Everything Matters

This Labor Day weekend, the believers at CHUP gathered to consider the ways that we do what we do, when we do it, and where we do it, impact our ability to be followers of Christ.  Our scripture texts for the morning included Luke 14:25-33 and Jeremiah 18:1-11.

Almost twenty-six years ago I was ordained as a “minister of the Word and Sacrament” by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For more than a quarter of a century, I have been paid to be a Christian. My vocation has been an amazing gift and a wonder-filled journey. It is an odd calling, as the people who love me have tried to pin me down as to exactly what I do all day. Everyone has a thought, of course:


On Labor Day weekend, however, I’d like to take a moment to address two mythologies about my particular line of work.

Every now and then, I’ll get a call from someone who says, “Oh, Reverend, I hate to bother you with something like this, because I know how busy you are, and, well, I really shouldn’t even mention anything, but, well, if you can spare the time – even just a couple of minutes would be amazing – I wonder if you could possibly help me with…” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when my life is hectic and frenzied, but if I’m too busy to pray with you, then maybe I’m not doing it right.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, I am compelled to hear cracks like “Wow, must be nice to get paid a full time salary when you only work an hour a week.”

It is, as I have said, an odd calling. And because of that, I get it – I know the temptation that you have to roll your eyes at me when I stand up here and presume to lecture you about work and employment. “How dare you pretend to know what I go through, Pastor? After all, you work in your nice little bubble of Christianity, where everything is sunshine and roses and unicorns and rainbows. I’m not sure you know how hard it is in the real world…”

“My supervisor looks down her nose at me all day, every day.”

“Do you know how exhausting it is to try to do your job when you’re assigned to work with two or three people who care more about getting their next ‘high’ than they do about getting any work done?”

“I’m afraid to go to the bathroom in my school. How can I pay attention to anything else?”

“There are four positions in my department. As of January 1, there will be three.”

“Now, Pastor Dave, what was that you wanted to say about my job?”

Having recognized the differences in all of our experiences, let me offer two observations, one of which is theological and the other historical.

Theologically, I might remind you that work is a privilege – it’s a part of God’s gift to humanity. In Genesis, it is very clear that we had a job before we knew anything of brokenness. Adam was called to take care of the Garden before there was any mention of sin. We often treat work – especially hard work – as if it’s some sort of punishment, but that’s simply not true. Work is one of the ways that we live into the image of God. Just as God is a creator, a fashioner, a designer, so too we are called to use our strength and energy in ways that bring forth life and grace.

Here I am standing in the ruins of the "Pool of Bethesda" in Jerusalem - note that everything is made of stone!

Here I am standing in the ruins of the “Pool of Bethesda” in Jerusalem – note that everything is made of stone!

And historically, I should point out that Jesus had a job. He was what the locals called a tekton. Our traditional translations indicate that he was a carpenter, but the Greek word simply means “builder”. Since most of the homes in London were made out of wood when the Bible was being translated into English, you can understand how “builder” became “carpenter”. What I noticed when I visited the places where Jesus lived, however, like Capernaum and Jerusalem, is that so much of what exists in that part of the world is built with stone. As a tekton in that place and time, Jesus was surely no stranger to heavy lifting, or sweat, or the frustration you feel when your co-worker gives you measurements that are a quarter of an inch off.

Having said that, then, what do we hear this Labor Day weekend from Jesus, a member of and friend to the working class?

The passage you’ve heard is a difficult one by any measure, and it’s been made more so by some unfortunate translations over the years. Let’s look at what was happening.

The Resurrection of the Widow's Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

Jesus was big news. The crowds were coming out time and time again because, well, Jesus put on a good show. I mean, you never knew what you were going to get: there was water turned into wine; thousands and thousands were fed miraculously; the paralyzed, blind, mute and more were healed; and who could forget the way he took on those religious hypocrites so fearlessly. There is no other way to say it than that Jesus was, well, huge. His popularity was off the charts.

And one day he turns to the crowds that find him so enthralling and he says, “You know, this is serious! This lifestyle of faith – it’s not a diversion. This isn’t a fad or an amusement. It’s not a hobby – it’s the main thing. And because it’s so important, those who follow me are expected to lay everything on the line. The kinds of things that you see me doing are foundational and world-changing – they are reflective of the purposes and intentions of God now and forever. The healings, the miracles, the teaching… all of this points to the ways that God moves and acts and dwells in this world. So if you are ‘following’ me, it has to mean more than standing around and applauding what you see as my latest parlor trick; it has to mean that you are going to care about the things that I care about, do the things that I do, go to the places where I am sent, and act like the presence and call of God has made a difference in your life 24/7/365.” In other words, we dare not “follow” Jesus the way that we “follow” celebrities or athletes on Instagram or Twitter. If we are not willing to go “all in” with Jesus, we are hobbyists or voyeurs.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, made much the same point as he taught Israelites about the power and sovereignty of God. We often hear these words as a statement of God’s absolute freedom and unlimited power and indeed Jeremiah indicates that God spins the history of this planet as a potter turns clay on a wheel. However, there are several places in this passage that reveal the truth that some human response and responsibility is expected. The word “if” appears throughout this text, bringing a conditionality to our relationship with God that does not exist between the potter and the clay. “If” you do this, “then” this will be the result. There is some sort of deep and intimate partnership between the Creator and that which is being crafted. Clearly God is in charge, but just as clearly we have a role to play. What we do, who we are – it all matters.

And because both Jesus and Jeremiah point to the fact that God wants all of us, all the time, there’s no time like Labor Day for the preacher to point out that this life of faith includes not just the religious stuff you do, but the entirety of who you are. Your occupation is a means by which you are called to serve the Lord.

I want to pause here and say that I’ve chosen the word “occupation” intentionally, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of everyone, not merely those who are employed. I want you to hear that word and think about the things with which you are “occupied”. The ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy and ourselves are reflections of the things that we believe to be ultimately true.

Whatever you set your hands to – whether that’s working down at the plant or watching the grandkids or sitting in an AP Biology class – it’s important to strive to do that well. It’s important because the ways that you are who you are while you do what you do will either point people closer to the things that are eternally true in Jesus Christ or distract them from the presence of God in the world.

Regular worshipers will remember, I hope, that we just finished an entire year studying the Sermon on the Mount. Think about the kinds of ways in which we are called to act: with kindness and mercy, in honesty and integrity, with humility and decency as those who are genuine and generous. None of these traits are occupationally specific – anyone can do that.

And you say, “Look, I get that, and I really want to be like that, but to be honest, I hate my occupation. My co-workers annoy me…I can’t wait to graduate…I feel so useless being retired…I resent the circumstances in my life that have forced me into this particular occupation.”

If any those things are true, then I would by all means encourage you to work towards changing your reality, but I would also remind you to refuse to compromise who you are and who you are called to represent as you live out your daily life.

Here’s the deal: if showing up here three or four times a month – or even if you get all “super Christian” on the people around you by serving as an elder or deacon or Sunday School teacher – if that’s the primary way that you show the world who you are and what you believe, then your witness is incomplete and it points to a life that has been adorned, not transformed. Deciding which day you will choose to act like you think a follower of Jesus should act is not unlike taking a bunch of Christian trinkets and decorating your life with them – they’re not really substantive, but they’re eye-catching and have a vaguely positive message.

But if you live out your faith every day at school or work or home and in your interactions with others (including the social media), then people will see a life that is fundamentally and integrally engaged with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Six months before he was assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of students at the Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia. He challenged these young people, and the words he used to address the children ring true to us as well:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Your occupation – the ways in which you are who you are, where you are, doing what you do with whom you do it – is your number one way of serving God and reflecting God’s presence in this world.

And finally on this Labor Day weekend, as you do all of this, remember that as you go about the world conducting your business each and every day that you are constantly interacting with people who are performing their occupation. So think about what you buy and where you buy it. Is your “great deal” on shrimp propping up the slave labor trade in Thailand? Does the place where you shop pay their workers fairly and offer them good working conditions? When you go out to eat, are you a good tipper? If you can’t afford to be generous to the one who is serving your meal and cleaning up your messes, you can’t afford to eat out and you need to stay home. Remember to give your teachers and coworkers a break. You don’t know what kept them up all night. Be nice to the custodian and the receptionist. Because in a perfect world, they are all striving to do the same thing that you and I are doing – to show up each day being our best selves, seeking to reflect God’s love and truth into the world.

This weekend, and each day, show the world who you are – and show the world whose you are – by the efforts you put forth to follow Jesus in the simple tasks of daily life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

(The speech by Dr. King quoted above is entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint”.  Do yourself a favor and invest twenty minutes of your day and watch him issue this challenge to the young people of Philadelphia in 1967.  If you can’t click the link below, you can paste this one into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmtOGXreTOU).

Why Are People Good?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 14, we read the beginning of that work (Job 1:1-11) and wondered about what it means to be good, do good, and work for good.  


StarWarsA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

You know that story, right – at least some of it? So let me ask you: is it true? All that stuff about the rebels and the Empire and Luke and Leia and Yoda… Is it true?

Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by “true”, right? Am I asking, “Did it really happen?” Or am I asking, “Does it ever happen?”

Think about the message and content of the Star Wars saga:

  • Humans exist in a world in which good and evil are at war, and often it appears as though evil holds the upper hand.
  • There is a Force, and it is with you.
  • The old masters have a way of life and faith to which young followers are called
  • There is life beyond that which we can see

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes there is more to “truth” than simple history. I’m pretty sure that George Lucas made up the story about Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. But I’m equally certain that it’s true.

Which brings me to the scriptural text for this morning, the opening verses of the book of Job. In spite of the fact that it’s closer to the middle of the Old Testament, most scholars believe that this is the oldest book in the Bible. It is among the most ancient pieces of writing on the planet, in fact. We know this because of the style of the Hebrew in which the book is written. You know that all languages change and develop. If old William Shakespeare were writing in 2016 instead of 1592, he would not have Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, the troubled lover would say something like “O, Romeo! Why do you have to be called Romeo?” When you read Shakespeare, you know that you are reading something from an earlier age, right? It’s the same with Job. The language and expressions are all in a kind of writing we call “paleo-Hebrew”. This story of an amazingly good and upright man who is beset by all kinds of problems is very, very old.

But did the events described in this story actually happen? I don’t have a clue.

Do these things happen? Every single day.

It’s hard to imagine a person alive who is not familiar with the questions raised by Job – questions that we’ll consider throughout this Lenten season.

  • Is God really in charge?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • What do I do when someone I love is in pain?
  • Is it OK to question God?

In fact, if there is anyone here who has NOT wrestled with these questions, please speak to me immediately following the service, because I have some questions for you!

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

For now, let’s dive in to this ancient text and say hello to Job.

The first thing we learn about Job is that he is, by all accounts, an incredible guy. “The greatest man among all the people in the East,” in fact. How do we know that? What is the criteria for “greatness”?

For starters, Job is loaded. I mean, he is clearly the Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his age. Did you hear about all those camels and sheep and all the other stuff he’s got?

Moreover, he’s got ten children. Seven boys and three girls represent the Hebrew numbers of completeness. “Everybody knows” that children are a blessing from the Lord, and look at Job’s family! It’s perfect.

In addition to these tangible signs of wealth and blessedness, take a look at how Job conducts himself as a father. Right after the narrator tells us that Job is the greatest guy around, we learn that this Mr. Wonderful spends his time praying for his children. Dads, take note of this as you ascribe to greatness: pray for your children!

Job is such a great person, in fact, that he is the topic of conversation at the staff meeting between God and the angels in heaven. God points him out, and says, “Wow! What a wonderful human being! That Job is one of the best!”

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

And Satan hears God say this –

– Wait a second? Why is Satan at the board meeting in heaven? Great question. We’ll get to that one in two weeks.

– So Satan interrupts God and asks the first difficult question in the book of Job: Why is Job good? Satan does not argue with God as to whether or not Job is actually good, but rather he wants to know why this great man is so good.

Have you ever wondered that? Most of us, especially those of us who were raised in the church and who grew up believing in “the American Dream” have been taught that being “good” is important. But why?

What’s the purpose of being a good person? Why does Job – or any one of us – aspire to goodness? What’s in it for us?

Satan says to God, “Of course Job is good. You reward him for being good. Job is as good as he is because he knows that you will like him better because of it. And not only is he a little brown-noser who is just trying to impress you, you make it worse because you’ve built a wall around him. Don’t go trotting out Job’s goodness, God, as if it is something special, because it’s obvious to anyone that you’ve put him in a little box where nothing bad can happen to him.”

Well, that’s an interesting charge, Satan. Let’s take a look. Has God put a wall around Job?

The fact of the matter is, yes. Yes God has done that.

To be fair though, that’s what God does. Listen to this reading from the first (but not oldest) book in our Bible: Genesis 1:6-9 reads,

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.

There’s a word that shows up there a couple of times: “firmament”. In other translations it’s “dome” or “vault”. Here, in a description of who God is and what God does when God first starts out being God in our experience, we see that God spends God’s time bringing order out of chaos. It’s in other places throughout the Bible as well: Psalm 104:9 talks about the fact that God has set boundaries or borders for the chaos that is the sea; Isaiah 5:1-7 describes a hedge or protective border that God established around his people.

So, Satan, are you saying that God is a wall-building, hedge-planting, boundary-establishing God? That God intends protection and order and justice? You are right. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

And who is Job? Let’s look at Genesis again:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Job, like Adam and Eve, like you and me, is created in the divine image. That is to say, Job is created to be like God. As are you. As am I.

And if taking care of things, ensuring justice, shielding the vulnerable, and bringing order out of chaos is what God does, then perhaps those of us who are made to be like God are called to do them as well.

I am here to suggest that, contrary to Satan’s claim, Job does not do good in order to get God to like him any better. There is a wall around Job because it is in God’s nature to build walls around that which he loves. Nothing that Job does is going to get that wall to be any taller or thicker. And Job is good because that’s how he was made. In God’s image. We are designed for goodness; moreover, later on in the book when we hear more about Job’s goodness, one of the things that is mentioned is that he builds walls of protection around those who are poor, suffering, or vulnerable.

But wait – if God is so good, and if Job is so good, then why do really bad things happen to Job?

– Great question. We’ll get to that one in three weeks.

For today, let us hold to this truth – in some important way, Satan is correct. He says, “Does Job honor God for nothing? You’ve built a wall around him!” He’s right. Job does not fear God for no reason.

Job fears and honors God, not because he is afraid of what God will do to him if he messes up, but because of who God is and because of what God has done in the world. In other words, Job is good, not to try to get God to like him better, but because Job appreciates who God is. Job is thankful for the world God has made. Job’s goodness is a response to God’s goodness, not an attempt to appease God or to prevent God from being less than good in the future.

The oldest book in the Bible begins with a list of blessings: Job has received money, children, respect.

What are your blessings this day? In what ways has chaos been held at bay in your life? Where is the wall that is around you? Where has that wall been strong? How have you known God’s goodness and God’s protection in your life?

Can you think of ways in which God’s light has shone on your path?

Now – think very, very carefully about the answer to this next question: what did you do to deserve that blessing, that wall, that order, that protection, that light, this life? These are all gifts, and you have received them in different ways and at different times.

I would suggest that Lent is a time for us to think less about what I do or do not do to somehow deserve the love of God and more about how I choose to respond to the blessings and kindnesses and generosity that I have received.

Are there important questions ahead of us? You bet there are. But today, let us begin our Lenten walk in gratitude for what is and what has been; in thanksgiving for who God is and who God has made us to be; and in hope for the days that are to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Youth Mission 2015 Update #4


In a few hours we’ll be loading up the vans and heading for Pittsburgh. Most of us are a little sore. All of us will be ready for a good night’s sleep. And if we did it right, none of us will be the same. As has become my tradition, I’d like to allow the young people to write this final “Mission Trip Update”. Last night, I asked them to think about what it meant for them to be able to spend a week in this community called “Deep Roots” with each other and the folks who are calling it home right now. Here are their responses, and I’ve given the names of the people who are willing to be so designated.

This is a wonderful trip and I hope we can do this again. It’s nice to try. We helped.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group.  Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

Tim had a whole week of games for the group. Here he is getting a taste of his own medicine.

This trip changed me on Day One when John [our site coordinator] told us at orientation to put the idea of service out of our heads. From that point we were no longer here to serve the less fortunate, we were just here to share some things we were able to do for each other. It has less to do with who has more cards in their hand and more to do with humbly and willingly evening out the playing field. If you’ve got more, you want to help out however you can. You don’t want to make a big deal of ‘serving the less fortunate’ because it just makes it more obvious that you place yourself higher than them.

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good...

Tim created this game where we had to balance pencils on the back of our hands and then snatch them out of midair. Tommy was pretty good…

...but Noah was a master.  He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

…but Noah was a master. He eventually made it to the point where he could do it with 35 pencils in one hand!

If I have learned anything from this trip, it’s not to appreciate the things I don’t have. It’s to be thankful for the people who don’t mind throwing themselves into a bucket of paint or under a building just to make a person’s life easier. I love every person that came on this trip and all of those who couldn’t come too.

This photo does not do the job justice.  The building looks brand new!

This photo does not do the job justice. The building looks brand new!

My favorite thing on every mission trip is the stories that are made, told, and heard. I enjoy everything that I learn from them. I think I learn more from the stories made with the youth group than I do in school.

This mission trip meant a lot to me because like I said [in closing devotions on Friday night] I was in a depression stage and didn’t think a lot meant to me and I thought I was at the lowest of the los but helping people who needed help really hit me and I was like I have a reason. God created me to help people who need it and I decided to come help these people before I get my own help. But helping others I would do again and again but this mission trip means a lot to me. (Tim W)

This trip was one of the best trips that I have been on. The work was great and I felt like we really made a difference. The group was amazing and we all could contribute something. (Katie P)

My first mission trip. I had lots of fun. I had much more fun moving mulch than painting the building.

Loading all of S's possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Loading all of S’s possessions into our little trailer to help her move her little family to their new home.

Out of 6 mission trips this was the hardest. The work was not hard but the circumstances we saw were hard (although definitely not as hard as Dave’s experiences in South Sudan). Watching these people who live here made me very frustrated. I felt like we needed to show the kids a lot of attention because the parents were not always doing that. Then helping S. move into her new home I became frustrated with the idea of her kids living in that area and being away from Deep Roots. Coming into this trip I expected to do some work and learn someone’s story. But we did more than work and I did not learn a story. I know our work and me alone could not change these families’ situations but it did open my eyes to more things I can change about myself. Overall the tripo was a success and it allowed me to do a lot of thinking, learning, and reflecting. (Rachael P.)

I was excited to join this group for the first time and I was not disappointed. The work that everyone did with each other was inspirational. I was happy to wake up every morning and serve with these people. (Nick V)

Our evening Bible Study.

Our evening Bible Study.

I really haven’t formulated a thought on this trip. I had good days and I’ve had bad days but I truly learned so much about myself. I did things I never thought possible and I wanna thank everyone for the wonderful work they’ve done here and I look forward to next year’s. (Ricky L)

It is a privilege to be with such amazing young people who care for each other and those they encounter. This group adds so much joy to my life and for that I am so thankful!

This has been a complete eye-opening experience seeing the people that live here and how little they have but also how much they have to give. It makes you appreciate what you have been given. (Josh D)

The "underneath", with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

The “underneath”, with a new ground cover and vapor barrier in place.

This trip has been one of, if not the best trip, I have ever been on. Productively I feel that it has been the most successful, and it has also changed me spiritually. It has changed the way I look at my everyday life and I feel it has changed me for the best. Can’t wait for next year! (David S)

While painting was not Evan's favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I'm proud of him for that.

While painting was not Evan’s favorite thing, he sure gave it his all and I’m proud of him for that.

I have mixed emotions about Deep Roots or, as other people know it, Meeting Ground. Day 1: Everything was great and it was hot. Day 2: Lots of mulching. Day 3: BEACH = awesome. Day 4: A lot of paint and dirt. Day 5: Three-quarter day and then we swam in the lake. (Evan W)

In this past week I have realized that the littlest things can make a difference in lives. Like how we put down mulch in the playground and later on Pastor Dave told a story how one of the residents said that it made a big difference because of the weeds growing so fast, and how when it rained it was too muddy to play in and when it doesn’t rain the ground is too hard to play on. (Caleb C)

This group works well together and works hard. People look out for each other and look for how they can contribute and serve to make things better for the residents here.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Using a text from Galatians 6, Carly led our devotions on Friday evening, talking about the ways that we are to do all we can to help others while taking responsibility for ourselves.

Friday was my favorite work day because I got to help someone who has lived in Deep Roots for a couple of months to finally move into a new home. As she was leaving a lot of her friends were saying their goodbyes and had tears in their eyes. It made me realize that while people are living here they make real connections with each other and even become an odd type of family. It made me very grateful for my own family. (Carly B)

This mission trip I feel like I accomplished the most not only physically but this year spiritually too. The group worked very hard this past week and I am very grateful that I was able to come.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions - it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

Singing is a big part of our evening devotions – it helps us create a safe place to be with and for each other in the presence of God.

There you have it – in their own words – a small hint of the stories that God is writing in the lives of these fifteen young people and five of their leaders. Many of the kids paid $125 to get here for the week. Others were not able to afford that. None of us could have gotten here if it were not for generous donations from people who came to the baked potato luncheon or who made other gifts that allowed us to rent the vans, to buy the meals, and to offer a day at the beach. As I said in the first post, it’s one of my favorite weeks of the whole year (I am, however, ready to spend a few nights in my own bed!). Thanks be to God. Amen.


Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip.  I'm not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips.

Maybe you can guess that this is one of my favorite images from the trip. I’m not sure who took it, but it expresses well my hope for this and other trips. You probably can’t read the writing on my shirt, but it has the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s motto on it: “Out of chaos, hope”.  For too many of the kids who came with me on this trip, life is chaotic.  In the past couple of years we have buried too many parents and seen too much grief…we’ve had trouble in school and made horrific mistakes…and we’ve seen great joy and made wonderful strides.  In the same way, Deep Roots brings a sense of hope and purpose to the lives of even the littlest residents, and the opportunity to think that we can make positive steps in the days, months, and years to come.  That’s not insignificant – not at all.  It’s a little step, some days, but at least we’re walking into hope.

Why Are You Here?

This week, we continue to explore the notion that God calls people to new places in their lives and in the world. In recent weeks, we’ve considered calls to Jeremiah, Zechariah, Isaiah, Peter, Samuel, and Timothy and talked about the ways that God’s call is extended to folk in every station of life, that it brings us to humility and confession, and that we are in need of mentors and guides to help us grow in our attentiveness. This week, eavesdropped in on a call that Queen Esther of Persia received about 500 years before Christ.  Our other text was Acts 4:23-31.

Queen Esther Seeking Permission to Speak, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca.  Used by permission.  http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther Seeking Permission to Speak, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

The book of Esther begins like a fairy tale – a beautiful young woman is plucked from obscurity and becomes the queen. However, the fairy tale I have in mind is Bluebeard, not Cinderella or Snow White. Ahasuerus is a greedy, violent, egocentric man who enjoys a life of luxury out of touch with the real world. When his first queen disappoints him, he takes care of her and brings in version 2.0, a young Jewish girl named Esther. While the text does not indicate that she lied about her faith, she didn’t publicize it either. She is mentored in her faith and life by her uncle, a man named Mordecai.

Somehow, Mordecai gets on the wrong side of the king’s chief advisor, who seeks to avenge this wrong by killing not only Mordecai, but every Jew in the land. Later, the advisor gets the king to sign off on this deal. Listen:

When Mordecai heard about all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on rough cloth and ashes, and went out into the city crying loudly and painfully.  But Mordecai went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one was allowed to enter that gate dressed in rough cloth.  As the king’s order reached every area, there was great sadness and loud crying among the Jewish people. They fasted and cried out loud, and many of them lay down on rough cloth and ashes to show how sad they were.

When Esther’s servant girls and eunuchs came to her and told her about Mordecai, she was very upset and afraid. She sent clothes for Mordecai to put on instead of the rough cloth, but he would not wear them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs chosen by the king to serve her. Esther ordered him to find out what was bothering Mordecai and why.

So Hathach went to Mordecai, who was in the city square in front of the king’s gate. Mordecai told Hathach everything that had happened to him, and he told Hathach about the amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasury for the killing of the Jewish people.

The first thing that we notice about the call to Esther is that it comes at a time of particular need. There is clearly a crisis – the “chosen people” are threatened with extinction. If no action is taken, then disaster will ensue.

It’s interesting and important to note that the first part of Esther’s call story is not God speaking truth from the sky, but rather a trusted mentor and friend bringing a problem to Esther’s attention. This fits in very well with the story of Samuel and Eli last week – here, we see Mordecai preparing Esther to be able to receive the call by educating her as to the current situation. And even though they are unable to speak face to face, Mordecai makes sure that the message gets through:

Mordecai also gave him a copy of the order to kill the Jewish people, which had been given in Susa. He wanted Hathach to show it to Esther and to tell her about it. And Mordecai told him to order Esther to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and to plead with him for her people.

Surreptitious Dialogue, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Surreptitious Dialogue, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

I’d like to point out at this part of the story that the call of God to Esther is entirely consistent with her abilities and station in life. Mordecai is asking her to approach the king and to seek to save the Jewish people because, well, she lives with the king and she is Jewish. This is an important distinction for us to consider when we think about God’s calling and direction for our lives.

There was a time when I talked about my life’s purpose, and I actually said out loud that I’d really appreciate being called to be the trombone player for the rock band Chicago. A couple of years after that, I noted in my college yearbook that my highest aspiration in life was to be the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. There were several problems in each of those plans, perhaps most notably the facts that I wasn’t that good a trombonist, I hated to practice, and I didn’t ever go to law school. The list of people more capable than I to do either of those things is incredibly long.

Yet here, Mordecai shows Esther not only that it is entirely possible for her to respond, but that she might be the best person on the face of the earth to answer this call.

There’s a problem, though. Esther, apparently, does not want to do this. She would prefer not to.

Isn’t that so often the case? Sometimes we allow our feelings to dictate our actions in a way that diminishes our ability to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives. In this instance, Esther sends word back to Mordecai telling him that it’s a little more complicated than he seems to think it is, and thanks for his concern, but she’d prefer that someone else took care of this, thanks very much.

Then Mordecai sent back word to Esther: “Just because you live in the king’s palace, don’t think that out of all the Jewish people you alone will escape. If you keep quiet at this time, someone else will help and save the Jewish people, but you and your father’s family will all die. And who knows, you may have been chosen queen for just such a time as this.”

Mordecai, however, reminds Esther that her feelings and her own sense of her abilities may not be the best guides for the current situation. “You don’t know everything,” he says. “What if this is the exact reason for your presence in the kingdom right now? What if God is choosing to do something great through you?”

The call has been extended, and just as in Samuel’s case, it has not been recognized. And, just as in that situation, there’s a mentor to help the person get a greater perspective and be able to see more clearly the path forward. With Mordecai’s help, Esther is able to see through her own confusion and to get past her own feelings of what she’d rather not do and move to embrace the call in her actions.

Then Esther sent this answer to Mordecai:  “Go and get all the Jewish people in Susa together. For my sake, fast; do not eat or drink for three days, night and day. I and my servant girls will also fast. Then I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I die, I die.”

Queen Esther, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist  Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

There is not, in Esther’s life, a sense of recklessness and a jumping out ahead of God’s spirit. Nor is there a selfish pride that says, “Look, I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Mind your own business, Mordecai.” As you’ve just heard, she turns to the wider community for help in doing what she doesn’t really feel like doing, and asks them to hold her accountable and to pray for her ability to follow through. She invites people inside and beyond her own little circle to join her in this call to faithful living.

Note, too, that Esther’s response requires her to act without knowing the whole story. She has to move forward in boldness and trust that God will supply the things that she needs at the time that she needs them.

I don’t know about you, but that’s usually how God acts in my own life. I am often nudged to act without having all of the particulars. I get a glimpse of what could be, I see a possibility, I hear an invitation, and then I have to choose whether or not to say “yes” without knowing how all of the details can possibly come together.

These lives that we lead – this daily, ordinary faith that we have – requires that we do what we can, and then we leave the rest up to God. In all likelihood, you are not being called to save an entire race from a genocidal maniac. Chances are, you have experienced less dramatic calls or nudges from the Lord…

  • there’s a new kid at school, and he’s eating alone. Should you call him over to your table? Or go sit with him?
  • There’s that woman. You know that she’s having problems, even though she hasn’t spoken to you about them. Should you approach her? Should you say something? What?
  • You’ve been asked to play a role in a new ministry, or to take a trip, or to reach out to a neighbor. Will you?
  • What about that job offer you’ve received? It looks like a good fit, but you never know…

Beloved, God has placed you at this juncture in history and equipped you with a story that is partially – incompletely – written. What are you doing right now with who you are and what you have?

My mother-in-law has often told the story of when she caught her father rehearsing his line prior to her marriage to Sharon’s dad. Gramps Wetterholm was standing in front of a mirror, saying “Her MOTHER and I do….no, Her mother AND I do… Her mother and I DO.” He wondered which inflection would best convey the meaning of the blessing that he wanted to extend to Gene and Mary’s wedding.

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity,  from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca.  Used by permission.  http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity, from a mosaic series by contemporary artist Lilian Broca. Used by permission. http://www.lilianbroca.com/queen-esther-mosaics

I’ll take a page from Gramps’ notebook here and ask you a question…

Why are YOU here? I’m not asking about your mother, your brother, your better-looking cousin or your more talented sister. Why is it that of all the people on the face of the earth, God has nudged you toward that job, this relationship, or that other opportunity? What is it about YOU that makes this a good time for you to move forward?

Why are you HERE? I mean, you’re not in Africa, you’re not playing center field for the Pirates… You are here, at this station and time in your life. How did you get here, and what do you think that means? And you know, I trust, that this is not merely a question of geography. You are your you, right here, right now. How did that happen?

WHY are you here? Can you believe that the creator of the universe, the giver of every good and perfect gift, the author of life – has some ideas about how and why you should live – right here, right now?

When Esther received a call, it became pretty clear. It came to her through trusted channels, it was consistent with the direction her life had been going, and it allowed her to act in a way that was loving and just toward her neighbors. It was a good call.

But it was also a scary, scary call. It was an inconvenient call.

In that way, it was similar to the calling experienced by Peter and John in the book of Acts. They’d been summoned by God to tell people of the good news of Jesus Christ. They’d been arrested by the authorities because they kept talking about the good news of Jesus Christ. What did they do?

Take note, people of God – when the early church was in a pinch, when Esther was facing danger, the prayer that they lifted up was a prayer for boldness. They did not pray for safety, nor for ease, nor for someone else to come along and do this thing better than they could. In each of our accounts this morning, the Lord is approached and asked for conviction and boldness.

God’s people pray that we might have courage to be the right people, doing the right thing at the right time, and the grace to live with the consequences of that.

A few weeks ago, I stood up here and suggested that you might spend a few moments in each day simply being quiet and alone, breathing deeply and centering yourself, asking God to fill you.

I would like to think that at least some of you have tried that…and would hope that you will continue. I’d like to encourage you to modify that in one very significant way. As you ask God to fill you, ask, “God, what do you have for me today?”

Ask God to stir your heart. Seek the counsel of a trusted friend. Educate yourself on what the world needs. And start to walk in that direction. Ask for boldness and confidence as you journey, and you may find yourself engaged in a different kind of conversation about important issues today. You may discover an opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation in a relationship that has been fractured. It might be that you are finally able to leave a destructive habit or addiction behind.

Why. Are You. Here.? That is a beautiful and loaded question. Live today expecting to discover more about the answer, and pray for boldness to walk in the light of what you learn. Thanks be to God. Amen.


What a Waste of Time

Thoughts on Worship and the Sabbath and wondering why in the world we have such a hard time with these concepts.  This message was preached on October 26, 2014 at the Crafton Heights church and was rooted in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23 – 3:6.  

Bill_Gates_III_20080123_068William Henry “Bill” Gates is a rich man. His estimated wealth, some $82  billion, equals the annual GDP of Ecuador, and maybe twice as much as that of Croatia. By this rather unique measuring stick, the founder of Microsoft is worth two Latvias, a Cyprus and four or five Malawis. Not bad for a college dropout.

But not only is he rich, he is generous, and you may have heard about the fact that he is on a mission to give away his money before he dies. He better get cracking, though, because even though he’s given away about $35 billion, he keeps getting richer.

I was thinking about Bill Gates as I prepared for this morning’s message because of something he once said that really jolted me: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

There it is, church. The man who has more dollar bills in the history of dollar bills has called you out, and said that you’re wasting your time here this morning.

And I’m here to tell you that I agree with him 100%. Worship is a total waste of time, and one of the most inefficient things you could ever do with yourself.

And I’m glad to be doing that with you, beloved.

What are we doing here? What’s the point of all this, anyway? We’re here to worship, I know. But what does that mean?

Worship comes from an Old English word ‘weorthscipe’, which to be honest I’m not really sure how to pronounce because it has a couple of letters in it that no longer exist. That word means ‘condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown’, and came to be understood as a ‘sense of reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being’ about 800 years ago.[2]

We have come to this point in time at this place on the globe in order to testify to the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor of God. And maybe you know that when we come to worship, the world itself changes (or at least it should).

Here’s what I’m getting at: a few minutes ago, the beautiful Lindsay Frick stood in front of you and led you in a “call to worship”. In that formal language, Lindsay invited you to leave your work and your hobbies behind. She gave you permission – nay, she commanded you – to forget your laundry, your shopping list, the grubs that are destroying your grass. If we are doing it right, I think that means that we’ve turned off our cell phones and put away our watches.

We’ve entered into a different space: a ‘sanctuary’. Here, the seats are designed, not for comfort, but to focus your attention on the center and the front of the room, while being curved so that you can keep an eye on each other, too. There are windows to provide light and ventilation, but they are tinted so as to reduce the distraction that whatever lies on the other side might bring.

We have entered into a different time: it is the ‘service of worship’. We use a different calendar in here than we do outside: look at your bulletin, and you’ll see that we are in the 30th week of “ordinary time”, which started, not on January 1, but on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, of course, is the season of the year in which the church remembers the intrusion of the Creator into the Creation.

Likewise, our very understanding of ourselves has changed. We are no longer primarily neighbors, teachers, students, retirees, employees, or gardeners. You, together, have been constituted as a congregation. That is to say that you are pilgrims. People who are on the way from where they used to be and heading to where they ought to be; people who are growing from what was into who they were created to be.

Lindsay spoke a call to worship, and if we do it right, then time, space, and your understanding of self has changed. We are different people in a new time and a sacred space. Well done, Lindsay! You didn’t know you had that kind of authority, did you?

Think about it. In Genesis, we learn that we are creatures. There was God, and God alone. And then God made. We dare not confuse the Creator with the creature.

And we are not merely creatures, but creatures who have been placed in time. Do you remember how the story of creation is told? In DAYS. Seven of them, to be exact. Our lives are measured in hours and days and months and years.

And we are not only creatures of time, but creatures who have been given space. Where does the story begin? In a garden. A specific place that is ours.

So when we, the creatures of time and space, set out to recognize the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor that characterizes God, we do so by entering into this new and different time and space.

I bring this up because this is one of the biggest problems I have with the people who say, “You know, Pastor, I don’t have to come to church to worship. I can worship God on the golf course, or at the lake, or as I run.” No, you can’t.

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Look. If you know anything about me at all, you will understand that I have experienced the presence, majesty, beauty and power of God in the solitude of a mountain lake, laying awake at night on the Sahara Desert, watching the flight of a lilac-breasted roller, or bringing in an incredible trout. I get it. I have known God there.

But I have not worshipped God there.

Consider this: I have experienced great joy in my relationship with Sharon McCoy Carver since we were in the 9th grade together at Hanby Jr. High. We have been in many places and celebrated our love together in lots of ways.

But I only got married at 2:30 pm on Sunday May 30, 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1120 Darley Road Wilmington DE 19703. We do not confuse the reality of being married with the act of becoming married. We do not confuse appreciation of or closeness to God with the communal worship of God.

Our worship is an intentional act by the community – never alone – in a specific place while engaged in specific actions. I do not think that a human being can worship alone – we need the community for that. Worship is a part of the rhythm of creation and the order for which we were born, and we can only do it together.

Unfortunately, we are not very good at understanding this rhythm. We find it easy to forget the intentions for which we are born. One way that I know this is true is because we have neglected the idea of Sabbath.

That’s an old word, of course, and incredibly churchy. Feel free to roll your eyes now if you’d like.

Noon - Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Noon – Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

You heard it in Deuteronomy, where we were commanded to observe, remember, and keep one day in seven. No work for your or your servants. No commerce. No production.

Yeah, we’re not very good at remembering, keeping, or observing that kind of stuff, are we?

And I know a lot of you, like me, often hear a lot of talk by people who wish that we’d “get back to basics” and pay more attention to the Ten Commandments. “All this country needs is to get back to the Ten Commandments,” they say. Well, it seems to me that they’re really talking about six or seven of them – many of the folks I hear talking about that are really concerned about who their neighbor is sleeping around with or which political party is lying to us than they are about actually keeping the Sabbath or avoiding covetousness. Christians in America today steamroll the fourth commandment flatter than a pancake at Pamela’s restaurant, and we feel proud about doing so.

We do not stop. We do not rest. We go and go and go.

Why? Because we are good and decent people. We’re not lazy. We are recognizing the truth of what Bill Gates has told us – that rest is not efficient and a total waste of time. And time is money. And we want more money. And so we cannot rest. We have to do more. We have to be more.

Hey, hey, hey, Pastor. That’s not fair! I’m not greedy! It’s not about money! I have a lot to do. Important stuff to do. People are counting on me to get it done. Do you know what would happen if I stopped ________? I mean, I get it, Dave. It must be nice to be you, in control of your own time, managing your own calendar, going fishing whenever you feel like it, but my life isn’t like that. I have to ___________.

Look, it’s not my commandment. I am not giving it to you; I am with you in sitting under it. And from where I sit, it seems as though the command to keep, observe, and remember the Sabbath and to worship is all about trust. We come into this special place and enter this special time and we stop doing anything important. We stop and we rest, and we dare to believe that the world will continue to turn without us. We rest, and in so doing proclaim that God, not us, is in control. We keep Sabbath because we are creatures, not the Creator.

But HOW? What does that look like in 2014?

I’m not entirely sure. And let me clear about the fact that I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I’m having a hard enough time speaking for me right now to presume to speak for you. But this is what I know: if you flinch when you hear me say that Sunday ought to be set aside for worship and rest, then you should probably be asking God, “Lord, what needs to change in my life? And how can I change it?”

People who keep Sabbath well are people who are able to do their homework on Friday or Saturday. People who choose to shop on Tuesday or Friday. People who can turn off their email and resist the temptation to buy or sell on the Lord’s Day. We all have the same 168 hours this week. The 4th commandment reminds us that God seems to care about how we use them. You heard that commandment a few moments ago that talked about your manservant and your maidservant, and you thought, “Hey, that’s not me! I don’t have any servants.” Really? What do you call the people who will bring you your food at the Olive Garden today, or the folks who check you out at the Giant Eagle? They are your servants.

But what about work? What if you have to work on Sunday? I think the first question would be, “Why?” Why do you have to work on Sunday?   I know some people who have to work weekends because it’s a second job for them and the family. They need that money to put food on the table. They need that money to educate their children. Or maybe they’ve got jobs that require them to work on Sundays. If that’s the case, then that’s the case.

But I know a whole lot more people who choose to work on Sunday because they’ve got a credit card payment due. People who need to work on Sunday because their cable bill is too high, or their third car needs a new set of tires. And if I am neglecting the Lord on this Sabbath in order to keep my satellite dish payments current, then maybe my priorities are a little out of whack.

Look, I could talk all day about this, but if I did, that would probably be ruining any idea of Sabbath for all of us. Do I have it all figured out? Not by a long shot. But this much I know: the fourth commandment is given to us because God loves us and desires that we might know life in all of its fullness. And we are prone to accepting less than God’s best because we are seduced by a world that wants to tell us that nothing makes us complete and that we are still enslaved in the “kingdom of thingdom.”

The way to get out of this is to waste what the world treasures. In a few weeks, we’ll be talking about money, and how the only way to control its power in our lives is to give it away – to do something utterly wasteful with it like giving it to the church. But that’s a few weeks. Today, I want to encourage you to waste time. To stop producing and enjoy who God is, and how God is, and who and how God is for you.

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus used the Sabbath to restore and to feed.

What if he still does that? I mean, what if by showing up here we are putting ourselves in a place and time where what is withered in our own lives might be revitalized? What if in rest, trust, and obedience the muscles that we thought were long-dead, or the faith that we’ve set aside, or the power in which we’ve become afraid to believe – what if those things could be reactivated, much as the man’s arm was in the story you heard a few moments ago?

Bill Gates is right. There are a thousand ways to use this hour more efficiently. But Jesus is righter: it’s not about efficiency. It’s about knowing who we are, and whose we are. Observe. Remember. Keep this day as your time to join with the other pilgrims in pointing to God’s glory. And as you do so, know that you are observed, remembered, and kept eternally. Thanks be to God! Amen.


[2] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=worship

Careful What You Wish For!

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 September 21, we considered the command to “DO” Justice.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Amos 5:4-7, 18-24 and Matthew 7:21-23.  

A man hides in the woods and shoots two State Troopers in Blooming Grove, PA, killing one and wounding another.

Drug cartel violence in Honduras causes families and children to run for their lives, which results in an influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm our nation’s border.

IsisA single mother works full-time, but still cannot earn enough to feed her family, let alone move to a safer neighborhood.

Members of a terrorist group execute hostages and share the grisly images of the beheadings globally.

Police officers, sworn to serve and protect, shoot and kill an unarmed teenage boy in Ferguson, MO.

You work hard, you practice all summer, and are one of the better players on the team. Nevertheless, you get cut, and the coach’s kid – who is nowhere near your skill level – is starting.

In each of these situations and a hundred more, we cry out: “This is not right!” There is something in the system, something in the universe, that is fundamentally flawed and broken. When stories like these come across our televisions, our news feeds, or our kitchen tables, we pause and we lament the truth that things are not as they should me.

We want the killings, the discrimination, the violence, the favoritism, the fear – to stop.

More than that, there are times where in our anger and our pain, we want to inflict punishment and suffering on those who have caused it for others. I’ve got a relative who is a State Trooper. Would you like to guess what his friends were saying about the self-styled “survivalist” who took the life of one trooper and dramatically altered scores of others? What do your friends say ought to be done about the people who are beheading Christian children in other parts of the world, or beating their own children senseless?

We want to give them what they deserve, don’t we? We want to make them pay. We want to watch them cry out for mercy themselves. We want to hurt them so badly that… and then we remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the people of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, “the reason I can’ t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion.”

We may accept the fact that doing more of the same isn’t best, but we want something to be different. We need to know that there is hope. If we have no hope, then we descend into a pit of lawlessness and despair – we loot, we riot, we lash out – because without hope, we perceive that nothing can ever change, and if nothing is ever going to change, then why not respond with violence and mayhem?

We were created for wholeness. We were designed for a world wherein people do not attack each other randomly, or manipulate and use one another, or diminish the personhood of their neighbor. We are “wired” to feel at home in a place characterized by security, completeness, purpose, and integrity.

The word that characterizes that kind of world is “justice”. In Hebrew, it’s mishpat – an action or a decision that establishes or reinforces what is right. In a just world, children are not abused and there is no such thing as a “race card” and terrorist extremists do not exist.

We want that kind of world. I know that we do.

In the Old Testament times, God’s people often found themselves, like us, in situations where things were not as they had hoped. And they began to pray for what they called “the Day of the Lord”: the yom YHWH. In their public worship and private lives, people proclaimed that there was much that was not well in the world, and there was too much pain. Yet the prophets continued to indicate that God would come. And when God comes, they said, God is going to straighten things out. God is going to bring justice! God is going to speak truth! God is going to make things whole and complete!

And when the people heard that, they cheered, “Bring it on! What’s not to like about that? You bet – we want to know the Day of the Lord!”

In our reading today from the prophet Amos, God’s people are told to be careful what they wish for. Like his colleagues Joel and Zephaniah, Amos reassures the people that the God who is coming is a God who will set things straight. The only problem, he says, is that the ones who are longing for the Day of the Lord are themselves crooked. The Day of the Lord will be painful, says Amos, because God’s people are themselves a part of the problem. Specifically, Amos points to the ways that the wealthy and powerful in Israel have neglected and mistreated the poor and the vulnerable. The prophet is incredulous: the people claim to be crying out to a God of liberation while at the same time they are adding to the burdens of those that are oppressed.

Norman Vincent Peale was one of the more influential American preachers of the 20th century. He remembered a day when, as a young boy, he found a big old cigar laying in the street. He slipped into a side alley and lit it – and suddenly felt very grown up and mature. As luck would have it, who should come down the sidewalk but his father. The young man quickly hid the stogie behind his back and tried to distract his dad. He pointed to a billboard advertising a visiting circus and said, “Can I go? Please, Dad, when it comes to town, can we go?” And his father looked him in the eye and said, “Norman, never make a petition while at the same time you are hiding a smoldering disobedience.”[1] That, of course, is what the “faithful” were doing: “God! Give us freedom…but not them.”

Eight hundred years after Amos, Jesus sounds very prophetic when he looks at those who are clamoring to be associated with him and says, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ is going to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does he mean by that?

inconceivable2Well, in the words of that brilliant theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When people – whether it’s fishermen in the first century or folks like us in the 21st – use the word “Lord”, we can only do so when we are referring to One to whom we are willing to submit, or One who is worthy of my ultimate loyalty. Too often, we say “Lord” and we mean someone who we are counting on to come and save my sorry rear end from some painful situation that may or may not be of my own doing. I experience some discomfort, dis-ease, or alienation as a result of some of my own choices, and I call out “Jesus – Lord! Come and save me!” When I do that, I’m not treating Jesus like the master of my universe and the One who orders reality. I’m treating him like the good-natured, if somewhat gullible, friend who will give me a ride home after I’ve had too much to drink, or the girlfriend who will take me back again and again, even after I cheat on her or beat her.

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

But when the Prophets speak of the Day of the Lord, and when Jesus says that he is Lord, they are saying that there is One who is worthy. There is One who has the authority and the power to direct my actions – One on whom I can center my life and my being. That affirmation has not changed since the time of Amos or Jesus. The call is simple: order our lives to reflect what the One we call Lord deems important. Jesus is Lord when we treat him as such. Jesus is Lord when we act like the stuff that matters to him matters to us.

One aspect to this kind of living is justice. In our theme verse for the month, Micah tells us that what God expects of us is pretty simple: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

To “do” justice. That’s the first benchmark we receive from the prophet Micah.

Not to demand justice. Not to admire justice. Not to clamor for it in the streets. We are called to “do” justice.

“Do” justice. What does that even mean?

Really. In the face of terrorism and abuse and multinational corporations and systemic racism and situations that are simply just not fair, I’m supposed to “do” justice. What does that even look like?

There is an individual component to it, to be sure. Doing justice means that we are willing to stand with those who are on the margins, to speak for those who have lost their voices, and to stand between those who would do damage and those who are vulnerable. What does that mean?

I saw an example of it not too long ago. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to embarrass anyone publicly, but I will tell you that in our youth group, there are some wonderful and amazing young people. And there are a few kids who will, for various reasons, get on your last nerve day in and day out.

We were getting ready to go on a trip, and three of our young people asked to meet with me. “Pastor Dave,” they said. “We want to talk with you about so and so.” Oh, yes, I could see that coming. This is a young person who – through no fault of their own – tries my soul. I braced myself. “So, look. On this trip, are you going to put us in small groups for activities and discussion?” I said that I was. “Well then, when you do, make sure that you put so and so in with at least one or two of us. We don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this person is hard to deal with, and a lot of the other people in the group aren’t always nice to this person. We really want to make sure this person has a good trip, and so please put this person in our group.”

Do justice. Stand up for the vulnerable and love those who are difficult to love.

Another example: think about how you shop. When you go out to buy something, where does it come from? Are you stocking up on so-called “deals” that are only possible because the people who produce those goods are living in inhumane conditions and being paid poverty-level wages? Does your desire for the latest “gotta have it” toy or accessory bless the people who live near where the raw materials were taken from the earth? I know that it’s impossible to know where everything we eat, use, wear, and drive comes from…but it’s pretty easy to be attentive to some of this. Check out the human rights records of the companies with whom you do business, and see if you’re getting a deal that you can be proud of.

Do you see? In our personal lives, every day we decide when we will speak and when we’ll be silent; we choose how to spend our money and our energy; we show up some places and ignore others. What do your choices say about your intention to Do Justice?

But it’s more than that. Justice assumes communal participation. In our various gathered communities, we participate in things that either bring healing and wholeness or that lead to isolation and death. We do that when we vote, or when we don’t vote; when we decide communally how to spend our taxes or our tithes, and in what we do to register our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with those decisions. As a congregation, are we willing to spend ourselves on those who are on the fringes?

Here’s the scary thing about the passage from Amos: it appears as though Doing Justice is the proof of our willingness to engage in faithful relationship God who invites us into covenant love day in and day out. In our worship, we say and sing and celebrate all sorts of grandiose truths about life and lordship and faith. And, really, they are wonderful and amazing words.

But that’s what they are. Words.

In the complex web of social and economic relationships in which we engage each day; in the decisions we make about where to shop and whose calls to send to voicemail and which cards we send and who sits at our table at lunch; in the normalness of our lives, we say what we really believe and acknowledge whom we really treat as “Lord”. In here, we sing about God’s care and we pray for God’s presence and we celebrate God’s faithfulness. And out there, the world says, “Prove it. I’m watching you, church. God is like that? You show me.”

May the lives that we live in the next six days match the words that we use this morning. May we, in our lives, say Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever – and YES, bring to us and all creation the Day of the Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer_unanswered.htm

The Church on the Move: Philippi

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 18, we visited Philippi, and talked about the ways that Paul and the others took a risk on preaching to those on the margins of that society.  You can read about it in Acts 16

In 1996, a group of people got together and wondered if we could create a reality wherein the poor of the world could be served by giving them a market for their unique handcrafts. We incorporated a little non-profit, called KingdomCome, and began to sell these goods at church bazaars, craft shows, and so on. As the word spread, and as sales grew, it became apparent that schlepping our inventory back and forth from the 3rd floor of the Crafton Heights church wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goal of allowing people to support themselves and their families. We needed to open a storefront.

So we checked out locations all around the city – from Edgewood to Fox Chapel to Southside to Downtown, and eventually settled on a piece of property ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep on the south side of Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We chose that location because it had these features:

–  A strong retail history with a flair for independent and so-called “destination” shops

–  A lot of foot traffic

–  An upscale neighborhood filled with people who not only shop, but BUY.

It has worked out very well for everyone concerned as that little experiment has become one of the most successful Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. When a business is looking to expand, it’s all about location, location, location, right?

GreecePosterNow, let’s rewind and back up time a couple of thousand years. The faith movement spawned by the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is growing by leaps and bounds. From its roots in Jerusalem and Galilee, it has spread through the Middle East and up into Asia Minor. While certainly not a traditional business, it is expanding rapidly. One of the leading Apostles, Paul of Tarsus, feels led to explore the as-yet-untapped European market, and makes plans to sail to Greece. Greece – the cradle of Western civilization. Home to Athens, the Parthenon, democracy, and a really good pita, lamb, and cucumber sandwich. Excellent choice, Paul!

Except he doesn’t go to Athens – not right away. The first Christian foray into the continent of Europe takes place in the town of Philippi. OK, Paul, that’s not a bad choice. It’s a Roman Colony, a city founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon. There are gold mines nearby; there’s some legacy wealth – a lot of “old money” – around. You could do worse, I suppose.

EarlyChurch3One thing, though, that makes this choice curious is that Paul, who usually preached first to the Jews, chose to go to a town that didn’t even have enough Jewish men to open its own synagogue. Up to this point, although they had begun to admit Gentile believers, the Jewish population made up the largest percentage of the early church.

As a result of that, this particular Sabbath day finds the pre-eminent apostle of the Way of Jesus preaching the Good News for the very first time on European soil…to a small group of women, including some foreigners, who were down at the river doing their laundry.

It is, I believe, a curious way to launch a movement.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

One of those present, a woman named Lydia who was apparently a foreign convert to Judaism, is so moved by what she hears and by the power of the Spirit within her that she asks for, and receives, the sacrament of baptism. In fact, not only Lydia herself, but her entire household, including what we believe to be a number of other women as well as slaves and children, is baptized and enters into the Jesus Way. She is bold enough to invite Paul, Luke, and Timothy to stay in her home so that she and her household might be further instructed in living as Jesus would have them live.

Unfortunately, her hospitality is not emblematic of the entire city, however, and Paul and his companions are treated “shamefully” (I Thessalonians 2:2) in Philippi. They are arrested, beaten, and run out of town.

But the church remained. And it appears to have been one of Paul’s favorite congregations. Whenever he speaks of that place, and in his letter to that congregation, he speaks with great warmth and affection. He commends the church that began on the day of Lydia’s baptism for their willingness to participate and share with Paul in the life to which he was called. In fact, this is one of the only churches from which the stubborn and prideful old Apostle was willing to accept financial support – because in some way, they “get” Paul and what he’s about.

We are spending the time between Easter and Pentecost looking at how the early church grew from a disorganized, dispirited group of doubting, betraying, and hesitant followers of Jesus into a movement of apostles and churches that changed the world. Philippi gives us a good example of the apostolic conviction that the church is called to risk itself on “nobodies” every single day – seemingly insignificant people like Lydia and the women of Philippi.

Faithful friends of Jesus, of course, would not be surprised by this. In Luke 4, when Jesus sets out the road map for his own life and ministry, he says that he’s been sent to preach Good News to the poor, to release the captive, and proclaim God’s favor to all. The first disciples themselves were not exactly the “cream of the crop” and so they evidently followed Jesus’ own model of ministry and preached about him to whoever was willing to listen. Which is why, I suppose, they found themselves on the outskirts of town preaching to a group of women and receiving hospitality from people who were clearly on the margins of acceptability.

In fact, that became a common refrain amongst those who were critical of the Jesus movement. A 2nd-century writer named Celsus has the distinction of being the first author to publicly condemn and criticize Christians. In his work The True Word, he rails against this new religion that appealed to “the foolish…slaves, women, and little children” who could be found at “the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or washerwoman’s” place.[1] Celsus is especially indignant that various social classes could come together in Christianity, and is in general appalled at the church’s willingness to extend forgiveness to those who had fallen into sin.[2] In short, Celsus and much of the ancient world believed, Christianity is a religion for pathetic losers – people who ought not to be accepted in refined society.

I’m sad to say that there are many in the church today who have lost touch with the call to live a faith that is so radically inclusive and welcoming of “the other”. A lifetime ago, when I was being trained for youth ministry, I was taught to build my youth group by looking for the popular, successful students and trying to engage them first. If I could get the quarterback and the head cheerleader to come to my youth group, I was told, then the group would grow like crazy. Why? Because if “the cool kids” are doing it, then everyone will want to.

Isn’t that, to some degree, how the church in the USA continues to operate? Isn’t that why we get all excited when a rock star or a pro athlete or a movie star shares the fact that she or he is a Christian? “Oh, yeah, Tom Hanks? Donna Summer? Tim Tebow? Johnny Cash? Bow Wow? Yep. They’re all believers…”

Our adult mission team used a little book called Coffee With Jesus as a part of our devotional reading. One of my favorite comic strips in that volume pokes fun at our fascination with celebrity believers:

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist.  For more, see www.coffeewithJesus.com

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist. For more, see http://www.coffeewithJesus.com

You see, that’s one of the reasons that I tend to be a fan of baptizing babies and children before we know who they are going to be. Is little Sam going to grow up to play High School baseball and slam them out of the park like his dad? Or is he going to be a weak-hitting right-center fielder with a mysterious overconfidence in his own baserunning abilities like a certain pastor we know?

God doesn’t care.

Neither should we. In baptizing him today, we claim that Sam is already surrounded by God’s grace. There are no “cool kids” in the Kingdom of God, because the call is for all who will listen!

If we are going to grow from being disciples into being apostles, we have got to be willing to invest ourselves in those who are seen as insignificant. As individuals, as a congregation, and as The Church, we’ve got to claim the fact that the things that unite us in Jesus are more powerful than those that would divide us by race, income, geography, gender, or anything else. We all belong to God every bit as much as little Sam – no more, no less.

That means that where we can, as individuals, we’ve got to support the kinds of one-on-one ministry that exist here. Will we do what we can do to empower the people who volunteer or work at the preschool, the Open Door, or the Youth Group? If we can’t personally volunteer with those vulnerable neighbors, can we create a climate that encourages them?

That means that we’ve got to pledge ourselves to refuse to see people as belonging to a category: when you look at someone, do you think, “Oh, that’s the black kid…the white guy…the drunk…the user…the loser…the stuck-up rich person…”? That kind of labeling has no place in the Christian world.

That means that we’ve got to find ways to celebrate the real love of Jesus with real people. We commit to sharing meals together. To listening to stories. To sharing moments of laughter and friendship on the bus or in the check-out line. We’ve got to risk engagement with the people around us, even when they seem to be “other” than we are.

Do we have to be cautious? You bet we do. But we can’t, in the name of safety or fear, reject other people just because they appear to be different.

And how do we get there?

By remembering, deep within our own sense of self, that we are, well, nobodies ourselves.

I’m not saying that we are all losers and none of us are the cool kids and that Christianity is, as Celsus claimed, a religion for ignorant, weak, uneducated people.

I am saying that we are all people who have been bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft at one time or another. And, it seems to me, the only way that we can move forward is to pray like bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, and bereft people for others who are bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft.

In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell points to this truth. He writes,

I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on…

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches….And eve though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long…[3]

Paul’s trip to preach to Lydia and a handful of other women by the river in Philippi was not a stroke of genius that was applauded by the head honchos in the church marketing department. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t have a marketing department then, because maybe the nobodies in Philippi would never have heard the good news about Jesus. And maybe the nobodies in my neighborhood wouldn’t have, either. But thanks be to God, he gives us a model to follow. We’re not here to celebrate the fact that God loves the rock stars or the celebrities or the athletes. He does, of course, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because he cares for us, and expects that we will show our neighbors his care in our daily lives.

Listen: choosing you and me to live out his love every day may not be the smartest thing God’s ever done, but he didn’t ask us for advice. He’s asking us to do it. Thanks be to God, he’s asking us to do it. Amen.


[1] Quoted in Will Willimon’s Interpretation Commentary On The Book of Acts (Atlanta, John Knox, 1988), p. 138.

[2] See Bernhard Pick, “The Attack of Celsus on Christianity” in The MonistVol. 21, No. 2 (APRIL, 1911) (pp. 223-266)http://www.jstor.org/stable/27900311?seq=14

[3] The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Seabury Press, 1968), pp. 91-92

The Way

On Palm Sunday, the members of the Crafton Heights church continued to think about the times that Jesus said, “I Am…” in the Gospel of John.  This week, we considered Psalm 118:19-29 and John 14:1-11.  My thoughts in this message are deeply influence by Eugene Peterson’s work, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.

Survey time…I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but let me ask – what’s the best way to get to Disney World in Florida? Driving? Flying? Take the train?

maps-icon-location-iphoneWhat’s the best way to get to PNC Park for a Sunday afternoon game? Noblestown Road to the West End bridge? Or take the bus to the subway? Which way would you go? Or would you tell me to get out my spiffy new smart phone and say, “There’s an app for that, Dave”?

When I ask you about “the way”, in our culture that usually means that I am enquiring about the route. I want directions to be followed or steps to be taken so that I can arrive at the end goal quickly and reliably. “The way” is simply the means to the end.

Which makes one of the oldest and corniest jokes we know funny: “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

Contemporary comedian Demetri Martin has put a new spin on this one when he ways, “I want to have an apartment that’s near Carnegie Hall so that when somebody asks how to get to my place, I can just say, ‘Practice, practice, practice then make a left.’”

path-less-traveledThat humor points us to the reality that when we talk about “the way” we mean not only the fastest or most efficient route from A to B, but we mean the journey itself. When we stop to think about it, we realize that “the way” means the method, the path, the mode that we take as we move along from point to point.

And our culture is full of examples of that realization. In 1920, Robert Frost talked about “The Road Not Taken”, and how the paths we choose matter as much as the destinations for which we hope. Maybe you grew up watching “The Wizard of Oz”, and came to see that the Yellow Brick Road was not the most efficient or effective way to Kansas, but being there was important to Dorothy ending up where she did, back at Auntie Em & Uncle Henry’s farm. Nat King Cole got his kicks on Route 66, and Paul McCartney told us of the bane and blessing that was “The Long and Winding Road.”

Eugene Peterson gets to the truth of this when he writes,

Way: a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various ‘ways’ – not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile. The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat…And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated ‘ways and means’ that characterize our way of life.[2]

Soooo…when I ask you what’s the best way to get to PNC Park, you have permission to look at me blankly, and then ask what I’m really asking…because I clearly think too deeply about a lot of things…

FaceofChristExcept today. It’s Palm Sunday. And we just read from the Gospel of John, where Jesus looks at his friends and says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Because if we accept that “way” means only the quickest and most efficient route somewhere, then we might come to think of “truth” as meaning only a set of ideas I can accept and “life” as the opposite of death. None of that is wrong, of course, but it is very incomplete.

In reality, Christians in North America appear to be better at accepting Jesus as the truth than we are at accepting that he is the way.

It’s fairly easy to go to someone and say, “This is my set of ideas that I believe about Jesus. It is the truth. I used to believe this other stuff, but now I believe this. If you cannot believe what I believe, you do not have the truth.

You see, it’s far simpler to decide on a goal or an outcome than it is to acquire the skill or means necessary to get to that place.[3] If I ask, “What do you want for dinner?” or “What would you like to be when you grow up?”, it’s easy to say “I’d love to have steak and potatoes and please, can I be the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”

But how do we get the dinner or that dream job? What’s the way to that? Isn’t that the harder question? Jesus is the truth and the life, but first he is the way. He’s not merely an answer.

triumphant-entryOn the first Palm Sunday, if you were to poll the denizens of Jerusalem, asking “What do you want?”, you’d get an earful. “What do we want? We want to get rid of the Romans! We want to go back to the good old days of Kings David or Solomon!” The Gospels are pretty clear about the fact that much of the time, we are far more interested in a rearrangement of the external furniture than we are a realignment of our internal priorities and practices. Which might be at least one reason why Luke points out that after everyone went home on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem. He knew that then, and now, we just don’t get it.

Take a look at what so many churches are selling these days. We ask ourselves, “What do you want?” And the answers are many and varied: “I want a job…a healing…a baby…inner peace…a new car…” Then we say, “well, let’s ask Jesus. He is the way to get that.”

No. No he is not.

jesus-the-magician-1Because if that is true – if the way that Jesus is “the way” is that Jesus is the means to our ends, then he’s nothing more than the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain; he’s only a magic man doling out blessings and bonuses to those he likes best.

But Pastor Dave, you’ve prayed for all of those things with us! And you said that Jesus is the way.

I have. And he is.

WashingOfFeetJesus is the way. An since he is the way, we do with him what we do with the other ways in our lives – we follow that way. We live like him. Which means, I think, that if he was tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated, then we should not be surprised when we find ourselves being tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated. That appears to be the way.

Did Jesus serve, tell the truth, forgive, and challenge others with the intensity of his love? Then we ought not to be shocked when he declares that servanthood, truthfulness, forgiveness, and extravagant love are cornerstones of the way of life to which we are called.

If Jesus is the way, then we live like him. And we live with him.

Following Jesus is not a skill that we acquire so that God will like us better. It’s not a reward that we get so that people can see how blessed we are.

Following Jesus means taking a path through life that is characterized by love for God and others and worship of God.

For about 1900 years, people who follow Jesus have been called “Christians”. Do you know what we were called in the decades immediately following his death and resurrection? Before we were called “church” or “Christians”, we were known as “the way”.

Think about that. If you wanted to align yourself with the movement that Jesus started, you were not invited to “join a church” – to add your name or identity to an institution. You entered into the way. Your whole life took on a subtle, yet fundamental shift. You still had the same job, the same family, the same responsibilities…but the manner in which you performed those roles – your way – was different.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus of Nazareth was a rock star. He was the one with whom everyone wanted to whip out their smartphones and take their “selfies”; the one on whom everyone was placing the burden of their expectations. On Thursday of that same week, he was branded a criminal. On Friday, he became a corpse.

And in the years since, he has become the most written about, admired, celebrated, killed-for, sought-after man in history. You can’t go very far without finding someone who is saying something about Jesus.

It’s just that he’s not very often followed.

jesusfeet3This week, I’m not asking you to go to Jesus. I’m saying that it’s important for us to go into the world with Jesus – to follow in and enter more deeply the Jesus way.

This week, ask for grace and strength and resolve to follow where he leads each day, each circumstance, and in each relationship. I’m pretty sure that it looks more like a dirt road than a wide superhighway. But I’m pretty sure that it’s the right way. May we have the grace to follow in that way, because he is the Way. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.


[1] The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is The Way (Eerdman’s, 2007) p. 22

[2] See Peterson, p. 27.

How’s the Water?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges.  On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges.  Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.

TwoFishDid you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish?  “Morning, boys!  How’s the water?” he said as he passed them.  He went on his way.  After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”[1]

I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture.  Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows.  This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations.  When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading.  Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5)  God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.

So Samson is going to begin this.  How?  What is distinctive about this baby?  He is called to be a Nazirite.  One who is set apart, or consecrated.

OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Of course.  Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.

That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.

In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right.  The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one.  That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino.  But, well, you know…young love…

And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard.  An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes.  Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”


This sounds like a lot of grape wine.

At a Nazirite’s wedding.

To a Philistine girl.

The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly.  More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage.  The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.

Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.

How’s the water, Samson?

In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities.  Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God.  Did you hear what they said to Samson?  “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?”  Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines.  Here, we see that they take it as normal.  It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers.  Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him.  And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey.  A dead donkey.

Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes.  Gone.

Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead.  Gone.

And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men.  With the jawbone of a dead donkey.

And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God.  Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”?  When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry?  Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?

And here, the people don’t pray.  The people have given their leader over to the enemy.  One man prays.  And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer.  He asks for a drink of water.

Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?

Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing.  But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong?  This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.

It’s not.  Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  Do you see?  God’s people.  God’s hopes.  But Philistine days.

How’s the water?  It’s Philistine water.  And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others.  We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.

We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.

And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines.  We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.

We see that in our world.  This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.  One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn.  A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice.  But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do?  That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”

They do.  We do.  But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth.  I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor.  But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land.  The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.

GunDrawing001In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines.  Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns.  Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms.  Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.

Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally.  And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus.  I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now.  What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”

Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope.  But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens.  People die.  Nothing we can do.”

Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick.  We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities.  If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something?  I hope so.  In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities.  People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.

following-the-crowd_thumbAnd it’s not just in our world or in our nation.  It’s in our own lives.  How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming?  We cheat on the test.  We drive like maniacs.  We get drunk and act like idiots.  We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it.

Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices.  It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.

When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”

When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage.  And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books.  He’s a hero.

But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice?  Could Samson have used that power from God differently?

To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.

What I do want to know, this morning, is this:

What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?

In whose days do you live?  What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”

And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now?  And will you help me point to them, too?  Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone.  Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.

[1]  Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

Waiting for The Dough

On January 5, we observed the Day of Epiphany (a day early – so sue me!).  We read from Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-7.

         Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota.  Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public.  In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers.  It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth.  And what a variety!

You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”.  There are a litany of notes from past elections.  Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.”  Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times:  “Hungry?  Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.”  And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.”  And some are out of control…

I don't even know what to say about this one...

I don’t even know what to say about this one…

And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy.  Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”

Life stinks, and then you die.  That must be a hard load to carry around every day.

waiting-for-godot1   When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot.  This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”  It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that  characterizes much of modern life.

The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon.  They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go.  They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot.  As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.

The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.

Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail.  Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends.   Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death.  Life stinks, and then you die.  Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”

But not everyone believes this, of course.  That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.

There are many others.

Agrippa_I-Herod_agrippaKing Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life.  He was no idle bystander.  He was not waiting for anyone or anything.  And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading  “life stinks and then you die.”

Herod was a man with power over his destiny.  He was the king.  He was in charge.  He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted.  What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle.  So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation.  He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah.  He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere.  After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run.  He’s got interests to protect.  And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life.  They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”.  Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers.  These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women.  The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is.  For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.

When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room.  They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty.  They worshipped him.  They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way.  They went home changed.  Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life.  Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.

For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting.  We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy.  We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives.  We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator.  We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys.  We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”

There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men.  We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it.  We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.

We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night.  Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.

And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod.  We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king.  But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives.  We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now.  We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.

If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence.  We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use!  Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.

communion_elements On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope.  On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.

People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.

This meal is what we have been waiting for.  All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us.  And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime.  This is what we have been waiting for.

So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.

Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off.  Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.

Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God.  What are you waiting for?  Christ is waiting with and for you.  What are you journeying toward?  Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live.  And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.