What Are We Celebrating, Exactly?

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 Palm Sunday (March 25) we talked about parades and protests and pigs – and our texts included the story of Palm Sunday as told in Luke 19:29-40 and the curious story of the suicidal swine as found in Mark 5:1-20.  

To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below: 


Did you go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade last weekend? Not me. I saw some photos of you – at least, the captions claimed that it was you. Most of the bodies I saw were pretty bundled up. I’m telling you, it was cold that morning!

In all probability, it was pleasant and sunny on that spring day in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It usually is at this time of year. Maybe the residents of that city, unlike our own, have a preference for scheduling their parades on days when it’s fun to be outside.

Screen Shot from “Ben-Hur” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures, 2016).

At any rate, on this particular day, there were two separate processions that came into the Holy City. The gates of the western wall are flung open and the population greets the Imperial procession of Pontius Pilate. He lives in Caesarea by the Sea, but today, accompanied by hundreds of his security force, he makes the sixty mile journey to Jerusalem to be present for the beginning of the Jewish Passover. He’s not interested in atonement or hearing the ancient stories. He has come on this holy day to remind the people who is really in charge. The streets are lined with thousands of people, some of whom are throwing garlands and flowers, all of whom are eager to have some brush with real power. It is a massive display of military might, designed to bring awe, respect, and fear to the inhabitants of this occupied town. And it does.

Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, Aleksandr Antonym (2008). Used by permission of the artist. For more visit http://iconart.com.ua/en/artists/artist-14/oleksandr-antonyuk

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, there’s a small procession arriving through the back gate. An itinerant Rabbi arrives to the shouting of a few dozen, or maybe even a couple of hundred hardy souls. He’s planned it out to be just about the exact opposite of Pilate’s grand entry, however. He’s sitting on the back of a young donkey, wearing no armor, carrying no weapon. It is an intentional, subversive act that is designed to remind everyone that there is indeed a king, but that the king is neither Pilate nor Caesar. This Rabbi points to incredible power, but proclaims that it comes not from Rome, but from the One who created Rome, Jerusalem, and indeed the entire cosmos.

The local religious leaders see this procession led by Rabbi Jesus, and they try to stop it before it can gather much steam.

Which, when you come to think about it, ought to strike you as odd. The Pharisees worship the Lord. They knew that Caesar’s claims to divinity were invalid; they recognized that the religion of Rome was in direct contrast to faith in YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They and Jesus had memorized the same scriptures, participated in the same festivals, and shared the same history of God having called his people to be a blessing in the world.


Except that they were afraid…

Of what?

The Romans had an interesting view on religion. Officially, they claimed that the Caesar was the son of the gods. Officially, they pointed to the twelve great gods – beings like Jupiter, Apollo, Diana, and Mars – as worthy of worship. And yet when the Roman Empire took over a new territory, it permitted the practice of any ancient religion. If you and your neighbors have a faith, and Rome conquers your nation, you’re free to continue with your tradition, so long as you a) offer a pinch of incense to the emperor once a year, and b) don’t start any new religions.

Which meant that when the Romans occupied Palestine, the Jews were not forced to adopt the Roman religion. In fact, Rome made it easy on the Jewish leaders. According to the Jewish law, priests were not to own any property, but rather to subsist on the provision of God and the hospitality of God’s people.

But Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, built an incredible Temple for the Jews. He gave the priests land on which to build their own houses. Herod provided the upper echelons of the religious leadership with incomes, and respect, and power. And all he asked in return was that when the time came, they simply remember who gave them all that great, shiny stuff. Not God. Him.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, mosaic in the Palace of the Normans in Palermo, Sicily.

These religious leaders weren’t bad people – but they had sold out, and they lived in fear of losing what they’d come to love. And so when Jesus comes into town, quoting the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, telling people that YHWH is the source of all power and authority, pointing out that God alone is to be revered, and reminding them that the Kingdom of God is the only Kingdom that truly stretches from shore to shore… well, you know that’s going to raise some eyebrows.

To make matters worse, he’s bringing with him a ragtag assembly of disciples – a collection of unlettered fishermen and those who are blind, poor, excluded, and marginalized.

It’s no wonder that the religious leaders show up as soon as Jesus enters town yelling, “Hey! Rabbi! Ix-nay on the ingdom-kay alk-tay! What are you trying to do, get us all killed? Ruin this for everyone?”

And Jesus, essentially, replies, “Look, fellas, if you won’t see or recognize when God is on the move in such powerful ways, well, maybe you’re already dead… Maybe the rocks and stones that pave this highway have more life than you do.” And he continues his procession – or counter-procession, if you will.

Processions and gatherings are in the news a lot these days. As we mentioned, last week Pittsburgh hosted what is according to the organizers the second-biggest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Yesterday, millions of people participated in what was called the “March for our Lives” to counter gun violence in schools. Some of you hope for a Stanley Cup parade in June. And the President is talking about putting together a big military parade with tanks and guns and all kinds of power.

Some of those things are called “parades”, while others are deemed to be “protests”. What would you say the difference between those things is? Is there a difference between 22,000 of your neighbors putting on shamrocks and walking through town, and groups of citizens carrying signs about gun legislation, and the US military strolling through the nation’s capitol?

I’d like to suggest that a parade is designed to celebrate one particular aspect of a people’s culture, history, or achievement. A protest, on the other hand, is meant to offer a critique of the status quo – a plea, or a demand, that we do better.

Jerusalem, on that spring day 2000 years ago, had both. Pontius Pilate, barging in the front door, put all of Roman power and wealth on display in what was unmistakably a parade. And Jesus, sliding down the hill and into the back door, led a protest that raised a hope for a different future.

We remember both of those processions as we turn to the next installment in our ongoing study of Mark’s gospel – a reading which, at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with the events described in your reading from Luke. I would suggest, however, that there is a connection with some striking parallels.

When we last saw Jesus and his followers, they were out at sea in the middle of the night. They’d survived the storm (but barely, if you’d ask some of them) and were now headed over to what Mark has euphemistically referred to as “the other side” – the place where those people live – in order to proclaim Jesus’ Gospel message of the nearness of God’s kingdom.

And you might think that that’d be great, but look at what happens next. As soon as they make landfall – which just about has to be in the darkness of the night – they find themselves in the graveyard. And it’s not just any cemetery, but it’s the place where the local madman has taken up residence. He’s incredibly strong, he’s rejected (or been rejected by) society, and roams the tombs as he grapples with his demons day after day, night after night.

When he lays eyes on Jesus, he tries to send him away. Jesus, however, heals the man – however unwilling he may appear to be – and allows the demons to send a herd of 2000 pigs careening off the nearby cliffs. It’s neither the procession of Pilate through the Western gates nor the triumphal entry of Jesus through the Eastern gates, but there’s a parade all the same that night as this herd runs to its death.

The Gerasene Demoniac, Sebastian Bourdon (1653)

And early the next morning, the town council comes out to see what all the fuss is about. You can imagine that perhaps there were those demanding a study about the environmental impact of 2000 dead pigs in prime fishing waters, or a police report concerning the theft of property or services. When all of that is completed, these local leaders issue a firm request that Jesus get out of town as soon as possible. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have found this man “clothed and in his right mind”, but it’s surely caused more problems than it’s worth. Mark tells us that they “begged him to leave.”

It would seem that in the country of the Gerasenes, as well as in Jerusalem, Jesus is bad for business. He is at least a challenge, if not a threat, to the status quo.

And here, on “the other side”, he accepts their verdict. He tells his followers to get the boat ready because they’re shoving off… and now it’s someone else’s turn to beg Jesus. The man who has been healed wants more than anything to go with Jesus. And look at what happens: the man who didn’t want to be healed, but was, is now pleading to be allowed become a disciple – and he’s told to stay put.

Spoiler alert: we’ve not seen the last of this guy. You can believe me when I tell you that we’ll talk about him in the weeks to come.

So that’s the story. Two gospel readings – a couple of parades in Jerusalem and another off a cliff to the north. Here we are in Pittsburgh, 2000 years later – and it seems to me that all of this could have happened yesterday.

Presidents and Prime Ministers still insist on barging through the front gates, eager to display their power and to have us satisfy their egos. Nations still routinely kill their own citizens and support the interests of the few at untold cost to the many. Refugee camps are crowded beyond capacity because nobody wants those people anywhere near their homes. Banks and corporations plunder the poor and pillage the environment because, well, there’s money to be made there.

And over here, by the back gate, are the ones who are left out, shot up, shouted down, or beaten up.

Where is Jesus now?

The events of this week that is to come demonstrate that our world, and God’s own people, don’t always treat prophets well. Whether this is your first Palm Sunday or your eighty-first, it should come as no surprise to any of us that the Son of God is hanging on a tree by Friday afternoon.

Oh, we try to do our bit for the cause. Maybe some of you marched yesterday, or contributed to the kids who are away on their famine fund-raiser. Some of you might have set aside some time later this month to do a little work for the less fortunate, and a few of us will even post about it on social media.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sooner or later, we are going to have to make a choice as to whether we are going to raise our voices, risk our bank accounts, and offer ourselves. Are we willing to stand in front of Pilate’s weaponry armed only with hope, love, and the message of a Kingdom of peace?

As we said last week, we are called to become the righteousness of God in a world that doesn’t want that righteousness any more than the Gerasene demoniac wanted to be healed or the people of that region wanted to hear what Jesus had to say for himself. We are called to do the work of Christ in the places we are in the time that we’ve been given.

What will we do? What will we say? I hope to God that I will find the courage to echo once again, “Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place… as long as I’m alive I’ll glorify his holy name.” May we have the courage and grace to look beyond ourselves to the One who claims us, calls us, and sends us in his name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Who’s Laughing Now?


 Palm Sunday 2017 brought the folks at the Crafton Heights Church together in celebration of Palm Sunday worship.  Our texts included Psalm 2 and Luke 19:28-44.

For your convenience, an audio recording of this sermon as preached on 04/09/17 is available by clicking on the arrow to the left, below.

I’d like to start this message by showing you one of my favorite photos that includes some of my favorite people standing in one of my favorite places in the world. This is the team that has recently returned from an amazing mission to Malawi, Central Africa. That large rock face behind us is known as the Mulanje Massif, and we’re about halfway into a hike that will take us to a delightful little waterfall. There are three things I’d like to tell you about this photo.

I love this bend in the trail because when you come close to the edge, you can see very, very clearly all sorts of places where you’ve already been. When you look back, you can see the path up which we’ve come. Look down into the valley, and the stream and the camp and the road are visible.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him, Pietro Lorenzetti 1320

As we enter Holy Week, and as we continue our Lenten journey, and as we live into what it means to be Christians alive in the USA in the 21st century, we, too, can look back. If we look back far enough, we can catch a glimpse of the Triumphal Entry – Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Wow, that was a day to remember! The waving of the palms, the enthusiasm of the children, the singing – heck, even the protest was kind of fun. Who could forget the so-called “religious leaders” who were so appalled by the things that Jesus said and did? I mean, here was Jesus, receiving and enjoying the praise of the people even as he carried their hopes on his own back, getting ready to enter into the most desolate time of his life.

There’s so much that happened on Palm Sunday, and yet from our vantage point, it’s easy to see that one of the central lessons of this day is simply that God, and not another, is in control. As we hear the echoes of the Hosannas, we can know that nothing – not even the events of that horrible week that was to come – is able to separate this creation from God’s intentions for it.

And yet, if we stand here long enough, we might also be able to hear Jesus weeping on that first Palm Sunday. We overhear his lament at the fact that we too often choose to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God, and we follow paths of isolation, estrangement, or violence… and Jesus weeps.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

If we stand here this morning and look a little further back, we might just be able to make out something very far off… Do you see in the events of Palm Sunday a shadow of Psalm 2? This song was written for a worship service in which a king would be crowned. It begins with a nod to the realities of its own day: there is political intrigue and conflict, and some are seeking to harm the Lord’s anointed one. The world, even then, is full of those who would thwart God’s intentions – the old translations say that “the nations rage”.

As we listen to Psalm 2, it’s instructive to note that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where God’s messiah, King, and Son are mentioned in the same breath. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the early disciples remembered this Psalm as they talked about Jesus in Acts chapter 4. Jesus really became the son, king, and messiah of which the Psalm spoke, and they were able to look back and see that.

And in joining the disciples in reflecting on this Psalm, we can hear a sound that is even more distinct than the weeping of Jesus on Palm Sunday: the laughter of God. The Psalmist pictures the Lord considering the threat of the nations and finding it, well, amusing. As if the nations and their rage could threaten the eternal purposes of God. Please… The encouraging, comforting laughter of YHWH tells us that the universe is all right and that’s God’s care has not and will not fail.

So like those hikers in Africa, we can stand on the path and look back… and it’s good.

But let me tell you something about this photo. When this image was captured, I was about dead. The day was almost unbearably hot. I was irritated at carrying a backpack that seemed to have four people’s stuff in it. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I was out of gas. Every muscle in my body hurt and I was tired and achy and miserable. We took that photo because if we hadn’t stopped, the “Abusa with the big hat” wouldn’t have made it. I was overwhelmed, and so I suggested that we stop and take a moment to look around.

On Palm Sunday, 2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights will do well to pause and look around. Does anyone else feel as though you’re having a hard time? Have you felt this week or last week or sometime recently like it’s been really tough sledding? And I’m not just talking about your kidney stones or your sister-in-law’s job, I’m talking about the big picture. 3000 years ago, the Psalmist said that the nations were raging. 2000 years ago, Jesus walked right into a plot led by the religious leaders.

And this week, scores of innocent people were killed in a gas attack in Syria. Already this month, 43 Ethiopian children have been abducted from their villages by armed gunmen who killed 28 adults in the process. There are senior citizens in our own country who lack basic health care. Children in our neighborhood are going to bed hungry. Relationships are strained or broken. Many of us feel as though we are dwelling in uninterrupted pain or grief or depression. You think that maybe you heard Jesus weeping on Palm Sunday but in reality it was the not-so-stifled cries of the people around you. The nations have not stopped their raging.

We stop now, as we hide out here in worship, because we have to. We are threatened by the magnitude of the evil that we see on a daily basis. We come in and we talk about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but so many times that runs counter to our experience. It hurts. People are horrible to each other. If we can possibly hear the laughter of God, we’re not always experiencing it as comfort…there are days when it sounds as though even the Divine One is making a mockery of our very existence. We cry out in the midst of our pain and alienation, “Where are you now, God?”

Oh, we don’t always show it. I mean, look at that photo. I’m hiding behind the group. You can’t hear my wheezing. I look happy enough, but don’t believe it for a moment. Too often the rest of you do the exact same thing… you waltz in here and you’re dying on the inside but you won’t show it for a moment. The nations rage, and we feel it on the inside, even if we can’t show it…

OK, there’s one more thing you need to know about this photo and the place where it was taken: from where we are standing on the mountainside, we can’t see where we are going next. The path at this point disappears into some pretty heavy growth and winds around the side of the mountain. Oh, sure, the people who have been here before will tell you all about the waterfall that lies ahead, but you can’t see it or hear it from here. If you’ve never been there before, you can’t even begin to imagine the beauty of the spot to which we’re headed, or the way that those icy waters will refresh and invigorate even the weariest of muscles. Yet every single person in this photo turned to their right and marched into the forest, even though only three of us had ever been there before.

And truth be told, that’s a good metaphor for a lot of us in church now. We may be here because we’ve always come, or we may have a vague hope that somehow things will work out all right for us. Maybe we trust in the one who invited us into this part of the journey, or we believe that the path wouldn’t have led this far just to stop – I mean, it’s got to lead somewhere, right?

And so we keep walking. We hold on to the hope that Psalm 2 is true. We rely on the fact that the events of Palm Sunday are, in fact, a foretaste of what is to come.

Listen: I wish that I could stand here and tell you how you will experience the laughter of God in your own life. I long to give you the absolute assurance that you will receive healing in your own life; that your child will grow into a healthy, happy, and energetic adulthood; that your job will not be erased in the next sequence of downsizing. I wish I could say all of that for you, and you, and you…

But to be honest, I can’t see that far ahead on the path for you or for me; and, unlike that mountain in Africa, I’ve never been here before.

But what I can say is this: that I am confident of the path, and that I believe the one who called us to walk on it with him. I trust that in a cosmic sense, we are going to arrive at the truth that seems so far off right now.

The people frozen in that photo are in the in-between. They’re not where they started, but they can’t yet imagine how they’ll finish. Similarly, Palm Sunday is between the glory of the incarnation with all of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the astounding news of the resurrection… but with the pain of Holy Week on the immediate horizon.

Likewise, the death and resurrection of Jesus itself is between the unspoiled beauty of creation as described in Genesis and the ultimate healing that is put forward in the resurrection of the body and recreation of the world of which we spoke last week.

So, too, are we, right now, pausing to catch our breath, knowing that we are on our way. And since we don’t know what’s ahead, specifically, for any one of us, then for God’s sake let’s do our best to make the journey better for each of us.

Right before this photo was taken, I had set that heavy pack down. After our break, Joe picked up the pack and carried it for me. Our friend Keith walked with the team, and talked in a way that was encouraging and inspiring. Rachael saw that a couple of folks had emptied their water bottles, and she shared from her own.

I know. You’re not going to Malawi – at least not any time soon. But you can do all that stuff, you know. You have it in you to pick up someone else’s load for a while, even if he didn’t ask you to. You can stand next to your friend and tell her that you’re tired, or scared, or unsure. You can share what you have, even when you’re not sure that it will be enough. And you can keep on walking – walk right through the pain and betrayal of the upper room, into the darkness of Good Friday and the cold deadness of Holy Saturday. You can keep walking until you get a glimpse of the sunrise of the resurrection.

Maybe you can’t hear the laughter of God right now. But it’s coming. I promise you, it’s coming. And it is for you. Thanks be to God, it is for you, and for the innocents of Syria and the children of Ethiopia; it is for the One who rode a donkey into Jerusalem and for those who waited with him at his execution. In a real and final sense, the laughter of God is for the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. God laughs. And it’s good. Amen.

The Question Is…

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 20, we viewed the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as described in Luke 19:28-44 through the lens of Job’s soliloquy in Job 3.


seaver-IoossSt. Louis CardinalsWhen I was a kid, I loved watching Monday Night Baseball. Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola would call the action, and I believe that it was at this time I discovered one of the coolest things about television: the “split screen technology”. With half the screen, I could watch pitcher Tom Seaver look down for the signs that Duffy Dyer was flashing, and with the other half I could see Lou Brock dancing off first base, threatening to use his blazing speed to steal second base. Split screen allowed me to take in two different aspects of the same contest at the same time, and it surely increased my enjoyment of the game.

PIPA few years later, however, my neighbor got a new television with a technology that I hated. It was called “Picture in Picture”, and what that did was allow you to have one show playing on most of the screen, while an entirely different program was contained in a small box somewhere else on the screen. He’d have one game on the big screen and another game in the little box, and flip back and forth between them. So far as I was concerned, the Picture in Picture took two perfectly good games and ruined them by trying to mash them together.

This morning, we’re going to look at Job, chapter 3, and we’re also going to consider Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the end of the service, you’ll have to decide if this is more like the awesomeness of split screen technology, in which we have a helpful comparison and investigate the relationship between these two chapters of the same story… or if it’s more like the banality of Picture in Picture, which creates unnecessary distraction resulting in an unsatisfactory experience of either narrative.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Let’s look at Job. When we left him last week, he was sitting in silence with his wife and his friends after having suffered more grief and loss than anyone should ever have to suffer. For seven days, nobody said anything, and as we mentioned last Sunday, it is one of the most tender scenes of sympathy and affection in scripture.

That changes, as Job opens his mouth in what we English majors would call a “soliloquy”. That is, Job makes a speech here that reveals a lot about his inner self, and we’re not really sure at whom these comments are directed. Is he talking to himself? His wife? His friends? The Lord? Or is the author of Job using this speech to communicate with the readers or hearers of the story? One of the great things about a soliloquy is that the answer can be “all of the above”. Job’s words here offer an amazing insight into the depths of his character as well as an opportunity to consider the main themes of the rest of the book.

The chapter begins with Job cursing the day that he was born, and as he gets warmed up, his questions intensify. After lamenting the day of his birth and disavowing the night of his conception, he asks three significant questions. In verses 11-15, he says, “Why didn’t I die at birth? That would have been better than living until now…”

Not content with that, however, he asks in verses 16 – 19, “Why didn’t I die before I was born? I would never have known any pain at all!” And then he gets to the logical conclusion in verses 20 – 26, where he wonders, “Why does anyone even live at all, when we are bound to be so miserable?”

The net effect of Job’s soliloquy is that the reader is left with one hauntingly profound question: this man who has lost all that he has ever loved stands in front of us and says, “Why did this happen to me???”

weepingOn the other side of our split screen, we see Jesus as he enters the last week of his life. For most of the day, apparently, he does not say very much. His silence, however, extends to neither his supporters and disciples nor his adversaries and critics. The disciples and the crowds are yelling and singing to the Lord, and the religious leaders are barking at Jesus, warning him to make his followers stop that noise. As you’ve heard, Jesus’ response is that if the children of God are prevented from praising, then the very creation itself will sing out.

And when the parade is over, Jesus has a soliloquy of his own. It’s much briefer than the one we overhear in Job, but it is just as filled with bitterness and questioning. He looks over the city of Jerusalem from a vantage point that Luke wants us to see as very similar to the one to which he was taken by Satan during his temptation three years previous, and he weeps. He weeps for what is, and he weeps for what he knows will surely come. And through his tears, I believe that it’s pretty easy to see one hauntingly profound question: “Oh, oh, oh… How did we wind up here???” Jesus considers what has come before, and he surely knows what will come to pass in the next few days, and like Job, he is overcome by grief and emotion.

And this is what I think: I think that Job’s question and Jesus’ question are essentially two sides of the same coin. To use the television analogy with which I started, I believe that they belong on the same screen. Is there really much difference between asking “Why is this happening?” and asking “How did we get here?” I don’t think that there is. Job’s question is, perhaps, a little more personal in nature and little more pointed, while Jesus has a point of view that has the benefit of a little deeper perspective and involvement in a community. But I don’t think that, substantively, there is much difference here.

And the stories of Job and Jesus lead us to an important truth: it is ok to ask questions of God.

When I was seventeen, I was a busboy at the Longhorn Ranch, a big old steakhouse near my home. When I worked the closing shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them away. When I worked the opening shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them on the tables. I remember asking my supervisor, Ms. Hafley, “Since the last thing I did last night was wash these bottles, why do I have to wash them again?”

And, God bless her heart, Ms. Hafley looked at me and said, “David, ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.”

Seriously? Who quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to a seventeen-year-old boy while he’s cleaning ketchup bottles? Not only that, but she didn’t answer the question! (parenthetically, for some reason I will say that if you ever dine at my place, I expect you to comment on the cleanliness of the necks on my condiment bottles…)

But isn’t that the way that much of the church and all of Job’s friends treat our questions of and about God? “What are you, crazy? You shouldn’t ever, ever, question God. What, do you want to be hit by lightning? Sit there. Suffer in silence. Have some dignity, for God’s sake. But do not question the Lord or your fate. Do, and die.”

Thanks be to God, beloved, that the lives of Job and Jesus point to a different reality. The introduction to the book of Job and the story of the incarnation of Jesus both point to a reality in which the Creator is willing and able to enter into relationship with the creation – a relationship based on love, risk, trust, and vulnerability. In the context of a relationship like that, then, we are free to cry out. We are free to ask questions.

Remember that, my friends: do not let me or anyone else ever shame you for asking questions of or about the Lord. If God loves you, and he does; and if God is all-powerful, which he is; then surely in the context of that relationship God can handle a few questions from the likes of you and me.

But having said that, we do well to remember that if we are in a relationship in which it is permissible for us to ask questions, we are obliged to hear them from time to time as well, are we not? A relationship that permits questioning only from one party is not really a relationship at all, is it?

Whether we cry, with Job, Why is this happening?, or we sit with Jesus and wonder, How in the world did we get to this point?, the responding question of the Divine is the same: Now that you are here, what will you do? Look, this horrible pain is happening. This suffering is upon us. This thing that we have feared is imminent. What will we do?

Let’s go back to the split screen. In Job, we see a reality that is twisted by the one called Ha-Satan – “the accuser”. Although he is only active in the first two chapters of the book, he causes great damage. When we meet him, he is parading in front of God, trying to incite God to doubt the reality of Job’s love for God. Talk about chutzpah – you’ve got nerve when you set out to sow doubt in the mind of the Almighty! But that’s what the Accuser does…and then he leaves God’s presence and comes to afflict Job with all manner of pain and suffering and grief in the hopes of sowing doubt and distrust in Job’s life and in that of his community.

And it works. For weeks, I’ve asked you to pay attention to the language of creation that shows up in Job. Look at what happens in the reading from this morning: Job not only curses the day of his birth – he wishes that that day were nothing but darkness. Go all the way back to page one of creation: what is the first thing that the Creator ever says? “Let there be light.” In his soliloquy, what is the first thing that Job says? “Let there be dark.”

And if you think I’m stretching it, then remember the end of the creation story. What is the last thing God does when he’s creating? He rests, and he gives rest to the creation. And how does Job end his soliloquy here in chapter 3? By saying that there is no such thing as rest. I suggest that Job chapter 3 is a reversal of creation – that the accuser has sought to undo the work of the Creator in Job’s life. And for the next 35 chapters, the story of Job and his friends is one of a community moving more and more deeply into this alternate reality whereby the grace of God is not enough to reach into Job’s life; there is neither light nor rest for that which God has made, and everything is all wrong.

The Accuser – Ha-Satan – wants Job and his wife and his friends to believe that the goodness of creation is a lie. The Accuser seeks to re-write the story of who and whose we are.

Palm_SundayLook at Luke. In our reading from today, the religious leaders – the very people who ought to be speaking the truth of God and surely truth about God – the religious leaders find themselves in the position of shushing the Divine. They are afraid of the praise of the Lord. They have lived into fear, into pride, into self-preservation… They have lived into the lies of the Accuser.

Listen to this: when Jesus sat on the back of that donkey on the first Palm Sunday, he faced the same question as did Job and as do you and me. The question before us each and every day is which story will we choose to believe? Who will we trust?

The Accuser told Job and his friends, he told Jesus and the religious leaders on Palm Sunday, and he tells us that it’s all up to us because we are fundamentally alone in the universe and therefore we are each ultimately and uniquely responsible for making our own meaning in the world.

And the Creator – the One who knows what does make for peace; the One who builds hedges around that which he loves; the One who brings order from chaos and who apparently enjoys the thought of singing rocks – that Creator approaches those whom he has made in love and promises to be with us in the hardest places of our lives.

The God who made you loves you enough to invite your questions. And the God who made you loves you enough to give you one of his own. It’s Palm Sunday. It’s a cute day to see all the little kids with their palm branches and maybe we even take a few fronds for ourselves.

But remember that today and every day we face a fundamental question of identity. This is the only Sunday in the whole year where we have both palms and ashes before us. We have the choice: whose story will we believe, and how will we show that in our lives?

It’s Palm Sunday, beloved. Cry out to God, if you need to. Where are you, God? Why is this happening? And cry out to your community, if you can. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! And this week – this week in particular – follow Jesus. All week, follow Jesus, and learn with him to dwell more deeply in the story for which you were made. Amen.

Fit to Be Untied

We welcomed Palm Sunday (04/01/2012) in Crafton Heights by reading through Mark 11:1-11.  This was the conclusion to a month of conscious exploration of questions of membership in the church and connection with each other.  In addition to hearing the scripture and sermon, the congregation was invited to sign on to a large reproduction of the covenant as a means of displaying our connection with each other in Christ.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (between 1884-1896)

What do you suppose happened to the colt?  It appears to be one of the unanswered questions of scripture.  Mark tells us that Jesus’ followers went into town and took the animal, saying that Jesus said he’d bring it back when he was finished with it.

Do you think that he did?  I mean, things got pretty busy pretty fast that week.  Do you think that Jesus arranged for the little fella to get back to its mother?  Or was that a detail that got overlooked in the cleansing of the temple, the last round of teachings, and then the trial and crucifixion?

We don’t know what happened to the colt.  What we do know is that at the beginning of chapter 11, the colt is tied up.  We know that because in the space of the first five verses, there are five references to tying or untying that beast.

It was tied.  Do you suppose that the Jerusalem chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested on behalf of this colt?  Why should that animal be tied up, anyway?  What if the source of water was just out of reach?  What if there were no shade or shelter from the intense Middle Eastern sun?  Why should that colt have to remain tethered there – or anywhere – subject to being pestered by dogs, children, or insects?  Colts are created for freedom!  To run, to leap, to play in the meadows of the world!  Untie that colt!

Yes, but…what if that colt was tied for its own protection?  After all, it was out of traffic.  Tying it there, under the vigilance of the neighborhood watch group, would keep the colt from being separated from its mother.  A tied colt is a secure, unflustered colt.

Why was it tied up?  It could have been any of those reasons, but I suppose that there was a simpler response to that question: the colt was tied there so that it would be ready when it was needed.

The gospel writer doesn’t reflect very long on how or why the colt was tethered.  All we know is that it was tied, and then it was untied and led to the place where Jesus used it.

I’m not really talking about colts, you know.

I wonder about you.  To what are you tied, and why?

Do you feel locked into your job?  Your relationship?  Your mortgage?

Some of us are tethered to a sense of self.  “I’m the guy who always has to ask ‘why?’”, someone told me the other day.  Maybe you see yourself as the life of the party or the “good” child or the caregiver.

We’re tied by our habits.  A friend of mine told me that he was unavailable for anything on Thursdays because it was bowling day.  You wash the car every Saturday.  Good habits can pin us down.  Of course, bad habits can, too: you keep twisting the truth as you try to finagle your way out of a situation at work and discover that you can’t remember what really is true…you think that maybe you could cut back on the amount of time you waste on your computer, but it’s so easy to just turn it on and get lost in the world of gaming…

As you think about your own life, do you prefer to be tied or untied?  For us, unlike that colt, it is essentially a matter of choice, after all.  We can decide to accept a job or buy a house or remain in a relationship or continue to play the games or whatever…

I believe that most of us, most of the time, prefer to be tied in to some areas of our lives.  We want something that is steady, and predictable.  We want a routine.  A friend told me recently that she hoped to develop the kind of relationship where she could go into a restaurant and have “the usual”.

I know that is not what our culture says that we want.  From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fight Club, from Thelma and Louise to the Hunger Games, we learn that humans want to be free from the shackles that confine us; we talk about breaking free from conformity and obedience and sameness… and yet we so often choose to be tethered to something.

My question for today, then, is this: do the things to which I tie myself interfere with Jesus’ ability to use me?

Giotto di Bondone, fresco, created between 1304-06

Jesus’ instruction, after all, was not merely to untie the colt.  He said, “Untie it, and bring it to me.”  At the risk of over-investing meaning in a sentence or two that Jesus said, it seems to me that we can infer that both tying and untying have a place and a purpose.  We are not created for slavery or drudgery or a dull grey monotonous existence.  “Untie that colt!” Yet neither are we sent into the wilderness of this world with no structure, no relationships, and no identity.  “And bring it to me!”

Like that colt, you and I are called to be in the place where we are most useful to God.  Sometimes, that is in a place where I am rooted or anchored, bound to structures and relationships that sustain and define me.

And sometimes, I need to be loosened from those places and led somewhere else.

Much of the time, the place to which I’m currently tied prepares me for life that is on the way.  Marriage prepared me for fatherhood, for instance.  Showing up at work allows me to practice keeping promises and to anticipate the situations I encounter once I am there.  And being in a special relationship with the group of people known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights helps me to see what is important through eyes that are like, but not identical, to my own.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to consider whether you are able and willing to sign a document that reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, in response to the grace of God, desire to be constituted and organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to be known as The First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights.  We promise and covenant to live together in unity and to work together in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ, bound to him and to one another as a part of the body of Christ in this place according to the principles of faith, mission, and order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This covenant involves a lot of tethering – to live in unity; to work in ministry; to join together as followers of Jesus.  In the covenant, we are tied to each other in faith, in mission, and in an order that comes from Christ.  That covenant implies mutual submission.  In signing that document, I am making a choice.

It’s important for us to realize that when I sign this covenant, I am binding myself not only to the Lord, but to you – for His sake and for the sake of the world, in addition to whatever joy I might receive from maintaining a connection with you.

The first Palm Sunday gave the people in Jerusalem the opportunity to acclaim Jesus as Lord and savior.  In the events of the week that followed, his closest friends re-evaluated what exactly it meant to say that Jesus is “savior” and “lord”.  They were already tied to Jesus, of course, but in that first Holy Week they had to untie themselves from the notion of Savior as that of a conquering hero or military presence.  When they were free from those notions, then the earliest church was able to follow Jesus into the world, loving and serving in his name.

Being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has historically been, in some places at least, a pretty smart move.  You came into town and you signed a covenant like this and you could expect certain payoffs.  The Presbyterian Church was full of contacts that would be useful for your career.  The Presbyterians were known to have a lot of doctors and lawyers and bankers, so when you needed some advice, it was nice to know that those folks were playing on your team.  The Presbyterian Church was full of “our kind” of people, and you could go there, as did my parents, to meet a prospective spouse and then some babysitters.  Being Presbyterian carried with it a certain level of credibility and prestige – at least in many places.

And, for all I know, that’s still true in some corner of the globe.  But for the most part, we live in a culture in which church is irrelevant.  It’s seen as, at best, an idealistic gesture wherein we can gather to attempt to hold on to memories from the past. Bill Gates
, the founder of Microsoft, has summed up this view of the church by saying: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”  At its worst, of course, the church is now seen as a destructive influence that perpetuates bigotry and hatred and ought to be done away with.

And yet, here we are, committed to one another in love.  Here we are, sitting next to people who not only are NOT Doctors and Lawyers ready to give out free advice, or business tycoons who are prepared to advance our careers – heck, the people we are sitting with can’t even be trusted to like our music, or to vote the way that they ought to in November, or to make decisions that we always agree with.

And yet God is calling us to tie ourselves to each other in the belief that we as a body will be of use to him in this time and in this place.  Not because we are so smart or well connected or attractive or even right all of the time, but because there is something here that we cannot make, we can only receive; there is something here that is given, not taken; there is something here that is for healing, not for cursing.  There is the body of Christ.

This day, I hope that you will join me in promising ourselves to each other because we trust that Jesus Christ is still at the front of this parade, and he will take us where we ought to go.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.