In Rare Company

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”  On October 20 we talked about the unusual and difficult-to-quantify virtue of meekness.  Scriptures included Matthew 5:1-12 and Psalm 37:1-11.

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

There is a lot to love about the 1987 film The Princess Bride.  One of the plot lines involves a mob boss named Vizzini seeking to escape the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Every time Vizzini thinks he’s outsmarted his foe, he finds himself surprised at Roberts agility and resourcefulness.  At each turn, he utters the word, “Inconceivable!”  Finally, he is corrected by the swordsmith Inigo Montoya, who points out, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Montoya is correct, of course.  “Inconceivable” means that something is impossible even to imagine. Anything that is truly and utterly inconceivable would by definition be unimaginable by the human mind.  Vizzini ought to have used words like, “surprising”, or “unlikely” or “improbable”, but although such might have been more accurate, the dialogue would have suffered.

We do that a lot, don’t we?  We use words that don’t mean what we think that they mean.  Part of that is because English is a funny language.  I mean, why in the world should “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing when “active” and “inactive” are opposites?

I bring this up because we are thinking about the ways that the scripture calls us as Christians to treat each other.  A few weeks ago we read from Colossians 3:12, wherein the Apostle Paul instructs the church to “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” in our dealings with one another.  Today, I’d like us to consider what it would mean to clothe ourselves in “meekness”.  How would you define that word?

I checked a few dictionaries earlier this week and came across these definitions: “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on…” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment…” “deficient in spirit and courage…” or “not violent or strong…”

Really, Paul?

Is that what we’re supposed to do and be in the world?  Come to church and be NICE.  Don’t make any waves. Be polite.  Make sure to use your manners and say “yes, please” and “no, thank you”?  Is that what it’s all about?  Is that what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? How can that even make sense?

Science fiction author Robert Heilin read the Beatitudes and quipped, “The meek do inherit the earth, but they tend to inherit very small plots – about six feet by three.”  That’s what the world thinks about people who are “meek”.  A person who is meek is mousy, or timid, or weak.  Meekness is related to being ineffectual and powerless.  Meekness is thought to be a liability or a character flaw, and not something to which we ought to aspire.

We keep using that word.  I do not think it means what we think it means.

The word that is translated as “meek” in Colossians and in Matthew comes from the Greek praos.  It’s a word that was sometimes used to describe the behavior of the best horses – strong, mighty, and ready for battle BUT responsive to the command of the rider.  Sailors would refer to a “meek” breeze as one that was powerful enough to move the ship in the right direction without driving the boat off course or capsizing it.  A further use of the word can be traced to the idea of an appropriate dosage of medicine.

I hope you get what I’m saying here: a horse that is harnessed and hitched correctly can be very useful and productive; a horse that is stampeding out of control is a danger to the entire community.  Similarly, a good stiff breeze will carry cargo across the sea, while a typhoon will lift boats out of the water.  The right amount of medicine will save your life; too much will kill you.  Praos is about having a great deal of power under the appropriate control.

In fact, Aristotle said that this word was best understood as being between two extremes of getting angry without any reason at all and never getting angry at anything.  Praos is having the energy and the passion to get worked up at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason – and expressing it appropriately.

If we understand “meekness” in that way, then maybe you are not surprised when I tell you that there are two people in the bible who are called “meek”: Moses and Jesus.  In fact, Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was the meekest man on the face of the earth.  Moses, the man who went in to Pharaoh and led the people out of Egypt; the man who threw the tablets down in anger at the sight of the golden calf… he was “the meekest man in the world.”

And Jesus, who fashioned a cord into a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple; the man who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “hypocrites” turned around and said to those who would follow him, “come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest…take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart…”

“Grace”, photograph by Eric Enstrom (1918).

I think that we can agree that neither Moses nor Jesus was a soft, pushover, spineless person; and yet each was described as being “meek”.  In an effort for us to understand our calling to wear “meekness” in our dealings with each other, let’s take a little time and look at the 37th Psalm, which I believe Jesus clearly had in mind when he blessed the meek.

Psalm 37 is attributed to David, and comes from the perspective of his old age.  The heart of this Psalm is offering advice to the community of faith as to how to live in confusing and conflicting times.  Psalm 37 is a lesson in meekness, and I’d like to draw out at least three themes from the verses we’ve considered this morning.

The Psalm contains clear instructions to make sure that we keep our focus.  When we experience pain, or discomfort, or endure some evil, it’s easy to get rattled.  Those connected to the psalmist had gone through some sort of an attack or experienced injustice.  His clear word to them was “don’t worry about what those other people are doing: keep your eyes on God and what God is about.”

Of course, that’s difficult to do, particularly in an age of social media.  When someone wrongs me, it can be amplified by Facebook or Twitter; if someone seeks to diminish you, it’s frustrating for you to see that person posting photos of their perfect life, perfect child, or fantastic job.  Psalm 37 says that we can’t afford to be sidetracked by what someone else is doing.  “Fret not because of the wicked…”, he writes.

Instead, we are to keep our focus on living for God and caring about the things that God puts in front of us.  A dear friend of mine refers to this as “keeping my side of the street clean”.  When someone wrongs me or angers me or frustrates me, often the only thing that I can do is to make sure that I’m continually working to keep myself in line, making sure that I’m becoming the best person I can be.  If I get obsessed with how many “likes” his social media posts have or the kinds of things that are coming her way, then I can lose track of who I am supposed to be.  Meekness is focusing on living the life that God has put in front of me right now.

As we move ahead with focus, however, we have to realize that we ourselves are still in the process of being shaped and framed.  One of the most misinterpreted verses of the Bible, in my opinion, is Psalm 37:4, which reads “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  I’ve heard from people, “Dave, I’ve prayed and I’ve prayed, but God still hasn’t given me that job that I want (or that boy or that girl or that new baby or that whatever). I’m trusting in God, but I’m not getting what I want.  What’s wrong?”

The way of meekness teaches us to submit all of who we are to the Lord.  As I learn to be meek, I ask God not only to give me a focus, but to frame my life.  My relationship with the Lord is not about wandering through my own hopes and dreams thinking about what would look nice, but rather learning how to hope and dream for the right things.  This is what I mean by asking God to “frame” me in meekness.

Years ago I visited in the home of a couple who’d been married for nearly sixty years.  He had been through an enormous number of health challenges, and his strength was nearly gone.  He barely had the strength to swallow, and yet the doctors were clear: “you have to eat.”  He didn’t want to.  He was ready to die – but he was afraid of the effect that would have on his wife. I went to their home and she said, “I’m going to make that stew you like so much.  You need to eat it, honey.”

I followed her to the kitchen and I watched her crooked fingers chop and dice.  I knew that the arthritis was so bad that it was more than the onions that were bringing tears to her eyes.  She said, “Dave, this is so hard to make, but he loves it, and I need him to eat.  I am not ready to lose him.  And so I will do this.”

Later, I was in the living room when she brought out a bowl of stew.  He took it gratefully and began to work on it.  Each bite was difficult, and every swallow a test.  When his wife stepped out of the room he said , “Pastor, I have to be honest with you.  I’ve had so many different medicines over the years that I can’t even taste any food any more.  This is the hardest thing I’ve done all day.  But I love her, and if this is what makes her happy, this is what I can do.”

For years, that holy conversation has been a window for me on what it means to allow God to frame the desires of my heart.  If all we read in the Psalm is “God will give you the desires of your heart”, we are short-changing ourselves. It begins with that focus on God, that trust in God’s presence and care.  As I focus on God, I can pray that God will teach me to want the right things.  I remember as a young husband that I went home praying that I would want the kind of love I’d seen that day far more than I wanted fancy vacations or extravagant adventure or eternal youthfulness.  Meekness is about allowing the Lord to frame or transform our desire.

And another thing that we can learn from this Psalm is the importance of taking the long view.  We focus on God’s intentions, and we ask God to frame our desire; we are also called to follow in God’s way habitually.  “Commit your way to the Lord” is how the Psalmist puts it.  It’s not a one and done deal – it’s a lifetime of realizing that we are simply a part of a chain of events bigger than we are.  We see some challenge of the present, some obstacle in the path, and we think that everything is lost and that we are finished.  This is an incomplete view.

Luis Espinal was a Jesuit priest who fought for the rights of the poor and marginalized in Bolivia in the 1970’s.  He stood up to both the corrupt government and the cocaine cartels.  Not surprisingly, he was murdered.  Shortly before his death, however, he published a meditation that speaks about the importance of following Christ in meekness for the long haul.  Listen:

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions
As if the world had slipped out of God’s hands.
They are violent, as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history.
The world is not a roll of the dice on its way toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen!

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph.
With our bodies still in the breach, our souls in tension;
We cry our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are the definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death, Because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you on the road to the future.
You are with us. You are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces; We are not in a game of chance! You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones,
Now has begun the eternal “Alleluia!” From the thousands of openings in our wounded bodies and souls, there now arises a triumphal song!

So teach us to give voice to your new life throughout the world, because you dry the tears of the oppressed forever, and death will disappear.

As Psalm 37 teaches, meekness prepares us for life together.  I was thinking earlier this week about one of the perks of my job is hearing people rehearse music.  I sit in my little room there and people come in here and practice all kinds of things: saxophone, organ, piano, guitar, drums, and voice. As I thought about the power and the discipline of meekness, I was reminded of the scene on a stage just before the symphony starts to play.  All the musicians are blowing into their instruments, running up and down the scales, and it seems random and chaotic.  It’s irritating and loud. Then the first violin stands and plays an “A” note and everyone in the orchestra makes sure that their instruments are, in fact, in tune.  Then, when everyone is aligned, the conductor steps out and lifts his or her baton and all the power of every instrument is there, focused, framed, and ready to follow the conductor’s leading.  That’s when music happens.

To think of meekness as being weakness is, well, inconceivable.  Let us remain focused on God’s call in our lives; let us commit to asking God to frame our desires, and let us follow where God in Christ would lead us.  If we are able to do that, then we will, in meekness, be strong enough to carry the hope of Christ into the world that needs it.   Thanks be to God for that hope!  Amen.

Love Poured Out

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the First Sunday of Lent (March 10, 2019), we heard a scripture containing a story that appears in one way or another in all four Gospels: the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany.  Mark’s version can be found here: Mark 14:1-11.  In addition, we considered the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit

Do you remember Mad Libs?  The “World’s Greatest Word Game” was invented in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price. In Mad Libs, one player has a short story with several key words missing. That player asks the other to fill in the missing words, and generally, if there are enough pre-teens involved, it’s a lot of fun.  Let’s try it. [the answers below are those given in worship on 03/10/19)

One day, the    Smith  (last name of someone in the room) family went to church.  They got there at  night   (time of day).  When they saw that    Ethan    and     Aviva   (people in the room) were there too, they said,   YEEET!  (exclamation!).  Pastor Dave preached a sermon that was   1 minute (length of time) long, and it was really  cheerful (adjective).  The music, however, was      red   (adjective).  After church, everyone went to the back of the room where they served      cheese  (noun) and flowers_ (noun) to everyone.

The joy of Mad Libs, of course, is that they are always different.  You can’t come up with the same story more than once, because the people in the room are different.  The outline of the story may stay the same, but each time, the details shift.

I am thinking about Mad Libs today because we have arrived at a portion of Mark’s gospel wherein Mark tells a story about the life of Jesus – and it’s a story that is told, in one way or another, not only by Mark, but by Matthew, Luke, and John. And each of the Gospels uses this incident for slightly different purposes…and in doing so, each author filters the information slightly.

The basic story is this: One day, Jesus went to dinner at the home of ________ (name a friend of Jesus).  This person was a ________ (noun).   While he was there, ________ (person in the room) poured oil on his _______ (body part). _________ (person or people in the room) were irritated by that, saying that it was a waste of money.  Jesus defended the person.  And the writer of the gospel used that incident in Jesus’ life to say _____________ (name a theological point).

I’m not saying that the gospels contradict each other – only that they provide us with different information.  So let’s look at the story in Mark.  Where was the dinner? At Simon’s home.  What do we know about Simon? He was a leper – an outcast.  Who poured oil on Jesus?  An unnamed woman. Where did she pour it? On his head.  Who was irritated? Some people.  What’s the point? She is preparing me for my death. There’s more to it than that, but take a look and see how the other writers treat the same story:

Do you see what I mean? Nobody is saying that Simon couldn’t be both a Pharisee and a Leper; and of course is “some” were irritated, that could mean the disciples, the Pharisees, or Judas, or everyone – there’s nothing contradictory here…it’s just an opportunity for us to hear the different emphases of the gospel writers.

And, since we’re focusing on Mark, let’s take a look at how Mark uses this incident to challenge us.

First, let me point out that this is another example of a “Markan sandwich”.  What I mean is that this is a place where Mark seems to take one idea and interrupt it with something else before finishing the story.  In the meantime, he uses the “filling” to comment on the “bread” and vice versa.

Our reading for today starts off with a story about the people who are Jesus’ enemies.  They want to kill him – but they are afraid, and so they decide that they’re going to have to wait until after the Passover is finished, after the pilgrims leave town, and after all of the reporters from the out of town newspapers have gone back home. His enemies appear, at least for now, powerless.

Then there’s the “filling” of the sandwich – the story of the woman who anoints Jesus – who treats him as anything but an enemy. More about that in a moment.

The “sandwich” ends with the account of Judas, who ought to have been a friend to Jesus, choosing to act with the enemies.  In fact, Judas provides the enemies with such promising intelligence that they revise their plan to wait and decide that they can kill Jesus sooner, rather than later.  So you see the sandwich?  A story about a person who loves and honors Jesus surrounded by stories about people who act with malice towards Jesus.  Whatever the woman does is amplified and intensified when it comes into contrast with the behavior of the religious leaders and Judas, doesn’t it?

So what does she do?  Well, she pours oil on his head.  And this isn’t olive oil, or Vaseline intensive care…this is pure nard – imported from India.  As Mark points out, it wasn’t cheap – three hundred denarii would have been an entire year’s salary for a laborer.

What’s the point of the oil?  You’ve already heard one echo from the Old Testament – David celebrates God’s faithfulness to him as King by saying that even when he is surrounded by enemies, the “oil of blessing” is poured on his head.  Other passages in the Old Testament describe pouring oil on the heads of those whom God had called to be priests as a way of pointing to a special role and special responsibility that belonged to those folks. The Song of Solomon has several passages wherein pouring oil on the head of another is linked to an intense love for that other.  Lastly, oil such as nard was used by those in grief to anoint the dead and prepare them for burial.

Mark uses this incident to point to the fact that a woman whose name and past didn’t matter came to Jesus in love and gave all she had to prepare him for the special role that he was assuming as he looked towards the cross. Jesus is the King in that he ushers in the kingdom of Heaven; he was the ultimate priest, or mediator, or go-between who came to bring God and humans together.  And he is loved.  And the way in which he would express his kingship, his priesthood, and his love was through his death.  Pouring a pound of nard on this man at this time is an exquisite statement of faith about who Jesus was.

And note, too, the way that she performed this act.  If it’s me, and I’ve got an incredibly valuable ointment to share with the Lord, then I take the container and I open it carefully and I veeerrrrrrry gingerly take out this liquid gold.  But what does she do?  She breaks the container – there is no way that she can save this oil, even if she wanted to – because the container won’t hold it any more.  Again, I think that Mark uses that little detail to prepare us for Jesus’ death – just as the woman’s treatment of the container shows us her total commitment to giving her best to Jesus, so Jesus’ bodily death shows us his total commitment to the reconciling work that God has given him to do. For this woman, and for Jesus, there is no going back, and there is no halfway.

When the people in the room challenge this woman and her priorities, Jesus responds simply by saying that from now on, whenever people hear the good news, they will hear about what this woman has done.  This story, he says, will be told in memory of her.  It is a memorial.

Let’s think about memorials for a moment.  If we were to drive four or five hours, we could get to the District of Columbia, where we would be able to see the Washington Monument.  You know it, right?  When this towering beautiful edifice was finished in 1884 it was the tallest building in the world.  And it was built to…to what? To honor George Washington.  It’s there so that we don’t forget that he lived, and what a huge presence he had.  It is, in some ways, a very backward-looking structure – like many monuments are.  They exist to remind us of something that happened, or of a life that was lived.

About 800 miles to the southwest of Washington DC sits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened just last year. In this 6 acre site, visitors are given the opportunity to see exhibits recalling the worst aspects of our nation’s history of racial inequality.  More than that, though: the memorial thrusts guests into the terrorism that was bred in that climate of inequality and injustice.  The other name for this memorial is “the lynching museum”.

I would suggest that there is a difference between the Washington Monument and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  The first, as I’ve said, points us to a great man, the likes of which we may never see again.  The second, however, calls each of us to remember the lives of those who died because of the ways that our own laws were written and applied.  The first looks back at one man in admiration.  The second invites us to be inspired to the end that we might learn from the failures of the past and work together to build a more hopeful and just future.

When Jesus says that this act is a memorial to the woman, it has to be like the use of that term in the second instance. Mark doesn’t tell us her name.  We don’t know anything about her from Mark – because for Mark, the point is not that once upon a time this amazing woman did something really cool for Jesus.  The point is that every day, ordinary people like you and I have the opportunity to bring our best to the Lord and in pouring that best out before him, acknowledge that he is the king; that he is the way to life.

And maybe you say, “Yeah, sure, Pastor Dave, that sounds great…but the truth is that you and I both know that I don’t have much of a ‘best’ to offer.  Sure, the woman in the Gospel had a pound of nard.  I don’t.  Some people have great gifts of finances, or talent, or energy…but I’m not that person. I don’t have anything worth giving.”

Listen: Jesus didn’t say that everyone has to pour out a year’s salary in perfume.  Why did the woman offer up her nard?  Because that’s what she had.  That was her best.  You have a best.

I know that you don’t have the same energy as the person sitting next to you.  And you don’t have the same financial situation as the person sitting in front of you.  And you don’t have the same family life as the people across the room.  If we think of “best” and think only of quantity – we are in trouble.  Remember the widow from last week?  Her best was two cents.  But it was her best. I know, to me, it suffers in comparison to a year’s worth of salary.  But it made quite an impression on Jesus.

It is not a question of whether or not you have a best – it is a question of how you will choose to allocate the best energy, the best love, the best patience, the best financial choices, the best of your time…Sure, you don’t have as much time as you wish you did.  But you have time.  How will you use it?

And further, it’s not as if you can simply choose to not do anything with whatever you have that is “best”.  Because you will pour it out somewhere.  You may give the best years of your life to the garden, or to the food pantry, or to your children, or to the Steelers.  You may give the best of your income to the tax man, or to the Lord, or to the man who sold you your Maserati, or to the credit card company.

Jesus took his best and poured it out, and brought life eternal and God’s kingdom on earth.  The un-named woman took her best and poured it out and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and King and worthy of ultimate love.  When Jesus’ friend Judas took his love for Jesus and sold that love to the religious leaders, they gave him 30 pieces of silver.  Within a week, he had returned to those leaders and threw the money at their feet, saying he couldn’t live with it.  Then he killed himself, and the money was used to buy a cemetery. You see?  Everybody has a best, and everybody pours out their best.  The question is, what are you doing with your best? Are you pouring it out in love, in faith, in life, in the hopes that the world will change as a result of you giving what God has given you?  Or are you dropping the best that God has given you in places that will ultimately perish?

I started this sermon with a Mad Lib.  It seems to me that every day, you and I are given the chance to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Sure, some of the story is already written for us.  But there’s plenty of opportunity for you and me to choose the route that the story takes.  How will you write yours?  What will you do with the best that you have?

My hope is that you and I will choose to live as memorials that point others to the love and friendship that is found in Jesus Christ – that the choices we make with the resources we have will be full of life and wisdom and faith and hope.  In the name of the one who was, and who is, and who is to come, Amen.

No One Works Like Him!

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 16, we heard the celebration that “No One Works Like Him” (See another congregation’s rendition of “He is King of Kings” in the video below).  Our scriptural basis was another old hymn: the Magnificat – as found in Luke 1:46-55

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

As we start our time together this morning I’d like to invite you to look at a couple of images.  First, take a look at these magnificent shorebirds that were sketched recently. Can you see the detail in the beaks, especially?  Can you believe it when I tell you that when I showed these birds to my wife, she said, “Wow.  Those rabbits are extraordinary!”?

And how about this image of my uncle?  Do you see him there? The man and the dog that he loved?

Actually, as you may know, each of these sketches is nearly a hundred years old – they are optical illusions – images that can present in at least two ways.  What is interesting is that the scientists tell us that you can only see one image at a time – you see either a man or the dog, but you can’t see both at the same time. The image can only be one thing or another at any given instant in your brain.

I’m bringing this up as we continue our discipline of considering the weight and meaning of African-American spirituals during Advent.  As we’ve said before, Advent is a time of both lament and hope – a time when we name things that are not right, and yet claim that rightness is the intention and the direction in which the creation will ultimately head.  As we experience the songs originally sung by those who arrived to these shores in chains, we need to hear echoes of lament and hope.

George Washington Overseeing His Slaves, 1853 Lithograph

Consider the refrain of the tune we heard a few moments ago: “no one works like him.” Now I’m asking you to use your imagination here, but work with me on this: how would slaves working out in the field have heard that phrase?  In a society where human beings are bought and sold, where one man’s life is the property of another, then can you see that “no one works like him” is a sales pitch, a bit of braggadocio?  A “master” walks past a slave toiling away and points to him, saying, “Just look at him! No one works like him! This is how you should all be behaving.”

Could it be that this lyric is a way of reaffirming the existing structure and paradigm? Could this lyric be interpreted in a way that takes for granted a reality in which slavery is normative and hard work is expected?

If you see these lyrics in this way, then you can imagine a slaveowner out walking in the fields, hearing “his” slaves singing “No one works like him!” and being reassured – as if to say, “Yep, look at Jesus. He works so hard – you should, too!”

I sincerely hope that this is the worst picture of Jesus you ever see in your life.

And if you can see the lyrics in this way as being interpreted like that a hundred and seventy years ago, then it’s easy to see similar images of Jesus’ work in our world now – the images of Jesus working hard on behalf of someone else (usually me).  Here’s what I mean by that: think about your prayer life. “Lord, I really need a new car, or a new job…” and Jesus’ expected reply, “Yep! I’m on it, buddy!” “Oh, and Lord… you didn’t forget that Larry’s neighbor is having a heart catherization today, did you?… Oh, crap, there’s not a parking place to be found, and I’m already late… Jesus, can you help me out here?”

“Well, Dave, you know what they say! ‘No one works like him!’  I’ve got this, Dave.  Don’t worry!”

You see? If you hold the Bible just right, you can see that image, can’t you?

But what if the spiritual we heard earlier is indeed an attempt to tell the whole truth – but to tell it from a different perspective?

Years ago I heard one of my mentors, Eugene Peterson, introduce a study on Jesus by reading a work by Emily Dickenson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With Explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind     [1]

Eugene was using this poem to talk about the ways in which the truth that Jesus spoke and the truth about Jesus was always present – but it nearly always was truth on a slant – or, to put it another way – Truth coming in the side door.  When we talk about telling the truth, and telling it slant – we are saying that there are some truths that are not as obvious at first, but may be just as deep – or even deeper – than the ones on the surface.

For instance, what is this?  I know, I know, Tim and Gabe keep thinking that it’s a fishing net.  They can’t understand that it is my personal collection of holes, held together with string.

Let’s look at a “slant” interpretation of this hymn. “No one works like him.”  Well, what is the work of Jesus?  When he was ready to get down to business, this is what he said of himself: ““The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’” (Luke 4:16-20, CEV)

Magnificat, Daniel Erlander. Used by permission. More at

If we are to take Jesus at his word, he did not come in order to consolidate or affirm the existing power structure – he came to alter it, or more precisely, to subvert it. He came to restore what was broken and to right what was wrong.Therefore, I suspect that when an enslaved people spends the day singing a song about a Jesus who works hard, that they are echoing another song – one that Campbell read a few moments ago.  They sang about Jesus and they remembered the prophecy of his mother, who sang about a savior who has uses his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud; about one who drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power. They placed their hope in a God who gives the hungry good things to eat, and who sends the rich away with nothing.

The One to whom this song points did not come to reinforce oppressive structures such as slavery and he did not come seeking to bless my upwardly mobile lifestyle.

The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus came to help us identify deep, dark places in this world and in our own lives that are at odds with the Creator’s intent and then invite us to work together to redesign that world and these lives.  Look, I’m not saying that Jesus can’thelp you find the perfect gift for the letter carrier or help you to remember Aunt Edna’s sugar cookie recipe, but I am here to say that if those kinds of things were all he that did, we sure wouldn’t be singing about him 2000 years later.

Let me put it this way.  I want you to think of an artist whose work you really admire. And let’s say that Henri Matisse, or Georgia O’Keefe, or Bob Ross showed up at your house with all their stuff and said, “Well howdy, neighbor! I’m here all week! What would you like me to paint?”

I’m here to say that you’d be a real knucklehead if the first thing you thought of was to say, “You know, I’m not really comfortable with the color of the trim in the upstairs bathroom.  Would you mind….?”

Listen: the world in 2018 is a world beyond King Herod’s wildest dreams.  If Jesus’ first arrival was in a world that was characterized by injustice and social inequality, I’m here to tell you that in many ways it’s worse today.  There are more slaves on the planet now – approximately 40 million of them –  than there ever have been.[2]

We see every day that there are different systems of justice that are applied in different ways, depending on the race, culture, and financial status of the one who stands accused.

As we speak, nearly 70 million human beings have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are desperately seeking shelter in camps for Internally Displaced People, or as refugees, or as asylum seekers.[3]

And every day, you and I meet a hundred people who, if they were to be asked about the prevalence of slavery, or the conditions that cause people to leave their entire lives behind them, or the fact that there is not a uniform system of justice in the nation, would say, “Wow, really? That’s too bad.  But it’s not my problem.”

And yet the Jesus who features so prominently in the mangers that they – and we – eagerly display this month is promising to upend a social order that perpetuates inequality and oppression. Jesus seems to think that those things are his problems.

Are we sure that the Gospel is good news? Not to everyone, it’s not.  Do you remember what Herod did when he figured out who Jesus was?  He murdered an entire village’s infant sons, hoping to extinguish this kind of thing.

And yet the work of Jesus is profoundly Good News – it is Gospel – to the marginalized and to those who love them.

So remember what I said about how brain researchers telling us that we can sometimes see the bird and sometimes see the rabbit, but we can’t see both of them at once?  It’s the same way with Jesus and his work and the Kingdom he proclaims.  You cannot see the work of the Christ as BOTH reinforcing the way things are AND heralding something new and liberating.

This Advent, can we stop acquiring and spending long enough to listen for the cries of those on the margins?  Can we learn to not only lament with them in the pain of this world, but to join them in expectant hope and thanksgiving for the God who comes?

Beloved, let us plan our gifting, our eating and drinking, our shopping and sharing as if we are aware not only that “no one works like him”, but as if we actually have a clue as to what kind of work he does. And then, let us join him in it!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1955), #1129



There IS A Balm

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 the first Sunday of Advent, December 2 2018, we talked about the second occasion in that Gospel wherein Jesus restores sight to one who has been blind. We noticed that this passage is intended by the editor of Mark to be a commentary on discipleship and faith – it was so in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first as well.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 10:46-52.  We also referenced Jeremiah 8:18-22.

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

I’ve come to notice something over the years, and perhaps you have, too. Often times when I am getting toward the end of a sermon, our musicians will slide into place behind their instruments. Sometimes I wonder how they know I’m getting close – they don’t have an advance copy or anything – but they pick up on my rhythm or content or pace and often find themselves in position at the close of the message.  Our friend Brian Buckley was a master at this – it was mystifying, and a little spooky, how good he was at knowing when I was done.  In fact, he was so good at it that there were a couple of times when I heard him slide onto the organ bench behind me when I still had a page and a half to go on the message that I wondered, “Wait…should I be done now?”

Of course, if you ask the musicians, they’ll say, “Gee, you listen to a guy for a couple of years/decades, and you kind of get a feel for where he’s going.  There are clues to be heard…”  And because they pick up on these clues, there are shifts in the content and direction of our worship that day.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, Robert Hodgell, c. 1960

I bring that up this morning because as we hear our Gospel reading for today, we ought to be attentive to some clues that are there.  This is the second and last time that Mark reports the healing of a person who was blind.  I think that when Mark mentions the fact that Bartimaeus was blind, he wants us to think back to the lasttime a person’s sight was restored.  In chapter 8, the healing of the man in Bethsaida marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Prior to that miracle, Jesus seemed to be focusing his ministry on a proclamation of the Good News throughout the Galilee that often featured large groups and great wonders (such as the feeding of the 5000).  The incident in Bethsaida effectively closed that part of Jesus’ ministry and led to a new emphasis: one that was focused more intentionally on the disciples and those around him.  After the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, we hear Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, we see the transfiguration, and we listen to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection as he leaves the Galilee and walks toward his destiny in Jerusalem.

Today’s passage – another encounter with a sightless person – therefore is meant to send another signal: there are changes ahead.  We see that Jesus is in Jericho, which is only fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem, and so we ought to expect this story to serve as a bridge between that which we’ve already experienced in the Gospel and that which is to come.

And, in a lot of ways, the encounter with Bartimaeus is a commentary on what has come before.  We meet him and we are told that he is a blind beggar.  In Jesus’ day and age, that is a bit of repetition. If a person was blind, of course that person would be a beggar. There weren’t many other options for folk who experienced disability in that day.  Saying that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar is every bit as redundant as it would be for me to say, “Here, would you like some cold ice?”, or “this is a delicious blueberry pie”, or “I’d like you to meet my friend, who is a disappointed Browns fan…”  You see? Saying one thing (he was blind) implies the other (he was a beggar). Mark’s point is that Bartimaeus was an outsider, and, more than that, he was a no-account outsider.  He’s not a Pharisee, he’s not a rich young ruler. He’s on the fringes of society.

And Bartimaeus is not just any marginalized person, he’s experiencing this marginalization in Jericho.  Jericho, as previously noted, is about fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem. At that time, Jericho was home to a large contingent of priests and Levites – professional workers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a “bedroom community” for the religious elite, if you will. Bartimaeus was a sightless, marginalized, seemingly irrelevant person living in a community that was home to thousands of people who were being paid to watch for and point to the coming Savior of God – the One who, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, would be the “balm” of healing for God’s people.  And yet in spite of the fact that there were all of these professional religious people on hand, it falls to a marginalized, sightless, economically disadvantaged member of the community to be the first person in the Gospel of Mark to call Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.”

Furthermore, you might remember that previously in Mark’s Gospel, whenever someone did call out Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus would hush that person.  This is the first time that Jesus accepts a public acknowledgment of his role.  This is new in the Gospel of Mark.  And it happens in Jericho – home to the religious professionals.  And he’s recognized by someone who is, to say the least, surprising.

Bartimaeus, sculpture by Gurdon Brewster. Used by permission of the artist. More at

In addition, Bartimaeus refuses to be hindered in his approach to Jesus.  Do you remember when the children were being brought to the Lord? The disciples kept them away.  Do you remember when the rich young man came and asked to follow? He could not, because his possessions weighed him down.  Bartimaeus won’t let either the crowd or his belongings slow him down, and so he shouts above the thron and throws aside his cloak – which, as a beggar, would have been his most prized possession and a symbol of his identity – and he leaps to his feet and rushes to Jesus’ side.  Do you see how this story is a commentary on what has come before?

There’s another clue that this is not an isolated event, but rather one meant to be read in context.  Just a few verses ago, Jesus looked at the men who had been following him the longest and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here, he looks at a man he’s just met and uses the exact same words.  James and John call Jesus by a professional title, “master”, and ask for positions of power and honor in the kingdom that is to come.  Yet when Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question, the sightless man calls Jesus “Rabbouni”, and says simply, “I’d like to see again”.

Whereas lots of people call Jesus “Rabbi”, which means “teacher”, there are only two people who call him “Rabbouni”, which means “myteacher: Bartimaeus (as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem) and Mary Magdalene (when she recognizes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection).  My point is that Mark intends us to notice that Bartimaeus, for all of his limitations and marginalization, as eager to align his life to God’s will.

In all of this, I am suggesting that the writer of Mark’s Gospel intended this encounter with Bartimaeus to be a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  In these few verses, Jesus calls and invites a person to new possibilities for this life with the understanding and expectation that these new possibilities will change the realities for the one who answers the call. When Bartimaeus received from Jesus the thing for which he’d asked, he understood that the Lord had not healed him so that he could be a sightedbeggar.  When he regained his vision, he left his cloak on the ground for someone who needed it more, and he followed Jesus on the way.  This meeting in Jericho gives Mark the chance to show his readers how disciples ought to respond to the intrusion of the Divine in their lives.

So… in the words of that renowned theologian Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

For a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine Jesus drawing near to you, and opening up new possibilities in yourlife. When the Son of David says to you, “What do you want me to do for you?”, how do you answer? I hope you noticed that when Jesus encountered Bartimaeus, he was respectful.  He didn’t presume to speak for Bartimaeus – instead, he allowed the man to speak for himself.  Similarly, when we celebrate communion in a few moments, there will be an invitation to receive – but there is not ever a “force feeding”.  What do you want Jesus to do for you?  Think about that.

And as you imagine Jesus asking you you, consider this: what will you need to leave behind?  Bartimaeus was in such a hurry to reach the Lord that he threw his cloak aside.  What about you?  What do you need to leave be in order to approach Jesus unhindered?

Some folks might think that is glaringly obvious. You’ve battled a demon – and maybe carried it around with you – for far too long.  A friend of mine told me that he once asked a convert to the faith, “What’s different about your life now that you’re following Jesus?” The new disciple, who had come out of a street gang, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t shoot as many people now as I used to…”

And that’s good.  That’s very good.  But what about you?  Is there a pattern in your life that is contrary to the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?  I suspect you don’t shoot many people, either… but what about your worry?  Or your anxiety? Or your fear?  Can you set those down as you seek to follow?

What about your arrogance or your temper? Can you ask Jesus to give you a spirit of humility?

“What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking.  And as you hear that question, consider who it is that is asking. Is it Jesus the enforcer, the sheriff, the one who’s here to make sure you get what’s coming to you?  Or is it Jesus the Wizard of Oz, who promises you escape and enchantment?  Or is it Jesus the rabbouni, the one who is your teacher?

This morning, this week, this Advent – hold onto those questions. Reflect.  Anticipate.  And praise God for healing that does come.  Praise God that there isa balm in Gilead.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

What Are We Celebrating, Exactly?

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 Palm Sunday (March 25) we talked about parades and protests and pigs – and our texts included the story of Palm Sunday as told in Luke 19:29-40 and the curious story of the suicidal swine as found in Mark 5:1-20.  

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


Did you go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade last weekend? Not me. I saw some photos of you – at least, the captions claimed that it was you. Most of the bodies I saw were pretty bundled up. I’m telling you, it was cold that morning!

In all probability, it was pleasant and sunny on that spring day in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It usually is at this time of year. Maybe the residents of that city, unlike our own, have a preference for scheduling their parades on days when it’s fun to be outside.

Screen Shot from “Ben-Hur” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures, 2016).

At any rate, on this particular day, there were two separate processions that came into the Holy City. The gates of the western wall are flung open and the population greets the Imperial procession of Pontius Pilate. He lives in Caesarea by the Sea, but today, accompanied by hundreds of his security force, he makes the sixty mile journey to Jerusalem to be present for the beginning of the Jewish Passover. He’s not interested in atonement or hearing the ancient stories. He has come on this holy day to remind the people who is really in charge. The streets are lined with thousands of people, some of whom are throwing garlands and flowers, all of whom are eager to have some brush with real power. It is a massive display of military might, designed to bring awe, respect, and fear to the inhabitants of this occupied town. And it does.

Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Aleksandr Antonym (2008). Used by permission of the artist. For more visit

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, there’s a small procession arriving through the back gate. An itinerant Rabbi arrives to the shouting of a few dozen, or maybe even a couple of hundred hardy souls. He’s planned it out to be just about the exact opposite of Pilate’s grand entry, however. He’s sitting on the back of a young donkey, wearing no armor, carrying no weapon. It is an intentional, subversive act that is designed to remind everyone that there is indeed a king, but that the king is neither Pilate nor Caesar. This Rabbi points to incredible power, but proclaims that it comes not from Rome, but from the One who created Rome, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire cosmos.

The local religious leaders see this procession led by Rabbi Jesus, and they try to stop it before it can gather much steam.

Which, when you come to think about it, ought to strike you as odd. The Pharisees worship the Lord. They knew that Caesar’s claims to divinity were invalid; they recognized that the religion of Rome was in direct contrast to faith in YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They and Jesus had memorized the same scriptures, participated in the same festivals, and shared the same history of God having called his people to be a blessing in the world.


Except that they were afraid…

Of what?

The Romans had an interesting view on religion. Officially, they claimed that the Caesar was the son of the gods. Officially, they pointed to the twelve great gods – beings like Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and Mars – as worthy of worship. And yet when the Roman Empire took over a new territory, it permitted the practice of any ancient religion. If you and your neighbors have a faith, and Rome conquers your nation, you’re free to continue with your tradition, so long as you a) offer a pinch of incense to the emperor once a year, and b) don’t start any new religions.

Which meant that when the Romans occupied Palestine, the Jews were not forced to adopt the Roman religion. In fact, Rome made it easy on the Jewish leaders. According to the Jewish law, priests were not to own any property, but rather to subsist on the provision of God and the hospitality of God’s people.

But Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, built an incredible Temple for the Jews. He gave the priests land on which to build their own houses. Herod provided the upper echelons of the religious leadership with incomes, and respect, and power. And all he asked in return was that when the time came, they simply remember who gave them all that great, shiny stuff. Not God. Him.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, mosaic in the Palace of the Normans in Palermo, Sicily.

These religious leaders weren’t bad people – but they had sold out, and they lived in fear of losing what they’d come to love. And so when Jesus comes into town, quoting the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, telling people that YHWH is the source of all power and authority, pointing out that God alone is to be revered, and reminding them that the Kingdom of God is the only Kingdom that truly stretches from shore to shore… well, you know that’s going to raise some eyebrows.

To make matters worse, he’s bringing with him a ragtag assembly of disciples – a collection of unlettered fishermen and those who are blind, poor, excluded, and marginalized.

It’s no wonder that the religious leaders show up as soon as Jesus enters town yelling, “Hey! Rabbi! Ix-nay on the ingdom-kay alk-tay! What are you trying to do, get us all killed? Ruin this for everyone?”

And Jesus, essentially, replies, “Look, fellas, if you won’t see or recognize when God is on the move in such powerful ways, well, maybe you’re already dead… Maybe the rocks and stones that pave this highway have more life than you do.” And he continues his procession – or counter-procession, if you will.

Processions and gatherings are in the news a lot these days. As we mentioned, last week Pittsburgh hosted what is according to the organizers the second-biggest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Yesterday, millions of people participated in what was called the “March for our Lives” to counter gun violence in schools. Some of you hope for a Stanley Cup parade in June. And the President is talking about putting together a big military parade with tanks and guns and all kinds of power.

Some of those things are called “parades”, while others are deemed to be “protests”. What would you say the difference between those things is? Is there a difference between 22,000 of your neighbors putting on shamrocks and walking through town, and groups of citizens carrying signs about gun legislation, and the US military strolling through the nation’s capitol?

I’d like to suggest that a parade is designed to celebrate one particular aspect of a people’s culture, history, or achievement. A protest, on the other hand, is meant to offer a critique of the status quo – a plea, or a demand, that we do better.

Jerusalem, on that spring day 2000 years ago, had both. Pontius Pilate, barging in the front door, put all of Roman power and wealth on display in what was unmistakably a parade. And Jesus, sliding down the hill and into the back door, led a protest that raised a hope for a different future.

We remember both of those processions as we turn to the next installment in our ongoing study of Mark’s gospel – a reading which, at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with the events described in your reading from Luke. I would suggest, however, that there is a connection with some striking parallels.

When we last saw Jesus and his followers, they were out at sea in the middle of the night. They’d survived the storm (but barely, if you’d ask some of them) and were now headed over to what Mark has euphemistically referred to as “the other side” – the place where those people live – in order to proclaim Jesus’ Gospel message of the nearness of God’s kingdom.

And you might think that that’d be great, but look at what happens next. As soon as they make landfall – which just about has to be in the darkness of the night – they find themselves in the graveyard. And it’s not just any cemetery, but it’s the place where the local madman has taken up residence. He’s incredibly strong, he’s rejected (or been rejected by) society, and roams the tombs as he grapples with his demons day after day, night after night.

When he lays eyes on Jesus, he tries to send him away. Jesus, however, heals the man – however unwilling he may appear to be – and allows the demons to send a herd of 2000 pigs careening off the nearby cliffs. It’s neither the procession of Pilate through the Western gates nor the triumphal entry of Jesus through the Eastern gates, but there’s a parade all the same that night as this herd runs to its death.

The Gerasene Demoniac, Sebastian Bourdon (1653)

And early the next morning, the town council comes out to see what all the fuss is about. You can imagine that perhaps there were those demanding a study about the environmental impact of 2000 dead pigs in prime fishing waters, or a police report concerning the theft of property or services. When all of that is completed, these local leaders issue a firm request that Jesus get out of town as soon as possible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have found this man “clothed and in his right mind”, but it’s surely caused more problems than it’s worth. Mark tells us that they “begged him to leave.”

It would seem that in the country of the Gerasenes, as well as in Jerusalem, Jesus is bad for business. He is at least a challenge, if not a threat, to the status quo.

And here, on “the other side”, he accepts their verdict. He tells his followers to get the boat ready because they’re shoving off… and now it’s someone else’s turn to beg Jesus. The man who has been healed wants more than anything to go with Jesus. And look at what happens: the man who didn’t want to be healed, but was, is now pleading to be allowed become a disciple – and he’s told to stay put.

Spoiler alert: we’ve not seen the last of this guy. You can believe me when I tell you that we’ll talk about him in the weeks to come.

So that’s the story. Two gospel readings – a couple of parades in Jerusalem and another off a cliff to the north. Here we are in Pittsburgh, 2000 years later – and it seems to me that all of this could have happened yesterday.

Presidents and Prime Ministers still insist on barging through the front gates, eager to display their power and to have us satisfy their egos. Nations still routinely kill their own citizens and support the interests of the few at untold cost to the many. Refugee camps are crowded beyond capacity because nobody wants those people anywhere near their homes. Banks and corporations plunder the poor and pillage the environment because, well, there’s money to be made there.

And over here, by the back gate, are the ones who are left out, shot up, shouted down, or beaten up.

Where is Jesus now?

The events of this week that is to come demonstrate that our world, and God’s own people, don’t always treat prophets well. Whether this is your first Palm Sunday or your eighty-first, it should come as no surprise to any of us that the Son of God is hanging on a tree by Friday afternoon.

Oh, we try to do our bit for the cause. Maybe some of you marched yesterday, or contributed to the kids who are away on their famine fund-raiser. Some of you might have set aside some time later this month to do a little work for the less fortunate, and a few of us will even post about it on social media.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sooner or later, we are going to have to make a choice as to whether we are going to raise our voices, risk our bank accounts, and offer ourselves. Are we willing to stand in front of Pilate’s weaponry armed only with hope, love, and the message of a Kingdom of peace?

As we said last week, we are called to become the righteousness of God in a world that doesn’t want that righteousness any more than the Gerasene demoniac wanted to be healed or the people of that region wanted to hear what Jesus had to say for himself. We are called to do the work of Christ in the places we are in the time that we’ve been given.

What will we do? What will we say? I hope to God that I will find the courage to echo once again, “Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place… as long as I’m alive I’ll glorify his holy name.” May we have the courage and grace to look beyond ourselves to the One who claims us, calls us, and sends us in his name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

There’s a Storm A-Comin’

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 29 we had the 18th and final message in this series.  The text was Matthew 7:24-29 and our epistle reading was I Peter 3:12-18.


The pastor had all the kids up front for the children’s sermon. At one point, she asked if anyone could think of a name for a small grey creature that had a long bushy tail, gathered nuts for the winter, and lived in the trees. One little boy said to his sister, “Since we’re in church, I know that the right answer has got to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”




Seriously – that’s the answer. I’m here to say that I love Jesus.

"Baptism of Christ" (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

“Baptism of Christ” (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

Whoa! No kidding! Last week, I started my message with “I love to talk”. This week, “I love Jesus.” Who could possibly see that coming? You may have seen in your bulletin the fact that next week is baptism Sunday at CHUP. Make sure you’re here for the 10 a.m. worship, where you might learn that water is wet!

But seriously – I love Jesus. And let me tell you more (because, you know, I love to talk, too…).

Late last summer I commenced with a plan to spend most of this past year studying the Sermon on the Mount. This is the eighteenth sermon I’ve preached in that series. When I said we were going to focus on Matthew chapters 5-7, I made the case by saying that we’d had a year wherein we considered the importance of hospitality and worship, and we’d emphasized mission and looked at a number of key Old Testament passages. And I wasn’t lying when I said any of that.

But the truth is that last summer, I was weary and dry.

Listen: I know a lot about running a church. If there’s a crisis, I can be a good guy to have in the room: I’m farily level-headed; I know some great scripture verses; I can pray up a storm on some days…

But here’s the deal: sometimes I think that I – and the rest of the Christian family – get so hung up on running the church, on having productive meetings and missional emphases and sustainable strategies that I – and we – miss the reason that we got into this in the first place. Jesus.

The church is important. The church needs to do stuff in the world, and the people in this room are the ones to make that happen. We have to talk about the heroin epidemic and gun violence and corporate greed and human sexuality and environmental issues and money and a thousand other things. I know that. I get it. And we do talk about those things.

Yet sometimes I get so hung up on my own ideas about those things that I lose sight of the one who called me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the church that I lose sight of Jesus.

And I was afraid that was happening last year, and so I said, “All right, CHUP, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount.”

When I did this, I hoped to explore some new insights about what Jesus had to say about the issues of his day and ours, but mostly, to be honest, I just wanted to be with him for a while.

JEsusIn the middle of all our churchiness and programming and policies, I just wanted to hang around with Jesus, and to remember who he has been for me and for us. I wanted to be like Peter and hold on to the testimony – “we ourselves have been eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the old apostle says. We’ve known Jesus. We’ve seen Jesus. We love Jesus.

And so for much of the year we’ve wandered through some familiar sayings. We’ve contemplated the logs in our own eyes, the wisdom of cutting off one’s right hand, and foolishness of making a show of our giving or praying. And we’ve liked being there to hear those things and to remember those things with Jesus.

But our walk through the Sermon on the Mount is not just about memory, or going into our spiritual “happy place”. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a series of dire warnings. Last week, we heard Jesus talk about false prophets. This week, we get a weather forecast – and according to Jesus, there’s a storm a-comin’, and we’d best be prepared for it.

Nothing I can find in the Gospels indicates that Jesus ever lost a lot of sleep over whether or not we would like what he had to say, or that we would get all warm and fuzzy when we heard the beatitudes. He didn’t do much opinion polling. His concern, as evinced here, is whether we and the other hearers of the word would be attentive to the message. The question is not, “Do I like it?”; the question is, “Will I obey?”

Does the message of the Sermon on the Mount shape me? Do I hear the words of Jesus and as a result of that hearing, am I less likely to become debilitated by worry, or falsely emboldened by a judgmental attitude, or less likely to be consumed by lust or anger? That is to say, am I building my life, am I experiencing reality, as defined by Jesus’ words? Or am I simply admiring them the way that I do a sunny day, a beautiful painting, or a fine meal?

In the conclusion to his own study of the Sermon on the Mount, German pastor and theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. But again he does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, he really means us to get on with it.[1]

And those who heard it first knew and understood that to which Bonhoeffer referred. Matthew tells us that they were amazed at his teaching – they knew right away that this was no mere wordsmithing; Jesus meant business.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

And the religious establishment and the Romans knew that a man who said things like this was something to be reckoned with – they came to realize that Jesus was dangerous to their cozy charade, and that he needed to be dealt with.

You see, that’s why I love him so much. Jesus, contrary to the understandings of him that are so prevalent today, was not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. He said it. He did it. And he offered to teach you and me how to do it, too.

So if you don’t know this already, let me tell you plainly: the storms are coming. It is a question of “when”, not “if”; a question of “how”, not “whether”.

Have you ever noticed how often we speak conditionally? It’s ridiculous. You hear it all the time. Someone says, “If I die…” or “Should something occur.” Seriously? Of course I’m going to die. There is no “if”, only a “when”. “Should something occur…” When in the history of history has something not occurred? You know that it’s going to happen… jobs will be lost, your spouse or parent or child will die, we will see floods; lives will be wracked by drug abuse or affairs; we’ll break legs and promises, we’ll suffer auto accidents and famine… It’s going to happen, people. And even if you say, “No, I’m good, I’ve already had that…”, well, think again – because this isn’t the mumps, people. The storm is coming. Again. And again. And again.

And when (not if) that storm comes, who will you be?

And when (not if) that storm comes, how will you get to the next step?

And when (not if) that storm comes, to whom will you turn?


Yes, that’s the right answer. Jesus.

When the first disciples hit a wall, and a lot of the crowd melted into the woodwork, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave, too?” And Peter replied– do you remember this? –

“Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

I’m with Peter. I don’t have any better ideas because Jesus is the best that there is.

I hope you’re not surprised to hear your pastor say this, but a lot of days, I don’t get it all. There are times when I look at God the Father and I think, “Holy smokes, what in the world is going on with this Guy?” There are, as Robert Capon says, some days where I look at the Father’s track record and I think that the best thing he’s got going for him is a Son like Jesus who is willing to vouch for him, ‘cause I sure can’t figure him out. And often the Holy Spirit isn’t much better – so much gets credited to him or blamed on him that I’m not sure what to believe – except that Jesus said he was sending the Spirit so I’ll be on the lookout.

But Jesus? Jesus I can love. Jesus does everything. I can do nothing on my own, but I can trust and follow him. It is a sweet deal, and the only deal that works for a knucklehead like me.[2]

I had a friend who lived with debilitating mental illness her entire adult life. Some of you knew her and would remember her. She suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia and four or five other conditions that landed her in the hospital for six or eight months at a time. But when she was lucid – wow, was she a woman of faith. And I can’t remember how many times she grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, Pastor Dave! Thank God for God! Thank God for Jesus! Right, Pastor Dave? I don’t know what’s happening, but thank God for Jesus.” And all I could do was hold her hand right back and say with conviction, “That’s right, Barb. Thank God for Jesus…”

Because, you know, he’s Jesus.

So we’re finished with the Sermon on the Mount. And because we’ve had it in bits and pieces for 18 weeks over the course of nine months, let me ask you to do this: go home and read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 today. And read the entire Sermon every day this week. And try it. Look for logs in your own eye. Give secretly. Let go of lust or anger. Remember Jesus. Listen for his laughter, heed his warnings, learn from his wisdom, and accept his grace.

And love him. Oh, for Christ’s sake, love him.

And follow him into the storm, knowing that you can’t control the ride, but you can control who you’re going to hold onto in the midst of it.

And thank God for Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 218-219).

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).

During the offering, I concluded the series of messages on The Sermon on the Mount by singing a Rich Mullins tune entitled “Heaven in His Eyes”.  You can hear this song (although, mercifully, not me!), by clicking on the link below or pasting this url into your browser:

Bread and Life

Eight times in the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at folk around him and said, “I am.”  Bread of life.  Light of the world.  The Gate.  And so on.  As we journey towards the garden, the cross, and the grave, we want to stick close to the Lord to learn more of who he is in order that we might discover that which we are called to be.  This is the message from March 16 as heard at the Crafton Heights Church.  Our scriptures included selected verses from Exodus 3 and John 6 (quoted below).

What really frosts you?  I mean, what gets on your last nerve, and just makes you see red?  Don’t feel like you have to shout out answers during the message…

Someone might say, “When I’m cruising down the parkway and traffic just stops…because no one seems to know how to drive through a stinking tunnel!”  And that’s true.  That really chaps my hide…but I was thinking a little more ecclesiastically.  What bothers you spiritually?

Several times in recent weeks I’ve thought about one of the first times I ever went to share communion in a nursing home. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor had said to me, “I’m glad you’ll be going out there.  Try to visit with Esther.  I think she might connect better with you than she does with me.”  This is, of course, pastor’s code for “She really doesn’t like anyone, but why don’t you give it a shot?”

So I went out to the home, and was told that Esther was indeed there, and that she was the blind lady in the wheelchair over in the corner.  I approached, and our conversation went something like this:

“Esther?  Hi!  My name is Dave Carver, and I’m…”

“I know who you are.  You’re the new preacher, aren’t you?  I don’t know if we’re going to get along.”

“Esther, why would you say that?”

“Well, they tell me you’ve got a beard.  Do you have a beard?”

“I do.”

“Well, let me feel it then.”  And she reached her hand up and touched my face.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I don’t think I can get used to the idea of a preacher with a beard.  It’s just not right.”

“Uh, Esther?  Can you see me?”

“Of course not!  I’m blind!”

“Well then, if you can’t see my beard, how can it bother you?”

“I can think it, can’t I?”

Esther was offended by the idea of a preacher with facial fondeur.  What about you?  What offends you in church?  If we allow it, that could be a long list – and a subjective one, too: what offends you now might not offend you in ten years; what offends me might not offend you.

But looking past the things that you encounter when you show up here – where do you find Jesus to be offensive?

“Oh, Pastor!  Jesus? Offensive?  No, no, no…Jesus and me?  We are good!  I love my Jesus, my savior…”

Really? Nothing about what Jesus said or did rocks your boat, even a little bit?  Because it seems to me that the people who took him seriously, who really let him in, who were there to pay attention – well, they found him to be at least intrusive, if not offensive.

In fact, our Gospel reading for this morning is about a time when Jesus managed to offend a whole lot of people, including some who thought of themselves as his friends.

jesus-teachingJohn chapter six opens with the story about how Jesus and the disciples were looking for a break after a pretty rough stretch of ministry.  They went out into the boondocks in search of a little peace and quiet, only to be followed by great crowds – crowds that had needs that the boondocks were not equipped to handle.  So what started out to be a little retreat wound up to be an all-day teaching session that led to the feeding of the 5,000.  John tells us that after that happened, they tried to make Jesus into a king, and he didn’t want any of that…so he and the Twelve set off again – to someplace even boondockier –  in search of some R & R.

Yet the crowds found them again, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Look, we all know you’re not here for the Bible Study – you just remember the bread and the fishes from yesterday.” Then he threw out a little teaser, saying that they ought to really want the food that would allow them to live forever.  Well, they fell right into that one, and said, “You bet! Give us that!  That’s the stuff we want!”  Listen:

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (John 6:30 – 34, NIV)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

If you’ve read much of John before, you could see this coming.  Time and time again, John presents us with a Jesus who talks about things on an intensely spiritual plane, while mere mortals are thinking that he’s talking about the mundane stuff of human existence.  So when they beg him for some of this bread, Jesus gives them the theological knock-out:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)

There are two things going on here.  First, Jesus uses two little words that sound so inoffensive in English, or even in Greek.  He says, “I am”.  “Ego eimi”.  We say that all the time, don’t we?  “Who’s in charge here?  Who is going for ice cream? Who’s ready for Spring?”  I am!  That’s me!

But for Jesus and the rest of the faithful in his time and place, saying “I am” – particularly in a theological context – was a loaded proposition because, as you have already heard in the reading from Exodus, “I am” is more than a simple declarative statement.  “I am” is the Divine Name.  “I am” is who God revealed himself to be.  And Jesus here, for the first of eight times in John’s Gospel, uses that phrase to refer to himself.

images-of-jesusFor a carpenter’s son to use the Divine Name was wildly offensive to his hearers.  “Who do you think you are?  Do you know what you’re saying?” When Jesus said, “I Am” so often in that context, it was an unmistakable sign that he was equating himself with God’s presence and God’s purposes.  Listen:

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42, NIV)

And while this is going on, you can just about feel the disciples cringing.  “Oh, come on, Jesus!  You have just cracked the top ten!  People are really paying attention to you now!  Don’t offend them with this stuff!  Give the crowds what they want, and don’t rile the authorities.”

But he doesn’t stop.  In fact, he goes deeper:

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51 NIV)

Jesus says that God, through Moses, directed the faithful to manna – the bread that would help them get through another day in the desert.  And now the same God, through Jesus, offers the true bread from heaven.  And what is that bread? Jesus says, “That’s me.  I am.  I am the bread of life.”

And then Jesus takes it a bit further.  He says that he’s better than the manna that the ancestors ate, and, in fact, the bread that he is is bread for the life of the world.  “If you want eternal life, then you’ve got to eat my flesh.  If you want eternal life, you’ve got to drink my blood.”

And when he said this, some of the people who had been following him looked around at each other and said, basically, “Eeeew, that’s nasty.  I don’t know if I can get into that…”

Jesus presses the point:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:60-61, NIV)

Jesus is saying, “You need me.  I am the basic stuff of life.  If you don’t have me, you can’t experience life.  I am what sustains you.”

And then we get to one of the most curious parts of this story:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Sometimes in scripture, we see things in black and white; as good and evil.  When someone opposes Jesus, we want to think right away that it’s the bad guys.  “If I was there…” we think, “I wouldn’t question anything that Jesus said.”  But friends, you see the truth.  Here, in this passage, it is the good guys – the followers – disciples of Jesus – who turn away and can no longer follow him.  Why is that?  Because Jesus, talking about the body and the blood, claims to be the sustaining, equipping presence that we need each and every day.

Bread has taken a bit of a bad rap in our culture lately.  You may have seen articles like, “Why Bread Is Bad for You: the Shocking Truth!” or “Cutting Bread From Your Diet”.  Many of us are being told that we shouldn’t eat bread, or that we eat too much bread, or something like that.  And, thanks be to God, most of us are in a position where we have a lot of options when it comes to food.

breadYet the reality is that for most of the world, there is a dish that sustains us.  Come with me to Malawi, and watch women standing for hours around the big pot of nsima, the staple food on which most Malawians rely for two meals a day.  I remember walking the streets of Cairo and seeing men with giant platters of bread, selling the small loaves for two pennies each.  Most of the people on this planet rely on a simple combination of grains to keep them going day after day – it is bread, or nsima, or pap, or funche, or polenta… it is what we need to live.

And here in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at those who would follow him, and say, “Yes.  That’s me.  I am what you need.  I am that for which you were created.  I am.”  And that notion of exclusivity offends people – and they want to leave.  Because they are not in the business of depending on Jesus.  Of needing him.  Of thinking of him as the way to live.  He’s a nice guy.  A great man, even.  We ought to pay attention to him.

But is he God?

I wonder if we really appreciate what a leap it is to go from thinking that Jesus is a good man – even a great man, like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – to believing that Jesus is truly the bread of life.  To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised that people are offended.  It’s pretty tough to comprehend, isn’t it?

But not everyone turns away:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)

The twelve stick around.  They’re invited to leave, but Peter matter-of-factly says, “Seriously, Lord, where can we go?  Because we KNOW you.  We were so hungry yesterday – and you fed us.  We were so scared in the boat last night – and you were there.  We have seen you.  We know you.  And we cannot leave.”  And the twelve, save Judas, all end up spending the rest of their lives pointing other people towards the things that Jesus said and did – because they believed that he WAS the essence of life.  The difference between the people who were offended and those who were not was not that somehow the apostles “got” what Jesus was saying any better.  They were lost, too.  But they had seen him and known him and experienced his power – and they knew they needed to stay with him, even if they didn’t understand everything at the time.

The Lord's Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup.  Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

The Lord’s Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup. Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

Look at that table before you. It’s a rich, sturdy, oak table.  They don’t make ‘em like that any more.  It’s quality furniture.  And look at what’s on it.  An empty cup and a small loaf.  It’s just a reminder… It seems so, normal.  It’s almost … harmless the way that we remember that Jesus is the bread. Like we have “tamed” him, somehow.  Made him less offensive.

We have to remember that Jesus is the bread.  We don’t remember that Jesus and something else is what we need.  We don’t claim that our lives are pretty good, pretty whole, and then we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus on top just to round things out, as though Jesus was a special additive that makes our lives sparkle a little bit more.  This little loaf and empty cup, as shallow as they may be, remind us that Jesus is all of what we need.  They are here to serve as symbols, pointing us to what we really need.

It is a statement of belief:  in coming to the table, you say, “I believe that I need Christ and his power in my life, and I believe that he is there and is sufficient to reign.”  And it is a statement of intent: in sharing the cup and the loaf, you say, “I will follow where he leads me.”  And it is a statement of testimony: in our worship, you say, “Yes, I could have gone.  I might have gone.  But there have been times in my life when he has fed me.  I don’ t know how he’s done it – but I was fed.  There have been times in my life when he has calmed me, and been present to me when I was scared, or frightened, or in need, and he walked out to me and comforted me.”

Do you see, you lovely people of God?  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  And now he’s asking you to believe that that is the case.  He is not an additive; he is not an enrichment.  He is life.  And he invites us to follow him.  And to tell the story that has changed our world.  For some, that is offensive.  For us, it is life.  Let us live it as though we counted on him to nourish us today and always.  Amen.