Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Vision Test

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 29 came from John 9:35-41 and focused on the day that Jesus healed a blind man and the conversations that ensued.

I am not sure how Google or FaceBook know what they know about me, but something in my internet history seems to indicate that I would be interested in seeing the recent film Unbroken. It’s the true, or at least true-ish, story of a young World War II Airman who is shot down, survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, is captured by the Japanese, and endures some horrific treatment in POW camps.

I have not seen the movie, but it would seem to me that it has something in common with other blockbusters of recent years such as Life of Pi or 127 Hours. In each of these cases, we follow the story of an amazing individual who is lost from society but who somehow holds on through grit, determination, or even cutting off one’s own arm in a desperate attempt to re-enter life, to re-engage the world on one’s own terms, or to succeed. We like those movies, and even if you are not familiar with those particular films, you’ve seen stories like that – we love to make them into movies.

You have not, however, come across the movie version of the day in the fall of 1975 when the AFS club from Cologne, Germany, was visiting the AFS club in Wilmington DE. During that visit, a beautiful young fräulein named Heike had the misfortune to be smitten with a dashing trombone player from Concord High School as we made the obligatory field trip to Washington DC. We may or may not have been whispering sweet nothings to each other and may or may not have been paying close attention to the announcement as to where and when to meet the bus for the trip home. Oddly enough, we did not get on that bus for the trip home until the police picked us up wandering outside the White House looking for a group that was waiting at the US Capital Building.

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

You probably also never saw a film about the family of four who, after having been lost for hours in a corn maze in Massachusetts, called 911 in a panic. “We came in during the day time and we got completely lost and we have no idea where we are,” the caller told the 911 operator.  “I’m really scared. It’s really dark and we’ve got a 3-week-old baby with us… We thought this could be fun.  Instead it’s a nightmare”. A rescue unit, complete with K-9 dogs was dispatched and located the couple 25 feet from the maze’s exit.

Unbroken, Life of Pi, or 127 Hours? Blockbusters. Field Trip Blunders or Cranky in the Corn Maze? Nobody wants to see those movies.

There is something in us that loves to hear about people who have thrived under difficult circumstances. We love and applaud self-made men and women who have pulled themselves together. All of our best stories about people getting lost have something to do with plucky heroes and stick-to-it-iveness. Even The Wizard of Oz, for crying out loud.

In our worship this Lent, we have been looking at stories of people who came back to Jesus. We’ve met John’s disciples, the demon-possessed man, the twelve apostles, Mary from Bethany, and the seventy-two who were sent out. All of them met Jesus at one time or another, and then left, and then came back. Each of them sought intentionally to re-engage him. They saw him, they knew that he was something special, and so they found him at a later time and presented themselves, their issues, their stories, their needs, or their hopes to him. Does that sound about right?

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

John 9 tells us a different story. The central figure is a man who apparently knows nothing about Jesus. The chapter opens with Jesus and the twelve walking along engaged in a theological discussion about the nature of God, healing, forgiveness, and more. Jesus, apparently wishing to make a point, pulls a blind man into their midst, heals him, and sends him on his way as they continue the discussion.

Unfortunately, this happened to take place on the Sabbath, which created a firestorm of controversy with the religious leaders. These men, who were already angry with and threatened by Jesus, decided that they needed to make an example of him for doing something so offensive as healing on the Sabbath.

And so, for the second time that day, this unsuspecting man who is, so far as we know, simply minding his own business, is drawn into a group of people having a theological argument. This time, the religious leaders demand that he denounce Jesus. He won’t do it.

The authorities drag his parents into it, and we learn that they are afraid because anyone who confesses that Jesus has power will be “cast out” of the worshipping community.

One more time, they go out and find this poor man and interrogate him, only to have him say, “Look, all I know is that I was blind, and now I can pass any vision test that’s offered. I don’t know this fellow. Go find him yourself.” That angers the religious people so much that they drive him out of the congregation.

All of that action happens prior to our reading for today, when, in keeping with our theme for the Lenten season, we see what happens as the man re-encounters Jesus.

The Man Born Blind (Laura James, used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com/portfolio/book-of-gospels/)

So far as we know, not once in this man’s life has he ever gone looking for Jesus, but now, for the second time in as many days, Jesus finds him. And although Jesus has healed the man, he’s also made life a little tricky for him, to say the least. He is no longer eligible for membership in the covenant community – he has been driven away by the leadership.

And yet Jesus, once more, comes looking for him.

This should not be surprising to readers of John’s gospel, because in chapter six Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37). The end result, for this man, at any rate, is that he worships the living God in the person of Jesus. He was not looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus sought him, changed him, healed him, accepted his worship, and embraced this man. A man who, let’s not forget, was not even looking for Jesus in the first place.

So what’s the point here? What are we to take away from this encounter, or, more precisely, this re-encounter, with Jesus?

Well, it strikes me that too often we are content to simply pass people by. If we notice at all, we notice in a way that does not permit any real interaction. “Ah”, we say, “Look at that one. She is so ________. He is too ___________.” And we keep on going. It’s not that we are blind to others or to their situations. We simply can’t – or won’t – see them. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop and engage on a meaningful level?

And sometimes we notice, all right, but then we respond less than admirably. How many religious communities can you think of who are known for or somehow proud of the height of the fences with which they surround themselves and by which they keep undesirables out? Think about the people you know who have been wounded by the church of Jesus Christ – people who are often broken or scarred in some way who experience greater pain at the hands of those of us who are called to serve. There are times when, in our zeal to be “pure” and “worthy” followers of the one who said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” we wind up, well, driving people away.

You know as well as I do that the church can be one of the cruelest places on earth. Christians, I say with some shame, can be downright mean.

I love my daughter for all kinds of reasons, but one of the things for which I am grateful is the way that she sought to include me in a group of friends that she made while she was in college. She found herself gathered with a number of young adults, many of whom had been kicked out of their churches. They were guilty of crimes like being tattooed, or using tobacco, or asking difficult questions… They may have been girls who got pregnant at the wrong time, or who enjoyed the “wrong” music… Ariel invited me to spend time with these young people who loved Jesus, but who had experienced rejection from a group of people that used his name. While I am deeply saddened by the pain that these young people endured, I am gratified that my daughter thought that my presence would be of some encouragement to her friends.

I’d like to share a special word with those who might be present who have experienced this kind of pain from the church – either this congregation or some other group of Christians. Beloved, look to Jesus Christ. Please do not confuse anyone – including me – who has somehow ever done anything that drove you away from the Lord with the person or presence of Jesus. To the extent that anyone – including me – has driven you away from God’s best, we have failed to be disciples, and therefore need to ask forgiveness from you and from God.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we gather today to remember the time that the folk in Jerusalem tried to throw Jesus a party. It did not go well, in part because it ended with Jesus weeping on a hillside as he considers the fact that even the ones who meant best were unable to see him for who he really was. In fact, he said, they were not even sure who they were themselves. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus said… “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

And as we walk through the events of this Holy Week, we will remember the fact that he came to his own people, but they could not accept him. The story of much of this week is that he himself was driven away by those who claimed to have the “inside track” to God. If you’ve ever been wounded by the church, know that you have company – Jesus was hurt by the religious establishment a long time before you were.

Here’s a “spoiler alert” for next Sunday’s worship: he comes back. They drive him away, all right, in incredibly cruel and vicious ways, but they cannot keep him away. He is still looking for those who are willing to be shaped by him and used for his purposes.

This lent we have considered the fact that some people see Jesus and come running to meet him, again and again and again. Heal me, Lord. Take me. Use me.

But others don’t ever really get a glimpse of him, it would seem. Because they don’t see him, they don’t know, and therefore they don’t care.

And, saddest of all, there are many who have laid eyes on the savior, but who have somehow become convinced that they are simply not welcome to be with him. Somehow, these have been driven out.

Today, we are called to remember that we love and serve the Lord our God, who is eager to embrace those who seek him. We are called to point to the one who is willing to turn aside and engage even those who do not seek him and who, in fact, seems partial to those who have been told that they are not worthy of his attention at all.

In that light, friends, let us not give up on Jesus, or each other, or ourselves. May we have the vision to see and to know that Jesus is not particularly overwhelmed with those who heroically make their own way in the world day after day after day, and seems instead to be delighted to simply find people who realize that they are not where they should be.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and while I may never have been stuck in a corn maze, I’m here to tell you that my most common prayer is “help!” And Jesus has always seen me. I have been lost. Many times. And I have been found. Not once, but always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

You Tell ‘Em, Lord!

On December 8 the folks at Crafton Heights engaged the season of Advent by listening to the teaching of John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12 along with the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-10.  

Do you remember that day when we were coming home from school, cutting through the yards down behind the bus stop and all of a sudden Mrs. Johnson came flying out of the house yelling at us because she was sure that we had vandalized her vegetable garden?  I mean to say, she lit into us that day.  And then, about a block on further, we ran into Kenny and Joe, who were laughing so hard because they were the ones who had smashed her pumpkins, and we got blamed for it.  Do you remember how scared we were to go home that day, afraid that she’d already told our parents and we’d get in trouble?

Do you remember you great it was the next day when your big brother, Carl, beat the living daylights out of Kenny and Joe?  Wow.  I still owe Carl for that one.  That was great.

Do you remember last July when you got that speeding ticket?  As I recall, you were rushing around trying to get out of a meeting at work in order to get home in time for your daughter’s softball game – I think it was the championships or something like that.  They caught you red-handed going 50 in a 35 zone.  I remember how you tried to plead your case, but that cop was not having any of it.  When you told me that story, I mentioned to you that my neighbor was a police officer and we made a few calls and by the time you got to court, you didn’t have any points or a fine.  That was sweet, wasn’t it?

Do you remember the time a bunch of self-righteous arrogant jerks showed up at the church retreat, but the speaker – I think his name was John the Baptist – really let them have it?  I mean, those guys were totally out of line.  They were so full of themselves, and John – BAM – he just let them have it.  It was just delightful to watch when they got what was coming to them!

Don’t you love it when you get to witness power being used to correct an obvious wrong?  We hate to see anyone victimized, and it seems so good when a poorly-behaving person “gets what’s coming to him”.  Next time you log onto Youtube, just type in “Bully gets owned” – you’ll see more than 70,000 hits.  When the “bad guy” finally gets paid back, well, it’s just delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that sometimes we fail to see just who the bad guy is and how the power is directed and what the “fix” could be.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee
Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

Our Gospel reading for today shows us a group of religious leaders from the first century who knew all the prophecies.  They knew that the Messiah was coming, and that he would bring truth and justice.  They knew that God’s anointed one would establish God’s intentions in a powerful fashion.  Yet too often, they – and we – assumed that those intentions were directed against someone else, rather than toward our own hearts and minds.

Here’s what I mean by that: John, the son of Zechariah, has begun to preach the nearness of God’s intentions for the world.  In doing so, he begins with an invitation to repentance.  The word that he uses is “metanoeite”, means “change your mind” or “act like things are different”.  And the crowds can hear that message.  Many people can understand a part, at least, of what he says, and so they open their hearts to the transformative word and their lives are shaped and arranged and re-arranged by God’s spirit.

But the religious leaders assume that God’s word is not spoken towards them, but rather given as a tool that they can employ against someone else.  In this view, the Word of God is not an invitation to consider how God is alive and active and moving in my world, calling me to be more like him each day; instead, it’s an instrument with which I am called to shape, to carve, to manipulate you into the person that I think you should be.

The church of Jesus Christ invites us to consider today’s scriptures during the season of Advent so that we might remember that the reign and rule of Christ is a gift – a gift that comes directed towards us – and so that we might remember that anyone who wants to follow Christ does so beginning with repentance.  If we want to follow Christ, we have to be willing to leave the path we’re already on.  Metanoeite is a word that contains within it a description of what needs to happen: if we are going to follow in that way, we’ve got to be willing to give up on this way.  If I’m going to live as though I believe that that is true, then I have to be willing to consider the fact that this may be less than the truth.

Given that realization then, let me invite you to think about something that really angers you.  When you look at our world, what do you see and want to scream, “this is evil!”?  I know that you are aware of plenty in the world that falls short of God’s intentions as you have come to understand them: it may be racism, it may be animal abuse, it may be economic injustice, it may be abortion…  Whatever the issue or concern is that has just come to your mind, let me ask you, for a moment, to not run and grab your favorite Bible verse.

This is what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that when we confront that thing we understand to be evil that we are so overwhelmed by it that we pick up our scriptures and we start to use them to hack away at that issue, at those who see things differently, or at those who have not recognized the truth in the same way that we have.  We use the Word of God as a tool to prop up our own opinions, or we behave as if God needed our support to validate his own cause.

This Advent, ask for the truth of God to come to your life.  Ask the spirit of the Lord to show you the path you are on – and the path that you should be on – when it comes to your conduct and outlook on this area of life.

In Advent, we celebrate the fact that God comes near.  God chooses to speak.  God invites us to hear.  So when it comes to consumerism and greed, or our culture’s changing views on sexuality, or the racial divides in our world, let me implore you to begin with an open heart.  Where do I stand when it comes to my own greed and acquisitiveness?  How do I understand the power of my own sexuality?  In what ways am I shaped by the color of my skin?

I need to ask those questions in light of God’s word.  I need to know where I am a creature of habit, with biases and fears and insecurities.  I need to confess that I am broken in each of these areas, and more.  When that happens, then I realize that the Word of God that comes is a gift to a world that is not as it should be, rather than as a threat to be used against those who are different from me.

Look at it this way: Advent points us to a story in which all of the best characters are humble and lowly and tentative.  There is an unwed teen mother and her newborn baby; there is the quiet man who has been publicly shamed by the fact that his fiancée is pregnant before their marriage; there are the shepherds who have been told for their entire lives that they are insignificant outcasts.  The backdrop for the entire narrative is a backwater country that has been filled with an occupying army and is seething with resentment and oppression.  God’s word, in this case, does not come in order to break people.  No, in fact the opposite is true: God’s word comes to those who are already broken.

This month, I invite you to join me in asking God to mold our hearts so that we might first hear his word and then shape our lives to it before we go out and pound other people with it.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon principles or act as if every proposition is equally valid…but I am suggesting that if we begin the day secure in our own success and confident because of our correctness, then when we look to scripture we’ll be tempted to use it as a weapon, rather than receive it as a gift.

We do that, don’t we?  We hold onto our favorite Bible verses and we just let other people have it.  Most of us, at least in this room, are probably too polite to do that to strangers.  We don’t run down to the bus stop or the Walmart and start beating up people with the Bible.  But when it comes to one of those issues that we care about, and we think that we’re going to get into a discussion with someone else here, well, too many Christians are tempted to want to fill our bag with favorite scriptures as if we were collecting rocks to throw at an enemy.

This morning I was struck by the fact that John called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers.  Serpents that are full of poison that can kill.  And that image collided with Isaiah’s prophecy of children who play near the homes of venomous snakes.  And I was horrified to connect the dots in my head and realize that in many ways, our own religious practice can be toxic to our children.  I was horrified to think that in many ways, church can be a place where children are abused in one way or another.  The news has been overly full in recent years of accounts wherein some children have suffered physical abuse.  But that’s not the only poison in the church, is it?  If we make the church a place where we are right and they are wrong; where God might love everyone but we’re clearly his favorites; where hate is taught as a theological virtue…then we are no better than the religious leaders who came out to challenge John.

Each Advent, we deck out the sanctuary in purple and blue not only because those are the colors of royalty, but because those are the colors for reflection and confession.  The Kingdom of heaven is near.  Thanks be to God for that.  How can we shape our hearts and our lives so that we might be appropriate recipients of and ambassadors for that Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and where the poison has no power over the child?

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Change your mind.  Act like things are already different.

 

We need you so desperately, O God:

we need to accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.

Too often, we choose flickering candles and bulbs over your true light:

we choose to hide who we truly are;

      both the sins that shame us,

      and the potential that frightens us.

Too often, we choose quick fixes over your true justice:

            we choose to be right rather than righteous,

                   in our countries, our communities, and our covenants.

Too often, we choose cheap thrills over your true joy:

            we choose to fill our lives with what we can own or ingest,

                 we choose safety over surprise.

Too often, we choose our schemes over your plan:

            we reject leaps of faith in favor of small, secure steps,

 we reject selfless giving in favor of our own fiscal prudence.

We need you so desperately, O God.

We need your light, your justice, your joy, your plan.

Hear us, forgive us, and help us accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.  Amen.[1]

 


[1]  This Advent Prayer is adapted from a longer version written by James Hart Brumm, ©2008 Brummart Publishing.  Used by permission.

There is No “Base”

God’s people in Crafton Heights continue to walk through Jeremiah in the hopes that this man, who was called to point to the light in a dark, dark place, can help us to learn something about what it means for us to testify to the light in the midst of our own darkness.  

The reading for this baptism service was Jeremiah 7:1-19.

You know, you go to church long enough and you think you’ve seen just about everything.  You know what to expect, when to expect it…until you get to a reading like this.

I want to thank Don and Glenn for being our greeters this morning.  I always appreciate the fact that folks are welcomed with a smile and a bulletin, and maybe even directions to the coffee pot or the bathroom.  But today I am especially grateful that you did not do as the prophet Jeremiah, who stood one day outside the Temple and cried out to all who entered, “Don’t believe a word that is said in there!  You’re wasting your time! Don’t trust that guy…”  Yeah, I appreciate that.

Why would Jeremiah do that?

Why was the Temple built in the first place? So that people could worship the Lord, right?  The Temple existed so that God’s people could commune with God.  In that most sacred place, the Creator and the created could meet in worship and reverence.

Only now, says Jeremiah, there is a problem.  God’s people are not worshiping God.  They are worshiping someone, or something else.  In verse 9, God lists the practices that are apparently widespread: the people are guilty of theft, murder, adultery, and idolatry.  More than that, God says, the people are engaging in these practices and then sprinting into the Temple and saying “We are God’s chosen!  No harm can come to us in here!”  They are behaving, says God, as though the Temple is “base” in a real-life game of tag – the Temple is the spot where no one can touch them – not the Assyrians, not the Babylonians – they are automatically “safe” because they are on “base” when they’re in the Temple.

And the Lord’s response is, “Yeah?  How about I touch you? How about I teach you a lesson.  Do you remember Shiloh? The place where I first met you in this land, and where we first enjoyed worship together?  That place was sacred.  That place was amazing.  That place was beautiful to me…until you ruined it by disrespecting me and my commands.  And so I wiped that place out.  And I can wipe this place out.  I invented ‘base’, and this place is not it.”

In this passage, God sends his prophet to remind the people that what we say, do, and the ways that we act, and the things that we worship – that those things matter.  Don’t come strolling into worship, says the prophet, pretending that everything is just honky-dory when you know for a fact it is not.

Marc ChagallJeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Marc Chagall
Jeremiah Receiving the Gift of Prophecy, 1957

Right after God tells Jeremiah to tell the people not to believe a thing they hear in church, he does something even more uncharacteristic of an all-powerful, eternal, omniscient Diety: he looks at the prophet and he says, “And you! Don’t let me catch you praying for these people!  Don’t ask me to release them from the consequences of their own choices, or to spare them the suffering that they’ve invited.  Do not pray for them – I will not listen to you.”

I have thought about God’s command to Jeremiah a lot in the last month.  I have tried to pray for our nation.  And I am having a hard time doing that.  Frankly, I’m not sure God is all that interested in what I have to say now.

Ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our nation has been embroiled in a heated controversy over the issue of guns.  Guns and the power, the rights, and the violence that accompanies them.

And I am well aware that there are lots of you in the room right who are saying, “Oh, geez, don’t say it, Dave.  Don’t open your mouth on this one.  We really, really disagree.  Not on baptism Sunday.  We have company today.  There are idiots in this room, Dave, who don’t have the first idea about guns, and we think you might be one of them.”

Relax.  I’m not here to advocate for one position, or to suggest public policy changes.  I’m not stupid enough to make half of you mad at me this morning.  The way I figure it, I do this right, everyone will be angry by the time I shut up.  That’s all right.  George is preaching next week, and I’ll be gone.  You’re welcome.

What I feel compelled to do this morning is not to talk about the Second Amendment or gun control or other issues of policy.  I want to talk about what we see, and what we believe, and whether there are any areas in which we can agree before we talk about the Second Amendment or gun control.

Jeremiah 7:17: Do you not see what they are doing in the cities and in the streets?  Can’t we, the people of God, be aware of what is going on?  What is happening?  I see at least three emerging trends.

Too many people are getting shot.  Too many children are dying.  Is this not true?  Regardless of why you think that this is happening – whether it’s because guns are too easy to get or not enough people have guns or the laws are crummy or there’s too many of those people or whatever – can we agree that twenty children shot at an elementary school in a single day is too many?  Isn’t it true that 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States is too many gun deaths?  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are killing.  They are dying.

Another thing that I notice when I observe our culture is that any form of security that is based on a weapon – or the lack of a weapon – is idolatry.  I don’t care if we are talking about a handgun, an assault rifle, a pointy stick, or an unmanned military drone patrolling above your home.  When we entrust ourselves, our well-being, our security, to an implement that has been fashioned by human hands, are we not saying that our security is brought by that which is not God?  And if I am counting on not God to save or protect me, my home, my nation – then am I not an idolater?  No law, no weapon, no alarm system, no bank account, no thing can give me security.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets? They are trusting in idols.

And here is another: having power to use, or own, or possess, or do is not the same thing as having the moral right, or imperative, or obligation, or justification for using that power.  Sometimes we decide, don’t we, to not yell back.  Sometimes someone makes me angry and I don’t shoot them.  Sometimes someone hurts me and even though I could, I choose not to seek revenge.  Yet increasingly in our land, we see conflict being escalated because we use power indiscriminately simply because we can.  Someone has a gun, and they shoot it.  We have a fleet of drones, and so we rain death from the skies.  We are not obliged to do this.  We have choices.  And our choices are so often violent and murderous.  Can you not see what they are doing in the streets?  They are reacting blindly.

I made a huge mistake earlier this week.  I was meeting with our Seminary student, Al, and in talking about the aspects and importance of preaching, I said, “You have to challenge the people, Al.  A good sermon always dares the people to do something great.  A good sermon challenges us to be better than we are.”

Listen: maybe I’m right.  Maybe I haven’t alienated everyone in the room yet.  Maybe, just maybe, we can agree that too many people are dead, and that trusting in things instead of trusting in God is a fool’s errand, and that being able to do something is not the same thing as needing to do that thing.  So what?  What do we do with all of these gun deaths, with all of this gunfire, with a society that seems to be increasingly violent in so many ways?

Jeremiah 7:5.  The way that we make what happens in church worth listening to is to repent.  To “amend our ways”.  To turn around.

I, Pastor Dave Carver, need to repent of deaths of kids in Newtown CT and of human trafficking in India and of Terrorism.

“See, now, there you go.  I wondered when you were going to go getting all liberal mushy wishy washy on us, Carver.  The moment you mentioned ‘guns’ I knew that you’d wind up saying something stupid.  News flash: it’s not my fault.  I didn’t kill kids in CT, I don’t trade in human beings, and I am not a terrorist.”

I know.  None of you are, or do.

But I hope that you will join me in repenting anyway.  “Amend your ways…do not oppress the widow or the alien or the orphan…do not shed innocent blood…do not go after other gods to your own hurt…”

This is the great, challenging thing that I want to ask of you this morning: I want to ask you to own your baptism.  To say that you have a stake in this culture, that you have a place on these streets, that you have a voice in this crowd.

In a few moments, I’ll be taking little Piper from her mother’s arms and I will confess to you now that the only hands I have to hold that baby with are selfish, idolatrous hands.  The only tongue I have to pray for that baby with is an arrogant, deceitful tongue that looks for ways to shape the truth according to my own benefit.

Ron and Jessalyn are not bringing Piper to the church so that she can be initiated into a club where everyone is perfect and each of us is heading for eternal bliss on the heavenly shores because we are chosen and special and God’s favorites.  No, Piper is being welcomed to God’s family through the sacrament of baptism because it is this sacrament more than anything else that reminds us that we are not who we are supposed to be!  We are a dangerous, unstable people who, if we are not attentive to the call of God on our lives, are capable of great evil.

m3-baptism-windowI know that some of you came this morning just to see me baptize that little girl, and I have to tell you that we’re not doing it because it’s cute.  We’re doing it because we remember that the only thing that keeps us in a place where we can hear the voice of God is God’s grace.  You give me half a minute, and I’ll walk away.  But my baptism keeps me coming back.

So Repent.  And Own your Baptism.  And when we do that, we can speak the truth, respectfully, to our neighbors.  Our culture is increasingly divided – about the what Second Amendment means and promises; about my responsibility for myself or for the weak and the marginalized; about when we need to use some of the tools that we have and about which tools we should resolve to never use.  We will disagree.

So you, sinful and forgiven people of God who remember your baptism, you will disagree too.  Fine.  But when someone says something that is misguided or untrue, challenge them on it.  When someone uses language that is racist or demeaning, point out to them the violence of their words.

Can you not see what they are doing on the streets? Yes, you can see it.  And you have the ability to affect it.  Not by hiding out in the Temple as if it were some sort of base that protects us, but by trusting that the One to whom this temple is dedicated is the One who calls out to each of his arrogant, violent, selfish, children.  Like me.  And like you.

If we can own who we are and claim the forgiveness that is offered in this sacrament, perhaps then we’ll be able to pray for the children and those at risk.  If in our lives and in our actions we can point consistently towards integrity and justice and God’s purposes for his creation, knowing that God alone can protect us from ultimate harm, then maybe our prayers will have an effect…on those of us who pray, and on those for whom we pray.  By the grace of God, Amen.