There’s a Storm A-Comin’

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 29 we had the 18th and final message in this series.  The text was Matthew 7:24-29 and our epistle reading was I Peter 3:12-18.

 

The pastor had all the kids up front for the children’s sermon. At one point, she asked if anyone could think of a name for a small grey creature that had a long bushy tail, gathered nuts for the winter, and lived in the trees. One little boy said to his sister, “Since we’re in church, I know that the right answer has got to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

jesus-crashed-25840-1250214387-56

 

Jesus.

Seriously – that’s the answer. I’m here to say that I love Jesus.

"Baptism of Christ" (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

“Baptism of Christ” (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

Whoa! No kidding! Last week, I started my message with “I love to talk”. This week, “I love Jesus.” Who could possibly see that coming? You may have seen in your bulletin the fact that next week is baptism Sunday at CHUP. Make sure you’re here for the 10 a.m. worship, where you might learn that water is wet!

But seriously – I love Jesus. And let me tell you more (because, you know, I love to talk, too…).

Late last summer I commenced with a plan to spend most of this past year studying the Sermon on the Mount. This is the eighteenth sermon I’ve preached in that series. When I said we were going to focus on Matthew chapters 5-7, I made the case by saying that we’d had a year wherein we considered the importance of hospitality and worship, and we’d emphasized mission and looked at a number of key Old Testament passages. And I wasn’t lying when I said any of that.

But the truth is that last summer, I was weary and dry.

Listen: I know a lot about running a church. If there’s a crisis, I can be a good guy to have in the room: I’m farily level-headed; I know some great scripture verses; I can pray up a storm on some days…

But here’s the deal: sometimes I think that I – and the rest of the Christian family – get so hung up on running the church, on having productive meetings and missional emphases and sustainable strategies that I – and we – miss the reason that we got into this in the first place. Jesus.

The church is important. The church needs to do stuff in the world, and the people in this room are the ones to make that happen. We have to talk about the heroin epidemic and gun violence and corporate greed and human sexuality and environmental issues and money and a thousand other things. I know that. I get it. And we do talk about those things.

Yet sometimes I get so hung up on my own ideas about those things that I lose sight of the one who called me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the church that I lose sight of Jesus.

And I was afraid that was happening last year, and so I said, “All right, CHUP, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount.”

When I did this, I hoped to explore some new insights about what Jesus had to say about the issues of his day and ours, but mostly, to be honest, I just wanted to be with him for a while.

JEsusIn the middle of all our churchiness and programming and policies, I just wanted to hang around with Jesus, and to remember who he has been for me and for us. I wanted to be like Peter and hold on to the testimony – “we ourselves have been eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the old apostle says. We’ve known Jesus. We’ve seen Jesus. We love Jesus.

And so for much of the year we’ve wandered through some familiar sayings. We’ve contemplated the logs in our own eyes, the wisdom of cutting off one’s right hand, and foolishness of making a show of our giving or praying. And we’ve liked being there to hear those things and to remember those things with Jesus.

But our walk through the Sermon on the Mount is not just about memory, or going into our spiritual “happy place”. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a series of dire warnings. Last week, we heard Jesus talk about false prophets. This week, we get a weather forecast – and according to Jesus, there’s a storm a-comin’, and we’d best be prepared for it.

Nothing I can find in the Gospels indicates that Jesus ever lost a lot of sleep over whether or not we would like what he had to say, or that we would get all warm and fuzzy when we heard the beatitudes. He didn’t do much opinion polling. His concern, as evinced here, is whether we and the other hearers of the word would be attentive to the message. The question is not, “Do I like it?”; the question is, “Will I obey?”

Does the message of the Sermon on the Mount shape me? Do I hear the words of Jesus and as a result of that hearing, am I less likely to become debilitated by worry, or falsely emboldened by a judgmental attitude, or less likely to be consumed by lust or anger? That is to say, am I building my life, am I experiencing reality, as defined by Jesus’ words? Or am I simply admiring them the way that I do a sunny day, a beautiful painting, or a fine meal?

In the conclusion to his own study of the Sermon on the Mount, German pastor and theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. But again he does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, he really means us to get on with it.[1]

And those who heard it first knew and understood that to which Bonhoeffer referred. Matthew tells us that they were amazed at his teaching – they knew right away that this was no mere wordsmithing; Jesus meant business.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

And the religious establishment and the Romans knew that a man who said things like this was something to be reckoned with – they came to realize that Jesus was dangerous to their cozy charade, and that he needed to be dealt with.

You see, that’s why I love him so much. Jesus, contrary to the understandings of him that are so prevalent today, was not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. He said it. He did it. And he offered to teach you and me how to do it, too.

So if you don’t know this already, let me tell you plainly: the storms are coming. It is a question of “when”, not “if”; a question of “how”, not “whether”.

Have you ever noticed how often we speak conditionally? It’s ridiculous. You hear it all the time. Someone says, “If I die…” or “Should something occur.” Seriously? Of course I’m going to die. There is no “if”, only a “when”. “Should something occur…” When in the history of history has something not occurred? You know that it’s going to happen… jobs will be lost, your spouse or parent or child will die, we will see floods; lives will be wracked by drug abuse or affairs; we’ll break legs and promises, we’ll suffer auto accidents and famine… It’s going to happen, people. And even if you say, “No, I’m good, I’ve already had that…”, well, think again – because this isn’t the mumps, people. The storm is coming. Again. And again. And again.

And when (not if) that storm comes, who will you be?

And when (not if) that storm comes, how will you get to the next step?

And when (not if) that storm comes, to whom will you turn?

Jesus.

Yes, that’s the right answer. Jesus.

When the first disciples hit a wall, and a lot of the crowd melted into the woodwork, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave, too?” And Peter replied– do you remember this? –

“Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

I’m with Peter. I don’t have any better ideas because Jesus is the best that there is.

I hope you’re not surprised to hear your pastor say this, but a lot of days, I don’t get it all. There are times when I look at God the Father and I think, “Holy smokes, what in the world is going on with this Guy?” There are, as Robert Capon says, some days where I look at the Father’s track record and I think that the best thing he’s got going for him is a Son like Jesus who is willing to vouch for him, ‘cause I sure can’t figure him out. And often the Holy Spirit isn’t much better – so much gets credited to him or blamed on him that I’m not sure what to believe – except that Jesus said he was sending the Spirit so I’ll be on the lookout.

But Jesus? Jesus I can love. Jesus does everything. I can do nothing on my own, but I can trust and follow him. It is a sweet deal, and the only deal that works for a knucklehead like me.[2]

I had a friend who lived with debilitating mental illness her entire adult life. Some of you knew her and would remember her. She suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia and four or five other conditions that landed her in the hospital for six or eight months at a time. But when she was lucid – wow, was she a woman of faith. And I can’t remember how many times she grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, Pastor Dave! Thank God for God! Thank God for Jesus! Right, Pastor Dave? I don’t know what’s happening, but thank God for Jesus.” And all I could do was hold her hand right back and say with conviction, “That’s right, Barb. Thank God for Jesus…”

Because, you know, he’s Jesus.

So we’re finished with the Sermon on the Mount. And because we’ve had it in bits and pieces for 18 weeks over the course of nine months, let me ask you to do this: go home and read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 today. And read the entire Sermon every day this week. And try it. Look for logs in your own eye. Give secretly. Let go of lust or anger. Remember Jesus. Listen for his laughter, heed his warnings, learn from his wisdom, and accept his grace.

And love him. Oh, for Christ’s sake, love him.

And follow him into the storm, knowing that you can’t control the ride, but you can control who you’re going to hold onto in the midst of it.

And thank God for Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 218-219).

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).

During the offering, I concluded the series of messages on The Sermon on the Mount by singing a Rich Mullins tune entitled “Heaven in His Eyes”.  You can hear this song (although, mercifully, not me!), by clicking on the link below or pasting this url into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCBOZVLfCco

Beware!

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 22 we listened to the words of Jesus as he warned about the dangers of, well, people who use words inappropriately.  The text was Matthew 7:15-23 and our epistle reading was I Corinthians 13:1-7.

 

Assorted Magnetic WordsI like to talk.

Wow! Tell us something we didn’t know, Dave! Wake the kids – call the neighbors! Dave likes to talk!

All right – this isn’t really news. You like to talk, too. At least some times, you recognize the value and the importance of the spoken word. You can get a lot done with words, can’t you?

You can ask for directions when you’re in a strange part of town. I can call my insurance agent when I’ve suffered a loss. Without words, we wouldn’t have the chance to share that great joke. And you can bet that I use words when my granddaughter calls me and shrieks, “Grampy’s available!”

In many, many situations, there is simply no substitute for talking. You just need a face to face conversation when you’re covering important relational ground, don’t you? Who wants to break up via text message, or hear second-hand about a friend’s plans to move? Sometimes, you have to just sit down and talk – use words to express what is really happening in and with your life. We have to talk.

And yet, as you well know, talk can be cheap, too. This is really easy to point to in this year of the primary elections. How many times have you heard someone say, “My opponent is the biggest nincompoop in the history of nincompoopery! I would not trust him to change the light bulb in the janitor’s closet! I could not warm up to her if we were cremated together…” You know what I mean, right? I mean, they are attacking each other. With words.

blahblahAnd then two or three weeks later, the same person will say, “My esteemed opponent has clearly demonstrated the kind of vigor that makes our community great, and I am happy to endorse her… I am honored to be considered as his running mate…”

Who are you?  What happened to the nincompoop? How easy is it to change our tune so quickly? The words are meaningless here.

Or consider when politicians or preachers rail against greed or pornography or some other wickedness, only to be caught six months later in some sordid affair or deep shame of their own. Their words say one thing, and yet they act in a manner that is the direct opposite. And we shake our heads and say, “Well, talk is cheap.”

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

This morning we near the completion of our study of some of the greatest words ever recorded: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For several chapters, the Lord has given some concrete instructions as to how to live as a faithful follower in difficult times. Several weeks ago, we heard him discuss the “Golden Rule” and talked about the fact that discipleship can be a tough row to hoe.

As he approaches his conclusion, he looks at the twelve disciples and, with increasing seriousness, continues to use words to point to a great truth. And the words today are those of warning. Beware! Watch out! Danger ahead!

The threat to which the Lord points most vividly here in Matthew 7 is that of false prophets. If we’re going to consider that today, we need to remember what a prophet is in the world of the Bible.

A prophet is someone who tells the truth; a speaker who uses words to reveal something of God’s intentions to the world or to a community. While we often think of the prophet’s job as to foretell the future, the reality is that more often than not prophets in scripture talk about the paths that God’s people ought to follow as well as the outcomes that our current behaviors and decisions are likely to produce.

In the bible, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah speak the truth of God in their prophecies, urging people to care for the poor, to stand up for the marginalized, to stay faithful to God, or risk the consequences. John the Baptist called people to turn their lives around and to embrace the reconciliation that God offers to those who seek it. The book of Acts tells of a man named Agabus who is called a prophet because he predicted a famine would encompass parts of the Middle East and he urged people to help those who would struggle.

Each of these men is revealed to be a “true prophet” because he tells it like it is and allows us to glimpse something of how our present behaviors intersect with future conditions and they offer us ideas as to how to plan our behaviors accordingly. That’s what prophets – true prophets – do. They tell the truth. And then they live the truth.

And as he nears the completion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions against a number of false prophets who will appear. Given our understanding of what makes someone a “true” prophet, then, I think we can understand that a falst prophet is one who does not reveal truth, or who provides horrible advice about dealing with the truth, or who speaks contrary to the intentions and purposes of God.

Think with me, for a moment, about the astounding number of false prophets at work in the world and in your life today.

  • What about the financial planner who takes it as a given that your number one priority in life is to take care of number one? Who insists that it is impossible to have “enough” and who encourages you to invest your money in schemes that will indeed amass wealth – but only as a result of unfair treatment of workers or risking the health of the environment? Isn’t that person a “false prophet?”
  • What about the so-called “friend” who sees you going through a tough time and shares your pain for a while, and then invites you to escape that pain with just one little rush of heroin?
  • What about the co-worker who insists that you have nothing to worry about – because “everybody cheats on their time cards”?

Each of these, and a thousand others that you could name, are indeed false prophets – that is, they are people who pretend to know something about how the world works and offer you advice as to how to engage that world with your life. But as bad as these people are, they are not the targets of Jesus’ warnings here.

Jesus calls for particular vigilance when it comes to those who claim to be religious, who seek to speak for God, and yet whose character reveals them to be disconnected with the intentions of God in the world. The church leader who advocates humility but who craves glory; the preacher who thunders on and on about “family values” but is revealed as an adulterer; the person who uses gossip and innuendo and fear to breed doubt and distrust and racism among the body of Christ…

This is a little awkward for me to talk about right now, but I think that Jesus is saying that while you are listening to me or anyone else ramble on and on about what Jesus might say or where the Holy Spirit is moving in your life, you need to be taking some time to think about whether I am a true or a false prophet.

When my mother was presented with a tidbit of information that she found to be either unsettling or implausible, she would simply say, “Well, consider the source…” She was not interested in taking advice on successful relationships from Elizabeth Taylor or Hugh Hefner, for instance (if you don’t know who those people are, think of Kim Kardashian or John Mayer). My mother taught me to look for evidence of character in the lives of people to whom I pay attention, and that advice has served me well over the years.

Who are the people to whom you listen when no one is looking at them? Do the things that they say line up with the things that they do? And if there is a consistency in their saying and doing, does that in fact point to the heart of God?

The bottom line is that, as you know, talk is cheap. Before you allow someone to influence you and your actions, pause to “consider the source”. Is that person someone with credibility and integrity? As that person speaks to you about what God wants you to do with your life, your energy, your money – is there any sign that he or she is being faithful with his or her life, energy, or money?

As he wraps up the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, I’m using words – a lot of them – to try to emphasize the way that life is, or should be. When we get up from this mountain, watch me. Look at the fruit in my life. See how I live this life. Am I someone who can be trusted? Do I live into this ethic that I’m asking you to follow? If I do, then don’t seek merely to follow me or to be attentive to me – seek to know me. Don’t just listen to me. Don’t just repeat what I say. Come with me. Be like me. Know me.  Love me.  Love like I do.”

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in the reading you’ve heard from his letter to the Corinthians. I know that when you hear this passage, it’s most often at a wedding, but it’s not about marriage, you know. It’s about the people who claim to be part of the body of Christ but who do not act that way at all. The mark of a true Christian, says Paul, is love. I may talk a good game; I might have a slew of impressive receipts listed on my tax returns; I may be the most gifted person in the history of gifts… but if I don’t live into any of that with love in my heart, then not only am I useless – I clearly know nothing of Jesus.

So by all means, beloved, consider the source as you listen to the ending of this week’s sermon. Look at my life and see if you can discover evidence of love or grace or faith or hope or – most importantly – Jesus. And do this, not only with me, but with everyone else that you listen to, so that you might avoid false prophets.

But know this, dear friends; beware and be alert! The people who listen to you talk about what you believe and who you worship… they’ll be doing the same thing. They’ll want to know, before they listen to a word you say, whether you are moving in the direction towards which you are pointing. Or is it just talk?

Listen. Follow. And love. For God’s sake, people, Love. Love Jesus. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Show the world that you – and the One whom we are here to worship – can be trusted. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Don Quixote and Me

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

 

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

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the message sunk in, eventually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…How???

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 1, we sat with Jesus as he revisited the topic of prayer in the Sermon.  Our readings included Matthew 7:7-12 as well as Paul’s discussion on “the law of love” in Romans 13:8-10.  A highlight of our worship was the confirmation of seven young people and the baptism of an eighth.  

 

How does prayer work?

I mean, what do you pray for? And how do you get it?

MoneyPrayerSome folks are pretty up front about what they think ought to occupy our prayer time. Joel Osteen writes in his best-selling book, “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity.”[1]

When Gloria Copeland was preaching to an audience in Texas, she said, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you.”   Televangelist Jerry Savelle told the same crowd, “While everybody else is having a famine his covenant people will be having the best of times.”[2]

Comedian Emo Philips has a different theology. He said, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”[3]

Again I’ll ask, how does prayer work? And what in the world are we supposed to make of this next section in the Sermon on the Mount? If we take these verses at face value without paying attention to the context, they sure sound like God is in a hurry to give out all kinds of great stuff – like prayer is a sort of a religious home shopping network. If you’re poor, hungry, or sick, it seems, it must be your own fault. Why didn’t you ask, seek, or knock? What’s wrong with you? Not enough faith?

I’ve known too many people who were poor, hungry, and sick whose faith put mine to shame… so I’m going to suggest that we take a look at the passage in its context and see what’s really going on here.

Sermon_505_396In the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, we are given a long list of seemingly impossible behaviors to master. Jesus tells his followers to let go of anger, to treat the vulnerable with respect and honor, to love the enemy, and to give generously to those who are in need, among other things. The sermon is verse after verse, point after point of what appear to be impossibly high standards.

By this point in the sermon, the disciples must have felt like throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Seriously? Come on, Jesus, how are we supposed to live like that? This is hard!”

After Jesus gives this string of amazingly high expectations, he returns to the topic of prayer. My sense is that Jesus is not urging his followers to pray for more stuff in these verses, but rather he is answering their eye-rolling, “how-in-the-world-are-we-gonna-do-this” questioning by saying, “If you’re going to be a follower of mine, and do the kinds of things that I do, you’re going to have to pray. A lot.”

One of my pet peeves is when people treat prayer as an add-on, a bit of wishful thinking, an insignificant verbal exercise that doesn’t really accomplish much. There has been more than one occasion, for instance, when I’ve been in the hospital praying with someone and a physician barges into the room interrupting me by saying, “All right, good, good, good, but we’ve got to get a move on, Pastor. We’ve got important things to do here.” You know, as if communication with the Lord of heaven and earth was a momentary distraction…

Many of you in this room have casually mentioned to me, “Hey, Dave, if you think of it, say a little prayer for…” And if you’ve done that, you know that my typical response is that I don’t waste my breath or my time on “little” prayers. Prayer is about reshaping me for God’s purposes in the world, and about equipping you and others to be agents of God’s presence and activity in that world. There’s nothing little about that.

And when I read these verses in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to ask, seek, and knock in response to the enormity of the task that he has laid before them, well, I think that Jesus has my back. Prayer is not “little”.

I’d like you to note the escalation of a sense of urgency in the words that Jesus chooses to use. Let’s say that you’re a fourteen year-old boy outside working in the yard, and you discover that you need something that your mother can provide. The windows are open, and what do you do?

You call to her. “Mom!”, you say. “Mom!” And you name the thing that you need. In other words, you ask.

After a moment, however, you notice that nothing has changed. She has not heard you, apparently. Your need is unmet. And so you stop doing whatever important thing it is that you are doing and you walk inside the house. In other words, you seek. Your “asking” has now taken on a little more energy and concentration, hasn’t it? You may still be wailing “Mom!” (OK, let’s be honest, if you’re a typical fourteen year-old boy, you haven’t stopped shouting…), but now you’ve put legs to your questioning, haven’t you? And you’ve changed the ways that you’re interacting with the rest of the world as you do so.

But as you wander through the house, still asking, now seeking, you don’t find your mother. You still need whatever it is that you needed, and so you put a little more of yourself into this exercise and you climb upstairs, where you see her bedroom door is closed. And what do you do? You knock. And in knocking, now, the equation is changed slightly because you’ve got to shut up for a moment and listen. Your level of expectancy changes as you wait to see how you will be answered.

OK, I know that no analogy is perfect, and most of you are not fourteen year-old boys and your mother isn’t God. But do you see what I mean about this progression or escalation? When we are faced with something as difficult as living up to the standards described in the Sermon on the Mount, our only response is to be diligent and motivated in our discipleship and prayer.

I want to be honest: if we had to engage in this level of activity or intensity at a restaurant, we’d never go to that place again. In the restaurant, the customer is always right and the wait-staff and kitchen help are at the beck and call.

But in the life of discipleship, it’s not all about you. It’s about you becoming the person that God made you to be so that the people around you will not be blown away by your anger, violated by your lust, dehumanized by your dishonesty, or marginalized by your selfishness. The Sermon on the Mount and the life of discipleship, with all apologies to Pastors Osteen, Copeland, and Savelle, is not a means by which to make us fatter, happier, richer, or better-looking.

Jesus calls his disciples, and the Spirit God is asking you, to live as Jesus does. To model the lifestyle we see in scripture. So this passage about prayer is not about you getting more shiny stuff, as cool as that sounds. It’s a strategy for you to use as you begin to look, act, and think more like Jesus each day.

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

And then to sum it up, Jesus gives us the headline – the Golden Rule, or as the Apostle Paul put it, the “law of love”. The result of our asking, seeking, and knocking should be that we are better able to respond to situations as Jesus would; that we are more apt to hear with his ears and to share from his heart.

How does this look in real life? Well, here are some ways I’ve seen it active in our community.

The “Law of love” looks like a six or eight year old who says to her parents, “You know, I’m pretty sure that I have enough stuff. Can we plan a birthday party where people come to have fun, but instead of giving me more toys, they bring things for us to take to the animal shelter or money we can use to help hungry people in Africa?”

It looks like an eighteen year-old man who goes out of his way to encourage and walk with some of his classmates who are physically or mentally challenged so that they have the opportunity to experience life in fullness and joy.

When a teacher donates some of her sick days to a colleague who requires surgery, yet has already exhausted his own benefits, it looks like love in action. He is able to care for his own family while fighting cancer, and has one less thing to worry about because someone has responded with Christ-like generosity.

Look, the way of life to which Jesus calls his followers is difficult, if not downright impossible at times. If we are going to be successful in our attempts to follow him, we’ve got to lean into God. We’ve got to be hungry for what only he can offer, and we’ve got to stick together.

I’d like to offer my deep and sincere congratulations to the young people who are making their confirmation today. You all are ready to begin the next phase of your discipleship. I know, I know, you have completed the Confirmation Class, but you need to remember that you are just getting started in so many ways. You probably know that in other places around Pittsburgh today they’re running the marathon. You probably also know that nobody got out of bed this morning and said, “You know what? I’ve got nothing better going on today. Maybe I’ll head on into town and get in on that race.” No, the marathon takes a lot of preparation and a long time to complete.

It’s the same with our lives of discipleship. Making your confirmation is great. It’s moving ahead with the journey that many of you began at a baptism you can’t remember. But being a Christian is not about just showing up and saying, “OK, I’m here, I’ve got this”. It’s about training and running the course and getting stronger; it’s about learning something more about the Jesus way every day; like the marathon, it requires growing, stretching, and even a little aching.

When we do it right, the world looks more the way God intends it to look. Welcome, confirmands. We are glad that you are with us. We need you and the gifts you bring as we share this journey.

I’ll close this sermon with a benediction I’ve used from time to time. My wife really likes it, and I think it fits for this morning – for the young new members and for everyone else who’s on the journey.

The way is long, let us go together.

The way is difficult, let us help each other.

The way is joyful, let us share it.

The way is Christ’s, for Christ is the Way, let us follow.

The way is open before us, let us go:

with the love of God,

the grace of Christ, and

the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner, 2004), p. 5.

[2] “Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich”, The New York Times August 16, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16gospel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/emophilips128947.html

I’m Just Sayin’…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  

On April 24, we began our work in the third part of that message, found in Matthew 7:1-6.  In addition, we considered Paul’s advice to the divided church in Rome delivered in Romans 14:9-19.  

 

As someone who spends most of my life either talking or listening, I’d like to come clean about one aspect of our English language that frustrates the heck out of me.

I’m just saying…

Have you heard that? I know you have. He says, “Man, if I had to sit through one more of those classes, I think I’d have smacked my head against the wall!” You say, “Um, you know that’s my uncle that teaches those classes, right?” And he says, “Oh, man, look – I’m just saying…”

National Public Radio host Scott Simon says this:Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

“I’m just saying,” puts a fire escape onto the end of a sentence. It lets you express a stern — even rude — opinion, but not really. You’re just saying. It invites the listener to discount what we’ve just heard, even as we’re reeling from it.

The Urban Dictionary website explains that the phrase makes it “possible to deliver a rude comment or burn and have it bounce off simply as an opinion disguised as an objective opinion, and who can argue with you over an opinion that you don’t apparently support.”[1]

You’ve seen it. You’ve said it, perhaps. You drop a verbal bomb and then just before it goes off, you think you can disarm it by simply stating, “Hey, I’m just saying…”

I’d like to ask you to try something with me this morning. I understand that folks who play for our team have been told, with good reason, to avoid ‘graven images’. I don’t want to incite you to idolatry at all. But I do want you to spend a moment and come up with an image in your mind. The only thing I’ll tell you is that you’re not allowed to use “Jesus” as your answer to this question.

If the church had a single face, if Christianity had a profile, who would it look like to you? If you had to describe the way that the church looked as a person, and you couldn’t use a picture of Jesus, whose picture would you use? Think about that for a moment.

I’m afraid that for too many people in the world, the church looks like this:angryChristian

I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I think that there are a lot of people who, if I asked them to describe for me what they imagine when they think of those who bear the name of Jesus, they picture an angry, judgmental, person who is screaming.

Now, I’m just saying, but… if this is what comes to mind when people contemplate the followers of the Prince of Peace, well, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico, c. 1440

The Sermon on the Mount
Fra Angelico, c. 1440

We begin the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount today. If you’ve been here all year, you’ll remember that way back in chapter five, we talked about the perisson – the extraordinariness that marks the life of the disciple. Do you remember that? How often Jesus said, “Look, you learned it this way, but I’m telling you, you’ve got to go beyond that… Look past murder to anger; past adultery to lust; past not lying to being a person of absolute integrity… If you want to follow me, you’ve got to be willing be inwardly and totally transformed, not merely pick up a few new habits.

And then in chapter six we considered the call to true righteousness that Jesus set before his followers – the ways that we practice our prayer, our giving, and our fasting that transform us and make the world better for our neighbors.

As we come into the home stretch of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to consider how we who would follow Jesus are to relate to each other and to the world around us. Even as he tells his disciples that they are obliged to live lives that are different from those who surround them, the Lord says, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship does not afford us a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.”[2] We are to approach each other from the stance of love and encouragement rather than judging or critique.

“Do not judge, or you, too, will be judged…” What is Jesus’ point here? It can’t be that he’s telling us to avoid making any kind of discerning remark or turning a blind eye to the faults of others. He’s not saying that we are not to evaluate the behaviors and strategies of those around us, and to seek to model healthier choices where appropriate. There are all kinds of places in the Sermon and in Gospels where he tells us to do exactly those things.

Censorship-Quotes-27What he is doing, I believe, is warning us against the sin of censoriousness. That’s not a word that we use every day, but perhaps you know the word “censor” – one who decides which idea or behavior is appropriate and which is not. When I say a person is censoriousness, I mean that person is a negative critic who enjoys pointing out how others have fallen short – someone who gets a real kick out of noting all the ways that someone else has failed, and gleefully correcting that person – often publicly.

In the passage we’ve heard today, Jesus is saying, “Look, I’m inviting you to come on board as a follower, a disciple. I don’t need any enforcers.”

logineyeMore than that, Jesus specifically (and humorously) warns his followers against hypocrisy. The image of someone attempting to do the delicate work of helping a friend remove a small particle of dust from their eye while having a giant log protruding from their own face is meant to be alarming. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of practicing our faith in order to be seen by other people rather than as a means to commune with our Creator. Here, he condemns the ways that we are prone to become fascinated with the apparent shortcomings of someone else while conveniently overlooking our own sinfulness.

The first two-thirds of the Sermon on the Mount teach us to live in a posture of humility and repentance; our Lord challenges us to grow a generous spirit and a gracious heart. How can I attack someone when my arms are open toward them in an embrace? How can I step on you when I’m already on my knees in repentance and gratitude?

In this passage, Jesus invites us to remember and to recognize our own sinfulness and shortcomings before we presume to call attention to those of our sisters or brothers.

And you say, “Fair enough, Dave, but are we just supposed to let anything go? Doesn’t the scripture point out time after time that if we see someone engaged in sin, we’re supposed to help them through it? We’re supposed to call them on it? We’re supposed to challenge them to do better?”

You’re right. We are called to do that. But not in a way that weaponizes the truth or diminishes the humanity of our sisters and brothers. We can only begin conversation with the other when we recognize that we, too, have fallen short of what Christ expects of us.

Why do you think that we have a prayer of confession near the beginning of worship every week? Because before we can rightly hear the Word of God, before we can approach God in prayer, before we can offer our gifts to God, we need to remember that we’re not who we’d like to be, we’re not who we’re called to be, and lots and lots of days, we’re far from who we pretend to be. When we acknowledge that kind of brokenness in our own lives, it’s hard to get too self-righteous about the sin we see in our neighbor’s life.

Richard Rohr is one of the leading Catholic social thinkers today, and he has said, “Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”[3]

If I am paying attention to the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, the only way that I’ll be able to approach you with any commentary on your own behavior is in a posture of gentleness and humility. Paul said as much when he was writing to his friends in Rome. Apparently, there had been some disagreement in that congregation as to whether it was appropriate for believers to buy meat from pagan butchers – if an animal had been sacrificed to a false god, could that animal be eaten in good conscience? Friendships were breaking up over this question, and the unity of the church was at stake. In response, Paul reminded Christians that each of us is accountable to God in every situation; the people with whom we are so upset are people for whom Jesus died. Paul wondered whether our treatment of others would be more likely to draw them closer to the love of Jesus, or to drive them away.

Look, there are all kinds of reasons for us to look at each other’s behavior and wonder about it. Chances are you’ve already had sixteen opportunities today to either take or give offense to someone else. We disagree on who we want in which bathrooms, on how our government should spend its money, on what we ought to do on the Sabbath, on how we discipline our children… I know. I know.

And much of that merits conversation. Some of that deserves to be challenged. I know. I know.

Yet how will we speak? And how will we be heard?

Again, to return to Richard Rohr: he once wrote, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”[4]

What a gutsy prayer that is! What if every day, before I got on Facebook, before you showed up at work, before either one of us thought it was our responsibility to proclaim where the rest of the world has fallen short, we asked God to show us a place we needed to grow?

And what if we were gutsy enough to ask each other for help in being that kind of people?

I’m just saying…

No, I’m not just saying… I’m telling you that every day (and twice on Sundays!) I know that I fall short of being the man that God calls me to be, and yet here I am standing up here challenging you to do it better. I’m asking you to live with a generous spirit today, to choose to know the truth about yourself and to believe the best about your neighbor. I’m asking you to cut that person with whom you disagree some slack, to risk being a little more encouraging than you might normally be, and to try to get a glimpse of someone else’s life from their perspective before you presume to tell that person how wrong she or he is.

Here’s the deal, my friends: at the beginning of this message I asked you to imagine what people might think of when they think of the church – what picture they had when they thought of what Jesus might say, and how he might say it.

face2facebook_faces_matrix-blackI don’t know who you pictured when I asked you that, but here’s the truth: do you want to know what your world thinks Jesus looks like? Look in the mirror. That’s not the whole answer, but that’s a part of it – or it should be.

 

JesusMosaicLook in the mirror, and remind me to do the same, and perhaps together we can help the world to see the Christ who loves them like crazy. Let us “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] “It’s Rude! It’s Crude! It’s Stupid! Just Sayin’” http://www.npr.org/2010/12/18/132160770/its-rude-its-crude-its-stupid-just-sayin

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1963, p. 204)

[3] quoted at https://twitter.com/cccstayner/status/701775977668431874

[4] from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Wonder vs. Worry

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On April 17, we returned from our Lenten/Easter hiatus from this message and considered Jesus’ charge to be worry-free.  We did so by listening to the Word contained in Matthew 6:25-34 as well as Proverbs 3:5-8.

 

Some people call it “quote-mining” or “contextomy”. You may not be familiar with either of those terms, but I know you’ve seen this practice in action. I’m talking about the ways that we pick and choose what to repeat to others to make sure that our message, our presumptions, our prejudices come across in the best light possible.

SevenPosterFor instance, when the film Se7en was released, Entertainment Weekly printed a pretty harsh review, noting that the best part of the entire move was the opening credits: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” When they printed a movie poster, however, it read glowingly, “a small masterpiece!”

In 2013, the British daily paper called The Guardian ran an article about the wisdom of touring Sri Lanka. The author said, “Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday…It’s just a pity about the increasingly despotic government.” Yet within hours, the official Sri Lankan news agency provided a highly-edited link to the article, proclaiming “Sri Lanka has everything to offer the perfect holiday”.[1]

You might wonder why this matters today, here… It’s simple – people do this all the time in church. We find a little nugget that we like in the Bible, and then we memorize it and we repeat it and we sell it on t-shirts or inspirational posters. It doesn’t always work well, of course. Try quoting Hosea 1:2 at the next seminar for Christian singles: “Go and marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution.” Without the proper context, this verse is at least misleading if not dangerous.

Similarly, how many times have you heard someone quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”? So often we take that to mean that you can literally do anything: run a marathon, win the Super Bowl, solve a Rubik’s Cube… because Christ will give you the strength to do whatever you want. Of course, when Paul wrote that sentence, he was talking about his own imprisonment and difficulties, and what he really meant was that he could get through or endure anything in the knowledge that Christ was with him. Context matters.

SermonMountI say all of this because we return to the Sermon on the Mount today, not having been here since January. And the reading that you’ve just heard represents some of the most beloved, most familiar language in the entire Bible. You’ve seen these words on greeting cards, on wall décor at the Christian bookstore, and in a thousand memes that come across social media.

And very few, if any, of these instances include the first word of the reading: “Therefore” (in Greek, dia touto). When someone says “therefore”, it is incumbent on us to read what has come before – that provides necessary context and information. “Since all of this is true, then…” So before we get to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field we need to remember what Jesus has already said.

Throughout the message, Jesus has indicated repeatedly that the life of a disciple is difficult because we engage the world on different terms than do those who are not followers. More specifically, he has just finished a statement about accumulating wealth and the dangers that arise when we build our lives around the service and worship of Mammon rather than God. He says that if we want to serve Mammon, or wealth, we can do so – but in seeking to orient our lives that way we will invariably be saying “no” to the life of faithfulness that he expects from his followers.

Having said all of that, then, he says “Therefore… If you want to serve God, and if you want to de-throne Mammon from your life, you can start by letting go of worry.” Worry, Jesus says, can get in the way of faithful service to God and neighbor, and has no place in the Christian life.

Which sounds good in theory, but the truth is very few people will confess to enjoying worry; most of us wish we had fewer worries; and when someone tells us “Hey, don’t worry”, that’s about as helpful as having a friend tell you to “Cheer up” or “don’t be mad”. “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” As my niece reminded me this morning, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” Thanks, Jesus. Short of putting Xanax in the drinking water, how are we going to do this?

Fortunately, Jesus has a concrete suggestion or two. “Look at the birds”, he says. “Consider the lilies”.

And we think now that maybe Jesus is guilty of a little decontextualization. Consider the birds? Are you crazy, Jesus? Didn’t you see that news story about die-offs that are occurring these days? Last week, dozens of starlings were found dead in Fairfax County, VA. Before that, villagers in Bangladesh found 5000 dead robins, mynahs, kingfishers, and nightingales in the wake of a storm; last month they were picking dead Northern Gannets off the shores of Florida. If you want us not to worry, I’m not so sure that this is a great example, Jesus…

Relax. Jesus’ point is not that every bird lives an idyllic existence and dies happy of old age. His point is that it is not in the nature of birds to define themselves by their ability to acquire or store material objects. Birds and flowers and other living things are, Jesus said, dependent upon that which is beyond them to satisfy their daily needs and engage in any kind of meaning and purpose.

So when Jesus says, “Look at the birds!” or “Look at the flowers!”, what he’s doing is advocating the spiritual practice of wonder, which almost always, in my experience, leads to the fruits of appreciation and joy – the opposite of worry.

In a world that is obsessed with efficiency and productivity and acquisitiveness and making sure that I have mine, disciples are called to live with the freedom that says that it is not up to us. We are not the first movers, the prime actors, or the ultimately responsible parties. We are followers. We are servants. We are companions. We learn this as we engage in the joy of exploring and wondering – by simply looking at that which surrounds us and seeking to be filled with awe as we contemplate its existence and joy as we see where it leads.

If you know much about me, you know that I have found the ability to engage in the discipline of wonder through immersing myself in the natural world. When I am able to slow down and remember that I am surrounded by a creation that is not mine to control, I am able to be grateful for that gift and to the One who is the Author of such a creation.

A friend passed along a little book entitled How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, and the British author captures my sense of wonder and awe well in this description of his encounter with a drab little bird in his backyard. Listen:

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow - a "Little Brown Job", or "LBJ" if ever there was one in the birding world!

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow – a “Little Brown Job”, or “LBJ” if ever there was one in the birding world!

…I came in from a hard January frost and a feeble winter sun. The sun didn’t do much for me, but it stirred the soul of a dunnock. A dunnock is perhaps the drabbest bird in Britain… a dunnish, brownish, smallish, skulking little thing… And he, ignoring the cold, was filled with a sudden excitement about the coming of the warmer weather. In that iron frost, he felt the tug of spring; and he sang his heart out as a result. It’s not a great song, compared with that nightingale on Walberswick marshes. It’s not a special bird, in terms of peak experiences; I’d come in telling everybody about my hobby, but I wouldn’t take up anybody’s time with a dunnock moment.

But there he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun as he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely everything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird; a rare moment.[2]

Do you see? I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Consider the birds” – look for ways to be engaged with the world that point you to wonder and awe.

As I’ve said, for me, that means taking a walk or working in the garden. Maybe that helps you wonder, too. If not, here are a few other ideas:

  • plant a seed, preferably with the assistance of a child. Watch. Wait. Repeat.
  • turn off the talk radio and the 24 hour news channels, which are entire industries built on instilling worry and anxiety in people like us.
  • try your hand at baking a loaf of bread
  • take some photos – or just look at some
  • the next cobweb you find – look at it carefully. Consider how intricate, how frail, how temporary – how wonderful – it is.
  • if you have access to a pregnant friend, look at her belly. Touch it. Marvel at the gift of life (warning: make sure that this person is a) a really good friend and b) has given you permission. If you don’t, it’s at least really, really creepy and probably illegal as well!)

In short, stop to consider all of the breathtakingly amazing stuff that happens every single day for which you have absolutely ZERO responsibility and over which you have no control.

KidneyYou may recall that math and science are not the things at which I’m best. In fact, most of my teachers spent a great deal of time suggesting that I major in English or Social Studies of some sort. And yet the single best lecture I’ve ever heard was in my required biology course at Geneva College, where Dr. Calvin Freeman spoke for three hours on the topic of “The Renal Cell Structure as it Reflects the Glory of God.” In that talk, Dr. Freeman spent two afternoons describing for us in painstaking detail the ways that the cells in our kidneys were structured and how they functioned. His point was that if we never had the book of Genesis, if we never read a word of the Creation, even then we could ascertain the power and majesty of the Creator simply by looking at and learning from the Creation. Dr. Freeman taught me about wonder, and I’ve always been grateful for that.

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

When we wonder, we are more free to be involved in and interested in this thing that is greater than we are; when we consider that for which we are not responsible, we are better equipped to do what we can to participate in the world that is bigger than we are. As we discover the work, the care, the beauty of the source of all life, we are increasingly free to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness – two other things that are not ours to manipulate or purchase.

Consider the birds… Look at the lilies… In admiring and appreciating that which is not ours to control, command, produce, or achieve – it becomes easier to use what we do have and who we are becoming in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes for us, our neighbor, and the world.

You’ll see a lot in the next few days, I suspect, about “Earth Day.” You’ll hear about the weather. You’ll probably rejoice in or complain about it. The pollen will have you sneezing or itching. The birds are on the move. Notice this, people of God. Notice it. And give thanks. And live like it matters, not just to you, but to your neighbor and to the One who gave it to us, and the One who takes great delight in it and in you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] These and other instances of quote-mining can be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_quoting_out_of_context#cite_note-7

[2] From How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, Simon Barnes (Pantheon, 2005). I don’t have a page number because my copy has gone missing; this quote was found here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1176663883

Well, Hey, There… Handsome…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 31, we considered the implications of Jesus’ assumption that his followers will engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, as rooted in the portion of that message contained in Matthew 6:19-24.  The call to discipline was echoed in James 1:22-27.

 

FlirtYou’ve seen it a million times. A man. A woman. They eye each other from across the room. Is something happening? Could there be a spark? Some excitement?

Hair is flipped. Legs or arms are folded or not. Eyebrows are raised, and heads tilted.

Laughter and … “Oh, hello, there, handsome…” “Who, me? Handsome, well, I don’t really know about that…”

Conversation. Innuendo. Risk. Suggestion.

Flirting. I’ve been working with adolescents for almost 40 years. I usually recognize it when I see it.

On the one hand, there is a certain helpfulness and utility to flirting. Somehow, in order for the species to survive, we need to establish interest in one another. The ability to “catch someone’s eye” is useful in determining whether there is a possibility of a real relationship with another person.

But when the flirt goes on too long, it can become counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Signals are mixed. It can lead to harm – emotional, spiritual, and physical.

But we all know people who are really good at it, don’t we? People who seem to enjoy using a system of signals and actions that are designed to confuse, or toy with, or manipulate others. In fact, the two top definitions of “flirt” in Google’s dictionary are:

behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

 experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.

Again, most of us have flirted in relationships at some time in the past. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are, relationally. But sooner or later, most of us stop flirting and dive in.

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We are told of how he comes to adulthood in the shadow of his more prominent cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. He comes to engage his community and the world by launching a ministry of teaching and healing. In so doing, Jesus catches the world’s eye – and he caught the eye of those who would become his first followers. There’s a miracle over here, or a profound message over there, and the social media is buzzing… “Hey, check this guy out…”

And then we get to Matthew chapter five and begin to hear the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a definitive pronouncement that we are not called to be primarily those who flirt with either God or the world.

The Sermon contains, as we have heard, a description of living the Jesus way – as peacemakers, or those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, and so on. Living the Jesus way, apparently, means developing an awareness of the power that anger, lust, deceit, selfishness, or hatred can have in one’s life. The Sermon on the Mount, with its call to a life of integrity and intentionality, is not for the faint of heart. And I can picture Jesus eyeing his followers and saying, “Look, if you are here only because you liked the healings or the miracles, then you’d better keep walking, because the life of discipleship is intense. There is no room for flirting.”

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

And because the life to which Jesus calls his followers is so all-encompassing, he gives them three practices with which to engage their world and their Lord: generous giving, faithful prayer, and sincere fasting. These are behaviors, says Jesus, that will equip us to adopt this kind of lifestyle.

If we want to live lives that are reflective of God’s intentions for us as expressed in chapter 5, then we’ve got to be good at giving, praying, and fasting – because these are the disciplines that will mold us into faithful followers of Jesus.

We picked up this morning where we left off last week, in the middle of chapter 6. After giving his followers the mindset and behaviors that will allow us to live more like he does, he explores the danger of relying too much on what we have as we seek to define who we are. Material goods and money, he says, are to be used, rather than collected.

He takes an example from Middle Eastern culture. Judaism, Islam, and other traditions from that area all hold to some form of belief that if we look at the world around us or at each other with a malicious glare – what we might call today a “stink eye” – that we will wind up with harsh, judgmental, or miserly spirits. The opposite of an “evil eye” is the “simple eye” or the “single eye”, one that denotes an attitude of good will or kindness. If we have an eye that is trained in this fashion, Jesus says, we are more likely to be able to live by the light of God’s presence in the world.

Our reading for today concludes with the familiar passage in verse 24 about serving God and mammon. When Jesus uses this word, he was apparently using a word that, in his time, simply referred to money, although in the years after his death and resurrection, mammon came to represent a personification of the evil and idolatrous aspects of materialism and greed that seek to control us. Key to any understanding of this teaching of Jesus is his use of the word “serve”, as in the phrase, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” In choosing this vocabulary, Jesus is presuming the captivity of the human heart and spirit. Each of us will fall in line behind and serve something or someone. That is not in question. The question is, what will it be? Ourselves? Our own beaty or wisdom or fear or riches or worry? Our insecurities? Or God? We all live for something or someone, and we are all willing to direct our energies toward that thing or person. The question is not “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?”

If we allow ourselves to think that being a disciple is a part time hobby, then we miss the boat. God created us for, and expects from us, singularity of purpose and faithfulness.

In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to adopt patterns of behavior that will transform us into the kinds of people that God intends us to be. That exortation is echoed in the letter from James, who reminds us that it’s not enough to simply hear the Word, we’ve got to internalize it and practice it. The way that we exercise our ability to choose to serve God rather than mammon or some other idol is to engage in behaviors like giving, prayer, and fasting.

I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with someone who is unable to worship here, but who faithfully reads the sermons online each week. He said to me, “Dave, I think you had a good, strong message about fasting last week, but to be honest, I wish you would have gone a little harder. You didn’t leave me wanting to fast. I’m not sure it sounded all that attractive.”

Listen: I don’t really want you to be a person who just loves fasting, or is proud of the fact that you prayed an extra thirty seconds yesterday, or that you bought the homeless guy a sandwich. I mean, those are good things – but they’re not the point. The point is that I want you to be a person who is like Jesus. Fasting and praying and giving are all merely exercises that allow us to get to be that way – they are not ends in themselves. I am happy to teach you more about doing any of those things – but not because they are somehow super attractive to us.

I get piles of advertising material for youth and children’s curriculum and retreat centers and special events. I wish I had a nickel for every time I read the words “awesome” or “dynamic” or “intense” or “thrilling” in the context of advertisement for church youth events. I hate it.

Maybe you should come to the CHUP youth group some time. Those words are not always the fairest way to describe what we do or how we do it. Sometimes, youth group is boring. Sometimes, we play games that bomb. Often, we sing songs that are corny. There are lots of nights where youth group isn’t “awesome” or “thrilling”.

Even if you’ve never been to the CHUP youth group, you probably believe me when I say that, because, well, lots of you have been bored to tears in this very room. You’ve been irritated by other people’s children and frustrated at having to endure songs that you didn’t get to select. And don’t even get me started on how hard these pews are, how cold it is in February or how hot it is in July.

And yet, here you are. Why?

Because none of that is why you are here. As a kid, when your mom dies or your parents divorce or a classmate overdoses, you’re not looking for “awesome” or “intense” when you come to youth group. And when the rest of you get a call about your plant shutting down or have high hopes for your kids that are dashed or get that horrible call from the doctor’s office or have to come up with a framework to think about racism or ethnic violence, well, the songs that we sing here or the noise that those kids make suddenly look a lot less important than the destination of faithful living to which we are traveling together.

You know this: we are not here to be entertained (and that’s a good thing for you, Carver!).

We are here because we think that this is the best place to be molded, reminded, nagged, prompted, prodded, or encouraged into following Jesus a little longer or a little better.

And you know this: that sometimes following Jesus can look a lot like a slow, boring advance in righteousness.

And that’s OK.

Jesus is not here to flirt with us, and he doesn’t have much time for people who are merely looking to be coy with him. Jesus came in order to give all of himself for all of creation in the expectation that we would do the same for him, for each other, and for our neighbor.

We praise God for the times that the life of discipleship is “awesome”!

More importantly, we praise God for the process of discipleship that equips us to do hard things, to grow fruit in each season, and to hear and act on what we have heard. May our lives this week be an opportunity to exercise our faith in the hopes that we look and act a little more like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Who’s in Charge Here?

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 24 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, most notably fasting, as presented in Matthew 6:16-18.  We also considered Paul’s words to his community in Corinth as given in I Corinthians 9:24-27.

 

Do you remember the weather forecasters during the middle of the week? The snow is coming! Snow!

When you heard that, what did you do? Well, if you’re like the stereotypical Western Pennsylvanian, you heard the forecast for snow and you hightailed it down the Giant Eagle to make sure you had milk, bread, and eggs. Because that’s what we do, right? One flake, and we’re there. Oh, we may have some difficulty due to the snow, but we’re not going to experience French toast-related emergencies in this household, thank you very much.

It’s what we do.

In the first century, if you were a religious Jew, you gave alms, you prayed, and you fasted. Maybe you spent a lot of time thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t. But you did those things, because that’s what religious people did.

Jesus’ disciples were not an exception, apparently. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, he addresses those practices, and three times he says, “When…” When you give to the needy, when you pray, and when you fast.

Most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day fasted twice a week – they went without food on Mondays and Thursdays. There were a lot of reasons for this practice, including repentance for sin and a desire to be connected with the things that were important to the Lord. There was also, evidently, something important about being seen as a person who fasted. When Jesus speaks to his followers about fasting, he specifically instructs them NOT to make a big production out of it. In fact, he says, try not to let anyone suspect that you are fasting.

My hunch is that of the three practices that Jesus lifts up here in the beginning of Matthew 6, this is the one that seems the most remote to us.

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about prayer. We like prayer. We pray for each other, we ask other people to pray for us. We’re pretty good at prayer, in some respects. We get prayer. In fact, a few of you asked me to preach a whole series of messages on the various aspects of the Lord’s Prayer.

And while not everybody likes to give money or time or energy away, we’ve all done it. In fact, here in the USA our own government gives us an incentive for charitable giving in the form of tax deductions. So when Jesus talks about when we give, that makes sense to us.

Hungry person hand holding fork knife on food plate

But fasting? Not so much. What good does it do, we wonder? I can kind of see how my praying for your grandma might make a difference. And I know that if I give someone in the youth group $25, she’ll take that to the Youth Group Famine and it will help feed a family for a month. But how in the world does my skipping out on lunch have anything to do with my faithfulness as a disciple?

The Bible is full of people who fast: Moses, Hannah, David, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Anna, John, Jesus, Paul… all kinds of people are mentioned as going without food as a spiritual practice. People fasted as a means of expressing repentance for their sin, or so that they could really concentrate on serving God well. Some people fasted as a kind of enacted prayer, where they sought to learn more about depending fully on God, rather than their own efforts.

But what about us? Does this apply to us at all? Does Jesus want his followers in 2016 to be people who fast? Or is that one of those bible things, like frankincense or getting fed to lions, that used to happen but doesn’t anymore?

Well, he’s talking about it right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. That ought to be a clue – I mean, so far, there’s nothing very optional about the other things that are in the Sermon.

So far, we’ve experienced the Sermon on the Mount as a catalogue of Jesus’ ethical reality. That is to say, we see the Sermon as the way to follow Jesus most closely. And as we hear the Sermon, we are struck by how difficult it is. I know that we covered chapter 5 all the way back in November and December, but there is some important stuff in there. Do you remember? Don’t fall prey to the dangers of anger, or lust, or revenge. Be a person of integrity. Be generous in all your thoughts and deeds. And be a person of love – love for your enemy, love for your brother.

Those are some hard practices in which to engage, aren’t they? If we are going to be people who do those kinds of things, we’re going to have to be in shape, spiritually speaking. We just don’t fall into those kinds of behaviors.

For millennia, people have found that fasting is a way of aligning our inner spirit with our outward behavior. As we fast, we allow our bodies to feel the weight of spiritual truth. We say we are hungry for God’s reign, but when we are actually feeling our bellies rumble, we can identify that longing in a different way.

When the Apostle Paul talked about spiritual discipline to his friends who lived in Corinth, he referred to a set of athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games. These were modeled after the Olympics, and took place in Corinth every two years. Paul talks about the fact that the prize for these contests was often a wreath made out of celery, but the prize for spiritual faithfulness was eternal. For Paul, the physical body was helpful in teaching the mind and the spirit some things that were true. There were some religions at that time that taught that anything physical – including our own bodies – was evil. Paul counteracts that heresy by saying, essentially, that rather than being the enemy of faithfulness, the human body is a tool for right living.

Back to 2016. Allow me to suggest that there are at least three reasons why occasional or even regular fasting can be important to you as you seek to live like Jesus would have you live.

The physical sensation of hunger or desire can serve as a reminder of our spiritual need. I have often found that if I want to be mindful to a particular situation or need, fasting helps me to be focused. Let’s say that a friend in another state calls to tell me that he’s about to enter into a particularly difficult situation – he’s facing surgery, or anticipating some big test, or applying for job. If I say to him, “OK, I will hold you in prayer” and I engage in a period of fasting at the same time, then every time I feel hungry, I can stop what I’m doing and hold this friend before the Lord in prayer. I can take the time I might usually spend on eating lunch and use that time to be focused on my friend’s need.

FastingWorkoutWith each time I am reminded of my body’s hunger for food, I have the occasion to direct my thoughts and prayers in a specific way. That’s what we mean when we say, “I’m fasting for Bill today”, or something of that nature. On the one hand, my friend receives no direct benefit from the fact that I’m going without food, but on the other hand, I am clearly more focused and attentive as both a friend and a child of God because I’m engaging in this discipline.

Another benefit to fasting in 2016 is that it allows me to get better at being able to do stuff that I don’t want to do. That may sound odd, but think it through with me: many of the core realities of being a faithful adult disciple in the world are rooted in being willing and able to things that we would rather not. Whether we’re talking about doing the dishes, going to school, forgiving your mother, or showing up at a friend’s funeral, our lives are filled with things we don’t like doing. Part of being an effective human being, though, is being able to do them anyway.

When I fast, I am specifically choosing to do something (be hungry) that normally I’d just as soon avoid. Going without food for a designated period of time is uncomfortable. I have a friend who speaks about fasting in almost mystic terms: she talks about having heightened clarity and deepened response… Not me. I’m cold and if I’m not careful I’m irritable and there’s just nothing magical about it…

…Until I am faced with something else that I need to do, but I don’t feel like it, and I find that I’m better at that because I’ve fasted. I’ll think about how much I really don’t want to show up for that meeting, or show kindness to my neighbor, or act in someone else’s best interest…and then I’ll remember, “Hey, Carver, last month you went four days straight without eating anything. That was hard. You can do this, and do it well. You are more capable than you thought you were.” And I’m right – fasting helps me to get better at doing what I don’t want to do.

A final means in which fasting has been a blessing in my own life is that it is an opportunity to share God’s love and provision with those who need it. Of course, the Youth Group Famine is a great example of this. There are times when I go without food and I directly give some of that time, energy, and money to someone who needs it more than I do. When the Youth Group pauses next month to fast for a day and a half, we’ll take some of the time we’ve been given and use it to learn about starvation and nutrition and justice in the world. We’ll take some of our energy and offer it to our neighbors in service. And we’ll use some of the money we might otherwise spend on ourselves to purchase food for the hungry.

I knew a man whose name was Egonn. When he was a child, he fled the Nazis and came to the USA. He told me of hiding out nights in frozen barns, afraid of who might find him and what they’d do to him. One day I overheard him say to his wife that he wanted to give $30 per month to help alleviate suffering in a certain refugee camp. His wife, who was herself kind and generous to a fault, said, “I understand what you’re saying, but we just don’t have that money. You know the budget. We can’t find another dollar a day.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Well, then, let’s get rid of the coffee maker. I don’t need to drink coffee at home.”

I have no idea how much coffee Egonn drank, but I remember being struck by his willingness to voluntarily abstain from something he enjoyed because he thought those resources could be better used elsewhere. When we choose to fast, we can make significant amounts of money, energy, or time available to those for whom those resources could make a huge difference.

This week, let me invite you to consider planning a fast of your own. Think about a day or so that you can skip your regular meals, or engage in some other kind of fast. Maybe you get off social media for a while, or you turn your back on trashy television, or give up something in particular like coffee for a season. We’re coming into Lent, and that might be a good time for you to consider engaging in a practice like this. But think this week about how you can undertake a fast that is meaningful to you, helpful to the world, and likely to prompt you in greater discipleship. You’re not doing it because it’s going to get you a better parking spot in heaven, or because you want me to be so impressed with what a great Christian you are. You can do it so that you are more likely to be shaped in the ways that God is calling you to live.

Way back on Tuesday, when Treva asked me for a title to this message, I said “Let’s call it ‘Who’s in Charge Here?’,” because I thought it was a clever way to indicate that you – your mind, your spirit, your will – you are in charge of your own body, your own calendar, and your own wallet.

I think it’s a good title, but not for those reasons. When we engage in spiritual practices like giving alms, praying, or fasting, it’s because that’s the number one way that we make our lives reflect the truth that we speak all the time: God is in charge. We do these things because we want to be where God is, doing what God does. If we’re really disciples, that’s what we do, right? So let’s talk about a fast that points us to our dependence on God and heightens our ability to be a blessing to our neighbors, because, really, who is in charge here?

A Helpful Model

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 17 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably prayer, as found in Matthew 6:9-15 as well as Psalm 86:1-13.

 

There’s not much I like to do more than talk with people. Talking with people about their lives, and how those lives fit in with their understanding of the Holy is even better. Talking with two people about how God is moving in their lives and bringing them into relationship is even better.

So let me just say that I was doing one of my favorite things – talking with a young couple about their upcoming marriage and where God might be in the middle of it – when one of the participants said, “You know, Pastor Dave, that I come from a Jewish family. I’m nervous that we might exclude some people if the ceremony is too ‘Jesusy’. Do we have to do the Lord’s prayer?”

You should have seen the look on their faces when I suggested that one of the most Jewish things we could do in their wedding was to pray the Lord’s prayer. I know, Jesus prayed it, but Jesus was a Jewish man. And here, he’s teaching Jewish people about prayer. In the Jewish tradition.

I made what I thought was a pretty compelling argument, but in the end I was not able to convince them that this prayer, like the one on Psalm 86, is a great model for prayer – one that is helpful to just about anyone.

As we begin to consider this prayer, let me admit that we’re not going to go very deep. I mean, there are literally hundreds of books written on these verses, and we have about eighteen minutes. We won’t exhaust the topic – but let’s walk around and kick the tires for a few moments anyway, shall we?

There are six essential petitions in the prayer that Jesus gives to his followers to use as a model. Like the ten commandments, the first section of the prayer concerns the power, authority, and holiness of God, and the rest of the prayer has to do with the ways that we live in response to who God is in the world.

hallowed_3Our Father, who art in heaven: hallowed be thy name… First, let’s acknowledge that the point of this prayer is not to demonstrate that the creator of heaven and earth is a male, and that God is not the same as my dad or as your dad. With this kind of language, Jesus is assuring his followers that God is not merely an idea or a concept or a framework. When using the word “Father” to refer to God, Jesus is directing us toward a loving, authoritative, creative personality whose very essence is relational.

And yet this personal and loving God is so pure and incorruptible that his very name is hallowed – holy. In our quest to honor the person, we will go so far as to honor the name itself as a sign of respect.

God’s personhood, holiness, and parenthood – the relational nature of the Divine – it has an end or a goal. Thy kingdom come. The relational nature of God is to be experienced in the midst of a reality that we can apprehend and understand. There is a royal rule, a reign, in which we come to know who God is and what God values. There is a shape to the set of relationships that the person of God embodies, and there are boundaries that we do not get to define. The right to determine how and where and what right living looks like belongs to God alone, and we pray that we might know that in our own frameworks.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… In prayer, we ask that the perfect intentions of the creator come to pass in our own experience. We lay open our hearts to reveal that what we want – or what we want to want, at any rate – is for things here to provide us with a glimpse into the way that things ought to be, and the way that things will be in the eternal fullness and reality of God’s unending presence and care. Bring your perfection, your justice, your holiness, your healing, your mercy – bring those things­ to this experience right now, dear Lord…

After we pray for the pre-eminence of God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, then we turn our attention to the things that we need and experience in our own daily existence.

Grace, photograph by Eric Enstrom, 1918

Grace, photograph by Eric Enstrom, 1918

Give us this day our daily bread… When some of the earliest followers of Jesus were talking about and teaching this prayer, they were surprised that after dealing with concepts as eternal and powerful as God’s perfect and eternal intentions for the creation, Jesus shifted immediately to something as mundane as bread. This part of the prayer seems so simple, they thought, that Jesus simply must be talking about something else. And so great teachers like St. Augustine taught that “daily bread” must be some sort of a code, not for the substenance that we need from day to day, but for the invisible bread that the word of God becomes in the life of the believer.

As the church matured and grew, however, more and more teachers began to take Jesus at face value, and Christian leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that in sharing this petition, Jesus is instructing his followers to ask God for the basic needs of life, and not to be preoccupied with luxuries and fantasies. In praying today for what we need today, we are free to live one day at a time and not be overwhelmed by the spectre of things to come.

ForgiveForgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors… OK, now things just got real. I don’t know about you, but I can pray the rest of the Lord’s prayer feeling pretty good about myself, but when I get to the part where I am asking God to hold me to the same standard that I’m using against other people, well, I get a little nervous… But that’s the prayer, isn’t it? And frankly, if it’s not plain here, it sure is a few lines lower, where Jesus says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Including this petition in our model prayer is the Lord’s way of reminding his followers that we all have departed from God’s best for the world and therefore we all need forgiveness. When we become aware of how we have broken faith with God and others, and we also see the remedy for that: we participate best in the rule, intentions, kingdom, and family of God as we learn to be people of forgiveness and reconciliation – characteristics and qualities we see in the Father and are called to by the Son.

Eric Armusik, The Temptation of Christ, 2011 (used by permission of the artist) http://www.ericarmusik.com/religious-art/

Eric Armusik, The Temptation of Christ, 2011 (used by permission of the artist) http://www.ericarmusik.com/religious-art/

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil… The prayer closes with a pointed reminder of the ways that we are weak and frail. God is powerful and strong and full of singularly righteous intentions…and we are distractible and easily overwhelmed. This final plea of the Lord’s prayer is a deep statement of our inability to withstand evil – whether from within our selves or from the outside – on our own. If we are to triumph, it will be because we are walking in the hand of God.

So there you have it – a few thoughts on the one element of worship that we repeat more often than just about anything else. It is one of the first prayers that we learn as children, and it is the last one we forget in our old age.

As we consider that prayer this morning, I’d like to make a final observation about the structure and content and then invite you to use it even more in the days to come than you have used it in the past.

We can’t easily dismiss that this prayer is given to us in the context of community. “Our Father…Give us…Forgive us…Deliver us…” Following Jesus is not a solitary activity, and we do violence to both the composition and intent of this prayer if we change it to read “My father…give me…forgive me…deliver me…”

PrayerWhen I come before God I must remember that I am not standing there alone, but rather in the company of the whole people of God. When I pray for my daily bread, it is only with an awareness of the fact that my neighbor, too, needs and deserves enough to eat. As I notice and ask God’s mercy on my own failures, I realize that the only way to receive mercy and forgiveness is to live in that place – to pass along what I have received from God to those who seek it from me. In asking for God’s protection from foolishness and weakness, I must do so naming our own interdependence and connectivity. This prayer, like the best of worship, is corporate in nature – it is offered not by one in the wilderness, but by God’s people standing together across time and space.

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to use this prayer each day this week in your own life. Try reading through it line by line, or writing the lines on a paper one at a time. Reflect on each phrase, and join me in working to make this prayer more about our community’s relationship with God and our relationship with each other than it is about our own individual selves.

In talking about prayer with his followers and in offering them this prayer in particular as a model, Jesus is affirming the fact that prayer is a statement of humility and dependence. Prayer is a vehicle, not for acquisition and accumulation, but rather for reconciliation and forgiveness. May our prayer and our lives together be a reflection of that, and therefore, a sign of God’s kingdom intentions in this world. Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Working Out

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably prayer, as found in Matthew 6:5-8.  We also considered Peter’s words to his community as found in 2 Peter 1:3-11.  

 

MorningPrayerPeter, James, and John, like Andrew and Philip and Jesus himself, got up every morning and entered into a time of prayer known as the shacharit. That word means “morning light”, and just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, they welcomed each day with a time of prayer. Each afternoon, they and other faithful Jews would find time to pause for the mincha, or mid-day prayers; and at day’s end the maariv would be said – the prayer of nightfall.

These prayers, proscribed in the Talmud, had been a part of Israel’s history for centuries. So when Rabbi Jesus begins his sentence in the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “when you pray…”, His followers know something of which he is speaking. For these disciples, prayer is not “if” or “should”, but “when”. Prayer happens. And in this teaching, Jesus is apparently not only instructing them as to how to pray, but indicating that his expectation is that even in the new age that is revealed by his coming amongst us, prayer belongs. There is nothing about the incarnation that changes the need for God’s people to pour themselves out to the Lord in prayer.

So when we pray…what is supposed to happen? What does prayer look like for a follower of Jesus?

Praying-Hands-over-BiblePrayer is personal. That is to say, it is not a performance. Jesus cautions his disciples against the practices of the “hypocrites” – people who pray in order to be seen by other people. The Greek word hypokritēs originally referred to actors on the stage – people who read lines that were not their own in order to be seen and heard by an audience. Jesus is saying that our practice of prayer is not for the benefit of any earthly audience, but rather an attempt to communicate with the One who created us.

I say that with the full realization that I am skating on some pretty thin ice here. If you take a look at the bulletin you have in your lap, you’ll see that in twenty minutes (if you’re lucky), we’ll enter into the “Prayers of the People”. That’s when you’ll all be quiet and I’ll speak. If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves tempted towards hypocrisy, wherein I’m up here talking, not to the Lord, but to you – or, even worse, to myself.

There is room for public prayer – provided that we realize and remember that we’re talking corporately with the Lord, and not merely about God. One analogy that I have for public prayer is when both Sharon and I are talking on the computer with our granddaughter. We’re both here, and only one of us is talking – but the purpose of the talk is to communicate with the one on the other end of the line – not for me to impress my wife with what a fantastic grandfather I am.

And public prayer is not limited to our Sunday worship, is it? When we type “Amen” on those Facebook posts, or send out a tweet indicating that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims…”, are we really engaged in prayer? Or are we wanting to be seen and noticed as being the kinds of people who might engage in prayer? It’s not wrong to do these things – but we need to ask why we are doing them.

According to Matthew, Jesus uses a word here that is found nowhere else in the Bible, and, so far as we can tell, nowhere else in ancient literature. He talks in verse 7 about heaping up empty phrases, and he uses the word battalogeo. Because nobody can find this word anywhere else, its meaning is uncertain. You may recognize the end of that word as logeo, related to logos, meaning “word” or “study.” The Greek word battalizo means “to stutter”, and most translators believe that Jesus is saying that prayer is not about making up words just because they sound good, but rather, prayer is about communicating with our Creator. We don’t pray to hear ourselves speak anymore than we pray to be heard by others.

Not only is prayer personal, but it is to be done with the intention of pleasing God. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that people who get caught up listening to their own prayers will find that they themselves are the answer to their prayers – we aren’t really interested in taking the time to wait for God to listen to us, so we listen to ourselves and then move along…[1]

In prayer, we are invited to bring ourselves alongside of God in order that God might help us to experience life on God’s terms, and so that we might come to see things from the perspective of the Eternal, rather than our own lives.

For example, a few weeks ago a friend of mine asked if we could go fishing together. My friend knew that fishing was something that brought me great joy, and she recognized that fishing is something that I know something about. In asking, she indicated a willingness to fit the trip into my schedule; as we went, she followed my footsteps and my actions, and was very teachable. While she asked a lot of questions, she also did a lot of watching and a lot of listening – all in the hopes that this mystery called “fishing” would be more understandable to her, and that, perhaps, we might even be rewarded with the joy of a shared meal and fellowship of the table. Do you see what I mean? My friend brought up the idea of fishing to me in a way that demonstrated respect, love, and hope.

Now, contrast that friend with another, who called and said, “Listen, Pastor Dave, I’m in charge of the bake sale next week, and I need you to get me two pies by Friday.”

I like pies as much, or more, as I like fishing. There’s joy to be had – but the second friend was not interested in relationship or any kind of involvement – for friend #2, the request was simply a means to an end: fill the table at the bake sale and have a good fundraiser.

Please understand that there’s nothing wrong with asking a friend for a favor or running fundraisers. But the first conversation was more like prayer ought to be. The second conversation was based on utility and transaction, not on intimacy and shared life experience. Like the best of friendships, prayer is not a way for us to get stuff, or to get stuff done.

Prayer, at its best, is a way to open ourselves to the Lord in a way that is pleasing to him. It is an acknowledgement that he knows us better than we know ourselves, and therefore we approach God with a mind to getting ourselves to where he is, rather than demanding that he show up and do what we need him to do right now.

And along those lines, then, prayer is not only personal and pleasing to God, it prepares us for faithful living. That is to say, when I rise to offer prayer to God, the primary purpose is not to alert the almighty to something that may have otherwise escaped his notice.

“Lord, there are people starving to death in Africa right now…”

“WHAT?!?!? Why wasn’t I informed? I mean, I’m over here worried about finding you a parking place yesterday and taking care of the Powerball, and now you tell me people are hungry?”

“Lord, my mother has cancer…”

“Cancer? Holy moly! Last I knew she was headed for a screening. When did this happen?”

Do you see? If what we say is true – that is, if God really is all-powerful and all-knowing – then we can’t pretend that the purpose of prayer is to make sure that God gets the news about the latest natural disaster or health report.

So if prayer is not meant to catch God up on all the news, what’s it good for?

What if the purpose of prayer is to train us as people who are useful as we seek to join God in bringing about God’s intentions for the world? I think that is what Peter is getting at in the letter to his friends that you heard earlier. He offers a list of practices: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, patience, service, kindness, and love. These are the means, says Peter, by which God’s people connect with God and become blessings to the world. But this list is not a vague set of notions – it’s a concrete set of attributes that are found in the heart of God. And the way we become people like that is by working out.

IMG_1041This is a set of steps that comes from one of the exercise groups that meets at the church. People are concerned about being fit and healthy, and they want to strengthen their heart and other muscles. So they come in here and they follow some steps and work together find that it makes a difference in their lives. If I tried to do these steps at the pace the class does them, I’d die – because I’m not training myself. For the folks in the group, though, it’s attainable because exercise is about doing a number of things that they know how to do in a way that increases the likelihood of their being healthy people.

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

Similarly, prayer is given in order that we might grow in our ability to become pliable and useful in knowing God’s heart and therefore in living God’s intentions in the world.

We don’t pray about hungry people to make sure that God doesn’t forget them… when we pray about hungry people, sooner or later we find ourselves caring enough about their hunger to want to raise money, or to encourage them, or to change the structure in our world so that hunger is satisfied.

When we do it right, we find that praying for a church that is healthy and strong and engaged and ready to demonstrate the love of God to the world might just lead us to a place where we say “yes” when someone in the congregation invites us to join in a ministry that shapes a world that is more reflective of God’s intentions for it.

When we read Jesus’ cautions about how not to pray, there is a sense of fear that might be present – how can I pray out loud when Jesus warns us against that? What if I am piling up phrases? What if I screw up my prayers? I know – most of you really don’t like praying out loud because you don’t want to make a mistake.

We’ll talk more about how we can pray next week. For this week, I’d like to close with an encouragement to not get too hung up on it. My sense is that if you ask questions about how we ought to pray, then your heart is moving in the right direction.

Again, to quote Bonhoeffer:

In the last resort it is immaterial whether we pray in the open street or in the secrecy of our chambers, whether briefly or lengthily, in the Litany of the Church, or with the sigh of one who knows not what he should pray for. True prayer does not depend either on the individual or the whole body of the faithful, but solely on the knowledge that our heavenly Father knows our needs. That makes God the sole object of our prayers, and frees us from a false confidence in our own prayerful efforts.[2]

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 182).

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 183).