Some ‘Splainin to Do

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 23, 2016 we looked at the problems that developed as neither Saul nor David was able to treat Michal as a person in her own right… and we wondered how much of what we “know” is really true.  Our scriptures included I Samuel 19:8-17 and Luke 13:10-17.

 

It is a fixture of my childhood. I remember sitting on the sofa with my grandma watching reruns of I Love Lucy. If you remember Lucille Ball, you’ll remember her character as the good-hearted but clueless woman whose antics often put her and her friends into awkward situations. And do you remember her husband calling on the phone or stepping into the apartment, discovering her shenanigans, and then calling out, “Luuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do” in his rich Cuban accent?

lucyIt was funny – really funny. Her character is clearly a ditzy woman who is hopelessly inept who cannot help but leap out of the frying pan and into the fire in episode after episode. Fortunately for her, she has a husband who can come in and sort things out, help her cover over her mistakes, and make things right again. Do you remember that? I Love Lucy was the most-watched show in the 1950’s, and really shaped American culture for years.

As we continue our exploration of the life of the biblical hero David, we find ourselves in the midst of a story where a woman is being called on the carpet by a man who has power and authority over her. In today’s reading, we meet a young woman named Michal.

At the end of chapter 18, we learn that the daughter of King Saul had fallen for young David in a big way, and that gave Saul an idea as to how to get rid of his rival. Saul lays out a trap for the young lovers: he tells David that he’s willing to “give” his daughter to David because, after all, there’s no way that a poor shepherd boy could afford the marriage price that was customary for a royal wedding. The only thing that David has to do is go out and single-handedly slay 100 Philistines, the sworn enemies of Israel. Saul has got to be thinking, “Oh, wow, this is too easy! After all, nobody kills a hundred Philistines! They will wipe the floor with him and I’ll be rid of him forever!”

David confounds the plan, however by slaying not merely the requisite 100 enemy soldiers, but by overcoming 200 of them. He wins the girl and Saul’s hatred and fear of David only increases.

Today’s reading takes place after the wedding, and if you think you’ve got problems with the in-laws, well, just be glad you’re not David. Michal was there to save David’s life, and if you read the text just right, you can hear Saul calling Michal into the house, yelling, “Michal, you got some ‘splainin to do!”

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Michal’s answer is a little puzzling at first. In verse 11, she’s warning David to get out of Dodge as fast as he can, and yet in verse 17 she looks her father in the eye and says, “What could I do, daddy? That mean man threatened to kill me!” That only makes sense if the backdrop to this story is a culture wherein women are essentially powerless to stand up to the men in their world. What else could she say? He was the King, he was her father, and he was a he. Her hands were tied.

One important thing that this part of the David story reveals to us is that Michal loves David so much that she saves his life. Michal keeps David alive so that he is able to live into the promises that God has for him. What would have happened, do you think, to Israel if David had not been warned and therefore was murdered that night? How would the Bible and the story of God’s people be different if, instead of showing up in all the Psalms as well as the books of Samuel and Chronicles, David was just a three paragraph mention – a potential rival who was quickly dismissed?

What if Jesus was not the Son of David? How would history be different?

Michal’s bravery and quick thinking led her to take action that averted such an alternate history. She kept David alive and therefore kept the promise alive. And for that, people of faith should offer thanks.

Allow me to pause for a moment and invite you to reflect on this. My sense is that nobody in this room has had your life saved by a spouse who stood between you and a murderous father-in-law, then helped you climb out the window, and then made up a pretend you and hid it in the bed. This part of the story has little in common with our experience.

However, I would suggest that each of you knows someone who has believed in you when you didn’t or couldn’t believe in yourself. You know someone who has kept the promise of hope alive in your life when you couldn’t see it for yourself. There is someone who has stuck their neck out for you, challenged you, loved you, saved you, and in fact has kept you so that you were free to become a better person. Am I right?

Who is that person in your life? Take a moment to give thanks to God for those who have carried us, believed in us, held us up when all we were able to do was sink down.

And you think, “Yes, Dave, that’s nice. I do have those people in my life, but you’re still getting off track here. This Bible passage is whack. Saul and David have no right to shuttle Michal around like she’s yesterday’s double coupon deal at the Giant Eagle. This is a horrible way to treat someone.”

It is. And it seems even worse when we are immersed in a culture like our own, where women are subjected to abuse or unwanted contact with all manner of television personalities and athletes and politicians and business leaders. We read the newspapers and we cringe; we open the Bible and we see the same behaviors, and it’s just hard to take.

It is. Because Michal was treated wrongly. There is no justification for treating another human being like a piece of property or a pawn in a chess game.

One of the reasons that I know it’s so wrong is because I can compare the way that Michal was treated by the men in her life with the way that Jesus treated the women in his. Our reading from Luke contains the story of a woman who had suffered horribly for 18 years. The day that she met Jesus, she was set free by an act of miraculous healing. When this occurs, she does the exact right thing: she praises God for the movement of the Spirit and celebrates her restoration to the fullness of her own life. It is a beautiful thing, and everyone there agrees…

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called "Two Brothers Sarcophagus", mid-4th century.

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called “Two Brothers Sarcophagus”, mid-4th century.

Everyone, that is, except the men who are in charge. Their reaction is the exact opposite. The leader of the synagogue immediately begins to shame the woman for being healed. Instead of celebrating her restoration to a vibrant life, he calls her out in front of the community and attempts to publicly humiliate her for having the nerve to be healed on the wrong day. He does everything in his power to remind her that she is nothing, she is no one, she is insignificant.

But Jesus… oh, sweet Jesus… Jesus shut that man up and put an end to the man-splaining of the day. He named the gifts of relief, release, and healing, and proclaimed that these things were always in order, and therefore not to be bound by any human regulation or timing. And, then, best of all, he turned to the woman and he called her out.

And did you hear what Jesus called her?

“Daughter of Abraham”, he said. In the presence of these men who puffed and preened and as Pharisees and Sadducees and Doctors of the Law were so proud to call themselves “Sons of Abraham”, he called her a “daughter of Abraham”. For the first time in the entire Bible, a Jewish man (Jesus) looks at a Jewish woman and says, “You are a daughter of Abraham. You belong. You matter. This is your place, too.” The phrase “Son of Abraham” shows up in many places in scripture, but this is the only place in the entire Bible where that phrase is used – and that is incredibly significant.

And note, too, that Jesus did not call this woman “the” daughter of Abraham. No, she is “a” daughter. Because there are others, don’t you know?

It is a statement that is incredibly empowering to that woman. It is equally infuriating to the men who think that it is their job to control and corral the women. And it is liberating for the crowd of onlookers who have been raised to think that there is such a thing as a first class follower of God and a second class follower of God; all their lives they’ve been led to believe that there is a hierarchy within the faithful, and men are on top and women are not. And here, Jesus says, “no. That’s not it at all.” Jesus repudiates the culture of Saul that would treat women as objects to be owned, trinkets to be adorned, or vessels for male pleasure or satisfaction.

You, woman in the synagogue: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, Michal, daughter of Saul and wife of David: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, every female child to come forward during the children’s sermon: you are a daughter of Abraham.

The Good News of the Gospel today is that God’s promises are for all of us. The covenant includes us equally. That’s the truth. That’s always been the truth.

I opened this message by reminding you of that famous phrase from the I Love Lucy show: “Luuuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do!” I’m just curious: how many people in the room, like me, remember Ricky Ricardo calling out to his wife like that? I didn’t see you sitting on the sofa with my grandma, but do you remember that?

No, you don’t.

You can’t remember that, because he never said it. You can comb through all the episodes of I Love Lucy and you will never hear Desi Arnaz’ voice uttering those words. It’s just like people who “remember” Darth Vader saying “Luke, I am your father”, or Rick Blaine saying to the piano player in Casablanca, “Play it again, Sam.” Some psychologists call this the Mandela Effect, and it refers to a large number of people who share the same false memory. None of those things ever happened, even if you are sure you “remember” them from the movie.

And it struck me this week that if I can “remember” something that didn’t happen, then it can only follow that some of what I “know” is wrong. And therefore, perhaps, some of what “everybody knows” is also wrong.

Let that roll around in your brain for a few moments. How much of what you “know” is not true? Because we are shaped by a culture, because we are children of an age and inhabitants of a particular world-view, it is very probable that we think we “know” things that never happened and are not true.

For instance, as you were growing up, what were you taught about other races, or other nationalities, or other religions? What did you “know” about Latinos or Asians or Irishmen or Muslims? And in the circles in which you walk and spend your time, what does “everybody know” about those groups, or about Jews or elderly people or feminists or homosexuals or Presbyterians?

You see, in David’s day and in Jesus’ day, some of what “everybody knew” was flat-out wrong. Women are not subservient or second-class. There is not a “pecking order” or hierarchy when it comes to participating in the grace of God.

This week, ask God to help you see what is really true: what is eternally true; what is God-honoring, neighbor-loving, sin-defeating, wall-destroying, prejudice-dashing, scapegoat-freeing, life-giving truth. And may God correct us in our mis-remembering and bring us to a deep awareness of and appreciation for the other; may God give us the willingness and the strength to stand up for and stand alongside of those who have been wrongly silenced or marginalized. May all our remembering point us toward the One who called himself the way, the truth, and the life. Thanks be to God, Amen.

(In)Significance

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Bridges and Harbors and People I Love

Our congregation ended the month of August 2016 by sending our friends Michael and Rachel Weller back to Ethiopia after a season in which we had enjoyed each other’s company for eight months.  You can read more about their ongoing work as mission co-workers by clicking here.  Our texts for the day included Luke 10:1-12 and selected verses from Romans 16 (included below).  

 

If you have spent any time with me on the river this year, you’ve probably been forced to hear me wax poetically about two bridges that exist almost side by side on the Allegheny River just upstream from the Point.

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Sixteenth Street Bridge (also called the David McCullough bridge) is my favorite span in the city. It is a thing of beauty and strength as it connects the North Side and the Strip District. I love the sculptures – winged seahorses in spheres – that symbolize the four corners of the earth; I love the engravings of fish and of Poseidon that adorn the columns; and I love the fact that you can walk across it. It’s a bridge that points to awe and wonder and reminds us that it’s good for communities to be connected to each other and we ought not to take that for granted.

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Just downstream from that structure is the Veterans’ Bridge, an imposing platform that whisks traffic from Interstate 279 to Interstate 376 as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is a giant, ugly conveyance that seems to regard the communities over which it towers as little more than distractions or inconveniences. The only way to cross that bridge is in a vehicle, preferably as fast as you can – because that bridge is not designed to create wonder or awe or thanksgiving – it’s designed to get people from someplace way over there to someplace way over there as smoothly and rapidly as possible. “Here” does not matter to those on the Veterans’ Bridge.

And if we were in a boat under those bridges, I’d tell you that I think the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be more like the Sixteenth Street Bridge than the Veterans’ Bridge. The Church ought to create wonder and awe as we celebrate connections that can be made and progress that can be measured.

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

And as I pondered this, I drove my boat under the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge, which goes from Homestead to, well, something that isn’t there anymore. And it occurred to me that a lot of our churches are more like this bridge than either the Sixteenth Street or the Veterans’ Bridges. That is to say, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to create an elaborate structure, characterized by strong support systems and rock-solid foundations – and yet, that structure doesn’t really go anywhere, make any connections, or lead to any accessibility. In terms of functionality, the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge is a useless relic.

That said, if you offered me a chance to visit one of these bridges this afternoon… I’d choose the Carrie Furnace, hands down. I think it’s fascinating.

Why does any of this matter?

Because I realized a long time ago that I would have made a horrible apostle – at least initially.

This is my idea of a great day!

This is my idea of a great day!

I think I would have been a great disciple. It would have been so cool following Jesus around, engaging in long, drawn out conversations about stuff that really matters, and having deep and intimate relationships with other followers. I like that kind of stuff. And so when I heard Jesus say, “Pray that God will send out some people to do God’s business in the world,” man, I’d be all over that prayer. “Come on, Matthew, Andrew – let’s pray that God sends some people!” And then, after the prayer, before I can say, “Hey, Simon, what are you doing for lunch? I know this great shawarma place over in Capernaum…”, Jesus says “Go! I am sending you!”

Um, really? Me?

Look, I understand if you don’t believe me now, but the truth is that “Go!” is not my first nature. I’ve learned something, and there will be more about that in a moment. But if I had been in charge of the early church, it would have looked much, much different.

We’d have been hanging out together, and we surely would have missed Jesus after his ascension and all that. And I’d make sure that we got together each night for a little singing, and then I’d probably ask some awkward and intrusive questions that made you want to avoid eye contact for a while. We’d keep building the relationships amongst the disciples, and we’d dive deeper and deeper into that small group…

Yet fortunately for everyone who’s ever lived, I was not in charge, then or now. The first disciples (translated from the Greek word for “follower”) were shaped to become the first apostles (translated from the Greek for “one who is sent out”). And as that happened, they left the relative safety of their own homes and culture and families, leaving the delight of constant relationships with each other in order to follow God’s call into the rest of the world.

If it had been me, we’d have hung around in Jerusalem, Bethsaida, or wherever, mooning and spooning about the good old days and wondering if God would ever use us again. But thanks be to God, the real Apostles did what Jesus told them to do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that the intimate relationships continued. You know that when Peter and John were in the same town, they got together and prayed and talked and maybe even sang a few of the old songs. I am certain that personal relationships are the fabric from which the church was created.

The text that taught me that was today’s Epistle reading, Romans chapter 16. This chapter, incidentally, is the number one reason you have never signed up to be a reader in church – because you’re afraid that I’m going to stick you with something like this.

Here’s the background: Paul, the Apostle who traveled the most, is also the Apostle who left the best record of his deep and intense personal connections with people. Here, he closes his letter to the church in Rome, which happens to be one of the heaviest theological treatises in the New Testament, with a list of names. In so doing, Paul turns the discourse on correct theology and Christology into a love letter as he names names, sparks memories, and points to the web of relationships that sustains the church.

I’m going to read it now, and in the split second that you hear a name, try to imagine each name as a real person; someone with a story, a home, a friendship, and a joy. Listen for the intimacy that is here…

Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.

Say hello to Priscilla and Aquila, who have worked hand in hand with me in serving Jesus. They once put their lives on the line for me. And I’m not the only one grateful to them. All the non-Jewish gatherings of believers also owe them plenty, to say nothing of the church that meets in their house.

Hello to my dear friend Epenetus. He was the very first follower of Jesus in the province of Asia.

Hello to Mary. What a worker she has turned out to be!

Hello to my cousins Andronicus and Junias. We once shared a jail cell. They were believers in Christ before I was. Both of them are outstanding leaders.

Hello to Ampliatus, my good friend in the family of God.

Hello to Urbanus, our companion in Christ’s work, and my good friend Stachys.

Hello to Apelles, a tried-and-true veteran in following Christ.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

Hello to the family of Aristobulus.

Hello to my cousin Herodion.

Hello to those who belong to the Lord from the family of Narcissus.

Hello to Tryphena and Tryphosa—such diligent women in serving the Master.

Hello to Persis, a dear friend and hard worker in Christ.

Hello to Rufus—a good choice by the Master!—and his mother. She has also been a dear mother to me.

Hello to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and also to all of their families.

Hello to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas—and all the followers of Jesus who live with them.

Holy embraces all around! All the churches of Christ send their warmest greetings!…

And here are some more greetings from our end. Timothy, my partner in this work, Lucius, and my cousins Jason and Sosipater all said to tell you hello.

I, Tertius, who wrote this letter at Paul’s dictation, send you my personal greetings.

Gaius, who is host here to both me and the whole church, wants to be remembered to you.

Erastus, the city treasurer, and our good friend Quartus send their greetings.

All of our praise rises to the One who is strong enough to make you strong, exactly as preached in Jesus Christ, precisely as revealed in the mystery kept secret for so long but now an open book through the prophetic Scriptures. All the nations of the world can now know the truth and be brought into obedient belief, carrying out the orders of God, who got all this started, down to the very last letter.

All our praise is focused through Jesus on this incomparably wise God! Yes!

Paul, the Apostle who was sent by God to amazing places – was Paul in each and every one of those places. He had long conversations, and he asked irritating questions. He interceded in arguments and started a few, and there were some old songs along the way. But everything he did was in service of the mission on which he’d been sent. Paul was who he was, where he was, for the sake of the One who had called him and sent him.

I started this message with thoughts of bridges, and I talked about how the church of Jesus Christ ought to be about bridging divides, revealing wonder and awe, and so on. And as I think of our own little expression of that church – the community of people here in Crafton Heights, I am drawn to a slightly different metaphor: that of a harbor.

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

According to our friends at dictionary.com, a harbor is “a part of a body of water along the shore deep enough for anchoring a ship and so situated with respect to coastal features, whether natural or artificial, as to provide protection from winds, waves, and currents… any place of shelter or refuge.”

This place – this building, this set of relationships, this collection of ministries… this needs to be a place of safety. We are called to be a refuge to which you can come as you are with no fear of judgment and no pressure to be perfect; the church is a community in which you can let down your guard. When you’ve been out to sea for a while and you feel beaten up and drenched and overwhelmed by storms, this congregation is the place to which you come for healing and restoration and refreshment.

And this is a place for equipping – you ought to be growing while you are here. Learn about yourself, discover resources that will help you on the next leg of your voyage. Become enlarged in your capacity to serve, give, or lead.

And remember that like all harbors, this is a place from which you will be sent. No one is here forever, soaking it all in, hiding from the peril and adventure of the open sea.

A harbor, after all, is valuable only inasmuch as it is a place where vessels come and go. Ships, of course, are made for sailing. Ships are specifically built to transfer people and cargo, knowledge and ideas, from one place to another. Harbors exist to make sure that when it’s time for a ship to sail, it’s ready for the journey.

A harbor that is full of vessels that never go anywhere is a waste! There is no benefit to the community that surrounds the harbor, and in discouraging ships from sailing, a harbor is seeking to prevent them from accomplishing their created purpose.

A vibrant harbor is an active, confusing place: it is complete with vessels that are coming and going, transferring resources from one crew to another, sharing advice or notes as to where to travel, how to deal with storms, or amazing sights that the open sea will bring. A harbor that is working as it has been designed is a place of vibrancy and life.

This morning, in our little harbor, we say “God be with you” to Rachel and Michael Weller as they prepare to return to their home in Ethiopia. It has been good having you in port these past eight months, and we hope that you are somehow a little better equipped for the next part of your journey.

In our little harbor, a lot of collegians have already left, and more will head out tomorrow. We’ll welcome a new musician next week, and an additional staff person at the Open Door the week after that. The programs at the Preschool and Open Door are getting ready to kick into gear, and some of you are going to get a call from the Nominating Committee in the next few months.

Beloved, let’s remember with gratitude and affection those with whom we’ve been privileged to spend time, but who now find themselves at sea – on the journey elsewhere. And let us pray that they find the next harbor when it’s needed.

Beloved, let’s include those who have made it here safely, and who need some respite, equipping, and a place to share their gifts.

Beloved, let’s encourage each other to live into the purpose of being the church in this place, at this time, with these people. And let us not be afraid of the journey that is to come – this afternoon, this week, this month – knowing that the One who calls and sends us is the One who guides and protects us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

His Name is “Jealous”

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 13, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is called “Jealous”.  Our texts included Deuteronomy 6:13-15 and Eugene Peterson’s translation of  Romans 12:1-2.

FabricScissorsI might be wrong, but I would suspect that I am not the only person in the room who has been involved in a scene like this: picture 12-year old Dave Carver finally getting to work on the stupid homework from stupid history class that involved making a stupid timeline and collage. Just after young Dave finishes cutting out all of the stupid newspaper articles and stupid magazine photos, Dave’s mother walks into the room. Instead of motherly love and appreciation at seeing the young scholar her son was becoming, she let out a horrifying shriek. “What did I tell you,” she screamed, “about using my fabric scissors to cut paper?!?!”

hope-the-hydraulics-hold-upIf you haven’t been there, you’ve seen it in other places: cringe-worthy scenes where people are clearly using the wrong tool for the wrong job. Sometimes, it’s funny.

gun-safety

Sometimes, it’s frightening.

And if it’s your tool that is being misused, sometimes it is just infuriating, isn’t it? I mean, that’s yours! You care for it. You bought it for something special. You have an idea of how and why and where you want it used, and now some idiot is doing what with it? Do you know that kind of anger?

The Hebrew word for that emotion is qin’ah, and it comes from a root meaning “warmth” or “heat”. It’s related to an Arabic word that means “to become intensely red” – to get “fired up” about something. Qin’ah is a word that refers to passion and zeal and ardor. Your dad probably displayed that kind of passion when he walked into the room the time you were using his brand-new carving knife to open up a can of paint.

You heard a moment ago that one of God’s names is “Jealous”. Deuteronomy, and at least a dozen other places in scripture talk about the fact that “God is a jealous God.”

Normally, when we think of the English word “jealous”, we associate it with a painful and negative emotion; we think of the “green-eyed monster”, and we don’t often have positive things to say about anyone who is acting jealous.

Yet the Advent God whom we love and serve is described in more than a dozen places as being a “jealous” God. The word most often translated as “jealous” in our English bibles is qin’ah.

God is passionate for his creation. God knows how we are made, and he knows why we are made. And if your parents get upset when they find you using the wrong tool for the wrong job, imagine how torn God becomes when he watches his beloved creation constantly using our gifts and talents and energy in the wrong places; imagine how God feels when we look to something other than God to tell us who and what we are. And yet that’s what we do, time and time again – while we were created to be in relationship with God and with each other, we so often give into the temptation to use ourselves and that which we have been given wrongly; we are attracted to that which will kill us, and God, understandably, is passionate about that.

This Advent season, in particular, I’d like to point out several things that compete for our attention and which we find attractive – seductive powers that would draw us away from God’s best and into a spiral of disobedience and brokenness that will tear apart our ability to live faithfully as God’s children.

Echo and Narcissus (detail), John William Waterhouse, 1903.

Echo and Narcissus (detail), John William Waterhouse, 1903.

For some of us, the number one thing that distracts us from God’s intentions and purposes in our lives is, well, ourselves. The ancient Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was strong and attractive and remarkable in many, many ways. He was, however, extremely proud and he did not think that anyone else was worth his time – his only thought was for himself. One day, he was hunting in the forest and he stopped at a small stream to get a drink of water. As he bent over the pool, he saw his own reflection in the water and he fell in love with it, not realizing that it was only an image of himself. He stared at the pool for hours, and then days, unable to leave it, and he eventually died there. Today we use the word “narcissistic” to describe those who are so preoccupied with themselves that they are unable to pay attention to the world around them.

God created you to be many things, and surely beauty and remarkability are included in that mix. However, the point of what you have been given is not you, but rather how you share it with the world around you. Advent is a time for us to stand against narcissism and remember we were made to be in community with other beautiful and remarkable people.

I found this image on the internet and am unable to credit it appropriately. If you know where it's from, I'm happy to do so!

I found this image on the internet and am unable to credit it appropriately. If you know where it’s from, I’m happy to do so!

Some of us, though, hear the preacher say stuff like that and we say, “beautiful and remarkable, huh? Not likely. I try not to look at the mirror because I don’t like what I see or who I am.” When that happens, we find ourselves succumbing to the allure of an idol I might call “Consumption”. If narcissism tells you that you are all that and a bag of chips, then consumption’s constant refrain is “more.” You need more. You don’t have enough. You would be beautiful and remarkable if only you had this car or that outfit or those shoes or that lover. Again, you don’t have to look very far in this season to see how that idol is playing for our attention, do you? Turn on the television and see the freakishly proportioned human beings that are held up as models for what we ought to be like. Your teeth are not white enough, your chest is the wrong size, your skin is too wrinkled, and don’t even get me started on that hair. And that’s just our physical selves: the danger of the idol of consumerism is that it invades every corner of our lives – we are constantly told that what we have and who we are is just not enough – and so we have to seek to add to that by buying or seeking that something additional that will make us acceptable.

safe_image.phpAnother idol that would love to get between you and the Lord’s intentions for you this day is one of which we have heard far too much in recent weeks. The false god of “security” is one at whose altars we are all tempted to worship. Think, if you will, of the ways that we are encouraged to build our lives around fear:
• “those people” are coming to get us so we better get them first.
• we need higher walls and bigger fences
• more is better: more money in our retirement accounts, more weapons in our arsenal, more canned goods in our pantry…

Now look – don’t get me wrong: I have insurance and I lock my door and I put my granddaughter in a car seat and I try not to antagonize large humans who want to hurt me. I like security. Security is not bad – in fact, it is one of the promises of God.

The problem comes when I begin to think that the way to get security is by somehow amassing my own resources or strength or protection, rather than trusting in God and working with you to create a world where everyone, not just me, is more secure. Security is a gift from God enjoyed in the context of a community wherein all experience the presence of safety and shalom. It does not come from having a state-of-the-art alarm system or a thick stock portfolio or the biggest army on the planet.

Advent is the time of year when we remember that God demonstrated his passion, his ardor, his jealousy, his qin’ah for us by coming in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God saw his beloved creation looking to sources like self, consumption, or security to provide what only God can give, and God’s response to that was to send his own self to us in a form that we could apprehend and understand. Jesus was, as his friend John said, God who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.

In Advent we remember God’s passion and purpose for us and we ask God to once more remind us that God, and God alone, makes us sufficient and complete. That God, and God alone, gives us identity and purpose. That God, and God alone, directs our steps.

In light of God’s qin’ah – God’s raging passion and zeal for us, what are we to do? I might suggest three simple steps that we can take that will shape us for living as those who are grateful for the fact that Jesus came and expect that he will come again.

One thing that we can do is simply to believe that God does love us, is passionate about us, and is willing to be our source and stay in the world. The primary narratives in the beginning of the Bible all deal with someone’s inability to wrap their heads around the fact that God can be trusted. Adam and Eve eat the apple, Cain kills Abel, the Israelites wander through the desert for a generation, the kingdoms fall all because someone can’t believe that God is either concerned enough to or capable of paying attention to the world that he’s made. The primary response to the passionate love of God that fills this room and your life is to accept it, say ‘thank you’, and trust in it.

Once we believe that God’s qin’ah is for our good and that of the world, then we move more deeply into it by paying attention. We look for the places where God is moving, and we participate there. We look for the places where we experience God’s absence, and we ask him to reveal himself there. A couple of weeks ago I asked a high school student about her prayer life, and she said, “I just try every night as I am getting ready for bed to talk to God about the day. I try to remember to thank him for being there, and I tell him the stuff that I’m worried about.” She is paying attention – keeping one eye on God and the other on the world around her.

And when we trust that God’s passion is for us and on us, and we pay attention to where the purposes of God are erupting in the world around us, it’s easy to make ourselves available for God’s work and God’s priorities. Our calendars and our bank records and our social media posts are reflective of the things about which God is passionate because we are intentional about connecting with God in those places. That’s what Paul is saying to his friends in Rome when he reminds them to take their everyday lives and put them before God as an offering.

You may or may not notice that every week Glenn or Ray or someone stands in the back and counts the number of people who are in the building. Every year Kate fills out a form indicating how much money came in and out of this church. Neither of those things are the primary measure of this congregation. What matters, first and foremost, is not what you do in here on Sunday morning, but what you do with the thing that Paul calls your “your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life”. If we filled this room on Sunday morning with hundreds of people who all said the right things and sang the songs perfectly, but our world was not changed, we’d be doing it wrong. The time that we spend in here is not an end in itself, but rather a reminder of God’s passion for us and a refresher as to how we can be equipped to say “no” to the idols of our day.

We are often tempted to think of jealousy as a negative characteristic, and it’s not one that 21st century American Christians associate with God that often. Yet there is something amazing and powerful about jealousy if we understand it as a deeply-held love that is angered when the object of that love is threatened by something that is less than the best. Jealousy – even our human understanding of it – is a reminder that we are deeply loved and thought to be of worth. This Advent, let us remember that we are, indeed, deeply loved. We have, in fact, been richly blessed. And we will, by God’s grace, be able to participate in and share that love, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings, but in the reality of our daily lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Are You Like Mike?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

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

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

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unhindered

Some thoughts on bringing babies to Jesus – and what keeps them away from his intentions.  Our worship on August 23 was anchored in Luke 18:15-17, Colossians 3:21, and Proverbs 22:6

It’s been a busy week here at the Crafton Heights Church. As we creep closer and closer to September, there is more and more activity in and around this building. This week we had painting and Preschool planning and staff conversations and the newsletter was published and lots more – including a Session meeting. At that meeting, the elders of this congregation approved a six-page document called “The Safe Church Policy of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights”. This is a statement regarding the protection of minors while they are in our building or attending church-related events.

safe_church_0The “Safe Church Policy” was made necessary by some sweeping changes in the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These changes resulted from a number of high-profile cases wherein adults have done unspeakable things to children.

This is not a new problem, of course. There are many people in this room who are survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. And this is not a distinctively American problem – all around the world, people do horrible things to children. And so, under the rallying cry of “Somebody ought to do something,”, the lawmakers and insurance companies got together and created these new regulations that will result in a host of new policies and practices at virtually every facility that serves children.

Here at Crafton Heights, that means that there will be more open doors, an increased need for adult volunteers, a heightened screening of those volunteers and staff, more paperwork and increased oversight as well as additional fees. And we are fine with that – because we want to do it right.

But here’s the deal, beloved: Our goal is not simply to comply with the law. Our objective is not to create a paper trail that will make it harder for us to be sued. That’s aiming too low. Our calling is to be a blessing to children and youth. To nurture, protect, and guide these children as they grow. To love them as God in Christ has loved us. That’s what we want to do – keeping them safe is simply a part of that.

jesus-children-clipart-6I would imagine that just about everyone in the room is familiar with today’s Gospel reading. Jesus blesses the little children. It’s the stuff of Sunday School posters and bad artwork for longer than any of us have been alive. We know that about Jesus. Jesus blesses children – of course he does. That what Jesus is all about, right?

Christ Blessing the Children Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

Christ Blessing the Children
Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1535–40

In his day and age, Jesus’ attentiveness to children was counter-cultural. In the ancient world it was not uncommon for unwanted children to be left to die of exposure or given away to those who would raise them as gladiators or beggars, yet Jesus points to the weakest members of society and honors them. Luke heightens this emphasis, for whereas Mark and Matthew say that people bring their “children” to see Jesus, Luke points out that they are bringing babies. Jesus’ blessing of such babies is entirely consistent with his affinity for standing up for those who are on the fringes.

This morning, though, I don’t really want to look at what Jesus does; I’d like to consider what he says. In this brief passage, Jesus gives pretty explicit instructions to his followers: “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

Let’s talk about that word, “hinder”. In the game of racquetball, if I get between you and the ball such that you can’t reach it, instead of me getting the point for being such an amazing athlete, we have to replay the point because I have “hindered” you. That is, I’ve gotten your way; I’ve cut off your access to the ball. The Greek word kaluo is a key word in the Luke’s writing. At least twelve times in the two-volume work that forms Luke and Acts, he uses this word to communicate something important about the Gospel.

In Luke 6, Jesus says that we are not to hinder another person’s access to the things that he or she needs, even if that thing is “ours”. In Luke 9, Jesus scolds his disciples for “hindering” someone who is doing God’s work simply because he’s not doing it the way that they expect him to. Later, Jesus charges the Pharisees with “hindering” people’s ability to live faithfully.

When Luke was writing Acts, he mentioned that the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know if there was anything that “hindered” him from being baptized, and he uses the same language in the conversations around Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius – there is no reason, apparently, to “hinder” the progress of God’s truth. In fact, the very last word in the book of Acts is the negative form of this word: akaluo. Luke finishes telling the story of Jesus and the early church by saying that the Gospel itself is “unhindered” as it is set free in the world.

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. Used by permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

Jesus and the Children, from MAFA: Christian Art in the African Tradition. http://www.Jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA

So when Jesus says, “don’t hinder the children”, he’s saying more than simply “keep out of their way”. I think that he’s telling his followers that these children deserve unfettered access to the love of God in Christ, and that disciples of Jesus are called to do everything in our power to give children the opportunity to be embraced by the Lord.

So of course, we need to have a “Safe Church” policy. But we need to remember that protecting children from physical abuse is the starting point – the ground floor of this enterprise. What else are we going to do?

Well, I can promise you several things that will be true as long as I am the pastor of this congregation.

If you and I are talking and someone who is less than four feet tall comes and starts to tug on my robe, I can pretty much guarantee that you and I will be interrupted, because I want that little person to know that Pastor Dave is interested in what she or he has to say.

You need to know that children are going to cry during worship, God willing. I know, it’s very important that we nurture and instruct our kids in the art of sitting in and participating in the worship service – but the fact of the matter is that not all of us are good at that all the time, and neither are our children. And we will not banish children who make a little noise.

This congregation will work to create meaningful experiences outside of this room wherein children can be welcomed: FaithBuilder classes and toddler care rooms and other places where faith can be nurtured and intergenerational friendships can flourish.

Through the ministries of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool and The Open Door, we will enlarge the circle of caring by providing excellent role models and mentors and safe places to grow and learn what faith looks like and how we practice it on the playground and on at Youth Group Mission Trips.

Those are the policies and procedures and programs that we will continue to work on as we strive to make this church a “safe place” for all children. If you see something going on here that is hindering someone’s access to the love and blessing of Jesus, I hope that you’ll tell me what it is. Because if the Gospel is unhindered in the Roman world, it sure as heck ought to be unhindered here in Crafton Heights.

But the reality is that it’s not enough for the leaders and volunteers here to seek to remove hindrances. There are some obstacles to faith that are rooted in the home.

One of the most significant barriers between children and the embrace of Jesus is a demon whose name is “perfectionism”. We do our children and grandchildren a disservice when we expect them to do everything right all the time, or when we think that the way that they will live into their discipleship has to look exactly like the path that we have followed. Parents, don’t expect your children, your family, or your church to be perfect. Again, look to Jesus: he lived with and shared grace all the time – surely we can too. The reading from Colossians indicates that even crusty old Apostle Paul took time to write to the parents in his churches and remind them that it’s important to give the next generation a break every now and then.

Another word that I would have for parents in this regard is to please, please, please be attentive to the schedules that you are building for your children’s lives. Activities and extra-curricular events are important and wonderful opportunities for children of any age, but we have to make sure that worship and time with family are anchors for the week. Karate and football and music lessons and dance are foundational experiences in so many ways, but my hope and prayer is that they would find their meaning in the context of a life that is rooted in Sabbath, worship, and other rhythms that nurture the child in Jesus’ love and embrace.

JesusAndChildrenAnd even if we as a congregation have an amazing set of programs and policies, and individual families are diligent when it comes to establishing patterns that point children directly into the arms of Jesus, there are some larger cultural issues to which we ought to dedicate ourselves.

None of what I’m going to say now will surprise you. We want to work for that which promotes peace and justice and hope. We have to support structures that educate and feed and shelter those who are at risk. We must be diligent in our willingness to stand with those who are oppressed and do what we can to remove anything that would hinder their experience of Jesus’ blessing.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy week here at Crafton Heights. But the truth of the matter is that writing out a “Safe Church Policy” is the easy part. By all means, go over and see Jason and Cheri. Fill out the paperwork. Give your fingerprints to the FBI if you need to. Go ahead and check all that stuff off your list.

But know this, beloved: filling out the forms and making the insurance company happy is not the same as blessing the children in Jesus’ name. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

May we – as a congregation, as a community of families, and as a culture – commit ourselves to doing the things that will take time, energy, love, and creativity as we seek to bring the children with whom God has entrusted us to a place where they will have access to the fullness of his love. Thanks be to God for the children we’ve been given and for the mercy under which we live. Amen.

See You At The River (Malawi 2015 #10)

When I was a kid, I remember coming home from school more than once to an amazing cacophony. As I stepped onto the porch, I could hear the vacuum cleaner whirring away. Louder than that, though, was my parents’ old hi-fi record player, blaring either George Beverly Shea or Tennessee Ernie Ford. The loudest of all, though, was my mother, singing at the top of her lungs,

Shall we gather at the river –
The beautiful, the beautiful, the river?
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God!

Know this, dear friends: my mother had many, many gifts. Music, however, was not among them. In fact, there were days when I hesitated to invite my friends to play at my house after school lest they find themselves treated to a concert by a trio whose most talented member was, in my twelve-year-old opinion, a Hoover upright.

That image came back to me the morning that we gathered with a group of people in our partner church and sang (in a way that may have been a mild improvement on my mother, the Hoover, and George Beverly Shea),

Ndiye Mzimu Wakuyera
Atipatsa ife makhalidwe
Ofanana naye Yesu
Anatsika Kumwambako.

When it comes to the Chichewa lyrics, I'm always ready to give it a go!

When it comes to the Chichewa lyrics, I’m always ready to give it a go!

So far as I can tell, the Chichewa lyrics have no discernible relation to my mother’s favorite hymn, but I’m here to tell you that the tune is the same.

I’m pretty sure that the old American gospel song is referring to the day, bye and bye, when we are called from this world of toil and care and freed to live in heaven. Maybe that’ll happen just the way the songwriter hoped it would, and I’d be OK with that. But tonight I write in a land that is shaped by a river: the mighty Shire that flows from Lake Malawi to the Zambezi and then to the Indian Ocean.

And I write as one who is profoundly marked by experience in a city that was built on not one, but three mighty rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio, which eventually joins the Mississippi and spills into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sharon warmed up to little Dalitso ("Blessing") by - what else - play!

Sharon warmed up to little Dalitso (“Blessing”) by – what else – play!

One of the deep and substantial gifts of the international partnership is that we don’t have to wait for pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. I am sitting in the remote town of Ntaja, where we have spent the evening with fellow Christians who have become friends. We have eaten well, we have talked of important issues in the world, we have shared stories of family, and we have laughed. Oh, we have laughed.

And while I will not be sure of this until tomorrow evening when I am reunited with our whole team, I have every reason to expect that in eleven congregations in numerous villages and cities across Southern Malawi, a scene like this played itself out again and again and again. We come to Balaka or Blantyre or Nansambo or Luchenza not as tourists and not as donors. We come as partners, as the Apostle Paul would put it, “fellow members of the household of Christ.” We are the saints. And we have gathered by the river. And it has been good – very, very good.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to suggest that traveling to Africa is the only way – or even the best way – to grow in appreciation for the body of Christ. And I’m not suggesting some escapist strategy wherein we hide out in a corner somewhere and sing “Kum Ba Ya”. I won’t be surprised if we get back to Blantyre tomorrow and discover that someone’s trip has been interrupted by an illness or somehow marred by errors in judgment, execution, or misinterpretation. Partnership is a tool that the church can use – and like all tools, it’s not foolproof, and it’s not for every situation. Yet it is the tool that I believe God has used with great impact in my own life as well as the congregations with which I am closest.

Johnson and Charity Damelakani, our hosts in Ntaja, my colleague in ministry, and our friends.

Johnson and Charity Damelakani, our hosts in Ntaja, my colleague in ministry, and our friends.

So thanks, mom, for teaching me that if only the best singers sang, the world would be too quiet. Thanks, partners in Malawi and in South Sudan, for teaching me that each voice has something to add. And most importantly, thanks be to God for a glimpse of God’s ultimate intentions, a community where there is boundless laughter and love and joy. I can see that a little more clearly tonight, and I am grateful.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze, a visitor to Crafton Heights last year, invited us into her home.  This is her family.

Mrs. Rose Chitedze, a visitor to Crafton Heights last year, invited us into her home. This is her family.

The Sunday School program for the children meets in the unfinished "new building" of the Mbenjere Church.

The Sunday School program for the children meets in the unfinished “new building” of the Mbenjere Church.

A significant portion of Mbenjere CCAP's "Executive Committee" welcomes us to worship.

A significant portion of Mbenjere CCAP’s “Executive Committee” welcomes us to worship.

We were privileged to be invited to the "Youth Group" (in Malawi, that's the term for what we might call "young adults" in the USA).

We were privileged to be invited to the “Youth Group” (in Malawi, that’s the term for what we might call “young adults” in the USA).

One of the things we did at the "Youth" meeting was to practice some of the initiative games I learned in South Sudan and discuss the ways that the church can bring healing to its community.

One of the things we did at the “Youth” meeting was to practice some of the initiative games I learned in South Sudan and discuss the ways that the church can bring healing to its community.