Say Her Name

The community that formed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was marked by many distinctive.  On Sunday May 12, 2019, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the call to include those on the margins as one of those distinctives.  Our text was the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter as recorded in Acts 9:36-43.  We read that after having heard the promise of God as revealed in Hosea 1:10 – 2:1

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit

As we start, I’ll confess that I don’t usually select scripture readings or plan the worship experience at Crafton Heights in such a way that it mirrors the civil calendar.  Some of you know this, because you’ve been disappointed with or irritated by me on the Fourth of July, when we don’t sing a lot of patriotic songs, or on Labor Day, or on Veterans Day.  Maybe you know this because you were here on Mother’s Day in 2017, when the scripture for the day happened to be the heartwarming and “sit in church next to Grandma-friendly” tale of David and Bathsheba.  Typically, if you come to me with such disappointment, I will say that most of those are, indeed, important days, but that we gather in worship for a different and, I would add, more important reason.

But as I read the scripture chosen for today, and then I realized that today would be Mother’s Day, I thought to myself, “Jackpot!”  This is precisely the kind of story that we love, especially on Mother’s Day.  The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings used in a number of churches that is designed to help congregations encounter the full breadth of God’s Word.  And wouldn’t you know it: the Revised Common Lectionary calls the church of Jesus Christ on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter, to consider Acts 9:36-43 – the story of Tabitha and Peter.  It’s perfect! I mean, what’s not to like here?

Saint Tabitha, Byzantine Greek Orthodox Icon

The central figure in this passage appears to be Tabitha. Some translations refer to her by her Greek name, which is Dorcas, but either way it means “gazelle” or “deer”.  She is truly remarkable in many, many ways.

You are all familiar with people who have traditions of helping others at various times of the year: someone in your family may go serve a meal at the shelter every Thanksgiving, for instance; someone else raises money to fight world hunger each spring; heck, some of our friends are not here this morning because they alwaysparticipate in “the Race for the Cure”.  We know and we love those people, and we admire their regular commitment to charitable giving and living.

But with Tabitha, it’s more than just an annual fund drive. She is all in, all the time – 24/7/365.  This is who she is.  This is what she does.

Here is one of the ways that you know that Tabitha is remarkable.  There are 33 women named in the New Testament, and another 28 who are mentioned, but not named.  There are another 16 references to groups of unnamed women. And yet Tabitha is the only woman to be described as a mathetria – the feminine form of the word “disciple” in Greek.  Nobody else in the entire Bible has that form of that word used to describe her: I’m here to suggest that indicates something about her devotion to the Lord and her willingness to listen for God’s call in her life.

Tabitha, the disciple, has spent all of who she is serving the poor and the widows.  And then, one day, she is gone.  The one person on whom the most vulnerable in society could count  – she’s died.  What are we going to do now?

The most vulnerable ones – nearly always women and children – find themselves without an advocate.  These folks don’t have time or energy to argue about theology, or try to shape policy, or sit around listening to the promises of the future… they are simply trying to figure out, “how are we going to get through this day?”  And the one who has helped them find the answer to that question on every other day has died.  They are alone.  Tabitha, who meant everything to them, is gone.  There are many of you in this room who know how it feels to lose the person that held your world together; if you don’t know that yet, I suspect that you will. It is a horrible feeling.

So what do they do?  Well, they hear that Peter is in Lydda.  This apostle who has been rumored to have a great connection to God is not far – he’s about twelve miles away.  For the sake of reference, I’ll tell you that’s about as far as it is to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon, or to Kennywood.  So as soon as she’s died and her body’s been laid out, a couple of the fellas walkto Lydda so they can tell Peter.  They get there, and they tell him that she’s dead, and they say, “Hurry!  You’ve got to come!”

Why? What good would it do to have Peter show up now? That’s one of the frustrating things about this passage: there’s not very much explaining that goes on here.  The story is told, not explained.

And Peter goes with the unnamed followers of Jesus, walking all the way from Kennywood to Crafton Heights.  Peter must represent some sort of hope in Jesus; he’s been acquainted with the Power of the Spirit.  They want him there, but nobody says why. Nobody seems to have much of a plan, only that they want Peter to noticeTabitha.

Raising of Tabitha, Giovanni Francesco Guernico (1591-1666)

And that’s what happens.  They bring Peter into the house, and take him upstairs, and say, “Look at this stuff! Peter, you’ve got to know who she was to us.  Peter, say her name.  Know that she mattered!”

That happens doesn’t it?  This week, social media has been flooded with news of yet another school shooting, and many of you have posted photos of a young hero who saved lives, Kendrick Castillo. You’ve said, “Tell his story. Know his name!”  Similarly, following the death of Antwon Rose, there were protestors who cried out, “Say his name!”  Because these young men – and so many others – are not just statistics, they are not just news stories – they are real people with complex lives and vibrant hopes.

So there in the house, Tabitha’s friends say, “She was everything.  You have to know her, Peter.  You have to see who she was.”

And Peter does!  He notices, and the story now begins to revolve around Peter, and we see something of what he is like.

We learn that although Tabitha is the one who is called a “disciple” in this passage, Peter proves to be a quick learner too.  The Greek word mathetes, which is often translated as “disciple”, means “one who learns” or “follower”.  Watching Peter interact with Tabitha’s community should remind us of the ways that Jesus conducted himself with Jairus’ family back in Mark chapter 5. The first thing he does is to kick people out of the room – he can’t afford any distractions or negative energy. And then he does something else he learned from Jesus – he kneels to pray.  In his culture, most of the praying was done standing, arms spread toward the heavens, and eyes looking upwards.  But here, he kneels, as did his Master Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

After he clears the room, and after he kneels to pray, then Peter says her name – and in saying that, he calls her back to life.  Tabitha is restored.  The widows and the poor have their hope restored.  God’s name is honored. And, as the scripture says, “many people believed in the Lord.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a greatMother’s Day story.  A woman’s value is noted, her presence is missed, she is honored and even knelt before by a powerful man, and life comes to a community.  It’s perfect.

At this point, Peter has to be the Most Valuable Player in Joppa.  I mean, the guy has walked here, from Kennywood, and he’s restored the community.  What happens next?  Was there a parade?  Did he get the key to the city?  We don’t know how he was honored, but we know that he must have been, right?

Well there’s one more name in the scripture – one more verse in the chapter that was omitted when we told this story first.  Acts 9:43 reads, “Peter stayed in Joppa some time with a tanner named Simon.”

Well, so what?  That seems like an afterthought.  Maybe it is.

What’s a tanner?  A person who makes leather.

Why would first-century people in the Middle East need leather?  What would it be used for in that culture? Shoes, straps, saddles, reins, tents, books, drums, wineskins, water bottles, buckets… Leather was indispensable in that place. Tanners were very, very necessary.

And yet, tanners were also problematic.  Think about it.  Where do you get leather from?  Animals. Dead animals.  To make leather, people in that culture would start with a skin, and smear one side of it with lime, and let that stand for a few days as the lime worked its magic against the flesh and hair.  Then the tanner would scrape the skin, and soak it in a concoction made from dog feces.  After it sat there for a while, the skin would be soaked in another brew made from fermented bran.  After that, the skin was washed in salt water and dried in the sun.  Later, it would be doused with boiling vinegar mixed with copper, dried again, and finally rubbed with olive oil.

I suspect that on hearing that, you are not surprised to know that most Jews thought of tanners as “unclean”.  In fact, the rabbis taught that a tannery was to be equated with a bathhouse or a public urinal.  A tanner was to be treated as one with boils, polyps, or who collects dog excrement. Many localities had specific laws and ordinances mandating that tanneries were to be built outside of city limits and downwind from the local population.

Now, work with me here: Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this amazingly great Mother’s Day story of the day that Tabitha came back to life – with no explanation as to why or how it happened – and ends it by saying that when all of this had occurred, out of all the possible places he might have stayed in the midst of a very grateful populace… Peter chose to stay at the home of a tanner named Simon.

Peter was called to Joppa so that he could notice the problem that everyone could see – Tabitha was dead!  He noticed her.  He called her by name.  He noticed the condition of the poor and bereft in Joppa and in healing her, he equipped them to face the challenges of a new day.  But then he does something even more Jesus-y than raising a much-beloved saint from the dead…

St. Simon the Tanner, 10th c. Coptic Icon

Here, Peter demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and grace by reaching out, by showing up, by saying not only Tabitha’s but Simon’s name.  Simon – the guy whom everybody needed, but – unlike Tabitha – nobody wanted or even noticed.

Think about that… When the most important VIP to visit town in weeks decides to stay at Simon’s home – even though he is nothing more than an unclean tanner who ought to remain invisible, out of sight, and downwind… who else is going to visit Simon’s home?

Everybody.

In accepting this gift of hospitality, Peter validates Simon’s being here.  In a very visible, concrete way, Peter demonstrates the Gospel truth that when you feel most excluded, shamed, unloved, unwanted, or cast aside… that maybe at that very moment, the grace of God is moving toward you.

In this passage, the prophecy of Hosea has come true: the one who was called “not my people” is now recognized as a child of the Living God.  The one who was isolated and alone is called “My People.”  The one who was shamed and cast out is called “shown mercy”.

You know, beloved, that this is not just an old-timey Bible story, right? You know that this is what we are about right now, right here?  You have a name.  And God knows it.  You are God’s people.  You are children of the living God.

Let us say that to each other, and let us live in such a way that we validate those around us as well.  Let us say the names of those whom we see.  Let us notice who they are before God.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Case of the Unauthorized Exorcist

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 October 21, we followed Jesus and his disciples into a small home in Capernaum where they learned an important lesson. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:33-41. We also heard from Numbers 11:26-30.

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

If you’ve ever done any work with children at all, the scene will be familiar to you. Everyone is in a certain place (say, Fellowship Hall), and then you need to group to move to the next place (say, the Sanctuary).  You stand by the door and say, “All right, let’s get ready to go.  Everyone who is in my group, line up over here.”  And where does every single child want to be? At the front of the line!  Everyone wants to be first, right?  And how do they solve this? Usually there is some shouting, some pushing, and some pouting.

Jesus and his followers have been spending some time in the far north of Israel, near the community of Caesarea Philippi.  Today, though, we read that they are on the move – headed south through the Galilee.  You know this: when Jesus and his followers went from one place to another, how did they move?  They sure didn’t Uber or take a bus!  They walked. And when they walked, it was impossible for them to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. The narrow paths and steep terrain wouldn’t permit it.  So what do they do? They line up, and they follow.

They finally get to the place where they’re staying for the night and Jesus asks a question.  Now, if that question sounded familiar to you, congratulations, because the same exact question came before us the last time we opened Mark’s Gospel.  For the second time in two days, Jesus looks at his followers and is forced to ask, “What were you arguing about?”

I wonder, Church, if we’ve given him any cause to ask us anything different in 2018?  I mean, he’s just given them some amazing (and difficult) teaching.  They could have been talking about what it meant when Jesus had spoken about the fact that the Son of Man was destined to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die.  But that’s not what they were talking about. They could have been reflecting on the teaching he’d given them when he healed the boy with the seizures, wherein Jesus had emphasized the importance of prayer and other spiritual practices.

But that’s not what they were arguing about, is it, Church?  And my first question for you all today is simply this: Has the quality of church arguments improved in the last 2000 years, or would we we just as likely to sit in embarrassed silence if he were to ask US what we’ve been spending so much time and energy on lately?

When no one can answer him, Mark tells us that Jesus sat down.  I will tell you that is not the sign of a weary man looking to take a load off his feet.  When an ancient Rabbi sat down in the presence of his disciples, it was a sign that he was ready to begin a formal teaching session. Jesus sat down in such a way as to communicate, “All right, boys, listen up.  This is going to be important.”

“Suffer the Children” (detail), Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

And it was.  He addresses the core of their behavior on the road, and he does so bluntly.  “Do you want to be first? Do you want to be great? Here’s the trick: become a servant. If you want to be first – get in the last place.”  And in order to emphasize his point, he calls a child into the circle, takes that child into his arms, and says, “the true mark of discipleship is how you treat someone like this – anonymous, weak, ‘inconsequential’ in the world’s eyes.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian man who, after experiencing some of the horrors of World War II, served with distinction in the Royal Navy.  He was unsettled, though, and left the military to pursue a career in academia.  He earned a PhD in Philosophy and wrote books on the importance of Aristotle and ethics. However, he became disenchanted with the life of a scholar and happened upon a community of severely disabled adults – and in this group he found his true vocation.  He formed an intentional community, called “L’Arche”, in France, where he dedicated his life to serving and learning from these who have been most marginalized. He writes,

[These men] do not have a consciousness of power. Because of this perhaps their capacity for love is more immediate, lively and developed than that of other men. They cannot be men of ambition and action in society and so develop a capacity for friendship rather than for efficiency. They are indeed weak and easily influenced, because they confidently give themselves to others; they are simple certainly, but often with a very attractive simplicity. Their first reaction is often one of welcome and not of rejection or criticism. Full of trust, they commit themselves deeply. Who amongst us has not been moved when met by the warm welcome of our boys and girls, by their smiles, their confidence and their outstretched arms. Free from the bonds of conventional society, and of ambition, they are free, not with the ambitious freedom of reason, but with an interior freedom, that of friendship. Who has not been struck by the rightness of their judgments upon the goodness or evil of men, by their profound intuition on certain human truths, by the truth and simplicity of their nature which seeks not so much to appear to be, as to be.[1]

I think that Vanier was paying attention to Jesus, even if the disciples were not.  Look in particular at verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Do you see that? Four times in a single sentence wherein Jesus is seeking to communicate the essence of discipleship he uses the word “welcome”.  Do you think that he understood that to be an important hallmark of the community that would follow him?

How well did the disciples hear the voice of their master?  We don’t have to wait long to find out: as soon as Jesus finishes the sentence in which he uses the word “welcome” four straight times, John – who is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – the one who, if Jesus had a best friend, it was probably him – John can’t wait to say, “Oooh oooh oooh – hey Jesus, we saw a guy who was using your name but not doing everything the way we do, and so we made him stop!”

You just have to know that if Jesus ever did a face-palm, it was here.  “Seriously, John? All this conversation about welcoming and hospitality and humility, and the best thing that you can think to say at this very moment is this? Great googly-moogly.”

It’s telling to see what John said.  He had to shut the guy down, he said.  Why? “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”  Not, “he wasn’t following you, Jesus…” Nope.  Those guys who were arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are still worried about it now, even after Jesus told them of the call to welcome and receive.

This situation echoes the one to which we referred in our Old Testament reading: there, Moses had felt the burden of leadership, and the Lord had told him to gather some of the elders who would join in the ministry with him.  They were all to go to a certain spot and the Lord would pour out His spirit upon them. So far, so good.  But then, lo and behold, a couple of the fellows who were not there wound up getting touched by the Spirit as well!  Good news, right?  Not to young Joshua, Moses’ assistant.  Just as the disciples of Jesus tried to hush the man who wasn’t with the Lord, so Joshua attempted to prevent these men from exercising the gifts they’d received from God. In both cases, the response is the same: “Why in the world would you want to silence the Spirit of God just because it’s coming from a place that surprises you?”

Beloved, I think that there is a word from God for us here today.  The call to be a disciple is a call to share, to adapt, and to grow.

Let me tell you a part of my own story.  For a long time, I prided myself on a certain point of my theology. I knew what I believed and why I believed it. I could throw six or eight Bible passages at anyone who questioned me.  I was devout, I was orthodox, I was, well, right. I spoke out about my own beliefs, and I wrote about them.

There was another person who had a different take on this issue.  She sought to befriend me.  At first, I was wary.  Why would she want to talk? “Don’t waste your breath trying to win me over to your side,” I told her.  “I’m not interested in being converted.”  She told me that was the farthest thing from her mind – she told me that she wanted to know how my spirit was touched by this thing.  We met occasionally for coffee and conversation.

Not long after that, she was brought before a church court on charges relating to her position on this issue.  I was called to serve as a “judge” at the trial that followed.  Throughout the affair, she was never less than gracious or hospitable.  I thought she was wrong – but she was never smug or accusatory.

I saw her once in the airport.  When I greeted her, she mentioned that her husband was seriously ill.  I asked if I could pray for him, and if we could pray there in the airport.  At that moment, I realized that we were not merely two sides of an argument – we were two children of God seeking to make our way in a universe that is seemingly opposed to the intentions of God far too often.  She received my offer to pray as it was intended, and our friendship grew.

We still don’t agree on everything. But I know that because God limited my ability to see her only as “the other”, the mistaken, the wrong… I was able to grow and adapt in my own walk of faith. My ideas have changed.  I have grown – in my intellect, in my faith, in my spirit.

I believe that the call of Jesus, echoed by Moses, is to resist any pattern that would have the church define itself by the ideas we are against, the people we want to keep out, or the things that we hate.  Let us refuse the temptation – so common in America’s political and cultural climate in 2018 – to “other” someone else.  Whether we call it tribalism or white supremacy or Islamophobia or racism or ethnocentrism – any practice that perpetuates or even encourages us to draw stark lines between “us” and “them” can only lead to more entrenched marginalization and the fracturing of the human family.  Instead, let us, as followers of Jesus Christ, commit ourselves to welcoming and even embracing those for whom Christ has died.

Edwin Markham was an American poet who was active around the turn of the last century.  He captures the heart of this part of the gospel call in his whimsical little piece called “Outwitted”.

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in![2]

Beloved, let us never, ever, give into the temptation to add to those things that divide us.  Instead, let us seek to create and contribute to a culture of tolerance, embrace, and hospitality to the end that all people might be touched by the Spirit and love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[3]Jean Vanier, Eruption to Hope(1971)

[2]“Outwitted”, by Edwin Markham in The Shoes of Happiness And Other Poems (1913).

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #8

Deep and wide.

Breadth and depth.

Those are good matrices for a number of human experiences, and partnership is surely one of them.  The last couple of days have given us a chance to experience the deep reaches of partnership experiences, ranging from intensely personal to those instances where we simply do not know, and cannot guess what might occur.

Lauren Mack is a member of the Crafton Heights church who has been serving since August as a teacher at the St. Andrews Mission Secondary School in Mulanje.  This gave us a perfect excuse to drive down to Mulanje for a day and a half so that we might be able to appreciate the mission and purpose of that institution, see where Lauren and her friend and colleague Brooke are staying, and connect with some of those involved in the Partnership in that area.  Our initial stops included the historic Mulanje Mission Hospital, the St. Andrew’s manse, and dinner with the Presbytery partnership committee.

Lauren is greeted by Ms. Chirwa, chair of the Mulanje Presbytery Partnership team.

 

Touring the Mulanje Mission Hospital.

 

Meeting at the manse with Abusa Paul Mawaya

 

Partnership meal!

On Friday we awoke determined to climb, at least partially, up the side of Mount Mulanje with the notion of taking a quick dip in the icy waters of Nkhalambe Falls.  This pool is both broad and deep… and icy!  Nevertheless, Lauren and I took our chance to say we swam in the waters of an amazingly beautiful African stream.

Climbing up Mt. Mulanje

 

I told her we should pause for a photo. Meanwhile, I was dying for breath! I asked our photographer to take an extra half-dozen or so just so I could rest…

 

After about an hour, we make it to the falls!

 

And about four minutes later, here we were! Since the water flows out of the mountain, it is extremely cold year round.

 

Not long after we got in, a police unit came by. They couldn’t figure out why knuckleheads like us insisted on swimming on a cool, rainy day… so the took some photos of us swimming for the folks back home!

After our morning hike, we headed back to Blantyre but first took a stopover in Mpemba, where Mrs. Sophie Mnensa lives.  Sophie and her late husband, Ralph, were our colleagues on the Presbytery’s first pastor exchange program in 1998, when our families spent about 12 – 14 weeks together, half in each home.  This was an example of the depth of the partnership in our lives – to see how fully we have been able to engage with and for one another over two decades…

Greeting Sophie…

 

Sophie is able to video chat with her sister, Sharon – all the way in Pittsburgh!

 

Can you tell it’s not just Sophie who’s excited to see Sharon?

 

In 1998, the Carvers stayed with the Mnensas and spent a lot of time with two little boys – Gregory and Gamaliel (aged 2 and 4). In the same year, the Mnensas stayed with the Carvers and spent a lot of time with a three year old girl named Lauren. How exciting to see those kids together today? Who would have thought our friendship and partnership could have brought us this far?

 

Ralph died in 2002, but Sophie asks me to walk with her to his grave each time we visit. it is an honor to do so.

We arrived in town to see that our friends from Blantyre Synod had set up a banquet honoring the arrival of team from the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique.  This church body, like Blantyre Synod, traces its roots back to the early Scottish missionaries.  Several years ago, when we were beginning to envision a tripartite arrangement between South Sudan, America, and Malawi, members of the CCAP Blantyre Synod were exploring the reality of coming alongside this Presbyterian denomination in their closest neighbor.  That work is culminating this weekend as well over a dozen congregations will become formally twinned with one another – Mozambican and Malawian.  While this is not “our” partnership, it was a thrill to bear witness to the birth of a new reality in shared mission.  In many ways, this is the “breadth” of the church – it’s more than Pittsburgh can do right now, but we sure loved sitting on the sidelines and cheering on our brothers and sisters.

Brian, seated at “the Mozambican table”, brings greetings to the assembly.

 

The Moderator of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique

 

I can’t get over the fact that on Wednesday, we had lunch with South Sudanese, and just a few days later, we’re having dinner with Mozambicans. What a joy indeed!

This has been a day! But thanks be to God, we’ve had the resources to thrive throughout it.  Thanks for your prayers!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #7

Wednesday brought another transition for our experience in Malawi.  We woke bright and early after having rested well during our stay at the Makuluni home in Ntaja.  There was a brief time for greetings and farewells, and then we headed back to Blantyre – a three hour drive.

Our host in Ntaja, Edith, stands with me and members of the Tongwe family (who hosted three young women from Crafton Heights in 2017).

Hope Mkandawire, who hosted two of our young adults last year. Note the envelopes in my left hand – messages I’ve been entrusted to carry back to Pittsburgh.

Upon our arrival in Blantyre, we were privileged to reconnect with our brothers from South Sudan, who had been the guests of the Synod whilst we were visiting Mbenjere in Ntaja.  During a farewell luncheon for them, Rev. James and I signed the official copies of the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the three church bodies (Rev. Mbolembole, Moderator for Blantyre Synod, was compelled to be out of town and therefore had signed them previously). I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly fruitful this time has been, particularly in terms of strengthening the pan-African portion of our tripartite agreement.

Rev. James Par Tap and I signing the M.O.U. in Blantyre.

Davies presents a farewell gift to Rev. Deng.

After escorting our friends to the airport for their flight back to Juba, Brian, Lauren, Chikondi and I visited the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, the arm of the Synod responsible for the most direct relief and development work.  Here we were very engaged by a presentation from the Director and two members of her management team.  I have long been impressed with this group and their dedication to serving the poorest of the poor, and hope that we will have the opportunity to continue to work to strengthen their ministry here.

In Lindirabe’s office taking in an incredible amount of information that was shared with great passion.

Our day ended with great fun and laughter as our hosts, Davies and Angella Lanjesi, invited Lauren and me to prepare the evening meal.  When Davies stayed in our home, he remarked that he really enjoyed the fish filets I served.  I told him that I had caught and filleted the fish myself, and he said, “One day, you will be in our home and you will show us how you make these filets”.  Yesterday, apparently, was that day!  Lauren prepared fried chicken for the first time, and after the meal we introduced her to the wonders of Malawian sugar cane.  We spent literally hours around the dining room table laughing and enjoying the time together.  It was a great day.  Thanks for your prayers.

The lesson begins…

Just a couple of folks making dinner…

Tastes like chicken!

Enjoying the sugar cane.

Partnership In African Mission 2018 #6

When I was a kid, once a year or so we’d travel up to western New York and spend time with the family.  Mostly, it was fantastic: we’d play whiffle ball beside the runway of the Dansville airport, go swimming in my cousin’s pool, and walk around Aunt Mae’s farm. There was so much to DO!

But some days we didn’t “do”.  Some days we had to put on clean clothes and get in the car and go “visiting.”  To my nine year old self, that was horrible – walking in and out of people’s homes, doing nothing but talking and drinking tea (or sometimes Coca-Cola)…I just couldn’t see how adults could want to waste time “visiting” when there was so much DOING to be done.

Well, as you know, I’m old now.  And while I really enjoy doing, I find increasing value in “visiting”.  Taking time to stop and enter into people’s homes and lives and open mine to them.

While much of this visit to Malawi has centered on getting stuff done on behalf of the International Partnership Ministry Team, we needed to take at least a day and connect with our partners at the Mbenjere CCAP in the trading center of Ntaja.  The first time I came to this place it took at least three or four hours to get here from Zomba.  There was no paved road, and it was arduous.  That was 23 years ago, and so much has changed. The town is growing, the drive is much easier, and the church is thriving.  It has been a real joy to connect with old friends and make new ones.

Here are a few photos of our day of visiting.  If you’d like to see more, well, let me know.  Maybe we can get together and… well, you know.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze was a Session Clerk at Mbenjere and a visitor to our home. Although she has now moved, she took a minibus to visit us early in the morning before starting her work.

 

Walking to town from Menes and Edith’s home.

 

Many years ago, our sisters and brothers in Mbenjere CCAP asked for some assistance in digging a borehole for clean and safe water. It was our privilege to help contribute to this project and it brings joy to see it in use!

 

When the idea for the borehole project was conceived, it was beyond the scope of both Mbenjere and Crafton Heights churches. The Bower Hill Church, now served by Brian Snyder, came to our assistance. It was fun to see Brian take a hand in partnership at the borehole!

 

One of the highlights of the morning was a brief time of reception and worship at the church (on a Tuesday morning!!). Here we are exchanging gifts with Session clerk Fletcher Tewesa.

 

Afternoon coffee and tea under the moringa trees.

 

Even a regional power outage did not prevent us from enjoying a delicious meal and warm fellowship at the home of Hope and Shamim Mkandawire. It was a fine ending to the day!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #5

Relationships.

For me, at any rate, that’s what partnership in mission is about – taking intentional steps to befriend and come alongside someone else to the end that each of us may somehow become “de-othered” and befriended.  For many years, I have sought to walk the path of partnership so that individual Christians might grow in faith resulting in the strengthening of local congregations which leads to the reinvigoration of larger church bodies to the end that the global church is a more capable witness to Christ.

But it all starts with a willingness to take a step, to extend a hand, and to tell or listen to a story.

Today was a day that demonstrated how significant interpersonal relationships can be.

We started the day by leaving the site of the Partnership Conference in Mangochi and heading south to the Zomba Theological College.  There, we were met by my old friend Takuze Chitsulo (who studied in Pittsburgh a little more than a decade ago), the Principal at Zomba Theological College.  After a formal welcome in his office, our team was privileged to enjoy lunch together. It was a deep privilege to watch and listen and Brian and some of the colleagues from the College asked probing questions and looked for ways to enhance the institution’s ability to train young leaders.

Takuze Chitsulo (bottom R) provides a brief overview of ZTC to the team.

 

PC(USA) Volunteer in Mission Donna Sloan engaging in some serious conversation with Rev. James.

After a delicious meal, our team was split.  I was surprised to find that when we left the Principal’s office, I found my friends Fletcher and Hope, who had ridden a minibus about three hours to Zomba simply so that they could welcome us to the place and then escort us to our next stop. So as Davies Lanjesi took the brothers from South Sudan on to Blantyre, our group of three became a group of five heading toward Ntaja.  En route, we made a quick stop at Chilema Conference Center, where we had the opportunity to view the famous “Chilema Tree”.  This magnificent specimen is a single tree, perhaps as old as 75 years.  Its many roots and trunks cover an acre, and it is the only banyan tree in the entire nation of Malawi.  It is simply incredible, and Lauren said that JRR Tolkien must have had this in mind when he wrote “Lord of the Rings”.

“Chilema” means “abnormal” or “malformed” in the local language. You can see why the place has this name…

 

Upon exiting the understory of the tree, we ran right into one of the biggest smiles and best preachers in Malawi – Elder Hastings Phale.  I’ve worked with him in both Malawi and Pittsburgh, and it was a profoundly joy-filled occasion to see him at Chilema.

One of these guys is an incredibly amazing preacher. The other one wears snazzy shirts.

Not five minutes after we left Hastings, we were pulled over at the Malosa turn-off by a couple with smiles bright enough to blind us.  Abusa Johnson Demelekani and his wife Charity were out doing some shopping and we (almost literally) ran into them.  We piled out of the car for a quick hello and a hug, and were further gratified by the power of relationship.

But the most profound relational experience of the day came when we arrived in Ntaja.  Here, we were privileged to greet, and then be hosted by, Menes and Edith Makuluni.  In 1998, when Lauren was five, Menes visited Pittsburgh and stayed in her home.  Since then the families have corresponded, and both Menes and Edith have visited the Mack home.  Tonight, the circle was completed as they welcomed her into their home.  What a great joy it was!

We spent at least an hour this evening reflecting on the changes that have come into our lives in the past two decades – noting the times where God has been faithful and celebrating the power of friendship to bring healing, challenge, hope, and comfort when it is needed.  Menes and Edith rejoiced at the ways that Lauren’s walk of faith has progressed and she bore testimony to the fruit of their faithfulness as well.

Relationships.

They make us stronger, better, and more apt to know something of God’s purposes in the world.  Tonight, I’m grateful for the web in which I’m bound.

The Life Of The Party

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 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD