What Keeps Us The Way We Are

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Second Sunday of Lent (March 17, 2019), we had the opportunity to consider the “signature rites” of the Presbyterian Church.  Mark’s account of the Last Supper, as found in Mark 14:12-26, was our Gospel reading.  As it happened, we also celebrated the baptism of a beautiful young boy named Jonah.  We considered the importance of these practices in forming us as a community of faith.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about that for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Are You Like Mike?

The scripture is full of invitations to act – to set things into motion.  In worship on August 30, the folk in Crafton Heights thought a bit about ways in which “going through the motions” is helpful and ways in which that becomes a distraction or even worse.  Our scriptures for the day included Mark 7:1-8 and James 1:22-27.

 

If you were around after worship last Sunday, you might have overheard Brad discussing a rather unusual problem: he was trying to give away Steelers tickets and he couldn’t find any takers. He had a number of seats to the game between the Steelers and the hallowed Green Bay Packers, and he was having a hard time finding anyone who was interested in going along. Who passes up Steeler tickets? FREE Steeler tickets at that!

Oh, wait, you say – it was last week’s game? A preseason game? No thanks. I’d rather water my lawn or sort out the coins that have piled up on my dresser.

Tomlin2Preseason football is meaningless, some people say. Not only that, it’s dangerous for some players: just last week the Steelers lost at least two key players for some time due to injuries incurred during the preseason game. But perhaps worst of all, preseason football is BORING. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has gone on record as saying that he does not play preseason games to win. When asked what his goal was in a recent preseason contest, the coach said this: “We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment-clean football. At this point we’ll see where we are in that regard.”[1]

Yes, because nothing says “excitement” like “assignment-clean football.”

But the fact that the coach isn’t playing to win doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care about the game. Far from it: Coach Mike believes it’s important to see who is growing as a player and who has lost a step; he wants his team to try out new formations, and the individual players to develop some muscle memory in terms of how to do what they’ll need to do once the season starts. “I think the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness,” Tomlin said, “and the only way to do that is to play. I’m always a healthy guy play type of guy.” He remembers that almost every single good team in the NFL ended last year with a loss. Coach Mike is one of the best coaches in football because he usually knows why he is doing what he is doing.

So maybe, in spite of the fact that very few of us in the room are ready for life in the NFL, we can “be like Mike” when it comes to being ready for whatever comes our way. Sometimes, you put yourself through the motions because that’s what gets you ready for the things that really count.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were amazingly adept at going through the motions. In fact, they were so good at going through the motions that they challenged Jesus about it one day.

washinghandsThe Hebrew scriptures command the people of God to be grateful for the food that they enjoy and the land from which it comes, but there is no commandment specifying exactly how that is to happen. Over the years, the religious leaders built up a number of traditions so that by the time that Jesus was born, the way that one demonstrated one’s gratitude to God was to pour a specified amount of water (that which could be contained in one and a half medium eggshells) over the hands in such a way so that it covered at least the middle knuckles of each finger. Having done that, your hands were clean, your gratitude was apparent, and you could enjoy the meal.

james_tissot_pharisees_400When the Pharisees condemned the disciples for failing to wash their hands, they weren’t concerned about hygiene, or spreading germs. They were offended because Jesus and his followers didn’t go through all the motions – they were not keeping the traditions that came, not from God, but from other Pharisees.

Jesus’ response is quick and to the point: “Why do you care more about trying to prove to other people how holy you are than you do about pleasing God? You’ve left your relationship with God out of the equation here, and you’re not honoring him with your life, your thoughts, or your hand-washing. You’re just showing off. Learn the ways of God first, and then see how human traditions fit into them.”

So if you’ll allow me to extend the sports analogy a little further, I might say that for people like this, all of life is like a preseason game. There is a repetition of the basics that just goes on and on and on; there are dozens of opportunities for people to get hurt or inflict injury on someone else; there’s not much connection between what they do day in and day out and things that matter eternally; and there is real uncertainty as to why they do what they do.

Which leads me to the story of another Mike. It is a true story.

On September 10, 1945, Clara Olson, of Fruita Colorado, sent her husband Lloyd out to prepare a chicken for the evening meal. Clara reminded Lloyd that her mother was coming for dinner, and that her mother really enjoyed, of all things, the neck of the bird. So Lloyd selected a strapping young rooster that weighed about two and a half pounds and took it to the chopping block where he lined up the axe in the hopes of making Clara’s mother a happy woman. He struck the blow and the chicken went running around the barnyard as is typical of these animals once they’ve lost their heads.

Lloyd&MikeWhat happened next, however, was surprising. Instead of eventually dropping over and expiring, as you might expect, the bird shook off the effects of the decapitation and never looked back (which would have been impossible, given the fact that he no longer had eyes). He walked around the barnyard and made as if he was pecking for food. Lloyd left the bird and presumably made other arrangements for his mother-in-law’s evening meal.

The next morning, Lloyd found the bird, whom he came to call “Mike”, sleeping with the stump of his neck under his wing. He decided that if the bird was that intent on living, he’d find a way, and so he began a regimen of feeding Mike grain and water through an eyedropper.

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

In the next 18 months, Mike the Wonder Chicken grew to weigh more than eight pounds and was a feature at sideshows and other venues where the eager public lined up to pay a quarter a head (pun intended) to see this oddity. He was insured for $10,000 and his fame was broadcast in Time and Life magazines. I’m sad to say that while the Olsens were bringing Mike home from one of his trips to Los Angeles or Atlantic City, they woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike choking. They were unable to find the eyedropper and because of that, “Miracle Mike the Wonder Chicken” passed onto whatever eternal reward awaits barnyard chickens.

It is amazing to me that a chicken can live for a year and a half without a head…but perhaps it should not be a surprise. The reality is that far too often, churches and Christians are like this Mike: they exist, but not fully. Somehow, they have become cut off from the head of the body, which is Christ, and found a way to perpetuate their existence in isolation from the One who first called us and who directs and sustains us.

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

Think about it: a lot of churches have clean and shiny buildings filled with busy staff people and very efficient programs, but there is no apparent connection between all of the business inside and God’s movement and purposes in the world.

A lot of Christians get up in the morning and sit in front of their bibles or TV screens for a few moments, and then run out the door to make it to the church work project or to volunteer at the clothing drive or the strawberry social but somehow, in the midst of all of this energy and excitement, there is not any vital connection with the One who called them into being and charged them to follow. They are simply running through the motions, doing what Christians are supposed to do because that’s what they do.

“Miracle Mike” the Headless Chicken is indisputable proof that it is, at least in some cases, possible for an organism to exist and even grow while severed from its head.

But why? Can we really call that “living”? Is it wise for us to emulate that kind of existence?

As we wrap up this summer and turn the corner to fall, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to receive a lot of invitations from your church family. Can you volunteer with the kids from time to time, or fold the newsletter? Do you plan to come to the All Church retreat in October? You know, the folks at Real Food and the Table are looking for some energetic hands. And don’t forget small groups like FaithBuilders and the Tuesday morning ladies.

There is a lot of church-related busy-ness that goes on in our lives. And to be honest, on a lot of days, a lot of us show up at these programs and feel like we’re just going through the motions. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves employed in a series of worthwhile activities that repeats itself again and again and again but fails to lead to any greater meaning. Imagine how terrible football would be if every game ever played was like a preseason game!

James warns us about this (about collecting activities and practices without meaning, not about preseason games) when he calls us to live life with the “revealed counsel of God” foremost in our thoughts. We listen for the call of God and then we respond with actions that have meaning and purpose and lead us in a particular direction.

1-ephesians-4-body-of-christJesus leads us in this way of reflective action, and is perhaps assisted unknowingly by Mike Tomlin. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be taking a hard look at Jesus’ call to come out and go through the motions of faithful living – to be present to people who are in need, to be open to God’s call in Bible Study, and to be focused on building a community that forms and shapes us.

We go through these motions not because serving others, reading scripture, or spending time with the community are ends in themselves, but because these exercises are the means by which we stay connected with our head, who is Jesus. These practices, carried out with faithfulness and diligence and joy under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead us into the fullness of life in Christ – so that when we are presented with a challenge, an opportunity, a burden, or a new set of circumstances, we are able to respond to it as Jesus would. We engage in these behaviors so that when Christ calls us to be his functioning, alert, alive Body in this time and this place, we’ll be ready to do that. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] This quote and the one to follow are both taken from http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/post/_/id/8038/tomlin-wont-play-to-win-preseason-games