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.

What Difference Does It Make?

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 30, we witnessed the dancing of King David as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem… and considered how dangerous worship can be..  Our text was II Samuel 6:12-22 and we also listened to Colossians 3:15-17

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below.

 

Well, good morning! How are you feeling? Have you checked your vital signs lately? Heart rate? Blood pressure? Cholesterol?

I’m asking because of an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers followed a group of nearly 75,000 people for twenty years, and found that women who went to church more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the study period than those who never went. These people had higher rates of social support and optimism, lower rates of depression, and were less likely to engage in some key self-destructive behaviors. See? You mother was right. Going to church is good for you. And if this study is right, judging by how often I see you, some of you are going to live forever.[1]

One might conclude from this study that worship is a fundamentally safe place and involves little risk. I’d like to challenge that assumption.

Worship is – or ought to be – dangerous. It was in the days of King David. The beginning of chapter six, which was not included in our reading for today, describes how the Israelites organized a great big religious festival in order to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Things were going along more or less as choreographed when all of a sudden one of the oxen pulling the wagon stumbled a bit, and the lay reader for that day, a man named Uzzah, reached out to grab the Ark. No one is exactly sure what happened here, but the result was that Uzzah was struck dead by the hand of God. Apparently, he thought that it was his place to “manage” God, or that God needed his help in order to stay on track, and God didn’t appreciate that.

Well, nothing takes the wind out of the sails of your church service like having the hand of God smite one of the lay readers, so folks scattered and they tucked the Ark into the garage of a local non-Israelite until someone came up with a better idea.

King David was so scared that he didn’t do anything about it for three months, because that was the day he realized that worship could kill you.

And we read that in 2017 and say, “Wow, I mean, I thought I was going to die of boredom a few times, but nothing like that has ever happened around here…”

That may be because we’re more comfortable with the worship that Uzzah was liable to lead. I’m not here to speak ill of the dead, but we all prefer to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how much it’s going to cost. We like worship to be energizing, but even moreso we want God to be predictable and well-managed.

If that’s how we treat our relationship with God, then we’re doing it wrong. The act of worship and the life of the disciple is a wild ride that is fully engaging and utterly transformative. It will change us.

One of the best letters I have ever received came to me from a 12th grade student who had joined me on a short-term mission pilgrimage to the developing world the year before. It was about ten pages, hand written, and in it she dropped the “F— bomb” more than you might typically think necessary in a letter to one’s pastor. The first four or five pages were angry accusations that our trip to visit the world’s poor had totally screwed up her life and her plans for her senior year. She wrote, “When I returned from that trip I discovered that all of my friends were shallow, self-centered, and materialistic. Worse, I saw that I was all of those things, too. Of course, we were all like that last year, but I didn’t know it. Now, thanks to you and that stupid trip, I know who I am and I know the world I live in and I know some of what God expects of me. All I wanted was to be dumb and happy and enjoy my senior year, but now I keep having big thoughts about how screwed up everyone’s priorities are. And it’s lonely here.”

By the time she got to page ten, she was thanking me for giving her an opportunity to take this trip, but it was a fascinating bit of self-revelation for a young woman to share… God is dangerous and unpredictable, and if we think that showing up in worship is a nice little way to pass the time and maybe impress your boyfriend’s parents, well, we’ve got another thing coming.

David and Michal in the windows of St. Therese Church in Vasperviller, France

Part of why worship is dangerous is the fact that it reveals to us and to the world who and what we love. In the reading from II Samuel, for instance, David’s wife Michal isn’t participating in worship – she’s watching, from a distance. She was in a prominent place where she’d be noticed, but not expected to actually do anything. And she comes down hard on her husband for behaving in a way that she thought compromised his position. She screams at him, “Is this any way for a king to act?”

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the Hebrew word for “king” is melek. The melek is the one who has unbridled authority and does what kings do: grab, take, seize, rule… all in their own power.

When Michal challenges David, however, he says, “Yes, I am called to this office… as nagid – “prince”. When David was anointed, he was called the nagid of YHWH – extending the power and benefits of God’s realm in submission to the God who had called him to service and sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. YWHW is the King; David is the nagid who serves at the King’s pleasure.

David realized that the act of worship is a means by which we discover and announce to the world the things that are most important to us.

We say things like this all the time at church, of course. But I’m not sure that we really mean them. You all love that old hymn by Isaac Watts that goes, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” I know you do. We sing several versions of that here.

Whole Note = “certain terms and conditions may apply. Not valid every Sunday.

You know that hymn ends with what musicians call a “whole” note, right? That is, it’s an extended period where we sing the same note and the same word… Unless we’re honest, and we admit that’s where we slide in all of our terms and conditions…

Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all…unless it’s opening day of trout season…or my kid is in a Sunday soccer league…or I had a date last night that was really fantastic but it just got too late and…” You see? That “whole” note allows us the time to tell God what we really mean.

The act of worship is important and defining. In choosing who and what to worship, we allow those things to shape our priorities and practices. Our worship forms our identity.

In 1957 the New York Giants baseball club uprooted itself and moved to San Francisco. The team was losing fans and revenue and the West Coast beckoned alluringly. Reporters asked the team’s owner how he felt about leaving the kids of Manhattan, and he replied, “I feel badly about the kids, but I haven’t seen many of their fathers at games lately.”[2] In other words, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m a big fan”, but unless we’re showing up at the ball park, nothing will change.

So, the choices we make about worship are fraught with meaning and reveal a great deal about not only who we worship, but who we are. The final point I’d like to make about worship this morning is that proper worship makes the world a better place, even for those who do not believe.

Detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th c.). The caption for this image in Latin reads, “How, having completed the sacrifices, David blesses the people, distributing bread and other foods among them.”

When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he offers sacrifices of meat and grain. The reading describes how everyone in Israel got a square meal that day. In and through his worship, David blessed both the people of Israel and those in his own home. The things that happened between David and God leaked out of David into the world around him, and that world became a better place because David had been in worship.

There is a great deal of American Christianity that is unsettling to me because we come to worship as consumers. We are feeling a little sad, or wonder about our purpose in life might be, or are afraid of our own mortality, and we think, “You know what? I’m going to get myself to church. That will make me feel better.” And it does. We come out, we sit with our friends and we sing some perky songs; the pastor gives us a nice little pep talk and I feel better about my life. Worship is a refuge. A sanctuary. An escape.

We all need that from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling at home with or encouraged by worship. But the main goal in worship is not to make you happy. Some years ago a fellow pastor told me that as he was greeting people after worship, folks were walking by exchanging the usual niceties. One woman, though, took him by the arm and said, “Pastor, that was a very moving service. I must say, however, that I did not care for the second hymn – not one little bit.” The pastor replied, “Well, then, how fortunate for everyone that we didn’t come here this morning to worship you.” That man knew the truth: the main aim of worship is to point to God and to seek to shape ourselves to become more and more the people God intends us to be for the good of the created order.

When we give our hearts and minds to God, our lives will reflect the things of God. To put it another way, your neighbor’s life should be better because you are here worshiping this morning. If the things that we do and the ways that we do them on Sunday mornings do not lead to this neighborhood knowing more of God’s love and grace and blessing, then we ought to pack up and go home and try something else.

When David worshiped God, the people around him were blessed. Does that happen in your home? On your street? In your workplace? At your school? What difference does any of this make to the people who have never been here?

If we do this right, more children will be coached and mentored and loved because we’ve been here. The lonely will be visited, the poor will be fed, and those who would abuse their power or authority will be challenged.

This story about David and his dancing before the Lord is not here to impress on us what a great guy David was. It’s here to demonstrate how powerful and awesome David thought God was – and how far-reaching the implications of that were for David and for those who surrounded him.

Frederick Buechner describes this well in his brief essay on David:

With trumpets blaring and drums beating, it was Camelot all over again, and for once that royal young redhead didn’t have to talk up the bright future and the high hopes, because he was himself the future at its brightest and there were no hopes higher than the ones his people had in him. And for once he didn’t have to drag God in for politics’ sake either, because it was obvious to everybody that this time God was there on his own. How they cut loose together, David and Yahweh, whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame of such magnificence that not even the dressing-down David got from Michal afterward could dim the glory of it.

He had feet of clay like the rest of us, if not more so – self-serving and deceitful, lustful and vain – but on the basis of that dance alone, you can see why it was David more than anybody else that Israel lost its heart to and why, when Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his flea-bitten mule a thousand years later, it was as the Son of David that they hailed him.[3]

I hope and pray that your participation in worship this morning, this month, this year, does more for you than lower your blood pressure and pep you up. My prayer is that this practice of worship would ignite in you a holy fire so that you, and we together, might be a blessing to the world because of all that God has done in and for the likes of people such as we. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/16/health/religion-lifespan-health/

[2] http://www.sbnation.com/2012/10/29/3570908/san-francisco-giants-new-york-giants-franchise-moved

[3] Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 23-24).