Being Faithful for the Long Haul in the Exile

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this week.  As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, we do so mindful of the fact that we are a church that was born speaking the languages of the marginalized and oppressed and seeking to be faithful to God’s call to demonstrate the fullness of God’s reign on earth.  Our scriptures for today included Daniel 6:1-23 and Acts 2:1-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below.  To see the complete worship service, please use the YouTube link at the end of this blog.

On March 22, our congregation began to gather for worship digitally.  We did the unimaginable: we had Holy Week and Easter without any of you setting foot in the building!  We didn’t know how to do that; and some of us thought we couldn’t do that, but we did.  And since then, we’ve been spending most of our worship time exploring the stories that are found in the first half of the book of Daniel.  We’ve discovered some reminders of the ways that God is present to a people in exile, and we’ve seen vivid examples of courage, fortitude, faith, and love.  Today brings us to the end of that series, and we will conclude our exploration with the story that is probably most familiar to us… The lion’s den.

When we first meet Daniel, he’s a young man – maybe 13-15 years old.  By the time of today’s reading, though, he’s at least 65, and probably closer to 80 years old.  For fifty or sixty years, he’s been continuing to do what he’s always done – he’s being faithful to God, no matter which king reigns in Babylon.  As a teenager, he was in trouble because he didn’t want to contaminate his plate with food that didn’t belong there according to God’s rule, and he was threatened.  His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace.  He faces pressure again and again to worship someone other than the Lord, and he never does so.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Briton Riviere (1872)

I am struck by Daniel’s staying power: to be so faithful in such a difficult place for such a long time.  We are frustrated to think that we haven’t been able to eat in our favorite restaurant for three months; when the politician we oppose gets elected we think, “Oh no – four whole years of this!”; we buy a house and think, “30 years of mortgage payments…” and yet Daniel models faith for more than half a century.  Daniel is a man with staying power.  He stood firm.

What was the key to this?  How could he do it?  I would suggest that it was because Daniel knew which laws were ones that could be changed, and which were ones that would never change.  That’s what this story is about.  It’s not a story about Daniel and a bunch of crooked politicians, or Daniel and a gullible king, or even Daniel and the lions.  It’s about God’s laws and the Empire’s laws.  The other rulers saw this when they were trying to get rid of Daniel: “We’ll never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”

I don’t know about you, but when my eye falls across verses 8 and 15 of Daniel 6, and I read about the laws of the Medes and the Persians which can never be changed – well, it sounds sort of quaint to me.  Sort of old-fashioned.  After all, who even knows anything about the Medes and the Persians, whoever they were, let alone their laws?  That sounds really old-timey. “The law that cannot be revoked!” – it sounds like a line from a bad movie.

Except it’s not.  We’ve grown up and lived under and suffered with all kinds of “laws that can never be changed”; We accept them day in and day out.  “A law that cannot be revoked” is a law that is designed to protect privilege and power.  I mean, isn’t that what was happening in Daniel?  Those who were threatened by Daniel’s faithfulness and ascendancy were saying, “As long as this Jew is hanging around, we’re not ‘safe’; we could wind up losing the King’s affection, our positions of glory, and our privilege.”

The laws that can never be changed are those fictions that a society tells itself so that evil can hide behind a statute and what is immoral can cloak itself in legality.

Another way to put it would be to say that the laws that can never be changed are the things that “everybody knows”.  If you think hard enough, you might be able to come up with a few of them:

  • You can’t fight city hall
  • It’s the ‘golden rule’: whoever has the gold makes the rules

You see what I mean? Some of these are actually codes written in a book somewhere, but others come from our lived experience and we accept them as true and as binding.  And these laws that cannot be changed have been around forever.

You remember Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the amazing phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  He also said, “Slavery is a necessary evil”.  The chattel slavery of human beings was a law that could not be changed in America from 1619 until 1865.  Everybody knew that.

And when the legal cloak of slavery ended, the law came to allow, or even mandate, state-sponsored segregation according to “race”.  The Supreme Court of our nation ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” was not only possible, but was a law by which we should live.  And that was the official doctrine of the land until 1954 when the same Supreme Court said, “You know what? That’s a law that CAN be changed.”

All of that happened before I was born.  The “law that cannot be changed” under which I’ve lived my entire life is, “If those people  would just follow the rules, then none of this would have happened.”  A situation gets out of hand, and property is damaged or lives are lost, and we fall back on that truth: that a person who suffers injury or death is usually complicit because, well, they weren’t following the rules.  They should have just obeyed, and everything would have been fine.

Am I reaching too far here?  Are these are examples of “laws that cannot be changed”?  Codes of conduct to which society agrees and then implements for generations?

What has changed in my lifetime?  When I was seven years old my mother put me in front of the television and told me to watch the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This week, at the age of 59, I’m sitting in front of the television watching people prepare for George Floyd’s funeral.

Are we ever going to learn?

Is anything ever going to change?

The witness of Daniel and the story of Pentecost may provide clues for us who seek to live by faith in a world where privilege is protected and power is maintained through the malicious (and fully legal) use of “laws that cannot be changed.”

I’ll start by saying that we’re not entirely sure how the Festival of Pentecost might have been observed on that day in about 30 AD about which we heard in the reading from Acts.  There were three great festivals for which faithful Jews were expected to journey to Jerusalem.  However, unlike the other two pilgrimage holidays (Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles), Pentecost – the harvest offering – lasted only a single day.

Pentecost, also known as the “Feast of Weeks”, celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest.  As such, it was a busy time for an agricultural people.  Folk who were trying to be faithful got into town, dropped off their “wave offerings” at the temple, and headed back to the farm.  There were probably no extended welcomes, lavish banquets, or week-long observances.  People came in, did their best to do right in the eyes of the Lord, and left town.

The followers of Jesus happened to be in Jerusalem when the feast of Pentecost took place.  They were not there to make new friends or to change the world.  They were trying to figure out what it meant for them to be a community of faith.  They were hiding in a nondescript place, not wanting to attract attention to themselves – until the Holy Spirit barged into their hideout and it looked like God was trying to burn the place down and they found themselves being sent out and talking to the people nobody cared about in languages that they didn’t think that they knew.

Acts chapter two describes the formation of a new community which was birthed in an act of invitation, engagement, welcome, and inclusivity.   Historians of the first century tell us on numerous occasions that the followers of Jesus were either reviled or revered for their posture toward outsiders and the marginalized.

The Day of Pentecost is a call for the Church in 21st century – for us – to seek to recover that aspect of our congregational DNA and to remember that the call to faithful living, to invitation, engagement, welcome, and attentiveness to those are the margins is one that must be chosen over and over and over again in the long haul.

The church was born speaking the language of the outsider.  Are we still listening for the language of the oppressed?  Are we willing to learn that language? And are we committed to living graciously and hospitably?

I would suggest that a central strategy for the church in 2020 is to embrace the work of antiracism in the name of Jesus.  Now, church, this is the first time I have used this phrase in my eleven weeks of preaching to an iPhone in an empty sanctuary, but I’m glad you’re not here right now.  It’s not that I don’t love you and it’s not that I don’t miss you, but if we had a hundred and fifty people here this morning I guarantee you that I’d have a line of people waiting to talk with me who began the conversation by saying, “Pastor, I’m not a racist, but…” or “You know, I have a friend who is black, and even HE says…” And frankly, I don’t think I could handle too many of those conversations this morning.

It’s not enough to claim a lack of prejudice for myself, or to point to a person of color who can somehow vouch for me.  The church is called to the work of anti-racism – of disassembling structures that prop up the laws that cannot be changed and not only opposing those who spew hate, but becoming people who will not be silent in the midst of hate.

This Pentecost Sunday, this day where we remember the life of a man who lived in exile in a foreign land for nearly a century, the truth is this: an astounding 40% of white Americans do not have a single friend who is a person of color.  Similarly, 25% of nonwhites live effectively surrounded by their own tradition and culture.[1] Are those numbers indicative of your friend group?  I don’t know.  But they are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what do we DO? How do we engage in the work of antiracism as a means of expressing our faith in Christ during a time of pandemic and isolation and social unrest?  There are a lot of ways, and if you are hearing my voice now, you know how to work the Google Machine and you can find a number of articles or exercises that will fit your interest and ability.  Let me offer a few ideas, though, that might make sense as you continue to dwell in your own quarantine.

You can expand your reading list.  If you have not read anything by someone like James McBride, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Khaled Hosseini, then you should.  Most of you have not lived their experiences, but all of us need to know them.

Similarly, you can enlarge your media consumption so as to include stories of people of color.  Watch the films “Just Mercy”, or “Selma”, or other such movies or television series that will allow you to listen to and internalize the stories of people of color.

Pay attention to the stories that you read to and tell your children and grandchildren.  There are many amazing children’s books that depict the brown child or the outsider as the hero of the story.  Help the children that you love to grow up knowing that people who may not look or think like them can be extraordinary, and that exclusion and hate do not belong as a part of our story.  Some of you are aware of the fact that I have been reading a children’s book on Facebook most days since the middle of March, and there are a lot of stories there to get you started.

And perhaps most importantly, listen to your own inner narrative.  How do you repeat “the laws that cannot be changed” in a way that solidifies your own power or privilege but negates someone else – often in a way that you would not do overtly?  How does your social media use align with the values of the Christ of Pentecost?  To whom do you give your “likes” or your retweets or your attention?  And to whom do you offer a challenge or a correction?  Sometimes, your silence is taken as complicity.

Finally, beloved, remember this: at the end of the day, there are only two laws that cannot be changed, and they were given to us by the One we’re called to worship this day.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)

So that’s it.  Today is Pentecost, and more than anything, we’d love to repeat the experience of the first Christians (“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…”), but we can’t.  Instead, we are challenged to echo the next part of their story – their experience of having been driven out of their building and into the world.

We have not been in the exile as long as Daniel – not by a longshot – but we are weary.  But beloved, for the love of God, do not waste this moment.  In the middle of March, this congregation did what we did not think was possible: we learned how to do church this way.

Today, don’t worry about the fact that you can’t COME to church; instead, think about how you might BE the church in all the ways that matter.  Listen.  Learn.  Love.

Thanks be to God, who invites us to become wider, richer, deeper, wiser, and better than we have ever thought possible.  Amen.

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/08/08/poll-white-americans-far-less-likely-to-have-friends-of-another-race

Summer of Love

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On March 1, we considered the first affirmation in our Book Of Order to be written by a North American denomination. We sought to be attentive to the Confession of 1967 (linked below) while referring to Leviticus 25 and Luke 12:32-34.

The Confession of 1967, edited for the purpose of inclusive language.

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

What do you remember about 1967 (and yes, I know, most of you in the room this morning weren’t around then…)?  On January 14 of that year, Allan Ginsburg, Dick Gregory, and a host of other popular figures appeared at what was billed as “The Human Be-In” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  An estimated 30,000 people turned out to explore ideas that came to shape the Hippie movement of the 1960’s; it was here that psychologist Timothy Leary first urged the young people of America to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

That event led to what has been termed “The Summer of Love”, a phenomenon that saw close to half a million people descend upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in an exploration and celebration of the Hippie values of free love, psychedelic drugs, and protests.

And even if you couldn’t get to San Francisco that year, your town was probably filled with conversations about the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the civil rights movement, what some called “Women’s Liberation”, and the sexual revolution, among other hot topics of the year.  1967 was, in so many respects, a momentous year in the United States.

If you were to leaf through an historical retrospective of 1967, I suspect it would have to be a fairly THICK historical retrospective if you were to come across a description of a gathering of Presbyterians that took place in May of that year.  What with the war in Vietnam, the riots in Detroit, and the fire that killed three astronauts on Apollo 1, a bunch of church folks getting together for a conference in Portland seems rather pedestrian.

And yet in today’s worship, we won’t be talking about any of those great societal upheavals explicitly; instead, we’ll explore the ways that the decisions of the General Assembly have filtered into our lives.

Commissioners to the 1967 General Assembly.

More than ten years prior, in 1956, anticipating the upcoming merger of the United Presbyterian Church in North America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the church called for a re-write of the Westminster Confession of Faith. You’ll remember that we are talking about the creeds of the church during this season of our lives, and you might have been in church a few weeks ago when we talked about the Westminster Standards – the then-300 year old document that was at that point the cornerstone of the church’s theology.  After that committee met for two years, the new denomination decided in 1958 that it would be better to simply come up with a brand-new statement of faith that would guide the church into the current day.  It took another nine years, and two more specially-appointed committees, but the Assembly that met in Portland in 1967 approved not only the document that we know as “The Confession of 1967” but the Book of Order that contains it and the other documents we’ve talked about in recent months.  We might not be fast in the Presbyterian Church, but we’re thorough…

When folks called for an updated version of the Westminster Standards, most of them expected a similar document.  When churches heard about the development of a new statement, they anticipated receiving a creed that talked about the beliefs that were necessary to maintaining a Christian witness. After all, most of the affirmations that the church had come to in previous years dealt with answers. What must a person believe in order to call oneself a Christian?  How can an individual be “redeemed” or “saved”?  Which ideas about God are the right ideas?

And yet the Assembly received a ten page document that was based around a single passage in scripture: II Corinthians 5:19, which reads, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”  The authors of the Confession of 1967 laid a theological groundwork in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  But then, rather than embarking on a systematic exposition of church doctrine, the Confession of 1967 invites the reader to consider four aspects of reconciliation that were very much in evidence in the turbulent 1960’s:

  • The evils of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow
  • The perils of militarism and an arms race
  • The scourge of economic injustice around the world
  • The risks inherent in the onset of the sexual revolution

And because I know that many of you were not alive at that time in history, let me simply say that if you brought up topics like racism, war, economic justice, and human sexuality in a Presbyterian Church in 1967, you weren’t preaching anymore – you were meddling.

The Rev. Carl McIntire leading a protest against the “liberal” policies of the Presbyterian Church.

So if you’ve been a Presbyterian for a while, you won’t be surprised to know that the early drafts of the Confession of 1967 received a scathing reception in some quarters.  In fact, the Presbyterian Lay Committee sponsored 150 newspaper advertisements across the country, including a half page in The New York Times, urging loyal and faithful Presbyterians to vote against this affirmation.  These ads stated, “Protestant denominations generally have limited themselves in their jurisdiction to ecclesiastical and spiritual subjects.”[1]

You see, for many people, their central understanding was that the church is here to provide for the salvation of individuals, who are then sent back into their “regular” lives as those who are redeemed and transformed.  Religion, in these people’s minds, is a private matter.  Talking about issues like this in church was crossing some sort of a line, and getting political, and causing controversy.  “The church,” folks seemed to say, “ought to stick to religion.”

And yet in calling the church to respond to evils with names like racism, militarism, poverty, and sexual abandon, the authors of the Confession of 1967 are holding forth an entirely different model of the church: one that sees the congregation as a laboratory in which individuals are brought together to consider ethical responses to the questions of the day, and thereby becoming in themselves agents of transformation that will encourage those who struggle even while threatening the status quo that perpetuates or tolerates such evils.

It’s a key question, and it rages in churches to our own day.  Are we here to save souls? Or are we here to demonstrate what God intends for all of creation?

The Confession of 1967 reflects the truth that authentic Christianity has got to be deeply personal, in that it must resonate with and be lived out by individuals.  However it goes further to imply that such a faith, while inherently personal, can never be essentially private.  The Christian faith is not your private possession, assuring you that you can avoid the dangers of Hell but not requiring you to participate in the life of the world.

Parenthetically, I’ll mention that next month I intend to preach an entire series of sermons I’m calling “How My Mind Has Changed” – and this understanding is perhaps my most momentous shift of the past four decades.

The Confession of 1967 points us, rightly, to the truth that God’s people are called to follow Jesus in every single area of life, and that as a result, our understandings of identity – including nationalism, race, and gender – are bound to be transformed by the discipleship we profess.

By way of example, I’ll point you toward a part of the Confession that focuses on the cry for economic justice around the world. You can see that section printed in your bulletin, and indeed we will read it together as our Affirmation of Faith in a few moments.  Here you will see that the Confession is deeply reflective of a key biblical concept – and yet has been called dangerous and socialism by some.

The key truth on which this section hangs is the first verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and all that dwell therein.”  The implications of that foundational assertion are unpacked for us in various places throughout the Bible including, as you’ve heard, Leviticus 25.

Follow with me here: if the earth and all that is on it belongs to God, then none of us can truly own any of it.  How can we lay title to that which we’ve already confessed belongs to another?  So then, according to Leviticus, one does not actually purchase property, buy or sell human slaves, or even own money forever. Rather, you purchase the use of the land, you buy the labor of the worker, and you may make a temporary loan to someone else – but every fifty years, in the Divine economy, there is a fundamental re-do.  Every fifty years, according to the Jubilee principle set forward here by Moses and affirmed by Isaiah and Jesus, all the land ought to revert to its original owners; anyone who has become enslaved is set free; and all debts are wiped out.  In a society that would truly live these practices out, there would be no such thing as chronic poverty.  However, there would also be no ability to amass generational wealth, so you can guess how often this has actually been tried.

The confession points to the fact that scripture calls us to be continually reconciling with each other and with the land itself to the end that every human and all of creation might know the Divine Intentions of justice, rest, and peace.

This system of economic justice cannot work unless people take in personally: folk have got to be individually committed to the ideal.  Similarly, it will not work if we tried to do it in our own little space – I try it on Cumberland Street and someone else tries it in McKees Rocks, it can’t function.  It cannot be private.

Yes, I think that for some of us, the Confession of 1967 might be among the most influential documents that we’ve never read.

What do you remember about 1967?  Do you like listening to the Beatles? Do you remember Cool Hand Luke? Can you whistle along with the theme of The Andy Griffith Show?

All right – before I get an “OK, Boomer…”, let me close by saying that while historians call 1967 the “summer of love” because hundreds of thousands of Hippies descended into Haight-Asbury and “flower children” protested the war, perhaps the Presbyterian Church, in all of our stodginess, did something tangible to remind the world that love has structure, love has direction, and love has purpose.

Because, beloved, if in 2020 we can hold onto these truths

  • Racism is an evil that must be opposed and dismantled
  • Seeking security and identity in nuclear, biological, ideological, or military weaponry is an absurd proposition and a danger to the world
  • Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is antithetical to God’s purposes for humanity
  • The ways that human beings treat each other’s sexuality has deeply-seated spiritual dimensions and effects.

If we can live by those affirmations in 2020, than this year can be a “summer of love” in Crafton Heights. Not “I’m A Believer” or “Baby, Won’t You Light My Fire” kind of love, but enacted, Christ-like, God-honoring, Spirit-driven love that is shared in community, practiced here, and given away freely.  A love like that is something worth striving for! May it be a hallmark of our lives and our congregation.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark Englund-Krieger, The Presbyterian Pendulum: Seeing Providence in the Wild Diversity of the Church Wipf & Stock, 2010), p. 148.

We Were Wrong…Let’s Not Do THAT Again

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

While walking through the landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, a sign caught our eyes.  Neither Sharon nor I thought to take a photo of it, but in retrospect it was rather profound in its honesty and humility.  In describing a technique that attempted to control a potential problem with many of the local trees, the sign said simply something like, “This was a mistake.  Many acres of healthy trees were ruined by this mismanagement of our resources.  Park Managers now approach this situation differently and the environment is better for it.”

It struck us as a bit profound: most of the signs and monuments we see are erected in those places where we were right,  or were something great happened, or where some great victory was won.  Who likes to memorialize their mistakes?

I spent the day on June 17 exploring an entire landmark site commemorating one of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history.  The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Powell, Wyoming, is a monument constructed on the location of one of ten “Relocation Centers” built by the United States Government to incarcerate its own citizens during World War II.

Posters like this went up in communities all across the west coast of the USA announcing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

A typical anti-Japanese cartoon and a photo of a US Citizen being arrested by the FBI for the crime of having the “wrong” ancestors.

On February 19, 1942 – about a month and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the US into World War II – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order # 9066.  This led to the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans – at least two-thirds of whom were U.S. Citizens at the time – into what our government called “Relocation Centers” or “Camps”.  A bad political decision fueled by an agenda-driven media that played on public fears meant that United States Citizens were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast, deprived of their possessions and livelihoods, and forced to live in places like, well, Powell, Wyoming or Topaz, Utah or Jerome, Arkansas…the middle of nowhere.  They were crowded into uninsulated pine barracks covered with tar paper and forced into routines that disrupted their family systems and attempted to shame them for their heritage.

Residents of nearby Cody were reluctant to house what many termed “the yellow peril”.

 

This is not what we usually think of when we talk about “sending a child to camp.”

 

Internees at the camp were assigned rooms based on family size – there were 4, 6, or 8 people in a single room. Each room had a coal burning stove. Latrines were outside (in the Wyoming winters) and meals were taken in common mess halls.

A total of 14,025 people lived at the Heart Mountain site from 1942-1945.  That made this concentration camp the third-largest city in Wyoming.  The citizens who lived there were not allowed to vote in Wyoming – but they were permitted to vote by absentee ballot in the state from which they had been removed! They were deprived of their livelihood, and yet they were subject to the draft.  800 of these men and women served in the US military (some with distinction in all-Japanese units that were deployed in the European Theater); others were translators for the government that accused them of harboring sympathy for the enemy; and 85 protestors refused to comply with the draft.  Many of these were convicted and sent to  federal penitentiaries.  Some of the quotes I read indicated that these men thought “Go ahead – arrest me. I’m already in jail.”  One comment reminded me of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali’s stance on the war in Viet Nam: an internee at Heart Mountain said, “Why should I go over there and fight for democracy when I haven’t seen it at home?”

In the “Reflection Room” at the Heart Mountain Center there is a photo of the camp’s barracks in front of a barbed wire fence. Visitors are encouraged to write remembrances of their relatives or friends who lived at the camp and post them on replica ID Tags.

When the war ended and the camp closed, each internee received a “free” train ticket and a whopping $25 in cash.  Many of these folks recovered and built healthy lives; but others never recovered from this experience.  In 1988 (yes, more than four decades later), President Ronald Reagan, speaking on behalf of the US Government, apologized for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans and said that it had been a mistake.

One of the things that shocked me as I prepared for this sabbatical was the number of people who, when I mentioned that I hoped to visit Heart Mountain, said something like, “Oh, no, Dave.  We didn’t do anything like that.  That never happened in America.”

One of the Guard Towers that was manned by armed Military Police at all times.

And yet, my friends, it did. Fearmongering politicians emboldened those prone to racial prejudice and manipulated an often-compliant press into paving the way for this travesty of justice so that it seemed right and prudent to too many Americans.

President Roosevelt rightly declared that December 7, 1941 was a date that would “live in infamy”. The attack on Pearl Harbor was cold, calculated, and evil.  We cannot forget that.  And neither can we forget February 19, 1942 and the days that follow – or else we run the risk of repeating that shameful chapter in our history.  Let us, beloved, stand firm in our resolve to ensure that all Americans retain the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us resolve to be our best selves in all spheres of life.

 

What Were You Made For?

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 February 3, 2019, we saw an unlikely group of “allies” come together in an attempt to entrap Jesus.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:13-17.  Our Old Testament reading was a vivid reminder from Genesis 1:26-28

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

As I begin this morning, I feel my affinity for the Professional Organization of English Majors compels me to acknowledge that the title of this message, and therefore the signboard outside of this church, consists of a phrase which includes a dangling preposition.

Most normal people will readily understand questions like “Where are you at?” or “What are you talking about?”.  Sticklers for some of the archaic “rules” in English, however, will cringe when they hear such construction, and even more annoyingly, will smugly correct you.

When faced with an editor who attempted to rebuke him for such a “crime”, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about the English language) is alleged to have scrawled in the margin this note: “This is the type of tedious nonsense up with which I shall not put!”

As any speaker of any language knows, sometimes the most effective communication goes against the strictest rules of the grammarian.  In order to have clear and concise meaning, we sometimes have to be direct, even if it might make a 9thgrade English teacher (or Sharon Carver) cringe.

Today’s Gospel reading contains a number of very interesting points all of which center around the appropriate interpretation or application of a rule and the impact of that on one’s view of life and culture and faith.

As we mentioned last week, we are in the midst of reading through Mark’s account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  We have already seen several conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders, who are clearly looking for a way to eliminate him as a threat to themselves. Mark informs us that on this day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to catch Jesus in his own words – they were trying to set a trap for him.

Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

A word about these men: we’ve seen the Pharisees many times in the Gospel; they were one of the three main sects of Judaism at the time.  Their name literally means “separated ones”.  They emerged as a distinct group about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and at first, they were men of the highest religious and moral character – by some accounts the best people in the nation. Yet as time went by, more and more people simply “inherited” membership in this group and the caliber of its witness suffered.  In Jesus day, the Pharisees talked a good game about separating oneself for God’s purposes, but did not always live that out.

The Herodians, on the other hand, are mentioned very infrequently in Scripture. As their name contains that of the civil ruler, it is assumed that this was a group of men who were far more secular in their approach to life.  Any power they had derived from the government established by Rome, and as such they were very vested in maintaining or even strengthening the status quo.  Whereas the Pharisees bristled at the claims of Herod and the rule of Rome, the Herodians sought to please their patrons by any means necessary.

And I hope it goes without saying that a quick examination of our (or any nation’s) history would indicate that these are not merely historical oddities.  We see time and time again in our own story the ways that people are willing to use faith to either prop up or bring down a rival political party.  We don’t call them Herodians anymore, but a glance at our headlines for the past generation reveals any number of religious leaders who are willing to contort the teachings of Christ so as to prop up the political empire that in return empowers or enriches them.

We can see, therefore, how much Jesus threatened both the religious and the political status quo when he manages to unite the Pharisees and the Herodians in a common task: that of eliminating him.  In our own day, it would be like walking into a Starbucks and seeing Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Kamala Harris sipping lattes.  I mean, it’s possible – but it would be very surprising.

They come together and they ask Jesus a question about the rules: is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans?  Should we do this?

In that day, there were three main taxes levied by the Romans.  The “ground tax” was paid by landowners, and it imposed a levy of 10% of the grain and 20% of the wine and fruit that the land produced. Obviously, this tax only applied to those who were wealthy enough to own property.

There was an income tax that applied to all wage-earners, and it was approximately 1% of a person’s income.

And finally, there was the “poll tax”.  Every male between the ages of 14 and 65, and every female between the ages of 12 and 65 was required to offer Caesar a single denarius every year simply for the privilege of existing.  A denarius was the daily wage for an agricultural worker in Jesus’ day.

It seems as though this last tax is the issue to which Jesus responds, because he asks them to show him a denarius coin.

But look at how Jesus engages these men: he calls “shenanigans” on them right away in several different ways.  Before we consider Jesus’ conversation, though, let’s think about why in the world he would ask for a coin.

Tell me – what do you know about a quarter?  Please describe the 25 cent coin that is in your pockets or on your nightstands today.  Whose likeness does it contain? What does it say? What are the symbols?

Similarly, think about the pennies that are cluttering up the top of your dresser.  Whose image is on the penny? What are the words or symbols contained on it?

The reason I ask those questions is to demonstrate that I don’t need to hold up a coin and walk you through an examination of that piece of metal in order to talk about it.  We all know what a quarter is, and what it says, and what it’s used for.

The “Tribute Penny” bearing the image of Emperor Tiberius

And yet Jesus had the Pharisees and the Herodians fetch a coin for him.  Why?  I would suggest at least two reasons. First, I think that his questions were intentional.  “Whose image is on this coin?”  He wanted them to see the image, and to read the inscription.  The coin had the likeness of Caesar, and on the “heads” side, contained the phrase, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the august god”. The “tails” side read “Pontif Maxim”, or “the greatest high priest”.

I want you to imagine how compromised and embarrassed these lofty leaders of Judaism – especially the Pharisees – must have, or should have, felt when they were sitting in the Temple reading aloud about Tiberius’ claims to divinity.

Moreover, Jesus asked them “whose image” is on the coin.  Do you remember the 10 commandments? Number 2? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”

And do you remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Jesus clearing all the moneychangers out of the temple?  The moneychangers were there because the religious leaders like the Pharisees thought that it was sacrilegious to use coins containing the image of one who claimed to be divine in the worship of God.  Having a coin with the picture of Caesar on it was, in their ruling, a violation of the second commandment.  So they made their own temple coins that were to be used instead of the ones containing the Emperor’s image.  Yet here, when they are trying to eliminate Jesus, none of them seem to have a problem with pulling the offensive bit of metal out of whatever passed for pockets in their ancient robes.  Do you see? In asking them to produce a coin and describe it, Jesus unmasks their hypocrisy and exposes their shallowness.

Then he answers them. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.  The Greek word he uses is actually apodidomi, and it means, literally, “return”.  The old versions translate it as “render” – and it is usually used to convey the idea that one is to give up, give back, return, or restore.

Looking at the coin, he seems to say, “Well, that apparently has Caesar’s image on it.  So it belongs to Caesar.  You ought to give it back to him.  And anything with God’s image, well, give that back to God.”

On the surface, it’s a non-answer, but if you dig a little deeper, he is actually acknowledging that a civil government – even an unjust one – receives some sort of support from the population.  Taxes must be paid but, more importantly, God must be honored. Jesus’ answer here and the way that it was subsequently interpreted may have something to do with the fact that the crowd that had cheered him as a deliverer from Rome on Sunday would be crying for his death on Thursday and Friday.

I’d like to look for a moment at the unspoken question that Jesus’ answer implies. “Return to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s” begs the question: how much of what you have, who you are, belongs to the government or the culture?  And how much of that belongs to God?

And how you consider those questions might drive you back to the questions that the Herodians and the Pharisees asked Jesus.  When they came to him, they said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” and then followed that immediately with “Should we?”

This is a tacit confession of something that you already know: there is sometimes a deep and profound difference between that which is “legal” and that which is “right”.  I would suggest that in his answer to the leaders who were trying to trap him, Jesus is calling his followers to always take the high road and seek to honor God by doing what is right.

Think for a moment about these things: slavery, compulsory education, child labor, a forty-hour work week, the Holocaust, the right for women or people of color to vote, the incarceration of sexual minorities, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons.  Each of those things has at one point been legal or illegal.  Obviously, declaring something to be “legal” does not make it “right” or “good”.

For instance, in the USA in 2019 it is perfectly legal for a payday loan company to charge an annual percentage rate of up to 800%  – the average is 400% – interest to a poor family looking to bridge a week or two between paychecks.

It is also currently a federal crime to leave food or water in the desert in order to assist those who need it. This week four women were convicted of doing this in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.  Sharon and I have driven through there, and I want to tell you that you would not want to be there an hour without water.  And yet four women from a humanitarian aid group now face up to six months in Federal Prison for leaving jugs of water in places where migrants might find them.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we have many issues in our society, including usury and border protection.  But needing to borrow money to pay your bills is not a license to extort, and no one in the United States of America, no matter how they arrived here, should die of thirst because our government mandates it.

The coin in the Gospel reading is not the only image-bearer up for discussion this morning. I tried to tell at least some of you on the day you were born, and I seek to remind each of you every day that you are created in the Divine image.  God made you, and you carry God’s image.

Are you stewarding that image well?  Are you caring for it, and living into it?

I hope that I can say that I agree with Jesus when I say that our government and our culture has a claim on us.  We need to recognize and honor that in many ways.  And yet we must also acknowledge that both the nation and the self belong to God.

Great thinkers and believers throughout history have suggested that Christianity should make you a better citizen.  I mean this with my whole heart, and I gladly affirm the fact that we ought to be training our children to live in a world characterized by “liberty and justice for all.”

That has a cost, dear friends.  Some of you are old enough to know who Ruby Bridges is.  When she was six years old, a Federal Judge said that “liberty and justice for all” meant that this African – American child was entitled to be educated at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She would be the first, and the only, person of color in attendance there.  Before her first day at that school ended, every single white parent had collected their children, and all but one of the teachers walked out.  She remained the only student in the class, taught by the only teacher who remained. Every day, she was escorted through crowds of angry protesters calling her every name in the book and even shoving in front of her an open casket with a black baby doll inside.

Psychologist Robert Coles was studying children and desegregation in the American South, and he took a personal interest in Ruby.  He noticed that as she was walking through the crowds, her lips were moving.

Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said.

“Why were you doing that, Ruby?”

“Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?”

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.”

Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.”

“No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”[2]

This six-year old daughter of impoverished parents who could neither read nor write absorbed enough of the truth of scripture that she was able to see the Divine image not only in herself, but in her tormentors.  And she changed the world.

Or maybe you saw the recent film Hacksaw Ridge.  It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Christian pacifist who refused to carry a weapon or take the life of another, and yet received the US Medal of Honor for carrying 50 – 100 wounded soldiers to safety in the horrible battle of Okinawa during World War II.

The religious leaders asked the Lord two questions: Is it legal? And is it right?

When faced with that bit of trickery, Jesus provided a hugely complicated answer that is open ended and very difficult to live into.  He knew, and they knew, that that denarius was made specifically so that a subjugated people could offer – legally – a confession of faith and economic tribute to the occupying forces.  That’s what it was made for.

What about you?  What were you made for? Whose image do you bear?  How much does that mean to you?

You bear the image of the One who formed you.  You were made to show the heart of God to the world around you – to mirror the hope and justice and love of God every day. Thanks be to God for the people of God who are willing to do this.  Amen.

[1]Caesar’s Coin, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1612)

[2] A Child Leads”, in The Christian Century March 29, 2017.

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

Don Quixote and Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)

The South Will Rise

Our scriptures for the second week of February, 2015 included John 17:20-26 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Reflections on The Belhar Confession, Black History Month, and the hope that is the church.

I have been in some pretty sketchy places over the years. Earlier this week I was telling my wife about one of the rooms I stayed in on my recent trip to Africa, and I heard myself saying, “You know, once I got used to the rats, it wasn’t bad at all.” I remember taking the youth group into an incredibly seedy fast food joint a number of years ago, and a very disturbed and clearly hallucinogenic patron could not quite make up his mind whether he wanted to order food, throw up, or make a pass at Jessica Prevost, so he did all three of those things. In that order. As I recall, I was not among the finalists in “Youth Group Leader of the Year” that season.

LiveCustomersHere’s a photo of me in another sketchy place. I’m standing at the door to the bus station in Dangriga, Belize. In case you can’t make it out, the sign on the door at the bus station in Dangriga, Belize reads, “Live Customers Only.”

I’ll let you sit on that for a moment. “Live Customers Only.” What do you suppose happened there, and how many times must it have happened, to lead someone to say, “You know what, Luis? I’ve had it. I’m sick of this. Put up a sign. We’ve got to have some sort of policy about live customers only.” Really? How many places in the world is this a problem – too many dead people trying to take the bus? It was a sketchy place.

BelizeBusI hasten to add that I was not in Dangriga for the purpose of visiting the bus station. I was there because, well, I wanted to get on a bus. We were heading into the heart of that country to visit the Central American rain forest – a place of beauty and wonder and awe. And because I believed that that destination was worthwhile, I found myself clutching my sixteen year old daughter a little closer as we waited in this sketchy place, surrounded by broken, but live, people.

February is Black History Month in the USA. It is not a religious observance, per se, but it does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are vis-à-vis race relations in the US, in Pittsburgh, in Crafton Heights, and in our own lives.

And I don’t know whether it’s connected or not, but during Black History Month, Pittsburgh Presbytery will be taking a vote as to whether a document called The Belhar Confession should be included in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. The Book of Confessions is a collection of faith statements written over a span of about 1700 years that helps to shape our journey toward faithful discipleship in Christ. The Belhar document is a statement that was written by a group of South African theologians as that nation and its cultures wrestled against the demon that was the apartheid system of racial oppression, torture, and death.

BelharWorshipService440x180I like the Belhar Confession. I think that it is Biblical, practical, and wise. If you’d like to read it for yourself, there are some copies on the table in the back of the room – it’s just a few pages. Unlike every other document in our Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession is rooted in the global south. Nearly all of our other creeds and statements, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, and everyone’s favorite, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1536 come from the north of Europe. It’s not wrong to have a Book of Confessions that is rooted in one place; it’s just incomplete.

Some of my friends will look at the title of this message and say, “The south is going to rise? Yeah, baby, you know it will…” For many, that phrase evokes echoes of this nation’s civil war, or as some of my friends insist on calling it, “the war of northern aggression.” Saying that the South will rise is another way of saying that the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come back.

You will not be surprised, I hope, to learn that this is not what I mean. When I say that the South will rise, I hear it as a message of hope. Christians with life experiences that are different than mine will gain prominence in the world. As this happens, the global church will be made more complete and will more adequately reflect all of God’s intentions for humanity. When I say the South will rise, I do not mean to imply that the North will fall. All of us can be lifted. The fact that the Belhar Confession is under consideration by a church with roots in Switzerland and Scotland is an encouraging sign that perhaps the South is, in fact, rising.

What can we learn from the Belhar Confession? Well, let’s go back to the bus station in Dangriga. I knew, even before I saw the sign, that I was in a difficult place. Similarly, you don’t need me to tell you that this world is damaged in significant ways. We are surrounded by things that are not as they should be.

The Belhar Confession names some of that brokenness this way:

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…

Do you hear what that says about the world in which we live? That it is full of injustice and hatred, oppression and hunger; that there are too many who are orphaned or widowed or captive or poor. The world is not the way that it should be!

But remember, I didn’t go to the bus station in Dangriga in order to visit Dangriga. I had a destination in mind: the rain forest. The bus station was simply the place from which I started.

The Belhar document reminds me that the places where we begin are not necessarily the places for which we are destined. The kinds of brokenness that surround us now are not God’s purposes for his beloved children. God’s intentions, as stated squarely by Jesus in John 17 and Paul in the letter to the Romans, are for God’s people to live together in right relationships, connected truly and authentically with God and with each other.

The Christians in South Africa put it this way:

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another…

  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted…

  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind…

Isn’t that where we want to go? We don’t need to stay where we are – it woudn’t make sense to stay in a place that is broken. Doesn’t that passage describe God’s purposes for the church?

But how do we get there? How do we leave the bus station and get to the rain forest? How do we pull away from the brokenness and separation that surrounds us and grow into the community to which Christ calls us?

4701837-Chicken-Bus-in-Belize-City-1Well, back in Dangriga I got on the bus. Listen to me, beloved: I did not make the bus. I did not drive the bus. I had no information as to the safety inspections of that bus. All I know is that if I was going to get my family to the rain forest, we were going to get on that bus. The bus was a given to be enjoyed (or endured) – an experience with many languages, many children, many baskets of produce, many, um, delicate aromas, many chickens, and a few turkeys. That bus was the means by which I would leave the station and arrive at the rain forest.

Similarly, God has given this world a means in which to leave the brokenness of our present condition and grow into the fullness of his intentions for us. The vehicle in which he intends us to arrive at his purposes is, well, us. The church is God’s instrument of healing in the world.

handsinsandMake sure that when you hear me say that, you understand that I mean the church as it is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not necessarily the institution that sits on this corner and enjoys a tax break every now and again. If God is going to do what God says God is going to do, then it’s going to happen because the church – the whole church, the one church – will point to those intentions of God. And the only way that we can do this is in the strength of Jesus Christ.

Listen one more time to what Belhar says:

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.

  • that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…

Note that the strength and the power that is given to the church does not come through political policy or worship style; it’s not based on skin color or moral purity – it is based in the unity that we have received as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

The church is one. The church is the Body of Christ. We are not supposed to be Christ’s Body, or going to be that Body some day. By definition, the church is one and the church is Christ’s.

In 1982, a group of Christians came to see this in South Africa, and they rejected the sin of their age: an evil system of racial hatred and segregation that had been enshrined not only in the national law, but in the church doctrine. The brothers and sisters in that time and place rejected apartheid as false teaching and repented. That is to say, they changed direction.

Beloved, as we stand on this corner at the beginning of 2015, we confess that like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or Paul writing in a prison cell, or believers living in Capetown thirty-five years ago – we are not where we should be. We have been called to walk towards God’s best for his children. And in this time and this place, I need to say that I will walk in that direction, and that I will walk the only way that the church knows how to walk – with everyone who has been called of God. I can’t go only with the people that I like the best, or with the folks with whom I feel most comfortable. I can’t go only with people who think I’m right all the time, or who speak in a language that I understand flawlessly.

As we seek to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, may we be ever-increasingly aware of the unity that is ours in Jesus.

I get it. Black History month is an artificial construct. It can be downright hokey. But let’s use it anyway. Let’s use these days to learn something of a culture that may not be our own. Let’s listen for stories we don’t know. Let’s consider where there are places that we may need to repent, or turn around, or try again.

It’s not a black thing, and it’s not a white thing. We don’t do this because it’s politically correct, or because it will make us feel all warm and gushy inside. We do this because the unity of the Church is a given; it is essential to the very life and being of the church. We ought to live like that unity is not merely an idea, but a reality; and if we deign to call ourselves the church, we ought to live like the Lord has called us to live.

We may not be where we want to be, and we are not where we are going to be – but God has shown us his intentions. – where he wants us to be. And, so far as I can see, there’s only one bus out of this place, and it’s called the church, the Body of Christ. May we be that body – that living, breathing, very much live body – in this place and time. Amen.