The Gift of Distraction

If I have seemed distracted, lately, perhaps it is because I have been startled by the beauty of a world in motion. Yesterday, it seems, we were trapped in the heavy humidity of August in Pennsylvania; this week there is an edge to the morning cold, and I noticed the edge of a dark red seeping into the treeline on 76 just this week. In the evenings, I am distracted by the silent bats charging through the sky as they scoop up the tarrying mosquitos in the dusky light.

Everywhere I look, it seems, I am reminded that nothing stays the same. Change is the constant that follows us through this life; it is just a matter of whether we have the eyes to see. Even the church is not exempt—we look around our pews, and the people who sit amongst us are different than they were. It isn’t just us— recent studies by the Pew Charitable Trust and Barna Foundation confirm that whole generations seem to be choosing not to be in the pews at all.

Nature, the church, Scripture, all conspire to remind us that the world does not stand still. It moves. And our call, as disciples, is to move with it. There is a reason, I think, that Jesus’ model of discipleship is to “follow me.” Faithfulness rarely looks like staying in one place. It more often looks like getting up and exploring the world, paying attention to where God might be at work, and then going there. Even if that makes us uncomfortable.

I know, I know. That sounds like a lot of work. But I think it may be as simple as being Christ where we are. Allowing ourselves to be distracted by the world that is right there in front of us, and looking at our world, full of neighbors and strangers, with the eyes of the Beloved. Giving ourselves permission to practice Christ-like love in our communities, our grocery stores, our libraries, our schools. Because we are already out in the world, friends. The trick is to see it as God does.

If you are up for the challenge, I encourage you to join me in this holy work. And if you do, let me know what you see. Perhaps we can follow Christ together.

Holy Wednesday

Prepare Holy Monday.jpg

Mark 14:1-11

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Possibly the worst feeling in the world is getting bad news.  When we hear that someone is sick, or suffering, or struggling with employment, housing, or more, it can be tempting to minimize the revelation, to rush past reflection and move on to a future joy or hope.  Certainly, when someone is ill, or worse, someone dies, it is almost guaranteed that the mourning will be inundated with platitudes reminding them that “it will all be okay” or that “God wanted another angel.” We may hate hearing these words, but many of us will admit that we have been tempted to say the same, or similar.

Turns out that, on the road to the cross, the disciples want to rush right past Jesus’ reminders that he will suffer and be killed.  They would rather focus on his glory.  And so, instead of reflecting on what it would mean for their Teacher to die, they fight over who will be the first when his Kingdom comes.  Instead of preparing their hearts and minds for the trials of the Triduum (the three holy days leading up to Easter), they debate which disciples Jesus will choose to sit on his right and his left.

Only this unnamed woman seems to get it.  While the disciples are scuffling over future glory and titles, she bends before Jesus and pours nard on his feet. Because while the rest of the disciples grasped for the future, she was reflecting on the present, where Jesus told his disciples again and again, if you want to follow me, you must take up your cross. If you want to become great, you must become a servant. If you wish to be my disciple, you must be willing to die.

No wonder Jesus rebukes the disciples who would scold her.  She is the only one who seems truly to have “heard” Jesus. And no wonder we remember her; on the cusp of Maundy Thursday, as Judas would betray Christ and the forces that would kill him gather their strength, she alone pauses to reflect upon what this means.

We who journey towards the Cross with Jesus this week are invited to bow with the woman. We are called to set aside our striving, and instead pick up our cross.  To resist the temptation to run to Easter, and instead prepare for Christ’s death.  There is much to be done before the tomb is empty, and we who would follow Jesus cannot simply skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable. If we are to embrace Christ, we must take all of him, and we cannot have the cross without everything that comes before it.

A Prayer for Wednesday:
Servant God,
We who would follow you,
We who would serve you,
We who would worship you–
Today we pause and remember the woman who alone acknowledged your Sacrifice.
For on the way to Jerusalem, Your disciples ignored Your warnings, and instead focused on your future glory.
She alone bent down, and, pouring ointment on your feet, prepared your body for death.
She alone listened, heard your call to servant-leadership and served You.
She paused and worshipped while Judas ran and betrayed.
She showed us what it means to be your Disciple when your disciples could not, would not, hear You.
Help us, O God, to kneel with the woman, to pause and acknowledge your sacrifice, and to serve one another as you have served us, so that we too might be called disciples of our Lord.



When Knowledge Becomes an Idol


1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

MARK 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I just want to start our conversation today by acknowledging that I am about to say something that could very well sound like Presbyterian Heresy. My only consolation is knowing that, as the frozen chosen, you are highly unlikely to get riled up enough to walk out on me, but here it goes:

God doesn’t care how smart we are.

There it is. I said it. I, your Harvard educated, knowledge loving, greek and Hebrew reading Presbyterian pastor, just admitted that God’s primary concern isn’t how “smart” we are. Coming from the reformed tradition, this might seem like quite a shock—the very foundations of Presbyterianism rest on the ideals of the Enlightenment. John Calvin started the movement that encompasses Presbyterianism with the idea that our intellect is our first means to God—he believed that, given an education, the common man (or woman) could approach God by him or herself.

By democratizing access to the tools of religion, Calvin unwittingly spawned a revolution in everything that the church held sacred. Suddenly everyone had an (educated) opinion about God’s will for the church. Whereas before, the priests guarded access to Truth through the Word and the liturgy, all of a sudden every change was up for debate. And my, what a debate! Imagine, Christians debating and fighting over every aspect of the life of the church—basically everything we take for granted in this sanctuary was, at one point, considered heresy or worse by Christians who preceded us. Just a sample of things that educated Christians fought over:

-pews (a development of the reformation era that went hand in hand with Calvin’s belief that the work of liturgy was first and foremost not the sacrament, but approaching God through the accumulation of knowledge in the sermon

-candles: too ritualistic or a biblical symbol of Christ?

-stained glass: does it distract from or enhance the worship of the people of God?

-the organ: too modern, or a new means of making a joyful noise to the Lord?

-choir robes: are they a symbol of pride and vanity, or a reminder of our roles?

-the hymnal: is it ir is it not permissible to sing music that isn’t scripture, but inspired by it?

It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was, at one point or another, the subject of debate, often involving two side who “knew” what God wanted, and who “knew” the other side was mistaken, sinful, or worse.

But Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned these sorts of debates when he shows up at the synagogue in our reading this morning. He didn’t take note of how many candles there were (or weren’t). He didn’t comment on the music, and as far as we know he brought no special clothes. No, when Jesus turned up in the synagogue in Capernum, he was interested in one thing, and that was this: holiness.

Now holiness is one of those words that can mean a lot of different things to different people, so let’s think about what holiness is.

I’ve heard it said that holiness is like cheese…it’s all about maturity. I think we need a little more than that to go on, however.

So here it is: one of the best ways I can describe it for myself is that holiness is like exercise.

Most of us don’t go to the gym because it is our favorite place to be. We go there because we want to be healthy, and we know that one way to get healthy is to exercise. There are a lot of different ways to go about it—you can run, or lift weights, or take a yoga class. All of them will get you moving in the direction of the kind of healthy you want to be.

  1. It is about improvement rather than a final destination. Exercise isn’t the goal—it helps you get somewhere that you want to be.
  2. If exercise is about improvement, then it follows that the more you do it, the closer you get to your goal.
  3. There is a cost, but if you do it enough it is worth it. Exercise takes time, and sometimes it will make you sore. You might even get hurt. But you have to push through it—you have to endure the difficulty—if you want to reap the reward.
  4. It is easier for some of us than others. We don’t like to hear this, but we don’t all improve at the same pace. Some people start exercising and see immediate and obvious changes, while others of us struggle or notice little difference. But all of us improve. All of us are better for doing it.
  5. Finally, maintenance is required. When you reach your fitness goals, you don’t get to stop and go back to the way you were before. If you want to stay fit, you have to keep exercising. Of course, uou can quit anytime you want, but if you do, it will cost you.

All of this is to say that holiness, like exercise, is a process. It is a question of character, less a why than a how. It is about the process of drawing closer to God. And just like exercise, the process of holiness can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but no one expression is necessarily the best version. And in fact, a healthy relationship with God is secure enough in itself to handle the reality that the process will always change.

In Presbyterian speak, Holiness is something that we call Sanctification, which is a fancy theological word that means that holiness is expressed through the ways in which we live out our lives as people saved and transformed by God’s grace.

So what might be the “spiritual exercises” of holiness that we are called to practice? When Jesus spoke about holiness, what did he have in mind? I have a few ideas:

  • Hospitality: our faith needs to be welcoming to others. Look at Jesus—he was willing to welcome anyone who came to him with an open heart seeking God. So we must ask ourselves: who is welcome at our table, and whom do we merely tolerate? Are we accepting others as they are in love, or are we rigid in our expectations about what the hungry and thirsty are allowed to look like?
  • Justice: Jesus came for the sick, the imprisoned, the broken, and the marginalized. In other words, he was concerned with justice for all of God’s people. In our scripture this morning, he addresses this problem by banishing the demon that possesses a sick man. Now, the medical establishment doesn’t recognize demon possession (and good luck getting your insurance to reimburse an exorcism) but how many of us can relate to the notion that we can be possessed by forces beyond us? How many of us have seen the damage wrought to loved ones and strangers who are possessed by poverty, hunger, addiction, sickness, greed, materialism, feelings of inadequacy? And so our own faith ought to be interested in healing brokenness, too, whatever form it takes.
  • Love: whatever we do, if we can’t do it with love, we are lost.

If you need an example of what this might look like, I draw your attention to our second reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Apparently the community was having some problems with hospitality. In this case, knowledge was getting in the way of being welcoming to newer Christians

You see, in Corinth, a port city known for its plethora of cultural and religious backgrounds, many new Christians were not Jewish but Gentile. Many of them had grown up surrounded by a culture in which people routinely sacrified meat before the idols of pagan gods. To eat that meat was to pledge your allegiance and fealty to the god or goddess.

More mature Christians like Paul understood those idols to be nothing but stone and wood. Any oaths or offerings made to them were meaningless. The meat couldn’t possibly possess the power of a God that didn’t exist, so there was no conflict in eating the meat if you were a Christian. But the newer Christians had trouble with this. They struggled already to maintain their relationship to Christ in a pluralistic society, and seeing mature Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols was apparently not just confusing, but dangerous to their faith in God.

So what does Paul do? Paul exhorts the stronger Christians to bend for the weaker ones—to hold off doing things, even things that are perfectly okay, in the interest of loving their brothers and sisters of nascent faith. To stay away from idol meat, even if you know it is just meat, because you love your brothers and sisters in Christ more than you love being right.

In other words, process. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, reminds us, that holiness, true holiness, isn’t about being right. It is about the work of hospitality, justice, and love, both to one another and to the world beyond the church. Because it is that work, that willingness to bend for one another, that will ultimately bear the fruit of a mature faith.

Because that is the goal, isn’t it? And I don’t know about you, but it is a lot easier to get there together than alone. We need one another to encourage, to exhort, to remind us that every path walked in faith is holy, and valid, and necessary.

So I have to wonder: what sort of team do we want to be? What sort of holiness are we after here at IPC? Because the Holy Spirit is out there, bidding us come. But we move forward if we aren’t together. It’s up to us to focus on what’s most important: love, justice, hospitality—and trust that if we focus on those things, the rest will work itself out.

Discipleship and Haiti

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Matthew 25: 31-40

Last week I was driving into town and I noticed a church sign that said the following “ Even the demons tremble and believe.”  Now, I thought to myself, that must be one exciting church… I could just imagine the potential for hell-fire and brimstone on that sign-post, and I lost myself in visions of what sort of sermon that sign might be speaking of.

But for all my fascination and surprise—Presbyterians don’t often get the demons into their sermons, much less their church signs—I also found that, over the course of this week, my mind has gone back again and again to those words… “even the demons tremble and believe.”  The quote is from the book of James, and the author’s main agenda is to remind his readers that there is so much more to faith than what a person says with his tongue—what she says with her feet, and her hands, and her hearts, is equally important, if not more so, because it is with hands and feet and hearts that Christians demonstrate the character of belief in God.

And it was as I entertained these thoughts in my mind that the news began to filter in about the earthquake in Haiti.  News reports and images of overwhelming devastation flooded international and local news service, stories of thousands dead and more injured, of families torn apart and of the glaring need for a concerted response to the tragedy.

I began to wonder, what is it that we are called to be when things like this happen?  And so I turned to scripture, and to the church for answers.  I turned to Matthew 25 and it was there that I began to find an answer to my question.  In this story, Christ, is speaking to his disciples when he tells them a story about sheep and goats.  The word disciple is a latin translation of the word μαθητεύω, which means to follow.  The book of Matthew, then, could be understood as the book of “following,” of discipleship, for that is what the name Matthew means.

The story of the sheep and the goats, then, is a story about discipleship to disciples, people like us who have committed their lives to Christ and who are trying to learn how to live faithfully in to that commitment.  In it, Christ tells a parable about sheep and goats in order to illustrate a central point of discipleship;  That our actions matter.

He says:  when God comes, how you LIVED your faith will matter.  Your membership in God’s Kingdom will in some way depend on how you responded to God’s grace.  And in case there are questions about the nature of response, Jesus makes it simple:  he says, when I was hungry, you fed me, when was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was homeless you gave me room, when I was shivering you gave me clothes, when I was sick you visited, and when I was in prison you offered companionship. And that you did this when you acted in such a way to those around you, the overlooked and ignored.”

There is a story about a desert monk who once posed a question  to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.

Do you see what I am getting at here?  Christ offers us in this parable of the sheep and the goats something critical about what it means to have faith.  He says, If you believe, you will respond to suffering in others.  In fact, he says even more.  He says, your salvation, your citizenship in the Kingdom of God, depends in some way on the nature of our response to God.

Now, some of you may be wondering, doesn’t our faith teach us that it is by grace alone that we are saved?  Certainly, it is true that Calvin observed long ago that nothing we can do will overcome the chasm that separates us from God, and that Christ alone provides a means to salvation.  But even Christ teaches us that he did not die for nothing… As Paul says, do we sin so that Grace may abound?  By no means!  Rather, we are justified by grace THROUGH faith… in other words, we respond with compassion and with action BECAUSE we are saved, and that is one way by which God’s Kingdom is made manifest in the world.

Now, I don’t need to tell you for you to know that there are hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned people suffering in Haiti right now.  Thousands are homeless because their homes have collapsed in Port-au-Prince.  Drinking quality water has and continues to be a problem in Haiti.  They have NEVER had enough food.  Hospitals cannot handle the need, and there are still people imprisoned in the rubble and trapped by conditions of poverty on that tiny island.

And friends, our faith demands that we respond.  Ours is a faith that finds its center in a  yearning for justice, a yearning that is not our own but is shared by God in the figure of Christ who suffered and continues to suffer that all might be made well in this world.  Our Lord suffers with the people of Haiti, and is grieved when we choose to turn a blind eye to the suffering that lies before us.

I saw a billboard on my way up to Belvidere this week—it was for the Marines and had a picture of a well-dressed young man, very clean-cut, saluting off to the front of him and next him were the following words:  ‘Commitment to something greater than oneself.’  That is what faith in God is like.  Many churches have chosen to downplay songs and hymns that imply militaristic images with respect to our relationship with God, but in this case the analogy is apt.  Discipleship to God demands that we commit ourselves to something greater than us:  we commit ourselves to God, and to God’s plan for the world.  This means that we are sometimes called to respond with love and compassion to the tragedies that beset the world, whether they happen in our back yard or not.