Chimwemwe To The World

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included all the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  They included Isaiah 21:6-8 (which, by the way, is the passage that served as the inspiration for the title of Harper Lee’s Go, Set A Watchman) and John 1:6-18.  

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

Chimwemwe rushed into the room.  Although the small home was lit only by candles and kerosene lamps, her face made it light up as though there were floodlights! This thirteen year old girl, whose name means “Joy” in their local language, was the embodiment of light.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said.  “Can we go?”

“We can go when your sister and brother are ready,” replied her father, as he put down a newspaper.

She jumped into his lap – which was not as easy as it had been a few years ago.  “Madala, I can’t wait! This is my favorite night of the whole year!”

Although he knew the answer, her father played the game.  “Why is that?”, he asked.

“Because!” she exclaimed.  “It’s almost time to see if we were right!  Tonight we will know the truth about what we thought we saw!  We will know if we’ve been good watchers!”

The girl’s mother called from the other room.  “Oh, you four and your watching.  What will you see tonight?” she asked.

Chimwemwe concentrated for a moment, and then said, “Well, Dalitso noticed that the old woman who lives across from the maize-flour mill has had the thatch from her roof blow off. He thinks she needs new-”

She was interrupted as her ten year old brother burst into the room and completed the sentence, saying, “he knowsthat new iron sheets will keep her dry for the entire rainy season.”  Dalitso, whose name means “blessings”, sought to join his sister in their father’s lap.

Chimwemwe continued as if there was no little brother.  “Chikondi has selected some new books for the teacher’s library that was burnt in the fire, and we have some chickens to deliver to Mr. Mphatso, the watchman.  While he was at work a few weeks ago, the baboons came and took all of his chickens and now there are no eggs for his children.”

The father hugged his children tightly and said, “You know that I’m always proud of you, but this year it means even more to me. You have touched me deeply.”

The children looked at him quizzically, and he said, “You don’t know this, but a long time ago – before you were born – I was a watchman myself.”

The kids were incredulous.  “You? How could that be?  You run a newspaper!”

“I do now, but I have not always.  Listen, since it seems as though your sister will be a while, let me tell you a story.”

“When I was a child, life was very, very difficult.”

The children chimed in as if in chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We know.  You lived in the village.  There was no electric, and you had to fetch water-”

Now it was father’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, that’s true,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He held up his right arm, and there where his hand should have been was something that looked as though it could have been the idea for a hand, or maybe the rough draft of a hand, but it was not a hand such as you are accustomed to seeing on folks every day.  There were only three parts of it that might conceivably have been called “fingers”, and even then, the bone structure was quite different.

“When I was born,” he went on, “there was a problem.  Even before the midwife was called to help my mother, she knew that my birth would be difficult.  And while usually the first part of a baby to be born into the world is the head, with me it was this arm that came out first.  I obviously don’t remember this part, but I’m told that there was a lot of yelling and crying, and that people were afraid of this baby to be born.”

Chimwemwe took her father’s hand and said, “Madala, it’s just your hand.  It was just a little baby hand.  Sure, it looks different, but it’s fine!”

Her father said, “Well, we know that now, but this was a long time ago, and in the village. There were not as many doctors. People thought differently.  And so it was that when I was born, my father took one look at me and called me ‘Mabvuto’, which means ‘trouble’ in the local language. And for a long time, everyone – including me – thought that the name was perfect.  Because I wastrouble.”

“Can you imagine growing up with a hand like this?  Can you think how the other children would have teased me? Do you know that they made fun of me and even ran away from me?  On my inside – I wanted to help, I wanted to be a friend – but they could only see my different hand.”

“Now in those days there was a company that was called Secure-Corps or something like that. When I saw them, I saw athletic young men wearing matching uniforms driving fast trucks. They were guards hired by rich people, and when an alarm sounded, truckloads of these men would rush through the streets in order to save a home from being robbed or a person from being beaten.  I wanted to work for them.  I just knewthat if I was a Secure-Corps guard, people would be happy to see me coming!”

Dalitso – ‘Blessings’ – looked at his father and said, “So is thatwhen you were a guard, Madala?”

“No!,” was his father’s quick reply.  “I could never work for that company.  I was never a guard; I never had a uniform or one of those fast trucks.  You see, in order to be a guard for that company, you had to be able to read.  My father wouldn’t pay to send me to school.  He said, ‘Why bother, for such trouble?  Mabvuto – look at him.  Look at that hand.  What can he do with a hand like that?’”

“For a long time, it was so hard.  I was always angry.  I was getting mean.  But one day, it was my grandmother – Agogo – who helped me.”

“She surprised me in the bush one day.  I was staring at my hand, and I had taken some small sticks and was trying to hold them there to see what my hand might look like if I had five fingers.  She took the sticks and threw them and then grabbed me to herself.  ‘Oh, Mabvuto,’ she cried.  ‘Why do you keep on looking for something that is not there?  Do you think that if you stare long enough or hard enough that those fingers will appear?’”

“We sat in the grass for a long time, and if we said anything, I don’t remember it.  As the sun was setting, she asked me to help her back into her hut.  It was getting dark, and she almost stepped on it, but at the last minute I saw it – a snake – a poisonous black mamba – and I pulled her back. I grabbed a hoe and I killed the snake.”

“My Agogo hugged me and she said, ‘That’s my Mabvuto – so observant.’”

“’Observant?’ What’s ‘observant?’  She told me it meant that I was good at noticing things, and at watching.”

“And I was.  I couldn’t be a guard, so I became a watchman, and I discovered that I think I liked that even better than being a guard. Guards, you see, were always rushing around in times of trouble, but watchmen were just always there.  Guards were hired by rich people to protect them from bad things, but as a watchman I would see all kinds of things.  I noticed when the hippos left the river to eat and when they returned.  I learned all about the stars.  I would watch and listen as people ran into a house when a new baby was being born.”

“Do you see? As a watchman, I had to keep an eye out for problems, but I also got to observe – to watch – beautiful and powerful things that might have seemed small. Instead of looking only at bad things, or concentrating only on what was missing, I could tell stories about what I did see.”

“When I got home, my sisters and then my cousins would come around me and listen to me tell them about the things I’d seen.  When I got older, I taught myself how to read and write.  I wanted to share the stories that I had, and so I opened my own company…”

“The paper!” his children shouted.  “Nkani Yabwino!  The ‘good news’ paper!”

“Well, yes,” he said. “It wasn’t a newspaper at first. It was just copies of some of the good things that I saw – and it taught me how to be a better watcher.”

“And now, Chimwemwe and Dalitso, and even little Chikondi – you are all better watchers than I am!  You see everything, and you look for ways to make things better or stronger.  I know, you like tonight because we will go out and share some iron sheets, or books, or chickens… but every day we have the chance to look for things that no one else sees.  We try to straighten what is bent, to point out what is great, and to share in people’s lives.”

“But why do we do this tonight, Daddy?” asked Chimwemwe.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve, my daughter!  It’s your birthday!  Do you remember what your name means when we say it in English?  It is ‘JOY’ – because on that night there is always a lot of JOY.  There is joy because we see that God watches with the people who watch-”

His children cried in unison: “the shepherds!”

“There is joy because God sends people to honor and bless the poor-”

“The Wise Men!”

“Mostly, there’s joy because we know God didn’t set out to guard the earth, but to be in it, to watch it, and to teach people how to see!”

The mood of the room changed quickly with the arrival of the youngest child, a girl called Chikondi. And you might want to know what happened next.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you were looking for.

The men down at the Secure-Corps headquarters who watched the surveillance camera footage could tell you that they saw a middle-aged man who appeared to be favoring one hand take 3 kids – later determined to be named Chimwemwe, Dalitso, and Chikondi – around town delivering parcels.

The families of a poor old woman, and a teacher, and a night watchman later said that they’d been visited by angels who came to them and said that God had noticed them in the midst of their trouble.

And me? I saw someone called Mabvuto who once thought that he had been born for trouble make a way for Joy, Blessings, and Love to shine in the darkness on Christmas Eve.

Well, that was a long time ago.  And it was in a place that’s pretty far away.  But keep your eyes open.  Watch. You never know what you’ll see, and who you can tell about it. Thanks be to God, who watches over us, and invites us to do the same with each other!  Amen.

How’s Your Follow?

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 23 we heard the plea to “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”.  You can hear a version of that at the end of the post, below.  Our scriptural basis was the original call to the shepherds in Luke 2:1-20 as well as the example of Ruth in Ruth 1:16-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  If you typically read the message, I’d really encourage you to listen this week, as I think that the audio is a a little better proclamation.

Maybe it’s just me… or maybe it’s simply another sign that I’m getting to be pretty old… but this year in particular, I’ve been struck by a phrase that has become a feature in advertising.

ONE DAY ONLY!

We have to Act Fast! Do It Now! Christmas only comes around once a year, Bub, and if you’re going to be a good parent / child / sibling / neighbor, well then you’d better get moving and get shopping! If you don’t drag yourself to the mall, or write out the Christmas cards, or plan the big dinner NOW – well, forget about it.

It’s Christmas, for crying out loud! You’re supposed to be driving / spending / baking / shopping yourself into a frenzy.

Why? Because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Don’t try this at home… SERIOUSLY, DO NOT try this at home…

Listen, if I ever go out and make a $60,000 purchase without talking to my wife about it, you’d better believe that you’re going to hear a lot about that decision… and I’m here to tell you that whatever may be said about that kind of foolish and reckless behavior, two words that will not be included are “most wonderful”.

But we do this, don’t we?  We put such great expectations on the holiday season, or on a single day, or even into one particular hour that if a flight is delayed or a home is sold or a loved one dies, well, then, everything is ruined and it’s the most horrible time of the year.

You are aware, I presume, that this is not how it’s supposed to be…

Nativity scene with figures in black silhouette against blue starry sky with comet star lightbeam.

The Biblical model for Christmas is something unassuming and surprising; it is something that draws us in rather than railroading us into action.

This month we’ve been seeking to be attentive to some songs of lament and hope that we know as African American Spirituals. Today’s song, “Rise Up, Shepherd”, is shaped around the word “follow”, and I’m here to tell you that as such it is a prophetic word to the culture in the USA in 2018.

Christmas in 2018 is about creating meaning and inventing significance – about building up expectation and acquiring the right gift, people, or experience so that you just know that it’s Christmas and, more so, that you’ve won Christmas.

The first Christmas, on the other hand, was more about discovering what was already there; at joining in with what had begun.  It was about following the soft light of a star that had been shining for, well, who knows?  It was about responding to the song of the angels and then hurrying to get to the place where God was already at work.

“Follow, follow; rise up, shepherd, and follow…”

We use that word a lot these days, don’t we? And I’m here to tell you that there are a lotof followers out there.

How many of you use the social platform called Instagram?  Do you know who has the most followers on that photo and video-sharing network?  Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese soccer player, has 148.3 million followers.

How about Twitter? Who would you suppose is the most popular tweet-er?  An American woman, Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, a.k.a. Katy Perry, is followed by 107 million people – that is more than twice as many as follow any President of the USA, living or dead (although the dead guys don’t tweet as often…).

Or what about Facebook?  How many “friends” do you have? Who would you suppose has the most followers on Facebook? Once again, it is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 122.5 million followers; he is followed by a Columbian pop star named Shakira.

And you say, “Ah, all that social media stuff. I’m not into that.”  Maybe not.  But I bet that you could use the word “follow” to describe your relationship with the Penguins, or the Stock Market, or the soap operas.

In our culture, surprisingly, the word  “follow” has become a passive activity.  When you say that you “follow” Shakira or the Penguins, you probably mean that you identify as an interested party or as a fan.  However, you probably don’t invest a great deal of your time or energy in “following” Evgeni Malkin or the latest share price for US Steel.  In “following” these things, you’re keeping an eye on them, and hoping that they might do something that would interest or benefit you. Do you see what I mean when I suggest that it is a “passive” activity?

Did you know that the Internal Revenue Service has a special category for “Passive Activity”? According to them, passive activities are those in which you participate non-materially – that is, less than 500 hours in a given year.  For tax purposes, you can only claim to be actively pursuing a trade or business activity if you spend close to ten hours a week doing so.

I’m here to say that I hope that nobody in this room is investing ten hours a week in Ronaldo, or Shakira, or the Steelers place-kicker.  Oh, we say, we follow those folks.  But they don’t really impact us.  That’s what I mean when we use the word “follow” to indicate a mild interest, or a plan to keep tabs on someone who really is tangential to the main parts of my life.

Yet when we use that definition of “follow” in terms of our discipleship, well, that’s incomplete. According to the spiritual we just sang, you will be so entranced by the presence of the Christ that your following will result in the forgetting of your flocks and of your herds…

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

One of the best examples of a follower in the Bible is from the ancient story of Ruth. This woman, who had been born as an outsider – a Moabite – had been through some incredible difficulty. There was a famine in her home land, and it was so severe that it took the lives of her father-in-law, her brother-in-law, and eventually her husband.  Most of her contemporaries would have said that she was all alone – except she was not.  She had a vibrant relationship with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  She was so captivated by what she saw in the person of Naomi that she left her old life behind so that she could get in on what Naomi was doing.

You heard her declaration a few moments ago: it’s about as far from passive as one can get, isn’t it?  For Ruth, “following” meant adopting a new address, a new culture, a new diet, and new habits.

For the first disciples, following Jesus meant disrupting their vocational plans, involvement in significant conflict, and most often, an untimely death.

For many who sang that spiritual, following Jesus meant holding onto hope in the midst of days that seemed bleak and ugly; it meant trusting God to right wrongs even as they themselves worked to subvert an order that was fundamentally unjust.

“Follow, follow; rise up shepherd and follow…”

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

The shepherds were drawn in.  The wise men sought slowly and deliberately.  The disciples re-oriented their lives.

How are you following?  And is it the way that you’d like to follow?

I’m here to suggest that even though it’s technically notChristmas yet, it’s probably too late for this year.  I mean, Christmas Eve is tomorrow, for crying out loud.  I think that for must of us, the 2018 Christmas train has left the station.

Don’t get me wrong – I hope to share with you in worship; I’ll advocate for you to look for ways to avoid overspending and unwise debt and to seek out ways to be fully present with  people in the days that are to come.

But what about after Christmas?  What will the days following Christmas look like for you?

You see, in our current cultural understanding, the number one activity immediately following Christmas (“the most wonderful time of the year”) is kicking back, taking time off work if you can, and breathing a huge sigh of relief… “Oh, boy, I’m glad that’s over! I sure wouldn’t want to have to go through that again!  Now it’s time to get back to what I want to do.  I want to spend on the things that I’m interested in.  I get to eat what I want to, and to go where I want to go…

As if following the Bethlehem star, or being ‘good’ for Santa, or living in relationship with other people is somehow outside of our normal experience and something we can’t wait to stop…

Today, I’d like to ask you to make the days following Christmas days in which you seek to follow Jesus.  And I’d like to suggest that there are at least four things that you can do to help you be a better follower…

Rest.  I know, you’re planning on that, just as soon as you get back from Aunt Marge’s place on the 29th.  But I mean to ask you this: can you change the pace of your life so that you have a better rhythm?  What if you built in more rest each day? I’m not saying that you’re supposed to plan more “spa” days, whatever they are.  I’m suggesting that every day, you could probably linger over a meal with a friend for a few more moments.  You could probably set aside ten or fifteen minutes at some point in the day to read something that would revive or refresh you.  I know, it might cost you some Ronaldo or Shakira time, but we all make choices…

Practice Gratitude.  I know, many people think that “thank-you” notes are a quaint and unnecessary formality, while others think that they’ve all got to be done in a week.  When we view that kind of correspondence in that way, it becomes another source of pressure and a community killer.  Look – when you receive a gift or a card, just jot it down on a list.  And then in the days, and weeks, and months to come, take a moment to write to the person who extended themselves in that way and say, “Thanks for thinking of me.  It matters. Here are some things that are happening now.  You matter.” Write a note, or send a text, or make a phone call.  Allow the practice of gratitude to drive you more deeply into relationship with people who are important to you.

Give more.  We spend a month or so rushing around hoping we’ve gotten enough stuff to give away and not feel guilty about it, and then we spend 11 months doing whatever the heck we want.  Let me encourage you to make giving a part of your following.  Look for ways to free up more time, more energy, and more money for you to share with people and causes that you think align with God’s intentions.

Try something new.  Find a new adventure or passion that will be tied to and also help feed your faith.  Maybe that’s an active step, such as finding a spot on the Texas Mission Team, or volunteering with the Open Door, or the Preschool, or The Table.  Or maybe that’s a quieter role, such as doing some tinkering around this building or visiting some of the lonely in our midst.  Maybe this is the kick in the pants you need to start investing some new time in an Adult discussion group like Faithbuilders or another small group.

Look, my sense is that for ONE DAY ONLY we’re willing to sit and talk with people a little longer, or to pretend to be grateful, or to make a donation to a cause that we don’t really care about, or to try something new… but then we are ready to get back to “normal”.  But really, if Christmas is for one day only – if it’s the 25thand then back to business as usual… I think we’re doing it wrong.

Follow, follow; rise up, Shepherd, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

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.