It’s the Only Way

It’s an odd Easter, to be sure!  Instead of cramming into church with our friends and family, we are scattered on sofas and at tables on laptops, phones, and television screens.  The format of our observance may have changed, but the core message has not.  With that in mind, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually to share the good news as is found in Jeremiah 31 and John 20:1-18.

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

Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog.

Have you heard about The Carnegie Club?  I don’t mean the ritzy nightclub in New York City, where a $40 cover charge and two drink minimum guarantees you the chance to smoke cigars and listen to folks sing covers of old Frank Sinatra tunes.

No, I’m talking about The Carnegie Club that is based at Skibo castle in Dornoch Scotland.  It’s one of the most exclusive venues in the world, founded, as one might suspect, by Andrew Carnegie – one of the richest people in the history of people.  Here, members can truly retreat and relax as they play golf, go horseback riding through the Scottish moors, shoot skeet, and learn falconry.  All this can be had for a one-time joining fee of $35,000 and membership dues that are currently approximately $11,000 per year.

Maybe you’d like something a little more urban and sophisticated.  If that’s the case, let me recommend the 1930’s Club in Milan, Italy.  This exclusive watering hole has no phone, no published address, and the only way in is through a secret door in a rather humdrum bar on the first floor.  If you make it through that entry, you’ll be greeted by a doorman who will want to see your membership card, which contains features that are only visible under ultraviolet light.  For high-end networking and outrageous cocktails, the 1930’s Club is the place to be.

And maybe you don’t care about that.  Maybe you’re thinking about how to get into the college that is best for you; maybe in this time of social distancing you’re just thinking about that sign at Kennywood that tells you that anyone can ride the Swing Shot as long as they are 48” tall.

Do you know that feeling of wanting to belong?  I think that all of us, deep down, want to know that we’re “in”.  That we’ve got what it takes, somehow, to get through the process and into the club – whatever the club might be.  We long to know that we are special enough to belong.

If that idea of membership and exclusivity resonates with you, well, I’m afraid that you might not like this sermon very much.

I think I’m not stretching it when I say that for many of us, being human means that we want to earn our way, to deserve special treatment, or to achieve some level of recognition.  We see that as a hallmark of some of the world’s great religions.  There’s a tradition within Judaism that the world itself exists because there are 36 Lamed Vavniks – individuals who are themselves so righteous and holy that they ensure the survival of the planet.  There is the Hindu notion of samsara, which is a way of describing reincarnation, where a soul is born and reborn into the mortal world a number of times, each time achieving growth and new levels of maturity in its own karma.  And, of course, there are certain branches of Christianity that seem to indicate that while anyone can get into heaven, there’s a special class of people who have been, somehow, superior believers.  Most of the rest of us buy into this hierarchical notion when we say things like, “Well, I mean, I’m no saint, but for crying out loud, Karen, even I know better than to be like him…”

All of these exclusive clubs and hierarchical religious notions are problematic for a number of reasons, but particularly more so today, as we celebrate Easter Sunday.  I don’t have to tell you what Easter is – it’s the high holy day of the Christian faith.  It’s our “super bowl” – or, most years, anyway.  It is the festival of the resurrection of our Lord.

And here’s the thing about resurrection – there is only one simple requirement.  There’s not a lot of mystery here – if you’re gonna have a resurrection, there is one thing that you can’t do without: death.  If you want to participate in a resurrection, you’ve got to be dead. There are simply no exceptions to that rule.

And we hate that.

We hate that because a) I don’t particularly want to die, and b) everybody dies – what’s so special about that?

It’s pretty plain and simple, as much as we don’t like it.  “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus.  He invites us to follow him, learn from him, grow with him while we can; he calls us to love and serve our neighbors and to give what we can (as we discussed on Thursday night), but at the end of the day, to really get in on the biggest deal of all, we’ve got to die.  Not even Jesus can work a resurrection with somebody who isn’t dead.

And fundamentally, Christians teach that this is why Jesus came.  He came to bring hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless.  To fundamentally initiate what he called “The Kingdom”.  A whole new manner of existence.

And because most of us don’t like contemplating death very long – our own or those of our beloved – we think about other reasons that Jesus might have come.  Maybe Jesus came so that you would clean up your act a little bit.  Maybe Jesus wants you to try a little harder at school or drink a little less or do something about that mess in your room.  Maybe Jesus came to reform the reformable or to rearrange the furniture of your life or to shore up something that has been in bad shape (like the sound system on these livestream broadcasts in recent weeks).

Theologian Robert Capon points out that we say those things, not because they’re true (because they are not), but because they are a little more acceptable to us than acknowledging that the fundamental work of Jesus was to “proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem.”[1]

The historical record is pretty clear.  Being called “The People of God” hasn’t ever done anybody much good.  Jeremiah was called to proclaim the Word of the Lord to a people who had already been defeated in war and carried off into exile and slavery.  Most of the book that bears his name is filled with news that is heavy and dispiriting, to say the least.

Except for these four brief chapters in the middle of Jeremiah.  They are called “the book of hope” by some, and that only goes to show you that hope is a relative thing.  In our reading for today, he tells them that the folks who survived the sword (yay) will find grace.  Wow, that is good news.  What a relief!

Except, the prophet continues, the relief will come in the wilderness.

What? You’ve got to be kidding, Jeremiah!  Who wants to go to the wilderness?  Everybody knows that the wilderness is the place of desolation, disease, and death.  The city is where it’s at – the wilderness is a chaotic, random place…

And then the prophet goes on to point out that Israel’s ability to survive as a people is rooted in – not the people’s ability to be better tomorrow than they were today, not the people’s spunk and stick-to-it-iveness, not the people’s ability to progress as moral and ethical creatures… their ability to survive rests solely on the basis of the Divine promise.  God looks at God’s people and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  The perseverance and commitment is not human in origin, but heavenly.  God’s faithfulness to the creation is noted and then there are five times where the word “shall” appears in connection with new birth and new life and new hope.

This new birth and new life and new hope comes to the People of God not when they are in Jerusalem or even in Babylon, but when they are sent into the depths of the isolating wilderness and desolation.

And I’m here to tell you that it only gets worse with Jesus.  Jesus does not make it easy for people to follow him.  I have to tell you that many people whom I love dearly and respect greatly have left the Christian faith.  They read the gospel and they just can’t figure how it works out.

I don’t blame them.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the things that we are here to proclaim as the central events of human history this morning – have made no apparent difference in the way that this world is running.  My friends want to know where God was when the COVID-19 virus mutated.  Couldn’t God have stopped that?, they say.  Where is God in the refugee camps, the carnage, the oppression, the inhumanity?  And, at the end of the day, I’m still dying.  We all get sick, and we all die.

Again, listen to Robert Capon:

It is not an easy Gospel to proclaim: it looks for all the world as if we are not only trying to sell a pig in a poke, but an invisible pig at that. The temptation, of course, is by hook or by crook to produce a visible pig for the world’s inspection to prove that trust in Jesus heals the sick, spares the endangered, fattens the wallet, or finds the lost keys.  But it does not. And it does not because the work of Jesus is not a transaction – not a repair job on the world as it is now, but an invitation of the world as it now is into the death out of which it rises only in him.[2]

On Thursday night I told you that the current state of the world invites us to imagine a new way of being Christian. That’s all we have, beloved – our imagination.  We don’t know what is coming, and we don’t always know how to make sense out of what is – we can only carry on in wild, reckless hope that Jesus is who he said he was and who his best friends found him to be.

Mary Magdalene in the Garden, Sieger Koder

I can’t prove this idea of resurrection to you.  We have some great songs about it, and there are a lot of folks more eloquent than I who’ve spoken about it over the last two thousand years.  But at the end of the day – and, frankly, at the end of our lives – we’re simply going to have to step forward in imagination and trust.  The idea that the God who has been with me every step of my way in this world has promised to be with me in richer, deeper, more complete ways in the next – well, that’s an image I want to get in on.

For some of you, these are frightening times.  For many of us, they are at best irritating, if not alarming.  Where do I get off proclaiming that Jesus is risen and, in the words of the old hymn, “the strife is o’er, the battle done”?

All I can say, beloved, is that if we walk together, I promise you that we will see some signs of hope, some glimpses of Divine love, some evidence of Holy intent, some places where the Splendor of heaven breaks into this sphere.

It’s not a club, my friends. It’s a story. It is the best story I know.  And at the end of the day, we all have to choose a story by which to live – and in which we’ll die.

I choose Jesus.

More to the point, I am grateful that Jesus has chosen me. I believe that Jesus has chosen each of us.  His is the only story that makes any sense to me.  And so if you’ll come, too, we can move forward one day at a time in trust and hope.  There’s no annual fee.  There’s no membership requirement.  Trust him.  Thanks be to God, there’s nothing else to do.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 175-176.

[2] The Parables of Judgment, pp. 179-180.

Below is the entire worship service from Easter Sunday. https://youtu.be/G7ukXYxNF8c

There He Goes Again!

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights ended 2019, as did much of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, by hearing the awful news of the “slaughter of the innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-23.  The second reading was Hebrews 2:10-18.  

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

Well, you almost made it.  Almost, but not quite.  You did very well, I must say.  You’ve survived the gauntlet of Christmas.  For some of you, it was tough, I know.  You didn’t know how you’d get through – it was so foggy, and there was so much going on, it seems.  Maybe you had some time with friends.  I suspect you spent some time alone.  And perhaps you managed to temper, for the most part, your great expectations for the entire holiday season.  And even if you can’t say you can say had a great Christmas, you made it.  And now you duck in here to close out the year, you come to church looking for a little peace and quiet, one last shot at “good will toward men,” and perhaps a couple of carols, and the preacher goes a pulls something like this.

Pulpit image in the Cathedral of Pisa, Italy, carved by Giovanni Pisano 1302-1311.

What kind of gospel reading is this, anyway?  You’d think that once — just once, we could come into church and not have somebody bleeding all over the carpet.  What is it with this place, anyway?  Why is it that every time we open the Bible, somebody’s dying, somebody’s smiting, or somebody’s getting smitten?

And while I’m at it, this is some God, too.  It wasn’t a month ago that we opened the scriptures and found Mary singing the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;  He has filled the hungry with good things.”  We sang with her on December 15: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the world is about to turn!”  Were you here? Isn’t that an amazing song, and a better word from the Lord?

Massacre of the Innocents, León Cognlet (1824)

So excuse me for asking, but is this the same God?  Mary, are you sure?  Who is going to tell that to those mothers in Bethlehem?  Who was on duty in heaven the day that old Herod went through Bethlehem and killed all those kids?

What about the pictures on the front of all those Christmas cards?  What about GENTLE JESUS MEEK AND MILD?

I’ve got to tell you, this is a hard text for me to listen to this week.  For a long time now, I’ve been aware that the Christmas story ends with this reading.  For weeks, I’ve been walking around it, sticking it here, probing it there.  For the most part, it’s defied me.  I come into my devotional time and it sits there and laughs at me.  “All right preacher, what will you do with me????”

I have not been able to escape from the wailing of those mothers.  Everywhere I go, I hear that loud lamentation — during dinner, walking through the Heights, in the hospital, watching the news, at the Funeral home, laying in bed trying to get some sleep.  Everywhere I look, I see the mothers and I hear their wailing.  I ask myself, didn’t Jesus come to bring hope?  To share joy?  How is it, then, that this first Christmas has cost the town of Bethlehem so dearly?

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1566). The artist re-imagines the scene depicting an attack on Flemish families by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries in the Eighty Years’ War.

And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if somehow I could leapfrog to the end of the story and see Jesus trashing Herod soundly.  But you know what happens — they get Jesus, too.  Mary’s voice is added to the chorus of mothers weeping for their children.  And as far as I can tell, the innocents keep getting slaughtered.  There’s Jesus, yes.  But don’t forget Stephen.  Paul.  Joan of Arc.  Dietrich Bonhoffer.  Martin Luther King.  The children from Sandy Hook School.  Millions of other women and men and children — all killed.  It sure is a funny way to bring in a kingdom.

So I sat, and I glared at the text.  Suddenly, it came to me.  Why don’t I skip this one?  Preach out of something else, Dave!  Forget about all that gory stuff.  My fingers fairly flew as I rifled the pages from Matthew to Revelation.  But the story stayed with me.

And then it hit me.  The news in Matthew’s story is not that some cut-throat dictator had a couple of dozen babies killed in a fit of jealous rage.  Heck, Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers.  He had iced his own wife and three of his sons.  In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem.  No, it’s no great surprise that tinhorn power-mongers get violent.

Here’s what is news:  that God cares about those babies that died.  And God cares about Paul, and Joan, and Martin, too.  And God cares about children stuck in cages and South Sudanese whose lives are imperiled every day.  You heard it in the reading from the epistle: Hebrews tells us that because of his own sufferings, Jesus is able to remember yours and mine, and that he is able to help us bear the load of grief.  The news in this story is that God knows where you and I hurt.

Dove of the Holy Spirit, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Jean Vanier, in his wonderful little book From Brokenness to Community , describes how our discovery of our own pain can lead us to God.  “The cry makes us touch our inner pain.  We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us . . . It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God.  And then we meet the ‘Paraclete’ whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send to us.”[1] We often translate “paraclete” as the comforter, or the Holy Spirit, but Vanier points out that it literally means “the one who answers the cry.”  He suggests that it is not possible for us to receive the Holy Spirit unless we cry out, and unless that cry comes from the awareness of our own brokenness and pain.

And that’s a dilemma for us.  How is it that we cry?  And how is it that we are heard?  And why is it that there is often such a long time between the cry and the recognition of its being heard?  There are so many ways to look at this.

I am, to many of you anyway, a friend.  I am your brother in Christ.  And in the context of that relationship, I am one who cries out.  You have helped me to find the broken places in my own life and to raise them, sometimes with cracking voice, to God.  Many of you in this room have pointed me toward hope when I wasn’t sure where to look.

And I am a pastor to you as well.  It has been my privilege to cry with you, to struggle with you, to wait with you as together we look for meaning in the face of suffering.  You have invited me into deep, sometimes dark, sometimes frightening places in your world and asked me to stand with you while something unimaginable was happening.

But this day I am also a preacher, and I have the honor of announcing that in the end, cries are heard and comfort is felt.  The hard part is, that sense of peace can only come after the shock is gone, after the sobbing has muted, after the wrestling match with God is over.  Perhaps you have heard of a young man who received substantial injuries in the Civil War.  For the rest of his life, he cried to God, asking to know where God was in the midst of his pain.  At the end of his struggling, he is said to have penned these lines:

I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, and yet everything that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

Where are your deep aches this day?  A dream unfulfilled?  A cancer-ravaged friend?  A vacant chair at the breakfast table?  A lost job?  A broken marriage?  Welcome to the family, dear friend.  Your cries have been heard, and they are remembered.  And you can be re-membered.  I like that word: re-membered.  Often, we use it as the opposite of “forgotten”.  We say, “Oh, no! It’s your birthday! I forgot! I can’t believe I didn’t remember.”  But it’s also the opposite of another word: dismember.  When we dis-member something or someone, we take it apart, often with violence, hatred, or evil.  Dis-membering is cruel and gruesome.  We have, some of us, been dis-membered in a metaphorical sense; we have had bits of ourselves hacked off or plucked out or walk away.  But as your pastor, I am here to tell you that those who have been dis-membered will be re-membered.  What has been lost will be found, and what has been cut off will be restored.

Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico (c. 1442)

You know, Matthew is the only gospel to mention the slaughter of the innocents.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, to note that when the Gospel writers talk about the resurrection, Matthew is the only one to mention that when Jesus rose, “the tombs also were opened, and the bodies of many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised … they came out of the tombs and appeared in the holy city” (27:52

Sheesh — there he goes again.  Why is it that I can’t even walk into this place without dead people rising up?  It’s so messy, so confusing all the time.  Why can’t they just stay dead?

No.  Not with Jesus.  The bad news is that we’re all dead or dying in one way or another.  The good news is that Jesus gives us life each day – in spite of the death that we share.

So when you walk into this room, remember, that yes, it is a room of death.  We do wind up bleeding on the carpet a good deal of the time.  But remember, too, that it is a room of resurrection.  The cross is empty and the table is set.  We have the promise of our brother, Jesus, that death is not the end, but rather a gateway to resurrection — for children who die too soon, for saints, for me, and for you.  Do not marvel that we die, or that difficulties come; be grateful that we have lived!  Thanks be to God for the gift of life and the promise of hope to come! Amen.

[1] From Brokenness to Community , Paulist Press, 1992.

Finding Her Voice

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included many of the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  This year’s story was influenced by a number of stories it’s been my privilege to encounter in recent years, and is anchored in the declaration and promises found in Isaiah 40:1-9

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

What’s in a name?  Or, more to my point: what’s in a nickname?  Often a nickname can be ironic, as when the 350 pound security guard is called “Tiny”, or the way that people sometimes call a bald man “Curly.”  A nickname can be cruel or sarcastic, such as when the kid with dental problems gets referred to as “Bucky” all through middle school.  But sometimes, well, they just fit.

That’s how it was for Bertha Evans.  She was named after her grandmother, who lived next door, and even when she was a baby, “little” Bertha was called “Byrdie” so that people knew which Bertha they were talking about.

When someone carries a name like Byrdie, you might think that person is musical.  In this case, you’d be right.  I don’t know this for certain, but it’s been said that Byrdie learned to sing before she could speak.  Growing up, people would say, “Oh, Byrdie, you were born to sing!”  As she matured, she developed a lovely, flowing soprano voice that would put an angel to shame.  Her nickname became even more appropriate when at the age of 24 she married a man named William Finch.  That’s right.  From then on, she was Byrdie Finch.

Now, because she had been born blind, Byrdie didn’t read music in the traditional sense.  However, between recordings and Braille sheet music, there was nothing that she couldn’t tackle vocally.

She sang in a couple of bands when she was younger, and people say that she could have “made it”, but I always had the sense that she wanted to sing mostly because it made her happy, not because she wanted people to clap for her.  In recent decades, she’s sung most frequently in the church choir.  On occasion, she could be counted on to offer the Anthem or “God, Bless America” at a sporting event or parade.

Byrdie would tell you that she had a great life.  Her marriage seemed really healthy; her children were everything she’d hoped that they could be; she had a fulfilling career and great neighbors… Yes, life was just perfect… right up until the point that it wasn’t.

It was a January evening a couple of years ago.  She was heading home from the Arena, where she’d been asked to sing the National Anthems for the hockey game.  A drunk driver T-boned the car in which she was riding, and for a while it seemed as if that would be the end for Byrdie.  She lingered in the ICU for ten days, dealing with broken bones and massive internal injury.  She endured several surgeries in that precarious fortnight.  And then, she emerged from the twilight and regained herself.  The doctors were pleased not only with themselves, but with Byrdie’s recovery.

There was just one thing: while she was in the ICU and enduring those surgeries, they had to put a breathing tube down her throat.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to have one of those, but I’m here to tell you that as essential as they are at times, they are anything but comfortable.

When Byrdie came out of the ICU and was removed from the respirator, she struggled to speak. The physicians assured her that it was normal, and that there had been a great deal of trauma, and that if she was just patient, everything would work out all right. Well, she tried hard to be patient, but things were most assuredly not all right.  Three weeks after the tube was removed it was all she could do to whisper.  After two months, they did some tests and determined that the intubation had damaged her vocal cords.

By April of that year, Byrdie was pretty much out of the woods in terms of her major injuries.  That allowed her time to undergo a series of surgeries on her vocal cords and voice box in an attempt to restore her speech.  She tolerated those procedures well, and before long she was able to get around much as she had prior to the accident, and was fully independent – or should have been.  The problem was that her frustration with her voice was so significant that it plunged her into a deep depression.  Byrdie could have left the house, and she could have rejoined her social circle, and she could have attended her granddaughter’s preschool graduation – in fact, she could have gone back to much of her own life – but to do most of those things, she had to talk, and there was nothing she disliked more in those days than the sound of her own voice.

As the months went by, that voice regained strength, but it was most definitely not the same.  It seemed to have dropped at least an octave.  People did not recognize her voice: when she she answered the phone, people thought it was her son. She was ashamed and embarrassed.  She spent most of that summer, alone and silent, on her back porch. There, she did a little reading, a little knitting, and a lot of sitting.

In September, her neighbor and friend, Naomi Jones, invited Byrdie to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History.  She wasn’t crazy about it, but Naomi was persistent and without even knowing the topic, Byrdie capitulated and trudged along to the fourth row of a lecture she didn’t want to hear, on a subject she didn’t know, being offered by a scientist she’d never heard of.  Byrdie was, for all intents and purposes, a “captive audience”.  “The things I do for you, Naomi”, she mumbled as she waited for the thing to end.

Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Except something caught her ear.  The presenter was a young researcher from a Canadian university who was reporting on some field work he’d done recently.  His team visited a secluded island on the Canadian coast with the aim of determining whether it was possible to teach adult songbirds a new “language”.  He presented a lot of complicated methodology and science, but the thing that fascinated the folks at the Audubon Society was this: a significant percentage of adult savannah sparrows successfully learned “new” mating calls over the course of a summer. The ornithologists played recordings of a different population of this species over and over and lo and behold, the local birds started picking up on the new tunes.[1]

When the lecture had finished, the researcher seemed quite pleased with himself, Naomi felt a burst of accomplishment at having coaxed Byrdie out of her back yard, and Byrdie, well, Byrdie was quiet… which was nothing really new.

Here’s what I do know: that three weeks after the lecture, the new choir director called Byrdie and invited her to choir practice.  She laughed at him and then hung up.  A few days later, the pastor called.  “Byrdie, be honest.  You have a voice.  It’s not the voice you’ve always had, and it’s going to take some practice – but we both know that you’ve forgotten more about music than any of the rest of that bunch will ever learn.”  There was a pause, and the pastor added, “And besides… I know how much you love Handel’s Messiah.”

Oh.  Messiah.

If you had ever heard Byrdie sing, you would have thought that the soprano part of Messiah had been written with her in mind.  I mean, when Byrdie sang out recitatives like “and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” and “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”, well, no matter who you were you were ready to launch into the chorus of “Glory to God!”  In that community, Byrdie Finch was synonymous with Messiah.  And now someone else was going to voice the angel.  It was more than she could bear.  However, she agreed to attend the practice, and offered to do what she could to coach the soprano section, but she knew that she’d be unable to sing a note.

When the evening of the rehearsal came, however, the choir faced an unexpected challenge.  Due to the fact that several members had gone off to college, one had moved, and another had a nasty cold, there was not a single alto in attendance at choir practice.

Did Byrdie remember the lecture about the savannah sparrows?  Did Naomi nudge her? I don’t know.  But I do know that Byrdie didn’t leave, and that she said that if she could get her new voice box to cooperate, she’d try to sight read the alto line.  And so the rehearsal began.

The tenors started, as always, by singing about God’s comfort, and about valleys being exalted.  About halfway through that piece, it occurred to Byrdie that the first time the altos sang anything in the entire Messiah was when they, and they alone, would announce “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”  When that piece starts, there is no chorus to hide behind, and no heavy instrumentation to lean on – just the pure tones of the alto voice – a voice that Byrdie wasn’t sure that she had.  And in her anxiety, she requested that they skip that number for the first rehearsal.  And, as it turns out, for the second.

But here is what happened: as each rehearsal began, she listened to the tenor.  I mean to tell you, she listened.  Even for a person like Byrdie, for whom listening was a lifeline on a minute-by-minute basis – she listened to the words of the tenor.  And she heard.

Byrdie heard in those ancient words that God’s desire is that creation be comforted.  She heard, as if for the first time, that reconciliation was at hand.  She knew that voice crying in the wilderness, and she dreamed of mountains being made low, valleys that were exalted, and rough places that were made plain.

The words stuck with her – a voice, crying in the wilderness.  She thought about the immense and intense work and effort of reconciliation and healing.  She went back and she read and re-read Isaiah and came to understand that the line to be voiced first by the alto about the glory of the Lord being revealed could only be heard after the tenor sang of the years of suffering and estrangement and pain and injury and loss.

Sitting in the upstairs choir room listening to her old friends do their level best to master one of the greatest musical scores of any age, Byrdie finally grasped this truth: that the glory of the Lord is revealed to people who have lost – and then found – everything.

For her entire life, Byrdie had been in such a hurry to be the angel singing of glad tidings that she had missed out on the fact that valleys were not exalted in a day and mountains were not brought low overnight.  After her accident, and after losing her voice, and after losing herself… she knew the truth she had always known, but she somehow understood it more deeply – that in the midst of great loss and pain to the point of being incapacitated – at that time, and to those people would the glory of the Lord be revealed.

She had known the lyrics since she could read: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And in that room, she finally knew the score.  All flesh shall see it together.  Don’t think that line was lost on Byrdie Finch, either.

And so for the rest of the Fall, Byrdie continued to spend time on her back porch.  Only now instead of knitting, she had her tablet out, and she was listening to, and then singing along with, some YouTube videos that featured the Alto parts for Handel’s Messiah.  She found that as her familiarity with the part grew, her voice sounded less grating.  She began to talk more, and even laugh. She read stories to her grandchildren again, and found that she was even looking forward to choir practice.

On the last Sunday of Advent that year, Byrdie Finch walked with the choir, as usual, to the front of the sanctuary.  And for the first time ever, she sat to the far rightof the chancel – where altos sit.

And after the plaintive wailing of the tenor, the crying in the wilderness, and the promise that literally moves heaven and earth, Byrdie sang out in an alto voice the words she had come to love.  And what the altos started, the choir finished – adriving chorus in ¾ time, written in A major with an Allegro tempo, announcing the coming glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, Byrdie took the congregation to new places with a solo they had never heard her sing before: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Because Byrdie knew.  She had lived through the exile, borne witness to the glory of the Lord, and knew that she could, without fear, lift up her voice with strength and even encourage others to do the same.

And you might think that is the end of this story, and it might be an appropriate place for me to stop.

Except for this: you see, Byrdie retired earlier this year. Like a lot of folks in their sixties, she thought that she’d find all sorts of things to do.  She read.  She puttered around the house.  She played with the grandkids.  And she loved all of those things.  But she wanted something else.  Something more.

So now she volunteers twice a week.  Byrdie Finch is a docent at the Aviary – one of those lovely people who greet you, who help you to learn something about a particular bird or perhaps locate a species if you’re in one of the large rooms.

You might be surprised to find a blind person guiding a bunch of birdwatchers. Some of them sure are – and others have no idea that she can’t actually see what she’s talking about.  Someone will say, “But where are the blue-bellied rollers?”, and Byrdie will listen, and then point in the direction of those gorgeous creatures.  Photos will be snapped, children amused, and tours will continue.

And every now and then someone will see her name tag and say something like, “Byrdie Finch eh?  Wow, you were born for this!”

“I don’t know whether I was born to do this or not,” is her standard reply.  “But I know that I can, and I will gladly do it today.”

After everything, Byrdie Finch has learned to find and to point others toward beauty and comfort.  She never dreamed she’d be singing alto or spotting birds, but in the midst of the valleys and the mountains the glory of the Lord was revealed to her and through her.  And after traveling through all the valleys and the mountains, Byrdie Finch learned a new song. My hunch is, so can you. So can we all.  Thanks be to God whose glory is revealed!  Amen.

Listen to the Glory of the Lord as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…

[1] So this really is a thing: you can learn about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/an-experiment-teach-sparrows-new-songs-proved-wild-success

Watch and Hope

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.

I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago.  I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago.  I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites.  One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean).  For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense.  It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles.  I could do it.

Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation.  This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.

The Trail Ridge Road as it looked on days 1 and 2 of our Rocky Mountain Adventure…

Well, doesn’t that just beat all?  I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed.  I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey.  Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning.  Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”

All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road.  There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.

As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable.  I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died.  I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal.  As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.

It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless.  We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened.  As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above.  I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!”  It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.

Some of the drifts seemed to be fifteen feet high – on June 26th!!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief.  I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.

I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep.  As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell.  It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard.  It reads as follows:

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

Flowers of many types were already bursting through the tundra atop the mountains…

Most of you are reading this in the summertime.  I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.

 

I’m not the only one who felt good about making it to the top of the Continental Divide today!

Mule Deer are plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

We saw a number of moose today, including this cow and calf.

The pika is a small mammal about the size of a large chipmunk – it’s called “the farmer of the tundra” for its habit of storing seeds under rocks.

Adams Falls, on the west side of the park.

At Bear Lake, on the eastern side.

Wilson’s Warbler

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we had made it over the mountains and down the other side, there was still one threat to my plans: this five foot Prairie Rattlesnake. Now, to be fair, I had a 4,000 pound vehicle, and all he had was a really snazzy rattle and a little venom. We called it a draw and let each other pass…

I Used To Live Here

This week marks the official beginning of a wonderful opportunity for me: I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave from the work I’ve been doing as the Pastor of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  From Memorial Day through Labor Day, 2019, I am not only excused from my regular duties but positively immersed in a wave of new experiences and opportunities.  All of this in the hope and expectation that time away will provide both me and the congregation with renewal and refreshment in order that the next season of ministry will be marked by vitality and joy.

If you’ve been following this blog in the hopes of reading or hearing sermons, well, you’ll want to take a break for a few months.  I hope you’ll come back in September!  However, I invite you all to come with me as I wander into some new – and familiar – places in the hopes of engaging the Holy and the Wonder in these experiences.

This sabbatical experience will be framed by a couple of long weekends in the community in which I was primarily raised: Wilmington DE.  Memorial Day and Labor Day will find us in the place where I used to live.  My folks moved here when I was 3 years old, and for the next 15 years this was the place where I learned to ride bikes, play baseball and the trombone, make friends, grow in faith and community, drive, lead, fish, and so much more.  I graduated from Concord High School in 1978, went to college in Western PA, and have not really lived here since then.

And this is a frustrating thing: I am from here.  I know – or, more precisely, I knew these roads.  And yet as I am invited to visit with and chauffeur people around this place, I am irritated and disappointed…because the roads are not as I remember them.  There are new buildings, and the landscape has changed.  I am frustrated with myself, because as I feel lost I think, “I ought to know this.  I’ve been here.  I used to live here, for crying out loud.”  And I am irked by those who have come in and changed this place that was a comfortable and predictable environment.

And if you were to speak with me rationally, you would say, “Oh, give it a break, Dave.  It’s not 1978 anymore.  The world changes.  Life happens.  Get with the times.”  And, of course, you’d be right.

And yet, as I so often do, I wonder if there is a deeper application to this feeling.

I have a friend who is very ill.  Her body – once a dear friend, comfortable and hospitable and useful – now seems to be betraying her.  It’s not doing what it used to; it’s not behaving as it should.  And so in addition to the discomfort of the symptoms she is feeling, she is disquieted at finding herself in a place where she’d prefer not to be.

We are staying with my mother-in-law, a widow of less than a year.  On a July day last year, her landscape was bulldozed in an unimaginably (to me, right now) painful way.  Her house looks the same, but her home is irrevocably changed.  And it’s frustrating in painful ways.

I know a man who was once full of rich faith in God.  He practiced this in church, and engaged in regular worship.  And then, for a number of reasons, he found himself away from the church (and, if he were truly honest, away from the faith) for a season.  And he’d like to be back now.  Except that while the congregation that he formerly attended is still standing, and still open, and even has a number of the same members – it’s not the same church.  It seems to him that maybe even God has changed.  Certainly his perspective of God has changed.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  But it’s surely a confusing thing, on some days.  He has to find his way along a path that is different from the one that he knew.

I used to live here.  But the first word of that sentence – I – is not the same as he was in 1978.  Mostly, that’s a blessing.  And there are other people who live here now.  And that’s a fine thing.

And the final word of the sentence – here – is different as well, for a million reasons.  Again, mostly good.  I live somewhere else now, and I love it there.  But it’s not here.

In between the first and last words of the sentence is the verb – live.  One of the great things about time away from my regular life is the ability to catch up with folks who are in other places.  It has been a great joy to visit places that have been formative for me and share stories with those whose lives have been intertwined with mine.

Movie Night at Cokesbury Village! “On the Basis of Sex” is a great film.

Had a great visit with my brother, Tom, and his family!

So proud of my nieces Bethany and Rachel!

Putting in the annuals…

Coaching Sharon through the gardening thing… Sabbatical is about everyone learning new things!

We are blessed to be able to do this with Mom!

Breakfast with my niece Sarah – crab benedict!

This room provided some of my most meaningful encounters of the Holy… confirmation, ordination, marriage, the baptism of our daughter, funerals…

“The Burning Bush” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Delaware

And as I near the end of my 58th year I am aware of the fact that as my dad used to say, “Nobody gets out of this place alive.”  I’m not usually a “go to the cemetery” person, but it was an honor and a privilege to visit the graves of some of the most amazing folks I’ve known.  As I mentioned, Sharon’s dad died in July 2018.  My own father died about ten years prior to that, and my mother in 1990.  We also were able to see the marker for my nephew, Ben, who died in 2017.  Taking this time to reflect on the meaning of their lives helped me to frame the expectations for my own.

My hope for the days, weeks, and months to come is that the practice of sabbatical will invite me to consider what it means to be an “I” who finds himself “here” – wherever here is.  And I am deeply grateful for the ways that I have been launched on this journey; for those who gave me advice as I was starting and along the way; and for those who are present to me as I seek to be faithful in the walk of today and share in the hope that is to come.

One most best frameworks for this hope is in a song called “Be With You”.  I invite you to wander in that now.

Who Is This Guy?

The first Sunday after Easter (April 28, 2019) provided the saints at the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights with the opportunity to consider what happened to the disciples in the weeks and months after the resurrection.  We saw them as people whose minds had changed – for the better… and we wondered whether we, too, have seen signs of such change and growth in our own lives.  Our texts included Luke 24:45-49 and Acts 5:27-32.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the Media Player below:

Portrait of a Bearded Man as an Apostle (St. Peter), Pier Francesco Mola Coldrerio c. 1612-1666

Well, well, well.  Get a load of this guy!  Can you believe it?  Who does he think he is?  Did you catch what Ronald said in the reading from the Book of Acts?  Evidently, the followers of Jesus have been arrested, for what is apparently not the first time.  They have been hauled in front of the Council – the Sanhedrin – and the High Priest, because they keep talking about Jesus of Nazareth and preaching in his name.

And did you catch the name of the ringleader, the spokesperson, the only apostle named?  Peter. Yes, that Peter.  The last time we saw him in this room was just the other day, when we read from Mark 14, the night that Jesus himself was arrested.  Peter was close to the Council and the High Priest on that night, too. Do you remember?

Only on that night, he tried to hide.  When he couldn’t hide, he lied.  When he was found out in his lie, he ran away weeping into the darkness.  That’s the last we’ve heard from Peter in this room.  And you will recall that it was not, by any means, Peter’s best day. And yet it was Peter.  The same Peter who we heard speaking confidently and even defiantly to the religious hierarchy a moment ago.

What’s happening?  What’s gotten into him?

Some of you know my friend, Sophie, in Malawi.  She and her husband lived with us for several months many years ago, and she had a habit that confused me.  She often began a story by saying, “the other day…”  Now, I imagine that you’ve used this phrase yourself. You’ve said something like, “You’ll never believe who I saw in the market the other day!”  Perhaps you’ve asked me when my last dental exam was, and I responded, “Oh, it was the other day.  I’m good.”  When we use those words, we understand “the other day” to mean a date in the fairly recent past.

But for Sophie, “the other day” meant simply any day that is not “today”. She would start to tell me about the other day when she was learning to drive, and it would take me a while to catch on that we were talking about an event that took place decades ago.  As you know, the passage of time adds a lot to the meaning of a story.

So when I said that we saw Peter “the other day” as he was fleeing the courtyard of the High Priest’s home on the night of Jesus’ arrest… which “other day” was it?  How much time has elapsed between Peter’s running away in shame and his standing before the Council in such boldness.

This is a tricky thing for those of us who want to read the Bible.  I mean, we’ve just finished a study of Mark’s Gospel, which takes 240 verses to narrate the events of one week. Conversely, the book of Exodus sums up 400+ years in fewer than 8 verses. So what is the relationship between the stories we’ve heard from Mark in recent weeks and those in today’s reading from Luke and Acts?

Jesus’ ascended into heaven about six weeks after his resurrection. That’s the conversation that Carly shared with you from Luke.  The events described in Acts chapter 5 could be from the same year; if not, they are from the following year.  In other words, the amount of time that has elapsed between Peter’s denial and his sermon here is to be measured in weeks  or months, and certainly not in decades.

St. Peter Preaching, Masolina (c. 1400)

So I’ll ask again: what gives? Who is this guy?  What has gotten into Peter and the other apostles that they should be so bold and brash only weeks or months after having failed so miserably?

My hunch is that if we had the opportunity to ask the apostles themselves, they might point to Luke’s account, and say something like, “Well, things really began to change for us – to take shape – as we met with the risen Christ. Our minds were opened.  We understood that he was calling us to be witnessesto his resurrection, witnesses to his presence.

In the time between the burial of Jesus and this trial in Acts, these followers of Jesus came to see themselves as witnesses.  I’m here to suggest that this is a new understanding.  Think back to the day of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. On that day, they saw themselves as managersor maybe cheerleaders.  Jesus was coming in and was loudly proclaimed as the coming Messiah – it was unmistakable. And so it fell to the disciples to help facilitate the crowds and maybe even get themselves positioned as a kind of a “transition team” between the current religious and political establishment and that new order which Jesus would bring.

However, as the situation in Jerusalem devolved during Holy Week, things changed.  Jesus was betrayed, and then arrested.  If the dream of the Messianic Kingdom with Jesus as its head was going to come to pass, then those who were with him would have to take quick action.  We saw that in the Garden at least some of the disciples were ready to fight for Jesus, and for this new Kingdom, and to defend him. That’s not the first time that these folks saw themselves in that way – the Gospels are full of occasions when those who were closest to Jesus sought to protect him from others whom they deemed to be unworthy: children and foreigners, mostly.

When we interpret the disciples acting as protectors or defenders, then perhaps we can construe the running away in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the denials by the High Priest’s home not as acts of cowardice but rather as strategies for buying time.  After all, in this view, the arrest of Jesus is a horrible thing – but if everyone gets taken in there will be nobody to save him.  If all of them run away now, the disciples could have thought, they can break him out of jail and get back to plan “A” – Jesus coming in, bringing his Kingdom, and a new world order!  Here we go!

But then, of course, came the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. At that point it must have seemed to the followers of Jesus (and they said as much to the “stranger” on the road to Emmaus) that they were sadly mistaken. He was evidently not the Messiah.  He had evidently notcome to liberate the people of God.

And now we move ahead a few months or a year into the Book of Acts and we are re-introduced to these Christ-followers as men of purpose and vision. They’ve got multiple arrest records already for bearing witness to the presence and resurrection of Jesus.

And listen to what Peter says about his old friend and mentor, Jesus. He says that God has raised up Jesus as Israel’s “Leader”.  The Greek word there is archegos, and it means one who goes before, or is an example, or a pioneer, or a predecessor.  Jesus is the first of many – Jesus is the archetype of that which God intends for all humanity.

Not only is he “Leader”, but he is “Savior”.  Again, the Greek helps us understand: soter is a word that refers to a title that the Greeks gave to leaders who had conferred significant benefits on their country.  It was used to describe a military or political leader who had really brought about true and significant benefit or advantage for his people.  It is worth noting, too, that this is the first time in the New Testament that a Jewish person uses this word to refer to Jesus.  In recognizing him as archegos and soter– Leader and Savior – the disciples are acclaiming Jesus as one with supreme power and authority; one who can be relied on to get stuff done; Jesus can be trusted to do as he says he’s gonna do.

Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1310)

And if Jesus is in fact that kindof leader and savior, then the disciples’ understanding of themselves must also change.  If that’swho Jesus is, then they don’t need to be his agents, handlers, or managers.  If that’s the kind of person and presence that Jesus is, then he surely doesn’t need the kinds of protection that people like the disciples are likely to be able to provide.  And so instead of being any of those things, the apostles say plainly, “we are witnesses of these things – we are here to tell you about our experiences of these things, and to invite you to consider the Holy Spirit who is also here as a witness.”

This morning I’d like to reflect on Christ-followers who see themselves as witnesses – as persons who have seen, observed, or participated in an event and then testify to what they saw, heard, and felt.  I’m afraid that in the Church of Jesus Christ today, there are not enough witnesses.

I’m afraid that in the church of Jesus Christ today I know too many people who have abdicated the role of “witness” so that they could go back to being Jesus’ protectors.  I know too many people who seem to believe that the God whom they say created heaven and earth and the vastness of the cosmos – that thatGod somehow needs folks like me or you to protect God’s self.

We have friends who act as if Jesus needs us to stand between him and those who would harm him – he needs us to point out and call out and tear down the people that could somehow hurt Jesus or his cause – and so these folks lash out self-righteously against Muslims or atheists or feminists or gays.  Jesus needs us to have his back when it comes to outrages like the holiday cups used at Starbucks or the chicken sandwiches served by Chick Fil-A.  Some people act as though the one who turned water into wine and used a few loaves and fishes to feed 5000 people has now had a change of heart and turns to his followers and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… be careful.  Don’t be trying to feed or clothe everybody now.  You’ve got to take care of yourselves.  I’m not sure you can think about letting people like them get too close to your neighborhood…”  As if Jesus was somehow less ableor less sufficientor less powerfulnow than he was when Luke and Acts were written.[1]

If he is truly Leader and Savior – then he retains his power and authority, and he continues to expect that we are his witnesses, and not his handlers, agents, protection squad, or defense attorneys.

And that leads me to another question that is raised by this morning’s text. Clearly Peter and the other followers of Jesus grew in their understandings of who Jesus was and who they were called to be. Their minds were changed, and that led them to new understandings of themselves and their Lord.  So I wonder, has that happened to you?  Where are you growing?  How long has it been since you’ve seen Jesus in a new way?  Are there things about which you’ve experienced a change of mind or heart?

Careful now…  In so many parts of our culture, a changed mind is seen as a sign of weakness.  In discussions I’ve had recently of both a political and religious nature, I’ve heard comments like, “Her?  Seriously? You know, I’ve heard that she has become really soft on ________ (fill in the blank with some doctrine, cause, or political viewpoint).  I’m not sure she’s one of us anymore…”  When a politician changes their mind, they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. And if you didn’t know it, friends, that’s bad.  That is very bad for your political career – and, as friends of mine discovered it can hurt your theological career as well.

When someone engages you in conversation by asking you how your mind has changed, or how you see things differently… there’s a temptation to see that as an admission of having somehow departed from orthodoxy or having left the “true faith”, whatever that is.

But listen: we are called to growth!  We are built for growth!  We long for and anticipate growth in our physical selves, our mental selves, and therefore why not our spiritual selves as well?

There’s not a person in this room who thinks, looks, or acts exactly the same as you did five or ten or twenty years ago. Heck, if you want a laugh, walk into my study with some of the children as they scope out your wedding and baptismal photos and say, “Hey… is that my mom and dad?”, or “Who is that guy with all the hair?”  Because you’ve changed, beloved.  You’re not the same.

So I’ll ask again: Where are you growing?  How are you seeing Jesus these days?  And how are you bearing witness to that presence in your daily life?

Today, may we join Peter and the other apostles in looking back at where we were, and who we were, on the other day– and praying for growth, wisdom, discernment, and freedom to find Christ in new places on this day.  And as we find and experience the Christ, may we, too, fulfill our roles and thereby be witnesses to these things.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] I am indebted to pastor and writer John Pavlovitz, who has helped me to wrestle with this issue.  You can see some of his work on his blog in columns like this: https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/04/11/the-terribly-tiny-god-of-maga-christians/

There You Go Again…

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. At the later service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we concluded that study by looking at Mark 16:9-20, a passage missing from the earliest versions of this Gospel.  The first reading came from Isaiah 65:17-25,

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I hope that not all of you have been in this situation before, but I’m sure that everyone can imagine it. Let’s say that you’re driving along, minding your own business, and another car suddenly swerves into your lane, cutting you off, and you wind up hitting the telephone pole.  The ambulance comes, you’re taken to the hospital where they set your broken leg, and then your family comes in to see you just as the doctor arrives to tell you how things look.

You tell your family what’s happened up to this point, but you don’t need to tell them what the doctor says, because, well, they’re here.  They see and know the doctor at this point. You’ve told them what they don’t know, and that’s good enough.

Now, two weeks later you’re at your uncle’s house for a holiday party. Someone asks you about the cast on your leg, and so you start to tell the story about the other driver and the telephone pole and the ambulance.  And when you’re finished, your brother-in-law – who wasn’t even there, by the way – adds details to your story: “The other car was an SUV, driven by some kid who was texting, I think.  And the city has now changed the traffic pattern on that stretch of the highway, which is a good thing.  That’s always been a dangerous road…”

And when that happens, you might be tempted to look at your brother-in-law and say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, there you go again…”  It’s irritating, sometimes, to have people add to or interpret your story.  But as you reflect on what he’s said, you also think that maybe his comments could be helpful for those who are a little more removed from the story.  They add some useful context to what happened.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

So it is with Mark chapter 16.  The Gospel writer pretty clearly ends his telling of the Jesus story in verse 8. In the face of the angelic announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead, the first community of Christ-followers were confused and afraid.  That first Easter morning, they didn’t know whatto do, and they didn’t know whoto believe.  The original ending of the Gospel shows us people running out of the cemetery, scared out of their minds.

And that ending, frankly, worked well enough for Mark’s original audience. Most of the community to whom Mark was written was living there in Rome and knew, or at least knew of, the Apostle Peter.  They had access to other witnesses to those early days of the church – and they were familiar with the things that happenedafterthe crucifixion.

But before long, there began to be more and more people who didn’t know all of the same people, and who were not familiar with the events that took place on that first Easter and the days that followed.

At that point, someone else in the community plays the role of Mark’s chatty brother-in-law and picks up the pen to add a few details to the story.

What I’m saying is this: that Mark 16:9-20 is almost certainly not the work of the author of the rest of the Gospel.  There are differences in style, vocabulary, and phrasing.  Most of the content in these verses is, in fact, simply reflective of other material that we’ve come to know in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts.  Most scholars see this part of the Gospel as an appendix that has been written by another hand, and therefore not so much a part of the second Gospel but rather a reflection on it, or an attestation of the truth to which the Gospel points. It’s as if a new generation of the church found a dog-eared copy of the Gospel and said, “Yes! This!  There you go again!  This is the truth!”

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to look with me at what this passage has to say.  How does this next generation reflect on the Gospel that it’s received?

I’m struck by the church’s characterization of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared.  There are no starry-eyed dreamers here, no wistful backward glances at the first followers of Jesus. When the author of these verses remembers those who gathered with the risen Lord, he or she does so with an acknowledgment that Jesus didn’t wait around for a perfect church to appear or be formed. Rather, this is a blunt description of the fact that the group that met with Jesus was comprised of people who struggled with their faith and who were above all else, stubborn. That is to say that while the three days in the tomb and the resurrection may have totally transformed Jesus, his followers were still the same people.  This is what they had to say about themselves: we’re not sure what to think, but we can be really obnoxious.

You can’t make this stuff up…

Can you imagine a church with a motto like that today?  Some years ago, my wife and I visited a little town in Texas with an unusual name.  We were surprised, however, when the congregation in that place took on the town’s name and became known as “The Church of Uncertain.”

I love that sign, and I love this affirmation at the end of Mark’s Gospel: it goes to show me that Jesus is willing to work with what he had – with who I am.  The Risen Lord is not hanging around beating the doubt out of his followers, waiting for them to become perfect; there’s no call for you or me to somehow get our acts together beforewe start living like Jesus asks us to. We are called to move forward with who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus will continue to work on, in, and through us.

The early church remembers that, as recalcitrant and doubtful as they were, they were given two primary charges by the Risen Lord.

First, they are called to preach.  That is, to point to God’s intentions for the world and those who live in it.  Preach the Gospel to all creation!  Celebrate the purposes of God as you live in the world and with others.  That community, like you, would be familiar with the descriptions of God’s intentions as described in places like Isaiah 65.

Les malades attendant le passage de Jésus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

And secondly, in addition to preaching, or proclaiming, the reign and rule of God, this group of stubborn doubters is called to participate in those intentions by becoming agents of healing in the creation.  It’s as if the Savior is saying, “Look, the longer we hang out together, the more you’re going to find that reality can, in fact, change. Be a part of that!  Engage your world on God’s terms, and invite your world to be more intentionally and fully aligned with God’s design for that world.

This “appendix” to the Gospel of Mark then ends with a surprising affirmation: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s another way of saying, “Hey! Everybody! It worked! Seriously – we did this – and we found that when we lived like Jesus told us to that some amazing things didhappen!”

Back toward the end of 2017, this congregation embarked on a study of the Gospel of Mark.  When we did so, we remarked that this second Gospel begins with a different quote from the book of Isaiah.  We watched a ragged prophet called John the Baptizer announce the coming of and presence of a new way of life and living, a new understanding of God’s purposes. John pointed us to Jesus of Nazareth, who called this new way of living “The Kingdom of God”, and who went on to say that this Kingdom is at hand – it is present, it is palpable today.

Calling Disciples, He Qi (contemporary)

For the past eighteen months or so we have affirmed that Mark’s Gospel is not centered on a system of belief.  Nowhere in this document is a series of intellectual suppositions that we must affirm in order to gain entry into some heavenly club. There is no list of right answers on which followers of Jesus must insist before extending grace, forgiveness, and kindness.  No, this little pamphlet is a call to a life of boldness centered on an acknowledgement that this reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God is present and accessible right now to people like us.  It is an encouragement for the people of God to live in a way that points to the reign and rule of God, that demonstrates God’s intentions, and fleshes out God’s hopes for creation.

To be sure, the Gospel is full of stories, including the events of Holy week, that demonstrate that this manner of life is not always easy and that there may be a cost.  The original hearers of Mark’s Gospel surely knew and appreciated that.

And yet, when the dust had settled, someone picked up Mark’s pen long after he himself had died.  That community recalled with joy that Christ had come, and suffered, and risen to rule the world.  Those folk celebrated that this Kingdom of God, this reign and rule of the Holy that echoes the landscape painted by Isaiah and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is in fact ours to live.

There was a certain roller coaster ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park that began with the announcement, “Hold onto your hats, please.  No repeat riders.”  I’m pretty sure that the mechanized voice that issued that warning hundreds of times a day didn’t think that it was making a theological affirmation, but I’m convinced that is the essence of the Gospel as received and transmitted by Mark’s community.  Brace yourselves for adventure – this is a good, good life that we’ve been given. Yes, we will encounter great pain and even death along the way – but pain and death are not the end of the story. The presence of the Risen Lord infuses our lives and all creation.

The Good News of the Gospel is that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We participate in this Gospel as we engage in grateful and hopeful lives and share that gratitude and hope with those we meet.  Along the way, we are given the opportunity – or the responsibility – of looking for, asking for, or waiting for the presence of the One who preached the Kingdom’s truth and then rose from the dead to affirm it’s nearness to the heart of God. So beloved, the call of the Gospel today is this: seek that presence today, and be a sign of it in the world. He has Risen.  He has risen indeed.  So show someone what that looks like!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.