A Different Kind of King

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On “Christ the King” Sunday, November 25, we talked about the many, many ways that following Jesus can really screw up your life.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the one who deserves all our allegiance?  Our gospel reading was Mark 10:32-45.

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

When you look at your bulletin, or the screen, or perhaps your handy-dandy pocket liturgical calendar, you’ll see that today is called “Christ the King” Sunday. We’ll talk a little more about how this Feast Day came to be a part of our Christian year later on, but for now, I wonder what you think when we say that Christ is the ‘King’. As welcome New Members into our congregation, please give some thought to how it was that you entered into the path of following Jesus?  Who told you about the Lord? What did they say?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are some who invite others to consider an eternal relationship with their creator using what could be called the “turn or burn, baby” method.  Listeners are urged to clean up their acts and to become holier people – leave sin behind, straighten up and fly right, and become the kind of people that God can like a little better.  Some folk see the Gospel as a call to repentance, which can often mean giving up sin and becoming a little nicer.

Another, more attractive approach to teaching others the good news could be referred to as “Jesus is the answer”.  There was a time in my own life where I encouraged people to turn to Jesus at a point when they were simply tired of all of the problems in their lives.  Their marriages were miserable, or they didn’t have any focus, or there was financial difficulty.  Whatever the problem was, Jesus had come to make it better.  An evangelist who subscribes to this school of thought might say that you should become a Christian because it will help you get rid of, or at least deal with, your problems better.

I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade, and truth be told, I’ve lived in both of these Gospel camps before. But I don’t stay in either of them very often now.  The way of discipleship, at least as it is described in the Gospel of Mark, has little connection with either the “turn or burn” crowd or the “Jesus is the answer” folks. Today, we join up with Jesus and his disciples as they are on the way to Jerusalem.  Most faithful Jewish men in that day and age tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal.  No doubt, that’s what the twelve disciples thought was going on, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to speak of it in other terms.

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus with his followers

This passage from Mark 10 contains the third of Jesus’ predictions about his own suffering and death.  In Mark 8, right after Peter’s confession that Jesus is in fact the Holy One sent by God, Jesus reveals to his most faithful followers that he will suffer and die.  Then in Mark 9, as the group is still basking in the glow of the Transfiguration and the healing of a boy who suffered from seizures, Jesus calls them out of that into a consideration of his impending struggle.  In each of these prior circumstances, the disciples don’t have a clue. They just can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about – how can he be the Messiah and die?  That’s just crazy talk.

He’s back at it today – he’s just laid two heavy teachings on them – one about marriage and divorce and sexual ethics and the other about money. And then he says pretty explicitly that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be forced to go through a sham trial, he’ll be beaten and killed, and he’ll rise on the third day.  In spite of the apparently obvious nature of this prediction, James and John start to daydream about how good it’s going to be when Jesus finally starts acting like a king.  Despite the fact that whenever Jesus has brought this up, he’s had to quell any talk about how great that’s going to be, James and John get so wound up in their discussion that it actually seems like a good idea to them to call “dibs” on the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.  We know that because Jesus looks at them and says, “You fellas just don’t get it, do you?” But then look at what happens next. He doesn’t yell at them.  He doesn’t scold them.  He simply reminds them that they don’t know what the kingdom will be like.  They can’t imagine the crown he’ll be wearing – a crown made of thorns, crushed into his skull.  They haven’t the foggiest notion about what is waiting for Jesus on the hill known as Calvary, where he would be nailed to a tree and hung out to die.  And then, gently, he says, “You don’t understand anything at all about the cup that I will drink, but you will – because you will share that cup.”

And it’s not just James and John who don’t get it.  When the ten other disciples hear that James and John are trying to claim the best spots at the messianic inauguration, they are upset! I suppose you could make the claim that these guys were really looking out for Jesus here and were indignant by the petty request made by their friends…but I think that Mark’s pretty clear that they were irritated because if Jesus didend up giving James & John the two best seats in the house, where were the rest of them supposed to sit?

And again, Jesus sits them down and invites them to a time of teaching wherein he is gentle and patient.  He’s not belittling them, he’s not berating them, and he’s not telling them to straighten up and fly right.  Instead, he’s trying to help them re-shape their expectations.  He’s hanging in there with them.

Why?  Why is he responding like this?

Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the first time that the twelve disciples appear to be slow, dimwitted, selfish, ambitious, and thick-headed. But here they are, following Jesus. They may not grasp all of the details concerning this coming kingdom.  But they are following Jesus.  They are not following Jesus because they want his help in getting rid of a few bad habits, and they are not following him because it’s easier than whatever it was that they used to do before they started following him.  But they arefollowing Jesus.

And listen to this: if the first readers of Mark’s gospel knew anything about following Jesus, it was this: following Jesus can really screw up your life.  After all, remember what we said about this little book when we started this exploration: Mark is written by a man who is jail, on death row, for preaching about Jesus.  The early followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were used as human torches at Nero’s garden parties.  So far as we can tell none of the twelve disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes.  And those first Christians who were not killed were treated as outcasts – they were told over and over again that they did not belong with the Jewish believers, and the Gentiles thought they were crazy – they called them cannibals and incestuous.  If there is one thing that the readers of Mark’s Gospel knew, it was that following Jesus will screw with your head and could really mess up your life.

Twenty-five years ago, I took a group of young people on a mission trip to Mexico.  Two weeks after that trip, I left that church and moved to Pittsburgh.  About five months later, I got a really thick envelope from one of the kids.  I tore open the envelope, expecting to hear sunny news about her life.  Instead, I read,

Dear Dave, I just wanted to thank you for totally ruining my senior year of High School.  My whole life, I’ve looked forward to this year, where we’d be on top.  My friends and I had all kinds of plans for how we were going to rule the school, and for Prom and Homecoming and parties.  But the trip to Mexico changed all that.  My friends are materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – they can’t get their heads out of their butts to save their lives. The things that they want are so small…of course, all of that was true last year, too – only I didn’t know that last year.  The trip to Mexico really opened my eyes, and showed me that I am materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – and I hate that about myself. Why can’t I be lazy and happy like my friends?  But no, I have to care now.  I have to think about other people.  That mission trip really screwed up everything about my senior year….

Do you see?  She got it! Yay!  She had been goingto church all her life…but here she was thinking about followingJesus!  The good thing is that the letter was ten pages long, and by about page eight or nine, she had gotten past some of the anger and had decided that if she had to choose between being selfish and materialistic and following Jesus, she’d rather be with Jesus…but it was a struggle.  Because when she took Jesus seriously, she didn’t fit into any of the really comfortable slots in her high school.

Beloved, if you are here expecting me to scold you into the Kingdom of God, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t think that the reason that Jesus came was so that you wouldn’t drink quite as much, or so you would think about sex a little less often, or write to your grandmother more.  If you need to hear someone say that it’s time to turn or burn, baby, well, I don’t think I’m your guy.

And if you are here because your life is miserable and you think that somehow I can help lobby Jesus onto your side so that you have fewer problems – if you think that if you are able to get yourself cleaned up a little bit then Jesus will reward you with a new car, a better boyfriend, or whiter teeth, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Some People Following Jesus, Gary Bunt, Contemporary British Artist

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are holier than everyone else, if by holy we mean people who smoke less, or cuss less, or fornicate less than the general population.  Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer.

And as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are richer, or better employed, or have fresher breath or fewer neuroses than the general population. He didn’t come to make us more socially acceptable.

Jesus came to be the ransom.  To give his life so that we might have real life.  Jesus came to be God for humanity and to be humanity for God. And as he marches toward his death in Jerusalem, he is imploring the twelve to stick with him.  He’s not promising them anything, and he’s not threatening them.  He’s asking them to stay the course because that is the only way that they will be able to become the community that he is calling them to be.  For a couple of years, he has taught them “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  Now he is equipping them to be the kingdom!  To enflesh that Kingdom in the world!  To be the sign of God’s presence in and through creation.

I hope that each of our new members will recall that in the Presbyterian Church we are governed by both the Bible and a document called The Book of Order.  In the very beginning of that book, it says that the church exists in order to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (F-1.0304)

I love that!  It tells the truth that the only way that your neighbors or mine will know of the grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love of the Savior is if somehow the body of Christ – that’s us – is able to exhibit that grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love.

When the twelve don’t get it – here in Mark chapter ten, or anywhere else in the Gospels – Jesus doesn’t call them morons and tell them to get lost.  No, he calls them together and invites them to try again and to lean on each other and to stick together – because the only way that they’ll be able to make it in the world is if they do stick together.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will do something incredibly difficult.  It will take everything he has.  And he is asking his followers to stay with him when it happens.  And to take over for him when he leaves.

Discipleship is hard work, my friends.  It would be easy if all we had to do was lie a little less often or budget our money a little better.  But it’s all of who we are. Discipleship is not a part-time job. The only way for me to give all of who I am is if I can count on you to help me where I am coming up short.  I can be forgiving if you forgive me.  I can be gracious if you show me grace.  I can love unconditionally if you do that for me.  I can give my life away…if you come, too.

I mentioned that today is “Christ the King” Sunday.  Most of the great “feast days” of the church are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The church has observed Advent and Lent and Easter and Christmas for millennia. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that “Christ the King” was added to the church calendar.  This observance came about because in the aftermath of World War I, much of the world’s population lived in places where tyrants and dictators were gaining strength.  These rulers insisted that Christians ought to somehow compartmentalize their faith, and see “religion” as a nice little hobby, but to give their highest allegiance to the government and the flag of one particular nation.  The church said, “No, it is Christ, not any human or any nation, who is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.”

Beloved, we are called to be committed. We are called to live the Christian ideal – that of following Christ.  Obviously, Jesus is concerned with your personal life and your habits. Obviously, Jesus is concerned with the choices you make.  But these things are not a precondition to becoming disciples – those things are matters for discussion once you are on the road.  Let us join each other in this holy, wholly difficult task of following the Master as we love and serve those among whom he has placed us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

2018 Youth Mission #4

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

Have you ever planned a large meal and set out to cook four or five different things, hoping and planning for them to all be done around the same time, but then you discovered that your oven wasn’t large enough, or the fruit wasn’t quite ripe so you had to make another trip to the market, or whatever…and the end result was that the veggies were ready at 3 and the main dish was still in the oven at 7?

Welcome to the Youth Mission Trip, Thursday edition.

Yikes.  We started the day with a plan to divide and conquer – we’d finish up the railing, and then we’d hang a little drywall and even start to tape and mud it.  We’d do some cleaning and be ready to face our last day with a ton of energy and time.

uh-huh.

Some of the group went outside and worked hard to complete the deck construction.  The railings, steps, and a few other support pieces were installed and finished, and wow does it look good AND functional.

Some of the group stayed inside and discovered a few things:

  • rehabbing an old building is always harder and longer than starting from scratch
  • there is no such thing as a 90° angle in this building
  • Dave is not as good at electrical work as he might lead himself to believe
  • 4 x 8 sheets of drywall are really heavy when you’re trying to hold them over your head
  • You can step out of your comfort zone and live to tell the tale
  • even hard jobs are way better when you are working with people who demonstrate grace and encouragement

The end result was that some of our team finished up in the early afternoon, and they were able to get in some pool time or some nap time.  A few of us, however, were working until 6:30.  It was wonderful to see how the young people encouraged each other, and those who stayed were gracious in their sending off of those who swam, while those who swam were encouraging, realizing that you can only fit so many people into one bathroom at one time anyway…

I was really proud of all of our kids today.

We enjoyed a delicious meal of barbequed chicken and corn on the cob (thanks Josie!) and then Tim led us in a discussion about having the power to make choices for ourselves concerning the ways that we speak toward and treat each other.  It was particularly moving because he rooted that in a story of when he was on a Mission Trip and some key adults helped to shape his thinking.  Our day ended with a screening of the recently released Lake of Betrayal (trailer below), a documentary about the impact of the Kinzua Dam project on the Seneca people.

Here are a few images of our day.  Thanks for the prayers!

Tommy hangs the ceiling board

Lindsay and Maddy make sure we put the screws in the right place!

Marla trims the next piece

Wait, the black wire goes where?

This photo was taken at around 5:30 pm. Look at that smile!

This is what it looks like when the final piece is in place!

Setting the steps in place

Rachele and Karlena make the cut

Evan adds some finishing touches to a great project

Karlena and Josie making sure the railing is safe.

2018 Youth Mission #3

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

When I first started leading these trips with kids, we called them “Work Camps”.  We did that, well, because we thought that the most important thing we would do would be to “work”.  And so we bundled up the vans and we headed off to someplace exotic like Slippery Rock, PA or Tennessee or Maryland and we told the kids that they had a duty to work.  We scrubbed, we painted, we dug, we drywalled.  And, every now and then along the way, we studied the Bible, sang some songs, and worked on relationships within our group.

Gradually, though, we came to see that maybe it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to simply have a bunch of strangers show up in a place, work, and then leave – still as strangers.  We didn’t want to train ourselves to be “helpers” who took time out of our busy schedules to go and be nice to some poor soul who was down on his/her luck and lend a hand because we were so stinking nice.  We have been growing in our ability to see ourselves as partners, who have something to offer in terms of time and energy and relationship, and who are in a position to receive something in terms of knowledge or energy or skills or relationship.  And so we call them “Mission Trips”, because we assume that God is already at work in Slippery Rock, Tennessee, Maryland, or wherever… and it’s our job to get in on what God is already doing and offer who we are.

Wednesday would have been a spectacular “fail” had we been operating under the old “Work Camp” model.  We didn’t do a blessed thing (full truth: Lindsay and McKenna helped Tim and me to install TWO furring strips for drywall….) but it was a phenomenal day.  We took the morning easy, and then we traveled to the other part of the Seneca Reservation – the Allegany territory – and visited the brand-new-not-even-open-to-the-public-yet Tribal Museum and Cultural Center.  We had a private tour with a team of guides and really learned quite a lot of the Seneca story, and are deeply grateful to the folks within the tribe who helped us gain access to this experience.

We took some time off to wander through an Antique Mall in Salamanca, and then headed home to a phenomenal dinner cooked for us by members of the Wright Memorial church. Afterwards, we had an extensive and informational presentation on some of the Seneca experience by Mr. Rick Jemison, who serves as one of 16 Tribal Councilors for the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He brought along a number of items that helped us to grasp some of what these folks have been through, and he and some of the other elders who were here shared very moving personal testimony as to how they have been affected and shaped by both the adversity and the opportunities that life on the reservation has brought to them.  Some of us listened to a wonderful tribute to the Seneca as sung by the late Johnny Cash, entitled “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow.” You can hear that by clicking on the link below…

We ended our day with our typical debriefing session – singing, laughing, looking at photos… and we talked a little about the story of Daniel, who along with his countrymen was kidnapped and removed from his home.  Although Nebuchadnezzar tried to give these young people new identities (new name, new language, new food, etc.), Daniel refused to wear the labels that someone else had put on him.  He maintained that God alone had the right to name and shape and form him.  We talked about the fact that most of us have people who would be more than happy to tell us who we are and what we are about; that people will judge us for our worst mistake or try to tear us apart if we let them – but that each of us can choose to wear the identity that God is offering us as his beloved children.

Here are a few photos… and as always, thanks for the prayers.  Astute observers will note that there is one more participant on the trip: our friend Karlena, who was unable to join us when we departed on Sunday, met us in Salamanca, and we’re the better for it!

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

Listening to a story of the creation from the Seneca perspective – one that emphasizes community and the responsibility of all to participate.

Lacrosse is a game that originated with the Native Americans, and there is an entire display on the nature of that experience.

There were several cases full of items depicting Native Americans in unflattering and untrue ways. We talked about how it must feel to have other people attempt to describe you in words that aren’t true…

Doug is carving our turkey…

Eileen making the fry bread using corn flour, which is traditional here.

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

Rick shows us a wampum belt depicting the treaty between the Seneca and the Whites.

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

2018 Youth Mission #2

The young people from the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are engaged in our annual pilgrimage in mission and service.  This year, we are spending time with some friends in Western New York, particularly in the communities that comprise the territories belonging to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Our second day looked a lot like the first, at least to start: we got really dirty pulling down old drywall, digging in the mud, and doing what we can to help the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church become a little bit more structurally hospitable.  We continued to work on the wheelchair ramp as well as a few projects indoors.

Because this church building, like most, doesn’t have shower facilities, we had to go down the street to the Cattaraugus Community Center, a fantastic resource for the residents of this community.  In there we saw great recreational rooms (like an indoor lacrosse field, basketball, weight room, and more) and, most importantly – showers.  Some of us showered more quickly than others, which led to a certain amount of waiting around, which led to…well, photos below.

When we arrived on Sunday, one of the neighbors invited us to a “revival” that his church was conducting on the other portion of the reservation – in the town of Salamanca (about an hour away).  We assumed, naively, that it would be an opportunity to immerse ourselves more deeply in the Seneca community, customs, and religious outlook.  We were wrong. We arrived at the Central Street Baptist Church and we had an amazing cultural experience – just not the one we’d expected.

We’d been told to arrive at 6 for a community meal.  Being led by folks like me, we got there hungry at 5:58.  The church was locked up tighter than a drum.  As we wandered around, a car stopped, and it turned out that it was the Pastor of the church.  He was asking if we were lost.  No, I said, we were here for the revival.  He said, “Really? Are you sure?”  It turns out that it was not supposed to start until 7 and there was no meal.  So, off to Little Caesar’s for a quick bite of pizza, and then back to the church.  There was a yellow striped tent set up out back and a few dozen hardy souls gathered underneath it as we listened to the fiery (and, the kids would have me tell you, LOUD) message offered up by “Preacher Don”, a wiry Southern Baptist evangelist from Virginia (or maybe West Virginia).  I’m not kidding you, except for the fact that the music was done from an iPad via bluetooth – it was like a trip back 125 years.

I’m proud of the ways that our team not only dealt with the challenges and disappointment of seeing their proposed trip into Native American spirituality be transformed into an entirely different experience, but at the ways that they were able to thoughtfully reflect on which aspects of Preacher Don’s message resonated with their experience and which were foreign to them.  We gathered after the day for our time of de-brief and it was so encouraging to hear them be intentional and thoughtful about the things we’d said, heard, and done throughout the day.  Thanks for your prayers!

Here are a few images of our time thus far…

Greeting some of the members of Wright Memorial Church

McKenna gets dirty for the cause… ‘Cause there ain’t no way Pastor Dave was fitting under there to put that board on!!!!

The team gets a lesson in using a jigsaw

Lindsay trimming it up…

…and Christian…

Danielle tackles the jigsaw

Alyssa and Marla framing in the closet (note the manicure!)

Josie sizes things up

Tom discovers that working in churches can be, well, dirty business…

The ramp is coming together

One of us found waiting for the others to finish showering to be, well, a little bit boring…

Dinner time!

The Central St. Baptist Church, with the tent out back

Hearing a poem by a congregation member

Preacher Don lays it on us

The Hardest Mission Trip of All

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On April 29, we looked at an episode the theologians call “The Rejection at Nazareth” – and thought about the ways that we are not amateurs when it comes to rejecting.  Our texts included Mark 6:1-13 and Romans 15:1-7.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon04-29-2018.mp3 into your browser

On December 27, 1992, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills played the Houston Oilers in the final game of the regular season.  The Oilers not only crushed the Bills by a score of 27-3, they also knocked out the Bills starting quarterback, Jim Kelly. When the teams met in the first round of the playoffs the following week, the Bills were relying on second-string quarterback Frank Reich.  It did not start well, and by just after halftime, the Bills were lifeless, having fallen behind 35-3.  The temperature in Rich Stadium that day was just about freezing, and apparently many fans agreed with the radio broadcaster who said, “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”  The arena started to empty.  One reporter said, the fans are “pouring out of the gates, getting in their cars, driving home”.

But then, improbably, the home team scored a touchdown.  And another. And another. And another.  All in the 3rdquarter.  The fans who had walked away in disgust were now clamoring for re-entry, and even climbing the fences until the Bills went against league policy and allowed people to re-enter the stadium.  The ones who were there can say that they witnessed what is simply known as “the comeback” – the Bills winning the game 41-38 in overtime. Later, Bills coach Marv Levy said, “70,000 people were at that game. I’ve already met 400,000 of them”.

I lived in Western New York at that time, and was watching the game on TV.  For the next few weeks, all anyone could talk about was the fact that so many people had left the game early.  How many times have you heard someone say, “Can you believe that they did that?  If I’d have been there, things would have been different. There’s no way I’d have acted like that!”  Whether we’re disgusted with the way that fans treat a team, shocked by the behavior of a crowd, or appalled by the silence of so many during the Civil Rights movement or the Holocaust, it’s easy for us to say, “Not me.  I’d have done things differently.”

Of course, Christians like to play this game, too.  We’re not too far removed from the events of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and we remember reading of the religious leaders who mocked Jesus, or the crowds that called for his torture.  “Not us!”, we say.

Today’s gospel lesson relates an incident in Jesus’ life known as “the rejection at Nazareth”. Jesus has had some acclaim as a teacher and a wonder-worker, and now he’s come back to his hometown, where he is roundly and quickly dismissed.  We hear this story, and we say, “How could people act like this?  If I’d have been there, I’d have believed.  I’m with you, Jesus.”

We who sit in these pews 20 centuries later find it easy to get offended on Jesus’ account. We may even find ourselves nursing some anger at the fact that these people, who ought to have known Jesus the best, were doubting him, questioning him, and even “taking offense” at him. We see the rejection at Nazareth as a scandal or embarrassment that should never have happened, and wouldn’t have, if we’d have been there.

When I catch myself thinking these things, I am caught short because in many ways, in my mind, the first-century rejection AT Nazareth has been replaced by the twenty-first century rejection OF Nazareth.

Here’s what I mean: many of us have found our way to some spiritual awareness or awakening.  We have, somehow, been deeply moved or had a conversion experience of one kind or another.  We find that we are more passionate about the faith or some aspect of it now than we ever have been.  Maybe it’s a personal renewal of our spirit, or a newfound embrace of the environment; we are filled with compassion for the poor or have grown a heart for racial reconciliation.  Somehow, the Good News of which Jesus spoke has come to take root in some place in our hearts, and we find ourselves among the converted.  We are ready!

And when that happens, how tempting is it for us to live only with those who share our goals, views, and ideals?  Isn’t it easy to want to spend all our time with those who are hungry for the same interpretation as we, or who are filled with the same kinds of compassion or fire for justice?  Don’t we find it really easy to get irritated with, offended by, or angry at the folks who think differently than we do?

How easy is it to perceive that those who are not “sold” on the same things that we are are simply people in our way, or distractions?  We find excuses to ignore or belittle them even as we seek to follow or respect or share with the people who are more “like us” in some way.

When this happens, of course, we aren’t really living in a true community – we’re existing in some sort of a “silo” or even a “ghetto” where everyone is just like us. We dismiss many of the people who are, geographically or biologically, at any rate, the closest to us.  “Him? Oh, he’s a gun nut.” “Her? Please.  She’s a baby-killer.”  “Them? Wow, let me tell you about them. They are pretty over the top…”

Here’s my point: Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth, to be with the people who knew him best, and with whom he enjoyed the closest physical proximity, and he was himself. And in doing so, he found that that self was rejected by his neighbors.  It’s taken us 2000 years, but I’m afraid that now many of those who claim to be the followers of Jesus have turned that situation entirely around and it is we who refuse to dwell with our families or our neighbors; it is we who reject our own Nazareths.

In light of that, I am fascinated with what Jesus does next.  Immediately after he experiences the rejection of his hometown, he calls his closest disciples together.  So far as we know, each of these men comes from somewhere in the Galilee – from Capernaum, Bethsaida, or Cana.  And when Jesus calls them to himself, what does he do? He sends them out, two by two, “to the surrounding villages”.

What was he thinking? He himself had been rejected, and now he sets them up to experience the same treatment.

I wonder how it felt to the twelve?  They’d watched as he was attacked or accused or belittled or mocked by his hometown, and now he’s sending them out to the same place, presumably so that they might receive the same treatment.

I was not able to discern the artist for this work on the sending of the twelve. I’d love to know if you can help me.

And, to give him credit, Jesus is simply living into his own paradigm.  I mean, he is responding to the rejection that he’s experienced in Nazareth and Galilee with an embrace and an affirmation.  This should not be all that surprising, really: this is the man who told his followers that the Kingdom ethic involved loving the neighbor, praying for the persecutor, and, in general, giving better than you got.  So in many ways, his sending out of the twelve is simply a concrete expression of this theology, right?  His neighbors have rejected him and his message, and his response is to send out what is, by all accounts, the “B” team.

Except for this…

Look at what happens: the Junior Varsity outscores the star.  In verse 5, Mark tells us that Jesus could not do anything.  And yet, the ones who we often perceive to be the stumbling, bumbling, can’t-quite-get-it-right followers of Jesus show up in verses 12 and 13 preaching the good news, curing all kinds of people, and driving out many evil spirits.

These twelve people simply walk along the roads with which they are familiar, show up in communities where they’ve been before, and repeat the words of Jesus… and find that – lo and behold – this stuff works!  Right there, in the midst of their everyday, normal, walking-around-town lives, the Good News of Jesus bears fruit in places where they might have expected otherwise.

I find this to be particularly interesting because in the past ten days, there is one thing that people have said to me far more than anything else.  Almost every conversation I’ve had with anyone has included the words, “Well, Dave, how was the trip?”  It’s gratifying, on one level, to know that people have an awareness of my travel to Africa and some discussion of the issues surrounding our international partnership, and justice, and famine relief.

And yet, there is at the heart of this magnificent greeting at least the glimmer of a suspicion or confession: when a hundred people greet me and say, “Hey! How was the trip?”, someone might be tempted to believe that I alone have been privileged to make a journey, that I alone have been called or sent out into the world in order to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.  In some ways, it might be tempting for me or for someone who asks that question to begin to think, “It’s the trips to Africa or somewhere else exotic that count… maybe most of us, most of the time, aren’t being sent anywhere.”

The reality of the fact, as I believe it is underscored by today’s Gospel reading, is that each and every one of us are sent each and every day.  Sometimes, there may be big, splashy trips that require vaccinations or passports, but mostly, we get the call to go and be faithful to the people who know us best and who surround us in the places with which we are very familiar.  Each of us is called and sent to work, or school, or family each and every day.

Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are not the places where you are somehow stuck while you’re waiting for Jesus to send you to that one amazing place where you’ll have a life-changing experience.  That’s not how the life of discipleship works!  Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are the places to which you are being sent TODAY!

Let me offer some encouragement to treat each of these sendings in the way that we regard my having gone to Africa a few weeks ago.

When I found myself landing in Malawi, I was vigilant: I wanted to learn and remember the names of the people around me.  I felt as though it was important to hear their stories, and to share a few of my own. I needed to be attentive to the ways that they were experiencing the world that was around them.  I saw that they had some things to teach me, and believed that I, in turn, had some things of importance to share with them.

In the same way, can we be committed to actually being present in the places to which we’re being sent this day? Do you know the names of your neighbors, or the folks in your biology class, or the woman who sits at the receptionist’s desk in your building? Can we take the time to really listen for the stories of our neighbors and co-workers and fellow students?  I know that sometimes, I can be pretty critical of the ways that we behave on social media, but this is an instance where we can, in fact, be socially engaged.  Look at the photos your neighbors post.  “Like” them, if it’s appropriate.  Ask questions so that you’ll get stories.  This is a great tool we’ve been given that can help us to come to know and love the people amongst whom God has placed us.

As you wander through your neighborhood – both geographic and virtual – ask God to use you to bring encouragement, or Good News, or healing in these places.

And you say, “Ah, come on, Dave… what good can it do?  I can’t do much…”  Maybe. But maybe “not much” is better than “nothing.”

On the recent Youth Retreat, Tim Salinetro planted a thought in my mind that’s been rolling around for a few weeks.  He pointed out that in all of the science fiction movies that involve time travel, everyone is always really careful not to change even the tiniest detail because if they do, then perhaps that will result in some huge and radical change in our present circumstances.  Maybe you remember the scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly risks everything by interfering with the meeting between his parents…  In this view of the world, everythingabout the present can be changed by one tiny little aspect of the past, right?

We can wrap our heads around that, for some reason, but hardly anyone in the present ever thinks that they can change the future much, if at all, by doing something small today.  That’s too bad.

Listen: we believe that God is up to something here and now, in lives like ours, in places like this.  God forbid that we reject our neighbor or colleague or fellow student out of a fear or insecurity or laziness or refusal to believe that the tasks that lie ahead of us this day and this week are somehow unworthy of the divine attention.

Charles Spurgeon was one of the dominant preachers in the English language in the 19thcentury, and he once said “every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”  May we have the grace to see that we are being invited to walk through the world we’ve been given bearing witness to the Christ who is in us, and may we have the sense to not reject that world.  Thanks be to God for the Good News at work in us.  Amen.

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #8

Deep and wide.

Breadth and depth.

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

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

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

 

Touring the Mulanje Mission Hospital.

 

Meeting at the manse with Abusa Paul Mawaya

 

Partnership meal!

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

Climbing up Mt. Mulanje

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Greeting Sophie…

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Moderator of the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique

 

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

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