Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

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

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).

A Scary Prayer

On Sunday, August 13, the people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights commissioned Lauren Mack for a year of mission service teaching in Malawi, Central Africa.  Our scriptures for the day were Psalm 62:5-8 and Ephesians 3:14-21.  

To hear the message as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

As I begin the message, I am curious as to what we are actually doing here this morning. We are “commissioning” Lauren. We are sending her off. Why? What for? What are our hopes for Lauren Alaina Mack as she leaves Pennsylvania and heads to the Central African nation of Malawi, where she will spend a year teaching at the St. Andrews’ Mission Secondary School?

In each pew, you’ll find a pencil and some paper. Take a few moments now and just jot down your hopes for Lauren, and, if you know her, Brooke Merry in the next 12 months. What are your prayers for them? What do you hope will happen in their lives?

Now, think about the kinds of things you wrote down.   What do you hope for?

I want you to hold onto those cards for a moment as we continue.

As I thought about this service, and this message, and the scriptures at hand, I thought about my prayers for these two beautiful young people. Almost instinctively, I am praying that God would keep them SAFE. I’m praying that they’ll have a good time in Malawi. I’m praying that they’ll do a good job at the St. Andrew’s Missionary Secondary School, and that the kids will know more about English, and life skills, and Jesus when Lauren and Brooke get through with them…I pray that they will make a difference in Africa, and that Africa will make a difference in them.

And, you say to yourself, “Self, those are pretty good prayers. I see why he’s getting paid so much to be the pastor here…”

Paul had known the Ephesians for awhile, but not as long as I’ve known Lauren. He was praying for them as they tried to be faithful to their calling in a place that was plagued with difficulties. What does Paul pray for?

He prays in verse 16 that Jesus will strengthen the Ephesians in their inner beings SO THAT those hearts would be fit places in which Christ could dwell. He prays in verse 17 – 19 that the Ephesians, who already know something about love, will continue to be shaped and molded by that love so that…so that what? So that they will be able to grasp and to know the love of God – so that in that knowing they might be filled with the very fullness of God.

That Paul, he’s a sneaky one. You’ve got to keep your eye on him – I’m telling you.

Let’s look at my prayers. My prayers tend to be outcome-based. I want the people that I pray for to be well taken care of. I want them to have good jobs, happy marriages, and to be successful. Even when I say that I want them to make a difference, I’m saying that I want them to be able to get to the end and say, “There! I’ve done it! What next?”

But Paul? This guy is a dangerous pray-er. A far more dangerous pray-er than I ever will be. Paul’s prayer is that at the end of the day, the Ephesians will end up knowing something – being filled with something, namely, the fullness of God himself. Why is that so bad? Because whereas my prayers end up at the finish line, Paul’s prayers end up at the starting line. He prays that when it’s all said and done, the people he loves will be ready for something; that they’ll be equipped for something; that they’ll be poised and filled and eager.

Let me tell you a little something about the church of Central Africa: Presbyterian – the partners to whom we are sending Lauren. It was founded by a group of young Scottish missionaries who had become enthralled by the stories they heard from the Rev. David Livingstone. After Livingstone’s death in Central Africa, Henry Henderson became the leader of the first mission to Malawi in 1876. He, along with the other leaders of that trip, John Bowie and Robert Cleland, were dead within fifteen years.

You may already know this, but the earliest missionaries from Scotland to Malawi didn’t pack their things in suitcases. They packed their things in coffins. Why? Why would they do that? Well, for starters they were just being realistic. It was dangerous. Most of them died over there, and so packing your clothes in a coffin was simply an efficient way to get everything from point A to point B.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. I think that another reason why they took their coffins along was that they were pretty sure that Malawi was their last stop. They were called to go to Malawi, and they went, thinking that Malawi was where things would end up for them. Again, if that’s the case, then taking along a coffin is simply the prudent thing to do.

But Lauren, you won’t be packing your gear in a coffin (although if you log onto casketxpress.com you can get a good deal!). You’ll be more likely to have Samsonite or American Tourister. Why? Because you have budgeted for a return ticket already. We have every reason to expect that you’ll be showing up at the airport a year from now and that you’ll be back in this room at that point. Many of us will plan to meet you here, in fact.

So this trip of yours is really just a temporary situation. It’ll be over before you know it. The blink of an eye. Twelve months – that’s nothing – heck, I used to go that long without shaving.

And that’s why my prayers are deficient. Because if I am praying for you to have accomplished something, to have been kept safe, to have arrived somewhere…then I’m only praying a twelve-month prayer. Hardly seems worth the breath, does it?

But what if each one of us, every day, prayed like Paul? What if we prayed that when we all get together here and celebrate the Lord’s day when Lauren returns, we’d be ready for something bigger? That we’d be so infused with the love of God, so captivated by the presence of God, so filled with the fullness of God that it would make us about ready to burst out of our skins? What if we prayed that come August, you’ll have finished your mission work in Malawi for the year, but that each of us will be different and each of us will be equipped and receptive for God’s next call on our lives?

Ah, not so fast, Carver. How can you just throw away a sentence like, “a year is nothing…” I bet that it that was your kid buying that airline ticket you’d be singing a different song. How in the world are we supposed to be able to let go of those wonderful, practical prayers that we’ve come to expect from Pastor Dave and risk the dangerous prayers of Paul? How can we be free to be ready to live like that? How can we think of ourselves as NOT marching towards a magical finish line when everything will be “back to normal”?

I think the answer to that lies in the first scripture reading that you heard this morning. Did you hear what David read for us? “He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge.”

Do you see? If it’s up to us; if I’m out there trying to protect myself, to prepare myself, to figure out where in the world I’m supposed to be, then there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to let down my guard enough to listen to the wise counsel that comes from God. But if I really believe that it all depends on God; if I really believe that there’s nothing that is going to hit me that I can’t survive with God’s help; that there’s no problem too big for God to get me through, that God has my back…then I can spend all of my energy on getting ready for being the person that God has for me to be, and I’ll trust that God will get me where he needs me when he needs me.

Lauren, I have to tell you this: it’s going to be a shock when you come back from Malawi than next August. You’ll leave a community in which you will find church after church packed with joyful people who have a hunger for God that compels them to show up for worship as early as 5:45 a.m. just so they get a seat…and you’ll return to a culture where bored looking people show up in church twice a year in an attempt to win some brownie points with God, with their mothers, or who knows what other reason… You’ll leave a nation where children carry their pencil – their one pencil – back and forth to school every day as if it were gold, and come back to a flurry of “back to school” sales that will make your head spin. You may have heard me mention that I was so overwhelmed by the cultural shock of affluence and choice when I returned from my first trip to Malawi that I could not go grocery shopping. The day I got back, I ran up to Shop & Save to grab a few things, but when I got to the toilet paper aisle I was overcome with grief or sadness or something… I stood there trying to figure out which was the best deal for toilet tissue, and how I could save money, and my mind was filled with images of the people I’d left behind in Malawi – people who had real difficult choices to make, and here I was trying to figure out it if was better to get Charmin or Cottonelle… And so I left a full cart of groceries in the paper products aisle at Shop N Save because I just couldn’t cope with it. Nope, I don’t envy you coming back when you come back.

And it would really stink if you went to Malawi for twelve months and then you came back in August and MY prayers were answered. Man, would THAT make for a miserable Autumn. Why? Because you’d be spending all your time thinking about all the ways that Crafton Heights isn’t Ntaja; you’ll be missing the vibrancy of that worship; heck, you’ll even miss nsima and chicken…if you got to August and thought that you were done.

But what do you think would happen to you, and to us, if in the next twelve months PAUL’S prayers were answered? THEN we’d be looking forward to an incredible 2019. Why? Because your time away will have prepared you for whatever is next for you HERE. Because your time away will prepare your friends and relatives to see you in a new light and to invite you to new challenges and new opportunities and new horizons…because instead of being finished with mission, you’ll be even better prepared for it.

So, Lauren, Glenn, Cheri…whose prayers are we going to lean on? The relative safety of Pastor Dave’s “keep an eye on ‘em, OK God?” Or the outrageous risk of Paul’s “Make us all ready, God, for the work that you have for each of us”?

So here’s what I want you to do…I want you to take that card on which you have written your prayers for Lauren and Brooke. And I want you to turn it over and write out “Ephesians 3:14-21” on it. And I want you to pray that prayer for Lauren. And for Brooke. And for me. And for you.

Thank God for bold prayers and for those who are led into them. Thank God for the call that comes to the church. Thank God for the ability to respond – in this neighborhood, in Malawi, and in every place in between. Amen.

To learn more about Lauren’s trip in Malawi, or to follow her adventures, please check in with her blog. Lauren’s fellow traveler, Brooke, can be found here!

2017 Youth Mission Update #4

Our week of service, learning, fellowship, and fun in the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is nearly complete, and we finished strong!

Evan starts the demolition of the steps.

Thursday was, like most other days this week, a rainy day.  Yet this team of young people worked through the showers to dissemble a rickety set of steps on Miss Charlene’s home and install a safe, sturdy, spacious entryway for her and her family to use.  Everyone did something – in fact, I can’t recall seeing more people at work on an area that was approximately 5′ x 5′ in my life!

We got to be expert diggers and rock removers on this trip!

Katie using a “Saws-All” for the first time

While we were hard at work outside, Miss Charlene was hard at work inside, and at lunch she treated us to an amazing meal of what she called “Cherokee Tacos” – the “shell” was a delicious fry bread, and the fillings consisted of lettuce, tomato, cheese, beef, beans, cucumbers… wow! It was delicious.

At the end of our work day we were further surprised to be called onto the porch by Miss Charlene’s children.  Isaiah, a high school student, presented Tim and myself with some woodcarvings on which he had been working.  Catherine, his younger sister, gave the two of us hand-made baskets.  And every single participant on the trip received a handmade necklace made from glass and corn beads.  This is an especially meaningful gift given what we have learned about the corn beads.  In the 1830’s, the Cherokee were rounded up from the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains and herded like cattle to the “Indian Territory” of North Carolina. This is called either “the Removal” or “The Trail of Tears”.  The legend says that as they walked, their grief was so profound that as they wept, plants sprung up from their tears.  The seeds of this plant look like tears and their color is that of grief.  Cherokee today wear these “corn beads” in memory of the grief and horror of that time.

Delicious!

 

Isaiah shares his carvings

Catherine and her basket

The steps – finished as far as we could with the materials available.

The porch and roof we were able to construct.

Friday is often what we call the “fun day” on a mission trip.  We try to take some time to learn more about the places we visit and the people who are there.  This year was no exception.  In fact, I’ve been on many trips to and through the Great Smoky Mountains, and I have never heard much mention at all of the Cherokee story.  This year, that changed in a beautiful way.  We started the day at the Ocunaluftee Indian Village, a “living museum” where re-enactors  shared the Cherokee way of life before and since the Removal.  We saw demonstrations of pottery making, weaponry, stonework, and more.  Our group particularly enjoyed the traditional dances, and a few of us even took part in the same.  In fact, the reason that there are no photos here is that your author was among those “whooping it up”!  The group was unanimous in that the time spent at the village was amongst the best things we could do.

At the Village

Levi gave us a demonstration of how a “blow gun” works – accurate at up to 50 feet!

At the dancing ceremony

Following a quick lunch, we stepped it up a little bit in the adventure department and tried our luck tubing the Ocunaluftee River.  Normally, this is a “lazy river” experience, and for much of the time, that’s what we had.  However, with all the rains this area has had recently, the waters were higher and faster than normal, and so a few of the rapids were bumpy and some of us emerged with some new aches, pains, and scars.  I think that at the end of the day, however, most everyone was glad that they’d tried it – whether the took the leap from the rope swing or not.

We ended our evening, and our week, with a devotion on “Wild Love” and the charge that we’ve been given to keep looking for love in the places to which we are sent.  We heard from our graduating senior, Katie, and we prayed over her.  Some of us might have cried…  And it was good.

So now it’s all over but the packing and the long drive home… I’m so impressed with the ways that this group of young people has handled themselves in situations that were challenging to say the least.  I can’t wait to see what God has in store for them in the years to come!

Cherokee Youth Mission Update #1

The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia is a favorite stop on our way out of Pittsburgh.

The Youth Group from the church/Open Door is spending the week at the Qualla Boundary with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. We are staying at the Cherokee United Methodist Church, and we came in order to encounter aspects of the culture, our faith, ourselves, and our world in order to learn something about being more fully God’s people in this world. To get here, we left Crafton Heights immediately after church on Sunday and drove approximately ten hours south.

These smiles kept us going all day long! 521 miles!

The PLAN was to spend this day laying the groundwork for the construction of a deck and porch for a family in need. However, for the first time in memory, we’ve had a day that is simply a “rain out”. Buckets and buckets of water poured across the Great Smoky Mountains, and we were forced to adapt our plan. We spent the morning wandering through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which contained a number of informative displays concerning the history and culture of the people who lived here when the Europeans showed up in North America. We learned about pottery, games (like stickball and lacrosse), and handicrafts; we saw something impressive about the empowerment that the Cherokee traditionally accorded to the women in their midst; and we were saddened to read of “the removal”, or the “Trail of Tears”. In fact, the church in which we’re staying is the oldest Native American congregation in the Eastern USA, and it boasted about 440 members in the year prior to the “removal”. Three years later, the church had only 40 members.

I was haunted by this quote in the museum…

We spent the afternoon, in Paige’s words, “pretending it’s a retreat: let’s get to know each other!” You might have enjoyed working a puzzle or playing Apples to Apples; I know I got a kick out of Tim doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression to a group of adolescents who have absolutely no idea who Mr. Stewart is.  When the weather gave us a little bit of a break we took a quick trip to measure out our job site and a brief hike to the beautiful Mingo Falls.

A little “Apples to Apples” on a rainy Monday!

Mingo Falls

 

The Group at the Falls

If the success of the trip is measured in how much wood gets cut or how deep the holes we dig are, well, today was a washout. But if we’re here to encounter and be encountered, well, then – today was a success.   And hey – no splinters!

God Isn’t Asking You To Be “Nice”

Continuing in our year-long exploration of the stories surrounding King David, the folks at Crafton Heights listened on May 7 to the stories of Mephibosheth.  Our texts included II Samuel 9 and Luke 14:12-14.  

To hear the sermon preached in worship that day, simply use the audio player below:

I’m excited to continue our exploration of David and his story, because it may be that our reading for today contains one of the best stories you’ve never heard in scripture.

Besides David, the key protagonist in our narrative is a man named Mephibosheth, and he is the son of David’s best friend, Jonathan – which makes him, of course, the grandson of Saul, who had been king prior to David. Go ahead, say it: Mephibosheth. It’s important that we learn that name.

We meet Mehibosheth three times in the book of Second Samuel. In chapter four, we’re given his “back story”. On that horrible day when his grandfather, his father and two of his uncles were killed in a battle against the Philistines, Mephibosheth became an endangered species. People knew that David was hoping for the throne, and the common practice was for the one who wanted power to wipe out all of the males in his rival’s family.

So when word of the death of King Saul and his sons came in to the family compound, a well-meaning nurse grabbed the child and started to flee – thinking that she was saving the boy’s life. However, she dropped Mephibosheth, and he broke both ankles. The bones didn’t set properly, and Mephibosheth never walked again.

He was hustled off to a town on the east side of the Jordan called Lo-Debar. The name means “no pasture” or “no communication.” It was an impoverished, remote place – the kind of town where people don’t ask each other questions and everyone is just trying hard to get by.

We don’t know how Mephibosheth was raised, but there is every temptation to believe that he grew up wallowing in self-pity, despair, and cynicism. After all, he had seen the palace… but was brought to maturity in a wasteland, forced to suffer the dual indignities of anonymity and dependence on others. It’s easy to think that day after day he was taught that everything bad that had ever happened to him was David’s fault, and that he grew up resentful and angry.

The events of which you just heard, in II Samuel 9, take place about twenty years later. David has finally been established as king over all of Israel and he has succeeded in securing the nation’s borders and building a capital. Now, he finds that he has the time and the opportunity to reach out to Saul’s family in an effort to keep the promise he’d made to his best friend, Jonathan. He asks his staff whether there are any survivors to be found.

They call one of the long-time palace employees, a man named Ziba, into the room, and he replies “Well, as a matter of fact, there is one guy. He’s a cripple, and he’s been holed up in Dead Man’s Gulch for as long as anyone can remember.”

David asks Ziba a question, and the reply is that the person being sought is worthless. He’s not named. He lives in the middle of nowhere. And he’s not much good to anyone, because he’s disabled. Ziba does everything he can to minimize Mephibosheth’s personhood.

David calls for Mephibosheth to appear before him, and the young man comes before the king cringing with fear.

I want you to pay attention to this: what is the first word that David speaks to this man who is on his knees, eyes averted?

“Mephibosheth!”

David speaks his name. David acknowledges his worth. Where everything about his upbringing and everyone in his culture would say that he is worthless, David recognizes Mephibosheth’s personhood by using his name.

Mephibosheth kneeling before David; detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th Century)

That’s crucial, because in the next sentence he announces his intention. In our English translation, we hear “I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.”

This is an unfortunate translation, but it’s understandable. When we use the word “kind” in American culture today, we think it refers to being “nice” or “polite”. If you are “kind” to someone else, it means that you’re showing some momentary generosity of spirit… The other night, I was out on the river and a couple of guys were having some boat problems. I had a couple of spare parts they could use. I handed them off the fellas and then drove away. It was a nice thing to do.

You’re driving in rush hour and all of a sudden a minivan filled with screaming kids and out-of-state plates swerves in front of you just before the Fort Pitt Bridge. You slow down to make space for them. You smile. Because you’re a kind person who does nice things.

Except that’s not what the Bible is talking about here. When David says, “I will show you kindness”, the word that is used is chesed. If you look at a variety of translations, you’ll see that people try to express the meaning of this word as “kindness” or “loving-kindness” or “mercy” or “steadfast love” or even “loyalty”. It’s tricky, because there really is no English equivalent. Those of you who have had the exquisite joy of sitting in my study for six or eight premarital conversations might recall the emphasis that I place on the word “troth”, and for my money, that’s the best equivalent there is for chesed – except that nobody but me really uses the word “troth” in a sentence that frequently. Chesed, like troth, conveys elements of love, loyalty, generosity, and faithfulness that are willingly and eagerly extended to one with whom I desire relationship.

That last qualifier is what makes “kindness” or “niceness” poor substitutes: one can only show chesed to someone in the context of a relationship. One does not act in chesed to a stranger, any more than one pledges one’s troth to the person who just sat down next to them on the bus.

Chesed is used 240 times in the Old Testament, and it is almost always preceded by a word like “doing” or “keeping” or “showing”. It is a word full of integrity and intentionality that bears fruit in concrete ways, and it is one of the central attributes of God. For instance,

  • Isaiah 54:10: Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
  • Lamentations 3:22-23: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
  • Or even in Psalm 103, which you’ve already read this morning as a part of our assurance of pardon: For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…

It is important for us to note that in II Samuel 9, David is choosing to act like God in this context. He says that he wants to show and to keep chesed with Mephibosheth and his family. He lives that out by restoring to him his grandfather’s land, which guarantees this family an income and an inheritance. Furthermore, he elevates this formerly anonymous non-person to a place of prestige by insisting that Mephibosheth eat at the king’s table. Can you imagine the difference between dinnertime in Lo-Debar and the feasting of the royal table in Jerusalem?

David is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart”, and I think that today’s reading is a great example of that. He is seeking out someone who has been pushed to the fringes of society and choosing to engage with him with a generosity of spirit and a steadfastness of purpose that brings healing and hope in the context of an intentional, ongoing relationship.

The third time we see Mephibosheth mentioned in II Samuel, it’s under very different circumstances. It takes place about ten or fifteen years after this meeting and presumably, Mephibosheth and David have been present to each other for all these years. David’s son, Absalom, is intent on seizing the kingdom and so he starts an insurrection. Everyone in Jerusalem has to decide: whose side are you on? David’s? Or Absalom’s?

The rebellion intensifies so much that David is forced to flee the capital. As he’s running out of the city, he encounters Ziba, the man who’s been charged to care for Mephibosheth’s affairs. They greet each other, and Ziba assures David of his loyalty. David asks where Mephibosheth is, and Ziba throws his master under the bus, saying that Mephibosheth has always hated David and that he’s stayed behind in Jerusalem in the hopes that David’s reign will collapse and Mephibosheth can become king.

David is, understandably, irked by this revelation, and so he gives Ziba all of Mephibosheth’s property on the spot.

Absalom’s rebellion ends with his death, and David returns to the city having won a military victory, but having lost a son, and a great deal more. He’s wrapped in grief and regret. When he gets to the palace, he discovers that Mephibosheth is there to greet him – and Mephibosheth is in mourning – he’s unshaven, he hasn’t bathed or changed his clothes – he’s a mess… but he’s so happy to see David! Mephibosheth manages to convince David that Ziba was lying, but the best that David can come up with in this time of grief and crisis is, “You know what? You guys work it out. Divide the property between yourselves.”

At this point, Mephibosheth responds by blurting out, “Property? Shoot – he can take the whole place! I’m so happy that you’re all right. That’s what really matters to me!”

The chesed with which David treated Mephibosheth over the years had come to bear fruit. The fearful, angry, resentful anonymous man who had grown up in Lo-Debar was now a friend who sought to treat David with the same chesed he himself had received. Mephibosheth has totally left the bitterness and self-pity of Lo-Debar and embraced David with the embrace that he himself received. The community has been substantively changed because of this relationship of chesed.

So what?

I mean, really, it is a great story – but what does it mean for us today?

We are made in the image of God. We are made to be like God. It’s not only David who is called to act as a person who is “after God’s own heart”.

Yes, you say. We get that, you say.

But too often, we think that acting like God means being “nice”. We think that being good Christians means being bland, polite, people who aren’t interested in making waves of disturbing anything.

But take a look at David. Consider Jesus of Nazareth, or those who followed him. The day that Jesus died, there was nobody who stood at the foot of the cross and said, “Now, you know what? That’s a real shame. I mean, this Jesus was a nice guy.”

When Peter or Paul or any of the rest of that crew blew into town and started preaching the Gospel and showing the love of Christ, nobody’s first thought was how well-mannered and polite these nice young religious boys were.

These people who were sold out to the heart of God and passionate about the love of Christ reached out to real people, dealt with real problems, and showed real love. They moved in chesed.

As should we.

For some of us, that means that it’s time for us to get up and move out of Lo-Debar. We’ve suffered greatly, perhaps as a result of someone’s intentional action or perhaps as a result of some unfortunate accident… but in either case it’s left us angry and bitter and living in the place of desolation… and it’s killing us. Some of us are called to open ourselves to the God who is reaching toward us in chesed and accept the truth that new beginnings are possible and healing of our damaged selves is the divine intent.

And all of us are called to live our lives in such a way so that there are fewer “nobodies” in our lives. We are called to learn people’s stories and to speak people’s names. You can see that in so many ways here. After worship, in fact, a group of people called the “connectors” will meet. Their goal is to make sure that people in this community are remembered. On the front of the bulletin every week we are told that one of the main purposes of this congregation is “to share life’s joys and sorrows.” The Connectors try to make sure that we don’t do that in the abstract, but that we know the stories of the people we sit next to each week.

We saw it again on Monday evening. A group of young people took a big fat check down to the Presbytery to be used for famine relief. But here’s the deal. Those kids are not interested in “feeding the hungry”. They are committed to sharing their resources and themselves with their partners in faith and their brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan. They want to act in chesed towards those with whom we are connected by a vibrant relationship. We know each other’s names. We’ve eaten at each other’s tables.

I’ll be honest with you – if you want to follow Jesus, being nice helps.

But you can’t do it without a willingness to enter into real (and sometimes messy) relationships with real (and often irritating) people who are in all sorts of real (and often complex) situations. The challenge for you, people of God, is to spend some time learning their names, hearing their stories, and showing them the chesed in which you yourself have walked. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Texas Mission 2017 #5

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The fancy dashboard screen indicates the outside temperature to be 111°. Yikes.

The last “work” day of our 2017 Mission to Mission trip was powerful in many, many regards.  For a variety of reasons beyond our control, the time spent at the home in Donna, TX was limited to half a day.  In some ways, that was probably a pretty wise decision, given the heat we experienced this afternoon.  As with most things in our lives, we didn’t finish the job entirely, but we had to stop anyway. We’ll trust that just as the Lord raised up hands to begin work of which we knew nothing two weeks ago, we’ll trust that there will be hands sent to complete the tasks we were obliged to leave undone today.  At any rate, it was wonderful to see this project to this point and to celebrate with the homeowners as they continued to dream of moving into their own new space.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Joe is sealing up the bathroom tile.

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Gabe installing some light fixtures

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried...

Here, the team observes a moment of silence for the broken pipe, only recently buried… I think Lauren may be reading some sort of liturgy from her phone.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

Bob engages in a little resurrection theology with the soon-to-be-mended pipe.

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window...

You know, painting, sawing, and Tina handing trim through the window…

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

What? A Long-billed Curlew stopped by the vacant lot next door? Who knew?

With Adriana and Raymond - we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

With Adriana and Raymond – we are glad to have been able to participate in this stage of their journey.

pizzahutOnce again, we found ourselves the recipients of lunchtime hospitality.  This time, it was not a meal cooked and delivered to the site, but rather the treat of personal pan pizza in air-conditioned comfort.  Our liaisons at First Presbyterian Church of Mission TX, Kathy  and “Tejano Bob”, took us to Pizza Hut in an effort to break up the day.  It worked.  Folks were in a food coma ten minutes later…

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut...

The interior of my van upon leaving Pizza Hut…

Several of us took advantage of the extra hours in the afternoon to visit the Refugee Center located at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen.  Here we were privileged to see how this congregation has rallied people of faith and good will across the Rio Grande Valley to provide a hospitable welcome to those fleeing persecution and danger in Central America.  Persons who are seeking refugee status in the USA are received by the Border Patrol and vetted at a detention center nearby.  Those who are cleared for entry and continuing the process are then brought to this center, where they are given a hot meal, a clean set of clothes, a shower, and a place to sleep for the night before going to the bus station the next day to travel to the city in which their sponsors will receive them.  It was our honor to be on hand when two young mothers and their children came in and were received so graciously by the volunteers of the parish.

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

The exterior of a tent used to house some of the refugees received at Sacred Heart

thurs3

Dinner provided us with the incredible opportunity to share in a lengthy reunion with the Paz family, with whom we were glad to work two years ago.  We stopped by to say “hello” yesterday, and then got a message inviting us to dinner today – and what a feast we shared.  There was enough chicken and sausage to feed an army, along with some amazing beans and a homemade cake.  It was good to get caught up on the who’s doing what in school and to see how the house is continuing to provide a blessing to our friends and those with whom they come into contact.  We don’t often get a glimpse of the kingdom, but tonight we did.  And we were glad for it.

img_8880

The table is spread!!!

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

Joe, Tim, Vicky, and Lauren

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly

With Julio, Ricardo, Juani, and Kimberly.  Alert readers will notice that Ricardo is holding a recently-imported bottle of Nali brand hot sauce from Malawi.  That’ll get the old salsa up and running!

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I'd say...

Sometimes, being friends with someone means taking a turn on the trampoline with them. Better Lindsay than me, I’d say…

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’ll take the drive up to Houston and then on Saturday return to Pittsburgh.  It’s been a great trip for all kinds of reasons, and I hope and pray that the fruit will show in years to come.

Texas Mission 2017 #4

By the time we get to the third day of a mission trip, we’re really  about as much “on a roll” as we’re going to get.  Generally, folks have some idea what we’re doing and how to do it… Conversations have been deep and warm, and similarly, if I got on your nerves a little bit on Monday, by Wednesday afternoon I’m literally killing you.  If you like BBQ, you’re in heaven; if it’s not your favorite, you’re ready to change channels; the time together is charging up all of the extroverts and the introverts are simply craving some “me time”…

Today was a great day.  In terms of the work, we have almost finished the exterior painting and knocked out a lot of the interior.  When we left today, the toilet flushed (ending our thrice-daily invasion of the local “El Tigre” Exxon station), the tile was just about into the bathtub, and the doors had all been hung and several were even framed.

In terms of the “chemistry of the company”, well, it’s just wonderful.  We’ve enjoyed Joe K’s amazing cooking skills and laughed at some of Pastor Dave’s hilarious jokes.  Encouragement has been shared, stories told, and our Bible study has been deep and rich.

At the end of the day, we visited the home of a family we were privileged to serve two years ago.  I’ve been friends with Juani and her son Julio on Facebook since then, and it’s a tremendous joy to see that the house to which we contributed has really become a home that sustains a family.  We had a delightful visit, and at the end of the day Juani invited us to return tomorrow for dinner.  Needless to say, we are very, very excited!

Here are a few images to help you get a glimpse into our week…

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines.  One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory...

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines. One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory…

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

And now Tina trims them to fit!

And now Tina trims them to fit!

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Dave applying the trim - a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Dave applying the trim – a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, "An army marches on its stomach.  There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days...

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, “An army marches on its stomach. There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days…

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize...

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize…

...and meanwhile, back at "Introvert's Corner", a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

…and meanwhile, back at “Introvert’s Corner”, a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.