The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

May I Have Your Attention?

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  On May 28, we heard some of the most difficult parts of that story – and looked at some of the ways that this pastor’s mind has changed.  The text was from II Samuel 14 (included below) as well as Luke 13:1-9.

Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio stream this week. 

When I was a child, money was tight in our family. Something else that was tight was the waistline of my pants, and so my mother decided that one way to solve both of those problems was to stop buying real milk, and have me drink several glasses of powdered skim milk each day. I did it, and I lived to tell about it.

I did something else for well over half my life that will make some of the younger folks’ heads spin. When the phone that was wired into the wall rang, I just answered it – I didn’t know who was calling or anything. I just picked it up and said, “Hello,” just like that. Crazy, right?

There are lots of things that I used to do that I don’t do anymore; my mind, my habits, my thoughts, and my activities have changed. I think that’s part of what it means to be human: we grow and we learn.

This morning’s scripture lesson provides an opportunity to reflect on some things that I used to think, and where I am now.

The Sorrow of King David, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Last week, we heard the prophet Nathan storm into the royal chambers and lay out the truth of God’s displeasure with the king as a result of the sinful ways in which David treated Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, the Israelite army, and the nation. In part, Nathan said, “The sword will never depart from your house… I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…”

You could understand that as a threat, or a punishment; you could also interpret that as a perceptive realization that whatever David’s gifts might have been, being a “Great Family Man” was not among them.

Over the past few months, you’ve heard me or someone else up here mention some of David’s wives. Most of them probably didn’t stick with you… and I’ll offer $10 to anyone who can name more than three. I think that’s a safe bet. But if you’d like to keep track at home, there are eight women named in the Bible as David’s wives: Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. There were probably more, but those are the names we have.

Those women helped David to produce children. There are nineteen sons of David named in the Bible, and there were probably more of them as well.

Only one of David’s daughters is named in the scripture, and her story is so horrible you can bet that the others are just as happy that their names were not important enough to record for history. The story of Tamar, in fact, is so difficult and ugly that I could not bring myself to preach on it or even read it in public worship for this series of messages. You can read it for yourself in II Samuel 13 and 14. Here’s the gist of it, presented in the PG-13 version.

David’s oldest son, Amnon, was, in addition to being heir-apparent to the throne, a real piece of work. He was evidently spoiled rotten and self-centered to the core. He tried to seduce his half-sister, Tamar, and when she refused, he drafted an elaborate plan to assault her. After he took what he wanted, he threw her out of the house. King David knew all of this, but according to II Samuel, “When David heard what had happened to Tamar, he was very angry. But Amnon was his oldest son and also his favorite, and David would not do anything to make Amnon unhappy.” (II Samuel 13:21, CEV)

Tamar fled and confided in her full brother, David’s third-born son, Absalom. Absalom was appropriately enraged and waited for David to act – and the longer his father went without punishing Amnon, the more resentful and bitter Absalom became.

The Assassination of Amnon at the Feast of Absalom (Guercino, 1628)

Finally, more than two years later, Absalom has had enough. He throws a big party and invites all of his relatives to come, including Amnon – to whom he hasn’t spoken since the assault. When everybody is having a high old time, Absalom murders his half-brother to avenge what he had done to Tamar.

Next, Absalom does what you might do if you murdered the crown prince – he high-tails it out of town. He hides out in the kingdom of Geshur, where he stays with his maternal grandfather. David is overcome with grief at the death of Amnon, and also finds himself yearning for Absalom – but he still cannot do anything to take charge of his children.

Absalom (James Tissot, c. 1900)

Eventually, after three years have passed, David’s general and nephew, Joab, convinces the monarch to do something to make things right with Absalom. So David sends for the young man and tells him it’s time to come home. However, when Absalom returns to Jerusalem, David cannot bring himself to face his son, and so he won’t receive him in the palace. Joab, loyal to a fault, refuses to see Absalom as well.

In spite of all this, everyone in Jerusalem sees Absalom. The narrator goes out of his way to tell the readers what a dreamboat this young prince is. He is quickly replacing Amnon in the line for royal succession… if only he could get his father to notice him the way that everyone else in the kingdom is noticing him…

Another two years passes – so it’s been seven long years since the attack on Tamar and five since Amnon’s murder and Absalom’s last conversation with his father. Finally, Absalom can stand it no further, and he demonstrates once more that he is a schemer and conniver of the first order, and he manipulates the situation so as to get the royal audience he craves. The second reading for this morning is II Samuel 14:28-33. Listen for the Word of the Lord:

Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king’s face. Then Absalom sent for Joab in order to send him to the king, but Joab refused to come to him. So he sent a second time, but he refused to come. Then he said to his servants, “Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there. Go and set it on fire.” So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire.

Then Joab did go to Absalom’s house, and he said to him, “Why have your servants set my field on fire?”

Absalom said to Joab, “Look, I sent word to you and said, ‘Come here so I can send you to the king to ask, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I were still there!”’ Now then, I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.”

So Joab went to the king and told him this. Then the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.

Absalom Setting Joab’s Barley Field on Fire (From the Maciejowski Bible, 13th c)

It’s a brilliant move, adding arson to his list of accomplishments as he seeks to get the attention first of Joab and ultimately, his father.

And I’ll tell you that years ago, when I first read this, I thought, “Wow! There is something here for me! How many times have I had some sort of experience with similar signs – there was something ‘off’, something that wasn’t quite right – and it occurred to me that AHA! – God is trying to get my attention here, just like Absalom tried to get old Joab’s attention.”

That’s what I thought. And, lots of times, that kind of reasoning works.

A friend of mine had been suddenly hospitalized with anxiety and panic attacks. He asked me to come and visit with him, and as we talked, I said, “Buddy, what’s going on?” He said, “I can’t figure it out. This just came out of nowhere!” Later in the conversation, he happened to mention that he’d found a mistress and was making plans to leave his wife. I just about exploded: “Gee, do you think that there’s a connection between your anxiety attacks and the fact that after preaching for a dozen years on the sanctity of marriage you’re having an affair?”

Or a couple of years ago, when the youth group was en route to Sunset Gap, TN for our mission trip. For a number of reasons, we were about five hours late in arriving on the scene. When we got there, we found the dorm in which we’d have been asleep in flames. It was easy to think, “See! These troubles on the road put us in a position where we didn’t get burnt! Awesome!”

For years, I thought, and I taught, that if there’s a barley field on fire in your life, then maybe that’s just God’s way of getting your attention. Something happens and you experience pain or dis-ease or stress, and I want to know, “Well, what is God showing you here? What do you need to learn?”

But the more that I thought about that, the more I realized that a theology like that makes God out to be, well, kind of a jerk.

Listen: if the fact that my barley field is on fire – that is to say, if I’m going through a tough time in some way – means that God is trying to deal with me somehow, then the opposite must be true as well. No fires? Everything is cool. If I say that every bad thing that happens to me is an indication of the fact that God is trying to teach me a lesson, then that essentially puts me in a fatalistic universe where everyone gets what they deserve. What did Tamar do to deserve what happened to her? Or would you like to suggest that maybe God sent her that particular trial in order to teach her something?

Jesus spoke against this kind of theology in the passage you heard from Luke. Someone thrusts a copy of the Jerusalem Gazette under his nose and says, “Wow! Would you look at that, Jesus? Pilate really hammered these guys but good! They must have really screwed up to merit treatment like that, huh?”

And Jesus looks at his audience and says, “Yeah, you’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you? After all, Pilate’s not beating you up these days, is he?” And Jesus grabs the paper and turns to page B-9 and says, “What about this story – all those folks that got flattened when the building collapsed over in Siloam? Those folks – did they deserve that? More to my point,” says Jesus, “Are you any better than they are simply because you didn’t get crushed?”

It’s a tempting theology, friends.

Look at your news feeds: Terrorism in Manchester. A new influx of child refugees from South Sudan into Uganda. The President and the Pope hobnobbing with each other. A man in New York finds a $24 million lottery ticket while cleaning out his home – just a couple of days before it expires.

Do those people deserve that stuff? Do bad things happen to bad people? Do good things happen to good people?

“Not so fast,” Jesus says, pointing again to the newspaper filled with dead bodies. “It’s time to stop pretending that death is something that God only sends to bad guys. You’re all dying.”

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (James Tissot, c. 1890)

We are not motivated by the fear of destruction: we are enlivened and empowered by the presence of grace. Grace is the foundation on which the whole enterprise is built. And then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a fig tree located smack in the middle of a vineyard that was there simply because the owner of the whole place decided to allow it to remain there. And when he’s thinking about clearing out the space, his gardener talks him out of it, saying “Master, leave it for another year.” The Greek word he uses is aphes, which literally means, “forgive”. The fig tree wasn’t pulling its own weight, but the gardener stood up for it anyway. “Forgive”, he says.

I have a hunch that story took on new meaning for Jesus’ friends a couple of years later as they watched him die on the cross. As the life was being crushed out of him, Jesus looked at the people who had done it and said, “Aphes… forgive them…”

Robert Capon writes about this parable:

The world lives, as the fig tree lives, under the rubric of forgiveness. The world, of course, thinks otherwise. In its blind wisdom, it thinks it lives by merit and reward. It likes to imagine that salvation is essentially a pat on the back from a God who either thinks we are good eggs or, if he knows how rotten we actually are, considers our repentance sufficient to make up for our unsuitability. But by the foolishness of God, that is not the way it works…[Jesus] doesn’t come to see if we are good; he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good. He does not come to see if we are sorry; he knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it… We are saved gratis, by grace. We do nothing and we deserve nothing; it is all, absolutely and without qualification, one huge, hilarious gift.[1]

The Gospel story is not that God is sending me terrible calamities in order to attract my attention to something that God needs me to do…Instead, the Gospel story is that God is present to and with and for me in all of my circumstances.

At a better point in his life, King David was hard up against some ugly, painful circumstances. In Psalm 27 he wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord n the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage.” (Ps. 27:13-14, NASB). If, even in these horrible circumstances, I didn’t think that I could see God’s goodness…well, I’d cash in my chips. But I believe that even here, even now, I can see not the threatening, vengeful God – but the gracious, forgiving vinedresser in Luke.

So if 2 Samuel 14 is not about God sending us horrible days in order to get our attention so we’ll straighten up and fly right… What is it about?

I’d suggest that we have to look at it in context. David has had an adulterous, murderous affair, while neglecting his parental office. The absence of discipline leads to horrific acts wherein Absalom plays the cards he’s been dealt in the only way he knows how: violently and destructively. In fact, Absalom will go on to unleash a plot to overthrow his father’s kingdom and murder his father – but more about that next month.

It seems to me that the message of 2 Samuel 14 is that if we insist on keeping score and on playing the game we’ve always played it, we’re bound to lose. If we insist that it always and only depends on us, then it will end poorly for us.

How would it have been had David or Absalom or Amnon asked God to interrupt and break the cycle? We don’t know for them. But we can try it for us.

Look for grace, beloved. In every circumstance – look for grace. It is all around you. Many of you have heard the words of that Mr. Rogers suggested that we say to our children in times of disaster:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.[2]

Look: sometimes fields catch fire. Horrible things happen. When they do, look for grace. And when you find it…give it away. Your neighbor probably needs it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Parables of Grace (Eerdman’s, 1988, p. 97-98).

[2] http://www.fredrogers.org/parents/special-challenges/tragic-events.php