First Things First

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On February 9, we entered the 20th Century and engaged with the authors of Theological Declaration of Barmen written in Germany in the 1934. We listened to the creed while referring to Psalm 62 and I Peter 2:13-17.  

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

As I was growing up, a familiar part of the school experience was the air raid drill.  Every now and then, there would be an announcement or a bell, and we’d be expected to kneel underneath our desks making sure that our fingers interlaced over the backs of our necks, protecting our vulnerable spinal columns.  We did this because there was always a chance, we knew, that the Communists in the Soviet Union were out to get us.  I remember hearing that if the Reds launched the nukes, that we’d be in the first strike zone.  It was easy to believe, as I watched the warships steaming down the Delaware river from the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and when most of my classmates’ dads went to work for DuPont every day.

There was a prevailing climate of fear, anger, and uncertainty.  I was told, however, and I accepted as fact, the notion that the government would keep me safe.  During the same time, I heard a lot about a war that we were fighting in a place called Vietnam.  I didn’t understand everything, but if we were fighting the Commies there, that meant that they wouldn’t come to Delaware to get me, so that was all right with me.

Every couple of months, we all went down to the auditorium and watched a rocket blast off in what was known as the “space race”.  Again, I didn’t know much about what was happening, but I knew that it was pretty important that we be the first to get to the moon and claim it for our side, so that the Reds didn’t wind up using it for evil purposes.

I understood much of my life, in those days, as being “us vs. them”, or good vs. bad.  It was simple, and uncomplicated.

Chopin Monument, Warsaw, Poland

In 1987, not long after our marriage, Sharon and I were given a European vacation.  Did we want to go to Paris? Rome? London?  Nope.  We traveled behind what was known as “the Iron Curtain”.  We went behind the Berlin Wall into East Germany, through communist Poland, and visited a good bit of the Soviet Union.  I was told that it was foolhardy, or stupid, or dangerous.  People who loved me were nervous.

And I’m here to tell you that it was an amazing trip.  There were aspects of it that were quite difficult, of course.  I was stunned by some of what we saw: the lack of personal choice, the pockets of poverty we encountered.  And yet I was surprised by the joy that we discovered.  I will not forget the woman who gave us plums from the farmer’s market outside of Moscow, or the man who kept trying to buy me shot after shot of cheap vodka in the city that was known then as Leningrad.  While visiting a town called Novgorod, we saw a statue commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.

Contrary to the expectations that I had developed a decade or two earlier, I did not encounter a single person who appeared intent on murdering me.  My experience was the opposite of that which I expected.

I’m telling you that because those are the lenses through which I approach the theme of our worship today.  As I hope you recall, we are considering some of the historical documents and creeds that make up the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions.  Today, we leave ancient history behind and enter into some of the 20th century statements of faith and we will consider the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

When World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles, the nation of Germany had been humbled, to say the least.  The spirit of the people had been crushed, and the allies demanded war reparations to the tune of $33 billion.  In addition, the victors imposed a new government on the German people and curtailed that nation’s ability to defend itself.  One British official summed it up by saying, “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak.”[1]

Life in post-war Germany was miserable as the economy plummeted and people suffered.  The exchange rate was as high as 4 billion German Marks to a single U.S. dollar.  People needed a wheelbarrow full of currency simply to buy a loaf of bread.

A young veteran of WWI, who had been wounded in the trenches, began speaking out across Germany.  He ridiculed the politicians for accepting the terms of Versailles, and he began to blame “outsiders” like communists and Jews for his nation’s troubles.  “If we get rid of THEM,” he said, “there will be prosperity and security for US.”

By 1933 this young man, named Adolf Hitler, had been named Chancellor of Germany. In short order, he outlawed all political parties but his own.  He replaced the judicial system, abolished civil rights, purged the universities, attacked the labor unions, and increased the size of the German army.  And he did all of that with the support of Christians in Germany.

Emboldened by the support of church leaders, Hitler appointed a “State Commissioner” of the church.  The German Christian Church had a national convention, the theme of which was “The State of Adolf Hitler Appeals to the Church, and the Church has to Hear His Call.”

Most Germans accepted this cocktail of nationalism, militarism, and Christianity.  They came to see patriotism and Christian truth as interchangeable, and the churches of Germany predicted that the government of National Socialism would restore order, bring justice, increase prosperity, and make Germany safe for Germans again.

From May 29 – 31, 1934 a group of 139 representatives from various churches around Germany gathered in the Gemarke Church in the Barmen district of the city of Wupperthal.  This courageous group drafted an appeal to German Christians to stand against any attempt to link the church of Jesus Christ to the Nazi regime.  They asked the church to remember and affirm the fact that God, not Hitler, ruled the world.  Their document contained a series of six propositions, based on scripture, that rejected the false claims of the German Christians and pointed to the centrality of Jesus Christ in and over all of life.

The primary author of the declaration, Karl Barth, and his colleagues recognized that in identifying with the Nazi Party, the church would not be influencing the political realm; it would be the exact opposite. The government would overwhelm the church and the political party would dictate to the church her practices, beliefs, and values.

This document, therefore, is comprised of a call for Christians to remember that Jesus of Nazareth is the sole authority for the church, and any relationship that the church has must be understood in light of the primacy of Jesus. The Theological Declaration of Barmen was, then, a call for the church to stand firm against idolatry.

Idolatry?  Do you mean praying to statues or worshiping false gods like Baal or Molech?  Isn’t that kind of Old-Testamenty?  We don’t do that.  In fact, the Germans weren’t doing that.  Why is this relevant to us?

Because idolatry is not merely praying to a totem pole or trusting a little carving to save you or your crops when times get rough.  Idolatry is when a person twists the order of creation and winds up trusting something that is NOT God to have or use powers that are reserved FOR God.

The Barmen Declaration stood in opposition to the German Christians who said, essentially, “Well, you know, personally I don’t think that I like Hitler, but, well, the economy is doing better and the streets are safer.  Let’s be honest, you can’t argue with results.”

The theological problem was that many contemporary Germans began to look to the German government to offer, define, and provide security, freedom, success, and identity for themselves.  When they did that, they put the State in the place of the Lord.

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson had warned about this a couple of generations earlier.  He said, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”[2]

The people of Israel, who knew something about being down and out and longing for safety and security, sang the Psalm that you heard earlier: “Only God can save me, and I calmly wait for him.  God alone is the mighty rock that keeps me safe and the fortress where I am secure.”

The first Christians, who knew something about being persecuted and hunted and being at risk, heard their Pastor, Peter the Apostle, say, “Love and respect everyone; fear God, honor the government, and love your neighbor.”  Don’t give to the Emperor that which belongs to God or your neighbor.

The church always needs to be reminded of the truth that comes through the words of Barmen.  When we confuse the Gospel with the government, that’s idolatry.  When we look to some aspect of creation to fill the role that belongs rightfully to the Creator, that’s idolatry.  When we view other people as less than we, as threats to our own personhood, or as worthy of extermination, that’s the fruit of idolatry.

Listen: if you buy a gun to go hunting, or to shoot skeet, or because you think it might deter crime, that is using a weapon as a tool. But if you buy a gun because you trust that gun to make you secure and to bring you safety and peace, then you’re not treating that weapon as a tool – you are asking that tool to give you something (peace and security) that is only God’s to give.

Tomorrow we choose to provide Universal Health Care, or adopt Medicare for all, but that would not cure cancer or prevent HIV or the Coronavirus.  We could build a forty-foot wall around the entire country, that will not bring us safety.

Asking one party, one person, to lead people like “us” to a promised land of prosperity, peace and security at someone else’s expense is a no-win scenario.  It is idolatrous.

Frederick Backman is a Swedish novelist who tells the truth in amazing ways. In a recent book, he observes,

Everyone is a hundred different things, but in other people’s eyes we usually get the chance to be only one of them…The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone; we mostly want what’s best for ourselves…It’s so easy to get people to hate one another. That’s what makes love so impossible to understand. Hate is so simple that it always ought to win.[3]

The Theological Declaration of Barmen points us to the singularity of Christ and his pre-eminence in the world. In this letter from our German brothers 80 years ago, we are reminded that our first duty is obedience to God, and that our expression of that obedience is love – Love of God and love for each other; love that equips us to seek the best for our neighbor.

We, the congregation of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, as God’s people gathered in this place at this time are called to look to God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth to lead us to a way of life that recognizes our interdependence, that refuses to “other” or demonize anyone, and that forms us to serve our neighbor as God in Christ has served us.

We can do this, of course, without retreating from the world.  We can and should vote.  We can and should advocate for strategies that we believe will bring healing and hope.  Yet in the same breath we acknowledge that we trust that God is the author of ours and every story, and that the way to hope and healing is not the destruction or the removal of the neighbor, but rather the recognition of our neighbor as one who belongs to God no less than we.

One of the men who contributed to the writing of the Barmen Declaration was a Lutheran Pastor named Martin Niemöller.  Several years after the declaration was made, he was arrested by Hitler’s agents and spent most of World War II in a concentration camp.  He is best remembered for having said,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[4]

Beloved of God, let us hold fast to our position as God’s own children, and let us commit ourselves to reminding our neighbors that each of them is beloved as we. There is no “us against them.”  There is only us. Therefore, may we use our voices and our energy to speak and live truthfully, kindly, and in pursuit of justice and healing, looking to God alone as the arbiter of truth.  May we have the wisdom to trust in God, and the courage to risk ourselves for love.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Geddes

[2] Quoted in James Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose (Cascade Books 2012), p. 23.

[3] Us Against You (Simon and Schuster, 2018), pp 34, 218, 463.

[4] Niemöller used many different versions of this basic thought in his later life and speaking.  This is the version that is printed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists

A Prayer On Losing My Luggage

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

If you’ve read posts from early on in this African pilgrimage, you may recall that when our team of 14 arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, virtually none of our luggage did.  We had transferred from a large, mostly-empty plane to a smaller, really crowded plane, and some of the stuff simply did not fit in.  Folks at both airports assured us that they knew where it was, only that it would take day or two to get it all to us.  They were right.  It was a slight inconvenience, easily rectified and quickly dismissed.

When I left Juba, South Sudan, to journey to Gambella, Ethiopia, I knew I was on a tight schedule. According to my itinerary, I had 55 minutes to make a connection at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, which has the distinction of not only being one of the busiest hubs in the world, but is also undergoing massive reconstruction.  My situation was not improved by the fact that my plane was 30 minutes late leaving South Sudan.  As I rushed off the plane in Addis, I explained my tight turnaround to several Ethiopian Airports employees, each of whom looked at me incredulously and said in Amharic something that I took to mean, “Well why are you standing around talking with me about this, old man? You better run, and run fast!”

Because my Amharic is about as good as my Chinese, Estonian, or Navajo, I simply looked as helpless and as lost as I could.  I must be pretty good at looking that way, because they assigned me a coach – they found a guy who I am convinced used to run for one of the Olympic teams back in the day. “Coach” brought me outside of one terminal and ran with me past the jets, the propellers, and the baggage handlers into another terminal. When he figured out that I had to go through passport control and get my visa examined, he handed me off (yes, it was like the “Pastor Dave Relay”) to a young woman who brought me to the front of the line, stamped my passport, and then pushed me through the security so that yet another man helpfully removed my belt, frisked me, and ran with me out to my waiting aircraft.  I made the flight, but was not surprised when I arrived in Gambella to discover that my luggage had not.

I’ve been seeing a lot of these Ethiopian Airlines’ De Havilland Canada DHC-8 Turboprops (fondly known as “Dash 8’s”) on this trip. Several, like this one, I’ve seen while running alongside just before they’ve pulled up the steps!

I inquired of both  Ethiopian Airlines personnel on site at Gambella, and they assured me that my luggage would come, probably in the morning on the next plane.  To keep me happy, they wrote my little tag numbers on a scrap of paper and put that paper on someone’s desk.  The next day I went out, only to discover that not only had my bags not arrived, but there was no internet that day and nobody could help.  It took me two days to even file a claim with the airline.  In the meantime, I was in a rather_________ (fill in the blank: quaint/rural/remote/traditional) African community with two shirts, two pairs of underwear, one pair of pants, and a toothbrush.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Dave, with a cargo system THIS finely tuned, what could possibly go wrong?”

You’ve had splinters before.  You know that they are really essentially insignificant.  In your head, you think, “Yeah, I’ll want to get that out soon.  It’s kind of annoying”, but you realize that having a splinter is not the same as breaking your leg or having a house fire or losing a loved one.  Splinters are small potatoes.

And yet, you also know that the longer you have a splinter, the more time and energy it takes. You don’t want to but you find yourself picking at it.  You curse yourself for having trimmed your fingernails so closely and wonder why in the world whoever used the tweezers last couldn’t be bothered to put them back in the right place.  A friend may come to visit and speak to you about some crisis in her life, and you are trying to look sympathetic and supportive but in your head you’re thinking, “Yeah, but I have this splinter and it’s really on my last nerve!  This splinter is the worst!”  Of course, it’s not actually  the worst, you’ll readily admit to anyone who would ask you about it, but in your heart of hearts, pretty soon (in your mind, at least) the pain of your splinter starts to rival that time you had appendicitis.

Turns out that for me, every day has been laundry day in Gambella!

For almost a week, I’ve gotten up and stood in the shower washing yesterday’s underwear and socks and then placing them on the line to dry.  I’ve called more people at Ethiopian Airlines than I ever thought possible, and some of them recognize my name now.  Everyone assures me that the loss is being traced and I need to be patient. And I am sorry to say that I am more bothered by this than I wish I was.  It’s just stuff.  Stuff like this:

  • The preaching alb I’ve worn since it was given to me in 1993 – the sign of my vocation and, perhaps, my identity.
  • The bible I’ve used – and carried around with various scraps of paper, poetry, photos, and mementos – for years.
  • A beaded cross I was given by a South Sudanese woman and that I like to wear when I lead worship as a reminder that we are all connected.
  • A large stack of letters, gifts, and greetings I’ve been given in Malawi and South Sudan to convey to friends of friends in the USA.
  • A propeller that I brought from the USA to help the church here in Ethiopia repair their motorized canoe and gain access to more villages.
  • The shirt my wife says is her “favorite” – a soft cream colored long-sleeve with the Church’s logo and “Pastor Dave” embroidered on the breast.
  • Small gifts I’d brought for my daughter and granddaughters.
  • A pocket knife that once belonged to my grandfather (a.k.a. “Grandpa’s knife”)
  • And yes, things like clean underwear, deodorant, and cholesterol medication.

My friend Achol gave me this hand-embroidered bedsheet and these pillow shams in Juba. I’d like to be able to show them to my family…

It’s all stuff.  It’s only stuff.  But it’s my stuff.

Perhaps I’m afraid that maybe, somehow, it’s not just stuff – but somehow, it’s my me too.

If I lose my alb and stole, can I still be “Pastor Dave”?  If I don’t have the gifts, will people be glad to see me? When I fail to carry the greetings with which I’ve been entrusted, will my integrity be called into question?

A couple of weeks ago, Ethiopian Airlines thoughtfully provided me with a travel toothbrush and toothpaste. As if they knew what might happen…  It has been well-used and much appreciated.

When I began this Sabbatical, I volunteered to walk away from most of my life.  I knew that I was giving up the summer of boating with friends in Pittsburgh.  I didn’t plant a garden and I walked away from some of my favorite ministries at the church.  Yet I was in control.  I thought about what I could miss and what I couldn’t miss and what the costs and opportunities were, and I made a choice.  And it’s been good.  Hard, but good.

But now, these small reminders of home and identity and love and self were taken  from me, and are in limbo somewhere, and that is more disturbing, more unsettling to me than I wish that it was.

It’s stuff.  Only stuff.

And even as I type this confession, I am aware that every day of this Sabbatical – every blessed day since I left Pittsburgh – a dear friend has been hospitalized and in agony each day.  I pray for her.  Another friend lost her husband of nearly 60 years right after I left town in June.  I’ve been engaged in conversation and study with those who have had to flee everything they’ve known in order to stay alive as refugees in a new place and who need “trauma healing” to get through this part of their lives. My city has been torn apart by another senseless murder and the political discourse in the USA has sunk to new lows each day.

And I’m over here well-fed and housed and with two changes of clothes and still I’m worrying about my stuff.

Oh Lord, deliver me from confusing the self that you have given me, and the image that I have carried, with the things that I wear or carry or use.  Help me to see the splinters for what they are and to walk with those who face real challenges every day.  Teach me wisdom and grace and humility.  Teach me to release my stuff and to hold on to you and those you have put around me – to cling to that which matters most.  Amen.

I’ve been in Africa a month. This is what I’m taking home. There is some kind of freedom and disappointment in that.

While it may seem sacreligious to quote the late George Carlin after such a heartfelt prayer concerning materialism, the observations about “Stuff” he shared at the Comic Relief show in 1986 are, well, prophetic.  Be advised, there is some language in here that you’re not used to hearing from your pastor, but if I don’t have any more clerical collars, who am I, anyway?  Find a quiet nook and see if he isn’t telling the truth here:

(if you can’t play the clip in your browser, access it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac)

 

Preaching in a Place I Wish Did Not Exist

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

On July 20, I was a part of a delegation that included three leaders from the Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian and myself (representing Pittsburgh Presbytery of the PCUSA).  In my next post, I’ll talk a little about the overall visit of this small team and the fruit that came from there.  For now, however, I’d like to reflect on my worship experience.

The sign says it all. UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) Welcomes You…

When I visited Juba in 2015, I was asked to preach at a United Nations Protection of Civilians (PoC) Camp.  If you’d like to read that post as background, you can do so by clicking here. Let me simply say that that day was, and remains, the single most powerful worship experience of my entire life. There is no way that I can adequately describe the impact of those hours in my spirit. I am a better person for having been there, for sure. For another description of these camps, how they came into being, and what it might be like for those inside, I’d suggest this article from the Huffington Post.

Simply getting to church in a PoC Camp is no easy feat.  There are a number of checkpoints, and the closer you get to the camp, the military presence and security that the UN provides becomes more and more apparent. Driving toward the camp prior to worship I must have passed six or seven vehicles transporting troops to their posts. As I left I passed a convoy of about five vehicles I’ll call armored personnel carriers.  Upon arriving at the gate of the camp, I was greeted by several soldiers from Rwanda wearing full riot gear and carrying shields.

UN Troops on patrol outside of the UN Camp.

An armored vehicle – one of many I saw encircling the UN Compound.

We wound our way through the camp.  There were some of the lanes that could generously be described as “streets”, although I saw no non-UN vehicles inside the camp.  Other passageways, however, could not even be termed “corridors”.  As I approached the church we turned into a path that was between a number of tarp and stick shelters that was so narrow I could not walk fully facing forward: I had to lead with my right shoulder and turn so that my left was behind me.  It was so narrow that there were places I wondered if I could fit.  To say that the camp was crowded would be a grave understatement indeed.

It was hard to notice how crowded I felt because my ears were assaulted by so many sounds!  There was singing coming from the building I supposed to be the church; there were people crying; there were people shouting and children playing; and there was the constant drone of gasoline powered generators.  Oh, it was sensory overload for this pastor from Pittsburgh!

We entered into the building where worship was to take place, and a large crowd had gathered.  I found out later that the “official” count for the morning was 523, but I have no idea when that count was taken because there were always more and more people entering the worship space.  I might describe the building as a large “Quonset Hut” – it was constructed mainly of metal and it was like being inside a half-pipe.  It was huge!

The worship began, and it was a delight.  I mean, the choirs were singing like nobody’s business.  A few children broke free from their mother’s arms and rushed to greet me. I was struck by the number of pastors present, and came to understand that there are five faith traditions inside the camp who coordinate their worship in that space.  Every six months the leadership changes – but the congregation remains the same.  This morning, it was supposed to be an Anglican service, but a white Presbyterian from America preached.  There were pastors from (I believe) Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist traditions there as well.

The men were poring over their bibles as the scripture was read in their own language.

Likewise, the women were diligently following along. The literacy rate seems to be very impressive.

Several of the pastors present to lead worship this morning.

There are things that I hope I never, ever forget from this morning’s worship.  Among them:

  • Although nobody in the congregation appeared to be in a hurry to be anywhere, the pastor in charge of the worship seemed to be quite worried about keeping time. We (the pastors) were sitting in an area behind the pulpit and the communion table, so anyone who spoke or sang had their backs to us.  There was a choir that was enthusiastically launching into the ninth or tenth verse of a chorus, and the pastor got up and went and stood right in front of them and tapped his wristwatch.  They stopped about ten seconds after that…
  • About an hour later in the service, another man got up to speak about something, and it was clear that the pastor wasn’t crazy about what was being said. When this man had gone on for about five minutes, the pastor tried the old “go out and tap my wristwatch” thing.  No effect whatsoever.  He sat next to me fuming for a moment, and then he got out his phone and called an usher/deacon in the front row!  I know that because I watched a man look at his phone, then look at the pastor, and then get up and go to take the microphone from the offending party.  I hope I never complain about a “minute for mission” that lasts four minutes again!
  • There was a dog laying under the communion table that got up and walked out just as I started to preach. I was initially offended, but she came back for the end of my sermon and the benediction.
  • Oh, beloved – there was so much laughter in the worship service. It was the best sound I’ve heard in a while, to hear laughter in that place, amidst all that noise.

While I was preaching, I was momentarily distracted by the appearance of UN Soldiers in full riot gear just outside the back of the building.  That doesn’t usually happen in Crafton Heights.  Then I noticed that there were UN Military Police who had entered the worship space.  I was confused and not a little concerned until I noticed that they were paying attention to the sermon.  And at the end of worship, after the gifts had been exchanged and the benediction offered, this congregation did what every South Sudanese congregation with whom I’ve ever worshiped does: I was the first person out of the building, and then every congregant came out and shook my hand and then extended the line so that at the very end, everyone had greeted everyone else.  And know this, beloved: the UN Soldiers came to shake my hand. One of them asked to take a photo with me.  If you know me, you won’t be surprised that when I tried to thank these women of the UN for the work they’re doing to protect the South Sudanese, I couldn’t because I was weeping.  Oh, how grateful I am!

The congregation greeting me. If you look at the very back of the room on the right side, you’ll see two of the UN police officers, each of whom was among those who came to greet me and the rest of the congregation after worship.

You might wonder what I could possibly say to this congregation.  If you’d like to hear it, there is a very rough recording below.  It’s about 25 minutes, and you hear my preaching and then the Nuer translation.  I preached mainly from I Samuel 7:5-13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  I sought to be an encouragement in that God promises to help us where we are – while we are in between our worst day and our best day.  And I said that the next time I come to South Sudan, I hope to come to this place and see an “Ebenezer” – a sign that once upon a time, the Nuer people in South Sudan needed a place to be protected, but that was a long time ago, and those people have all gone back to their farms and their communities now.

To hear the sermon as preached, please use the player below.  I recorded this for my wife and she suggested that I share it in this format.  I hope you find a word of encouragement here (approximately 23 minutes).

It was a good, good worship, and I wish that you’d have been there.  I hope that my narration of this has helped you get a sense for what it was like.  And please know this: if anything in this post has given even a hint of a suggestion that I do not respect the amazingly resilient people of South Sudan OR the United Nations troops who are staffing this camp, then I have written it poorly.  I am humbled by the grace of my sisters and brothers in the Lord here at the UNMISS camp and I am so grateful for and respectful of the work of the UN in this time and place.  It was truly an honor to be here.

Leaving worship, I was reminded of the stark contrast – the freedom we enjoy in the Lord and the gates wreathed in razor wire. Oh Lord, hear our prayer!

One last photo with some of the worship leaders before departing.

Africa Pilgrimage Update #10

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

Friday, July 12 brought a whole new experience to the 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi.  Whereas the previous posts concerning this journey have all contained stories about the team gathered– that is, together as we participated in youth conferences, wandered and wondered over amazing terrain, and visited historic sites together– on this day the team split into five components.  Groups were sent to their partner churches (or, if they don’t currently have partner churches in Malawi, they went to congregations that would host them for the weekend).  Since I am one lone blogger and haven’t quite mastered the art of being in more than one place at one time (frankly, sometimes I’m pretty shaky at being in only  one place at one time), this entry will focus on the three of us from Crafton Heights who were the guests at the congregation with which we’ve been partnered since 1995 – the Mbenjere CCAP in Ntaja, Machinga, Malawi.  While the specifics of each location will vary, and if you know other travelers on this journey you’ll want to hear more about their particular host weekend, our experience will surely qualify as typical for the purposes of this journey.

For starters, Ntaja, and all of the other locations where we’ve been hosted, is more rural and less-developed than Blantyre and even Mulanje.  While Ntaja is a primary trading center, it is also a crowded, dusty place in a corner of Malawi that is not usually on people’s itinerary.

I’ve often thought I want to write a book featuring photos of “roads” I’ve driven. Here’s a snap of downtown Ntaja at rush hour. “Rush” meaning “It’s market day and why is that crazy abusa driving his car through the ‘mall’?”

 

We were welcomed by the pastor and some church leaders with a fine meal at the manse; following that we were escorted to our host family’s home.  In our case, the Makuluni family has been blessed with quite a large home, and so each of the three of us had our own bedroom. Menes and Edith have each travelled to Crafton Heights before, and I’ve stayed in their various homes many times. It is a wonderful place to learn about our sister congregation, Mbenjere CCAP, and we were treated royally.

Our hosts, Menes and Edith Makuluni.

Saturday morning found us up and out early, as we toured the church campus and saw not only the “old” and “new” church buildings, but also the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School (which has more than 4000 students and class sizes ranging from 100 – 200), the borehole that Crafton Heights and Bower Hill helped construct about ten years ago, and the environs.  We then met with representatives of the youth department, and combined singing, bible study, games, and small group question/answer time.  After lunch, the program called for us to visit a prayer house, but our vehicle broke down and I had to take it to a village mechanic and a shoemaker (trust me, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post in and of itself).  The girls stayed at the church with a few elders and the youth group members for an impromptu chat that they each agreed was the highlight of their day.  We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Makuluni home and retired comparatively early (but not before we taught our hosts to play “Crazy Dice!).

A tour of the Mbenjere CCAP Primary School. The school buildings are in the background, and the headmaster is the gentleman in the gray coat. We are standing in a “classroom” under the trees – a situation mandated by the intense overcrowding at the school.

Discussions with the Youth Team.

Just as we do at CHUP, the young people play games as icebreakers and conversation starters. Here is a variant on “the shoe game”.

Getting a lesson in “Bao”, a very popular game in these parts.

Sunday was a whirlwind!  We arrived at church at 8:30 for the 9:00 service.  In addition to everything you’d THINK you’d experience at a typical Presbyterian service of worship (a few hymns, children’s sermon, offering, sermon, announcements, etc.), our time of worship included these highlights:

  • A lengthy introduction of the visitors of the day, which included not only our team, but a group of Roman Catholic Nuns from a neighboring town who thought they’d pray like Presbyterians today.
  • The commissioning of the new headmaster of the Primary School, along with his deputies.
  • There were five choirs that sang.
  • We held a service of reconciliation, in which some members who had been put on church discipline were welcomed back to the full communicant membership.
  • Approximately 30 new members were confirmed, and a confirmation class was examined.
  • I was privileged to administer the Sacrament of Baptism to 9 adults and two infants
  • We dedicated a uniform to be worn by a member of the Amayi Mvano, the Women’s Guild of the congregation.
  • There was an exchange of gifts between the congregations.
  • And, in a special “bonus round” of worship after the first benediction, we had a separate service of Holy Communion.

Suffice to say, it was NOT a one hour service.  We finally broke up at about 1 pm, weary but also encouraged and appreciative of what we’d experienced.

Being greeted during the “passing of the peace” at worship.

Gift-giving and receiving is an important part of the partnership experience. Here we are presenting Abusa Noah Banda with a symbol of faith.

We ate very well at our friend Fletcher Tewesa’s new home and rekindled a relationship that has been long and fruitful.  Fletcher has also been a guest at Crafton Heights.

Fletcher and a part of his family at their new home in Ntaja.

A testimony to the power of physical presence and personal visits in partnership:  Fletcher moved into a new house several months ago. He has exactly ONE photo already hung up in his home. That single photo is one I took when the team of 5 young people from Crafton Heights visited in 2016-2017. He was so deeply touched by that experience, and it showed on visiting his home. I was deeply moved when I saw this.

After going back to the church for a Youth Bible Study, we then were escorted to the manse for a farewell dinner.

A portion of the youth who gathered for Bible Study.

There were many contrasts in this visit – some of our time was incredibly engaging, while other aspects of it seemed to drag as we waited for the hosts to choreograph their next activities.  Our friends in Ntaja are so eager to make sure that we have everything that we need that sometimes the pace of some activities (NOT WORSHIP) makes it seem like we’re going inordinately slow – but we have to realize and remember that this is a pace that is rooted in grace, welcome, and hospitality.

Sunday evening after the “farewell dinner” we spent a great deal of time laughing with our hosts, learning to makensima – a corn-based porridge that is the staple food – and learning to dress like a Malawian.  It has been a rich and full time, and I know that these young women, this congregation, and the folks at Crafton Heights will have been glad that it occurred.  I can only hope that the other delegations had as powerful an experience as did we!

Rayna gets put on potato peeling duty at home!

Danielle is trying HARD to get a good recipe for nsima.

The girls each learned how to wear a chitenge properly.

After we left Ntaja, we made a quick stop in the Liwonde National Park.  I’m disappointed to say that we failed to find a single elephant, but we did have a great time exploring the countryside and seeing some of God’s rich creation!

Danielle looking eagerly for something wild!

A warthog crosses our path!

A pair of waterbuck size us up.

This impala is waiting patiently to be groomed by an oxpecker – these birds remove ticks and other parasites from their furry friends.

 

Africa Pilgrimage Update #5

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

What a wonder-filled day the 2019 Malawi Youth Pilgrimage team shared today! We began with an early breakfast and then went as a group to visit the Ndirande CCAP.  Ndirande is a fascinating community near the city center in Blantyre – it is about as “urban Africa” as it gets.  To read one description of life in this slum, you can visit this link.

Our experience of Ndirande was (no surprise) marvelous.  The CCAP congregation there is vibrant and alive with several thousand members.  We attended the second (of three) services, the English-language one.  Jessica was the preacher for the day, and Chloe and I also assisted in worship.  Actually, the entire team led worship because we sang as a choir.  It was a well-received rendition of “I Will Call Upon the Lord” in which the congregation joined us enthusiastically.

Prior to each worship service, the worship leaders and distinguished guests greet one another, plan, and pray in the vestry. That room was crowded on Sunday!

Pastor Jessica ready to preach about our call to believe in God’s promises and provision even when the odds seem stacked against us.

Joining in worship with the Ndirande congregation.

After worship we enjoyed tea at the home of the Pastor (who remained at the church to lead the third service). From there we returned to GBCC and set off toward the shores of Lake Malawi.  We stopped to greet Abusa Takuze Chitsulo, the Principal at Zomba Theological College. We had been asked to deliver some books for the ZTC Library, and we took advantage of the stop to learn more about the College’s mission and take a brief tour.

In the manse with the “Mai abusa” (pastor’s wife) and the session clerk.

Hudson and Annabel present the books to Abusa Chitsulo on behalf of the PCUSA.

Although the staff and students are on semester break, not everyone has gone home. I’m not sure what year this fellow is in, but he showed real agility and energy while with us at ZTC!

From there we drove straightaway to the southern end of Lake Malawi, where we’ll be privileged to spend a couple of days.  Along the way we noted the drastic change in landscape, scenery, and the shift from intensely urban to wide-open rural Malawi.  It was a long ride, but it passed quickly enough with a lot of singing, some great conversation, and a nap or two along the way.  Our day ended with a late (but delicious) dinner and (for some of us) a few games before bed.  All in all, a great day!

With Eddie at one end of the bus and Rayna at the other, the songs (and hand motions) were flowing freely!

It wouldn’t be a trip if we didn’t play Bananagrams, would it?

 

Weaponizing the Gospel

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

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

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

FIG-ure It Out

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 20, 2019, we considered one of the few stories that is present in each of the four canonical gospels: the cleansing of the temple (although Mark adds some detail that the others do not include).  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:12-25, and we made reference to Jeremiah 24:1-10.

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

As we continue with our discussion of the Gospel of Mark, I’m sure you realize that this is not the only Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  “Of course,” you say.  “Matthew, Luke, and John are all Gospels.”  You may not be aware, however, that for several hundred years after Jesus’ death there were dozens of “gospels” written; some of these contained sayings attributed to Jesus, others had stories of Jesus as a child, and still others were filled with some then-popular teachings and simply ‘credited’ to Jesus of Nazareth. None of these gospels was recognized by the church then or now, and they have been pretty thoroughly discredited.

Children complaining about Jesus to the others in their community, from Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th-century gospel translation.

One of my favorites from this group, however, is a volume called “The Gospel of Thomas”.  It contains a number of far-fetched tales, among them an account of the time that the boy Jesus was angered by one of his playmates; Jesus cursed the boy and what do you know? The kid withered up and died.  Well, the community heard about it and was upset, and so they told Joseph that his kid had to stop killing people or the whole family would have to leave town.  According to the Gospel of Thomas, when young Jesus heard about that, he struck the entire community blind.  Then, Joseph is alleged to have taken the son of God by the ear and “wrung it ‘til it was sore” and made Jesus un-curse the village.

I think about those legends when I hear today’s Gospel account of the time that Jesus lost his temper with the fig tree. You hear this account of Jesus’s frustration and you want to say, “Really, Jesus?  You’ve just entered Jerusalem for the worst week of your life and you’re talking to fruit trees?”  And then you think, “Why in the world was this story included in the Gospel?  How did this make sense to the early church?”

I want you to think back to something I told you a few months ago.  Do you remember “the Markan sandwich?”  There are plenty of times when the author of the second Gospel starts a story, and then interrupts himself to tell a different tale, and then gets back to the first story.  I know, it’s as annoying as all get out when your mom does it, but the author of Mark uses it as a device to let one story offer commentary on another. Maybe you’ll recall that Mark starts to talk about a 12 year old girl who gets sick, and then he interrupts that by mentioning a woman who’s been sick for 12 years, and then he goes back to the little girl.  The stories connect, and in looking at both parts, we get more meaning than we could by considering them independently.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a classic Markan Sandwich.  One day, Jesus goes to check out a fig tree.  Since it’s not fig season, the disciples are not too surprised when there are no figs on it.  But Jesus apparently loses his mind and curses the tree.

They leave that curious incident and show up in the Temple, where Jesus really appears to let his emotions get the best of him and he flips tables and drives out business people, all the while preaching that God’s house was for prayer, not commerce.  Of course, nobody there likes it, but what can they do?  Jesus is at the height of his popularity.

The next morning, they pass by the fig tree, and it is withered away – from the roots up.

I’m here to tell you that the author of Mark intended us to see the episode of the fig tree as being connected to what happened in the temple.  Listen: there are plenty of places in the Jewish scriptures where the people of God are compared to a fig tree.  The passage from Jeremiah that Lydia shared with you is only one example.  In those verses, it’s unmistakable: Jeremiah is looking at a fig, but he’s thinking about the leadership of the people of God. The author of Mark counted on other people remembering that passage, and others like it, when he tells us about a controversy at the Temple on the same day that a fig tree was condemned.  When Jesus curses a fig tree for not having any fruit, and then wanders into the temple and discovers that the leadership has failed, the first readers of Mark would have made the connection.  And then when Jesus’ friends discover that the wretched tree has died from the roots up, they would understand this to be a commentary on the spiritual bankruptcy of the people who were called by God to be a light and to be a blessing for the world. Just as the roots of the tree had gone, so too had the roots of the nation’s spirit.

I hope you’ve heard this story of Jesus driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple, and we could talk about many different aspects of it.  However, since we are spending the year talking about the Gospel of Mark, I’d like to focus on one of the few places where Mark actually tells moreof a story than do the other Gospel writers.  Although this episode is shared in all four of the Gospels, Mark is the only one to include the phrase, “and he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”

It’s an odd little detail, really.  I mean, there was all kind of flagrant sin going on – consumerism in the house of the Lord! Extorting the poor to buy the sacrificial animals! Apparent collaboration with the occupying army for economic profit!  Why does Mark point out that Jesus also talked about people who were walking through the temple courts with stuff that they may have bought elsewhere?

Well, it has to do with the location of the temple in relation to the rest of the city. The temple was right up against the eastern wall of the city, and just past the temple to the east was the Mount of Olives and then the road to Jericho and Bethsaida.  In addition to the flagrant and calculated hucksterism that was going on inside the temple, there were people who were simply using that sacred ground as a shortcut.

Do you see? The ordained and called leadership had deliberately secularized the outer courts of the worship area by engaging in commerce to their own advantage there.  As a result of that, it wasn’t too long before the population of the city thought so little of the sanctity and beauty of the temple that it became the fastest way from point A to point B.  There was no reverence, there was no engagement – people were just passing through, making sure that their errands got run.

And Jesus put a stop to that.  “This is not a short cut!” he roared. And then, maybe weeping, he put his head down and said, “You can’t just show up here and not be affected by this place and these people and the truth that is here…”

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, illustration from a 17th-century Ethiopian manuscript.

Mark alone points out that Jesus was not only frustrated at the people who were actively undermining the sanctity of the holy, but he was also clearly frustrated by those who had become so accustomed to not finding anything praise-worthy at the Temple that they thought of it as just another footpath.  In this passage, Jesus seeks to re-orient their thinking and to prevent them from showing up on holy ground guided by “auto-pilot”; he reminds them of the potential for transformation that can come when we encounter the Holy One.

Jesus didn’t want anyone carrying stuff through the temple without stopping to remember why there wasa temple in the first place…

I’ve thought a lot about that this week, and I’ve thought about the times I’ve shown up at a worship service not really expecting much of anything to happen. I was there to be polite, or to be seen by someone else, or because I had made a deal that if I showed up for church, then I could go and do something that I really wanted to do.  In other words, there have been a lot of times that I think I’ve carried my things right through the temple, disregarding the opportunities for encounter with the Holy because my mind was elsewhere.  And I would suspect that I’m not the only person in this room who can say that.

How do we become a people who show up in worship on purpose, who arrive here so expectantly that we are able to “clear the decks” and set down the other baggage we’ve been carrying in order to embrace the truth and be wrapped in love?

Well, my first answer to that question may be a bit simplistic, but on the other hand, it’s one that everyone in this room has already done today: that is, simply show up.  In order to have access to any possible fruit that might come from worship, I’ve got to be here.  I’ve got to set aside time intentionally to be present with folks like you in a place like this.

In some ways, coming to worship is a bit like visiting Crafton Heights.  As I wander through the city and talk to other folks, almost everyone in other neighborhoods says something like this: “Wow, Crafton Heights… Yeah, I’ve heard of it.  I’ve never been there before, but it sounds familiar to me…”  And I always respond by saying, “Yes, if you want to come to Crafton Heights, you have to come here on purpose.  You’re probably not going to stumble into my neighborhood because you’re drawn by the fantastic museums here, or the fine theater, or the many retail outlets or exotic dining venues we have.  You’ve got to come to the Heights because you want to be in the Heights.”

It’s the same way when it comes to worship.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible to encounter the Holy in random places – far from it – but I am saying that the most likely way that you’re going to find time to be in the Presence is when you set aside time intentionally to be available for the gift and discipline of worship.

More than that, though – more than simply entering into the place of worship, I want to encourage you to enter into the practicesof worship.  When I put together the order for worship each week, I try my best to give you some really good things to say and to sing.  In fact, we call the contents of the order of worship the liturgy.  That word – liturgy – comes from two old Greek words, leitos, meaning “public”, and ergos, meaning “working”.  The liturgy is the work of the people.  It is not a performance, and it is not a contest.  The spoken and sung prayer give you a chance to speak and sing what is true!

Sometimes, though, we’re not all that great at it.  We forget where we are; we forget who we are; or we get self-conscious. And so we wind up being in a room where we mumble along during the responsive readings, or we sing amazing words of praise as though we’re waiting in line at the filling station:  “Praise God (yawn) from whom all (stretch) blessings flow (check phone)…”

Beloved, let me encourage you to try this.  I know, some of the songs I pick are ones that you wouldn’t.  Sorry for that.  But lend your voice, your heart, your spirit to the liturgy.  Don’t watch – or even worse, criticize – the work of the people, share in it!

And one more thing that you can do as you seek to become one who is equipped to bear the fruit that comes from true worship: listen for the places in the liturgy and the scripture that push back on you a little bit.  We’ve talked before about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” – where we tune into a program or a website because we’re pretty sure that it’s going to tell us what we think we already know and allow us to hear what we want to hear.

Praise God, sometimes that happens here, and it’s good.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” Ain’t it the truth?! Don’t I need to hear that?!

But what if I say, or the lyrics indicate, or the scriptures contain something that is challenging or irritating?  Do we allow God to confront us in some way that gets us thinking about something?  As you participate in the work of the people, listen for ways that God intrudes into your own life or heart or preconceived notions.

Seriously: when Jesus was talking, he got people so worked up that they wanted to kill him.  Are we such different people, are we so much better than they were, that when he speaks we nod approvingly and say, “Ah, yes.  Good point, Jesus.  That’s my Jesus.  You tell ‘em, Jesus…”?

Or can we come to worship and be challenged and poked and prodded (and maybe a little irritated) too?

Jesus closes this passage with a brief teaching on the power of prayer and practice. He links the idea of belief with that of behavior, reminding his followers that they can believe in the power of prayer, but as they pray for the miraculous, they are called to treat their sisters and brothers with kindness and grace.  He encourages them to dream big when it comes to prayer, and to know that the things that happen in worship and in prayer will have an effect.

And sometimes we hear that and we say, “Well, maybe for someone else.  But to be honest, I’m not sure what it does for me. I can’t remember the words to the bible verse I just read.  I’m not feeling anything overwhelming when we do the liturgy here.”

Maybe. But maybe we’re just not noticing. There was a fellow who stopped at the preacher’s home one Spring day and found his pastor out in the tool shed. He said, “Pastor, I’ll get to the point. I’m in church every week, and I listen to what you say, but I don’t remember any of it.  I hear those Bible verses, but they just fade away.  I think you need to hear it from me – I’m going to stop wasting my time and yours.”

Without really looking up, the preacher said, “Well, Ron, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not going to try to talk you out of it.  Instead, let me ask you to do one thing.”  She handed the man a couple of dusty, dirty old terra cotta planters that were filled with cracks.  “Look, here’s what I want you to do: tomorrow morning, go down to the creek behind your house and fill each of these with water.  Carry them up the path to your back porch and set them down.  I want you to do that every morning for two weeks. Don’t come to church if you don’t want to, but promise me you’ll do that.”

The man took the planters, and thought that his pastor was crazy, but he agreed to it.

Two weeks later the pastor showed up at the man’s home.  “I’m here for my planters, Ron,” she said.  “Let’s go around back and get them.”  And as they stood on the back porch looking at the path down to the river, the Pastor said, “I get it, Ron.  You think that all that time you spend in worship is wasted, because you can’t remember it.”

The man nodded.  The pastor went on.  “It seems like a waste of time, right?  I mean, if nothing changes, why bother?”  The man wasn’t sure where the preacher was going, but he nodded again.

The pastor picked up the pots and said, “Ron, I asked you to fill these things with water every day.  But will you look at this? They’re dry as a bone.  Did you do as I asked?”

Ron assured the pastor that he had, but that all the water had leaked out.  “What did you expect?  They’ve got cracks all over them.”

The pastor seized the moment… “So you’ve been getting water every day, but there’s no water here now. Has anything changed?”

Ron looked at the pots.  They were still cracked, but all the cobwebs and the mud had washed away by the daily rinsing.  He looked at the edges of the path, and he saw where the grass was greener because of the water that had leaked from the pots during his daily exercise.  And he knew.

And he was in worship the next Sunday, singing loudly and reading intently. Because he got it.  It matters.

Beloved, it may sometimes seem as though your reality has not changed, but I’m here to tell you that the disciplines and practices of faith are designed to promote change and grow fruit in lives like yours and mine.  May God bless us with the ability to hear, to believe, and to bear fruit because we are willing to encounter the Holy One. Thanks be to God!  Amen.