The Proof of the Pudding

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26.  The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self.  Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going.  Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid?  Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.”  But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove?  It was always good!

I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried.  When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order.  After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.

As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works.  As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse.  Here’s what I mean by that…

When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.”  The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart.  These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart.  The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.  When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.

My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.”  A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient.  For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further.  In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet.  If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?

James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.

I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.

Now, hold on, Pastor Dave.  What could be worse than something that kills me?  Isn’t that about as low as we can go?

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.

When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know.  We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions.  We see that in many ways.

For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best.  He must have needed another angel up in heaven.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all?  And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?

Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years.  There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”.  Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right?  Those are just not disaster-worthy sins?  These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.

You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries.  In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people.  His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that.  Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.

The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me.  I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.”  Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together.  I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.

Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire.  Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.

Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”.  Fulfill the law of love.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?

It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire.  We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs.  Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.

We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give.  We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.

What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020?  If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.

Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances.  And that is surely the case here.  Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now.  Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins.  So if you have what you need, you are blessed.  This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.

But it’s not just your money, you know.  You can also be generous with your time.  Are you the parent of a young child?  Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now.  If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow.  I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus.  But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer.  If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime.  Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.

Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others.  Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise.  Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now.  Seek to live with others in mind.

When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter.  He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers.  The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day.  “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved?  Are you a believer?”

The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”

The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question.  The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil.  He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine.  Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian.  Ask them.  You can trust them.  They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”[1]

May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time.  And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born.  Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors.  Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.

Let Me Hold That for a Second…

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Maundy Thursday (April 9) this year.  We sat with the disciples as Jesus washed their feet in John 13.  We shared the sacrament of Communion and thought about what love looks like and what love does. 

To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below!

If you’ve been around the Crafton Heights Church for a while, you’ll have heard about the Texas Mission Team.  For more than a decade, adults from this congregation have traveled, usually in February, to work in partnership with churches in southern Texas to make the love of Jesus more tangible to our neighbors.  The size of the team has varied – once we sent five men, and another time we had a crew of nearly 30 if you count our colleagues from the John MacMillan church.  And as with all such experiences, the Texas Trip has produced a pool of memories – stories that are told and retold.

Some things happen every year, no matter who is there, and every single participant can point to these as personal memories. For instance, if you’ve ever been to Texas with this church, you have teased someone about birdwatching.  It happens every year.  And you’ve marveled at how good the fresh citrus fruit tastes in Texas in February.  Those are core memories shared by every traveler.

And some things happen once, but are retold enough to make you think that everyone was there.  I’m thinking now of the time that Jon Walker crashed through a window, causing Eddie Schrenker to rename him “Wounded Elk”.

And other things happen enough that you’re not sure if you’ve ever actually seen it, but you know that it’s true.  I would suggest that many of our Texas trip participants know what it feels like to be working away on a project and have Steve Imler come and watch you for a moment, and then sidle up next to you, and then take the tool out of your hand while saying, “Here, let me hold that for a second…”

When Steve does this, you can see the task on which you were working being done properly and quickly.  And then Steve hands you back your tool, and says, “Oh, sorry man, I just saw something…” and he walks away, confident that you were paying attention while he was “holding” your putty knife or hammer, and expecting that the quality of your work will improve as a result.

A lot of people, myself chief among them, are better drywall finishers, carpenters, musicians, parents, and teachers because someone has practiced “the Imler method” in our lives – they stood next to us and showed us how it can be done, and expected us to learn.

That’s exactly what Jesus was doing in John 13.  Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but when the other three Gospels talk about the night before Jesus’ death, they emphasize the significance of the meal that is shared, and they point to the bread and the wine as representative of Jesus’ sacrifice.  John has already made that point back in chapter 6, where he quotes Jesus as saying “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  When John tells the story of the Last Supper, he talks about something else.

First, he sets the stage for us.  Most of us, praise God, do not have to live with the knowledge of which day, which meal, which interaction will be our final one.  We blunder along, ignorant, sometimes afraid and sometimes cocky or overconfident, day after day after day.  Yet John reminds us that Jesus knew.  Because he knew that he was going to die for the world, he also knew that there was no hope in the world to save him.  He knew, and yet he kept on going.[1]

As Texas Pastor Steve Bezner once tweeted, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live. Eat junk, go crazy, etc. Today it hit me: Jesus knew. And he washed feet.”  And I would suggest that in choosing this course of action, Jesus gives us not only a new command but a model for daily living.

I find it noteworthy that Jesus had allowed the meal to begin before he interrupted it with his act of love.  We are presented with a room full of people, reclining at table as would have been customary in that time and place.  As they lounge, there would have only been one place for the legs and feet to be – right in front of everyone else.  And because there was evidently no domestic staff on duty that evening, nobody had taken it upon themselves to perform the humiliating, menial task of washing the feet of those participating in the meal.  Each disciple knew that it should have been done – but nobody thought it was his job to do.  They all thought it was beneath them… until Jesus got up and did it.

Note this, beloved: before Jesus gives a “new command” to “love one another”, he shows us how to do it.  This evening, I’d like to look at two aspects of the demonstration that Jesus offered and invite us to reflect on what that might mean for our own lives in the age of COVID-19.

For starters, there is a call to yield one’s self.  Simon Peter thinks that he is fundamentally OK and therefore he is not willing to accept any service from the Christ.  He stands in opposition to Jesus, and says, essentially, “Look, man, we’re good here.  There’s no reason to get into all of this now, Jesus.  Let’s just let this go…”

To which Jesus replies, effectively, “Come on, Simon – you’ve got to get over yourself.  You need this.  Let me serve you.”

Beloved in the Lord, I am not entirely aware of all of the realities of your present life. But I am utterly convinced that Jesus longs to bring you relief and release, and that he is willing to enter into this very moment with you.  Jesus of Nazareth, the one that is called “Immanuel” – God with us – is seeking to embrace the you that is at the very heart of your being.

And some of my friends have heard this, and they reply by saying, “Oh, look, I know – Jesus is a great guy, all right.  He’s super forgiving, and kind.  I mean, Jesus is the best… It’s just, well, I can’t believe that he’d be willing to bother with me.  I’m just so… I mean, I’m too angry, or I’m too drunk, or I’m too guilty…”

It’s as if some of us might have the chutzpah to say, “I know, Jesus is all right for the normal, run-of-the-mill sinner like you, Dave, but you don’t get it.  I’ve been damaged.  And I’m not in a good place.  You don’t know what you’re talking about…”

Relax.  I’m here to tell you that nothing you’ve done and nowhere you’ve been is going to shock Jesus.  You pretending to be some sort of “untouchable” so that you don’t have to think about the things that Jesus has already forgiven is simply a way for you to avoid confronting the unpleasant aspects of your own story.

And it may be that a few of us have the opposite problem.  We hear Jesus talking about belonging to him and being cleansed and made whole and we say, “You know what?  I’m good, thanks.  There’s nothing to clean here.  You know what? My feet don’t even stink.  But thanks for the offer…”

And I get that.  I mean, you didn’t travel all the same roads that your reprobate sibling or cousin did; you’ve got a clean record, you’re a basically moral person and you’ve worked to keep your side of the street clean. But here’s the deal – not even you can walk all day on these paths that fill our world without getting marked by them.  We are surrounded by brokenness and crap, and it gets on us.  Let us accept the cleansing that is offered and look for a deeper wholeness in Jesus.

In addition to this idea of yielding yourself to the Lord, let me beg you, people of God, to quit worrying about who else is standing in line to be cleaned.  We get so worked up about those who surround us…

  • This guy is almost there, but you know, he’s soft on the Trinity… I’m not sure he can be trusted.
  • Her? Oh, please, be real.  You know she’s not even pro-life, don’t you?  She is on my last nerve.
  • This other person? That one is such a mess that they use “they” to refer to themselves.  Come on, pal, pick a pronoun!  How can I be in the same church with people like that?

As if those behaviors – or any of a million others – are cause to treat someone less than lovingly.  Listen to me, church: Jesus looked Judas in the eyes and then knelt down and washed his feet, and I’m going to claim that we can’t worship together because you belong to a particular political party or have a different view on gender roles than I do?

Give me a break!

Here.  Let me hold that for a second.  Pay attention.  Love one another. Period.

Here’s something that you might not have noticed in the reading for this evening: after Jesus washes their feet and invites them to participate fully in him, he does something that he does only one other time in the entire Gospel of John.  He offers a beatitude.

I know, I know, if you’re a churchy person, you think of the Beatitudes as that list of eight affirmations found in Matthew 5.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are the meek…” You know this, right?

And if you’re a really churchy person, you’re thinking, “Yes, and when Luke tells that story, he uses four blessings and adds four woes.”

While Jesus uses the word makarios – meaning “blessed” or “happy” a number of times in those other accounts, he uses it exactly twice in the fourth Gospel: here, in verse 17, and after the resurrection, where he commends Thomas for his belief even though he doubts.

The way to makarios – to wholeness, to blessing, to completeness – is through love.  And in this act of service, Jesus shows us what love looks like.  In sitting by each of his friends, holding their feet in his hands and wiping them with a towel, Jesus shows us what love does.

And I know – I get it.  It’s hard to imagine being a disciple two thousand years ago, following a Rabbi through ancient marketplaces, in dusty villages and cow paths, surrounded by hostile enemies and treacherous friends.  We don’t know how we could do that, and this act of love looks, well, a little curious to us.

A month ago, it was hard for any of us to imagine being cooped up at home, watching church on a screen, staying away from work or school or even grandma’s house.  If you’d have asked us on March 9 to give up all of that, we’d have said we didn’t know if we could do it or not.

Beloved, the call of the Gospel is a call to live with the imagination that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what you or they have done – you can imagine that you can love your neighbor.

We can do that, because he has shown us how.  Let us now, in the realities of this evening, use our imaginations and dream of what love looks like in this new reality.  Thanks be to God for the One who shows us what love is and what love does.  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for helping me to grasp this.  His treatment of this notion in The Faces of Jesus (Stearn/Harper and Row, 1974) pp. 126ff.

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.

Naming Names

January 12, 2020, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the church of Jesus Christ in remembering the baptism of Jesus.  In addition, we took some time to ordain and install new officers – in our tradition, that means a third of our elders and a third of our deacons are starting fresh terms.  Our texts were Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

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

I suspect that even if you have not played the board game Clue recently, you are familiar with it.  There’s been a murder, and each player represents a specific character (Col. Mustard, Professor Plum, Ms. Scarlett, etc.) who is at once both detective and suspect.  The game ends when the mystery is solved and the killer is named, along with the location and weapon.

We like those stories, I think.  From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, we appreciate the image of a detective assembling a group of individuals and then walking them (and us) through the details of the crime until finally the murderer is named and the case is closed.  Sometimes we anticipate who it will be, and other times we’re surprised, but we always like to have that resolution.

The Prophet Isaiah, Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, c. 1510)

Unfortunately for readers of detective fiction, some of the mysteries in the Bible are a little more obtuse.  For instance, the Book of Isaiah contains four sections of poetry that are called, collectively, the “Servant songs”.  Chapters 42-53 contain these works, each of which points to a Servant of the Lord who will somehow participate in, point toward, or accomplish the work of the Lord.  Our reading today, from Isaiah 42, is the first of these poems.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the years by scholars, rabbis, and teachers who’ve sought to identify the “real” identity of the servant.  Many of these folks have treated it like an Hercule Poirot mystery, and have claimed to unveil the identity and thereby point the reader to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Lord’s methods.  To be honest, I am not much impressed with this sort of scholarship, and agree with Dr. Paul Hanson, who writes, “The scholarly debate over this text has been preoccupied with…the identity of the Servant… The resulting literature that has accumulated generally offers dreary reading with little genuine insight.  Although dozens of candidates have been advanced as the person or group designated as the Servant, the matter is as confused as ever…”[1]

I’ve read articles indicating that “of course” the Servant must be King Cyrus of Persia, who led a military campaign to defeat the Babylonians and thereby brought about the release of the Jews from captivity.  Others have speculated that the author of Isaiah was looking back to Moses, or maybe over at Jeremiah, or perhaps even in the mirror at himself.

And, because we’re in church, it’s very common to hear people say that any song with lyrics like “by his stripes we are healed” (such as we find in the fourth Servant song) can only refer to Jesus.

Why is it, I found myself wondering this week, that we spend so much time and energy seeking the precise identity of the Servant?  Here’s what I think: if the Servant can be proven to be Cyrus or Uzziah or Jesus or Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump then it can and will mean many things, to be sure… but such identification would also mean, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Servant is therefore, obviously, not me.  And, to be honest, I think that life would be a lot easier for me if I was proven not to be the Servant of the Lord.

It’s like the time the preacher was pointing out the fact that the roof of the church was falling in, and at the end of worship one of the parishioners came up and said, “Reverend, I was glad to hear you say that you didn’t know where the money to fix the roof was going to come from.  For a minute there, we were kind of afraid that you thought that we had it!”

You see, in declaring that the Servant must obviously be some historical figure or other, that gets me off the hook of being expected to act as the Servant acts.  And yet just prior the first of the Servant songs, in Isaiah 41, we read that Israel – the people of God – is called God’s servant, the one who is chosen by God and upheld by God’s hand.

Isaiah 41:8-10                            Isaiah 42:1

You, Israel, my servant…             Here is my servant,

Whom I have chosen…                My chosen,

I will uphold you.                         Whom I uphold….

And if the Servant is in fact the whole people of God, well, that would include Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah… but it would also include me and you.  And, well, let’s be honest: if anything that the Servant is called to do is going to actually get done in 2020, um, Uzziah and Cyrus are not going to be terribly helpful.  But if God’s people – if you and I are the Servant – that changes things significantly.  And – to be clear – I think that we are called to be the Servant.  I’m going to assume that the things that are true of the Servant in today’s reading are, or ought to be, true of me and you as well.

But let’s put the idea of naming names on the shelf for a moment and consider the tasks at hand.  I mean, what exactly is the Servant supposed to do, anyway?  Here in Isaiah 42, we read that the Servant is called to bring forth justice.  The Hebrew word there is mispat, and it means the wholeness, the order of compassionate justice that God has designed for all of creation.  The mispat of the Lord is a demonstration of the right rule, the proper fitting together, of all parts of the created order.  Other tasks assigned to the Servant in this chapter appear to be revealing light to the nations. Note that the Servant is not called to reveal light to the Servant’s friends, or the Servant’s favorite people; rather, the light is shared with the entire world.  All people!

Further, the Servant is called to open eyes that cannot or will not see, and to release those who may have been imprisoned.  This is a tall order for the Servant, and you can see why it would be more convenient if the Servant was, indeed, someone else.  But if the preacher is insisting (as he is) that the Servant is us, perhaps the next question is obvious: how are we supposed to do all that?

You’re not going to like this.  I mean, for all I know, you don’t like anything I’ve said so far.  But you’re really not going to like this.  The question of how the Servant establishes and reflects the Divine intent is crucial.  I mean, few things are more frustrating than trying to accomplish a task without knowing how.

And yet the answer is, well, difficult.  The strategy laid out for the Servant is counterintuitive.  It’s not what we think it should be, it’s not what we want it to be, and it’s definitely unAmerican and, at least at times, it has been historically unchristian.

What we would like, of course, is to be able to bring about these ends by brute force or the dint of our own efforts.  We want to legislate these ends, or to impose them on others with a decree.  Isn’t that why we argue about who gets elected? Isn’t that why so many of us are trying to “pack the courts” in one direction or another?

Listen: at least three major religions have turned to the Servant Songs, Isaiah, and the rest of what we call the “Old Testament” for authority and inspiration.  Our Jewish siblings have practiced the Milhemet Mitzvah, which can be translated as “a commanded war”.  Our Muslim siblings have referred to the notion of a Jihad, or “holy war”.  And of course Christians have brought to the world the Crusades and the Inquisition.  Each of these Faiths, birthed in the Torah and God’s call to be holy, has an element that says something like, “You want justice? You want to know God’s love? Oh, I’ll teach you a thing or two about justice and love, buster… and you’re not gonna like it.  Hold on – Look out – ‘cause I’m about to open up a big old can of God’s purposes on you…”[2]

And yet it would seem by any measure that Milhemet Mitzvah, Jihad, Crusades, and Inquisitions are all inherently inconsistent with the call to the Servant in Isaiah 42 or the life of faith as demonstrated in the baptism of Jesus.  The strategies espoused in Isaiah 42 are simply foolish in the eyes of 21st-century Americans: there is no chest-thumping, there are no grandiose announcements, drone strikes, or attacks; the weak are not pushed aside, and faint hope is to be encouraged and not extinguished.

Baptism of Christ, David Zelenka (2005)

Matthew tells us that Jesus launches his mission in a moment of submission – or perhaps more accurately, submersion.  He has to argue with John the Baptist in order to undergo his own baptism, and then he places himself entirely in John’s hands and, holding his breath, he slides beneath the river’s surface, submitting himself in humility and even weakness.  Both Jesus and the Servant are called to lead as, well, servants.  The predominant posture here is not one of domination or dominion, but of trust and humility.

And all of this is relevant this morning as this congregation ordains and installs a group of elders and deacons who are charged to lead the congregation in the years to come.  We are declaring that you have been chosen to create conditions suitable for people here to grow in faith and to grow to be more like Jesus every day.  You will have responsibility for the operation of this institution and the stewardship of its resources.  How will you do this?

I hope and pray that you will seek to do it in a way that is consistent with the scriptures we’ve read this morning.  That means, I suspect, that you will have to do so from a position of humility, submission, and even vulnerability.

Vulnerability.

Oooh, Pastor, we don’t like that word.  I mean, no offense, but it sounds like what you are saying that a part of leadership means being exposed, or at risk, or even weak.

It might sound like that because that is exactly what I am saying.

Every week I get a dozen emails or advertisements from Christian ministries or businesses urging me, as a pastor, to do everything I can to make sure that our church is safe.  Right now, there are two overriding themes in these emails.

One is a call for church security.  I’ve gotten brochures offering to train our ushers to carry concealed firearms; I’ve seen advertisements for “discreet” metal detectors at the door, and even the creation of what would amount to a church police force.  The overwhelming sense that I get from these pieces is that while we can’t always count on God to protect us, Smith & Wesson will keep us safe and secure and send the bad guys packing.

There’s an even greater theological flaw when it comes to the other area: that of child safety.  This congregation – like every other wise congregation in the country – has developed a “Safe Child” policy.  We have talked about how we can protect children from abuse and train volunteers and staff so that our programs might be safe spaces for children and families.  This is good.  This is right. This is holy work.

And yet the mail I receive on this topic seems to center around a theme: we develop these policies, have these trainings, and enact these protections… not primarily because it is a pressing issue of justice and love; not because there is a theological imperative to honor, nurture, and protect children.  No.  These emails and advertisements and warnings are sent to make sure that I know we better have good policies so that we do not get sued and so that maybe even get lower insurance rates.

Listen: the call to follow God in Christ, to serve Christ, and to reflect the mispatof God in the world is, at its core, a call to love proactively.  And love, as you know, is inherently risky behavior. Love makes you vulnerable.  You know that if you have ever waited for an answer to a text, a card, or a call; you know that if you’ve ever left the porch light on and the front door unlocked hoping that maybe tonight a child would come home; you know that if you’ve ever watched someone you know to be made in God’s image engaging in behavior that is horribly self-destructive but you don’t know how to get through to them – all you know is that you can’t make them stop.

Love involves a handing over of a portion of your heart to someone else.  It is risky.  It is painful.  Just ask Jesus.

And yet, I think that both Jesus and Isaiah would declare, it is the most effective way to bring about lasting change.

In a few moments, I’ll invite the incoming officers to stand in front of the congregation and I’ll ask a series of nine questions. You might be tempted to think of this as one of those dry, procedural occurrences that make for longer worship.  But I’d encourage you to pay attention to them – particularly to question #8: “Will you pray for and seek to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”  My hope is that the new officers will reflect on that vow and find new ways to live it out in the years to come.

And maybe some of you are saying, “Phew, I’m glad I didn’t talk to the Nominating Committee. I couldn’t put up with that crap.  Who needs it?” But you see, my deeper prayer is that everyone will remember that while some small minority of our congregation is up here making promises today, every single one of us is being sent out into these streets for the next 167 hours with the same calling: to offer our selves in love for the life of the world.  To give all we are to establish the mispat of God in love and hope.  To be the living demonstration of what God intends for the whole world. And 167 hours from now, we’ll be back here, returning for encouragement, for replenishing.

Do you see what we have received?  Do you appreciate how we have been blessed? Do we have the courage and conviction to give that away?  Thanks be to God for the call to be a Servant people, cloaked in the vulnerability of love.  Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary Series on Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press 1995), pp. 40-41.

[2] See “Holy War: A Jewish Problem , Too”, by Rabbi Reuven Firestone.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holy-war-a-jewish-problem-too/

And the Survey Says…

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 24, 2019, we encountered something we have not seen before and will not see again in the Gospel of Mark: a “teacher of the Law” who is commended by Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:28-34.  The first reading (for both us and Jesus’ hearers) was a passage known very well to those who participated in and overheard the discussion between Jesus and the man: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the browser below…

Like many of you, my computer knows that I can be a little slow.  My trusty laptop is willing to help speed things along for me. As I was preparing for this message, I typed into my search bar, “what is the most important rule in” and before I could say “my faith” or “Christianity” or even “religion”, I was offered a whole host of suggestions…

It’s not really fair for you to answerafter you’ve already heard the Gospel, but if someone would have asked you an hour ago, “what is the heart of the message of scripture?  What is the Bible about?”, how might you have answered?

I thought recently about a neighbor that Sharon and I had when we lived on South Graham Street many years ago.  There was an elderly woman who lived nearby who had become, for some reason, quite embittered with the world. She knew that I was some sort of a professional Christian, however, and so one day as I washed my car she accosted me.  “Listen,” she said, “I see you spending all your time over there at the church, and I wonder if you really know what’s going on.  Tell me this, young man: what is the core message of the New Testament? What is it that we ought to take away from that document?”

I was a little taken aback by her frankness, and I felt put on the spot.  I hemmed and hawed a little bit about loving each other and loving God, and she interrupted me by saying, “No, no, no… Here’s the message of the New Testament: if you spend your whole life loving other people, if you forgive people when they hurt you and trust people with what’s important to you, and if you try to help other people with no expectation of what you might get in return, then don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

I think she is wrong, but the older I get, the more I can understand her.  What is the core of the Gospel, do you think?

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Jesus has been spending all day dealing with one religious expert after another.  If you’ve been here this month, you know what I mean: we’ve had scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and more, all having come to Jesus to test him in one way or another.  And, as you may recall, he replied to each challenge with distinction and wisdom.

He did so well, in fact, that near the end of this conversation, an apparently un-aligned teacher of the Law approached him, not with malicious intent, but with respect and curiosity.  He noticed that Jesus had answered well, and so he came to Jesus with a question that was not uncommon at the time.  When he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”, he was echoing a conversation attributed to the legendary Rabbi Hillel a generation earlier. A man asked the Rabbi, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”  The old man replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All else is commentary.  Go and learn.”

So this man is an earnest inquirer, and he asks Jesus a genuine question. Jesus does not exactly push the bounds of accepted teaching when he starts by quoting Deuteronomy.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is one…”  Any Jew would have recognized this immediately – it was the call to worship at the temple every morning and every evening.  If there was one verse that had been etched into the consciousness of the children of God, this was it…

“What is the most important commandment?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…”  You can almost feel the tension in the crowd melt away. His followers and friends might have thought he was going to say something unusual (he had a real knack for that); his critics and opponents might have hoped for a hint of impropriety, but there was nothing… It was the “safe” answer.  I mean, who’s going to argue with that one, right? There are affirmative nods all around, and then Jesus draws another breath and says, “And the second is this…”

“Wait, what? Come on, Jesus, there is no ‘second’.  There is only the Shema, there is only the Oneness of God.”

And in that moment, there was probably a little panic in the eyes of his closest friends.  You know that feeling of apprehension – when someone opens their mouth and you’re not at all sure what’s coming next… Maybe you’re the parent of a toddler who has declared, “Do you want to know what else mommy said?” Maybe you’ve run into someone you don’t know very well, or you haven’t seen in a while, and that person says, “Well, I just had surgery, and I was really surprised by how long the scar was… do you want to take a look at this—” and you scream “Noooooooo!”

“The second is like it…”

What is Jesus going to say?  I mean, there is only one…  Come on Jesus, don’t mess with us here…

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Seriously, Jesus? That’swhat you’re going to go with? A passage from Leviticus 19?

Look, if you’re at my house, and you say, “Dave, I need the best rolling pin you’ve got”, I’m gonna reach into the drawer and give you a great one.  No problem.  Because I have one really good rolling pin.  But if you say “I’d like a second…”, well, we’re gonna have some issues. Because there isn’t a second one.  I mean, I’ll root around in the drawer, and I might bring something out, but it would probably surprise you…

Look, the “greatest commandment” we all know.  Hear it all the time.  Sing it, in fact.  But when Jesus starts rooting through the scripture bin looking for the second one, it’s a little surprising.  He grabs hold of Leviticus 19:18 and holds it up: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Listen, folks, that’s a fine scripture, but it’s not exactly a pronounced emphasis in Leviticus.  I mean, the very next verse says, “Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of material.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  How different, how much less complicated would the world be today if Jesus had only said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength; and, oh, yes, don’t wear that cotton/polyester blend.  That has gotto go…  Seriously.”

That’s it? Love God? Wear wool?  All right! We can do that!

But he said it.  He chose, of all the things he could have chosen, to hold up Leviticus 19:18.  Why would he do that?

Because he could see that the religious leaders of his own day assumed that it was possible, acceptable, and maybe even desirable, to love God withoutloving one’s neighbor. As if we could divorce the two of those things somehow!

One of the great tragedies of religion is that professed followers of Jesus have not realized that these two commandments are inseparable.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who believe the same things as we do.  We cannot say that we love God, and then love only the people who have the same skin tone, or language, or orientation, or income level as we do.

Our primary response to the creation of the world and our place in it is to love God with everything that we have and are.  One of the ways that we demonstrate the sincerity of our love for God is by our willingness to show our neighbor the same respect and tenderness that we show ourselves.

In commenting on this passage, Dr. Ernest Thompson writes,

“Love to God finds its only adequate fulfillment in love to one’s neighbor.  Nonetheless this is the second command and not the first. Love to one’s neighbor must be rooted in love of God, if it is to be wise (not mere sentimentality), if it is to endure (even when we meet persistent unfriendliness, or sheer unloveliness), and if it is to be universal (excluding no race, no class, and no individual.”[1]

Golden Rule (detail), Norman Rockwell (1961).

It seems to me that there might be no challenge more difficult for the church of Jesus Christ in the United States of America in 2019 than to love everyone without exception. Not “agree” with your neighbor.  Not “tolerate” or “put up with” your neighbor.  Love them.  Love each of them. You, the brown-skinned person wearing a hoodie.  You, the old white guy in a MAGA hat. Her, the lady smoking with her kids at the bus stop. Him, the grumpy police officer, and her the screeching seven year old.  Those two over there, who you’re not even sure what to call because they don’t like any of the pronouns currently used by the English language. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew… The one who denies his creator, and the one who praises God every day. The veteran who is wearing her uniform proudly, and the one next to her who kneels during the anthem.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When Matthew is telling this story in his Gospel, he notes that Jesus concludes by adding, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

Listen, this scripture was chosen for this day a long time before I knew we’d be baptizing little Arya Jane this morning.  But isn’t this the goal? To raise a generation who live this way?  That’s what it says in Deuteronomy, right?  Tell this to your children.  Remind them.  Do something to remember it!  When Jesus and his friends were little boys they were given little boxes to put on their foreheads and wrists.  When Joe was younger he received a confirmation class cross.  Our lives are filled with symbols of that which we love and which we want to be.

May we be love.  May we desire to be love.

At the end of their conversation, Jesus commends the scribe.  Mark notes that “Jesus saw that the scribe had answered wisely…”  Do you know that this man is the only teacher of the law in the Gospel of Mark to be recognized and commended publicly in this fashion?  I think that matters…

And then, Jesus concludes the interaction by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Welcome home, friend.”  He didn’t say, “Now go away, son, you bother me.”  He didn’t even say, “Follow me.”

We are left wondering: what happened to this guy?  I’ll tell you this – this isn’t the first cliffhanger in the Gospel of Mark, and it’s not the last, and it’s certainly not the biggest.

But this man had a choice: would he walk in the way of love, welcome, service, and humility?  Or would he stay where he was?  He clearly had to decide.

And so do we.  Thanks be to God, we can decide today.  Let us follow in the way of the Christ and in the way of the Kingdom.  One of the most influential Christian minds in the last century was a writer named G. K. Chesterton.  He once said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  May be engage our faith, those around us, and indeed ourselves not only with a doctrine that is respectable, but with the holy, burning love of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] The Gospel According to Mark and Its Meaning for Today(John Knox Press, 1968), p. 198-199.

One Step at a Time

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 9, we heard the plea to “Guide My Feet” (video below).  Our scriptures included Luke 1:67-79 and I Corinthians 9:24-27.  In addition, the congregation surprised me with a recognition of my 25th anniversary as their pastor AND we welcomed new members AND we celebrated baptisms.  It was, as my friend Eddie would say, a “double feature”.  And it was good. 

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

I suspect that if you’ve been here for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that we’ve had a lot going on (evidently, this morning, even more than even I knew about!).  Communion. Congregational meetings. Baptisms.  New Members.  We started a new Advent practice of singing spirituals.  Today many of the kids are on a retreat; we’ve heard an Epistle reading that talks about the race of discipleship that must have made sense to the ancient Greeks, who invented the marathon.  We’ve listened to a Gospel story of an old man singing to his infant son about how that son would guide people’s feet into paths of peace…  When I get to a flurry of activity like this, the first question I need to ask myself is, “Well, what are we going to talk about?”

Let’s start at the beginning.  I suppose that there’s a slim chance you could remember, but I doubt it.  Who taught you how to stand up, and then to walk? Who coached you through that experience? Do you remember the precise exercises you did as you practiced rising, putting one foot in front of the other, and then maybe even tackled the stairs?

Of course not.  In reality, by and large, nobodyis taught how to walk.  We just do it, right? Some of you were 8 months old.  Others were 14 months old.  Barring some sort of medical issue, every child eventually gets it, right?

And – you know this – watching a child who is figuring this all out? It’s hilarious.  They pull themselves up on something, and they toddle along stumbling like drunken sailors until they arrive at the inevitable face plant… Most children do not need someone to teachthem how to walk.  Yet every toddler needs someone to encourage them – to remind them that they cando it – that they are, perhaps, better at it than they realize.

The Christian Life is often called “a walk”, and I think that in large part that’s because it is easily understood as a place where – just as in our earliest experiments in mobility – innate ability, personal responsibility, and communal engagement come together.

Why do you follow Jesus?

Well, most of you would say that in large part, you’re here because you choseto be here. You have responded to the gift of grace that was extended to you. Not many people are here – at least, not for long – if someone is “making” them come.  When we shared communion last week, we noted that there was no such thing as a “force feeding” of the Gospel.

Here’s another example that I suspect will resonate with many of us in the room.  When you, or someone you loved, got sober or clean, how did that happen?  Did anyone make you do it? My experience – which is limited, to be sure – is that healing from addiction cannot move forward without a decision and an act of the individual will.  Some of you have told me that you got clean when you wanted to be clean more than you wanted something else.  I’ve heard about how tired you were of seeing the pain, fear, or disappointment on the faces around you – your parents or your children, in many cases.  Most of the time, moving towards wholeness begins with the day that the individual chooses to move.

But – and this is a big but, and there are a lot of big buts in church – in situations involving dependency and addiction, the individual’s choice and sheer determination are not sufficient.

Unlike learning how to walk (which is a natural aspect of human development), entering the paths of faith can be more like coming out of addiction, seeking to lose forty pounds, or going back to school to get another degree. When one is going through such a complete change, the support of family and friends is essential. Many of you who have gone through such significant life changes have talked with me about the importance of having one particular person who can coach you as you look at the pitfalls and seek to gain strength.

Look, I realize that I can only push any analogy so far, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of us are here because we’ve heard something from the Lord, we’ve seen something in Jesus, we’ve sensed some movement in the Spirit and that has made us say, “Yes! That!  I want that! I’ll run this race!”  You and I are here because God was somehow active in our world and we responded to that activity and showed up.

So the more important question for today, then, is not “why do you follow Jesus?”, but rather, “how are we becoming a community of encouragement and care?”  How are we treating each other – those who have joined us in running this race?

I know that every single person in this building has been in a room crowded with “grown-ups” who are watching a child take their first steps.  How does any experienced walker behave in that situation?  You’ve been there: there’s a lot of cheering and celebration and even videotaping and recording, right?

How about here?

It seems to me as though it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as a community of care and encouragement if we are characterized by condemnation and ridicule.  Think about it: can you imagine a grandparent belittling a two year old for stumbling down the hallway?  Would a mature person study an 18 month old child’s attempts to get from the living room to the kitchen and then post it on Facebook, saying, “Well, this kid’s clearly an idiot.  Yesterday, I thought we were getting somewhere, but today? Please.  Looks like she’s falling back into those old habits.  What a loser. Steer clear of her – she looks pretty needy.”?  Of course not.

In the same way, an essential task of the church of Jesus Christ is to resist condemnation, share affirmation, and practice encouragement. Part of our organizational DNA is reminding people that they can be more than they thought they could.  I’d like to try something with you.  Right now, can you just put down whatever you’re holding and just reach your hands high above your heads.  Get them up there – as high as possible, and hold them there for a moment.  OK. Got it?  Now, listen to me, but watch your neighbor: I want you to reach higher.

You liars! I asked you to get your hands as high above your heads as you could, and you said you were doing that… but then when I asked you what was apparently impossible – reach higher – you did.

Listen: my point here is not that you can’t be trusted… it’s that each of us can probably accomplish more than we think we might be able to if we are given the right amount of encouragement and challenge. Let us pledge as a community to resist the temptation to condemnation and judgmentalism and embrace our identity as we become those who encourage.

Another thing that any competent adult would do when encouraging a toddler to walk is clear the path.  When Sharon and I are trying to get Violet to trust her legs and balance more, we pick up laundry and close the gate to the fireplace and so on.

As we are joined by sisters and brothers who are eager to run the race of faith, can we create worship and discipleship experiences that remove obstacles and hindrances for others?  Maybe it’s providing child care.  It could be taking a good look at musical styles or the language we use. In any case, it’s the responsibility of those who are better at walking to make sure that the pathway is as clear as possible.  And I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: when we do this, we don’t gripe about it. When your friend was rehabbing from his accident or your daughter was learning to walk, you didn’t moan and groan about how you had to make sure that the laundry was picked up before they tried to walk across the room – you did it, and you were happy to do it because you love that person more than you love the things that are laying the path, right?

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about creating a vibrant community of faith, and it’s slightly counterintuitive.  If we’re talking about children learning to walk, we accept it as a given that the two year-olds are learning, and the sixteen or sixty year-olds know it all.  We think that there is some sort of linear progression there, and we’re probably right.  However, as we engage in the walk of faith, we have got to remember that for each and every one of us, there is a lot to learn, and we must be open to learning from someone who is “younger” in one way or another than we are.  Our Gospel reading today showed us a father who was expecting his son to teach him great things; our Epistle was written by Paul, who was one of the best-educated men of his generation – and yet who was nurtured and taught by, and learn from, a group of illiterate fishermen.

When I show up at meetings with other pastors, they sometimes give me grief because I still work with the Youth Group.  “Come on, Carver,” they say.  “Time to get out of that.  That’s a young person’s job.”  Maybe. But I love watching the face of a young person figuring some of this out for the first time.  I am constantly encouraged by – and learning from – the children and young people in our community.  I have learned far more about being fearless from young people than I have from those older than I; children have taught me to use my imagination; and in recent years I’ve seen young adults push me closer to the heart of Jesus than I might go on my own. I’m grateful for the chances I have to teach, and yet I’m more grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn.

“Guide my feet while I run this race” is not merely a prayer wherein I ask God to give me some special coaching; it is a cry for community.  We come in here and we tell each other that we’ve been out there doing it – whatever “it” is – and we cheer for each other, we hold one another’s troubles, and we remember that this is a good place – the right place – for us to be.  Thanks be to God for a community that is vibrant and growing.  Amen.

Texas Mission Update 2018 #5

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Those of you who use Facebook are familiar with the “on this day” feature in which the social media platform reminds you of what you posted on that particular date in previous calendar years.  It’s a lot of fun, and recently, I have adopted the practice of looking at those postings as a way of connecting my current self with the experiences that seemed so important to me in the moment.  This week, in particular, there has been great joy in those posts as so many of our previous mission trips to Texas have fallen in this window of time.  It is a deep blessing to look at friends (from CHUP and from the Rio Grande Valley) who have been a part of shaping my experiences of partnership, service, and mission!

Today is the day on which the 2018 version of this trip shifts from “what we’re doing” to “what we did”.  This will be the closing post from this experience, and it always brings measures of both joy and disappointment.

We started yesterday in a bumpy fashion.  I’ve been leading mission trips for 36 years, and for what I believe to be the first time, I began the day by locking the keys inside the building in which we were staying.  Not only did I lock the keys to the church inside the church, but I locked the key to my van in there as well.  “Frustrated”, “irritated”, even “pissed” are too mild to express the feelings that I was directing toward myself at that moment.  We put everyone else into Gabe’s van and I sat and waited for someone from the church to show up and bail me out.  Unfortunately, it was the pastor – and Friday is his day off – and I rousted him from that to stop by the church for a while.  That was not good.

This is what it looks like as you drive away leaving Pastor Dave fuming at having locked the keys in the building…

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was working their butts off on Carrie’s home and on Melvin and Mary’s place.  Each group felt as though they got to a good stopping point.  Our group finished our time at Carrie’s place by completing the lion’s share of the electrical work and hanging nearly all of the drywall.  Not only that, most of the seams had received two coats of mud.  Meanwhile, the group at Melvin and Mary’s home completed the messy job of replacing a number of rotting soffit and fascia boards, power washing the outside of the home, installing trim, and painting most of the outside as well.

setting a window into place

The group at Carrie’s home

The message in the dust from Caelea reads, “Thank You from Caelea” with some hearts…

Buoyed by this, we took a half day and split into two groups for a little local flavor.  As we prepared to depart the church, we were met with two surprises.  Unfortunately, one of the toilets had overflowed in our absence and we were met with a couple of inches of water in the bathroom.  Mike and I got that sorted out, while the rest of the group embraced the welcome arrival of our friend Roland from south Texas.  We first met Roland on the trip in 2009 or 2010, where he was our work site coordinator.  Since then, we’ve developed a friendship that has been transformative and life-giving.  We’ve worked with him every year since then (save 2018) and he’s brought several groups to Pittsburgh as well.  He joined us for lunch and then accompanied the portion of our team that spent the afternoon taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Galveston Island.

Reconnecting with Roland!

Dining in Galveston

Beaching it up!

The remainder of our team chose to visit the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a 45,000 acre parcel of protected wetland that is home to hundreds of species of birds and many other animals as well.  This group braved a very short (3/4 mile) hike through the mosquito infested swamps and then chose to take advantage of the CD-guided audio driving tour through the rest of the facility.

At Brazoria

What could it be?

Oh, I see now!

Here’s mamma!

And one of at least 20 babies!

A flycatcher (too bad she wasn’t interested in mosquitos!)

Every bunny had a great day!

White Tailed Kite

The last of a small herd of wild hogs we encountered.

Everyone had a great time, and then we convened back at the church for our final evening of rest and relaxation prior to our Saturday morning flight.  Before we left the church, we spent a few last moments in the company of the Apostle Paul, reading the familiar words from I Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poorand give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Our challenge for the day – and all the days ahead – is to ‘liberate’ this passage from its confinement to weddings and seek to apply it to the whole of our lives.  We hope and pray that time spent here in Texas will enable us to become more a people of love in every area of our lives.  We appreciate your prayers and your presence on our journey!

My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


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

OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

Deal Gently…

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do You Know You’re In Love?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and I John 4:7-12.  

 

A couple of months ago I set up the preaching schedule for the year decided to key in on the stories surrounding David, the shepherd who killed Goliath, became the greatest King of Israel, and fell hard for Bathsheba. It seemed wise to me to set aside a couple of breaks from that soap opera and all of its violence, intrigue, and general seaminess.

So we’ll get back to all of that after the first of the year, but for now, we’re going to consider some of the great Advent themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. These seem better suited to our preparation for Christmas than some of that other material; the words themselves conjure up muted pastel shades of nativity paintings, silent nights, and warm candlelight. That’s what we want right now. That’s what we need.

sweetbabooAnd when I knew I’d be away for the first Sunday of Advent, I thought, “When I come back, I’ll take ‘love’.” I mean, I’m coming in from a family vacation, we’ll have been spending time with a community’s wedding celebrations – heck, there’s no better theme for me this week than that of love.

To be honest, it’s not an uncommon topic for me – especially as I am in relationship with young people or others considering attachments of the heart. “Dave, how will I know when I’m in love?” is a question I’ve heard many times. Generally, the information being sought is essentially, “how do I know when I have found the right person?” The question is usually framed in the context of romantic love, accompanied by tenderness, affection, and an overwhelming feeling of bliss or joy.

There’s nothing wrong with romance, but Advent is a good time to remember that romantic love is only a small sliver of the full expression of love in which God’s people may walk.

Advent is a time for love.

In his letter to the earliest believers, the church leader named John says that love is the true mark of every Christian. The old apostle realizes that in many ways, “God” can be an idea, or a construct, or a theory. After all, he says, nobody can see God. Nobody’s met him. How do we know who or what God is?

Well, we can look at what God did. God showed himself by love. God showed the love in which he holds the creation and each of us by sending his son to be present with and for us. In the person of Jesus, says John, we came to understand who and what God is and the love that God bears for us. This kind of love is not a feeling or an emotion – it’s a verb. Love – and God – is a “doing” thing, not just a “thinking” or “feeling” thing.

In his letter, John is building on one of the most important pieces of the only Bible that the first Christians had: the Old Testament. Here, he echoes a passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Most of the earliest Christians would know that the book of Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon, or a collection of sermons, in which Moses speaks to the Israelites about what has come before and what lies ahead of them. He speaks to a community that has been living for generations in slavery and fear as captives in Egypt and yet has been granted the privilege of release and redemption as they journey to the land of the promise; they are increasingly free to follow God’s intentions for themselves and to demonstrate those intentions to others. And the reading that we’ve heard today is essentially a summary of the first 1/3 of Deuteronomy.

Moses pauses in his sermon and he says, “OK, folks, because of all that God has done in us and with us and for us, what is our response to be? What should we do?”

He talks, not surprisingly, about loving and serving God. He reminds his hearers that God moved toward them in love a long time before they were even aware of God. And he offers them a very tender and insightful description of the ways that God has behaved: in verse 15 he says, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them…” The words that are used there are fascinating to me. God “set his affection on” them – the Hebrew is chaw-shaq, and it can be translated as “to delight in”, or “to cling to” or even “to join”. And next, God “loved” them; the word is ‘aheb, and can mean “to have affection for”, or “to like”. It carries with it the idea of acting like a friend to the other. There are echoes of tenderness and vulnerability here.

What is happening in this verse, then, is that Moses is describing the love of God in the lives of the Israelites as One who moves toward the other in friendship, affection, and sincerity. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

Given that, says Moses; since this is true… then there are two imperatives for the rest of us.

The first command sounds a little odd in our ears. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” When we read that, we think, “Well, first of all, that’s kind of gross, and second of all, it’s just impossible.” Physically speaking, that’s true. But let’s consider what the act of circumcision was about for those people. Generations before, in a covenant with Abraham, God had instructed the males of Israel to bear the physical sign of circumcision on their bodies as a reminder of the fact that they were a people who had been called out for service and to bless the rest of the world. This outward sign was, in many ways, a reminder of the fact that they were to be purified to and dedicated to God. It was intended to be an identity-forming act that gave shape and meaning to the lives of the people who were called to serve God.

The danger with any outward sign, of course, is that it can become separated from the inward reality that it’s supposed to signify. Think of the person who steps forward for baptism because he wants to keep his parents happy, but has no real intent to live as a Christ-follower; or maybe the person who puts on a wedding ring to symbolize eternal love and faithfulness but who pockets that ring when traveling out of town on business… We know that it’s possible for the sign to become just a show – a hollow act that does not really reflect the inward reality of one’s heart.

Moses warned against that, and said “don’t let the circumcision be only an outward symbol. Quit insisting on your own way all the time, and don’t be so stubborn. Live into that reality by acting like God does.”

OK, great. So how does God act? He “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing…” To make it crystal clear, Moses goes on to give the second imperative: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

In this context, it’s plain to see that loving the stranger is not a plea to cultivate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a command to turn our hearts, minds, attention, and even our wallets in the direction of those who we perceive to be “other”. Alien. Stranger.

In short, Moses says that because God is God, and because God chose to act in love towards us, the only correct response is to return that love to God and to pass it on to the strangers and neighbors around us.

Which means, I think, that the test of our Christmas spirit is not how many gifts we give or receive; it’s not how elaborate our displays are or how many nativity sets we put out for our friends to see in our home.

The test of Christmas is this: are we engaged in actively displaying the incarnate presence of God on earth right now by living with circumcised hearts and walking in love for the stranger? Are those around us surrounded by love? Do they know that they are “in love” – by which I mean to say, do they sense that there is a palpable reality of care and concern surrounding them? And do they know that it comes through us?

img_5751Look. This is Lucia. She is my granddaughter. I may have mentioned her once or twice or a thousand times. She is the light of my world these days. She melts my heart. News flash: I love her.

aleppoAnd this is Aleppo. It is a place to which I’ve never been, but I understand that it is remote and dangerous right now, surrounded by death and filled with people who would give anything to be anywhere else at this very moment.

pittsburgh-skyline-through-the-trees-on-the-west-end-overlookAnd this is Pittsburgh, the geography in which I am most often to be found, the place where I live and move and shop and vote and play and worship.

If God is expecting me to feel the same way about people in Aleppo or Pittsburgh as I feel about my grand-daughter, well, then, God’s looking for the impossible. I can’t see how that is going to happen. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what God expects or demands.

I believe that the message of Advent is that while I feel crazy in love towards this three year old from Ohio, God is crazy in love towards not only this beautiful child but her dad and her grandfather. And not only that, but towards the people of Pittsburgh and Aleppo. And while I can’t possibly feel all of the feels for all of those people, I am called to show these people, to the best of my ability, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

maryandjesusAnd I should point out, as obvious as it may be, that while my world may appear to revolve around a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child living in a stable home in a free country, that’s not how Jesus chose to show up when he came to bring us the fullness of the embodied love of God. Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished member of a religious and ethnic minority in a culture that was controlled by a militaristic empire. He began his life as a refugee, seeking shelter in a foreign land; an unwanted stranger who most likely could not even speak the language. Which means if my love is enacted only, or even preferentially, towards blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, it will more than likely miss the Son of God.

You know the truth: it is definitely God’s will for me to love my little girl. Yet I am a man with an uncircumcised heart and a stubborn will if I only love my granddaughter. My job and your job is simply – and excruciatingly difficultly – this: to show the love of God in Christ to the people whom God loves.

Even the ones who do things I don’t understand.

Even the ones whose practices I find abhorrent.

Even the ones who treat me poorly.

Even the ones who do not accept the love in which I am sent.

The challenge of Advent is NOT to “get ready for Christmas” by sending the right cards and making sure I’ve bought all the right gifts. The challenge of Advent is to make sure that the people who see me have every opportunity to know that they are, right now, in the love of God.

Dorothy Day was a journalist who lived an pretty dissolute lifestyle until she became convinced of the love of God in her own life. She converted to the Christian faith and launched a movement of non-violence and social justice. She wrote,

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the Cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. [1]

This week, let us go forward and seek to immerse the people to whom God sends us in the love that has been present from the beginning of time. Let us show them the truth of the God we worship by the way that we treat them. And may God have mercy on us and patience with us as we do so. Amen.

[1] On Pilgrimage, Dorothy Day and Peter Day (A & C Black, 1999), p. 35.