Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below:

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).

Why Should I Stop Thinking?

I continued to reflect on our Malawian journey in worship on August 2 2015.  Our scripture passages were Acts 18:24-28 and Hebrews 5:11-14

Most of you are aware of the fact that I am fresh from one mission trip and packed for another. You need to know that the time in Malawi, Central Africa, was just amazing. You’ll hear more about this next week, but I need to tell you that there was more that happened in those two weeks than I ever thought possible.

PartnershiplogoOf particular joy to me was having the opportunity to see the Christians from South Sudan and our partners from Malawi enjoying the time together so completely. For a long time, our church has partnered with the church in Malawi, but a couple of years ago that was broadened to include Christians in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan. Since then, I’ve often used the analogy of a piece of furniture, saying that while one might be able to rest on a two-legged chair, a three-legged stool was far more practical and durable and comfortable. The possibilities of this trans-African partnership are just beginning to be explored, and the future appears to be very, very rich.

An elder from South Sudan put it this way: “We are glad to be in partnership with people in Pittsburgh, but we think that we will profit far more from our relationship with Malawi than with the USA.” It was just glorious to watch these two churches begin to fall in love with each other, and I believe that this could really change the face of mission in Africa if not the world.

This trip was amazing; it was important; it was life-changing; and it may have even been life-saving.
Three years ago, the church in Malawi presented itself to the world, so far as I could see, as a “receiving” church. It was chronically needy. Our friends there had come to believe in themselves as people who will always need help from the outside just to get by. When the Christians in South Sudan came alongside, that offered believers in Malawi the chance to re-evaluate their strengths and resources and gifts. Together, these two African churches have discovered wonderful opportunities.

As we were leaving Malawi, a good friend of mine who is in leadership in that church said to me, “It was a good trip, but I wish it was not yet over.” And I smiled, and shook his hand, and said, “You bet! I wish we could stay here longer.”

He shook his head and said, “No, not here. I wish that you were leaving here and spending three more days in Mozambique. The Christians there are struggling, and we are trying to help them. In fact, I believe that next week we will be signing a partnership agreement with the church in Mozambique.”

I looked at him in surprise and exclaimed, “Hey, really? Are you already trying to change my three-legged stool into a four-legged desk?” And I laughed.

And my friend, this beautiful Christian man, looked at me and said simply, “Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian, after all.”

I’m sorry to say that immediately I thought of a whole new line of t-shirts and hoodies that would bear that message: Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian!

StopTHinkingShirtThe reality is, however, that for far too many people, Christianity is about saying “yes” to a set of ideas. It’s saying, “I believe that Jesus is my savior,” and that’s it. We say what we believe when we are twelve, or twenty-two, or forty, and from that point on, the focus is on defending that amazing truth from every changing, from ever developing, for fear that we somehow “lose it”. We concentrate on some moral behavior (we don’t smoke or drink or sleep around or vote for the wrong people), but the core of our spiritual identity, in too many cases, does not change. Ever.

How many friends do you have who might say something like, “Of course I’m a Christian. I became a Christian on the afternoon of September 19 2009.”? For these people, the Gospel is a line of some sort. I’m not a Christian. Now, I’ll pray that prayer, and cross over the line. I am a Christian. That’s it, right? I just wait here, then I’ll die, and I’ll get to go to heaven. Amen.
As popular as that theology seems to be in some circles, there’s a problem with it: it’s just not biblical. Faith is alive. It is living and vital. And as with all living things, the normative state for faith is to grow. Which means that our faith will change and evolve over time.

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul, fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul,  Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

In Ephesus they had a little church. It had been started by a guy who knew a little about changing and growing over time, the Apostle Paul. As that congregation experienced numerical and spiritual growth, Paul was joined by two colleagues, a husband and wife team named Aquila and Priscilla. Eventually, Paul pulled up stakes and moved on. Not long after that, Apollos wanders into town.

Apollos?And Apollos seems to be the real deal: he’s tall, he’s good-looking (ok, the text doesn’t actually mention this, but, c’mon – with a name like Apollos, you don’t think he was a short fat guy with a mullet, do you?)… He’s a great speaker with funny jokes and impeccable timing.

Apollos (more likely)

Apollos (more likely)

The only problem was that he didn’t have the whole “Christianity” thing down. He was missing some key concepts on the presence of the Holy Spirit and the nature of life in Christ. When they learned that, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and helped him to grow – and he was able to change his understanding and practice of faith.

That’s not surprising in the book of Acts – after all, that’s what Christians do. And like Paul, Apollos went on to help people grow in their faith. He encouraged them to move, not simply from “A” (not believing in God) to “B” (believing in God’s activity through Jesus Christ), but to grow from “A” to “B”, and then from “B” to “C”, “D”, and even “E”. Because faith is based in relationship. Because faith grows. Because faith changes us and as a result, the way that we live into that faith had better change in and through us over time.

Listen: I love my granddaughter. One of my favorite things in the world is watching her eat. I’m here to tell you that that kid can put it away: fish. Beets. Sauerkraut. Berries. Beans. One of her new favorites is liver and onions. She loves to explore, she loves to taste, and she eats like a champ.

But every now and then, Lucia will enjoy some “mama milk”. And why shouldn’t she? The kid is not even two years old! Everyone knows that breast milk is a great source of so much that is good for human development.
But she won’t always be like that, will she? I mean, if in ten years, she’s still having appetizers with Grampy and then taking her main meal via breast milk, well, we’ve got a problem. Eleven year olds move and think and act and operate a lot differently than do 20-month olds. Or, at least, they should operate differently than toddlers.
We know that, right? We get that concept in the physical sense…but not always spiritually.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – who many scholars believe might very well have been Paul’s friend Priscilla, says to those in her congregation, “What the heck is wrong with you people? Grow up already! You ought to be mature by now – even teaching other people, for crying out loud. But you’re still over there, drinking up the milk like it’s going out of style. You need something you can sink your teeth into – you’re too big for this kiddie stuff anymore.”

One of the magazines that comes to my study each month is a little volume called The Christian Century. It’s full of news about the world of religion, insightful articles on faith and belief, and a lot of other stuff I don’t usually have time to read. For many years, The Century has had an occasional column entitled “How my mind has changed”, in which a prominent theologian or spiritual leader talks about her or his journey of faith, and how that person has been led to change denominations or shift views on baptism or adopt some new pattern of behavior. I love those columns, even when I disagree with them, because too often we look at someone and say, “So and so is this.” When we say that someone is “like that” all the time, we forget that each of us is, or ought to be, where we are as a part of a process.

This morning I wonder: If the Christian Century came to you and offered you the chance to write a column on “how my mind has changed”, could you do it? Are there places in your life where you used to be uncertain, but now you’re holding on tightly? Or perhaps the opposite – something about which you were convinced five years ago that now has you scratching your head?

Or has your faith and your life become so calcified that it looks exactly like the old Doxology: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; world without end – Amen!”?

Beloved, the Lord intends for us to grow – to grow physically, to grow emotionally, to grow spiritually. I know darned well that you’re not the same person I met the first time we laid eyes on each other – not physically, anyway. How have you changed spiritually? Where have you grown?

If you’re not sure how to answer that, then let me encourage you to take this last month of the summer, these “dog days”, and spend some time shaking yourself up. Borrow a book from a friend and then talk about it afterwards. Ask Gabe Kish to tell you about his trip to Africa. Study an issue that has you perplexed. Go serve up a hot meal with some hungry people at The Table. Engage someone who is really different from you. Read a part of the bible that has scared you in the past. Sit with your pastor for a season. Learn to pray out loud. Visit someone who is grieving. Write a letter to a prisoner. Show up at a protest or a march. Ask someone about her tattoos. Give something away.

Some of you are going on a mission trip this week. If you come back unchanged, then I’m not a very good pastor – or you’re not a very good participant. We will be staying on a farm in the country at a shelter for homeless families. How will that affect you? Which of these people with whom you’re sitting will be a better friend when you get back? How do you think the next year in school will be different because you’re participating in this trip? Have you ever really spoken to someone who’s been homeless before? Why does God allow poverty in the world, anyway? I mean, if God can do anything, why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and whip up some more food or an apartment complex or something? What’s the deal with that? Why do you have a home and the people you’ll meet later today don’t? Are you better than them? Smarter? Holier? Does God like us better than he likes them?

Cute-Kittens-and-Babies-17-HD-Images-WallpapersI know, these are hard questions. Here’s a cute photo of a kitten  to calm you down so you don’t have to think so hard.

new_ideasBut the truth is that you will be a different person next week. How? And how will you allow that change to help you grow into God’s person in this world where you are?
You are a Christian. Why should you stop thinking?

Not Who You Thought?

On the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the saints at Crafton Heights considered the account of Jesus on the mountain as recorded in Mark 9:2-9.  Our other reading came from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

Sometimes I start the sermon with a joke, or a funny picture. Today, I have a serious theological question that I’d like you to think about. You don’t need to answer this one out loud, but give it some thought: Does Jesus ever change?

Absolute_ImmutabilityThe theological concept here is called “immutability”, and it refers to the notion that if God is truly God, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, forever and ever and ever, then God cannot change. And if Jesus is God, then Jesus cannot change either. So one scholar recently answered my question this way:

According to a broad consensus among the Reformed divines, the second person of the Godhead remains immutable by adding a nature that, while personally united with His own divine nature, does not alter it: the incarnation is to be regarded such that ‘the human mode of being was added to the eternal mode of the Logos by the assumption of the human nature into its personality without altering the latter.’… To suggest that the divine nature could change was to fail to uphold its own distinctive properties, confusing it with the human…[1]

In 1560, the leaders of the Church in Scotland that was to become the Presbyterian Church put it this way:

We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity of Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.[2]

These great theologians were simply trying to get at some of the truth that is found in Scripture:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)

God is no mere human! He doesn’t tell lies or change his mind. (Numbers 23:19, CEV)

 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17, NIV)

So, if you’re taking an examination at seminary or before the Presbytery, the right answer is this: Jesus does not change.

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Transfiguration, Titan (c. 1560)

Except, well, right there in Mark 9, Jesus sure seems to change. He was “transfigured” in front of his disciples. His appearance – his visage, clothing, bearing, and stature – they all change. We know this because it scared the heck out of the disciples, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote it down so that we’d know about it.

And there are other places where it sure looks to us like Jesus is changing. In Mark 8, for instance – and in a lot of other places, to be honest – the disciples, or somebody, comes to Jesus and say, “Hey! You’re the Messiah! You’re from God!” And Jesus’ response is “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” But in Mark 5, a man comes to him and says, “I know who you are – let me come with you!” And this time Jesus says, “No, you can’t come with me. Go to your home village and tell everyone what’s happened!”

One time, Jesus tells a man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and another time he allows a woman to pour all kinds of expensive oil on his feet, even while some of his followers are saying, “Wait! Aren’t we supposed to be giving this stuff to the poor?”

And even beyond all that, how can we say that Jesus never changed? I mean, seriously, he was human and divine, right? Which means, presumably, that at one point he was three feet tall and later he was five feet tall. He needed haircuts. He got older. Jesus changed.

You’re not surprised to learn that the theologians have considered all of those cases, and they turn to look at me with patience and sympathy and say, “Well, of course, Dave, those changes were real. But they were changes in Jesus’ method of communication, or changes in his physical expression. It’s not the same thing. When we talk about immutability, we mean that in Jesus Christ, the unchanging purposes of the unchanging God were clearly visible: the grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and holiness of God were made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Those things never change. The person and work of Jesus Christ is fully consistent with the eternal, changeless, omnipotent being.” And then, just because some theologians can be sort of snooty, at least one of them would do a facepalm and say, “For crying out loud, Carver, don’t come and talk to me about Jesus and haircuts. Seriously.”

And I would say, “Fair enough. I accept the immutability of Jesus, and will agree that God’s purposes are eternal and unchanging.”

But that leads me to another question: What if Jesus isn’t who you think he is?

Years ago, I was introduced to a man who was to become a friend to me: Bart Campolo. But because this was the early 1980’s and neither of us had any money and we lived on opposite coasts, we communicated – can you believe this – through the U.S. Mail. Every now and then we would talk on the phone, but mostly we sent letters. Yeah. I’m a dinosaur.

So one fall day in 1988 we were both going to be at a conference in Chicago. Michelle Salinetro was there, and she saw me walk into the room wearing my big old “Dave Carver, Pittsburgh PA” nametag, and extend my hand to “Bart Campolo, Oakland CA” and say, “Hey, Bart, man, it’s good to finally shake your hand.” And Bart Campolo looked at my face, and then at my nametag, and then at my face, and then at my nametag, and he finally said, “You’re Dave Carver? From Pittsburgh? Dude…I always thought you were black…” Ummmmmmm… Not sure what to say to that.

But what if we do that to Jesus? What if when we get a closer look at him – he’s not what we expect him to be?

Jean Vanier lived a life with which many of us can identify. He was born into a very comfortable family and was taught at an early age to strive and to achieve. He served in both the Canadian and British navies and rose through the ranks. When he finished in the navy, he received a doctorate and taught philosophy in Toronto. And then, through an odd twist, he was asked to leave the world of academia and live with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. He said,

I had to change, and change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself… When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing![3]

Can you imagine how disconcerting that would be – to go through most of your life thinking that Jesus was this way and then to discover that, no, Jesus is that way?

But that’s what happened to the disciples on the day of Transfiguration. The Jesus that they thought they knew ended up to be someone else. And that leads me to a couple of observations that might be helpful for 21st-century followers of Jesus.

First, don’t limit Jesus. I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, the Carvers have finally taken down the last of the Christmas decorations. My wife’s growing collection of nativity scenes has been packed away, and all the little baby Jesus figurines are safe in tissue paper and plastic bins in the basement. Those items have been carefully protected, and I am here to tell you that nothing is going to happen to baby Jesus in my basement in 2015. He’s safe and sound.

The problem with that, of course, is that as long as I keep Jesus safe and sound and hermetically sealed in a Tupperware in the basement, he’s not going to challenge me or change me.

You see, a lot of times, the disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds – they thought that they had Jesus all figured out. They’d seen him at work, they knew his stuff. And so they began to wrap him up and put him in a little box where they thought he belonged. They began to respond, not to the living Lord, but to their image of who or what they thought he was. Jesus was not pleased when this happened…

Don’t limit Jesus, or try to pack him into a little box. He won’t fit. And my second observation is the mirror of that: don’t limit yourself.

You, unlike the one eternal and immutable God, are destined for growth and change. There is nothing about your body that is exactly the same today as it was a week ago.

A few years back, I returned from a trip with the youth group. Sharon took the camera and asked to see some of the photos. Since members of the youth group had taken most of the photos, I was eager to see them, too. We sat on my sofa and we got to one shot that I just couldn’t place. I recognized the playground where the image was taken, and I knew several of the people in the photo. But there in the middle of the scene was an older guy looking away from the camera. All I could see was the top of his head and his shoulders. Before I could say anything, Sharon said, “What are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know who this is.” My bride said, “It’s you!” I said, “It can’t be me. The guy in this photo has a bald spot.” And she said, “Honey, it’s you.” I said, “Seriously? I have a bald spot? And nobody told me?” I had no idea why my head had been so cold. I had changed – but not known it.

You and I change physically. We grow mentally and intellectually. Depending on where we are in our lives, we either accept those things or celebrate them.

What about spiritually? Where are you growing, and how are you changing spiritually?

The person and work and hope of Jesus Christ is eternal and unchanging. I get that. But how is your perspective of that work, and your relationship with that person growing? We ought to be constantly developing as spiritual creatures. If your understanding of God in Christ and the role he plays in your life is the same now as it was when you were four, then you are in trouble.

I accept the scriptures fully – that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That he is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus does not change.

But our ideas about Jesus probably will change, because faith is alive and active and engaging and growing. If we are not able to hear Jesus calling us to some new places every now and then, I fear we are not listening.

This coming week we will observe Ash Wednesday here at Church. The season of Lent begins, and this forty day period, as much as any other season of church life, presents us with an opportunity to engage Jesus and develop our spiritual lives.

I am begging you to do this in the next six or seven weeks. Invite the unchanging Jesus into all of your life. Ask that Christ to show you where he is at work in the world.

I know that for many people, Lent is thought of as a season in which we “give up” something. We deny ourselves some pleasure or treat in the hopes that we might identify more completely with the suffering of Jesus.

And, to tell you the truth, if going without meat or television or Facebook is going to help you learn more about Christ’s suffering, then by all means, go for it.

But let me ask you to do this thing, too. If you are going to “give up” something this Lent, then please “take up” something as well. Read. Pray. Sing. Serve. Write. Walk. Share.

For instance, what if, instead of giving up sweets for Lent, you decided that you were going to bake cookies or bread or pie once a week and share that with your neighbors? What if you made time in your life to be a blessing in a simple, unexpected way?

What if, instead of giving up coffee and making everyone in your workplace or home miserable until Easter, you took fifteen minutes a day to visit with someone – either by phone, in person, or through the mail? What if you adopted a practice that would immerse you more deeply in the lives of people that Jesus loves?

The word “Lent” comes from Old English and Germanic words that mean “lengthening daylight”. Between now and Easter, the days will get longer, the sun will get higher. You may start your garden seeds indoors. In some parts of the State, the trout season will open. Lent is a time of year that is full of newness and growth and life and depth.

It would be an absolute shame if all of that newness and growth and life and depth was found in the natural world, and not in our hearts, spirits, and lives. Jesus doesn’t change. But I will. And by God’s grace, my ability to know, understand, and follow Jesus will, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Sumner, Darren, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 45.

[2] The Scots Confession 3.07

[3] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press 1994, pp. 18, 23).

It’s About the Walk

As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”

On October 19, as our congregation observed “Preschool Sunday”, we considered the command to “Walk Humbly with God”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 131 and Mark 10:13-16

For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at one of the key texts in the Old Testament. The people have left God’s best for them and are now faced with the threat of war, exile, and even the extinction of their nation. They turn to Micah, God’s spokesman, and say, “Well what can we do? How are we supposed to stay alive?” And the response, which you’ve already heard this morning, is clear: “He has shown you what is good – and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

That’s how we stay alive. Do justice: that is, when you are in a position to assist one who has been wronged or to lift up someone who has been stepped on, do it.

And love kindness: that is, growing into a pattern of living where those acts of justice come, not as a response to a command, but out of the depths of your heart.

And walk humbly: that is, shape your daily behavior in such a way so that God’s power and presence in the world is more visible to the people who are around you. When the prophet, or God, or you and I, use the word “walk” in this way we are referring to a way of life.

I find it interesting (and refreshing) to see that this last condition on how we are to make it out of here alive does not hinge on our theological dexterity. It is not based on our intelligence, nor does it rely on us having the correct position on current political issues. The prophet asks us about the way that we live.

In that way, of course, he reminds us of Jesus, who wasn’t particularly big on inviting people to sit around and make sure that everybody agreed on a particular set of ideas. Jesus didn’t come with a slate of answers or a political agenda to which he required everyone to adhere.

DustNo, when Jesus wanted to get inside of your head or your heart, what did he say? “Follow me.” “Walk like I do.” The way that you live, and the one that you follow, says a lot about what you believe. The Jews have recognized this when they refer to the collective body of written commandments as wisdom as halakha – that is, “the way to walk”. Neither Micah nor Jesus talks about ideas in the abstract; instead, they invite us to join with the Lord in a way of living.

And how does Micah invite us to walk? We have a very rare Hebrew word here, which is usually translated as “humbly.” As I look at that word, and at the ways in which it is used in other places, I think that I will agree with those scholars who suggest that a more faithful translation would be “wisely” or “carefully”. We are to engage the world (that is, to live) each day knowing who we are and who God is, and acting as if that matters.

The scriptures you’ve heard this morning talk about that kind of awareness and lifestyle. And, not suprisingly on Preschool Sunday, each of the verses point us in the direction of children.

The 131st Psalm is very useful to us in our daily devotion because it reminds us to be alert to two dangers in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are to be alert to the evil of pride. A modern translation of this passage gets it right: “God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.” (The Message)

If we are to walk wisely, we must remember that we live in relationship with God. We are not in charge, we are not in control – we have a place in the universe that is less than primary.

That idea, even though it sounds terribly obvious when I stand up here and say it out loud, runs counter to the experience that most of us have every day. Our culture tells us that we are supposed to be on top of the heap and exercise our own power and strength. When Eugene Peterson writes about this verse, he says,

It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as an achievement. What is described in Scripture as the basic sin, the sin of taking things into your own hands, being your own god, grabbing what is there while you can get it, is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able, get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But at the end the devil has his due There is damnation.[1]

An essential, if seemingly-obvious, aspect of the faithful walk is recognizing that at the end of the day, God is in charge and I am not. Pride is my enemy.

But the Psalm does not only warn us against the evil of arrogance. The next passage cautions us against the resignation that can come from a clingy dependency and a refusal to grow up into being our own person in God’s sight.

Dave with Caitlin & MackenzieOne of the great blessings of being me – and there are many – is that I have known a lot of babies. Not only that, but people seem to trust me with their children, and will willingly hand me the little angels when they are only a few hours old. And here is something I have noticed about every infant I’ve ever held: sooner or later, that baby will get fussy and start to scream at me for something that I will never, in a million years, be able to provide. You know what I’m talking about – there I am holding that baby, smiling for the photos, and what starts out as a nuzzle before too long turns into a situation where that child is rooting around expecting old Pastor Dave to come up with some milk. Sooner or later, every infant cries – not for a relationship, not for affirmation – but for a meal. If you have ever been a mother, you know what it is like to be yelled at, not for who you are, but for what you provide. You are a meal ticket.Dave with Caitlin & Mackenzie

But the Psalmist compares himself to a weaned child resting at its mother’s breast. A weaned child is not looking at mom as a commodity. A weaned child is there because that child has learned that mom’s lap is a delightful place to be in and of itself.

Many of you know that I was away for much of 2010. I traveled the world and saw some amazing things, and I am hard pressed to say which of the experiences I was blessed with was the most memorable. For four months, I was living in a dream.

But this is one thing I hope I never forget about that trip: In September of 2010 I arrived home from the airport. As I carried my bags up the steps on Cumberland Street, I heard a small voice coming from next door: “Hey! Pastor Dave is home! Pastor Dave is home!” And before I could reach my front porch, I was bowled over by my next-door neighbor and covered with kisses.

Samaiya was only about two and a half years old at the time, and she didn’t need me for anything. She wasn’t expecting a gift, and she didn’t think I had snacks. She just wanted me. That is what Psalm 131 looks like – rushing to embrace God because he is there, and he is good, and he loves you, and because you love God.

A few hundred years later, Jesus holds out the children in his community as special. He doesn’t think that they are pure or perfect. He commends them because they are willing to be blessed, eager to be loved, and wanting to be taught.

A weaned child is content with the relationship for its own sake. That child doesn’t see her mother as a means towards satisfying herself, but rather as a good and loving presence that is to be treasured and received. Again, I would imagine that the parents in this room know the difference between a weaned and an unweaned child.

But here’s the deal: weaning is hard work for both the wean-ee and the wean-er. It’s confusing and painful and noisy. But it needs to happen eventually if the child has any hope at a real and somewhat normal life.

In your spiritual life, are you weaned?

The reason I ask that is that from time to time, someone will come into my study and say, “I don’t know, Pastor, it’s just different. I’m not feeling it any more – not like I was. When I first followed Jesus, I knew that God had my back. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I cried out for something and there was a miraculous answer right then and there. When I needed God, he was right there. But now, when I pray, it seems different. I cry out, and I’m not sure that God even hears me. Does God still love me?”

Of course God loves you. God couldn’t love you any more. But maybe God is weaning you from an infantile dependence on the emotional lift you think you need in order to get through the day so that you might grow up into a discipleship that is healthy and vigorous. Maybe God is teaching you how to discern and act for yourself, building on the lessons you’ve already learned, so that you can walk wisely in this world.

I just spent twenty-four hours with my daughter and her husband and my eleven-month old granddaughter. It was wonderful. I had not seen them since September 1.

But things are changing. Do you know that the last time I was there, Ariel carried Lucia everywhere. It seemed as if that child could not move on her own – the only way she got from the living room to the kitchen to the car was if some big strong grown up came along and scooped her from one place to another.

But yesterday, I put that baby down in the living room and when I went to the kitchen to get some coffee, I turned around and she was there! I set her by the table, and in ten seconds she was climbing towards the sofa.

And you say, “Of course, you idiot. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Lucia is learning to walk. Watch out – once she’s mobile…boom!”

Of course she has to learn to walk. Like she will learn to feed herself, and dress herself, and think for herself. We would not have it any other way.

In the same way, those of us who are made in the image of God are called to learn to walk on our own, and freely, in the direction that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later, we all get to the questions that Micah’s audience had in the 6th century BC: what does God want from me? How am I supposed to live, anyway?

The answer provided here and demonstrated by Jesus is clear and natural: a step by step living with and walking with God, living for others; a life where we advocate for the powerless and care for those who are hurting and help those whom are are able.[2]

We come together each week to remind us that this walk is for us, and for our children, and for those whom God loves in our community – which is to say, it is a walk to which each of us is called.

I don’t know what scares you or thrills you or bores you or excites you about your life today. Are you concerned about Ebola, or worried about your property values? Are you afraid you might be pregnant? Or concerned that you never will be? Is it your job, your marriage, or your lack of one of those conditions? I don’t know.

But I do know that God has put you in a place where you can learn to walk towards his best. You may cry out and sense an immediate rescue. And you may find a season of confusion and discomfort. You may find, in the struggle, that you have resources or abilities you did not realize were yours. You are still you. And God is still God. Our calling to so live as if those things are both always true. Thanks be to God, they are. Amen.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity, 2000), p. 152.

[2] Adapted from James Limburg’s commentary on Micah 6:8 in the Interpretation series (John Knox, 1988, p. 193).

Mixing It Up

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of her insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series began on June 15 with readings from Mark 1:9-13 and Genesis 1:1-5.  On this day, we celebrated two baptisms and also commissioned the Summer ministry staff at the church.

What is the best-known collection of Jesus’ ethical teachings? The Sermon on the Mount, right? I mean, everyone has heard something about the Sermon on the Mount, and many people, even those who profess to have no faith in Christ, would say that Jesus is on to something in those verses.

One of the most famous passages of that scripture contains Jesus’ advice to “consider the birds”. Do you remember that? “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (MT 6:26)

That’s what I do, folks. Jesus says “Consider,” and by golly, I will. I watch them…feed them…crawl up rocky trails for hours…endure unwarranted criticism about my allegedly erratic driving whilst certain feathered creatures are nearby… Hey, I’m just trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Persecute me if you must…

Consider-the-BirdsI love the birds. And I love Jesus. So when I saw a new book by Debbie Blue entitled Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, well, that just seemed like a good excuse for a little continuing education that I could not pass up. And when I read this volume, I knew that I wanted to share some of her insights with you, sprinkled in with a little of my own thought.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book for your own pleasure or edification, I have a few of them here and, of course, they are available in stores or online.

Consider the birds for a moment. If God were a bird, what kind of bird would God be?

Almeida Júnior, Batismo de Jesus, 1895

Almeida Júnior, Batismo de Jesus, 1895

Oh, jeez, Dave, that’s a softball. God would be a dove. Most often in scripture, when we read about some description of God as a bird, he shows up as a dove. It’s right there in Mark 1. In fact, early on – the Genesis reading – says that “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.” In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud adds the words “like a dove”.

And really, if you’re going to assign an avian identity to the creator of the universe, why not go with “dove”? After all, what do doves signify? Peace, purity, sacrifice, gentleness…

El Greco - The Immaculate Conception Contemplated by Saint John the Evangelist (c.1585)

El Greco – The Immaculate Conception Contemplated by Saint John the Evangelist (c.1585)

Remember when Noah wanted to see if there was any hope for the inhabitants of the Ark? He sent out a raven first, but everyone knows you can’t trust those birds. Then a dove, right? In all the paintings of the Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception, how is the Holy portrayed? With a dove!

Of course, the twenty-first century has continued the historical identification of the dove with the holy. Look at all the places that little dove sticker has shown up – on cars, tattoos, clothing, backpacks – you name it, and there’s someone willing to sell you a dove symbol to slap onto it in the name of “evangelism” or “testimony”.

Before going further, I have to say that as much as I like birds, I find that to be a little irritating – as if the Holy Spirit was a fragile, delicate, even dainty presence. As if Christians, like Noah’s dove, are too good for the “real world”.

At any rate, would you agree that often, we see the attributes of God in the image of a dove? Yes? Let me ask you, then, whether your concept of the divine would change if Mark said, “he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him like a pigeon…”?pigeon

The truth, as you may know, is that the family Columbidae consists of 310 related species that are called, interchangeably, pigeons or doves. There is no standard rule as to which label to put on which bird. “Pigeon” is from a Latin root that apparently refers to the peeping of the chicks, and “Dove” is of Germanic origin, and refers to the diving flight pattern these birds share.

I learned that these words are used interchangeably while on a trip to Malawi some years ago. I was visiting a very poor village, but one man seemed to be doing all right. He had invited me into his home for dinner, and I asked what he did for a living. He indicated that he was a farmer and a breeder, and he raised doves for a living – that they were a very good source of meat. “Well,” I thought to myself, “that sounds really interesting…” And, I will confess to you, I felt a little sophisticated that evening, sitting in his home, thinking that I was dining on freshly-harvested dove.

And then, after dinner, he took me to the rear of his home and showed me his coops – small cages, filled, not with the holy, innocent birds of my imagination, but with pigeons.

Flying rats. Pests. Dirty, dirty birds.

But the scripture says that the Spirit appeared like a peristeron – a word that is sometimes translated as “dove” and other times as “pigeon.” Is God like a pigeon? Seriously? Well, what do you know about pigeons?

Maybe you know that pigeons, or doves, are used as tools for communication. Three thousand years ago, the Greeks used homing pigeons to deliver the results of Olympic races. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was first delivered to England by means of a carrier pigeon. Thirty-two pigeons have been awarded medals by the US military for carrying important information across enemy lines. Before the advent of drones, both the German Nazis and the American CIA fitted pigeons with little cameras and sent them aloft to gather information about the enemy.

Pigeons are everywhere. The only places on earth without some form of pigeon inhabitant are the extreme polar regions. Otherwise, however, you will find these birds just about anywhere that human beings can be found.

And, interestingly enough, while some birds are quite shy and are apt to take flight if they sense the presence of humans, pigeons are the opposite: they actually prefer living in an environment that is well-populated.

Think of that: pigeons carry news, they can be found just about anywhere, and delight in the company of humanity. Aren’t all of those things attributes of the Holy? Isn’t God like that? I mean, the Holy Spirit brought a message in Mark: “You are my son, my beloved, and I am deeply pleased!” Psalm 139 reminds us that there is no place on earth we can go to escape God’s spirit. And of course the Bible is full of references to the delight and love that God shares in his creation of human beings. Maybe God is like a pigeon.

No, no, no! Doves, I can take. Pigeons are disgusting vermin. God is not like that. Pigeons are unclean. The Holy Spirit, and God moving through Christ – that is clean and pure.

Don’t be so sure.

The Annunciation and Incarnation announce the truth: God is enfleshed. The Almighty has become one of us. Do you believe that?

pigeonsAnd you know the truth: that to be human is to experience, endure, and even to cause some measure of unpleasantness. There are smells and wrinkles and sounds of which we are not (or at least should not be) proud. You know what I mean: you people, in all of your human-ness and fleshiness and embodiment can be, well, disgusting at times.

And yet God the Father has sent God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to be one of us. God chose to participate in human-ness. And human-ness can be a messy business!

Just look at the Gospel reading for today. What is the first thing, according to Mark, that Jesus does when he’s starting off his ministry? He undergoes baptism. The all-powerful, all-pure, holy and obedient Son of God walks into a ritual that symbolizes death and renewed life, and commands us to do the same. That’s a funny way to launch a religion. Debbie Blue refers to it this way:

There’s something about the story of God becoming human, entering the body fully, touching all over everything unclean – eating, defecating, suffering, dying…that seems to be the thrust of the narratives.
Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized…a symbol of death and renewed life…Gods don’t generally die – nor would they stoop to being baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary.
To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. John the Baptist says he saw it descend as a dove – a pigeon. It lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit it with a stick all day long, but it keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.[1]

Listen: the Spirit of God is hovering, like a pigeon, in your world. The good news of the dove-ish, pigeon-like God is that no place is too messy, and no person is too impure, and no part of your life is beyond God’s reach.

Ask Jason and Kelly, or Jason and Amanda, or any of our Cross Trainer staff if they awaken every day to see only sweetness and light, unadulterated joy and innocence, or beatific and delightful aromas coming from the children that they have been given to love for a lifetime or for a season.

That is not likely.

There is a lot of spit-up, poopy diapers, body odor, and general grossness involved with coming alongside of people in their human-ness. I am reminded of the time a few years back when one of the Cross Trainer staff come to me and said, “Um, Pastor Dave, will you come and take a look at this? Because this one little boy’s hair is, well, um, moving. I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that.” Yeah. Lice at the summer camp.

Being human is not for the rosy-eyed optimists, the unsullied idealists, the faint of heart, or those who are afraid to enter the “real world” for fear of being polluted.

And yet, God in Christ has identified with us so completely in our humanity that he undergoes a baptism.

Thanks be to God for his willingness to enter fully into where we are, and who we are, and what we are so that we might better glimpse where, who, and what God is.

In a few moments, you will be called to leave this sanctuary and enter into the messiness, the impurity, the ordinariness of life in your world. Don’t be afraid to mix it up with the messiness of life and love, and with people who are not as “pure” as you wish they were. Don’t be surprised when you discover that you are not as “pure” as you’d like your pastor to believe you are. God is, no matter how difficult you may find it to believe, with you.

[God] lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit [God] with a stick all day long, but [He] keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.[2]

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013) p. 18

[2] Blue, p. 18.

Asaph, Titus, and Us

The message presented here was shared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary celebration of my ministry with the good people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  It was preached on November 10, 2013.  Texts included Psalm 78:1-8 and Titus 1:5, 2:1-7.  

OTHeroesLet’s pretend that I’ve asked you to write a booklet entitled “Great Heroes of the Old Testament”.  Who do you include?  Abraham? Joseph? Noah? David? Solomon? Deborah? Elijah?  You can come up with quite a list, can’t you?

How long would that list have to be before you got around to including Asaph?

Who?

Exactly.

The Choristers by James Tissot

The Choristers by James Tissot

Asaph was a young man who was brought into the limelight by David when he was a little more than twenty years old.  He started out in the percussion section, where he played the cymbals as the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles.  Not long afterward, he was promoted to “Chief Musician.”  King David appointed Asaph to be the worship leader in the “Tent of Meeting”.

How intimidating would that be? David, who was a skilled musician, a “man after God’s own heart”, asked Asaph to lead the music.  That’d be like Sidney Crosby asking Ron Gielarowski to take a couple of his shifts while he was working on something else, or maybe Paul McCartney asking Jon to fill in on bass while he played the piano.

But that’s what Asaph did.  For four decades, he was called to remind people of God’s grace; to lead them in giving thanks; and to help them express their grief when times got tough.  He was there when they were meeting in the Tent and he was there when they dedicated Solomon’s temple.  In many ways, Asaph became the consummate religious insider.  He watched David’s rise from rebel leader to King; he saw him fall in the scandal that surrounded his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah; he was on hand for Absalom’s revolt and he witnessed the decay of the nation’s faith when David’s son Solomon started to worship false gods.  Asaph is noted as the author of twelve Psalms, which means that he’s credited with writing more of the Bible than Abraham, Elijah, or most of the twelve apostles.

Asaph is not on anyone’s list of great Bible heroes.  Well, he’s on mine.  Because all he did was to keep pointing to the Lord.  All he did was to remind people that it’s a good thing to give thanks.  All he did was to pray fervently that the Story would live on in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

Psalm 78 is an amazing bit of truth-telling in the midst of the Bible.  Asaph presents himself as a teacher who points to God’s amazing goodness…and to the ways that we, God’s people, have fallen short.  He says, “Look, we have to keep saying the hard things to make sure that we don’t hide anything from the next generation – we want them to grow up knowing God.  In fact, we want them to grow up being better than we are.”

I have to interrupt Asaph right there and say that’s not a very Christian attitude.  Specifically, it’s not a very 21st-century American Christian attitude.

Here’s what I mean: in my experience, very few believers expect anything in the church to be better fifteen or twenty years in the future.  The story of the American church in the last century is to think about how it was last year, or five or ten years ago, and then try to figure out a way to make what we’re doing this year almost as good.  As if we’re stockpiling our supply of God’s grace and power, and we don’t want to blow it all at once.  As if God can’t use our children more powerfully than God uses us.  And so on our best days, we hope that our children are like us. Or, to be honest, almost as good as we are.

But Asaph reminds us that the call of God is to give the next generation all that we are and all that we have and all that we know so that they will not, in fact, be like us…but that they will be better.  God’s call is that the next generation is not to be stubborn and rebellious, but that they might be more faithful than we.  More generous than we.  More obedient than we.

And because Asaph looks at my parents, and me, and then at my daughter and my unborn grandchild like that, and expects God to continue working in a family like mine…Asaph is one of my heroes.

NTHeroesNow, let’s pretend that the volume of Old Testament Heroes sold so well that you’ve been commissioned to write a sequel, which I’ll imaginatively call “Great Heroes of the New Testament”.  Who do you include in that work?  Jesus, of course.  Mary?  Peter? Paul? John? Zacchaeus? John the Baptist?

How long would it have to be before that list got around to including Titus?

I would imagine more people have heard of Titus than Asaph.  Titus was a young follower of the Apostle Paul.  They must have made an odd pair.  Paul was a crusty old Pharisee who had been classically trained by one of the greatest minds in the first century, the Rabbi Gamaliel.  His entire life was focused on preserving ancient truth and the traditions of the ancestors.  Paul was a Jew’s Jew.  He was a hothead.  He was always on the go.  And he wrote half of the New Testament.

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

Saint Titus, as presented in a 14th-century painting in St. Nicholas Church, Kosovo

And somehow Paul becomes involved in a life-changing relationship with Titus, a man who was much younger than he, who wasn’t even Jewish, never became a Jew, and didn’t write a single verse of the Bible.  If Asaph was the consummate insider, Titus was the consummate outsider.  He wasn’t even allowed into the Temple in which Asaph served for four decades.  By the rules that Paul taught for most of his life, Titus wasn’t good enough to carry Paul’s lunchbox around for him – and definitely couldn’t share lunch with Paul.

And yet, somehow, Paul calls Titus “my true child in the faith”.  How intimidating would that be? To have the guy who’s pictured in all the stained-glass windows and has his fingerprints all over the original copies of the New Testament point his finger at you and say, “You, son…you’re next.  You’re amazing.”  But that’s what it says.  I mean, it’s my own translation, and a loose one, but that’s essentially what’s happening here.

Titus was Paul’s emissary on numerous trips to churches around Asia and Europe.  He corrected the Corinthians.  He took up offerings for the church in Jerusalem.  And this morning we read of how he was sent to Crete to establish and nurture a Christian community there.

How did Titus do that? By employing the same methods that Asaph used. He met people where they were and valued them for who they were.  He told the people the truth about who they were – good and bad – and he loved them.  He trained them and he equipped them to grow.  Titus expected those people to live into the fullness of their identity as Christ’s body on earth, the church.

OK, let’s imagine one more time.  Our series of Biblical Heroes books has sold so well that we’ve been commissioned to do one further volume: “The Greatest Churches in North America Since 1900.”

PreachersI hate to break this to you, but just like Asaph and Titus aren’t on most people’s lists of Biblical heroes, you’re not going to find The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights included in any retrospective of significant developments in ecclesiology over the past century.  And if you Google “most influential pastor in America” you get three quarters of a million “hits”.  If you Google “most influential pastor in America” and “Dave Carver”, you get…um, zero “hits.”

We know the truth, don’t we, my friends?  Who are we?  We’re us.  We know we’re not all that.  Come on, if I walked into the room and said, “OK, we’re going to ‘CHUP it up’ a little bit”, most of you would know what I mean by that – we’re going to find a way to make the thing work – we’re going to look for God’s grace and celebrate his love…but it might not be pretty.  Let’s CHUP it up.

We know that we are closer to Asaph and Titus than we are to the power of David, the glory of Solomon, or to the wisdom of Paul, aren’t we?

Isn’t that great?  I can think of no better comrades for our journey in this time and this place than Asaph and Titus.  Here’s why:

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that one of the defining characteristics of the Christian community is that we always want to compare ourselves to others – and that leads to the kind of intimidation I mentioned might have been present with Asaph and David or Titus and Paul.  Bonhoeffer speaks of the passage where Luke records that “an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest”.  According to Bonhoeffer, “…no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord.”[1]

That tendency to compare – to think, “I’m not as holy as so and so, but man, am I better than you know who” is corrosive to our ability to be the kind of community that Asaph, Titus, and indeed Christ envision.  When we can release that tendency, then we discover great freedoms.

One is the freedom to truly love each other.  When we refuse to compare or judge, Bonhoeffer says, “…each individual will make a matchless discovery.  He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person…and thus doing violence to him as a person.  Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be…God did not make this person as I would have made him…God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image.”[2]  When I celebrate that image, then I love both God and the other.

Another freedom we gain from refusing to compare ourselves is the freedom to listen to each other.  Again, turning to Bonhoeffer: “Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others…[that] they forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking…There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.  It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person…We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”[3]

And when we refuse to compare ourselves with others, and therefore are free to love and to listen, we become free to proclaim the mystery of grace to one another.  One more quote from Bonhoeffer on this:  “We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.  We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go…Why should we be afraid of each other, since both of us have only God to fear?…Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition?  Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?”[4]

Beloved, can you see some of us in those quotes?  That when we are at our best, we acknowledge that we are not the most amazing faith community with the best structure and the greatest pastor in the world today.  That’s OK, because we are not called to be those things.  We are called to be loving and listening and proclaiming the Truth in this place with these people at this time so that the world will change.

Speaking of painting, if you haven't seen the new paint job at CHUP, you've been away too long...

One of my favorite examples of this truth is the time that one of the pastors from a very large, wealthy, and influential church sat with a small group of us back in the parlor and quizzed us for 45 minutes as to what we were doing and how we were doing it.  At the end of the time he said, “Thank you so much for sharing this.  This means a lot, because my church thinks that it can’t do very much, but what you are doing…and the way you are doing it.  I mean, don’t be offended by this, but the truth is, if CHUP can do it, anybody can.”

EXACTLY!  If Asaph and Titus teach us anything, it’s that with God’s help, anybody can do this!

Listen:  this weekend we are having a good time celebrating two decades of shared ministry as pastor and people.  We are aware of the fact that for 26 of the last 31 years we have been together.  That is rare in the church in North America, and it should be noted.

But the reality is that although it is rare, things are as they should be.  That is to say, what you are doing here is passing along the gifts of Asaph and Titus: one generation seeks to take its strength, its hope, its gifts, and hand them to the next.  It’s God’s plan.  It works.

As the committee came to me with the suggestion that this morning’s service include a time of celebration of shared ministry, the one thing that was clear to me was that this service is not about me, and it’s not about us.  It is about the power of God to work in and through the Body of Christ.

As I have reflected in recent weeks, I am personally deeply humbled and profoundly grateful that I have been allowed to participate in these ministries.  The stories you have told me…the trust you have placed in me…the horrors we have faced together…the babies we have buried…the children we have witnessed soaring above us…the games we have played…the sin that has been exposed and forgiven…the friends who have brought us here or joined us on the way…the mission trips and retreats that have changed us…the profoundly broken people who have been such amazing vessels of Christ’s love and grace to us…the photos that line my study and the memories that fill our heads – these are all reminders of the fact that we have never, ever been alone on this journey.

And so like Asaph and Titus, we echo and we do not forget the works of God.  We name them.  We celebrate them.  We share them.  We are blessed – and that is wonderful.  But we never forget that we are blessed in order that we might become a blessing to others.  Let’s celebrate where we are, and dream about where we are going, because there are amazing things ahead of us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

To help celebrate this anniversary, my dear friend Adam Simcox composed an original song to be sung as a part of the worship experience on November 10.  I have his permission to share the lyrics with you here, and if I can come up with a way to get the recording online, I’ll do that, too.

Out On The Water

Sidewalks don’t change but the faces come and go / having lost their own way some barely pulling through.

hands that reach out and pull us in tight / when we rest in your love on those long dark nights.

(you continue to fight)

all alone lost in the fray / accepting a lie we’ve gone too far away

I’m not worthy and clearly not worth it / My motives don’t always measure up

At times I feel so helpless they look to me for “holy” / Will my efforts ever be enough

On my own I am nothing / In you I’m made complete 

CHORUS: But you’re already there out on the water calling my name

should I walk out in faith it’s so easy to falter / I hear your voice speaking to me

your hand reaching to the deep setting me free

we’re all in the same boat floating along / longing for the deeper in this life.

I’m just a man and they’re just someones / we hope for a glimpse with these crippled eyes

to your purpose to your plan / each small step your holding our hands

chorus

Each day I wake up help me to live / into your plan into your will

you see each one not for what they are / but for who you’ve meant them to be

who you’ve made us to be / won’t you please help us to see

chorus

During the Service, my beautiful bride presented me with a gift symbolizing twenty years of ministry in the congregation.  It is a handmade stole, reflecting the artistry of our friend Jenny at Carrot Top Studio in Pittsburgh.  It’s white, the color for celebration and resurrection.  It has on it handprints from 25 children who have been baptized or dedicated over the years – an incomplete sample, to be sure – but an amazing symbol nonetheless.  There is even a handprint for a little guy who has been born, but has yet to be baptized – my little friend Brogan (thus making 26 prints).  Jon, at 25, is the oldest “child” represented; and Brogan is of course the youngest.  It is simply amazing.  Here are a couple of images:

Carver-anniversary-front


Carver-anniversary-back

[1]Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954) p. 90

[2] Life Together pp. 92-93.

[3] Life Together pp. 97-99.

[4] Life Together p. 106.

Don’t Forget Your Glasses

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  On August 4, we explored the impact that John Calvin had on our church family, and particularly, his emphasis on God’s people being fully attentive to God’s Word.  The Scriptures we shared were Matthew 23:16-24 and II Timothy 3:10-17.

medieval-peasantsI would like for you to use your imagination for a few moments.  I want you to put yourself in another time and place…let’s say that you are in Europe, and it’s 600 years ago.  You have been born into a “Christian” culture, which means that by and large, the law of the Church is the law of the land.

The Church is, in many respects, a political machine.  It has become the path to career success for the wealthy elite or the refuge for the very poor.  The leadership lives in luxury whilst common people struggle.  All across Europe you have seen unholy alliances between the Church and the State: the Church teaches a doctrine called “the Divine Right of Kings”, which says that the King is the King because God made him the King, and so the Church backs the King.  In return, the Church receives favorable land grants and tax status from the person who is currently King. In many countries, infants must be baptized in order to claim their citizenship.

You don’t know how to read or write, but you can do your work on the farm, or in the bakery, or around the house just fine without that.  In fact, the pastor is the only person you know who can actually read and write.

You’re told that you should go to church, but you find that to be difficult because the entire service is conducted in Latin…a language that hardly anyone actually speaks and few understand.  You have recently discovered that your pastor, in spite of leading all of the worship services in Latin, does not actually know that language – he simply sounds out the words from the papers that the Church sends to him.

Remember, nothing says "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" better than "and there is a lake of fire waiting for the whole miserable lot of you..."

Remember, nothing says “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” better than “and there is a lake of fire waiting for the whole miserable lot of you…”

You are required to go to confession at least once a year so that you can take communion once a year.  You need to do that so that when you die, you can get into heaven.  If you do not follow all the rules of the church, then of course you won’t make it to heaven.  If you’re lucky, you can get to Purgatory, where your soul will be in torment until you’ve been punished enough for your sin…or until a rich relative makes a donation to the church and buys your entrance into heaven through what is called an “indulgence”.

And this is not just your life.  This is the life of everyone you know, and most people on the continent… Does this sound like a situation that has the makings of a vibrant faith life?  Does this sound like an expression of Jesus’ intentions when he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly!”, or “I am gentle and humble of heart.  You will find rest for your souls, for my burden is light and my yoke is easy…”?

Of course it doesn’t.  The situation we’ve just imagined was real for most folks living in Europe in the 13th – 16th centuries.  It’s not a living faith, it’s a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo designed to keep you in your place (and the King and church leaders in their places!).  Just as Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, the Church was full of people who claimed to be guides, but who were in fact blind.

Fortunately, the Church was addressed by a host of different leaders who protested some of these practices. Men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and Jan Hus all stood up to the power structures and sought to correct some of the abuses.  This movement is known as the “Reformation” because the church, and much of the world, was re-formed as a result of their teaching, preaching, and influence.  There were two main rallying cries of the Reformation.  The first was sola fides, or “by faith alone”.  It was repeated as a warning to people not to think that there was anything we could do to earn God’s love or our own salvation – it is only through faith that we come to know who God is and who we are.  The second cry is sola scriptura, which translates as “by the Bible alone”.  The church had accumulated a big pile of tradition and scholarship, and there were some in the Church who believed that the teachings of the church leaders in the tenth century were as important as the writings of the Bible.  The Reformers were insistent on the fact that in all things, we look first to God’s word, and then to our own.

John Calvin

John Calvin

As we continue to meet some of the faces at our “Family Reunion” of the faith, I want to introduce you to John Calvin, who was born on July 10, 1509 in France.  Although his father originally wanted him to be a priest, he was sent to school to be a lawyer after his father and the bishop had an argument.  When he graduated from the University, where he learned Latin and Greek, he became associated with a man who was seeking reform within the church.  The Church denounced Calvin along with that man, and he fled to Switzerland.  Christians there begged him to help reform the Church in Geneva, but he was reluctant.  Eventually, he agreed to stay, only to be driven out by the town council a couple of years later (you know how churches love change!).

Several years after that, he was invited to return to Geneva, where he remained the rest of his life.  Calvin was first and foremost a scholar.  In fact, the black robe that I am wearing today is called a “Geneva Gown” in recognition of the fact that Calvin thought that all men of learning should be distinguished by their attire.

Calvin founded the church government that we call the Presbyterian system.  As he looked at the abuses of the church, he was sure that many of them were caused by putting too much power in the hands of too few people, and so he said that rather than being run by a hierarchical system of clergy, the church ought to be led by a number of elders.  The Greek word for “elder” is “presbuteros”.  The pastor is a “teaching elder”, and others are “ruling elders”, and together they were called to administrate the church’s life.

We could talk for weeks and weeks about Calvin’s legacy and his impact on the church, but this morning I’d like to highlight his commitment to making sure that people had access to the Word of God.  Remember, when he was young, the Bible was only read in a foreign language to people who could not understand it.  There were those who thought it was, in fact, a magical book.  Do you know the “magic words” – “Hocus Pocus”?  They come from the Latin translation of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). When the pastor stood in front of the congregation reciting a language that nobody understood, Hoc est corpus became hocus pocus.  I don’t think we have any appreciation for how the Bible was misused at that time.  Calvin helped us to see that, just as Paul wrote to Timothy, the Word of God is necessary to growing in faith and useful in our daily lives.

In that time, not unlike our own, there was considerable disagreement as to which church was the “true” church.  Change was sweeping the globe, and there were so many teachings.  Calvin said that the first mark of the “true” church was that the Word of God was rightly preached and understood.  Let me say that again: the first mark of the true church is when the Word of God is rightly preached and understood.  I think that we need to unpack that, because for Calvin, the “Word of God” had multiple meanings.

Philippe de Champaigne The Annunciation (1644)  Note the connection between the dove (Spirit of God) and Mary's ear - the WORD (logos) of God becoming enfleshed.  See also the open Bible in front of Mary.

Philippe de Champaigne The Annunciation (1644)        Note the connection between the dove (Spirit of God) and Mary’s ear – the WORD (logos) of God becoming enfleshed. See also the open Bible in front of Mary.

First, he would want us to know that the Word of God refers to the eternal second person of the Trinity, the One who was with God at the beginning of the universe.  We understand God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Gospel of John says that the second person in that Trinity is the “Logos” – the “Word”.  So everything that the church does should point to that Word of God.

Secondly, the Word of God refers to Jesus the Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh – Jesus of Nazareth, who showed us everything we know about grace, peace, mercy and truth.  Again, Calvin’s thinking comes from the Gospel of John, which tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

word-of-godThe third way that Calvin understood the Word of God was when he referred to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  Calvin called this “the inscripturated” word – that is, that through the power of God’s Spirit, God’s people can know the intentions and presence of God as recorded for us in the Bible.

And lastly, we know the Word of God through the faithful proclamation and hearing of the Scripture.  Right before we read the Bible in worship, there’s a brief prayer: the prayer for inspiration.  That is a legacy of John Calvin.  The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible, but it is meaningless unless we can hear it properly.  Calvin reminded us that we need to pray for the same Holy Spirit to help us understand it now.

In fact, at one point in his life, Calvin received a letter from a group of people in France who wanted to quit their church and join his group.  They listed a lot of things that they didn’t like about the way that their church was run and the things that their pastor was doing.  Calvin wrote back and asked them, “Does your pastor read the Bible in French? Does he preach in French?”  When they said that yes, he did, Calvin’s response was, essentially, “as long as the Word of God is being read and preached in a language that the people can understand, then we have no business talking about the church dividing.”  The Bible being read – and heard – is crucial to our worship.  That’s why I insist that the lay people read the Bible during our worship services – because while I think that the sermon is important, we need to understand that God speaks his Word through voices like yours.

genevabibleJohn Calvin left a tremendous legacy to the church.  He wrote (and re-wrote and re-re-wrote) a monumental work of Systematic Theology called The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  He authored commentaries and translations on nearly every book of the Bible; many of his sermons are published, and even though he preached and taught in either French or Latin, English speakers owe him a huge debt as well.  In the 1550s he invited a prominent group of scholars to Geneva to work on the first major English version of the Bible.  The resultant Geneva Bible was the one used by Shakespeare and the one carried to these shores by the Pilgrims.  It served as a model for the King James Version and was the first English bible to use the current system of versification.

The church owes our brother John Calvin a debt because he helped us to see the importance of the Bible for everyone at a time when we were content to leave it to the “professionals”.  He connected his worship and his daily life in a deep and profound way.  Was he perfect?  Far from it – and trust me, many of his followers (the “Calvinists”) were a pretty severe lot.  But we don’t judge Jesus by the way some Christians act, and we can be grateful for the good John Calvin inspired and the fruit of his life.

How do we respond to the challenge that he put forward to consider the importance of scripture?  One of my favorite images from Calvin is that of a pair of eyeglasses.  He wrote,

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. (John Calvin, Institutes, I.VI.I)

That is to say, the Bible gives us a frame through which we see the world and the Creator.  Everything that we understand, we understand through a certain filter, a certain manner of processing the reality of our days.  Make no mistake – everyone has a frame.  You can’t look at me, using the Bible, and say, “Well, I prefer to take my reality unfiltered and just as it is.” Because each of us begins and ends every day with a certain set of presuppositions and “truths” on which we base our actions.  Each act is an act of faith – it may be faith in God, or in myself, or in science, or in the power of reason – but everyone looks through a frame.  How do we ensure that we are able to get the best use of the Biblical frames that Calvin recommended?

Bible eyeglassesWe need to get to know what the Bible says.  You don’t need to take Greek or Hebrew, but you ought to make sure that you read it for yourself.  Don’t trust me or anyone else to tell you what’s there – read it.  Come to know it and to love it.

Following the example of John Calvin, ask God to give you the guidance of his Spirit to understand what it means.  Again, don’t just trust someone like me to tell you what it means.  Is it possible that the same passage might mean different things to different people?

Going even deeper, look for ways to engage other people in testing the meaning of God’s word.  Engage other people.  Listen to the sermons, of course…but then talk about them.  Join a small group or a Faith Builder’s class and allow the ancient writings to breathe new life into your heart.

And after you hear it, study it, pray over it, and talk about it…then do what Paul suggested to Timothy: allow the words of the Bible to affect your life.  Trust that God has a word for you – and live into it.  John Calvin’s personal motto was, “My heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely.”  His personal crest included a hand, lifting a heart to the heavens.  Read the Bible with an open heart and trust that God will use those words to bring you guidance.

John Calvin's seal, reading "My heart I offer you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely."

John Calvin’s seal, reading “My heart I offer you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

The Word of God – Jesus, the second person of the Trinity – is perfect and complete.  The Church is filled with broken people.  John Calvin lent his voice to remind us that we, the broken church, need to be constantly aware of and alert to the living Word.  May we grow in that, and live.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.