Who’s the New Guy?

God’s people in the community that comprises The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered for worship on May 19 to listen to stories of people who had been changed along the way.  Samuel and Peter helped us to understand that none of us is where we used to be, and nobody’s where they’re going to end up.  Rather, we are met on the way by a God who has helped us up till now.  This was a particularly meaningful worship service for me, as it marked the final opportunity for me to worship with these folks until September.  I am about to begin a season of Sabbatical – and I’m sure that the pastor who shows up at Crafton Heights in September won’t be the same guy who left.  And that’s a good thing.  Our scriptures included Acts 11:1-18 and I Samuel 7:5-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

The children of Israel were in a tight spot.  In a series of unfortunate, and not-unrelated events…

  • They had allowed the quality of their worship of God and their commitment to follow and serve YHWH to diminish. They had no great expectations of either their leaders or themselves.
  • They were currently under attack from their neighbors, a nation known as Philistia, which was superior militarily, economically, and politically to their own.
  • This was symbolized by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and held hostage for some time, until the Philistines who were charged to secure this artifact developed tumors and illnesses that they interpreted as punishments from the God of Israel.
  • Even when the Philistines tried to return the Ark to Israel, the Israelites were scared to death; it’d been so long since they held worship that they weren’t sure they knew how to do it. So the Ark sat in someone’s garage for a while.

Meanwhile, the Philistines renewed their attacks on Israel.  Faced with the onslaught of this military invasion, the people of Israel called their leader, Samuel, and said, “Look, we’re not really great at this, but if youcry out to the Lord on our behalf, YHWH might save us.”

Samuel went one better and taught the people how to cry out to God for themselves, and lo and behold, the nation was in fact saved.  Our Old Testament reading for this morning describes the reaction to YHWH’s intervention in the lives of those people: Samuel drags a big stone into the median of the highway and names it “Ebenezer”, which can be roughly translated as “stone of help”.  He says that every time they see that stone, they should remember that so far, God has helped them. Up till now,God has been with them.  As he sets the stone in place there is a little dedication ceremony where the people are able to praise God for where they’ve already been helped and guided, and to look ahead at what’s coming down the pike.  This notion of pausing to remember that God has helped us along the way has been memorialized in the favorite hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

An “Ebenezer” is a physical symbol reminding us – and those around us – that we’re neither in the place where we began nor in the spot that is our final destination.  An Ebenezer is a testimony to the fact that God has met us on the way.

St. Peter Preaching, Masolina da Panicale, c. 1426

Now, about a thousand years later, a middle-aged man named Peter finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  Most of his life, he’d been a fisherman.  The complexities of his daily life consisted of dilemmas like, “should I fish, or cut bait? Am I going for perch or for bass today?”  For years, he concentrated on being a regular guy, doing regular things. He was eager to worship YHWH, but he was not interested in being a fanatic.

And then one day he was tapped on the shoulder by a traveling Rabbi named Jesus.  Little did he know how much that one day would screw up – or, more charitably, “affect” the rest of his life.

With a band of friends, Peter had watched the meteoric rise of Jesus’ ministry, only to see that same Jesus crushed by an unholy alliance of religious opposition and political fear.  In a surprising twist, three days after the Worst Thing Ever, Peter was greeted by the resurrected Christ and sent into the world to preach forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Last week we saw Peter visiting Joppa, where he restored the life of a beloved woman and then accepted the hospitality of an outcast, all the while wondering what in the world might come next.

Today’s reading from Acts finds Peter on trial before his friends and colleagues.  He’s been accused of being soft on the Jewish Law, of hanging around with Gentiles, of eating the wrong food, and of telling too many of “those people” about God’s love and care.  In short – Peter was on trial for acting a whole lot like Jesus acted.  And as Peter mounted his defense, he recalled how the fresh wind of God’s Spirit swept through that place so strongly that he was left with a question: “who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

Each of these narratives has become a favorite story for me – each of them describe a God who is always on the move, and always beckoning to us – or to anyone who will listen – to keep up.  These stories stand as warnings to God’s people of all times and places not to fall too deeply in love with how things are, or where things are, or the ways in which things are done, because God isn’t finished yet.

And sometimes those are hard words for us to hear.  We find it much easier to get into a place and stay there. Some of you will remember my dear friend, the late Art Parris, who said to me more than once, “Dave, I’m feeling all right.  Things are ok.  It’s like I’m in a real groove… but don’t say anything to my wife about that, because she thinks I’m in a rut…”  You know how that is – the difference between moving along in a groove and being stuck in a rut is often one of perception.  We don’t. like. change.  And if there is anywhere we really don’t like change, it’s here.  At church.

And yet, we are informed, guided, and inspired by a book that defines us as people who are on the move, worshiping and serving a God who calls, equips, and sends us out again and again and again.

I say all of this because the truth is that you are about to get a new pastor here in Crafton Heights.  Now, don’t get too excited – I’m not quitting.  But I won’t be here next week – or for the fourteen weeks after that. You’ll gather for worship on the Sundays in June, July, and August, and you’ll be mostly led by my friend Sonya-Marie Morley.  Along the way, Bill and Brian and Laura and Tony will be here.  This will be a season of new voices for you all.

I’ve got to tell you, you might not like all of it.  These folks are nice people, all right, but they’re not going to know your stories.  They won’t know who is related to whom.  I suspect that they won’t like all of the same music that you do.  On the other hand, they may have better jokes than I do.  But in the view of your Session, these are the people who are called to preach the Word of God to the people of God in this place and at this time.

And then, Lord willing, in September, you’ll get another new pastor. If things work out as planned, your new pastor be an old white guy named Dave.  If you’ll have me, I hope to be back as Pastor in a few months.

But here’s a warning: whoever shows up here in September wearing my clothes and hugging my wife… well, that won’t be the same person who’s standing up here right now.  I mean, I hope that you’ll be nice to him, and laugh at his jokes… but don’t pretend that it’s me.

Right now, I am a particular collection of strengths and weaknesses, bumps and bruises, anxieties and arrogance.  A lot of those will look familiar in three months, but some will be different.

To quote my old friend Jessalyn Gielarowski, “church is always better when Pastor Dave goes away.”  She said this about six years ago, and, to be fair, she went on to say something like, “he comes back changed, with new stories, and new perspectives, and that helps us to see ourselves and God’s world a little differently, too.”

So I’ll come back, Lord willing, in September.  And you better believe that one of the first things I’ll do when I return is to wander past all of the Ebenezers we’ve got set out in this place. I’ll look at the plaques downstairs that remember young people of great valor who started in this place.  I’ll walk down to the Open Door and feel the names of old friends etched into brick.  I’ll go up to the 3rdfloor and look at the handprints that fill the Youth Group room.  Each of these places, and a hundred more around this joint, are signs of encounters we’ve had with the living God and God’s presence in our lives.

But listen to this, beloved: no matter how deep our need and how great God’s salvation at that time and in that place, we dare not stay in any of those places too long – because God is on the move.  Again.  Still. Always.

So I have a charge for you, beloved, in the next few months.  Keep following the God who is moving in and through this place and your lives.  You’ll do this, in part, by learning new stories and new songs and maybe even new jokes. You will watch with, wait for, and be present to each other.  You will, Lord willing, keep searching for ways to include the children of this neighborhood – those who participate in our preschool and Cross Trainer programs and those who do not – in the grace and love that flows from Jesus Christ.

I’m not going to be in this room, but I hope and expect that you will. Come to worship, and listen to what “Pastor Not-Dave” has to say.  Encourage her or him, and each other.  And for crying out loud, when you come, bring your wallets with you.  Don’t neglect the financial support of this congregation in a time of change.  I can tell you that Sharon and I will be making our regular financial gifts, even when we are not able to be present in person.

And, Lord willing, come September we will have a few new Ebenezers to share with each other.  I hope that you’ll have a few new friends to whom you’ll introduce me.  And my deepest, most fervent, prayer is that we will each have a new openness to following God into whatever is next for the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Say Her Name

The community that formed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was marked by many distinctive.  On Sunday May 12, 2019, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the call to include those on the margins as one of those distinctives.  Our text was the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter as recorded in Acts 9:36-43.  We read that after having heard the promise of God as revealed in Hosea 1:10 – 2:1

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit

As we start, I’ll confess that I don’t usually select scripture readings or plan the worship experience at Crafton Heights in such a way that it mirrors the civil calendar.  Some of you know this, because you’ve been disappointed with or irritated by me on the Fourth of July, when we don’t sing a lot of patriotic songs, or on Labor Day, or on Veterans Day.  Maybe you know this because you were here on Mother’s Day in 2017, when the scripture for the day happened to be the heartwarming and “sit in church next to Grandma-friendly” tale of David and Bathsheba.  Typically, if you come to me with such disappointment, I will say that most of those are, indeed, important days, but that we gather in worship for a different and, I would add, more important reason.

But as I read the scripture chosen for today, and then I realized that today would be Mother’s Day, I thought to myself, “Jackpot!”  This is precisely the kind of story that we love, especially on Mother’s Day.  The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings used in a number of churches that is designed to help congregations encounter the full breadth of God’s Word.  And wouldn’t you know it: the Revised Common Lectionary calls the church of Jesus Christ on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter, to consider Acts 9:36-43 – the story of Tabitha and Peter.  It’s perfect! I mean, what’s not to like here?

Saint Tabitha, Byzantine Greek Orthodox Icon

The central figure in this passage appears to be Tabitha. Some translations refer to her by her Greek name, which is Dorcas, but either way it means “gazelle” or “deer”.  She is truly remarkable in many, many ways.

You are all familiar with people who have traditions of helping others at various times of the year: someone in your family may go serve a meal at the shelter every Thanksgiving, for instance; someone else raises money to fight world hunger each spring; heck, some of our friends are not here this morning because they alwaysparticipate in “the Race for the Cure”.  We know and we love those people, and we admire their regular commitment to charitable giving and living.

But with Tabitha, it’s more than just an annual fund drive. She is all in, all the time – 24/7/365.  This is who she is.  This is what she does.

Here is one of the ways that you know that Tabitha is remarkable.  There are 33 women named in the New Testament, and another 28 who are mentioned, but not named.  There are another 16 references to groups of unnamed women. And yet Tabitha is the only woman to be described as a mathetria – the feminine form of the word “disciple” in Greek.  Nobody else in the entire Bible has that form of that word used to describe her: I’m here to suggest that indicates something about her devotion to the Lord and her willingness to listen for God’s call in her life.

Tabitha, the disciple, has spent all of who she is serving the poor and the widows.  And then, one day, she is gone.  The one person on whom the most vulnerable in society could count  – she’s died.  What are we going to do now?

The most vulnerable ones – nearly always women and children – find themselves without an advocate.  These folks don’t have time or energy to argue about theology, or try to shape policy, or sit around listening to the promises of the future… they are simply trying to figure out, “how are we going to get through this day?”  And the one who has helped them find the answer to that question on every other day has died.  They are alone.  Tabitha, who meant everything to them, is gone.  There are many of you in this room who know how it feels to lose the person that held your world together; if you don’t know that yet, I suspect that you will. It is a horrible feeling.

So what do they do?  Well, they hear that Peter is in Lydda.  This apostle who has been rumored to have a great connection to God is not far – he’s about twelve miles away.  For the sake of reference, I’ll tell you that’s about as far as it is to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon, or to Kennywood.  So as soon as she’s died and her body’s been laid out, a couple of the fellas walkto Lydda so they can tell Peter.  They get there, and they tell him that she’s dead, and they say, “Hurry!  You’ve got to come!”

Why? What good would it do to have Peter show up now? That’s one of the frustrating things about this passage: there’s not very much explaining that goes on here.  The story is told, not explained.

And Peter goes with the unnamed followers of Jesus, walking all the way from Kennywood to Crafton Heights.  Peter must represent some sort of hope in Jesus; he’s been acquainted with the Power of the Spirit.  They want him there, but nobody says why. Nobody seems to have much of a plan, only that they want Peter to noticeTabitha.

Raising of Tabitha, Giovanni Francesco Guernico (1591-1666)

And that’s what happens.  They bring Peter into the house, and take him upstairs, and say, “Look at this stuff! Peter, you’ve got to know who she was to us.  Peter, say her name.  Know that she mattered!”

That happens doesn’t it?  This week, social media has been flooded with news of yet another school shooting, and many of you have posted photos of a young hero who saved lives, Kendrick Castillo. You’ve said, “Tell his story. Know his name!”  Similarly, following the death of Antwon Rose, there were protestors who cried out, “Say his name!”  Because these young men – and so many others – are not just statistics, they are not just news stories – they are real people with complex lives and vibrant hopes.

So there in the house, Tabitha’s friends say, “She was everything.  You have to know her, Peter.  You have to see who she was.”

And Peter does!  He notices, and the story now begins to revolve around Peter, and we see something of what he is like.

We learn that although Tabitha is the one who is called a “disciple” in this passage, Peter proves to be a quick learner too.  The Greek word mathetes, which is often translated as “disciple”, means “one who learns” or “follower”.  Watching Peter interact with Tabitha’s community should remind us of the ways that Jesus conducted himself with Jairus’ family back in Mark chapter 5. The first thing he does is to kick people out of the room – he can’t afford any distractions or negative energy. And then he does something else he learned from Jesus – he kneels to pray.  In his culture, most of the praying was done standing, arms spread toward the heavens, and eyes looking upwards.  But here, he kneels, as did his Master Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

After he clears the room, and after he kneels to pray, then Peter says her name – and in saying that, he calls her back to life.  Tabitha is restored.  The widows and the poor have their hope restored.  God’s name is honored. And, as the scripture says, “many people believed in the Lord.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a greatMother’s Day story.  A woman’s value is noted, her presence is missed, she is honored and even knelt before by a powerful man, and life comes to a community.  It’s perfect.

At this point, Peter has to be the Most Valuable Player in Joppa.  I mean, the guy has walked here, from Kennywood, and he’s restored the community.  What happens next?  Was there a parade?  Did he get the key to the city?  We don’t know how he was honored, but we know that he must have been, right?

Well there’s one more name in the scripture – one more verse in the chapter that was omitted when we told this story first.  Acts 9:43 reads, “Peter stayed in Joppa some time with a tanner named Simon.”

Well, so what?  That seems like an afterthought.  Maybe it is.

What’s a tanner?  A person who makes leather.

Why would first-century people in the Middle East need leather?  What would it be used for in that culture? Shoes, straps, saddles, reins, tents, books, drums, wineskins, water bottles, buckets… Leather was indispensable in that place. Tanners were very, very necessary.

And yet, tanners were also problematic.  Think about it.  Where do you get leather from?  Animals. Dead animals.  To make leather, people in that culture would start with a skin, and smear one side of it with lime, and let that stand for a few days as the lime worked its magic against the flesh and hair.  Then the tanner would scrape the skin, and soak it in a concoction made from dog feces.  After it sat there for a while, the skin would be soaked in another brew made from fermented bran.  After that, the skin was washed in salt water and dried in the sun.  Later, it would be doused with boiling vinegar mixed with copper, dried again, and finally rubbed with olive oil.

I suspect that on hearing that, you are not surprised to know that most Jews thought of tanners as “unclean”.  In fact, the rabbis taught that a tannery was to be equated with a bathhouse or a public urinal.  A tanner was to be treated as one with boils, polyps, or who collects dog excrement. Many localities had specific laws and ordinances mandating that tanneries were to be built outside of city limits and downwind from the local population.

Now, work with me here: Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this amazingly great Mother’s Day story of the day that Tabitha came back to life – with no explanation as to why or how it happened – and ends it by saying that when all of this had occurred, out of all the possible places he might have stayed in the midst of a very grateful populace… Peter chose to stay at the home of a tanner named Simon.

Peter was called to Joppa so that he could notice the problem that everyone could see – Tabitha was dead!  He noticed her.  He called her by name.  He noticed the condition of the poor and bereft in Joppa and in healing her, he equipped them to face the challenges of a new day.  But then he does something even more Jesus-y than raising a much-beloved saint from the dead…

St. Simon the Tanner, 10th c. Coptic Icon

Here, Peter demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and grace by reaching out, by showing up, by saying not only Tabitha’s but Simon’s name.  Simon – the guy whom everybody needed, but – unlike Tabitha – nobody wanted or even noticed.

Think about that… When the most important VIP to visit town in weeks decides to stay at Simon’s home – even though he is nothing more than an unclean tanner who ought to remain invisible, out of sight, and downwind… who else is going to visit Simon’s home?

Everybody.

In accepting this gift of hospitality, Peter validates Simon’s being here.  In a very visible, concrete way, Peter demonstrates the Gospel truth that when you feel most excluded, shamed, unloved, unwanted, or cast aside… that maybe at that very moment, the grace of God is moving toward you.

In this passage, the prophecy of Hosea has come true: the one who was called “not my people” is now recognized as a child of the Living God.  The one who was isolated and alone is called “My People.”  The one who was shamed and cast out is called “shown mercy”.

You know, beloved, that this is not just an old-timey Bible story, right? You know that this is what we are about right now, right here?  You have a name.  And God knows it.  You are God’s people.  You are children of the living God.

Let us say that to each other, and let us live in such a way that we validate those around us as well.  Let us say the names of those whom we see.  Let us notice who they are before God.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Who Stands Alone?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 31, 2019), we were served another “Markan Sandwich”: this one having to do with the trials of Peter (in the courtyard) and Jesus (before the high priest).  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:53-72

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

The teacher was furious.  He had found a note in the hallway, and on it was scrawled, “I hate this school so much.  It’s filled with idiots!”  They had been talking about self-esteem and pride, and the teacher didn’t know what to do. He held the note above his head and said, “Is that what you think?  That this building is filled with idiots?  I would like to ask everyone who thinks that they’re an idiot to please stand up right now!”

There was a tense silence, and finally little Davie stood. “Really?  Davie?  You think you’re an idiot?”  The student replied, “Well, actually, no sir, I don’t.  I just hated to see you standing there all alone, sir.”

As we continue in our study of Mark, we see here in chapter 14 a study of two men who are, fundamentally, alone.  I’d like to invite you to consider what it means to be alone, and who is alone in this passage, and why.

Let me encourage you to think of this passage as another “Markan sandwich”.  You’ll recall that the author of the second Gospel often begins a story, then interrupts it with another, and finally concludes the first.  Most often, this is done because the two events will offer commentary on each other.

In the passage you’ve heard today, we see two very different men who are undergoing two very different types of trial.  Peter is out in the crowds, seeking to navigate the court of public opinion, while Jesus is the subject of a formal, albeit illegal or irregular, arraignment.  How do we hear God’s word of hope in these stories?  What do they say to their original hearers, and to us?

Persecution of the First Christians, by Giuseppe Mancinelli (1813-1875)

Let’s remember when this Gospel was written – probably about thirty years or so after the incidents it describes.  The first audience for this little pamphlet was a young Christian community in Rome, one that had in all likelihood been taught and nurtured by the Apostle Peter himself.  This group of believers was facing a significant threat – they were being persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, and even killed by the Empire.

Often when we hear of civil or religious authorities bursting into a room and bringing panic, fear, and even death, we think of someplace far away or long ago.  Not so the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel – for them, this could have been the part of the story that seemed the most accessible.  This passage could have literally been snatched from the headlines because it was so close to their own experience.

So what is happening in this text?

Well, Jesus has been dragged from that little debacle in the Garden of Gethsemane into a full-blown arraignment before the leading council of the Jewish people, called the Sanhedrin.  If you’d like to check this out, you’ll discover many articles that describe the numerous ways that this trial was, itself, illegal. Jewish law forbad legal proceedings at night; there were many false witnesses; and Jesus was being coerced into testifying against himself.

Again, Mark’s first audience would know all about these instances wherein the “justice system” was used as an instrument of oppression and control, rather than a tool for liberation and vindication.  Clearly, Mark intends to present Jesus as a positive role model for his friends and community who are facing such injustice, and that is amplified when Jesus finally does speak.  When he is asked “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”, he offers two little words in Greek: “Ego eimi”.  Translated, of course, that means, “I am.”  To most Westerners in the 21stcentury, “I am” is an innocent statement. “Who’s going to the Penguins game today? Who’s ready for ice cream?” “I am!”

Yet when you say “I am” in Hebrew, you say, “Yahweh”.  That changes things significantly.  And even though Jesus was speaking in Greek or Aramaic, the undertones were clear: here was Jesus, confirming to the Sanhedrin what he had forbidden the disciples to speak about earlier: he is the Messiah.  In fact, he doubles down on that by not only saying “I am” but by following that up with a “Son of Man” statement – again, a strong pronouncement in the ears of his Jewish audience.

Jesus, when pressed, speaks nothing but the truth, and he suffers for it. He is condemned by unjust people after an unfair sham of a trial and then treated shamefully.  He is cursed by others and led him away to a beating he did not deserve.

Peter’s Denial, by Rembrandt (1660)

Peter, on the other hand, is not compelled to be present by anything other than his own conscience.  He had tried to defend Jesus in the Garden, but after dropping his sword and leaving his friends, he skulked along in the shadows behind the procession to the high priest.

His trial comes, not at the hand of any official representative of either the Temple nor from the Imperial government, but from the folks who surround him in the palace courtyard.

And whereas Jesus refused to speak, Peter can’t shut up. And note the progression of his denials: First, he feigns ignorance: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Then, he denies any connection with the community in which he and Jesus were intimately involved: “I’m not one of them!”. And finally, he disavows any personal relationship with Jesus: “I don’t know him!”  And rather than being found guilty by some outside party, as was Jesus, Peter brings down curses on himself.  The last glimpse we will have in the Gospel of Mark of this beloved disciple is of him weeping at the gate, stumbling into the darkness, regretting his own failures as a disciple and friend.  Now, having said that, I should also point out that it’s reasonable to expect that the first readers of Mark, the Christians in the city of Rome, would already be familiar with some other Peter stories; they would, in all probability, recognize that their own community had been shaped by his leadership.  Most of them would know about his imprisonment and perhaps even his death at the hands of the Roman Empire – so even though this is the last we read about Peter in Mark, the original audience would know that it’s not the end of his story.

So that’s a little bit about how the first readers of the Gospel might have heard this story in their context.  Jesus as one who is unjustly arrested, unjustly imprisoned, unjustly beaten, but who tells the truth and walks through it; Peter as one who fails miserably, who denies who he is and what he has been, yet as they know, who comes around and lives into his best self because of his community. What about us? What are the implications for this passage in our own day? What can we learn from this, and what can we do with it?

There are a lot of directions that we could go, and many possibilities for interpretation here.  This morning, though, I’d like to leave most of those ideas behind and focus on the question I asked at the beginning of the message: who is standing alone, and why?

Peter’s Denial, by Michael O’Brien (contemporary; used by permission; see more like this at http://studiobrien.com)

In this text, both Jesus and Peter are fundamentally alone at a crucial moment in their lives.  Peter is seeking anonymity as he hides in plain sight by the fire. Can you picture him drawing his cloak up over his head, hiding his face?  As he is recognized by others in the crowd in spite of his attempts to conceal his identity, he retreats into further isolation by removing himself from the fire circle and heading into the entryway or outer court.  Peter is clearly feeling unsafe and exposed in this environment.

In the same way, Jesus is surrounded by other people but more alone, perhaps, than he has been in his earthly lifetime.  As he is dragged into the trial, people come one after another and seek to “other” him.  He is diminished and assaulted verbally, physically, mentally, and spiritually by self-important people in the room who are doing everything they can to remind him that he is not like them and he is not welcome and not worthy; that he doesn’t belong and doesn’t know who he is.

I would like to suggest that both Peter and Jesus are in situations that are clearly removed from the Divine intent.  The conditions in which they find themselves are filled with evidence of fallenness, brokenness, and the far-off-ness of the Kingdom of God which they both proclaimed not all that long ago.

For some reason, as I read and re-read this scripture throughout the week, I was reminded of a brief passage from Genesis 2.  For the entire duration of the amazing creation poems that comprise most of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, we are only told of that which has been pronounced “good”.  Earth and sky, sun and moon, water and dry land – it’s all “good”.  But there near the end of the second chapter, we find that there is a “not good” that is introduced:  “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human is alone.  I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” (Genesis 2:18)  If you were to scan the various translations of that verse, you’ll see that some versions indicate that God makes a ‘helper’ for the first human, while others call that second human a ‘helpmeet’, a ‘partner’, or a ‘companion’.  No matter how the word is translated, the implication is clear: according to the norms set forth at Creation, isolation, loneliness, or being “othered” is not good; this kind of alone-ness is not reflective of God’s best for God’s children.

So here is a word for this day, beloved:  If the character in the story that most grabbed you was Peter – if you know how it feels to want to make yourself smaller, to hide, to cringe in the shadows or walk toward the edges of your community in fear… if you understand how it is to cower in shame, or pain, or isolation… then let me please beg you to take a step out of those shadows and let some part of yourself, your story, and your pain be known.

If you have been hiding, then let me ask you to come out a little bit. There is no need to create a full-scale PR campaign, to rush the microphone during “Joys and Concerns”, or to open up your own website – but if you have felt that kind of loneliness and isolation, then let me encourage you to take a step toward another person.  Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s the person sitting next to you or the one watching your children now – but let me ask you to find someone with whom you can be true.  Share a part of your story with someone else, and together with that person, walk toward community and look for some sort of healing, hope, and restoration together.  It is not good for you to be alone, or isolated. Allow your community to help make things better.

And some of you looked at Jesus in his time of trial and abuse and you cringed on his behalf.  Why was he so alone in this his hour of need?  Did you want to scream to his friends, his brothers, his beloved followers, “Where are you now?”

If you noticed the look of isolation and maybe even abandonment in the eyes of your Lord this morning, if you were appalled at the ways in which Jesus was “othered”, then let me implore you to search for that in the faces that surround you this and every day.  Someone near you is feeling abandoned or vulnerable or exposed.  Someone close to you is hiding in fear, and cringing.

Perhaps a call from the Gospel for us today is to move to stand a little closer to that person.  I’m not suggesting that you do this in order to rescue, or fix, or change, or heal anything about that person’s life – because it may be that the reason they’re alone is because something else in our world is so broken that they have become “othered”.  Let me encourage you to become a companion, or what I might call a “non-anxious presence” in the room.

One word that has been used with some frequency in discussions like this is “ally”, and I use it guardedly today because I understand that it carries with it some baggage and connotations that may be less than helpful. That said, however, one of the best things about an ally is that neither party in such relationship is called to submit to or even become like the other.  When Germany was bombing the daylights out of Britain during World War II, for instance, the US did not, as an ally, scold the British for being British. We didn’t walk into London and teach them a better way to be English, or insist that they call lorries “trucks” or chips “French fries.”  We didn’t try to make them become like us – we went and we stood with them and helped them maintain their sense of self and sovereignty at a time when they were feeling very much at risk of being abandoned or even obliterated.

One writer at the University of Kansas has this to say about being an ally:

Sometimes, it’s just reaching out and caring; sometimes it means taking a stand against ethnic, sexist, or other oppressive jokes; sometimes it is thinking about a person and encouraging them to keep trying; it can mean… speaking out publicly against injustice; sometimes it means backing a person’s leadership; sometimes it entails organizing a demonstration against discrimination.

Whatever the circumstances, as community members, we probably have a greater capacity to be effective allies to each other than we realize. We have the ability to think about each other, empower each other, and act on each other’s behalf in our day-to-day lives or in emergency situations.

And like almost anything else, being an ally is a skill. Although being an ally often comes quite naturally, you can learn how to be an ally; and the more you do it the better you get at it.[1]

So here is the call of the Gospel today, beloved: If you feel isolated, or exposed, or insignificant because of who you are, or who you have been told that you are, then let me encourage you to seek an ally here – to reach out for one who can help you feel less vulnerable.  And if you know that someone else is in a space that might be unsafe for them because of their race, their religion, their sexuality, or any other part of their lives, then you can let that person know that they are not alone.

Our world and our culture tend to be divisive; we are increasingly polarized, fractured, and divided.  Jesus and Peter are great examples this morning of those who were driven, for whatever reason, to a place where they were scapegoated,  isolated, or abandoned.   I suspect that a significant reason for the writing of this passage in the Gospel of Mark is that Peter had said on more than one occasion, “I wish I’d have been able to do more; I wish I’d have spoken up for him more, or better.  I wish I could have been there for him.”  Similarly, Peter’s very presence in Rome was proof positive that somehow in the days following the darkest hour of his life, someone he loved and trusted moved closer to him and whispered, “It will get better, my friend. Hold on.  I am here.  We will get through this.”

That is the Good News of the Gospel, my friends.  That you can get through this.  And someone here can be with you while you do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development (https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/be-an-ally/main)

Check the Listings

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 9 we opened “Season II” of this exploration with the passage that many writers see as the hinge to the entire Gospel.  Our main reading was from Mark 8:27-33.  In addition, we heard from Hebrews 12:1-2.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

Do you know how it feels when you’ve become acquainted with a television show or a movie franchise and then at the beginning of a new season or installment there’s a pretty radical change?  You think you know where the story is heading, and then all of a sudden there’s a new character? Or maybe a show that seemed to be really funny last year now seems to be steeped with political or social commentary.  Perhaps there’s a plot twist as a beloved character dies, or is revealed to be a “bad guy”, or you find out that the last four episodes were really only a dream…  You’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the way things are laid out, and then BAM! You’re in a different place.

Last season, in the hit series Preaching Through the Gospel of Mark with Pastor Dave, we witnessed the birth of the Jesus movement from two distinct viewpoints. We, the readers, knew where the narrator was going all along. We knew that because it’s all there in chapter 1, verse 1: “This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” That’s the introduction that the audience is given.

However, the characters in the story do not know everything that we know. To many of them, the Jesus story is constantly unfolding.  The central character seems to be evolving.  Is he a miracle worker? A wonderful teacher? A revolutionary sent to overthrow Roman oppression?

Throughout season one, which covered the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising.  There are more crowds.  The miracles are spectacular.  His command of the room is just superb.  Almost all of last year, we noticed that Jesus was YUGE!

But near the end of last season, there were glimmers of a different narrative developing.  We saw conflict with the religious and political establishment; Jesus seemed to be intensifying his commitment to include foreigners, women, and others who had been marginalized in his culture; and perhaps most notably, we saw the narrative shifting from the center of Jewish life and moving further and further afield.  Much of the beginning of Mark takes place in the region of the Galilee – an area that was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism, even if it was considered “the boondocks” by the learned elite inside the beltway of Jerusalem.

But now, season two of the Gospel opens in, of all places, Caesarea Philippi.  This place was further away from the capital than Galilee!  In fact it’s almost on the border of Lebanon.  It had long been the site of pagan worship, and had only recently been rebuilt and dedicated to (and named after) the reigning Emperor of Rome! In this setting, the disciples would have been surrounded by symbols of human power, wealth, and accomplishment.  To say it’s an unlikely setting is an understatement.

And yet Jesus takes advantage of the remote location to ask the disciples if they’ve checked the polls lately. “How are we doing?”, he asks.  “Who do the people say that I am?”

The Charge to Peter (detail), James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

The response is divided.  Some are convinced that he is John the Baptist, the fearless prophet who’d been killed by Herod, come back to life. Others believe that he may have been a resurrected prophet, but not John: Elijah, the courageous spokesman who stood up to Jezebel and Ahab.  And there are a few who are willing to concede that he’s someone pretty special, but they’re not sure exactly who.  The good news, the disciples report, is that everyone thinks that Jesus is a pretty remarkable guy.  Yet in spite of this, it would appear as though, for the most part, people have given up on the idea that Jesus was a conquering, militant Messiah who had come to expel the Romans and restore to Israel its former glory.

At this point, we get to one of the most important verses in all of Mark, and a fantastic opener to season II: Jesus looks at his friends and says, “OK, great. Who do yousay that I am?”

And Peter, God bless him, doesn’t miss a beat when he pronounces boldly, “You are the Messiah.  You are the Christ of God.”

Now, you might not remember this, but for the entire first half of the Gospel, every time Jesus did something amazing, it led to questions. He drives out an evil spirit (1:27) and everybody stands around asking, “What kind of teaching is this?”  He calms the sea and the storm (4:41), and his best friends wonder, “Who isthis guy?”  He shows up and preaches a real barnburner in his home town (6:2) and people stare at each other and say, “Where does he come up with this stuff?”

Now, on the furthest edge of Jewish territory, surrounded by symbols of paganism and power, Peter pronounces matter-of-factly, that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter says, “Oh, yeah, we get it, Jesus. We gotyou!”  He exchanges a knowing glance with Jesus and there are, presumably, fist bumps and high-fives all around.  Peter returns to his seat and then Jesus launches into the next round of teaching.

And look at how that begins: “He then began to teach them…”  Jesus beginsto teach them.  They have said, correctly, that he is the Messiah.  Now he’s got to teach them what a Messiah is.  Season 1 is over.  We came out to Caesarea Philippi for something new, so listen up, team…

What does he teach them?  That “the Son of Man” must suffer many things…  In the Gospel of Mark, the only title that Jesus chooses for himself is “the Son of Man.”  In fact, you could argue that not only is it the only title that he chooses, but that he’s the only one to say it in the second Gospel. In choosing to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” so quickly after Peter acclaims him the Messiah or Christ, Jesus is reserving the right of self-definition.  That is to say that he is unwilling to act into anyone else’s view of what it means to be the Messiah.  Just after Peter gives the right answer, Jesus sits the folks down and says, “All righty, now let me tell you how this savior thing is going to work.  I need to stress that it’s not pretty.  It’s going to be rough.  The path to Messiah-ship is through suffering and death…”

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

Well, quick as a wink Peter jumps up with an “over my dead body” kind of speech. “No, no, no Jesus – you’ve got it all wrong…”  The word that Mark uses is that Peter “rebukes” Jesus.

Uh-oh.

“Rebuke” is Jesus’ word.  It’s what Jesus does to evil spirits and angry winds.

Disciples do not “rebuke” the Son of Man.  In fact, as Jesus shows us one verse later, it’s the other way around. He insists that the path to faithful living is one of sacrifice and obedience to God.

Here in the relative isolation of Caesarea Philippi, the Son of Man lays out the ground rules for season II: disciples are not to “handle” the Son of Man; they are not to “protect”, “advise”, or “interpret” Jesus. Disciples are to follow.  Jesus goes so far as to call his friend and beloved disciple “Satan” because of his refusal to allow Jesus to be the Son of Man. “You get behindme, Peter”, says Jesus.  In the next verse, which we didn’t read, he uses the exact same words when he says that all are invited to “come after” him – to “get behind” him. We follow.  That’s what disciples do.

We don’t watch a lot of live television in our home, but we enjoy using using a DVR to skip the commercials.  Whenever we finish an episode and the announcer says, “Stay tuned for a preview of next week’s program…”, my wife insists that we watch the recording until the end.  She doesn’t want to miss the teaser about what’s coming next.

So here’s your preview: most of season II of the Gospel of Mark involves following Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem and exploring, in that context, what he means when he calls himself “the Son of Man.”

But before we leave today’s scripture, we’ve got to wrestle with the same critical question that he put before Peter.

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean to you?

I would suspect that there are some in the room who hold Jesus in the highest respect and admiration.  Jesus is a really, really good guy.  He’s someone to whom we can point our children at various times and hope that they’ll choose to follow his example – in this way, we think, he’s not unlike Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Rogers.

And there are those who rely on Jesus to be their go-to backup when it comes to political arguments.  I mean, you can go ahead and post your partisan stuff all you want, but when I trot out my Jesuswhen we talk about immigration or abortion or refugees or sexuality… well, that’s just a cosmic mic drop right there.  I may flounder when I try to debate the issues, but if God said it, then, BOOM. And isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how frequently God agrees with my political opinions? I guess you could say that Jesus has my back.  Which could mean that Jesus is behind me… which could mean I have something backwards…

Of course there are some of us who rely on Jesus as a wonder-working hero who is on call when it’s time for me to find a parking place in a hurry, or get a new car, or fix what’s broken in my marriage.  Like a good wingman, he’s always around, ready to jump in whenever I need a bit of a hand.

But this passage indicates that Jesus, apparently, is not interested in offering advice, or providing muscle, or even saving my bacon.

Instead, he seems to be concerned with whether or not I am willing to follow him where he leads.  Jesus invites us to walk behind him into an uncertain future.

He will not tolerate being manipulated, advised, or controlled.  He expects to be followed.

When I think about the question, “Who do you say that I am”, I have to say, “You are my lord.  You are the one who sets the agenda and establishes the priorities. I am a follower. I am a disciple.  I am a servant.”

And here’s the thing – and we’ll get into this more next week, I’m sure: when we follow, where are our eyes? On the leader, right? We do not choose the other pilgrims.  We can only decide how we will treat them as they come alongside of us in service to the one we follow.

So if you came to church looking for a motivational speaker, or some theological fireworks, or a chance to have all your problems solved… I’m sorry.  I don’t have much to offer you.

But if you came looking to invest yourself in a lifetime of service and adventure and learning and wonder and growth – a journey that will cost everything you have and more – then I can only say that I hope you’ll come along and join me as I follow to the best of my ability.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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.