Summer of Love

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On March 1, we considered the first affirmation in our Book Of Order to be written by a North American denomination. We sought to be attentive to the Confession of 1967 (linked below) while referring to Leviticus 25 and Luke 12:32-34.

The Confession of 1967, edited for the purpose of inclusive language.

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

What do you remember about 1967 (and yes, I know, most of you in the room this morning weren’t around then…)?  On January 14 of that year, Allan Ginsburg, Dick Gregory, and a host of other popular figures appeared at what was billed as “The Human Be-In” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  An estimated 30,000 people turned out to explore ideas that came to shape the Hippie movement of the 1960’s; it was here that psychologist Timothy Leary first urged the young people of America to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

That event led to what has been termed “The Summer of Love”, a phenomenon that saw close to half a million people descend upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in an exploration and celebration of the Hippie values of free love, psychedelic drugs, and protests.

And even if you couldn’t get to San Francisco that year, your town was probably filled with conversations about the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the civil rights movement, what some called “Women’s Liberation”, and the sexual revolution, among other hot topics of the year.  1967 was, in so many respects, a momentous year in the United States.

If you were to leaf through an historical retrospective of 1967, I suspect it would have to be a fairly THICK historical retrospective if you were to come across a description of a gathering of Presbyterians that took place in May of that year.  What with the war in Vietnam, the riots in Detroit, and the fire that killed three astronauts on Apollo 1, a bunch of church folks getting together for a conference in Portland seems rather pedestrian.

And yet in today’s worship, we won’t be talking about any of those great societal upheavals explicitly; instead, we’ll explore the ways that the decisions of the General Assembly have filtered into our lives.

Commissioners to the 1967 General Assembly.

More than ten years prior, in 1956, anticipating the upcoming merger of the United Presbyterian Church in North America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the church called for a re-write of the Westminster Confession of Faith. You’ll remember that we are talking about the creeds of the church during this season of our lives, and you might have been in church a few weeks ago when we talked about the Westminster Standards – the then-300 year old document that was at that point the cornerstone of the church’s theology.  After that committee met for two years, the new denomination decided in 1958 that it would be better to simply come up with a brand-new statement of faith that would guide the church into the current day.  It took another nine years, and two more specially-appointed committees, but the Assembly that met in Portland in 1967 approved not only the document that we know as “The Confession of 1967” but the Book of Order that contains it and the other documents we’ve talked about in recent months.  We might not be fast in the Presbyterian Church, but we’re thorough…

When folks called for an updated version of the Westminster Standards, most of them expected a similar document.  When churches heard about the development of a new statement, they anticipated receiving a creed that talked about the beliefs that were necessary to maintaining a Christian witness. After all, most of the affirmations that the church had come to in previous years dealt with answers. What must a person believe in order to call oneself a Christian?  How can an individual be “redeemed” or “saved”?  Which ideas about God are the right ideas?

And yet the Assembly received a ten page document that was based around a single passage in scripture: II Corinthians 5:19, which reads, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”  The authors of the Confession of 1967 laid a theological groundwork in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  But then, rather than embarking on a systematic exposition of church doctrine, the Confession of 1967 invites the reader to consider four aspects of reconciliation that were very much in evidence in the turbulent 1960’s:

  • The evils of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow
  • The perils of militarism and an arms race
  • The scourge of economic injustice around the world
  • The risks inherent in the onset of the sexual revolution

And because I know that many of you were not alive at that time in history, let me simply say that if you brought up topics like racism, war, economic justice, and human sexuality in a Presbyterian Church in 1967, you weren’t preaching anymore – you were meddling.

The Rev. Carl McIntire leading a protest against the “liberal” policies of the Presbyterian Church.

So if you’ve been a Presbyterian for a while, you won’t be surprised to know that the early drafts of the Confession of 1967 received a scathing reception in some quarters.  In fact, the Presbyterian Lay Committee sponsored 150 newspaper advertisements across the country, including a half page in The New York Times, urging loyal and faithful Presbyterians to vote against this affirmation.  These ads stated, “Protestant denominations generally have limited themselves in their jurisdiction to ecclesiastical and spiritual subjects.”[1]

You see, for many people, their central understanding was that the church is here to provide for the salvation of individuals, who are then sent back into their “regular” lives as those who are redeemed and transformed.  Religion, in these people’s minds, is a private matter.  Talking about issues like this in church was crossing some sort of a line, and getting political, and causing controversy.  “The church,” folks seemed to say, “ought to stick to religion.”

And yet in calling the church to respond to evils with names like racism, militarism, poverty, and sexual abandon, the authors of the Confession of 1967 are holding forth an entirely different model of the church: one that sees the congregation as a laboratory in which individuals are brought together to consider ethical responses to the questions of the day, and thereby becoming in themselves agents of transformation that will encourage those who struggle even while threatening the status quo that perpetuates or tolerates such evils.

It’s a key question, and it rages in churches to our own day.  Are we here to save souls? Or are we here to demonstrate what God intends for all of creation?

The Confession of 1967 reflects the truth that authentic Christianity has got to be deeply personal, in that it must resonate with and be lived out by individuals.  However it goes further to imply that such a faith, while inherently personal, can never be essentially private.  The Christian faith is not your private possession, assuring you that you can avoid the dangers of Hell but not requiring you to participate in the life of the world.

Parenthetically, I’ll mention that next month I intend to preach an entire series of sermons I’m calling “How My Mind Has Changed” – and this understanding is perhaps my most momentous shift of the past four decades.

The Confession of 1967 points us, rightly, to the truth that God’s people are called to follow Jesus in every single area of life, and that as a result, our understandings of identity – including nationalism, race, and gender – are bound to be transformed by the discipleship we profess.

By way of example, I’ll point you toward a part of the Confession that focuses on the cry for economic justice around the world. You can see that section printed in your bulletin, and indeed we will read it together as our Affirmation of Faith in a few moments.  Here you will see that the Confession is deeply reflective of a key biblical concept – and yet has been called dangerous and socialism by some.

The key truth on which this section hangs is the first verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and all that dwell therein.”  The implications of that foundational assertion are unpacked for us in various places throughout the Bible including, as you’ve heard, Leviticus 25.

Follow with me here: if the earth and all that is on it belongs to God, then none of us can truly own any of it.  How can we lay title to that which we’ve already confessed belongs to another?  So then, according to Leviticus, one does not actually purchase property, buy or sell human slaves, or even own money forever. Rather, you purchase the use of the land, you buy the labor of the worker, and you may make a temporary loan to someone else – but every fifty years, in the Divine economy, there is a fundamental re-do.  Every fifty years, according to the Jubilee principle set forward here by Moses and affirmed by Isaiah and Jesus, all the land ought to revert to its original owners; anyone who has become enslaved is set free; and all debts are wiped out.  In a society that would truly live these practices out, there would be no such thing as chronic poverty.  However, there would also be no ability to amass generational wealth, so you can guess how often this has actually been tried.

The confession points to the fact that scripture calls us to be continually reconciling with each other and with the land itself to the end that every human and all of creation might know the Divine Intentions of justice, rest, and peace.

This system of economic justice cannot work unless people take in personally: folk have got to be individually committed to the ideal.  Similarly, it will not work if we tried to do it in our own little space – I try it on Cumberland Street and someone else tries it in McKees Rocks, it can’t function.  It cannot be private.

Yes, I think that for some of us, the Confession of 1967 might be among the most influential documents that we’ve never read.

What do you remember about 1967?  Do you like listening to the Beatles? Do you remember Cool Hand Luke? Can you whistle along with the theme of The Andy Griffith Show?

All right – before I get an “OK, Boomer…”, let me close by saying that while historians call 1967 the “summer of love” because hundreds of thousands of Hippies descended into Haight-Asbury and “flower children” protested the war, perhaps the Presbyterian Church, in all of our stodginess, did something tangible to remind the world that love has structure, love has direction, and love has purpose.

Because, beloved, if in 2020 we can hold onto these truths

  • Racism is an evil that must be opposed and dismantled
  • Seeking security and identity in nuclear, biological, ideological, or military weaponry is an absurd proposition and a danger to the world
  • Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is antithetical to God’s purposes for humanity
  • The ways that human beings treat each other’s sexuality has deeply-seated spiritual dimensions and effects.

If we can live by those affirmations in 2020, than this year can be a “summer of love” in Crafton Heights. Not “I’m A Believer” or “Baby, Won’t You Light My Fire” kind of love, but enacted, Christ-like, God-honoring, Spirit-driven love that is shared in community, practiced here, and given away freely.  A love like that is something worth striving for! May it be a hallmark of our lives and our congregation.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark Englund-Krieger, The Presbyterian Pendulum: Seeing Providence in the Wild Diversity of the Church Wipf & Stock, 2010), p. 148.

Glad and Generous Hearts

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 24, we considered The Heidelberg Catechism and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 19:7-14 and Acts 2:42-47.

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

So, here’s how we began our 2019-2020 Confirmation Class last Sunday evening.  In addition to the young people who were there beginning their journey towards church membership, we once again had an older teen who is volunteering as assistant teacher.  When we were going around the circle introducing ourselves, Maddy said, “Well, when I did this five years ago, Carly was here to help Dave, and that was important to me.  I think that sometimes it’s helpful to have someone, you know, younger, who can explain things differently than Dave.”

Ouch!  But it’s a fair statement.  The circle is always better when it’s more inclusive.

And we are not the first church where this has happened.  As we continue in our discussion of the creeds that have shaped our faith, I’d like to take you back to 1559.  Frederick III has just become an Elector – a sort of regional governor – of Germany.  No sooner had he taken office, though, when he had a ringside seat to a full-blown church fight.  Here’s the story.

In this corner, we have Tileman Heshusius.  He’s a professor of preaching at Heidelberg University and is also the preacher at the local church.  Heshusius is a staunch Lutheran – one of the most important aspects of theology, in his mind, is what one believes happens during the Lord’s Supper.  He believed, taught, and preached that the actual body and blood of Jesus was present in the sacrament.  Anything else, thought Heshusius, was nonsense.

And in the other corner, we have Wilhelm Klebitz (I tried, but could not find a picture of this fellow).  He’s a student at the university, and a Deacon in the congregation.  He advocated, very forcefully, that while every believer has access to the real and substantial presence of the risen Christ while taking the sacrament, there is no literal body or blood.

If I were to say that this was a heated debate, you wouldn’t get the full impact of what happened.  While Heshusius was out of town, the other professors awarded Klebitz his degree. When Heshusius returned, he was furious, and in a sermon he called that act a “hellish, devlish, cursed, cruel, and terrible thing” and said that Klebitz was a devil from the pit of hell.  The next week, when these two men were together at the communion table leading worship, Heshusius literally wrestled the cup of wine out of Klebitz’ hands.  The congregation watched, dumbfounded, as the two pastors fought in the chancel.   Finally, Frederick had had enough and he kicked them both out of Heidelberg.  But then he had another problem: he needed someone to preach at his church and he needed a professor for the university.  More than that, he was concerned that the church argument between the previous folks had turned off the young people.  He wrote that his problems were many:

Therefore, we also have ascertained, that, by no means the least defect of our system, is found in the fact that our blooming youth is disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine… The consequence has ensued that they have, in too many instances, grown up without the fear of God and the knowledge of his Word, having enjoyed no profitable instruction, or otherwise have been perplexed with irrelevant and needless questions, and at times have been burdened by unsound doctrines.[1]

But what to do?  How to get the kids to pay attention to religion, and learn the faith?  Frederick had just the ticket: he went out and hired Zacharias Ursinus, age 28, to be the professor of preaching at the university, and a 26 year old named Caspar Olivianus to be the preacher at the local church.  I’m not sure whether these young whippersnappers had goatees, or played the guitar, or know all the right slang words, but I do know that Frederick asked them to come up with a means by which young people might be instructed in the path of Christian discipleship.  Moreover, Frederick asked them to do it in such a way as to bring people together, rather than driving them further apart.

In January of 1563, then, these men published the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers covering the depths of human sinfulness, the profundity of God’s redemptive love, and the importance of our gratitude for that redemption.  It is a remarkable document in many ways.

It is, first of all, deeply personal.  This is not a sweeping series of broad theological statements requiring intellectual assent, but rather a string of heartfelt questions addressed to the individual.  For instance, this is how the catechism begins:

  1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
    A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Do you hear how different that is from our previous statements like the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds or the Scots Confession?  It’s just lovely!

In addition, it is conciliatory in tone.  The authors deliberately sought to find areas of agreement in Jesus Christ.  There is little trace of the controversy that birthed the catechism within it.

And it is remarkable in its emphasis on the positive aspects that flow from a life of discipleship in Jesus.  If you read it, you’ll discover an echo of the 19th Psalm focusing on the beauty of God’s law, one that stresses the goodness that can come from walking in the path of obedience.

Too often, the Christian faith is presented as a caricature.  God is depicted as a grumpy old man who is really mad at you because you’re such a miserable sinner.  Maybe you grew up in a church that defined faithful living as all the stuff we’re not supposed to do: no swearing, no lying, no cheating, no dancing, no card playing…  In some churches, the message seems to be this: If you want to make God happy, then straighten up and fly right, Buster.  Stop doing all that stuff that ticks God off, and then maybe God will have mercy on your pathetic little soul…

But the Heidelberg Catechism is beautiful in the way that it treats the laws of God.  In fact, the discussion of the commandments is located in the section of the Catechism dealing with gratitude because Christian living is not primarily about avoiding the negative and unpleasant realities of sin, but rather embracing the positive and joyful aspects of daily life.  I’d like to look at two sections of the Catechism by way of illustration.

Questions 110 and 111 deal with the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not steal”.  If the only possible interpretation of “stealing” was breaking into my home or robbing me on the subway, well then it’s easy to have a simple prohibition.  But the Catechism suggests that the commandment addresses a more pervasive human condition, that of greed.  The answer to question 110 indicates that the eighth commandment “forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but.. also… all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor’s goods…”

It’s fair to include in this definition, then, deliberate attempts to underpay workers or to cheat the poor.  This is particularly relevant during the Christmas season, when we are so pressured to buy more and more stuff for loved ones, colleagues, and, of course, ourselves.  The Catechism reminds us that the Law of God is concerned with who is getting the money for these products.  Are those shoes that look so great being crafted in subhuman conditions by 13 year-olds?  Is that furniture that looks so amazing in my den the result of deforestation in a country that desperately needs a rain forest?

You see, our economics can never simply be about saying “I paid for this, and so it’s mine.”  Who did you pay, and who got paid?  Who else made that bargain possible?  In your purchase, did you somehow support, enrich, or encourage someone who truly needs that income?  That is the law of love applied to the eighth commandment.

Similarly, question 112 deals with the ninth commandment which forbids false witness.  We are cautioned, of course, to avoid outright deception and deceit that come straight from the pit of Hell.  And we are also reminded that human speech is a glorious gift.  How dare we abuse that gift by contorting it into falsehood?  In addition to refraining from lying, I am forbidden to take your words and meaning and twist them into something else entirely, implying that you are saying something altogether different than that which you meant.  The Catechism warns us against slander and gossip.

Wow, is that relevant in the age of social media and electronic communication, or what?  Between Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and Email and Texting, it is so easy to yield to the first impulse and to launch an attack, spread a falsehood, perpetuate a rumor, or join in a group smear campaign against someone else. The Catechism says, “In judicial and all other matters I am to love the truth, and to speak and confess it honestly.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, a contemporary theologian and philosopher, puts it this way: “Thou must not take cheap shots.  Thou must earn thy right to disagree… the point being it is much more difficult (I don’t say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.”[2]

The Catechism goes on to instruct us that the ninth commandment calls us to defend and promote our neighbor’s good name.

I want to pause there and remind you that we’re talking about a document that was written as a result of a church fight.  Frederick III asked for a way through a conflicted time, and the resultant catechism affirms that we are called to build up our neighbor in what we say about her or him even when, or perhaps especially when, we are angry.

That might be timely for you this morning.  Maybe you’re irritated with a fellow member of this congregation; perhaps you’re preparing yourself for another holiday meal with your “idiot” brother-in-law whose politics you cannot stand; or maybe you’re enraged by the current state of affairs in Washington DC.  The question is the same: in what you say about or to people, are you, to the best of your ability, promoting their good name? Are you loving your neighbor in your speech? Is the world a better place because of what you say and how you say it?  That is keeping the commandment!

Acts chapter two describes the first Christian community.  I know we are the “First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights,” but this passage is about First Church of Anywhere, anytime, anyplace.  It describes their gatherings… day by day – that is to say, they are normal, and unremarkable.  They met – how? With “glad and generous hearts”.  When they looked at each other, and spoke to and about each other – they did so with generosity of spirit.  The result was that they enjoyed the good will of all the people.

Beloved in the Lord, the scripture is plain: God’s law is a gift.  It is designed to lead us to embrace what is best.

May we be known as people who are quick to encourage and affirm; as those who are reluctant to profit from another’s misery or misfortune; as people whose hearts, minds, and spirits are indeed glad and generous.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

We concluded the message by affirming our faith using

questions 1, 2, 110, 111, and 112 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

  1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

    That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

  2. Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

    First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.

    110. Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment (concerning theft)?

    God forbids not only outright theft and robbery but also such wicked schemes and devices as false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury; we must not defraud our neighbor in any way, whether by force or by show of right. In addition God forbids all greed and all abuse or squandering of His gifts.

    111. Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?

    I must promote my neighbor’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.

    112. Q. What is required in the ninth commandment (concerning false witness)?

    I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard. Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil’s own works, under penalty of God’s heavy wrath. In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbor’s honor and reputation.

[1] From the original preface to the Catechism in 1563.  Available in its entirety here: http://heidelberg-catechism.s3.amazonaws.com/Original%20Preface%20of%20Heidelberg%20Catechism%20(1563).pdf

[2] Quoted in Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Heart and Mind, edited by Douglas Huffman (Kregel Academic and Professional Press, 2012), pp 88-89.

Which One Are You?

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 Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying.  What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here.  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.

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

I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?”  Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them.  Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”

I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter.  There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in?  Which one am I?  Which one are you?

Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here.  For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27.  The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…”  A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…”  These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.

And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years.  Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short.  They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.

In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice.  He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless.  They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.

Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”.  So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (self-portrait), Paul Gauguin, 1889.

Have you heard this story before?  Is this how you have read it, too?  Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone.  That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.

But there’s a different reading.  Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word.  The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo.  In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap.  When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.

Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”

Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’”  The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”

And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”

Now stay with me here, because this is crucial.  If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct.  But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet.  And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”

If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.

Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck.  The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it.  Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself.  Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest.  There will be important work to be done.  I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.

In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble.  In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait.  He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus.  Act like a Messiah.  Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto (1304-1306)

When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him.  Someone draws a sword.  Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus.  And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it.  Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden.  His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.

Thenthey run away.  If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless.  Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.

Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior.  If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen.  In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.

So, back to my original question: which one are you?

I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.

Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord?  You can say it, you know.  I think that he’s given us permission here.  Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works.  Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice.  Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”

Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?

What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus?  We will never know.  All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.

So there is a curious little footnote to this story.  Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.

What is thatabout?  Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?

The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself.  These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”

It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark.  It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening.  And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness.  When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.

Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017.  The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome.  That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this.  Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution.  The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.

And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there.  You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either.  I’ve been scandalized.  I’ve been offended.  I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed.  But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal.  You can trust him.  As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up.  Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.

I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…”  Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.

This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent.  To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray.  To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom.  Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.

And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time.  We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice.  Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

What Were You Made For?

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 February 3, 2019, we saw an unlikely group of “allies” come together in an attempt to entrap Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:13-17.  Our Old Testament reading was a vivid reminder from Genesis 1:26-28

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

As I begin this morning, I feel my affinity for the Professional Organization of English Majors compels me to acknowledge that the title of this message, and therefore the signboard outside of this church, consists of a phrase which includes a dangling preposition.

Most normal people will readily understand questions like “Where are you at?” or “What are you talking about?”.  Sticklers for some of the archaic “rules” in English, however, will cringe when they hear such construction, and even more annoyingly, will smugly correct you.

When faced with an editor who attempted to rebuke him for such a “crime”, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about the English language) is alleged to have scrawled in the margin this note: “This is the type of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put!”

As any speaker of any language knows, sometimes the most effective communication goes against the strictest rules of the grammarian.  In order to have clear and concise meaning, we sometimes have to be direct, even if it might make a 9thgrade English teacher (or Sharon Carver) cringe.

Today’s Gospel reading contains a number of very interesting points all of which center around the appropriate interpretation or application of a rule and the impact of that on one’s view of life and culture and faith.

As we mentioned last week, we are in the midst of reading through Mark’s account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  We have already seen several conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are clearly looking for a way to eliminate him as a threat to themselves. Mark informs us that on this day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to catch Jesus in his own words – they were trying to set a trap for him.

Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

A word about these men: we’ve seen the Pharisees many times in the Gospel; they were one of the three main sects of Judaism at the time.  Their name literally means “separated ones”.  They emerged as a distinct group about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and at first, they were men of the highest religious and moral character – by some accounts the best people in the nation. Yet as time went by, more and more people simply “inherited” membership in this group and the caliber of its witness suffered.  In Jesus day, the Pharisees talked a good game about separating oneself for God’s purposes, but did not always live that out.

The Herodians, on the other hand, are mentioned very infrequently in Scripture. As their name contains that of the civil ruler, it is assumed that this was a group of men who were far more secular in their approach to life.  Any power they had derived from the government established by Rome, and as such they were very vested in maintaining or even strengthening the status quo.  Whereas the Pharisees bristled at the claims of Herod and the rule of Rome, the Herodians sought to please their patrons by any means necessary.

And I hope it goes without saying that a quick examination of our (or any nation’s) history would indicate that these are not merely historical oddities.  We see time and time again in our own story the ways that people are willing to use faith to either prop up or bring down a rival political party.  We don’t call them Herodians anymore, but a glance at our headlines for the past generation reveals any number of religious leaders who are willing to contort the teachings of Christ so as to prop up the political empire that in return empowers or enriches them.

We can see, therefore, how much Jesus threatened both the religious and the political status quo when he manages to unite the Pharisees and the Herodians in a common task: that of eliminating him.  In our own day, it would be like walking into a Starbucks and seeing Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Kamala Harris sipping lattes.  I mean, it’s possible – but it would be very surprising.

They come together and they ask Jesus a question about the rules: is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans?  Should we do this?

In that day, there were three main taxes levied by the Romans.  The “ground tax” was paid by landowners, and it imposed a levy of 10% of the grain and 20% of the wine and fruit that the land produced. Obviously, this tax only applied to those who were wealthy enough to own property.

There was an income tax that applied to all wage-earners, and it was approximately 1% of a person’s income.

And finally, there was the “poll tax”.  Every male between the ages of 14 and 65, and every female between the ages of 12 and 65 was required to offer Caesar a single denarius every year simply for the privilege of existing.  A denarius was the daily wage for an agricultural worker in Jesus’ day.

It seems as though this last tax is the issue to which Jesus responds, because he asks them to show him a denarius coin.

But look at how Jesus engages these men: he calls “shenanigans” on them right away in several different ways.  Before we consider Jesus’ conversation, though, let’s think about why in the world he would ask for a coin.

Tell me – what do you know about a quarter?  Please describe the 25 cent coin that is in your pockets or on your nightstands today.  Whose likeness does it contain? What does it say? What are the symbols?

Similarly, think about the pennies that are cluttering up the top of your dresser.  Whose image is on the penny? What are the words or symbols contained on it?

The reason I ask those questions is to demonstrate that I don’t need to hold up a coin and walk you through an examination of that piece of metal in order to talk about it.  We all know what a quarter is, and what it says, and what it’s used for.

The “Tribute Penny” bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius

And yet Jesus had the Pharisees and the Herodians fetch a coin for him.  Why?  I would suggest at least two reasons. First, I think that his questions were intentional.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He wanted them to see the image, and to read the inscription.  The coin had the likeness of Caesar, and on the “heads” side, contained the phrase, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the august god”. The “tails” side read “Pontif Maxim”, or “the greatest high priest”.

I want you to imagine how compromised and embarrassed these lofty leaders of Judaism – especially the Pharisees – must have, or should have, felt when they were sitting in the Temple reading aloud about Tiberius’ claims to divinity.

Moreover, Jesus asked them “whose image” is on the coin.  Do you remember the 10 commandments? Number 2? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”

And do you remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Jesus clearing all the moneychangers out of the temple?  The moneychangers were there because the religious leaders like the Pharisees thought that it was sacrilegious to use coins containing the image of one who claimed to be divine in the worship of God.  Having a coin with the picture of Caesar on it was, in their ruling, a violation of the second commandment.  So they made their own temple coins that were to be used instead of the ones containing the Emperor’s image.  Yet here, when they are trying to eliminate Jesus, none of them seem to have a problem with pulling the offensive bit of metal out of whatever passed for pockets in their ancient robes.  Do you see? In asking them to produce a coin and describe it, Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy and exposes their shallowness.

Then he answers them. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The Greek word he uses is actually apodidomi, and it means, literally, “return”.  The old versions translate it as “render” – and it is usually used to convey the idea that one is to give up, give back, return, or restore.

Looking at the coin, he seems to say, “Well, that apparently has Caesar’s image on it.  So it belongs to Caesar.  You ought to give it back to him.  And anything with God’s image, well, give that back to God.”

On the surface, it’s a non-answer, but if you dig a little deeper, he is actually acknowledging that a civil government – even an unjust one – receives some sort of support from the population.  Taxes must be paid but, more importantly, God must be honored. Jesus’ answer here and the way that it was subsequently interpreted may have something to do with the fact that the crowd that had cheered him as a deliverer from Rome on Sunday would be crying for his death on Thursday and Friday.

I’d like to look for a moment at the unspoken question that Jesus’ answer implies. “Return to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s” begs the question: how much of what you have, who you are, belongs to the government or the culture?  And how much of that belongs to God?

And how you consider those questions might drive you back to the questions that the Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus.  When they came to him, they said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” and then followed that immediately with “Should we?”

This is a tacit confession of something that you already know: there is sometimes a deep and profound difference between that which is “legal” and that which is “right”.  I would suggest that in his answer to the leaders who were trying to trap him, Jesus is calling his followers to always take the high road and seek to honor God by doing what is right.

Think for a moment about these things: slavery, compulsory education, child labor, a forty-hour work week, the Holocaust, the right for women or people of color to vote, the incarceration of sexual minorities, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.  Each of those things has at one point been legal or illegal.  Obviously, declaring something to be “legal” does not make it “right” or “good”.

For instance, in the USA in 2019 it is perfectly legal for a payday loan company to charge an annual percentage rate of up to 800%  – the average is 400% – interest to a poor family looking to bridge a week or two between paychecks.

It is also currently a federal crime to leave food or water in the desert in order to assist those who need it. This week four women were convicted of doing this in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  Sharon and I have driven through there, and I want to tell you that you would not want to be there an hour without water.  And yet four women from a humanitarian aid group now face up to six months in Federal Prison for leaving jugs of water in places where migrants might find them.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we have many issues in our society, including usury and border protection.  But needing to borrow money to pay your bills is not a license to extort, and no one in the United States of America, no matter how they arrived here, should die of thirst because our government mandates it.

The coin in the Gospel reading is not the only image-bearer up for discussion this morning. I tried to tell at least some of you on the day you were born, and I seek to remind each of you every day that you are created in the Divine image.  God made you, and you carry God’s image.

Are you stewarding that image well?  Are you caring for it, and living into it?

I hope that I can say that I agree with Jesus when I say that our government and our culture has a claim on us.  We need to recognize and honor that in many ways.  And yet we must also acknowledge that both the nation and the self belong to God.

Great thinkers and believers throughout history have suggested that Christianity should make you a better citizen.  I mean this with my whole heart, and I gladly affirm the fact that we ought to be training our children to live in a world characterized by “liberty and justice for all.”

That has a cost, dear friends.  Some of you are old enough to know who Ruby Bridges is.  When she was six years old, a Federal Judge said that “liberty and justice for all” meant that this African – American child was entitled to be educated at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She would be the first, and the only, person of color in attendance there.  Before her first day at that school ended, every single white parent had collected their children, and all but one of the teachers walked out.  She remained the only student in the class, taught by the only teacher who remained. Every day, she was escorted through crowds of angry protesters calling her every name in the book and even shoving in front of her an open casket with a black baby doll inside.

Psychologist Robert Coles was studying children and desegregation in the American South, and he took a personal interest in Ruby.  He noticed that as she was walking through the crowds, her lips were moving.

Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?”

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”

Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”[2]

This six-year old daughter of impoverished parents who could neither read nor write absorbed enough of the truth of scripture that she was able to see the Divine image not only in herself, but in her tormentors.  And she changed the world.

Or maybe you saw the recent film Hacksaw Ridge.  It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who refused to carry a weapon or take the life of another, and yet received the US Medal of Honor for carrying 50 – 100 wounded soldiers to safety in the horrible battle of Okinawa during World War II.

The religious leaders asked the Lord two questions: Is it legal? And is it right?

When faced with that bit of trickery, Jesus provided a hugely complicated answer that is open ended and very difficult to live into.  He knew, and they knew, that that denarius was made specifically so that a subjugated people could offer – legally – a confession of faith and economic tribute to the occupying forces.  That’s what it was made for.

What about you?  What were you made for? Whose image do you bear?  How much does that mean to you?

You bear the image of the One who formed you.  You were made to show the heart of God to the world around you – to mirror the hope and justice and love of God every day. Thanks be to God for the people of God who are willing to do this.  Amen.

[1]Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

[2] A Child Leads”, in The Christian Century March 29, 2017.

If We’d Have Been There…

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 January 13, 2019, we re-entered this study after an Advent hiatus we talked about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem following the completion of his ministry in the Galilee.  It was an interesting discipline to preach on this on a day that was NOT Palm Sunday.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:1-11.  We also heard from the Psalm for the Triumphal Entry: Psalm 118:19-29.

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

I’d like to begin by inviting you to consider two phenomena that are both very real and very much a part of your experience, but also appear to be direct opposites.

Does the name Kitty Genovese mean anything to you?  I encountered her name in High School, when I had a teacher who brought up this case with astonishing frequency.  I’m not sure why… Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in New York who was horrifyingly murdered on March 13, 1964.  A newspaper report indicated that there were at least 38 witnesses – people who saw or heard something incredibly wrong, but who did nothing to stop the attack, which lasted more than thirty minutes.

When police questioned the man who was found guilty of this crime, they asked how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many people, and he responded by saying, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.”[1]

Psychologists call this pattern of behavior the “Bystander Effect” – nobody wants to get involved, nobody wants to stick their necks out for someone else, and everybody assumes that someone else will do something…

On the other hand, I imagine that you are also aware of a seemingly opposite phenomenon called “The Herd Effect”. Researchers into human behavior use this term to describe how often we find ourselves adopting certain behaviors as a result of an appeal to our emotions.  This has also been described as “Mob mentality” or “pack mentality”. In situations like this, people find themselves eagerly doing something that they might typically reject simply because other people are doing it or a charismatic leader has incited a crowd. If you’d like to see a demonstration of the Herd Effect, just turn on the NFL playoffs later this afternoon, and you’ll see large groups of overweight middle-aged men stripped to the waist, covered in body paint, and cheering on a football team in sub-freezing temperatures.  Now, you have to assume that these guys are not idiots – but here they are doing something today that they would dismiss out of hand tomorrow – because their emotions got the best of them as they prepared for the big game…

Today, we are resuming our exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  When we left off, Jesus had left his ministry in the Galilee behind and had made his way to the edge of Jerusalem.  Today, we see in the event that’s come to be known as “The Triumphal Entry” evidence of both the Bystander Effect and the Herd Mentality.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Early on in our reading, Jesus instructs his followers to go and retrieve and animal that he’ll need.  When they do so, they encounter a bit of questioning.  “Hey, why are you taking that?” “The Master needs it.” “Oh, OK.” You can just hear the wheels spinning in those ancient Palestinian minds… “All right, this is weird, but it’s not my circus and those are not my monkeys, so I’ll just stay out of it…” The people who watched the colt being led away didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened – they just went about their business.

Palm Sunday, John August Swanson (1994)

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus shows up riding on this borrowed animal, people seem to lose their minds.  Whereas at our last meeting in Jericho, it was only Bartimaeus who was calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”, now it’s a large crowd of people going in front of and behind Jesus as they sing the words to Psalm 118.  There is no indication that these people actually know who he is, and Jesus himself doesn’t speak, according to Mark.  Yet the crowd enthusiastically uses terms that evoke images of the Messiah, the defeat of Rome, and the reign and rule of God.

And yet at the end of the day, what do we see?  Jesus retires to Bethany with his disciples.  Those who had demonstrated the Bystander Effect were presumably satisfied as the colt had been returned and there was no harm, no foul. Likewise, I’m sure that there were many homes filled with people who said something like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming today.  That was sure different… What do you have planned for tomorrow…”  People removed themselves from the herd and regained a sense of their own distinct lives and preferences.  In fact, many of the voices that had cried out to Jesus as the Son of David on Sunday would be calling publicly for his execution on Friday – but that’s a different day, different mob…

And Jesus?  Well, Jesus begins this day in quiet discussion with his friends, and that is exactly how he ends it.

Back in November of 2017, we began this study of the Gospel of Mark by pointing out that this little booklet was written for a community of Christians who were in the midst of a difficult time. They were in distress, and they were at least witnesses to, if not victims of, injustice.  The group of people for whom Mark was written dwelt in a climate of fear, and lived with an awareness of the fact that outsiders were often distrusted and marginalized.

And it’s important for us as we study these passages that we note that Mark does not use the words “Triumphal Entry”, and he does not mention palms. Instead, we meet a crowd who is obsessed with making Jesus into a conquering King. This Jesus, however, rides not a war-horse, but a colt. The Greek word is not species-specific: it could refer to a young horse, a young donkey, and in fact once in the bible the word is used in reference to a juvenile ibex or deer (Proverbs 5:19). The point is that Jesus presents himself as weak and vulnerable; he comes in humility and is not threatening an uprising.  There are no pretensions here.

As I’ve indicated, Mark was written to help the first generation of Christians improve their understanding of what it meant to be followers of Jesus.  With that in mind, let’s look at what the twelve do in this passage.

First, they obey their friend and master.  When he tells them to go and get the animal, they do so.

Next, they give of themselves in simple and practical ways.  This is a colt – a foal – and it’s never been ridden.  There would not be a saddle or other riding equipment, and so the disciples take off their own cloaks and place them on the animal to help facilitate Jesus’ ride.

Then they stay with Jesus. They’re there during the parade and the shouting of the crowd, and they walk back with him into the night at Bethany.

I think it’s fair to say that those who followed Jesus on that day refused to be incapacitated by the Bystander Effect andthey did not allow themselves to be manipulated by the mentality of the herd.

One of the things that Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem teaches me this year is that an important part of being a disciple is knowing when to use your voice, and why.  In the context of following, serving, giving, and listening to Jesus, disciples have got to figure out when and why it’s time to say or do something.

There is in our day and culture an ongoing controversy as to how to secure our nation’s borders in such a way that allows for the safety of those who are already here and provides a means for those who are persecuted elsewhere to find shelter and hope.

Bystanders simply see what’s happening and change the channel, saying something like, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the President.  I hope this guy knows what he’s doing…” or maybe “I’ve got some ideas, but what difference can I make, anyway.  Forget about it…”

Similarly, there are herds of us who chant “Build the Wall!” or who stand across the street and yell “Bridges, not Walls!”  We do this until we get hoarse, or until our energy is gone, or something else distracts us and then we go home…

What is a disciple to do in times like these?

A Team from CHUP visiting the US/Mexican Border, escorted by a US Border Patrol Officer

We listen for the voice of Jesus.  We look for where God is on the move, and we try to get there, too.  In our case, this has been a ten year process.  In the last decade, more than 25 people from this congregation have visited the border between the USA and Mexico – many of us more than once.  During that time, our group has had the opportunity to ride along with Border Patrol agents and see the challenges that they face each day; we’ve taken several tours of the facility in McAllen where the President visited on Thursday, and we’ve seen children sitting in glass-walled rooms crying for their parents; we’ve met people who have had to flee their homes in other lands after suffering unspeakable violence; and we’ve entered a church and school complex that is now used as a refugee center that offers those who have been terrorized a hot shower, a warm bed, and a decent meal.

In the course of this decade and these many trips, we’ve encountered the complexity of the situation in a way that is different than that which we’ve seen on television.  And I’d be lying if I told you that the 25 or 30 of us who have made this trip had broad agreement as to which simple policies should be enacted in response to this crisis.  But you’d be wrong if you assumed that all we were doing on these trips was hanging drywall.

We make these journeys because we realize that we need to be shaped; we need to listen; we want to grow toward the truth, and we need to find our own voices.

Listen: next week, many of you will be given an extra day off from work or school. It’s a Federal Holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”[2]

Listen: I know that I cannot speak for you, or for anyone else.  I am struggling to find my own voice and my own words as I look for places in the world around me where God is on the move.

My challenge for you this week is to find your own voice.  To listen to the news prayerfully.  To read your news feed with an eye on your Gospel, and to ask the Lord when and how it is appropriate for you to speak out against violence and the oppressor, or to stand with someone who has been victimized.  In what instance will you use your voice to contact your legislators or our policymakers?

Beloved of God, do not look away, thinking that it is someone else’s problem. And don’t get sucked into anybody’s mob. Listen for the Master, and be attentive to the things he does, the people at whom he looks, and the places to which he directs his energy.  And follow Him there.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Takooshian, Harold, Ph.D., “Not Just a Bystander: The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?”Psychology Today, March 24, 2014.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 27, 1965 Dinkler Plaza Hotel

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Bystanders and Standing By

On July 12 our congregation commissioned a team of three travelers to head to Malawi and deepen and extend our partnership with the Mbenjere CCAP in Blantyre Synod.  As we did, we talked about postcards, texts, and tweets… and considered an ancient postcard as found in Obadiah 1-14.  Our other text was Matthew 10:40-42

 

A friend of mine has been on a trip this past week, and one of the gifts that I have received are a couple of text messages and a photo or two. I was saying to my wife that such greetings are the 21st century expression of a postcard – a glimpse into what’s happening, but not a lot of news.

This morning we are going to look at a special postcard from The Lord to His people. I’d like for you to think of the Old Testament book of Obadiah as a postcard or a text message – a little note — there’s not a lot of room here, not a lot of detail. But it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the church of the past to preserve this message for us — there is some truth here, some wisdom for us as we seek to be faithful in living day to day.

I’ll start off by saying that we don’t know a blessed thing about Obadiah the prophet. It was a common Israelite name, one that means “servant” or “worshiper of God”. This man was called by God to speak a word – a word directed primarily NOT to the Jews, but to a foreign nation, the country of Edom.

EdomWell, Edom was not exactly a foreign nation. You remember Abraham, of course. He and his wife Sarah had a son, Isaac, who was to bring the promise of a messiah to the world. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the son from whom the Jewish nation descended, and Esau was the son from whom the Edomites descended. So Israel and Edom were separate countries, but they shared some common heritage. There was some biological and spiritual tie between them. The land of Edom was a small, rocky outpost high in the cliffs. It was a secure outpost and easily defended because of the magnitude of the rock walls. Edom was not far from Jerusalem.

And that’s where Obadiah has anger at the Edomites. In 587 b.c., the Babylonian army was laying waste to the city of Jerusalem. It was a terrible time — there was intense violence, severe poverty, and unspeakable abuse that went on. And according to Obadiah, when the attacks first started, the Edomites did nothing. They acted like this was none of their business and went on with their lives.

As the siege wore on, however, something even worse happened. Even though there was some sort of connection between Edom and Jerusalem, these so-called “relatives” began behaving like the enemy! First they watched the walls fall down, and then they joined the Babylonians in the looting of the city. They burned the Temple. They pirated the homes of the Jewish people. And to top it all off, verse 14 says that when some of the Jews went into Edom as refugees, the Edomites captured them and handed them over to the Babylonians.

The brief book of Obadiah is a condemnation of Edom because they stood by while those in Jerusalem suffered. As I’ve said, at the start, that’s all it was. They just chose to look the other way while their neighbors were getting beaten up and raped and robbed. Then, they giggled about it. Eventually, they saw the gates wide open and they joined in. They may have been ‘bystanders’, but they were certainly NOT innocent.

Now it seems to me that there is a word for us in this little postcard from the past. Because it seems to me that if being an “Innocent Bystander” was an Olympic event, we all know people who would have a legitimate shot at a gold medal.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. How many times, for instance, do we hear of some horrible shooting or other crime in a public place and then see a news story that begins with “Police are searching for witnesses…”.  Someone gets attacked on a crowded street in broad daylight, and “nobody” saw anything? Nope.  “I was just minding my own business…” “I didn’t see a thing….”

And sometimes, it’s more personal. You know what that’s like. A man is mistreating his wife or his children. His neighbors know something is going on, but do they say anything? Not usually. “It’s his house,” they say. “He’ll take care of things.”

And it’s not just you and me, it’s the whole world! We live in a world of indifference. How can I tell? There’s a flood in Malawi or an racial tension in Baltimore. It’s in the newspaper or on the radio for a day or two, and then everyone forgets all about it. Oh, maybe a few people send in some money for relief, or a few churches offer prayers, but mostly people don’t have the time or energy to get involved, do they?

English playwright and author George Bernard Shaw expressed it this way: “the worst sin is not to hate a fellow creature but to be indifferent toward him. That’s the essence of humanity.”[1]

So then what is the message that we, a world of bystanders, might take from the prophecy of Obadiah, the messenger to the bystanders? What is the word for us today?

That’s no mystery. God would have you and me care about the people who surround us. God calls us to STAND BY those who are on life’s margins, rather than being BYSTANDERS as they are plundered.

 

The Bystander Effect Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012.  Used by Permission.   See more of Lizzy's work at http://www.lzzy.co

The Bystander Effect
Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012. Used by Permission. See more of Lizzy’s work at http://www.lzzy.co

You might think that I’m just playing with words now, and you’d have good reason to think so – because I like to do that. But here’s what I mean. I’m interpreting the word “bystander” to refer to a person who is aware of what is going on, but who has no sense of immediacy, no sense that what is happening is at all connected with her or himself. This week I learned of a phenomenon called “the bystander effect”, which states that when there is a problem or an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually do anything. In one study, researchers faked epileptic seizures on the streets of New York and found that when there was only one bystander, they were helped 85% of the time, but when there were five bystanders, help was only offered 30% of the time.[2] Bystanders are those who are there, but who cannot be trusted to act.

But the command to “stand by” is a different thing altogether. When an air traffic controller tells a pilot to “stand by”, for instance, he is saying, “look – something is going to happen. Be ready for it.” When an officer gives a policeman, firefighter, or soldier the command to “stand by”, she is instructing that person to be ready and available to act as the situation warrants.

But HOW do we do that? What does that look like as we seek to live it out?

 

First, let me ask you to be an answer to prayer this week. How do you become an do that? First, pray about it. Ask God about the best ways to use your particular gifts and skills. Maybe you are the kind of person who needs to go and help at the after school program in order to ensure that each child has a chance to thrive. Maybe you’re the kind of person who will write an encouraging letter each week to a missionary far from home. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can spend a couple of hours each week visiting the sick. Whatever you can do, ask God how your gifts can be an answer to someone’s prayers this week.

God calls us to Be WITH people.   There are surely more needs in this world than you can address by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick one and work on being attentive. Does someone need to speak a word of hope to a young woman whose husband just died? Is there someone who will speak for the rights and the needs of the orphans? What can the church say or do to help move the government forward and protect the democratic rights of the citizens?

Stand by.

Another way to think about it is to ask yourself, ‘What is it that breaks God’s heart? What is it that causes God sorrow?

Now. Will you give an hour of your week to work on that problem, whatever it is? What is it? Hunger? Racism? The environment? Abuse of power? The fact that this morning there are more than 50 million – that’s four Pennsylvanias – refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum seekers in the world today?

Give an hour this week. And next week. And thereafter. Give an hour to that cause — to those people — on whose behalf God’s heart is breaking.

It’s a risk, you know. You may end up busier than ever.

You might end up lonelier than you are now. Because it may be that the people you are trying to love don’t want to see you. That hurts. Trust me, I know, it hurts. And it’s lonely.

You’ll probably end up poorer. Caring for people is usually pretty expensive.

But, at least according to Obadiah and to Jesus, it’s worth it. Will you carry the cup of refreshment to the people in your world? Will you offer yourself – to Jesus, and to the people that he loves?

Hands on a globe  Tomorrow, Sharon, and Gabe, and I are heading to Malawi. The Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church and Mbenjere CCAP have been partners for twenty years. But we are not only partners in the easy things of sending letters and gifts. We are partners in the difficult truth of proclaiming the whole gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Our partnership exists because we believe that God is using it to help us stand with and stand for not only each other, but for all of the people that God loves. Having friends in someplace like Ntaja, Malawi, Africa makes us somehow better at “standing by” for those who are at risk.

So three of us are getting on a plane this week. That means 115 of us are not. Stand by, friends. I don’t know what will come up in your lives or in your world in the next two weeks. But when it does, may God find you, and me, standing by – ready for action, ready to proclaim his love and the hope we have found in his name. Let us join together and bring joy to the heart of God by being the kind of church he expects us to be. Maybe we can be not just a text or a postcard – but a letter – a love letter – from Jesus to the people that he loves. Amen.

[1] Quoted in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcart (Chuck Swindoll, Word 1998) p. 296.

[2] http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/bystander_effect.htm