One Step at a Time

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 9, we heard the plea to “Guide My Feet” (video below).  Our scriptures included Luke 1:67-79 and I Corinthians 9:24-27.  In addition, the congregation surprised me with a recognition of my 25th anniversary as their pastor AND we welcomed new members AND we celebrated baptisms.  It was, as my friend Eddie would say, a “double feature”.  And it was good. 

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

I suspect that if you’ve been here for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that we’ve had a lot going on (evidently, this morning, even more than even I knew about!).  Communion. Congregational meetings. Baptisms.  New Members.  We started a new Advent practice of singing spirituals.  Today many of the kids are on a retreat; we’ve heard an Epistle reading that talks about the race of discipleship that must have made sense to the ancient Greeks, who invented the marathon.  We’ve listened to a Gospel story of an old man singing to his infant son about how that son would guide people’s feet into paths of peace…  When I get to a flurry of activity like this, the first question I need to ask myself is, “Well, what are we going to talk about?”

Let’s start at the beginning.  I suppose that there’s a slim chance you could remember, but I doubt it.  Who taught you how to stand up, and then to walk? Who coached you through that experience? Do you remember the precise exercises you did as you practiced rising, putting one foot in front of the other, and then maybe even tackled the stairs?

Of course not.  In reality, by and large, nobodyis taught how to walk.  We just do it, right? Some of you were 8 months old.  Others were 14 months old.  Barring some sort of medical issue, every child eventually gets it, right?

And – you know this – watching a child who is figuring this all out? It’s hilarious.  They pull themselves up on something, and they toddle along stumbling like drunken sailors until they arrive at the inevitable face plant… Most children do not need someone to teachthem how to walk.  Yet every toddler needs someone to encourage them – to remind them that they cando it – that they are, perhaps, better at it than they realize.

The Christian Life is often called “a walk”, and I think that in large part that’s because it is easily understood as a place where – just as in our earliest experiments in mobility – innate ability, personal responsibility, and communal engagement come together.

Why do you follow Jesus?

Well, most of you would say that in large part, you’re here because you choseto be here. You have responded to the gift of grace that was extended to you. Not many people are here – at least, not for long – if someone is “making” them come.  When we shared communion last week, we noted that there was no such thing as a “force feeding” of the Gospel.

Here’s another example that I suspect will resonate with many of us in the room.  When you, or someone you loved, got sober or clean, how did that happen?  Did anyone make you do it? My experience – which is limited, to be sure – is that healing from addiction cannot move forward without a decision and an act of the individual will.  Some of you have told me that you got clean when you wanted to be clean more than you wanted something else.  I’ve heard about how tired you were of seeing the pain, fear, or disappointment on the faces around you – your parents or your children, in many cases.  Most of the time, moving towards wholeness begins with the day that the individual chooses to move.

But – and this is a big but, and there are a lot of big buts in church – in situations involving dependency and addiction, the individual’s choice and sheer determination are not sufficient.

Unlike learning how to walk (which is a natural aspect of human development), entering the paths of faith can be more like coming out of addiction, seeking to lose forty pounds, or going back to school to get another degree. When one is going through such a complete change, the support of family and friends is essential. Many of you who have gone through such significant life changes have talked with me about the importance of having one particular person who can coach you as you look at the pitfalls and seek to gain strength.

Look, I realize that I can only push any analogy so far, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of us are here because we’ve heard something from the Lord, we’ve seen something in Jesus, we’ve sensed some movement in the Spirit and that has made us say, “Yes! That!  I want that! I’ll run this race!”  You and I are here because God was somehow active in our world and we responded to that activity and showed up.

So the more important question for today, then, is not “why do you follow Jesus?”, but rather, “how are we becoming a community of encouragement and care?”  How are we treating each other – those who have joined us in running this race?

I know that every single person in this building has been in a room crowded with “grown-ups” who are watching a child take their first steps.  How does any experienced walker behave in that situation?  You’ve been there: there’s a lot of cheering and celebration and even videotaping and recording, right?

How about here?

It seems to me as though it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as a community of care and encouragement if we are characterized by condemnation and ridicule.  Think about it: can you imagine a grandparent belittling a two year old for stumbling down the hallway?  Would a mature person study an 18 month old child’s attempts to get from the living room to the kitchen and then post it on Facebook, saying, “Well, this kid’s clearly an idiot.  Yesterday, I thought we were getting somewhere, but today? Please.  Looks like she’s falling back into those old habits.  What a loser. Steer clear of her – she looks pretty needy.”?  Of course not.

In the same way, an essential task of the church of Jesus Christ is to resist condemnation, share affirmation, and practice encouragement. Part of our organizational DNA is reminding people that they can be more than they thought they could.  I’d like to try something with you.  Right now, can you just put down whatever you’re holding and just reach your hands high above your heads.  Get them up there – as high as possible, and hold them there for a moment.  OK. Got it?  Now, listen to me, but watch your neighbor: I want you to reach higher.

You liars! I asked you to get your hands as high above your heads as you could, and you said you were doing that… but then when I asked you what was apparently impossible – reach higher – you did.

Listen: my point here is not that you can’t be trusted… it’s that each of us can probably accomplish more than we think we might be able to if we are given the right amount of encouragement and challenge. Let us pledge as a community to resist the temptation to condemnation and judgmentalism and embrace our identity as we become those who encourage.

Another thing that any competent adult would do when encouraging a toddler to walk is clear the path.  When Sharon and I are trying to get Violet to trust her legs and balance more, we pick up laundry and close the gate to the fireplace and so on.

As we are joined by sisters and brothers who are eager to run the race of faith, can we create worship and discipleship experiences that remove obstacles and hindrances for others?  Maybe it’s providing child care.  It could be taking a good look at musical styles or the language we use. In any case, it’s the responsibility of those who are better at walking to make sure that the pathway is as clear as possible.  And I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: when we do this, we don’t gripe about it. When your friend was rehabbing from his accident or your daughter was learning to walk, you didn’t moan and groan about how you had to make sure that the laundry was picked up before they tried to walk across the room – you did it, and you were happy to do it because you love that person more than you love the things that are laying the path, right?

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about creating a vibrant community of faith, and it’s slightly counterintuitive.  If we’re talking about children learning to walk, we accept it as a given that the two year-olds are learning, and the sixteen or sixty year-olds know it all.  We think that there is some sort of linear progression there, and we’re probably right.  However, as we engage in the walk of faith, we have got to remember that for each and every one of us, there is a lot to learn, and we must be open to learning from someone who is “younger” in one way or another than we are.  Our Gospel reading today showed us a father who was expecting his son to teach him great things; our Epistle was written by Paul, who was one of the best-educated men of his generation – and yet who was nurtured and taught by, and learn from, a group of illiterate fishermen.

When I show up at meetings with other pastors, they sometimes give me grief because I still work with the Youth Group.  “Come on, Carver,” they say.  “Time to get out of that.  That’s a young person’s job.”  Maybe. But I love watching the face of a young person figuring some of this out for the first time.  I am constantly encouraged by – and learning from – the children and young people in our community.  I have learned far more about being fearless from young people than I have from those older than I; children have taught me to use my imagination; and in recent years I’ve seen young adults push me closer to the heart of Jesus than I might go on my own. I’m grateful for the chances I have to teach, and yet I’m more grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn.

“Guide my feet while I run this race” is not merely a prayer wherein I ask God to give me some special coaching; it is a cry for community.  We come in here and we tell each other that we’ve been out there doing it – whatever “it” is – and we cheer for each other, we hold one another’s troubles, and we remember that this is a good place – the right place – for us to be.  Thanks be to God for a community that is vibrant and growing.  Amen.

Are You Like Mike?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

Mike patrols the barnyard with the flock in 1945

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

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

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

And Jesus Wept, Oklahoma City National Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swimming Upstream

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 27 October, we heard the second installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:25-32 and Romans 5:1-8

OnlineDating1You’ve seen the ads for the online dating sites, I know.  Eharmony.  Match.com.  Christian Mingle… They are exploding.  In fact, let me ask you to guess what percentage of marriages since 2008 began online.  According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, that figure is almost 35%.  Doesn’t that sound like an incredible number?

Let me tell you the story of one of those marriages.  When I conducted the ceremony for Alex and Chris a couple of years ago, we did all of the usual pre-marital stuff.  And, like usual, I indicated that they should feel free to call me if they ever wanted a little coaching.

Not long ago, I met with this couple.  It turns out that Chris had left a laptop at home, and needed to forward a couple of emails.  No problem.  A quick call to Alex, who went into the email program, clicked “forward”, and the story was over…until Alex glanced through Chris’ inbox and noticed six or ten messages – all unread – from the online dating service that had brought them together.  Each of these messages had as the subject line, “Somebody is waiting to meet you!”

Alex mentioned it to Chris at dinner that night, and she explained that she had never closed her account.  Her profile was still considered “active”.  Then she said, “What’s the big deal?  We’re married, right?  What difference does it make if I don’t close that account?”  And that’s when they came to see me.

OK, not really.  I mean, nobody has ever come to me with that situation.  But I bet that each of us sees something like it every day.  Listen:

Two weeks ago, we started to hear the story of Gideon, a young man who met God, was called by God, believed God, built an altar to God, and worshiped God.  Sounds like a good day, right?  Yay for Gideon.  “But wait,” as the late night advertisers say, “There’s more!”  Let’s look at Judges 6:

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Ba′al which your father has, and cut down the Ashe′rah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Ashe′rah which you shall cut down.” (6:25-26)

Gideon’s name means “the Hacker”, as in “the chopper”.  It is the same word that is used in the Old Testament to refer to places where someone has “hacked” or “hewed” or “broken down” a shrine.  Here, the Lord calls him to live into that name.

BaalI want to remind you of the problem that Gideon faced: God had called his people to live in the land and to worship him alone, but the people wouldn’t listen. Time and time again, year after year, they worshiped the other gods.  Two of the most popular dieties were Baal and Asherah.  Baal was a figure usually represented as a bull or as a man with lightning bolts in his hand, and he was the god of fertility and therefore power and strength.  His female companion was Asherah, who was worshiped at shrines that included tall poles.  Worship of these so-called gods often involved ritual prostitution and was rampant in Gideon’s time.

God shows up in Gideon’s life and reminds him of the first two commandments – that God alone is God and that people should not construct idols to worship.  A couple of weeks ago, we read where Gideon promised to worship God, and God alone.  Here, God is saying, essentially, “Look, if that’s the case, then you can’t worship them, too.  If you’re married to me, shut down your dating profile on those other sites!  And, to Gideon’s credit, he does just that. Again, from Judges 6:

So Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night. (6:27)

asherah-poleHe gets his team together and he does as he is instructed.  Oh, sure, he chooses to do so under the cover of darkness – after all, the Baals and the Asherah are still pretty darn popular, and he is afraid of what might happen if and when his vandalism is discovered.

I want to pause for a few moments and consider what Gideon does here, because I think that it has special significance to us this morning.  Gideon does what he is told to do, even if he is scared out of his skin to do it.  To put it another way, Gideon does it that night.  He doesn’t wait until he “feels like” doing it. He acts towards God’s best for him even when he is unsure as to what will happen next.

This morning we observe “Preschool Sunday” in Crafton Heights.  As such, it’s a good day for us to remember that an essential task of parenting is to teach children how to do the things that they don’t really want to do.

When we get these little bundles of joy, there’s no sense of anyone having any control over any of them.  They sleep, cry, and poop at the most inopportune times.  And nobody blames them, because, hey, they’re just babies.  Not too many two month olds make a lot of decisions.

But somewhere down the line, these babies have to learn that it’s a good idea to brush their teeth, or to finish their homework, or to close up the computer and get to bed – even if they don’t want to.  Good parents help their children to learn these things so that later in life, like when it’s time to go to work, or to bite your tongue instead of yelling at the neighbor, or to pay the rent bill – the kids will be good at doing what they don’t want to do.

It’s the same in our faith development.  Sometimes we have to learn that worship and discipleship is not, fundamentally, about me.  We come to worship and we seek to grow in our ability to follow Jesus because we believe that loving God and serving our neighbor is important.  Sometimes, we choose to act in small ways, like when we park a little further from the door so that someone who needs it more can park close; or when we go ahead and sing songs that we don’t really like all that much because we know that they mean something to the folks who sit in front of us.

Sometimes, we have to grow in our faith by doing things that are a little harder, like when we decide not to repeat the rumor we just heard, even though it is really, really juicy.  Or maybe we decide that it’s ok to part with a percentage of our income because we are so grateful for all that we have received already.

And every now and then, we opt to do something that we really would rather not.  Maybe you’ve taken on leadership of a project that was pretty intimidating, but your friends here thought that you had the right gifts to make it happen.  I know that some of you have risked your self by volunteering time you weren’t sure you had or trying something new.  In any case, it’s not easy to choose to do something that you don’t necessarily want to do, but if we are going to grow in faith, we need to learn how to do that.

So Gideon musters up his courage and he pulls down the altars to Baal and the Asherah pole.  Then he goes ahead and makes a statement by sacrificing a bull – the symbol for power and strength – at the altar to God that he has built out of the rubble from the idols he’s demolished.  What happens next?

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Ba′al was broken down, and the Ashe′rah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered upon the altar which had been built. And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had made search and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Jo′ash has done this thing.” Then the men of the town said to Jo′ash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Ba′al and cut down the Ashe′rah beside it.” But Jo′ash said to all who were arrayed against him, “Will you contend for Ba′al? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.” Therefore on that day he was called Jerubba′al, that is to say, “Let Ba′al contend against him,” because he pulled down his altar. (6:28-32)

gideonAltarThe local CSI team gets involved, and although they were sworn to secrecy, one of the servants lets it slide that it was Gideon who did this.  I find it interesting that Gideon’s father, who lost his second-best bull in the protest, didn’t defend his son.  Rather, he points to the recently hacked-down idol and says, “Look, if he really is as powerful as you say he is, let him stand up for himself.” Of course, there is no reply from the pile of sticks and stones, and at the end of the day we have a story of a young man who responds to God’s call by acting faithfully even when he is afraid and by doing what was right even when it scared the pants off of him.

And I wonder this morning…do you have any idea what that is like?  When is the last time you woke up with a sense of, “You know, I need to _________.”  Or, “I think I really should _______.”  But then you thought about it for a bit and said, “No way.  How can I do that?”

Have you ever at the sense that you have met God, that you have seen God’s hand at work, and that maybe even, in some way, you’ve built an altar to God and worshiped God…but there’s still that other god, that secret love, that hidden hunger that is still hanging around in the back yard?

Is there something in your life, or in our world, that you need to stand up to?  Something that you need to confront and say, “Look, this is simply not God’s best and I need to do something about.

Maybe you need to simply get off the dime and do something that you know you need to do, even if you don’t really want to do it.

For example, maybe there’s a family member with whom you need to have a conversation that could lead to resolution of a long-standing problem, or reconciliation after a deep wound has been festering.  Wow, do I hate doing that.  But if you don’t, who will?

Or maybe you have been thinking about a practice or a habit that is preventing you from being the person that God is calling you to be.  Are you wasting a lot of time on the internet? Are you throwing a lot of your life away binge drinking or getting high? Do you know the secret shame of hiding from reality in the cesspool of pornography?  Are you obsessed with getting each retirement account statement and counting every single penny?  You see?  Is there something that is standing in the way of you being the best you God intends that needs to be torn down and burnt up?

I don’t know where all of you are this morning.  Heck, on some days, I’m not quite sure where I am.  But if you can identify with Gideon and his need to go against the flow, to stand up for something that is worth standing up for even if it may cost you; if you know what it’s like to have to tear down an old idol even if it brings you secret pleasure, then let me give you three reminders.

Remember that God is already moving toward you.  You are far from alone in this thing!  In our previous reading from Judges, we’ve seen that God appears to Gideon, and then he calls Gideon and equips Gideon – all before he asks Gideon to make the sacrifice and tear down the idols.  In our passage from Romans, we heard that it was while we were still sinning that Christ died for us.  Jesus didn’t say he’d come and check in on us once we got our acts together and got our lives straightened out a bit.  He didn’t say to call him once we got rid of whatever it was that was fascinating, amusing, or killing us.  He said that he was here before we even knew it.  While we were still a mess – he called to us.  And he calls today.

Remember that you can’t do this alone.  I know –boy, do I know – from personal experience that it’s easy to feel like nobody understands where you are or what you are doing.  It’s easy to think that nobody cares.  It’s easy to be embarrassed or ashamed, and think, “There is no way that I can stand in front of that man and tell him what I’m thinking right now.”  Yes there is.  If you are serious about wanting to change your life, or tear down some idols, or give up some nasty distraction, I think that sharing it with a couple of friends is about the only way to do so.  Gideon told ten friends what he was doing.  You might need to bring two or three friends into your life and ask for their help.  You have a pastor.  Maybe you need a therapist.  You are not alone, and if you pretend that you are alone, you will fail.

And remember that at some point, you’re going to have to quit talking and start doing.  Yes, it’s frightening.  Of course it is hard.  And you will probably not make unimpeded, straight-line, forward progress from here until the day you die.  Big deal.  What can you do now?  Change your calendar.  Adapt your behavior.  Act like someone who is moving in a different direction.

The Good News is that God does not expect us to be perfect.  God knows that we have and will make some whopper mistakes.  The Better News is that God does not expect us to remain where we are, any more than we expect our children to stay in preschool for seven or ten years.  Like Gideon, you can grow into the person that you are meant to be, one scary night at a time, with the help of the Body of Christ and in the Grace of God.  You are where you are.  But you do not need to stay there.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

The Resident Church

Sometimes people think my preaching is for the birds.  Maybe this week it really was!  We considered Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 22 and Matthew 28:16-20 as we thought about ways in which we can grow in our faith.

IMG_8358[4]This, as I’m sure you all know, is a Common Loon.  It’s a large diving bird native to the far north of our country as well as Canada.  This Common Loon, though, is in an uncommon place – I took this photo on Wednesday evening outside PNC Park on the Allegheny River.  Why was this quiet, shy creature, native to the remote clear lakes of Canada, swimming around the Gateway Clipper, jet skis, and knuckleheads like me?

Because we are at the tail end of the spring migration.  All over the planet, creatures are taking incredible journeys in search of food or opportunities to breed.  The Bar-Tailed Godwits, for instance, are arriving in Alaska, having left their winter homes in New Zealand and traveling more than 8,000 miles without stopping for food, drink, or rest.BarTailedGodwit

Africa-Kenya-Migration-3-wildebeestRight now, there are massive herds of wildebeest and zebra congregating in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, preparing for the 1800 mile trek to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.

You know some of this stuff.  It’s a staple in National Geographic and on Animal Planet.     And we see these images and think, “Isn’t that cool?  These animals know how and where to go; they are willing to congregate in large flocks just to spend a few days somewhere else…  Migration – what an amazing concept.  How strange, how remote, how foreign to us as human beings…when_beach_gets_640_08

Of course, we migrate, too. Earlier this week, my friend John told me of his plans for the summer.  “Jersey Shore”, he said, as if there was no further need to define one’s July activity.  Ask Bonnie Schrenker about her plans for next month, and you’ll learn about the annual migration from Sheraden to Conneaut.

And when we look at that, and we think about our own lives – where do you ‘do’ Christmas every year?  Whose turn is it to host Thanksgiving? – we remember that our lives have a pattern and a rhythm to them…and we think that’s a GOOD THING.  It is.  It’s biblical.  You heard it right there in Ecclesiastes. We experience the passage of time and we mark it with certain rituals and experiences and we are blessed because of it.  Amen.

But this Spring I have been reflecting on the nature of migration, and the more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the fact that we, as human beings, tend to be migratory in matters of faith and practice.  What I mean by that is that we are willing to accept as truth the notion that certain people are going to do certain things no matter what, and it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it or try to change it.  “You know that she’s gonna do that, just as sure as the geese fly south in the winter…”

Growing up in the church, for instance, it was accepted as a fact in my community that when people reached the age of 16 or 18, they would stop coming to church.  Church leaders would say, “Oh, sure, they think that there’s nothing really here for them now…but they’ll be back, once it’s time to get married and they want those babies baptized.”  As if the habits of the American teenager were as predictable and unchangeable as those of the robins who seem to disappear in the winter, only to reappear like clockwork every March.  That kind of thinking cost the church a generation – there are a millions of my peers who decided that if the church wasn’t interested in them when they were 17, well, there wasn’t much use in them talking with the church when matters of love, marriage, or children came up.

More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the tremendous number of people who I know and love who have apparently experienced the Christian faith and practice as a seasonal affair.  I am not talking about people who show up regularly for Christmas and Easter, and then who absent themselves.  I’m thinking of people who will be active and participating, present and growing for a time…and then there will be a nosedive into some sort of destructive behavior – gossip, substance abuse, backbiting, lying…and it will appear as though the Good News of Christ has had no deep or meaningful impact on a person’s life.  Then, all of a sudden, we’re back to being present and attentive for six or eight months, only to lapse into destruction at that time.

RoseBreastedGrosbeakSo with that in mind, beloved, I’d like to challenge you to think with me for a few moments this morning about what it would mean for you to become “Resident” Christians.  In the birding world, for instance, a “migrant” is a flashy beauty who pops in for a few weeks a year while on the endless cycle between point A and point B.  The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that visited Don Weaver’s feeders a few weeks ago, for instance, have long since departed for their Canadian breeding grounds.

bluejayBut a “resident” species is one that is here all the time – one that knows how to survive here year in and year out, and who is able to grow in understanding of this particular environment so that life can continue and deepen.

There are a couple of dangers to Migratory Christianity that I’d like to discuss.  For instance, those who migrate are forced to remember.  Every year thousands of birds die because when they fly from the tropics to the poles, they stop at a place that they’ve known to be safe and reliable for years, only to discover that it’s now a freeway or a shopping mall.  In May of 2011, two hundred Blue Herons lost their nest when a tornado destroyed the island in Minnesota that has served as a rookery for generations.  Birds that remembered those cottonwood trees this spring were sorely disappointed to find a level, treeless island incapable of supporting a single nest.  Because one of the hard things about being a migrant is that you can base decisions – life-affecting decisions – on things that you remember which are, in fact, no longer there

which_path_to_takeIt’s the same way for human beings.  Every day, our realities change somewhat.  Babies are born and friends die.  New skills are learned.  Friendships evolve.  Are we in the church able to deal with the fact that the world – and our own personal worlds – is changing?  If we cannot continually grow in our ability to engage what is, we will find ourselves remembering a world that no longer exists – and then being frustrated when the things we’ve always done don’t work any more.

To a degree, I’m talking about programs here.  In another time, this neighborhood was filled with women who stayed home to care for homes and children all day – and who flocked to sewing circles and mid-day service projects.  But if we were to expect the same participation from our young parents today, we’d find different results.

But more than programs, I’m talking about people here.  Listen: I showed up here thirty years ago.  Some of the best leaders in the church of 1982 are dead now.  Some of the best leaders in the church of 2013 were in diapers then.  If I were to act as if there was no difference in the stations of either Dorothy Larimer or little Joey Knouff in the last thirty years, the church would be the poorer for it and I’d be a fool.  That person sitting near you has a past that includes drug abuse.  That woman over there has been known to run her mouth all day long.  And this guy?  Well, let’s just say his wife never trusted him with his own paycheck.

But if I continue to treat them as addicted, or gossipy, or prodigal – then I am saying that I expect that the gospel will make no change in their lives.

But you see where I’m going with this, don’t you?  As long as I treat them as addicted, or gossipy, or prodigal – then it’s safe for me.  No decisions, no hard questions, no awkward conversations.  But if I dare to hope and believe that the Gospel has empowered them for growth and change…then when I notice that they’ve apparently revisited a destructive behavior, I need to mention it to them with grace and humility.  I need to ask them if I’m interpreting their actions correctly.  I need to be true and honest with them.  I need to be resident with their current reality – not my projections of their past.

And in addition to this danger about how I treat others, I need to beware a practice that migrants everywhere participate in.  The bird books talk about species that are neophobic when it comes to food sources.  That means that if Don Weaver puts out a new kind of bird seed, the resident birds will explore and accept it more readily than the migrants.  Migrants, who are really not here to stay, are going to look for what they’ve always eaten; if Weaver doesn’t have it, they’ll hope that Salinetro does.  But the birds that live in Weaver’s back yard will try something new, because they know and they trust that place, even if they haven’t tried that food yet.

If I want to be a “resident” Christian, then it means that I’m going to be open to new ways of growing and nurturing the life that God has given me.  When is the last time you went on a retreat?  Or read a book? Or attended a small group Bible study?

Oh, pastor, I hate those things.  I haven’t been for decades because they are just not my cup of tea.

Maybe.  All we know is that at one point, they weren’t your cup of tea.  Fortunately, that you isn’t here anymore.  And fortunately, there are new experiences to be found.  Are you neophobic?  Or can you try something new in the diet of faith?

You see, if we are moving towards a resident Christianity, then we understand that it is not a question of geography.  You know me – I wander all over the map.  But rooting myself in the faith means that I must settle into the changes that the Gospel produces in my life.  I have to treat other people as though they can change – and will grow.  I need to be looking for ways that I can adapt to the world that is here – not the one that existed when I was in High School.

Here’s your homework.  Take your current age and divide it by 4.  Hopefully, that’s not too tough.  Now, compare your current self to your self as you existed a quarter of a lifetime ago.  If you are 32 years old now, think of yourself at 24.  If you are sixty, think of yourself at 45.  Do you see what I mean?growth

What about you is the same?

Where have you changed?

How have you grown?

Is there any place now that brings you new spiritual growth or joy that did not exist a quarter of a lifetime ago?

If you could get a message to your former self, what would you say?  That might be helpful as you think about relating to a future self…

If you have not experienced any spiritual growth in the last quarter of a lifetime, shame on me for not jazzing up the buffet a little bit…or shame on you for not trying any of the spicy stuff…or maybe we just throw the shame out the window and commit to looking for ways to join together in planning for a future filled with growth and possibility.

Take your trips this summer.  As the airline says, “You are now free to move about the country”.  Just make sure that you remember where you live, in whom you live, and where you are going.  And remember that you can be resident in your faith – and growing all the time.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.