What Keeps Us The Way We Are

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 Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

To hear (most of) this sermon as preached in worship please visit the media player below:


When I preached this sermon in worship, I opened with an illustration from my college days that I thought would provide an opening to the scripture for the people in the room. I thought twice about using it, because I wasn’t sure that it had “aged” well, or that it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be.  I should have thought three times.  I used it, and I wish that I hadn’t.  If you were present for worship, and found that illustration to be troubling or unwise, please know that we agree on that.  I regret using it, and will not compound the error by publishing it here. What follows is an abbreviated version of the sermon, which I think is better than the original. 

I wonder: are there things that we do that help keep us the way that we are?  Of course.

Every Christmas Eve, the community is invited to my home to share in a big pot of oyster stew.  Can I tell you something? My wife doesn’t like oysters.  Not even a little.  But for nearly four decades, she has helped me to prepare this meal because, well, it’s what Carvers do.  My parents did it before me, and it reminds me – especially on Christmas – that the most important presents cannot be wrapped and hidden under a tree.

Similarly, Dan and Trish Barry gather their family up at their cabin the night before the opening day of trout season.  If you asked them what they were doing, they might tell you that they’re catching fish, but if you hear them talk about it long enough, you know that the trout are a small part of what is actually happening. It’s a lot more about family, and stories, and spending time unplugged.

Many of you could point to various practices that your family employs to shape and inform who you are.  You do something because you want to remember where you came from, and you want to share that with people who haven’t been in the room as long as you have.

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (German, d. 2015). I love how in this portrayal the view is from the perspective of Jesus.

For Christians, the sacraments of baptism and communion fill this function.  These rituals and habits are at the core of what it means to us to live in and practice our faith together.  Today, as we have the portion of Mark’s Gospel that relates the establishment of the Lord’s Supper and then move into sharing the sacrament of baptism with little Jonah and his family, it seems to make sense to reflect on these practices.

And, since Mark has been the focus of our study for more than a year, we’ll look particularly at some of the emphases that he places on the Lord’s Supper.

First, I should say that there is some controversy as to on which particular day all of this happened.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his followers, and then was killed the next day.  John, on the other hand, says that he ate a meal the day before the Passover with his disciples and was killed himself on Passover. There are some fine, but important, points to be made as we consider whether Jesus was giving his disciples this meal as a means to transform the Passover or whether he himself became the new Passover lamb.  And as rich as that discussion might be, we’re not going to have it today.  We’ll simply affirm that the Gospels are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus died during the holiest time of the year, a time that was informed by the memory and celebration of the liberation of God’s people. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and all of the disciples would have said that Jesus took a long-standing practice – the Passover meal – and he infused it with new meaning and purpose at the hour of his death.

In leaving this meal for his community, Jesus left clues that the new community would not be identical to the old.  For instance, in verse 13 of today’s reading, the disciples are told that they should look for a man carrying a jar of water.  To us, that sounds like pretty standard old-timey Bible stuff.  But to those men, the idea of finding a man doing woman’s work like that must have stuck out.  I’m suggesting that it’s intentional – a way of indicating that life in the Kingdom invites us to different understandings of people and their gifts and their roles. The Kingdom calls us to consider new patterns of relationships.

Another emphasis of Mark is conspicuous by its absence. From what you remember of the Last Supper, what did Jesus say to his disciples after he passed the bread and the cup?  “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?  You do?

That’s funny, because the Gospel of Mark doesn’t remember that. There is no command from Jesus to continue this meal.  Of course, we can say with some certainty that it is implied – Jesus shares the Passover with his disciples; he assumes that as faithful Jews of course they will re-engage with this meal.  But he re-defines the basis of it.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And then look at what he says: “I will not drink it again until the kingdom comes in all its fulness.”  In other words, Jesus assumes that his disciples will remember him.  He’s given them language for that.  Here, he is telling them that he will remember them! It’s not a command – it’s a promise! You are remembered!

And so, every now and then, the body of Christ – the church – trots out the bread and the cup and we give thanks for this promise.  We have communion.

The Last Supper, from Jesus MAFA: Art in the African Christian Tradition

And yet here is a supreme irony: that while for two millennia the followers of Jesus have claimed that these practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are given by the Lord in order to bring about the fullness and unity of the church… we find ourselves arguing about these two things more than just about anything else!  Think about it: in spite of the fact that the word “communion” is literally built around the word “union”, there are few places in our theology that are as fractured as this!

When you go home, google your favorite denomination and the words “full communion”.  You’ll discover that Presbyterians like me claim to be in “full communion” with some of the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Moravians (look it up) and the Reformed Church in America.  The Lutherans, however, have six partners.  The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, is in full communion with five traditions, all of which have the word “Catholic” in their names.  I suspect that there is nobody in this room who hasn’t been in a church service of one sort or another where communion was being served and been told, “Well, actually, while this is for the whole people of God… you can’t have any…”

This is the meal by which we remember the great truth that Jesus taught us – that all of us are welcome, that each of us has a place – and we interrupt Jesus and say, “Yeah, sure, Lord, we get that… but not HIM, right? I mean, people like HER aren’t supposed to be here, are they?

Here’s another ‘Dave story’: in 1989 I was a Presbyterian Student at a Baptist and Episcopalian seminary who had been hired by the Reformed Church in America to do youth work.  One of my main responsibilities was overseeing a week long experience for young people from all over the country who converged on Rochester NY for a week of service, study, and growth.  One evening, this Presbyterian seminarian took a group of Reformed kids to worship in the local Roman Catholic church.  When it came time for the Eucharist, Father Jim asked me to come up and help distribute the elements.  He invited everyone in the room to share in the sacrament.  It was a true feast of unity.

Afterwards, I found one of the students weeping.  I asked her why, and she said, “Dave, this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt the presence of the Lord in the sacrament.”  And, being a knucklehead, I said, “Great!  That’s fantastic! I’m happy for you!  Why are you crying?”  She continued, “Because in my congregation, the only people who can take communion are the ones who have met with the elders.  And the only time that any of us can take communion anywhere else is when we have permission ahead of time from the elders.  Don’t you get it, Dave?  This is the best moment of my Christian life, and when I get home, I’ll have to tell my dad, the pastor, about it, and the elders will probably discipline me for breaking the rules.”  And then she wasn’t the only one weeping.

The communion that we shared that evening was not “legal” by anyone’s standards.  The Presbyterians would have had a fit if they caught me, a seminarian, up front handing out bread.  The Catholics were totally bent out of shape that the Priest had invited Protestants to share in the Eucharist.  And every Reformed kid there was flouting the rules of their own churches.  Officially speaking, none of those churches would call what we did “communion.”  In practice, however, lives were changed.

That leads me to one more observation about the Lord’s Supper as Mark describes it.  Who was in the room?

Well, we can’t be sure of everyone who was there, but we know for a fact that the twelve were there.  The twelve. All of the disciples.  In fact, Mark goes out of his way to mention that Jesus not only invited Judas to the meal, but shared the meal with him.  It’s clear from the text that Jesus knows who Judas is, what Judas had already done, and Judas is planning… and yet there he is, sharing in this meal with Jesus.

Think about that for a moment.

For two thousand years, Christians have found deep meaning and great inspiration in the memory of this first celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every Christian tradition remembers that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and served him the meal.  The events of this chapter are sacred to the memory of every Christian tradition.

But when we get around to sharing this supper with each other, how quick are we to say, “What? You? Here? Not so fast, Bub.  Just step right back there and cool your jets.  We’re not so sure we can let you in.”

And somewhere, someone is saying, “Seriously?  Judas – Judas Iscariot, the person who is guilty of doing the worst thing in the history of things – thatJudas can come, but not me?”

Is that the message that we want to send to the world?

O, beloved church!  On this Lenten Sunday – this Lord’s Day on which we celebrate baptism as a symbol of forgiveness and restoration, and on which we remember the Lord’s Supper as a meal of welcome and inclusivity, let us remember that we have been brought together notby how holy we are, or how correct our theology is, or how blameless our practices have been… Let us affirm and hold fast to the fact that we are broken, lost, flawed people – that we are great sinners in need of a great salvation and lo and behold, we have seen that offered to us – to all of us – in Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, saints of God in Jesus Christ: on this day – another day following another instance where a man yelling slogans about the supremacy of one race and ideology burst into a worship space seeking to destroy those whom he had determined to be less than worthy, less than deserving, less than human – let us gather around the table and the font in humility, not arrogance, recognizing that the Kingdom of God proclaimed in Mark is not one that is always recognized by or embraced by the world, yet vital to who we are as a church and the Body of Christ.  May we be known, dear ones, not for whom we keep away, nor for that which we hate, but rather as those who are willing to share the welcome and grace that we ourselves have received in unending supply.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).

Do You Love Love?

As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”

On October 5, World Communion Sunday, we considered the command to “Love Kindness”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 136 and Colossians 3:1-14

Angry Sports ParentIs there anything more frustrating, or perhaps more pathetic, than watching a parent try to manipulate, pressure, or bully a child into an activity that the child clearly does not enjoy, but from which the parent derives a great deal of pleasure or affirmation? Do you know what I mean? The classic case, I suppose, is the dad who signs up to coach the Little League team and then spends all of his time molding Junior into the second baseman he’s sure he could’ve been if only he hadn’t broken his leg in the 10th grade. You’ve seen him – yelling at the poor kid, drilling it into him, pushing him again and again and again – all so he can get out there and have fun…

Or maybe you’re more familiar with the mother who is so afraid of the fact that her youth may be fading that she enters her four year old into all the beauty contests and dresses her little princess like a starlet, teaching her to move and look at the camera in a way that is not natural for a pre-pubescent child.

Don’t get me wrong: we want our kids to enjoy themselves, and it’s natural for us to desire that they love the same things that we love. But sometimes, they are simply not wired that way. A long time ago, I was thinking about the fact that my daughter was entering her teen years and I was afraid I was going to “lose” her. I happened to be fishing with Adam when we encountered a man and his twelve-year old daughter, complete with matching hip waders and fishing vests. I gestured to the pair, and said, “Some day, Adam…Some day, that could be me.”

He looked at the pair, and then back to me, and said, “Have you met your daughter? If you are looking for some quality bonding time around a shared interest, you better call down to the Joy School of Dance and see if they’ve got a size 36 tutu for you to wear, because that child is not coming to Lake Erie with you in November.”

Little+Mermaid+TritonAnd he was right. While Ariel and I share a lot, it is not in her nature to engage in some of the sporting activities that I so enjoy.

How about when you invite a friend to dinner, and you make your absolute favorite dish? I mean, you knock one out of the park! You take the first bite, and you know – you know! – that it is as it should be. And you look at your friend, who says, “Well, um, I guess it’s interesting.” Seriously?!?! That’s it? Don’t you love it! Come on, try it again. Eat some more.

Or you bring a boy home to meet your parents, and you are so excited because he is it! I mean, he’s a dream come true. You introduce him to the folks, and they don’t like him.

How do you get someone to love what you love? Is that even possible?

micah-6-8This month, we’ve been looking at Micah 6:8, which contains God’s expectations for those of us who follow him and who bear his name. Do you remember that verse? “What does the Lord require of you?” Require. What’s the bottom line?

The last time I was with you, we talked about God’s call to do justice. OK, I can live with that language. To be frank, it’s about what we might expect from a Supreme Being. Do this. Don’t do that. There’s nothing here about trying, or wishing, or hoping. Do it. We can talk about what justice is or is not, and how it looks in the neighborhood where you live, but the command is a simple one. Do justice.

But look at the next requirement: we are to “love kindness”.

Seriously? I not only have to be kind, but I’m supposed to love kindness? How is that supposed to work? Is God like a pushy parent down at the dance class – working out his own issues through us? “Love this…and that’s an order…”

Let’s look at the word in question. We are told that we are to love “kindness”. The Hebrew word, hesed, is one for which there is not a precise English translation. Some places we see that it means “kindness”, while other times it carries the meaning of “mercy” or “faithfulness” or “loyalty” or “love”. It is a beautiful word.

hesedAnd you know that word. You may remember it from Lamentations 3: “The hesed of the Lord never ceases and his mercies never come to an end”. Maybe you prayed it at the last funeral you attended, when the preacher led you in the 23rd Psalm: “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Hesed describes what is supposed to happen in a relationship – whether it’s a human or a divine relationship. Hesed is not a set of warm emotional feelings (although there’s nothing wrong at all with warm emotional feelings). Hesed describes the way that we are treated by God and the manner in which we are to deal with our neighbors. It’s an action, not a feeling.

When God wants to describe himself, he uses that word in Exodus, saying that he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed and faithfulness, keeping hesed for thousands…”(34:6-7). Hesed is, in fact, God’s very nature. One of the most prominent places where we find that kind of love explored is in Psalm 136, which we’ve shared as a part of our Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession this morning. Hesed is who and what God is all about.

And the good news, my friends, is that you are made in the image of God. Genesis 1 tells us that you are a chip off the old block – and therefore, that hesed is not only who and what God is, but it is who and what you are. This is waaaay better than being the son of the guy who lettered in four different sports back in the day, because it’s about how you are made.

And Paul wants to drive that point home when he writes to his friends in Colossae, so he reminds them that they have been renewed in Jesus Christ. If some part of the image of God that is in us has been tarnished, says Paul, there’s no need to worry, because Jesus has polished that all up. You bear the Divine image. You are like God! You are destined to live and share hesed in this world.

“Yeah, Pastor Dave, that’s a nice pep talk and all that, but, well, to tell you the truth, I tried being nice. I really did. For about a week and a half a few years back. And I hated it. And everyone screwed with me. I’m just not cut out for that hesed business.”

The way I read it, my friends, it’s not really an option. Because while my daughter is free to say that she’s not interested in fishing with me, any child of mine is going to have hairy legs and an oddly-shaped head. Nothing that anyone can say about that – it’s just true. It comes with being my offspring.

And the same is true of you and hesed. You are created to love.

The question is, do you love love? I mean, that’s the requirement: we are to love and nurture that part of us that is reflective of God’s image and intentions.

Wolves_in_NorwayAccording to a story that comes from the Cherokee tradition, an elderly brave was talking with his young grandson about the battle that goes on inside of every human being. “Inside of you there are two wolves, each of which desires to control you. One of those wolves is evil: it loves to see you caught up in anger, jealousy, greed, pride, and selfishness. The other is noble, and represents joy, peace, love, and hope.” The young boy looked at his grandfather and said, “Tell me: which of those wolves will win?” The old man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “The one that you feed.”[1]

How do we get to the point where we love love? I’d suggest that it is as simple (and as difficult) as choosing which of those wolves to feed.

On the one hand, we can seek to weed out the things that threaten our ability to live into the fulness of God’s purposes for us. Paul talks about that in Colossians, but the trouble is that he uses a lot of Bible-sounding words like “fornication” and “impurity” and “desire” and “wrath”. What does that look like in real life?

Well, for me, one of the things that I had to do was stop watching South Park. When that show came out almost two decades ago, I thought it was one of the smartest, funniest, perceptive shows on television. I liked watching it. This animated sitcom follows four young boys around their home in Colorado, and it is well-written. But here’s the thing: when I was watching that show, I found myself being enthralled by the sarcasm and satire that is done so well. I noticed that I was, myself, trying a little harder to be sarcastic and caustic in my humor. It was a great show – but it was turning me into a jerk – so I stopped watching it.

Similarly, there are people who simply bring out the worst in me. When I am around them, I am liable to act in all sorts of ways that are contrary to my God-given nature of hesed. Saying “no” to the toxicity that these people would bring into my life is one way of feeding the hesed that lives in me.

But it’s not enough to simply avoid the bad. Part of what we are called to do is to practice the things that will help us to develop the gifts of hesed in our daily lives.

Practice. Do. When we gather for worship, we allow ourselves to remember that we are a part of a community. By physically being present, we put ourselves in a position to claim the truth that is true – even when we can’t always feel it.

When I practice making a certain percentage of my money available for the Lord’s work, I’m not depending on how I feel at the moment. I’m following through with a decision that I’ve made, and trusting that acting like a generous person will allow me to become one.

When you decide to spend a couple of hours a week in a volunteer project, you proclaim with your lifestyle the things that are important to you. When you choose to forgive the person who wronged you, you are saying that you believe in and trust in the grace that is there for you when you do wrong.

Look, you know the truth: none of these things are warm and sentimental, like a cup of hot apple cider or pictures of kittens on the internet. But all of them will help you to grow into the kind of hesed for which you were made.

A.J. Jacobs is a young man who, a few years ago, decided that he was going to try to live a year following the Bible literally. He began the year as a non-religious Jew, but he found that he was hungry for some sort of faith. He thought that if he acted like a person with faith, he might learn something about that. He did. One of the key insights of his Year of Living Biblically is that it is far easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than it is to wait around until you feel like acting differently.

This morning, I hope that you will choose to come to the Lord’s table, and that you will be renewed in your awareness of God’s gift of hesed that is for and in you. Further, I dare to hope that you will be renewed in your desire to be a channel of God’s gift of hesed to the community that we share. Can you love hesed?

Look, I don’t want to sound like an overbearing Little League parent here, but you’ve got this. Come on now. This hesed? It is all you. Let’s see it. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] “The Tale of Two Wolves”, http://www.nanticokeindians.org