to treasure and esteem and value others in ways that reflect the creational norms.  We must resist every temptation to use, abuse, or commodify the other.

We are not free – in fact we are called to avoid – the use of the rulebook in order to beat someone else up.

This includes the one who has wronged you.

This includes the one who is different from you.

This includes the one whom you have judged to be “unclean”.

When it comes to the rules, I think that Jesus is saying, look first at yourself, and then at Jesus, and only through the eyes of Jesus at everyone else.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Because there were a number of visitors to the congregation, I felt obliged to explain why I chose to have the congregation sing “Good, Good Father” after the sermon.  If you are unfamiliar with that tune, you can access it by clicking the video link below. You might also be interested in hearing my two-minute commentary linking the song and the sermon.  In fact, if you and I have not met, or if there is any chance that you feel “beaten up” by my use of the rulebook in the sermon above, I’d ask you to please listen to the comments by clicking on the audio player below.

Lastly, in a surprise move, the Worship Team at our congregation commemorated this observance of All Saints Day by covering “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers in celebration of the life of our dear friend Ed Schrenker.  You can hear that by using the media player below.  As you listen, please remember that we are recording in a sanctuary, not a studio.  It was just beautiful, and I wish you’d have been here!

Remembering V. Eugene McCoy

My Father-in-Law, V. Eugene McCoy, died very suddenly on Monday, July 16, 2018.  From July 7 – 15, he joined the rest of the family in an incredible beach vacation that featured, among other things, our celebration of his 85th birthday. At the end of that trip, as each car prepared to depart and head north, he whispered – as he always did – into the ear of each member of the family, “Remember: Grammy and Gramps love you an awful lot!”  He arrived home late in the day on the 15th, and on the morning of the 16th he went to play his regular Monday morning tennis match.  After winning the first set convincingly, he collapsed on the court as his earthly life ended.  I was privileged to be asked to make a few remarks at his memorial service from the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE – the entirety of which was recorded and is accessible in the media link below.  Since many readers of this blog knew Gene, and since all of us know death, I thought that you might be interested in reading this.

Dad, surrounded by much of the family, getting ready to dig into the cherry pie with which we’ll celebrate his 85th birthday on July 8 2018.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, NIV)

I am humbled to stand here on behalf of the family and say a few words about the gift that Gene McCoy has been to us and to our family.

As far as I can figure it, I’ve known Gene for about 55 years.  We met here – well not actually “here”, because there was no “here” here when we met. There was an orchard and a farmhouse and a Darley wing and a big old chestnut tree where we could get really cold lemonade on days like this.  At that time, I was one of the little rugrats in the nursery and he was a guy who sneaked in during the first hymn and made his way into the side pew over there after his early morning tennis match or golf game.

Our relationship changed rather dramatically about 44 years ago when I fell in love with his daughter.  While I was walking on eggshells for a few years, I soon came to appreciate at least his tolerance and eventually his embrace.  And like everyone else in the front rows to my right – and probably everyone else in the room – I loved him fiercely.  And like each of them, I have grown secure in his love for me.

Before I say too much, I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment and reflect: what is something that Gene McCoy gave to you? Maybe it was a ride, or a piece of candy; it could’ve been a paper towel that he’d carried in his back pocket just hoping that someone would ask him for it.  Maybe it was some good advice, or a book, or a carefully clipped comic strip or bridge column.

I’ll give you a moment, because my hunch is that you can’t think of just one.

Gene McCoy was one of the most amazingly generous people you’ll ever have the privilege to meet.  While I bet everyone in the room knows this, my sense is that the people up front have had the most opportunities to witness this.  As my brother-in-law Marty said, “Gramps redefined the basic Christmas stocking.”  Each Christmas, the sons-in-law and grandchildren would find a giant bag with a tag indicating that it had been left by “the tool guy.” Every time Craftsman had a sale, Dad would go into the store and buy four or more of whatever shiny caught his eye. Do you know how when you go to a store there are special parking places for those with disabilities, and spaces for new or expectant mothers?  I’m betting that the Sears store had a reserved spot for Gene McCoy.

In fact, is there anyone here from Craftsman today?  If so, please accept my condolences.  On behalf of the entire family, we’re deeply sorry for your loss.

Now, if you’re not in our family, you’re probably smiling to yourself and thinking, “Wow, that’s nice.  Gene helped his sons-in-law get started.  That was kind of him.”

And I’m here to tell you that you don’t get it. I mean, he bought, and we got, TOOLS! So many tools.  Listen: every Christmas and every birthday for the past 40 years there has been a bag from Craftsman with my name on it.  Some of it was stuff that I really wanted, and I couldn’t afford to buy for myself – like my first Shop-Vac.  Lots of the tools were things that I didn’t even know that I needed – such as the band clamps he gave me a few years ago.  And, to be honest, there has been a lot of stuff that I had to Google to find out what it was for and if and when I might ever need it.

You might not be surprised to know that as we and Dad aged, the themes of the tool kits changed.  Early on, we seemed to find a lot of gadgets that everyone ought to have for their cars: Raise your hand if you ever had a standard-issue Gramps McCoy green tool kit or 12 volt air compressor in the back of your car… For a while he was in a “ratchet” phase. We got ratchet drivers and ratchet wrenches and flexible ratchets and who knows what else.  There was a “cordless” phase, where we got battery-operated drills, mini-tools, saws, and – believe it or not – battery-operated hammers. Who knew?

But in spite of the phases, there were some things that were always – and I mean ALWAYS there. For forty years, twice a year, I’ve gotten a bag from Gene that has contained batteries, extension cords, scotch tape, super glue, light bulbs, and, of course, clamps.

This morning I’d like to suggest that Dad’s affinity for these particular gifts was rooted in his view of the world.  When you opened your package of light bulbs – whether it was the old fashioned incandescent, or halogen, or fluorescent replacements, or LEDs, you could sense that Dad was saying that there were some dark corners in your home, and surely in our world, that needed a little more light and illumination.

When I carried those extension cords and the giant packages of batteries home, and to church, and to the youth center, it occurred to me that there are times when you just need a little more energy.  Gene drank something like 23 cups of coffee each day in order to keep himself going, and he was always encouraging me to find ways to rest, recharge, and then engage with energy and purpose.

Each time I opened a package of tape, glue, or clamps, I was reminded that things – and people – tend to fall apart sometimes. When they do, it doesn’t make sense to just throw them away.  Instead, he challenged us all to look for ways to mend, restore, and heal the things in our lives as well as the relationships in which we dwell.

In fact, it occurs to me that one gives tools to those who are able to recognize not only the brokenness of the world, but who also realize that each of us has agency – that is, we can effect change. One gives tools to those who believe that the world can and should be a better place.

In some ways, Gene McCoy is a tool given by God to help you and me to understand more of the Divine intention for this life, and to then use our energy, our intellect, and our time in working to make that intention palpable in the world.

The scripture you’ve heard from Ephesians chapter three is all about knowing what all of the best and most knowledgeable theologians say is unknowable – the love of God that surpasses knowledge.  How can you measure the love of God?  Where does it start?  Where does it end?  How in the world can we truly speak of these things that are fundamentally mysterious and supernatural?

And yet Verl Eugene McCoy, Junior, the scientist, sought to study that love.  To quantify it.  And, most importantly, to demonstrate it – to make it known not by describing it, not by talking about it, not by pointing to it – but by demonstrating it in the best way he could.  In his lavish generosity, his insatiable curiosity, his insightful questioning, his corny jokes, his love for puzzles of all kinds, his efforts to push himself and challenge you – Gene McCoy was an agent of God seeking to make the purposes of God a little more clear.

As I say this, I am fully aware of the fact that if Dad was in the room right now, he’d be wishing that I would please talk about someone else; he would be uncomfortable with all of the attention being paid to him.  To that I would simply respond that this is the first sermon I’m preaching in 30 years that Gene McCoy is not timing, he won’t be asking me to email him a copy, and he won’t be responding to it with some thoughtful questions and helpful feedback. Gene might be uncomfortable with us looking at certain aspects of his life as noteworthy or illustrative for us as we continue to walk this earthly journey, but this is one time I’m not giving him a vote.

Because here’s the deal, beloved: I know for a fact that while Alex, Marty, and I might have received the most white bags from “the tool guy”, each and every person in this room has been given tools of one sort or another – many, perhaps, by Gene himself; more, I’m sure, by others whom God has chosen.

One more thing about Dad and those tools: when he came out to Pittsburgh to visit, he would always find an excuse to go down into our basement.  I’d find him looking into my tool cabinet, and he’d ask me, “Whatever happened to the such and such I gave you three years ago?”  And if he saw a job at my place that needed to be done, he’d look at me and say, “You know, the ______ I gave you a few years back would be perfect to fix that…”  He wasn’t nagging – he was gently reminding me that I had what I needed to get stuff done.

Folks, it’s pretty simple.  Someone gives you a gift, and you say “thank you”, and then you USE that gift.  In gratitude to God, and in honor of Gene McCoy, I’d like to encourage you to take a few moments at some time today to think about the gifts you have received. Then, make sure that you actually usewhat you’ve been given to make this world a brighter, more peaceful, and less-fractured place.  It is what Gene tried to do, and it is surely the will of God for us.  Amen.

To hear the entire memorial service, including music, scriptures, and other reflections, please use the audio player below.

The remarks about Gene’s life made by his pastor, the Rev. Brad Martin, begin at approximately the 21:10 mark of the audio recording.  My remarks, outlined above, can be heard beginning at the 33:40 mark.

The comments below were made at the committal service, a gathering of our immediate family.

As we gather around the grave and contemplate the gift of Dad’s life and consider the nature of our own mortality, I’d like to share a brief reading from the first epistle of John, chapter 3:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:1-2, NIV)

As we think about the great mysteries of life and death, we have to confess that we don’t really know all that much.  We know something about what we are, but we realize that we cannot truly be sure of what we will be…

So this day, let us claim what we know: the gift of love.

This past week, as most of you know, I watched more tennis on television than I have in my entire life. For some reason I enjoyed watching Gramps and the rest of you watching Wimbledon.

As I thought about this morning, and the events of this day, it occurred to me that it is easy to focus on what we do not have, and what has been taken away.  And then I thought about tennis, where the score is kept in a different way.  Nobody has “zero” in tennis.  Nobody has “nothing.”  When you don’t have anything else, you have “love.”  When everything else is gone, there is “love”.  And when nobody has anything, it’s called “Love All”.

It seems to me this morning that even when we feel most bereft, we can remember that we have “Love All”.  As we walk through the difficult events of this day, let us remember that we have known great love – and if there are times when it feels as though you have nothing – hang onto that love.

Anybody Want a Sandwich?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

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

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing But Dirt…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 4 we delved into the parable of Jesus which receives the “marquee billing” not only in Mark, but in Luke and Matthew as well: the Parable of the Sower.  Our scriptures included Mark 4:1-20 and I Corinthians 3:5-9.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sower, Van Gogh (1888)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Friends Like These…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am worn out from my groaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not really,” the son replied.

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

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

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

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

The First Ordination

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

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

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

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

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

And it happens during a baptism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

What’s that about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

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

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

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

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

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

And there was silence in the heavens.

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

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

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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