At Fever Pitch

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.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

Why Are You Here?

This week, we continue to explore the notion that God calls people to new places in their lives and in the world. In recent weeks, we’ve considered calls to Jeremiah, Zechariah, Isaiah, Peter, Samuel, and Timothy and talked about the ways that God’s call is extended to folk in every station of life, that it brings us to humility and confession, and that we are in need of mentors and guides to help us grow in our attentiveness. This week, eavesdropped in on a call that Queen Esther of Persia received about 500 years before Christ.  Our other text was Acts 4:23-31.

Queen Esther Seeking Permission to Speak, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca.  Used by permission.  http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther Seeking Permission to Speak, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

The book of Esther begins like a fairy tale – a beautiful young woman is plucked from obscurity and becomes the queen. However, the fairy tale I have in mind is Bluebeard, not Cinderella or Snow White. Ahasuerus is a greedy, violent, egocentric man who enjoys a life of luxury out of touch with the real world. When his first queen disappoints him, he takes care of her and brings in version 2.0, a young Jewish girl named Esther. While the text does not indicate that she lied about her faith, she didn’t publicize it either. She is mentored in her faith and life by her uncle, a man named Mordecai.

Somehow, Mordecai gets on the wrong side of the king’s chief advisor, who seeks to avenge this wrong by killing not only Mordecai, but every Jew in the land. Later, the advisor gets the king to sign off on this deal. Listen:

When Mordecai heard about all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on rough cloth and ashes, and went out into the city crying loudly and painfully.  But Mordecai went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one was allowed to enter that gate dressed in rough cloth.  As the king’s order reached every area, there was great sadness and loud crying among the Jewish people. They fasted and cried out loud, and many of them lay down on rough cloth and ashes to show how sad they were.

When Esther’s servant girls and eunuchs came to her and told her about Mordecai, she was very upset and afraid. She sent clothes for Mordecai to put on instead of the rough cloth, but he would not wear them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs chosen by the king to serve her. Esther ordered him to find out what was bothering Mordecai and why.

So Hathach went to Mordecai, who was in the city square in front of the king’s gate. Mordecai told Hathach everything that had happened to him, and he told Hathach about the amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasury for the killing of the Jewish people.

The first thing that we notice about the call to Esther is that it comes at a time of particular need. There is clearly a crisis – the “chosen people” are threatened with extinction. If no action is taken, then disaster will ensue.

It’s interesting and important to note that the first part of Esther’s call story is not God speaking truth from the sky, but rather a trusted mentor and friend bringing a problem to Esther’s attention. This fits in very well with the story of Samuel and Eli last week – here, we see Mordecai preparing Esther to be able to receive the call by educating her as to the current situation. And even though they are unable to speak face to face, Mordecai makes sure that the message gets through:

Mordecai also gave him a copy of the order to kill the Jewish people, which had been given in Susa. He wanted Hathach to show it to Esther and to tell her about it. And Mordecai told him to order Esther to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and to plead with him for her people.

Surreptitious Dialogue, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Surreptitious Dialogue, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

I’d like to point out at this part of the story that the call of God to Esther is entirely consistent with her abilities and station in life. Mordecai is asking her to approach the king and to seek to save the Jewish people because, well, she lives with the king and she is Jewish. This is an important distinction for us to consider when we think about God’s calling and direction for our lives.

There was a time when I talked about my life’s purpose, and I actually said out loud that I’d really appreciate being called to be the trombone player for the rock band Chicago. A couple of years after that, I noted in my college yearbook that my highest aspiration in life was to be the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. There were several problems in each of those plans, perhaps most notably the facts that I wasn’t that good a trombonist, I hated to practice, and I didn’t ever go to law school. The list of people more capable than I to do either of those things is incredibly long.

Yet here, Mordecai shows Esther not only that it is entirely possible for her to respond, but that she might be the best person on the face of the earth to answer this call.

There’s a problem, though. Esther, apparently, does not want to do this. She would prefer not to.

Isn’t that so often the case? Sometimes we allow our feelings to dictate our actions in a way that diminishes our ability to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives. In this instance, Esther sends word back to Mordecai telling him that it’s a little more complicated than he seems to think it is, and thanks for his concern, but she’d prefer that someone else took care of this, thanks very much.

Then Mordecai sent back word to Esther: “Just because you live in the king’s palace, don’t think that out of all the Jewish people you alone will escape. If you keep quiet at this time, someone else will help and save the Jewish people, but you and your father’s family will all die. And who knows, you may have been chosen queen for just such a time as this.”

Mordecai, however, reminds Esther that her feelings and her own sense of her abilities may not be the best guides for the current situation. “You don’t know everything,” he says. “What if this is the exact reason for your presence in the kingdom right now? What if God is choosing to do something great through you?”

The call has been extended, and just as in Samuel’s case, it has not been recognized. And, just as in that situation, there’s a mentor to help the person get a greater perspective and be able to see more clearly the path forward. With Mordecai’s help, Esther is able to see through her own confusion and to get past her own feelings of what she’d rather not do and move to embrace the call in her actions.

Then Esther sent this answer to Mordecai:  “Go and get all the Jewish people in Susa together. For my sake, fast; do not eat or drink for three days, night and day. I and my servant girls will also fast. Then I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I die, I die.”

Queen Esther, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

There is not, in Esther’s life, a sense of recklessness and a jumping out ahead of God’s spirit. Nor is there a selfish pride that says, “Look, I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Mind your own business, Mordecai.” As you’ve just heard, she turns to the wider community for help in doing what she doesn’t really feel like doing, and asks them to hold her accountable and to pray for her ability to follow through. She invites people inside and beyond her own little circle to join her in this call to faithful living.

Note, too, that Esther’s response requires her to act without knowing the whole story. She has to move forward in boldness and trust that God will supply the things that she needs at the time that she needs them.

I don’t know about you, but that’s usually how God acts in my own life. I am often nudged to act without having all of the particulars. I get a glimpse of what could be, I see a possibility, I hear an invitation, and then I have to choose whether or not to say “yes” without knowing how all of the details can possibly come together.

These lives that we lead – this daily, ordinary faith that we have – requires that we do what we can, and then we leave the rest up to God. In all likelihood, you are not being called to save an entire race from a genocidal maniac. Chances are, you have experienced less dramatic calls or nudges from the Lord…

  • there’s a new kid at school, and he’s eating alone. Should you call him over to your table? Or go sit with him?
  • There’s that woman. You know that she’s having problems, even though she hasn’t spoken to you about them. Should you approach her? Should you say something? What?
  • You’ve been asked to play a role in a new ministry, or to take a trip, or to reach out to a neighbor. Will you?
  • What about that job offer you’ve received? It looks like a good fit, but you never know…

Beloved, God has placed you at this juncture in history and equipped you with a story that is partially – incompletely – written. What are you doing right now with who you are and what you have?

My mother-in-law has often told the story of when she caught her father rehearsing his line prior to her marriage to Sharon’s dad. Gramps Wetterholm was standing in front of a mirror, saying “Her MOTHER and I do….no, Her mother AND I do… Her mother and I DO.” He wondered which inflection would best convey the meaning of the blessing that he wanted to extend to Gene and Mary’s wedding.

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity,  from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca.  Used by permission.  http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

I’ll take a page from Gramps’ notebook here and ask you a question…

Why are YOU here? I’m not asking about your mother, your brother, your better-looking cousin or your more talented sister. Why is it that of all the people on the face of the earth, God has nudged you toward that job, this relationship, or that other opportunity? What is it about YOU that makes this a good time for you to move forward?

Why are you HERE? I mean, you’re not in Africa, you’re not playing center field for the Pirates… You are here, at this station and time in your life. How did you get here, and what do you think that means? And you know, I trust, that this is not merely a question of geography. You are your you, right here, right now. How did that happen?

WHY are you here? Can you believe that the creator of the universe, the giver of every good and perfect gift, the author of life – has some ideas about how and why you should live – right here, right now?

When Esther received a call, it became pretty clear. It came to her through trusted channels, it was consistent with the direction her life had been going, and it allowed her to act in a way that was loving and just toward her neighbors. It was a good call.

But it was also a scary, scary call. It was an inconvenient call.

In that way, it was similar to the calling experienced by Peter and John in the book of Acts. They’d been summoned by God to tell people of the good news of Jesus Christ. They’d been arrested by the authorities because they kept talking about the good news of Jesus Christ. What did they do?

Take note, people of God – when the early church was in a pinch, when Esther was facing danger, the prayer that they lifted up was a prayer for boldness. They did not pray for safety, nor for ease, nor for someone else to come along and do this thing better than they could. In each of our accounts this morning, the Lord is approached and asked for conviction and boldness.

God’s people pray that we might have courage to be the right people, doing the right thing at the right time, and the grace to live with the consequences of that.

A few weeks ago, I stood up here and suggested that you might spend a few moments in each day simply being quiet and alone, breathing deeply and centering yourself, asking God to fill you.

I would like to think that at least some of you have tried that…and would hope that you will continue. I’d like to encourage you to modify that in one very significant way. As you ask God to fill you, ask, “God, what do you have for me today?”

Ask God to stir your heart. Seek the counsel of a trusted friend. Educate yourself on what the world needs. And start to walk in that direction. Ask for boldness and confidence as you journey, and you may find yourself engaged in a different kind of conversation about important issues today. You may discover an opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation in a relationship that has been fractured. It might be that you are finally able to leave a destructive habit or addiction behind.

Why. Are You. Here.? That is a beautiful and loaded question. Live today expecting to discover more about the answer, and pray for boldness to walk in the light of what you learn. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Uh-Oh

What happens when you hear your name being called?  This spring, the folk at Crafton Heights Church are examining the ways that God has called to God’s people in the past… in the hopes that we might be attuned to those calls as they come today.  The scripture for April 19 included the calls described in Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a fine young man named Nathaniel. There were lots of reasons to like him, and a few reasons to be envious. One of the silliest things of which I was a bit jealous was his name.

This is what I mean: growing up in the suburbs in the USA in the 1970’s, how often do you think I was in a crowd and heard someone yell, “Hey, Dave! Dave?” And how often do you think I turned and said, “Yep?” And then the person who had called my name looked at me with irritation and said, “No, not you. Please. I meant Dave Lock, or David Cummings, or Dave Tang, or…” Carver. Hmph.

WavingIf it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve seen it. Someone calls your name, or maybe even just points and waves, and you respond, and then it dawns on you that they are talking to or looking at the person over your right shoulder…And you feel like a complete loser.

I must have had fifteen people in my high school class named “David”. It got so I just pretended to never hear my name. I did not like to respond when it was called. But how often do you suppose my buddy heard, “Hey, Nat! Nat! – no, not you, the other Nat!”

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Last week, we began a series of messages that focus in on the call of God, and we said specifically that there are two things on which we can hang our hats: that God is a God who calls and that you are call-able. This morning, I’d like to explore the nature of the God who calls and, perhaps more centrally, our response to that call.

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to think with me for a moment of every single time in Scripture where God’s presence overshadows someone, or God’s Spirit calls out, or God’s angel appears and says, “Hey, you – yes, you…Look, you know that the world’s in a bit of a mess right now, but, hey, good news! I have an idea. Here’s my plan…”, and the person who is being called says, “Oh, hey, great! I was hoping that you’d ask! I love the concept, Lord, and as a matter of fact, let me show you a few ideas of my own that I’ve been working on…”

Um, Dave, we can’t think of any place in the Bible where that happens.

Of course you can’t. That stuff is not in the Bible!

Every call of which I’m aware features the same essential pattern. The Lord or an angel shows up, and when that presence is finally noted, the first thing that the divine messenger has to say is “Fear not!”, because people are always so unnerved by the fact that God is actually calling to them. Then, the plan is laid out and the call is extended and with a few notable exceptions, the response is generally, “Uh-oh. Me? Really? Have you thought this through, Lord? I’m not really sure you’ve got the right person here…” And often, the one who is called by God will go ahead and list the reasons why the plan that God has just can’t work in this situation.

And as the person is talking about why God’s idea is such a bad one, they are not usually listing excuses like, “Oh, Thursday’s no good for me, Lord. What about Tuesday? Sunday? Oh, no, Sunday is my only day to sleep in…” It’s not a conflict in scheduling that prevents the call from being heard.

No, the readings from Isaiah and Luke today are typical: when God invites someone to step more intentionally into God’s purposes for the world, there is almost always an immediate cry of confession. “Oh, woe is me! I am not worthy! I am a man of unclean lips! Get away from me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006).  Used by permission.  Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006). Used by permission. Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The call to serve begins in confession. It does so because when God shows up, the veil is lifted just for a moment, and the perfection and holiness of God is perceived a little more clearly. That’s what Isaiah saw, isn’t it? He was actually given a vision of the Lord, and of those who are in the presence of the Lord saying “Holy, holy, holy…”

I’m not aware as to whether you’ve ever been invited into the presence of God, but I am sure that you know something about the Lord. God is love. God is light. God is faithful, right? God is all of those things, and more besides.

But you won’t find anywhere in the Bible that says, “God is love, love, love” or “light, light, light”. God is those things, to be sure – but there is something about holiness that is at the root of God’s very nature and existence. We affirm that every week when we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

God is so holy that it is his name – or his name itself is holy because of its connection with the Lord. God is holy. God is not like us – “Holy” means “set apart”, or “separate”, and carries with it a sense of weightiness or heaviness. God is not on the same scale as we. One writer puts it this way: “This word applies to God because God Himself is totally other, separate, sacred, transcendent, reverend, and set apart from every created thing.”[1]

There is a sense in which I can think of myself as smart, funny, wise, moral, tall, old, or any other adjective. And when I do that, I always measure myself in relationship with the other people around me. I compare myself to the rest of the people in the room and think that I am or am not any of those things.

But when the creator of joy, of life, of good, of size and perspective makes himself known…well, then, I’ve got nothing. I am none of those things in comparison with Him.

To put it another way – I may be perfectly capable of and content to cruise around in my own mediocrity and general all-rightness, but when I am invited to stare unblinkingly into the Light of the World, then I become profoundly aware of my own failures, regrets, and general un-holiness. When I see some of who God is, and become more aware of who I am, then it is easier for me to get in line with Isaiah and Peter and say, “Uh-oh, um, no – I can’t. I’m not the right guy for this.”

When God calls to Isaiah, and when Christ summons Peter, and just about every other call in scripture all boils down to this: the Lord is saying, “Look, I know you. I made you. I love you. Of course you are my person. Of course you can do this…as long as you remember that it’s my plan, and not yours. My strength, not yours. My holiness, not yours.”

A calling from the Lord provides me with a grounding and an orientation as to who God is and who I am. When I am well aware of who I am, and the ways that I fall short, or am bent or twisted, and yet somehow in the midst of that am somehow useful to God, I can carry out the business with which I’ve been entrusted in a fashion that is marked by humility.

When I say humility, I not only mean approaching God with a sense of perspective about where I stand in relationship to God, but where I stand in relationship to you and other people who are also called and loved by God. When I remember that I am not “all that and a bag of chips”, I am more useful to actually accomplish the tasks that God has set before me in partnership with others.

Sports Illustrated...$1?  How old is this photo?

Sports Illustrated…$1? How old is this photo?

There was another Dave in Pittsburgh a few years back who said something that really struck me. Dave Parker was a superbly-fashioned specimen of humanity who was, as it turned out, really, really good at hitting a small ball with a large stick. He was so good at it, in fact, that he became the first person ever to be paid a million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick. When asked about it, Dave Parker said, “Every team needs a foundation, and I’m it. They ought to pay me just to walk around here.”[2] He told Sports Illustrated, “There’s only one thing bigger than me – and that’s my ego.”

Now, I’m not here to bash Dave Parker, or to take a few of his comments out of context. Rather, I want to use them as a reminder that those who have been called by God have a deep appreciation for the essential goodness, power, glory, and love of God as well as their own brokenness or failure. That leads them to a sense of humility and perspective that allows for growth.

I am not aware of a time when the world has ever been changed for the better when a group of high-minded, confident, self-assured, incredibly talented people who knew all the answers showed up and got to work on the rest of us.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

On the other hand, though, think of what Jesus did with a small group of broken-down, second-career people who had been given a glimpse of who he was and of the ministry to which he was inviting them. When we are humble, we are teachable; when we are humble, we are better able to see the gifts that others have brought.

I like the story of the man who had been looking for a church in his new community. After being disappointed in several congregations, he showed up at one a few moments late. As he walked into worship, the group was praying the unison prayer of confession, and they said, “we have done that which we ought not to have done, and have left undone that which we ought to have done…” As he found a seat, he beamed, “At last! These are my people!”

God is not calling you to be the star of anything. God is asking whether you will go in his power, with his agenda, into a world filled with people who are every bit as broken as you are. He’s asking if you can see them with his eyes and love them with his love. He wants to know if you can share with them the gift of forgiveness as a starving man shares a loaf with his friends, and to invite them to deepen their own walk with the Lord so that they might encounter God in all of God’s holiness.

God did not call me because in all of his wisdom he thought that the world would be blessed by how holy I am. He called me for the same reason that he has called you: so that we might remind people that they are already wrapped in God’s holy presence.

So you – yes, I’m talking to you – do you realize that this calling God is reaching out to you? That he knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and is still calling? That he is calling you now – not the you that you think might show up in four or five years once you get a little more this or a little better at that. He knows you, he loves you, and he’s reaching out. Can you find the voice to say, with Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”?

By God’s grace – with humility and thanksgiving, you can. Amen.

[1] Jack Wellman, writing at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/24/what-does-the-word-holy-mean-bible-definition-of-holy/

[2] Quoted in Randy Roberts, Pittsburgh Sports: Stories From the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), p. 206.

What Will You Do When You Do Your Worst?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  Our second service on Easter Sunday included a reading from John 21:1-19, and we contrasted the ways that two of Jesus’ closest friends – Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot – returned to Jesus in the last week of his life.

As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to think about this: who has been the absolute worst person in the entire scope of human history?

Hitler? Pol Pot? Osama Bin Laden? Charles Manson? Joseph Stalin? Ted Bundy? Nero?

How would you go about measuring something like “absolute worstness”? There has to be a certain subjectivism involved, doesn’t there?

I did a little research this week, and have come to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler appears to be the current standard for absolute worstness. If you are really appalled by someone and want to really denigrate his character, you say, “Oh, that one? He’s another Hitler…” I mean, I don’t really want to say anything nice about any of these other folks, but how often do you hear someone referred to as “another Vlad the Impaler”?

Let’s focus it down a little bit. Who is the worst person in the entire Bible?

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot

Jezebel? Cain? Herod? Abimilech? Maybe. But my hunch is that most of us pretty much use Judas Iscariot as our go-to in this department, don’t we? I mean, not only did he coldly betray the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Life…but he did so after having shared supper with him and after having had his feet washed by Jesus. Judas? That’s messed up.

Was Peter on anyone’s list for “worst person in the Bible”? The immediate reaction, I’d think, would be, “Hey, no, Pastor Dave! Not Peter! He plays for our team. I mean, sure, he was a little sensitive. Kind of a blowhard, really. But He was an Apostle with a capital ‘A’! He practically started the church!”

So. What did Judas do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

And what did Peter do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

I mean, we can spin it any way we want to but the fact is that on the very same night nearly 2000 years ago, for all intents and purposes, these two men did the same thing.

And if you’ll give me that, then how is it that on the one hand, Judas is often reviled as the greatest scoundrel in history and his mere name is synonymous with treachery, while on the other hand, Peter is the Rock Star of the early Christian movement and even today the most important church in the world is named for him?

Let’s talk about what they did – and I’ll repeat my thesis that I believe they did pretty much the same thing. In fact, you could say that Judas was a little smarter than Peter. First of all, Judas at least got paid for his trouble. 30 pieces of silver was about half a year’s salary – not too bad for one little kiss. Beyond that, of course, it’s possible to make a case that there was some mistaken nobility in Judas’ gesture. Let’s say he really believed that Jesus was the coming Messiah who would destroy Rome and liberate Israel. If Judas had him arrested, that would back Jesus into a corner and then he’d have to unleash the masses and the heavenly host and bring about the kingdom, right? Because if he really is the Messiah, he won’t die, right? I’m not saying I buy that logic, but you have to admit that at least on one level, it holds together.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter

Peter, on the other hand, is just pathetic. And it’s not just one little kiss – it’s three times, yelling and cursing and crying and huddling pathetically there by the fire.

And yet…

Come Friday morning, both Peter and Judas were aware that they had been tragically wrong. At some point in that long, cold weekend, it must have dawned on each of them that they had just done the worst thing they’d ever done in their entire lives.

So if you can accept my thesis that each of these men hit the absolute bottom sometime on Thursday night, why do we remember them so differently?

I would suggest we remember them because of the choices that they made on Friday and Saturday.

The Kiss of Judas Giotto, c. 1305

The Kiss of Judas
Giotto, c. 1305

Judas, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw that Jesus refused to call in the big muscle in order to save himself; when he saw his friend being led like a lamb to the slaughter…well, something snapped. He was filled with shame and remorse and he allowed that to drive him into isolation. He reacted with anger and desperation. Lonely and embittered, he took his own life, believe the worst about himself – believing that he was unredeemable, unforgivable.

Peter’s Denial Robert Leinweber (1845-1915)

Peter, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw how Jesus was unwilling to save himself; when he got a glimpse of Jesus looking right at him through the crowds…when that rooster crowed, he was filled with shame and remorse. The pain was so great that he…that he was driven back to the rest of his friends. He returned to the other ten, and sought consolation not in self-destruction, but in the company of the community. And because he allowed his failure to drive him more deeply into the web of the community, he was in a position to encounter Jesus on that first Easter.

Don’t you think that Jesus would have greeted Judas, had Judas have been there? Or do you suppose that that’s the time Jesus would have chosen to get out the lightning bolts and mete out a little cosmic justice? I can’t see that happening. The only reason Jesus didn’t greet Judas is because Judas wasn’t there…he was hanging by the neck in his own personal hell somewhere.

But Peter was there, wasn’t he? And in the passage from John that you’ve just heard, we see the resurrected Jesus leading Peter gently through to the gift of forgiveness.

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles James Tissot, c. 1890

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles
James Tissot, c. 1890

You know the essence of the story, I think: Jesus goes out looking for Peter. He stands on the shore of Lake Galilee and he calls to him, exactly as he did on the day that they’d met. He welcomes Peter, and then he invites Peter to share what he has brought. He calls Peter by name – not once, but three times. And in the process, Jesus gives Peter the chance to embrace the forgiveness that Jesus has offered. He asks him three questions, and allows Peter to reaffirm the depth of his love three times.

Do you see? Christ wants Peter – Peter, who only days earlier had done his worst – to share in the power of resurrection. Jesus gives Peter a job – the same task he’d assigned Peter earlier in his ministry – to lead the church. For Peter, resurrection life began that day. Peter was brought back from the dead a long time before he was ever hung on a Roman Cross because he wouldn’t stop talking about the grace, love, and power of Jesus.

Judas could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him to hopelessness, despair, and death.

Peter could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him into the depths of the Christian community, who helped him to experience grace, forgiveness, and resurrection.

And what about you? What will you do when you do your worst?

Please note, I’m not asking what is the worst thing you’re liable to do. I mean, that would be a fascinating conversation and probably very interesting, but it’s not really germane to our worship this morning. What I want to know is, whenever you do whatever it is that is the worst thing you’ll do, what will you do next?

Oh, come on, Dave, you don’t mean to suggest that I am like Judas? I mean, seriously, I have my moments, but…

No. And I am serious. You will fail. Some of us have already failed. More than once. All of us will fail again.

I don’t know, and don’t particularly care right now, what will be your worst. I am simply here to guarantee your upcoming failure. And I’m not going to try to rank them as to which is worst – is it the affair or the addiction or the theft or the lying or the inability to treat other people well or selfishness or violence ? Is it interpersonal or academic, work-related or hidden on the internet? For crying out loud, it doesn’t matter. You are going to screw up. You will fail. You will hurt someone else, and you will be hurt.

The question I have for you is not how will you do your worst. The question I have is, in which direction will you turn when you find that you have, in fact, done your worst?

The Good News of Easter is this: Death is turned to life. Sin is forgiven. Your worst is no match for his best. There is therefore no reason to continue to live in that worst, and less reason to wander into isolation, pain, and death.

JesusonBeachYou know, don’t you, that the reason we’ve had this book for 2000 years is that Jesus was not simply having a conversation on the beach with an old friend. He was not only talking with Peter. He was talking with me. He was talking with you.

Take a look around the room right now (and I can tell you, this works in church and in bars and in the stadium and anywhere else…). Look at these people. Some of them would say that beyond a shadow of a doubt they are at the best place of their lives right now. And others are a red hot mess this morning. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks be to God, we can all know the gifts of hope and new life because of the fact that Jesus is alive, walking the beaches of our own lives, calling out our names, and inviting us to bring ourselves to him.

He is risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah. Amen.

I’ve Got This…

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 24, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 26.  

morning roosterWhat’s the one thing that everyone knows about roosters? They crow when the sun comes up, right? That’s what roosters do.

Right. Sort of. I had my first rooster encounter in the summer of 1993, when the mission team I led to Mexico spent a week in a small village where everyone raised chickens. I learned there that roosters crow at daybreak. They also crow half an hour before daybreak. And at noon. And as dusk settles. They crow when the Steelers win and when the Browns get the first round draft choice. One would be correct to say that roosters crow at sunrise. One would be more correct to say that roosters just don’t stop crowing. After living in that village for a week, and having sleep disturbed for six days, I never saw a group of people tear into a chicken dinner the way that team dove at the barbeque on the Friday night of that mission trip…

Roosters don’t crow to tell you the time. Roosters crow because they want you – and the hens – to notice them. They crow because they can. They crow because they want to mate. They crow because they want other roosters to know they’re around, and who’s the at the top of the pecking order.

Five years later, while living for the summer in Africa, I discovered how violent these birds can be. Every now and then, we’d go to a worship service and be presented with a live chicken for our troubles. Most times, we’d bring the hen home and put it with the others and all would be well.

One day, though, we received a beautiful cock. I mean, he was fierce and proud looking and decked out with just about every color of the rainbow. I brought him home and threw him in with the other chickens. About an hour later, I heard a tremendous disturbance. I went to the chicken coop and saw the new bird attacking the resident rooster. There was blood everywhere, and both birds were pretty beat up. We had to choose one rooster to keep and one to eat, or they’d both be dead.

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer

Cock fighting is perhaps the world’s oldest spectator sport, and dates back at least 6000 years. Although it’s illegal in all fifty states, there are many places around the world where specially-trained birds enter a ring and attack each other until one of them dies. From Indonesia to Central America to parts of Europe, men (and it’s almost always men) crowd around and place bets on these birds as they seek to destroy each other. A winning cock will often stand upon its dead opponent and crow loudly. For millennia, the cock has been a symbol of power, arrogance, machismo, strength, and dominance.

In fact, when we say that someone is acting “cocky”, we are communicating our opinion that someone is a little too proud of him or herself; that he or she is overbold, overconfident, overly proud.

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue points out that there is a lot of cockiness written all over the Last Supper. For some time, Jesus has been telling his friends that he is marching towards his own death. The kingdom that he announces is in such conflict with both the political and religious establishment that they will have no choice but to kill him – and he wants everyone to know that he is laying his life down of his own free will.

"The Last Supper" (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The Last Supper (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve

The disciples, however, won’t have any of this. They can’t figure out what is wrong with Jesus, and when given half a chance, they engage in remarkably cocky behavior. While he is telling them the most important things in the world, they are arguing about which of them is the greatest. After they share the Eucharist, Jesus leads them out to the Mount of Olives where he predicts that they will be scattered as he faces his death, and Peter just won’t shut up. “No, Lord, not me! The rest of these losers? Well, I can’t make any promises about them, but I’m your man! I’ve got your back! We can take these guys, Jesus!”

And Jesus says, famously, “Peter, before the cock crows tonight, you’ll deny me not once, but three times.” In other words, you will crumble in no time, my friend.

But Peter just preens and struts a little more: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you’re a nice guy, but you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You and me, Jesus. I’m here for you, man. I’ve got this, Jesus.” It is a defining moment in his life!

Let me ask the women in the congregation this morning: how many of you have ever, even once, heard a man announce a plan of action that made you cringe and say, “What are you thinking? Are you sure?”, only to be met with the response, “It’s OK, honey. I’ve got this.

What is it about the male of our species that leads us to place such undeserved trust in our own abilities? From “Look, Ma, no hands!” to rewiring the house by ourselves to driving down the street holding the mattress on the car roof with one piece of twine and our bare hands, we are fools, are we not?

And while I’ve had a little fun at the expense of the men, I won’t call out the women on this one but simply say that pride and arrogance are not gender-specific, are they?

Where did that pride, that arrogance, that cockiness get Peter?

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)

You know what happened. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. The same night that he professes his ultimate allegiance and undying loyalty to Jesus, he denies him not once, not twice, but three times. In one of the saddest moments of the gospels, Peter turns his back on the one that he loves.

Look, say what you want to about Peter. He’s a hot-headed racist and sexist who can’t keep his mouth shut…but he loves Jesus. He’s clueless and arrogant and full of himself… but he loves Jesus. And here, on the worst night of his life, he publicly declares that he’s never met, never even heard of Jesus.

And just as he finishes his final lie, the cock crows and he remembers the words of his friend. Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve heard all morning?

The last time that Peter is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew is this scene, where the strong, virile, cocky fisherman is huddled, bawling like a baby, as dead as the loser in a cockfight, while pride and masculinity and power crow out their victory over top of his slumping form.

At this moment, Peter is lost. He is bereft. He is alone. He is nothing. His pride has cost him everything.

Do you know how that feels? Can you imagine it? In recent months, I have had the opportunity and responsibility of walking with a few people who have been publicly disgraced. These are men whose worst acts and most ill-considered decisions have become public knowledge. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone knew the worst thing about you?

What is the opposite of pride? It seems to me that it is shame. Pride feels good. When we tell our children to “stand up and make us proud!”, we want them to feel strong, to be energized, to have a sense of control in their lives.

And shame? Shame is demoralizing. It makes you weak and impotent. You are embarrassed and paralyzed and afraid. Shame will kill you if you let it.

And sometimes, when we are considering a polarity like this, with Pride over here and Shame over there, we say, “Well, heck! If pride feels good and shame feels bad, if pride makes me strong and shame makes me weak, then give me some of that there pride!”

And so we move towards pride and esteem and, well, cockiness. We strutt our stuff. We want people to notice us and to like what they see. We want to be the best we can be, and to be recognized as such.

But here’s the secret: pride kills too. Shame will, as I’ve said, kill you if you let it. But pride will kill you every time. Every time.

What are we to do, then? If we’re stuck between two poles, each of which will kill us, how can we move?

We can follow Jesus. Jesus lays out a third way for us. The author of the book of Hebrews describes an action plan in this way:

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Jesus refused to serve pride and did not fear shame. He walked in humility and confidence the path that God had set out for him.

I know that some will hear me use the word “humility” and think of “humiliation”, which sounds an awful lot like “shame” to us. That’s not what I mean. I understand “humility” to mean a realistic assessment of yourself, gathered with the input of God, your community, and your own observations.

Sometimes in our world, being humble means walking around saying, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing, really…” Which, of course, prompts people to say, “No, wow, that’s amazing! You really are great!”, which, of course, pumps you up, so that at the end of the day, you feel…PROUD. That’s not humility.

In essence, being humble is recognizing that you are who you are. You are probably reasonably good at a couple of things, and you struggle mightily with others. You are strong in a few places, and ridiculously close to your breaking point in others. You know those things about yourself and while you work to improve, you accept yourself. You even love that self.

A humble person knows all those things about her or himself and treats other people as though those things are true of them, too. You can accept and love those people, too.

Debbie Blue says this about Peter:

At the end of the Gospel stories, Peter is not strutting like a cock. He weeps…we glimpse a different side of Peter than the one he has tried to project. He is not made as fierce as possible as a disciple of Jesus. He is not trained to put on a good show in the ring. Jesus is not this kind of trainer. He does not impress us with his ability to do violence to others. He lays down his life, his sword – he walks out of the ring, so that we may likewise be free to do so. Imagine the space that might open up outside the sphere of competition, what might grow outside the confines of the ring.[1]

Listen: every day, the world does its level best to convince you that life is a cockfight. It tries to make you believe that your only choices are to be violent, arrogant, vindictive, and proud or weak, powerless, impotent, and ashamed.

The God we have gathered to worship this day taps you on the shoulder and invites you to consider an alternative reality – to wake up, if you will, in a new day. A way of living wherein we are gentle with ourselves and with others; a place where we are glad to see beauty where it exists and in whom it is present; a lifestyle in which we are quick to forgive and willing to believe the best about ourselves and each other; a community in which when brokenness is revealed we are able to point to the healing that comes from the cross.

May we call ourselves and each other to this way, today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013) pp. 167-168.