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.

A Different Kind of King

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On “Christ the King” Sunday, November 25, we talked about the many, many ways that following Jesus can really screw up your life.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the one who deserves all our allegiance?  Our gospel reading was Mark 10:32-45.

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

When you look at your bulletin, or the screen, or perhaps your handy-dandy pocket liturgical calendar, you’ll see that today is called “Christ the King” Sunday. We’ll talk a little more about how this Feast Day came to be a part of our Christian year later on, but for now, I wonder what you think when we say that Christ is the ‘King’. As welcome New Members into our congregation, please give some thought to how it was that you entered into the path of following Jesus?  Who told you about the Lord? What did they say?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are some who invite others to consider an eternal relationship with their creator using what could be called the “turn or burn, baby” method.  Listeners are urged to clean up their acts and to become holier people – leave sin behind, straighten up and fly right, and become the kind of people that God can like a little better.  Some folk see the Gospel as a call to repentance, which can often mean giving up sin and becoming a little nicer.

Another, more attractive approach to teaching others the good news could be referred to as “Jesus is the answer”.  There was a time in my own life where I encouraged people to turn to Jesus at a point when they were simply tired of all of the problems in their lives.  Their marriages were miserable, or they didn’t have any focus, or there was financial difficulty.  Whatever the problem was, Jesus had come to make it better.  An evangelist who subscribes to this school of thought might say that you should become a Christian because it will help you get rid of, or at least deal with, your problems better.

I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade, and truth be told, I’ve lived in both of these Gospel camps before. But I don’t stay in either of them very often now.  The way of discipleship, at least as it is described in the Gospel of Mark, has little connection with either the “turn or burn” crowd or the “Jesus is the answer” folks. Today, we join up with Jesus and his disciples as they are on the way to Jerusalem.  Most faithful Jewish men in that day and age tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal.  No doubt, that’s what the twelve disciples thought was going on, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to speak of it in other terms.

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus with his followers

This passage from Mark 10 contains the third of Jesus’ predictions about his own suffering and death.  In Mark 8, right after Peter’s confession that Jesus is in fact the Holy One sent by God, Jesus reveals to his most faithful followers that he will suffer and die.  Then in Mark 9, as the group is still basking in the glow of the Transfiguration and the healing of a boy who suffered from seizures, Jesus calls them out of that into a consideration of his impending struggle.  In each of these prior circumstances, the disciples don’t have a clue. They just can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about – how can he be the Messiah and die?  That’s just crazy talk.

He’s back at it today – he’s just laid two heavy teachings on them – one about marriage and divorce and sexual ethics and the other about money. And then he says pretty explicitly that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be forced to go through a sham trial, he’ll be beaten and killed, and he’ll rise on the third day.  In spite of the apparently obvious nature of this prediction, James and John start to daydream about how good it’s going to be when Jesus finally starts acting like a king.  Despite the fact that whenever Jesus has brought this up, he’s had to quell any talk about how great that’s going to be, James and John get so wound up in their discussion that it actually seems like a good idea to them to call “dibs” on the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.  We know that because Jesus looks at them and says, “You fellas just don’t get it, do you?” But then look at what happens next. He doesn’t yell at them.  He doesn’t scold them.  He simply reminds them that they don’t know what the kingdom will be like.  They can’t imagine the crown he’ll be wearing – a crown made of thorns, crushed into his skull.  They haven’t the foggiest notion about what is waiting for Jesus on the hill known as Calvary, where he would be nailed to a tree and hung out to die.  And then, gently, he says, “You don’t understand anything at all about the cup that I will drink, but you will – because you will share that cup.”

And it’s not just James and John who don’t get it.  When the ten other disciples hear that James and John are trying to claim the best spots at the messianic inauguration, they are upset! I suppose you could make the claim that these guys were really looking out for Jesus here and were indignant by the petty request made by their friends…but I think that Mark’s pretty clear that they were irritated because if Jesus didend up giving James & John the two best seats in the house, where were the rest of them supposed to sit?

And again, Jesus sits them down and invites them to a time of teaching wherein he is gentle and patient.  He’s not belittling them, he’s not berating them, and he’s not telling them to straighten up and fly right.  Instead, he’s trying to help them re-shape their expectations.  He’s hanging in there with them.

Why?  Why is he responding like this?

Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the first time that the twelve disciples appear to be slow, dimwitted, selfish, ambitious, and thick-headed. But here they are, following Jesus. They may not grasp all of the details concerning this coming kingdom.  But they are following Jesus.  They are not following Jesus because they want his help in getting rid of a few bad habits, and they are not following him because it’s easier than whatever it was that they used to do before they started following him.  But they arefollowing Jesus.

And listen to this: if the first readers of Mark’s gospel knew anything about following Jesus, it was this: following Jesus can really screw up your life.  After all, remember what we said about this little book when we started this exploration: Mark is written by a man who is jail, on death row, for preaching about Jesus.  The early followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were used as human torches at Nero’s garden parties.  So far as we can tell none of the twelve disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes.  And those first Christians who were not killed were treated as outcasts – they were told over and over again that they did not belong with the Jewish believers, and the Gentiles thought they were crazy – they called them cannibals and incestuous.  If there is one thing that the readers of Mark’s Gospel knew, it was that following Jesus will screw with your head and could really mess up your life.

Twenty-five years ago, I took a group of young people on a mission trip to Mexico.  Two weeks after that trip, I left that church and moved to Pittsburgh.  About five months later, I got a really thick envelope from one of the kids.  I tore open the envelope, expecting to hear sunny news about her life.  Instead, I read,

Dear Dave, I just wanted to thank you for totally ruining my senior year of High School.  My whole life, I’ve looked forward to this year, where we’d be on top.  My friends and I had all kinds of plans for how we were going to rule the school, and for Prom and Homecoming and parties.  But the trip to Mexico changed all that.  My friends are materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – they can’t get their heads out of their butts to save their lives. The things that they want are so small…of course, all of that was true last year, too – only I didn’t know that last year.  The trip to Mexico really opened my eyes, and showed me that I am materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – and I hate that about myself. Why can’t I be lazy and happy like my friends?  But no, I have to care now.  I have to think about other people.  That mission trip really screwed up everything about my senior year….

Do you see?  She got it! Yay!  She had been goingto church all her life…but here she was thinking about followingJesus!  The good thing is that the letter was ten pages long, and by about page eight or nine, she had gotten past some of the anger and had decided that if she had to choose between being selfish and materialistic and following Jesus, she’d rather be with Jesus…but it was a struggle.  Because when she took Jesus seriously, she didn’t fit into any of the really comfortable slots in her high school.

Beloved, if you are here expecting me to scold you into the Kingdom of God, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t think that the reason that Jesus came was so that you wouldn’t drink quite as much, or so you would think about sex a little less often, or write to your grandmother more.  If you need to hear someone say that it’s time to turn or burn, baby, well, I don’t think I’m your guy.

And if you are here because your life is miserable and you think that somehow I can help lobby Jesus onto your side so that you have fewer problems – if you think that if you are able to get yourself cleaned up a little bit then Jesus will reward you with a new car, a better boyfriend, or whiter teeth, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Some People Following Jesus, Gary Bunt, Contemporary British Artist

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are holier than everyone else, if by holy we mean people who smoke less, or cuss less, or fornicate less than the general population.  Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer.

And as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are richer, or better employed, or have fresher breath or fewer neuroses than the general population. He didn’t come to make us more socially acceptable.

Jesus came to be the ransom.  To give his life so that we might have real life.  Jesus came to be God for humanity and to be humanity for God. And as he marches toward his death in Jerusalem, he is imploring the twelve to stick with him.  He’s not promising them anything, and he’s not threatening them.  He’s asking them to stay the course because that is the only way that they will be able to become the community that he is calling them to be.  For a couple of years, he has taught them “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  Now he is equipping them to be the kingdom!  To enflesh that Kingdom in the world!  To be the sign of God’s presence in and through creation.

I hope that each of our new members will recall that in the Presbyterian Church we are governed by both the Bible and a document called The Book of Order.  In the very beginning of that book, it says that the church exists in order to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (F-1.0304)

I love that!  It tells the truth that the only way that your neighbors or mine will know of the grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love of the Savior is if somehow the body of Christ – that’s us – is able to exhibit that grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love.

When the twelve don’t get it – here in Mark chapter ten, or anywhere else in the Gospels – Jesus doesn’t call them morons and tell them to get lost.  No, he calls them together and invites them to try again and to lean on each other and to stick together – because the only way that they’ll be able to make it in the world is if they do stick together.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will do something incredibly difficult.  It will take everything he has.  And he is asking his followers to stay with him when it happens.  And to take over for him when he leaves.

Discipleship is hard work, my friends.  It would be easy if all we had to do was lie a little less often or budget our money a little better.  But it’s all of who we are. Discipleship is not a part-time job. The only way for me to give all of who I am is if I can count on you to help me where I am coming up short.  I can be forgiving if you forgive me.  I can be gracious if you show me grace.  I can love unconditionally if you do that for me.  I can give my life away…if you come, too.

I mentioned that today is “Christ the King” Sunday.  Most of the great “feast days” of the church are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The church has observed Advent and Lent and Easter and Christmas for millennia. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that “Christ the King” was added to the church calendar.  This observance came about because in the aftermath of World War I, much of the world’s population lived in places where tyrants and dictators were gaining strength.  These rulers insisted that Christians ought to somehow compartmentalize their faith, and see “religion” as a nice little hobby, but to give their highest allegiance to the government and the flag of one particular nation.  The church said, “No, it is Christ, not any human or any nation, who is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.”

Beloved, we are called to be committed. We are called to live the Christian ideal – that of following Christ.  Obviously, Jesus is concerned with your personal life and your habits. Obviously, Jesus is concerned with the choices you make.  But these things are not a precondition to becoming disciples – those things are matters for discussion once you are on the road.  Let us join each other in this holy, wholly difficult task of following the Master as we love and serve those among whom he has placed us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!

Partnership in African Mission 2018 #4

The adventure in tripartite mission connection continues as the conference between representatives of Pittsburgh Presbytery, South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Synod of Blantyre in Malawi ended with a day of shared worship and exploration.  There were essentially two components to our day, and for the sake of brevity I’ll simply post a few photos of an inspiring worship service at the Koche CCAP wherein Brian Snyder preached and an afternoon of exploring some of the beauty of Lake Malawi.

Brian preaching at Koche with Davies translating.

 

Rev. James was so excited about the chance to worship in Malawi that he asked to sing a solo. It was wonderful!

 

I was privileged to bring greetings on behalf of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

 

Lauren prepares to dedicate the morning offering.

If the Youtube link above doesn’t work, then paste this into your browser to see a little of the congregational singing at this rural congregation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyLzBDhI2Yk

In Africa, it’s not uncommon for two men to hold hands while they walk and talk together. It IS uncommon when one of them is about 5’6 and the other is about 6’8! Life might be better if we all left worship like this…

 

A baboon grabbing a quick snack…

 

Adventures in tripartite boating!

 

There are more than 1000 species of cichlids in Lake Malawi – the most astounding diversity of fish anywhere on earth.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish eagles…

 

The sun sets on another day of partnership and mission.