At Fever Pitch

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

What Have I Done to You?

n Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the third Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:14-20 and I Kings 19:19-21.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Not long ago I was driving along and I thought I heard singer-songwriter James Taylor doing an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was so taken with it that when I got home, I searched the internet, but could not find it. I couldn’t find it because, apparently, James Taylor hasn’t recorded that tune. I learned that day that James Taylor has a younger brother named Livingston, and now I’m a fan.

Have you ever found yourself reacting to someone you’d never really met before simply because they remind you of someone else? I’m not talking about “mistaken identity”, like when I’ve been asked for my autograph because someone thinks that I’m NFL broadcaster Dan Fouts; I’m talking about how you might treat someone nicer because she sort of looks like your grandmother, or how your neighbor’s child reminds you of the way your brother acted when he was younger.

When the author of Mark was writing his gospel, he went to great lengths to point out to people some of the ways that Jesus might have reminded them of someone that they ought to have known very well.

Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, Northern Russia Icon (c. 1290)

One of the most important characters in the entire Bible, and in our own faith story, is a shadowy figure named Elijah the Tishbite. He was widely regarded as Israel’s greatest prophet. He arose, seemingly, out of nowhere and called an unrighteous monarchy to account. He pushed the leadership of the people and the people themselves for purity in their spiritual lives. Elijah is one of two people mentioned in the Bible who did not die – rather, he was “taken up into heaven” in a fiery chariot.

Because of his reputation as a prophet, and because of the story of his having been taken directly to heaven, the people in Israel began to speak of Elijah’s return as the time when God would come and really set things straight once and for all. Four or five hundred years after Elijah’s death, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return at “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). When faithful Jews observe the Seder meal at Passover, it is customary to set a place at the table for Elijah – the one who comes to announce the presence of the Lord.

Mark wants us to remember Elijah. The prophet himself will figure prominently in the gospel in later chapters, but even here at the beginning, our narrator intends for us to see echoes of the Elijah story. Here’s a bit of that story to jog your memory.

As I mentioned, Elijah’s concern was defeating the idolatry that plagued his people. One day, he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown of faith – one that ended very badly for them and for their “god”. While that may have been a very good thing for a number of reasons, the fact is that the King and Queen of Israel were Baal worshipers, and when he humiliated them, they put his name on their “public enemies” list. He fled to the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and 40 nights bemoaning his fate. At the end of that time, God came to Elijah when Elijah was alone, and spoke to him as to what to do next.

The old prophet leaves his mountain hideout and re-enters the community, where he encounters Elisha. He places his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, and in so doing, invites him to come along. It might not seem like it to our 21st-century ears, but placing the prophet’s mantle on Elisha was a very concrete invitation. It would be as if I asked Lydia to come over here, and I took off my robe and stole and put them on her – it would be an indication of what I thought her future might hold, wouldn’t it?

And Elisha doesn’t miss the message. He goes through a very public display of leaving his home, his family, and his career and then follows Elijah.

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (in 1886-1894)

In last week’s reading from Mark, we read of another man who wandered into the wilderness. Jesus left Nazareth and found John the Baptist; after their encounter, Jesus alone hears a voice and sees a vision that directs him. He then spends – how long? Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following which he engages in his ministry. The first thing he does when he leaves the wilderness, according to Mark, is to come into Galilee preaching and teaching. Simon, Andrew, James and John all see Jesus and make a very public display of leaving their own homes, families, and careers in order to follow Jesus.

Do you see how the reading from Mark is set up to parallel the story of Elijah? Why would he do that? What does that mean to us?

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago when we began this study we noted that Mark invented the genre we call “Gospel”. Chapter one, verse one: “The beginning of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” So far, we have encountered John the Baptist and seen Jesus. Now, in verse fourteen, we actually hear the Gospel: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe the good news!”

The first announcement of the Gospel as recorded in the first Gospel to be written consists of two announcements (“the time has come” and “the Kingdom of God has come near”) and two imperatives (“repent” and “believe”). The thing that God has long-intended to do is here! Pay attention. How do we pay attention? We repent. The Greek word that Mark uses is metanoia, and it means, literally “change of mind”. It speaks of being transformed, and re-orientation. And once we become open to this transformation, we live into it by believing. Pisteuete – have confidence in this thing; act as if it were true; depend on it – in short: believe!

Ah, but how do we do those things? What do “repent” and “believe” look like in our world?

Too often in modern and post-modern American culture, the word “repent” is used as a guided missile. An “evangelist” (literally, someone who is entrusted to carry the Good News) encounters a “non-believer” and hurls the invective: “You! Yes, you! Turn or burn, baby. You are so filthy, so miserable, so sinful… well, you make God sick! You better straighten up, buddy! You’d better get with the program like the rest of us holy people!” Yep, Good News all around!

And if that is how “repent” is interpreted, then the second part of the pronouncement to “believe” can often be heard as a call to abandon the intellect, turn your back on science, and just accept whatever I tell you to be true, you ninny.

Yet when we place those words in the context of Jesus (and Elijah, for that matter), we see that there is an entirely different mood and outcome.

Elijah places his mantle on Elisha, who asks a question. The old prophet immediately responds by saying, “Look? What did I do to you? This is between you and God. It’s not about keeping me happy. You do what you need to do.”

Jesus stands on the beach and calls out to the fishermen: “Come, follow me…” According to Mark, this is one of only three times that Jesus uses this particular word. It’s not the regular word for “follow”, but more appropriately “come along with me”, or “join me” or even “share this journey with me”. In other words, the call to repentance and belief is an invitation that is extended by one who wishes to share in the process, not browbeat some helpless people into theological submission.

I had a great example of this kind of invitation earlier this week. I was at my desk when I got a text from Marla (I’m still not sure how I feel about people who are in the same building, or even the same room as I am who send texts rather than simply walking over and conversing, but that could simply mean that I’m really old). The message read, “Come down to the side door. You’re gonna want to see this.”

That brief message had so much good in it: there was invitation, intrigue, presence, and anticipation. There was no sense of a threat; there was no scolding. My friend was inviting me to join her in a place she thought I would appreciate. So you know what I did: I got up and hightailed it to the side door – because I trust Marla. If she said I would want to see it, then I wanted to see it.

She showed me the back of her car, filled with nearly 300 brand new books that had been donated to the Open Door for distribution to the children of this community. She was right! I did want to see it. She had good news, and she showed me the good news. She also made me help her unload the good news into the church, but that’s another sermon I suppose).

Jesus, fresh from the vision and voice of God, fresh from his time of testing in the wilderness, walks over to the edge of the water and calls to those who are working hard: “Hey, fellas! Check this out! Come and see!” He walks a little farther, where he encounters a couple more men who are nearly finished with their daily tasks and says, “You’re gonna want to see this…” And they do! They get up and they follow.

I want to note at this point that the calls from Elijah and Jesus do not come at the time of optimum convenience. Nobody shows up at the house, or stops by the beach on a day when you are just hanging around with all of your stuff done, wondering “I wonder if anyone has anything interesting they’d like to show me? I mean, I’ve got a lot of extra time and energy right now. Maybe someone will invite me into a new place to serve…”

The call to walk with Jesus (as with Elijah) rarely seems to come when people are feeling exceptionally well-rested, well-funded, or well-equipped.

The call to walk with Jesus often requires a leaving of sorts. Sometimes this is dramatic, as when we are invited to battle through an addiction or interrupt an occupation. Sometimes it is disappointing, as when we are encouraged to let go of a relationship that we treasure, but we know to be toxic. Oftentimes, it is frustrating, as we think about getting up earlier on yet another day, or spending time at one more meeting… And we realize that leaving what we have known and come to love and trust is always filled with some kind of grief, even when we are pretty sure that we are moving into something that is better for us (that’s why we cry not only at funerals, but at weddings: we hope for what will be, but we kind of love what is…).

Yet the call from Jesus is personal, genuine, and non-threatening. “Come with me. You’re going to want to see this. Let me show you that for which you are longing. Enter into this new way of life with me.”

I was struck by an example of this kind of invitation to a new way of life as I reflected on the opportunities I have had to travel internationally. Someone says, “Hey, come to Africa!”, and you think, “Wow! What a change that would be!”

There are a whole series of announcements: I’d like to go… I’m getting ready to go… It’s time to go: the trip is at hand!

You find yourself milling around the terminal at Dulles airport, where it seems as though the whole world has gathered. There are voices everywhere, and monitors all around you. Some people hear an announcement that flight #877 is leaving for Addis Ababa, and they get up and go to gate A23. Some people, presumably, don’t want to go to Addis, and they keep on walking. Still others don’t understand the language in which the announcement is made, and so they continue in confusion.

You get to Addis, and you find yourself in an airport that is, to your mind, incredibly crowded, overwhelmingly smelly, and poorly laid out. It is filled with strange sounds, and the PA system seems to work about 1/3 of the time. If you can find one, you settle into a seat, hoping that you’ll be able to make sense of what is going on… and then you realize that the one who invited you to come on this journey is sitting right next to you. What a relief it is to travel with someone who has been there before. It’s still a little scary, but you can catch your breath because you know it’s not all up to you! What a relief, right?

The Gospel – the good news – is this: the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near to you! So come on! Jesus is inviting you and me into the rest of Mark. He seems to think that there are things that we’ll want to see.

None of us are going alone. I know, you think, “Well, it’s not really a great time for me to be thinking about making major life changes.” Yeah. Join the club. But it will never be a perfect time. So let’s see what there is to see. Let’s leave our boats, our nets, our current fascinations and walk a while with Jesus into the nuances of discipleship. It may be that we will find the life of deeper discipleship to be that one for which we are made! It may be that the purposes to which we are called reflect those we were given at our birth.

What has he done to you? He’s invited you. Thanks be to God, he’s invited all of us. May we have the grace to follow with him today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Are You Like Mike?

The scripture is full of invitations to act – to set things into motion.  In worship on August 30, the folk in Crafton Heights thought a bit about ways in which “going through the motions” is helpful and ways in which that becomes a distraction or even worse.  Our scriptures for the day included Mark 7:1-8 and James 1:22-27.

 

If you were around after worship last Sunday, you might have overheard Brad discussing a rather unusual problem: he was trying to give away Steelers tickets and he couldn’t find any takers. He had a number of seats to the game between the Steelers and the hallowed Green Bay Packers, and he was having a hard time finding anyone who was interested in going along. Who passes up Steeler tickets? FREE Steeler tickets at that!

Oh, wait, you say – it was last week’s game? A preseason game? No thanks. I’d rather water my lawn or sort out the coins that have piled up on my dresser.

Tomlin2Preseason football is meaningless, some people say. Not only that, it’s dangerous for some players: just last week the Steelers lost at least two key players for some time due to injuries incurred during the preseason game. But perhaps worst of all, preseason football is BORING. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has gone on record as saying that he does not play preseason games to win. When asked what his goal was in a recent preseason contest, the coach said this: “We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment-clean football. At this point we’ll see where we are in that regard.”[1]

Yes, because nothing says “excitement” like “assignment-clean football.”

But the fact that the coach isn’t playing to win doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care about the game. Far from it: Coach Mike believes it’s important to see who is growing as a player and who has lost a step; he wants his team to try out new formations, and the individual players to develop some muscle memory in terms of how to do what they’ll need to do once the season starts. “I think the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness,” Tomlin said, “and the only way to do that is to play. I’m always a healthy guy play type of guy.” He remembers that almost every single good team in the NFL ended last year with a loss. Coach Mike is one of the best coaches in football because he usually knows why he is doing what he is doing.

So maybe, in spite of the fact that very few of us in the room are ready for life in the NFL, we can “be like Mike” when it comes to being ready for whatever comes our way. Sometimes, you put yourself through the motions because that’s what gets you ready for the things that really count.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were amazingly adept at going through the motions. In fact, they were so good at going through the motions that they challenged Jesus about it one day.

washinghandsThe Hebrew scriptures command the people of God to be grateful for the food that they enjoy and the land from which it comes, but there is no commandment specifying exactly how that is to happen. Over the years, the religious leaders built up a number of traditions so that by the time that Jesus was born, the way that one demonstrated one’s gratitude to God was to pour a specified amount of water (that which could be contained in one and a half medium eggshells) over the hands in such a way so that it covered at least the middle knuckles of each finger. Having done that, your hands were clean, your gratitude was apparent, and you could enjoy the meal.

james_tissot_pharisees_400When the Pharisees condemned the disciples for failing to wash their hands, they weren’t concerned about hygiene, or spreading germs. They were offended because Jesus and his followers didn’t go through all the motions – they were not keeping the traditions that came, not from God, but from other Pharisees.

Jesus’ response is quick and to the point: “Why do you care more about trying to prove to other people how holy you are than you do about pleasing God? You’ve left your relationship with God out of the equation here, and you’re not honoring him with your life, your thoughts, or your hand-washing. You’re just showing off. Learn the ways of God first, and then see how human traditions fit into them.”

So if you’ll allow me to extend the sports analogy a little further, I might say that for people like this, all of life is like a preseason game. There is a repetition of the basics that just goes on and on and on; there are dozens of opportunities for people to get hurt or inflict injury on someone else; there’s not much connection between what they do day in and day out and things that matter eternally; and there is real uncertainty as to why they do what they do.

Which leads me to the story of another Mike. It is a true story.

On September 10, 1945, Clara Olson, of Fruita Colorado, sent her husband Lloyd out to prepare a chicken for the evening meal. Clara reminded Lloyd that her mother was coming for dinner, and that her mother really enjoyed, of all things, the neck of the bird. So Lloyd selected a strapping young rooster that weighed about two and a half pounds and took it to the chopping block where he lined up the axe in the hopes of making Clara’s mother a happy woman. He struck the blow and the chicken went running around the barnyard as is typical of these animals once they’ve lost their heads.

Lloyd&MikeWhat happened next, however, was surprising. Instead of eventually dropping over and expiring, as you might expect, the bird shook off the effects of the decapitation and never looked back (which would have been impossible, given the fact that he no longer had eyes). He walked around the barnyard and made as if he was pecking for food. Lloyd left the bird and presumably made other arrangements for his mother-in-law’s evening meal.

The next morning, Lloyd found the bird, whom he came to call “Mike”, sleeping with the stump of his neck under his wing. He decided that if the bird was that intent on living, he’d find a way, and so he began a regimen of feeding Mike grain and water through an eyedropper.

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

In the next 18 months, Mike the Wonder Chicken grew to weigh more than eight pounds and was a feature at sideshows and other venues where the eager public lined up to pay a quarter a head (pun intended) to see this oddity. He was insured for $10,000 and his fame was broadcast in Time and Life magazines. I’m sad to say that while the Olsens were bringing Mike home from one of his trips to Los Angeles or Atlantic City, they woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike choking. They were unable to find the eyedropper and because of that, “Miracle Mike the Wonder Chicken” passed onto whatever eternal reward awaits barnyard chickens.

It is amazing to me that a chicken can live for a year and a half without a head…but perhaps it should not be a surprise. The reality is that far too often, churches and Christians are like this Mike: they exist, but not fully. Somehow, they have become cut off from the head of the body, which is Christ, and found a way to perpetuate their existence in isolation from the One who first called us and who directs and sustains us.

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

Think about it: a lot of churches have clean and shiny buildings filled with busy staff people and very efficient programs, but there is no apparent connection between all of the business inside and God’s movement and purposes in the world.

A lot of Christians get up in the morning and sit in front of their bibles or TV screens for a few moments, and then run out the door to make it to the church work project or to volunteer at the clothing drive or the strawberry social but somehow, in the midst of all of this energy and excitement, there is not any vital connection with the One who called them into being and charged them to follow. They are simply running through the motions, doing what Christians are supposed to do because that’s what they do.

“Miracle Mike” the Headless Chicken is indisputable proof that it is, at least in some cases, possible for an organism to exist and even grow while severed from its head.

But why? Can we really call that “living”? Is it wise for us to emulate that kind of existence?

As we wrap up this summer and turn the corner to fall, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to receive a lot of invitations from your church family. Can you volunteer with the kids from time to time, or fold the newsletter? Do you plan to come to the All Church retreat in October? You know, the folks at Real Food and the Table are looking for some energetic hands. And don’t forget small groups like FaithBuilders and the Tuesday morning ladies.

There is a lot of church-related busy-ness that goes on in our lives. And to be honest, on a lot of days, a lot of us show up at these programs and feel like we’re just going through the motions. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves employed in a series of worthwhile activities that repeats itself again and again and again but fails to lead to any greater meaning. Imagine how terrible football would be if every game ever played was like a preseason game!

James warns us about this (about collecting activities and practices without meaning, not about preseason games) when he calls us to live life with the “revealed counsel of God” foremost in our thoughts. We listen for the call of God and then we respond with actions that have meaning and purpose and lead us in a particular direction.

1-ephesians-4-body-of-christJesus leads us in this way of reflective action, and is perhaps assisted unknowingly by Mike Tomlin. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be taking a hard look at Jesus’ call to come out and go through the motions of faithful living – to be present to people who are in need, to be open to God’s call in Bible Study, and to be focused on building a community that forms and shapes us.

We go through these motions not because serving others, reading scripture, or spending time with the community are ends in themselves, but because these exercises are the means by which we stay connected with our head, who is Jesus. These practices, carried out with faithfulness and diligence and joy under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead us into the fullness of life in Christ – so that when we are presented with a challenge, an opportunity, a burden, or a new set of circumstances, we are able to respond to it as Jesus would. We engage in these behaviors so that when Christ calls us to be his functioning, alert, alive Body in this time and this place, we’ll be ready to do that. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] This quote and the one to follow are both taken from http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/post/_/id/8038/tomlin-wont-play-to-win-preseason-games