The First Ordination

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

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

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

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

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

And it happens during a baptism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

What’s that about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

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

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

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

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

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

And there was silence in the heavens.

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

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

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return To Sender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deal Gently…

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long and Winding Road

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 23, we watched as David (now almost 40 years old) was anointed as king by the elders of Israel… decades after Samuel had made a similar anointing.  Our texts included II Samuel 5:1-5 and Philippians 1:3-6.  To listen to the audio version of this sermon, please use the player below.

One afternoon in 1968, a 25 year-old man paused to take stock of his life. For a decade, he had been climbing to the top of the world. Since he was 15, he and his friends had played in a band that had gained some real success, but now their worlds were crashing in around them. Tensions between the lads were high, and what had once seemed effortless and carefree was now a morass of conflict and miscommunication.

That day, young Paul sat down at his farm in Scotland and plinked out a melody on his piano. He later said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”[1] The result of that afternoon’s labor was a ballad entitled “The Long and Winding Road”, which was released a month after Paul’s band, The Beatles, broke up. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days of its release, and was the last #1 hit The Beatles ever had.

My hunch is that you know this tune, but to refresh your memory, here is a portion of the lyrics:

The wild and windy night

That the rain washed away

Has left a pool of tears

Crying for the day

Why leave me standing here

Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone

And many times I’ve cried

Any way you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

Paul recorded a demo version of the song, and was unhappy with it, and left it. Later, John Lennon gave that recording to a producer, who added strings, horns, and a female choir. Paul was so incensed by these changes to his work that when the hearing over the dissolution of The Beatles took place, he listed the treatment of this song as one of his chief grievances. It’s a sad, sad song.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine King David singing this song at some point in his life. The reading we’ve had for today from II Samuel announces a significant change in David’s life. Here, at age 37 or so, he is crowned as the King of all Israel. Prior to this, he’d spent seven and a half years as king of the tribe of Judah in the village of Hebron. That was preceded by two years running a band of 600 guerrillas out of Ziklag. For eight years before that, he’d been hiding out as a fugitive from Saul and the army of Israel. That was preceded by time serving on Saul’s staff as a royal musician and part-time Philistine fighter. He had risen to prominence as a teenager when he killed the giant, Goliath, but he first attracted our notice when he was called in from tending the flocks of his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and anointed, as a boy, by the prophet Samuel.[2]

If anyone had a right to sing sad songs about long roads that go nowhere and friends who say one thing but do another, it would be David. For virtually his entire life, he was bounced around and searching for some way to live into the call that had been extended to him. More than once, I’m sure it must have been tempting for David to think of life as a twisted, directionless trek that left him alone and powerless against the world.

This is not, however, the song that David chose to sing. Instead of seeing himself as the victim of an unfeeling universe, David opted to see himself as one who had been invited to cooperate with YHWH and to participate in joyful and energetic response to the ways that God had been moving in the world around him.

We have noted several times that David was a mere boy when the prophet Samuel pulled him aside and told him that God would establish him as the king. For the better part of three decades, young David continued to act upon that promise even when he couldn’t see how it was coming to fruition. God had appointed him to lead, and so he sought to do that as best he could. Even the staunch traditionalists in Israel offer testimony to the same thing on this, the day of his coronation.

In verse 2 of our reading, these men come to David and say, “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.” This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that even while Saul was wearing the crown, it was David who as acting as a King should act. The further Saul descended into his own madness, the more David took it upon himself to do the work of the king – keeping the people safe from their enemies, working for justice, and so on. The people of Israel are able to see in David’s actions that which had only been promised, and now they ask him to step into that role.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

In doing so, we see that there is a beautiful symmetry to David’s life. Here, at his coronation, the elders remind David that YHWH has called him to be their shepherd. The one who as the eighth-born son of a poor farmer was out tending to the flocks in the field has now become the leader of all of Israel. In choosing this vocabulary, they are reminding David to take advantage of the lessons he’s already learned about caring for the weak and vulnerable and to apply them in his office as King.

The other bit of vocabulary that jumps out of this verse is the next term that the elders use to describe David: he is called to be not only the “shepherd” of Israel, but their “ruler.” The Hebrew word here is nagid. The statesmen could have said, “David, be our melek, or “king”. But that’s the kind of ruler Saul had been. David is charged to be nagid, which can mean “ruler” but is often translated as “prince”.

Think, for a moment, of the implications of coming into office as the “shepherd” and “prince” of Israel. Although the word is often attached to him, this passage makes it clear that David is not to be “king” in the same way that Saul had been king. A prince is someone who rules in collaboration with a greater authority. YHWH is the King; David is a prince. He has come to realize that true strength will often come through submission, sacrifice, and service – attributes with which Saul appears to have been unfamiliar.

There is no reason to suspect that Paul was thinking about David’s willingness to hold on to the promises of God even when outward circumstances seemed to argue against it, but this story would have made sense to the people who formed the church of Philippi.

Philippi was on a busy highway, the via Egnatia, between two important towns. It was officially a “colony” of the Roman Empire, meaning that life here was to reflect as closely as possible the circumstances of those in Rome. This includes, presumably, worship of any number of Roman gods, participation in an economy that is driven by a multitude of slaves, peasants, and service-providers all of whom were there to cater to the whims of the Roman soldiers and former soldiers who ran the place. The church in Philippi had not gotten off to a promising start – there were very few Jews in town, and so the Christian community appears to have been formed by a rag-tag group of marginalized folks. When confronted with the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Empire, I suspect that there were days that the members of First Church, Philippi, looked around and thought, “Am I really able to believe in the call of God to this place?”

Paul says in no uncertain terms, YES! “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ comes.” Paul encourages the struggling congregation not to give up on that which they’ve received, but instead to hold fast to the promise of God.

He reminds them of the ways that God has been moving in the past, and encourages them to look for God’s hand at work in the present. Furthermore, Paul says that this group of careworn believers can march confidently into an uncertain future knowing of God’s purposes for the Creation.

It was good enough for David. It was Paul’s advice to the folk in Philippi. How’s it working out for you? Are you able to live into, or to lean on the promises of God’s presence and power in your day-to-day life?

I know you well enough to know that many, if not most, of you have had at least one occasion to throw your hands up in the air and say, “Seriously? Are you for real, God? You expect me to believe that you are moving in and through this circumstance? Where are you, God?” How well do you see God’s movement in the world around you? How confident are you that God will see the work in YOU through to completion? And how can you get better at those things?

For generations, God’s people have made use of a spiritual discipline known as examen. Quite simply, this is the practice of setting aside some time – ideally each day – to unplug from the what do I have to do next and when is it supposed to be done by rhythm of life and spend some time reflecting about who and how and where you have been in the day and how and where God might have been present in your day or the moments of your day.

Now, here’s the deal when it comes to examen. The goal is to think objectively enough to see the whole picture, and not to simply obsess about the best or worst five moments of the day. I learned this week about a tool that the National Football League uses that is not available to the ordinary fan. Each game is recorded using a system of cameras called the “All-22”. These films allow the coaches to see the entire field of play for the duration of the game. When you and I watch the Steelers play we are forced by the good people at CBS Sports to see how tightly the quarterback grips the laces or how many fingers of the defensive lineman’s right hand are jammed into the facemask of the running back. On the other hand, the All-22 is designed to show the coach how the entire system functions during each play. That way, the coach can see how the guys who don’t have the ball are behaving away from the play. They have a much broader view of the ebb and flow of the entire contest.

Too often when I stop to think about my day, it’s either to beat myself up for that incredibly stupid thing I did right in front of everyone at 11:27 a.m. and how I’m such a moron for doing it OR to think about the fact that I didn’t get a speeding ticket when I blew through the speed trap so it was a great day after all.

A better approach would be to try to give some thought to the movement of the entire day and see where things went well and where I struggled. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife or a friend to check me on something – I’ll say, “This is how I experienced that… what was your sense?” While I don’t usually have an “All-22” view of myself, it’s helpful to listen to someone I trust and make sure that I’m not being either too hard or too easy on either myself or God.

Of course, another way to make sure that I’m attentive to the presence of God in the world around me is to train my eyes and ears to pick up on that. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to spend time reading the Bible and being present to God in prayer – because if I can see what it looked like when God was moving in the lives of people like David or Paul, maybe I’ll be better equipped to catch a glimpse of him in mine.

It’s not unlike bird-watching, to be honest. That is to say, I’m working with my granddaughter so that she knows that just about every red bird she sees at my house is a cardinal. The yellow ones are goldfinches. As she gets older, we’ll get a little deeper and talk about the differences between juncos and titmice, and if she really goes crazy, she’ll learn about the 35 varieties of sparrow that can be found in North America. The more she looks, the easier it will be for her to discern what she’s really seeing.

In the same way, I can train myself, through prayer and scripture, to be better able to spot God in action. When I catch a glimpse – even if it’s only momentary – it’s easier to remember and live into the promise.

I began this sermon with a love song about looking for company on a road fraught with difficulty, and I’ll close it with another. This one wasn’t written by a kid from England, but rather one from the Middle East. It’s a song about walking in trust with God towards a future that is almost always unknown but is never uncertain, and it describes the fact that security is possible, even in the midst of the storms.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, image from the 4th century catacombs in Rome

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the things that allowed David to enter into the role of shepherd and prince of Israel is the fact that he never, ever forgot – not while he was afraid as the rapids of life threatened to inundate him; not while he was unsure as to where the path was leading him; not while he was forced to spend time in the valley of the shadow of death; not while he was surrounded by his enemies – he never forgot that he himself had a shepherd and a King. As do I. As do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (MacMillan, 1998, p. 539)

[2] This chronology is summarized in Leap Over a Wall (Eugene Peterson, Harper-Collins, 1997) p. 137.

Who’s Laughing Now?

 

 Palm Sunday 2017 brought the folks at the Crafton Heights Church together in celebration of Palm Sunday worship.  Our texts included Psalm 2 and Luke 19:28-44.

For your convenience, an audio recording of this sermon as preached on 04/09/17 is available by clicking on the arrow to the left, below.

I’d like to start this message by showing you one of my favorite photos that includes some of my favorite people standing in one of my favorite places in the world. This is the team that has recently returned from an amazing mission to Malawi, Central Africa. That large rock face behind us is known as the Mulanje Massif, and we’re about halfway into a hike that will take us to a delightful little waterfall. There are three things I’d like to tell you about this photo.

I love this bend in the trail because when you come close to the edge, you can see very, very clearly all sorts of places where you’ve already been. When you look back, you can see the path up which we’ve come. Look down into the valley, and the stream and the camp and the road are visible.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him, Pietro Lorenzetti 1320


As we enter Holy Week, and as we continue our Lenten journey, and as we live into what it means to be Christians alive in the USA in the 21st century, we, too, can look back. If we look back far enough, we can catch a glimpse of the Triumphal Entry – Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Wow, that was a day to remember! The waving of the palms, the enthusiasm of the children, the singing – heck, even the protest was kind of fun. Who could forget the so-called “religious leaders” who were so appalled by the things that Jesus said and did? I mean, here was Jesus, receiving and enjoying the praise of the people even as he carried their hopes on his own back, getting ready to enter into the most desolate time of his life.

There’s so much that happened on Palm Sunday, and yet from our vantage point, it’s easy to see that one of the central lessons of this day is simply that God, and not another, is in control. As we hear the echoes of the Hosannas, we can know that nothing – not even the events of that horrible week that was to come – is able to separate this creation from God’s intentions for it.

And yet, if we stand here long enough, we might also be able to hear Jesus weeping on that first Palm Sunday. We overhear his lament at the fact that we too often choose to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God, and we follow paths of isolation, estrangement, or violence… and Jesus weeps.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

If we stand here this morning and look a little further back, we might just be able to make out something very far off… Do you see in the events of Palm Sunday a shadow of Psalm 2? This song was written for a worship service in which a king would be crowned. It begins with a nod to the realities of its own day: there is political intrigue and conflict, and some are seeking to harm the Lord’s anointed one. The world, even then, is full of those who would thwart God’s intentions – the old translations say that “the nations rage”.

As we listen to Psalm 2, it’s instructive to note that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where God’s messiah, King, and Son are mentioned in the same breath. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the early disciples remembered this Psalm as they talked about Jesus in Acts chapter 4. Jesus really became the son, king, and messiah of which the Psalm spoke, and they were able to look back and see that.

And in joining the disciples in reflecting on this Psalm, we can hear a sound that is even more distinct than the weeping of Jesus on Palm Sunday: the laughter of God. The Psalmist pictures the Lord considering the threat of the nations and finding it, well, amusing. As if the nations and their rage could threaten the eternal purposes of God. Please… The encouraging, comforting laughter of YHWH tells us that the universe is all right and that’s God’s care has not and will not fail.

So like those hikers in Africa, we can stand on the path and look back… and it’s good.

But let me tell you something about this photo. When this image was captured, I was about dead. The day was almost unbearably hot. I was irritated at carrying a backpack that seemed to have four people’s stuff in it. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I was out of gas. Every muscle in my body hurt and I was tired and achy and miserable. We took that photo because if we hadn’t stopped, the “Abusa with the big hat” wouldn’t have made it. I was overwhelmed, and so I suggested that we stop and take a moment to look around.

On Palm Sunday, 2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights will do well to pause and look around. Does anyone else feel as though you’re having a hard time? Have you felt this week or last week or sometime recently like it’s been really tough sledding? And I’m not just talking about your kidney stones or your sister-in-law’s job, I’m talking about the big picture. 3000 years ago, the Psalmist said that the nations were raging. 2000 years ago, Jesus walked right into a plot led by the religious leaders.

And this week, scores of innocent people were killed in a gas attack in Syria. Already this month, 43 Ethiopian children have been abducted from their villages by armed gunmen who killed 28 adults in the process. There are senior citizens in our own country who lack basic health care. Children in our neighborhood are going to bed hungry. Relationships are strained or broken. Many of us feel as though we are dwelling in uninterrupted pain or grief or depression. You think that maybe you heard Jesus weeping on Palm Sunday but in reality it was the not-so-stifled cries of the people around you. The nations have not stopped their raging.

We stop now, as we hide out here in worship, because we have to. We are threatened by the magnitude of the evil that we see on a daily basis. We come in and we talk about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but so many times that runs counter to our experience. It hurts. People are horrible to each other. If we can possibly hear the laughter of God, we’re not always experiencing it as comfort…there are days when it sounds as though even the Divine One is making a mockery of our very existence. We cry out in the midst of our pain and alienation, “Where are you now, God?”

Oh, we don’t always show it. I mean, look at that photo. I’m hiding behind the group. You can’t hear my wheezing. I look happy enough, but don’t believe it for a moment. Too often the rest of you do the exact same thing… you waltz in here and you’re dying on the inside but you won’t show it for a moment. The nations rage, and we feel it on the inside, even if we can’t show it…

OK, there’s one more thing you need to know about this photo and the place where it was taken: from where we are standing on the mountainside, we can’t see where we are going next. The path at this point disappears into some pretty heavy growth and winds around the side of the mountain. Oh, sure, the people who have been here before will tell you all about the waterfall that lies ahead, but you can’t see it or hear it from here. If you’ve never been there before, you can’t even begin to imagine the beauty of the spot to which we’re headed, or the way that those icy waters will refresh and invigorate even the weariest of muscles. Yet every single person in this photo turned to their right and marched into the forest, even though only three of us had ever been there before.

And truth be told, that’s a good metaphor for a lot of us in church now. We may be here because we’ve always come, or we may have a vague hope that somehow things will work out all right for us. Maybe we trust in the one who invited us into this part of the journey, or we believe that the path wouldn’t have led this far just to stop – I mean, it’s got to lead somewhere, right?

And so we keep walking. We hold on to the hope that Psalm 2 is true. We rely on the fact that the events of Palm Sunday are, in fact, a foretaste of what is to come.

Listen: I wish that I could stand here and tell you how you will experience the laughter of God in your own life. I long to give you the absolute assurance that you will receive healing in your own life; that your child will grow into a healthy, happy, and energetic adulthood; that your job will not be erased in the next sequence of downsizing. I wish I could say all of that for you, and you, and you…

But to be honest, I can’t see that far ahead on the path for you or for me; and, unlike that mountain in Africa, I’ve never been here before.

But what I can say is this: that I am confident of the path, and that I believe the one who called us to walk on it with him. I trust that in a cosmic sense, we are going to arrive at the truth that seems so far off right now.

The people frozen in that photo are in the in-between. They’re not where they started, but they can’t yet imagine how they’ll finish. Similarly, Palm Sunday is between the glory of the incarnation with all of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the astounding news of the resurrection… but with the pain of Holy Week on the immediate horizon.

Likewise, the death and resurrection of Jesus itself is between the unspoiled beauty of creation as described in Genesis and the ultimate healing that is put forward in the resurrection of the body and recreation of the world of which we spoke last week.

So, too, are we, right now, pausing to catch our breath, knowing that we are on our way. And since we don’t know what’s ahead, specifically, for any one of us, then for God’s sake let’s do our best to make the journey better for each of us.

Right before this photo was taken, I had set that heavy pack down. After our break, Joe picked up the pack and carried it for me. Our friend Keith walked with the team, and talked in a way that was encouraging and inspiring. Rachael saw that a couple of folks had emptied their water bottles, and she shared from her own.

I know. You’re not going to Malawi – at least not any time soon. But you can do all that stuff, you know. You have it in you to pick up someone else’s load for a while, even if he didn’t ask you to. You can stand next to your friend and tell her that you’re tired, or scared, or unsure. You can share what you have, even when you’re not sure that it will be enough. And you can keep on walking – walk right through the pain and betrayal of the upper room, into the darkness of Good Friday and the cold deadness of Holy Saturday. You can keep walking until you get a glimpse of the sunrise of the resurrection.

Maybe you can’t hear the laughter of God right now. But it’s coming. I promise you, it’s coming. And it is for you. Thanks be to God, it is for you, and for the innocents of Syria and the children of Ethiopia; it is for the One who rode a donkey into Jerusalem and for those who waited with him at his execution. In a real and final sense, the laughter of God is for the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. God laughs. And it’s good. Amen.

Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12