Hidden in plain sight

A friend of ours tells the story of taking violin lessons as a child. Her grandfather had purchased a violin second hand during the depression so her mother could take lessons. Both our friend and her mother had carried that violin back and forth to school for years.  

Our friend’s mother died. Years later, our friend remembered the violin and went looking for it. She found it under a bed, hidden away with other things. She tried to get it appraised by Antiques Road Show, but they recommended she take it to someone else. Eventually, she found a dealer who knew what it was. He told her he could only offer her $100,000. It was all he could pull together, but that wouldn’t be fair to her.

But it had been an honor for him just to play it.

No, it wasn’t a long-lost Stradivarius. It was a Guarneri. 

Giuseppe Guarneri was an 18th century contemporary of Antonio Stradivari. Only about 150 of Guarneri’s violins are known to exist, far fewer than the number of Stradivari’s.

Our friend said she had considered the violin a family heirloom, but she had no idea that the instrument under the bed was worth millions.

If you came across a Guarneri in a flea market, you’d stop at nothing to buy it, wouldn’t you?

This is what Jesus offers us. He told a parable of a farmer who discovered a treasure hidden in a field. “In his joy, he went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

In his joy.

There is nothing in the Bible about Jesus’ appearance. We don’t know what he looked like, how tall he was, or anything else. He just blended in. But we do know that when people discovered who he was, they left everything to follow him.

Not out of obligation or compulsion.

Joy.

Weep with those who weep

Every now and then during my time in the Air Force, I would come home to find Jana upset. Sometimes it was because the boys had been fighting, sometimes it was because of bad news from back home. As often as not, there was something I had done or failed to do. Once in a while, Jana was upset because of the way someone on base had treated her. Then I was ready to swing into action. I was a colonel, and I could fix this.

But Jana rarely wanted anything fixed.

She just wanted me to listen.

Hopefully, I’ve gotten better at that, though I’m still not as good as I could be. But I have learned to cringe when I hear well-meaning people offer advice to hurting people on how to fix their problems.

At the heart of his great letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul gives a list of practical advice on living out the Gospel in the world. In Romans 12:15, Paul says “Weep with those who weep.” The Greek word can also be translated “mourn,” but the usual sense of the word is to bawl, to wail, to cry loudly. Sometimes, rather than trying to fix a situation, or appeal to facts (“See, it’s not so bad”) it’s best to just enter into the hurt of others.

In his book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, Pastor Mark Vroegop says that lament gives people the language to talk to God and one another about the pain and sorrow that hinder racial reconciliation. “When Christians from majority and minority cultures learn to grieve together, they reaffirm their common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Paul never said, “Fix those who need fixing.” Just “Weep with those who weep.”

Seeing Jesus

A few years ago, my older son had a small plaque made. Unbeknownst to me, one Sunday before the worship service he went up into the high pulpit of our church and fixed the plaque on the bottom of the lectern. When I sit down in the pulpit, the words are at eye level:

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

The words are from John 12:20. They were spoken by some Greeks who had come to the Jewish festival of the Passover to worship.

When the disciples relayed the message to Jesus, he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” By “hour” Jesus meant the time of his death.

Why would a visit by some religious seekers, outsiders, move Jesus to announce his death?

Because Jesus knew the religious insiders wanted to kill him.

The outsiders could see there was something special about Jesus. The insiders saw him as a threat.

The high pulpit in our church is one of the most beautiful pulpits anywhere. Our church is an architectural gem. But to outsiders, it can all look intimidating. It can look like it was built by and for religious insiders from generations ago. 

“Sir, we want to see Jesus” then is a reminder of the scandalous nature of the cross and the entire Christian faith.

When you think you deserve to be in, you’re out.

When you’re out, and you know you could never deserve to be in, you’re in.

Christians, most of all preachers, need to remember that Jesus put us here so that outsiders might see Jesus through us.

Sheep on one side, goats on the other

Our church recently signed on to an initiative of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA. As a “Matthew 25 Church,” we pledge to work on at least one of the following:

  • Building congregational vitality.
  • Dismantling structural racism.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty.

As a city-center church, we would have to try not to be involved in those things. In the center of the city, the hurts of the world press in on us.

Signing up to be a “Matthew 25 Church” is easy.

Or is it?

Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus’ picture of final judgment, and it follows page after page of blood-chilling warnings of judgment. Jesus said that one day, the “Son of Man will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” He will separate people, much like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

And what will separate the “sheep” from the “goats?”

Whether you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner. Three more times in quick succession Jesus repeats this list.

Few things in scripture are clearer than Jesus’ own criteria for judgment day.

When you understand that Jesus saved you at infinite cost to himself; when you understand that he bore in his body the judgment you deserved, you will gladly care for the “least” in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus said, “Eternal punishment” awaits those who don’t. Few things in scripture are clearer than that too.

In its desire to care for hurting people and sign up more “Matthew 25 Churches,” the PCUSA often forgets that God is a God of judgment too. We all tend to follow the teachings of Jesus we like, and ignore the ones we don’t. Denominations do it too.

This week, a young man came before Pittsburgh Presbytery to be approved for ordination. In his statement of faith, he said Jesus’ “atoning sacrifice provides forgiveness of sins and satisfies the wrath the God.” It’s true; Presbyterians have said this for 500 years. Yet the young man was lectured for being insensitive for using the word “wrath.” Some even voted against his ordination because of it.

Being a Matthew 25 church cannot just mean living out the parts of scripture that are socially acceptable or politically correct. Without judgment, without God’s righteous indignation against sin, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is worse than meaningless. It means that God isn’t loving, but arbitrary and cruel.  

Judgment and love are inseparable parts of God’s character.

A Matthew 25 church will care for the ones Jesus loves.

And, with his help, a Matthew 25 church will proclaim his truth. All of it.

Awful grace

On the night back in 1968 when the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency in Indianapolis. Riots were spreading across the country, and Kennedy had been warned to cancel his scheduled event. Instead he chose to speak to the waiting crowd. You could hear the gasps and cries as the people learned of Rev King’s assassination from Kennedy himself.

There was no teleprompter. Kennedy simply spoke from the heart, holding his rolled-up script in his right hand.

People could choose to respond with “bitterness, hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he said, or they could respond as Martin Luther King did, replacing the “stain of bloodshed” with “compassion and love.”

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy concluded by calling on the people in the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King…and to say a prayer for our country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

I wonder how many of us could have done what Kennedy did that night.

Not only did Kennedy not give a canned speech; not only did he not pander (he quoted from memory an ancient Greek poet); he simply lamented with and for hurting people and a hurting nation.

He, like the poets who wrote the laments of the Bible, cast the nation on the goodness and justice of God.

Today, the Landmark for Peace Memorial honoring Kennedy and King marks the spot where Kennedy spoke.

Because of Kennedy’s speech, people there that night went home and prayed. Indianapolis was spared the violence that engulfed most major US cities.

Shared lament

This week a protest a few blocks from the church made national news when a protestor hit a bicyclist in the head with a skateboard. A few other protestors accosted diners sitting outside. It all felt like salt in a wound. Restaurants have been struggling to reopen, and most protests in Pittsburgh have been peaceful. So why this?

How long, O Lord?

We’ve been preaching on the biblical understanding of lament in response to the pandemic and the unrest across the country. We’ve said anyone can complain, but it takes faith to bring your complaints to God. When you lament in the biblical sense you turn to God, state your complaint, tell God what you want God to do, and then choose to trust God.

And then repeat. You remind yourself that God is good, and that God can be trusted.

Lament can be a source of strength in times like these. But Pastor Mark Vroegop, author of the book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, says that once you learn to lament, you next need to learn from lament. 

The Old Testament Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. But it was not just the destruction that made the poet weep. It was knowing that the people of God shared the responsibility. They had turned from God and worshipped idols. They had lived for themselves and failed to care for the poor and marginalized as God had commanded. God finally let them experience the consequences.

Most often we lament over bad things beyond our control.

Sometimes we lament over the bad things we do.

Sometimes we need to lament over the bad things we all do.

We all suffer from a condition called sin.

Not every white person is a racist, but racist structures exist and need to be dismantled.

Not every protestor is violent, but violence is destructive and must stop.

But we all suffer from sin, and shared sin calls for shared lament.

Growing season

Life for Sarah Frey growing up on the family farm in southern Illinois wasn’t exactly easy.

Even in the early 80’s, the house had no indoor plumbing. The family grew or hunted everything they ate. At age four Sarah was responsible for keeping the fire burning in the wood stove that heated the house. At five she was driving. At eight she negotiating the sale of produce with grocery store managers. At 15, she moved out of her parents’ house into another small house the family owned, fixing it up with earnings from after school jobs. At 16 the bank loaned her $10,000 so she could buy a truck to build her produce business. The banker insisted on giving her two years to pay it back. She paid it back in two months.

At 18, she bought the farm, by herself.

At 19, she closed a deal with Wal-Mart to deliver tons of produce a week. The deal became the subject of a Harvard case study.

In her new book, The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm and Built a New Life, Sarah tells how challenges like these, and the love of her very imperfect family, shaped her life. She learned to believe in herself, work tirelessly, and refuse to let obstacles stop her.

We all need some inspiration right now, and Sarah delivers tons of it.

There is a reason that the Bible speaks of seasons and the importance of bearing fruit. Hard times taught Sarah to see the beauty in imperfect fruit. When Sarah found that the small or misshapen fruit was often the most flavorful, instead of plowing it under, she used it to start her fresh juice business.

Sarah said, “I hope the book helps people see through life’s imperfections and hardships. Right now, everything that we’re going through as a country with Covid, just know that there’s a brighter season on the other side of this.”

 “You need to have the optimism of the farmer. The growing seasons that are fallow can teach us just as much as the growing seasons that are bountiful.”

“Why” question

Incoming freshmen at the military academies are only allowed to say four things when spoken to by an upperclassman:

“Yes sir.”

“No sir.”

“Sir I do not know.”

“Sir, my I ask a question?”

Freshmen are also taught that the only acceptable answer to a “why” question is, “No excuse, sir.”

There are good reasons to drill into future officers the discipline of not making excuses. When lives are on the line, there’s no place for excuses.

And often little time to explain “why.”

Perhaps the most famous “why” question in history was the one Jesus cried out from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

You might know that, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. What you might not know is that, in Jesus’ day, when you quoted the first line of a passage, it was a way of calling to the reader’s mind the entire passage. All the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, referred to Psalm 22. In other words, Psalm 22, the ancient cry of one who felt abandoned by God, is a key to understanding who Jesus is.

Many of us have never experienced such a prolonged time of discouragement and abandonment like we’re going through today, and we want to know why.

If Jesus prayed Psalm 22 from the cross, shouldn’t we pray it too?

Jesus so identified with our feeling of abandonment that he cried the words of Psalm 22 from the cross. No matter how discouraged, how abandoned we feel, we know without any doubt that God identifies with us.

God has not abandoned us.

It’s OK to ask God the great “why” questions.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

My first duty station in the Air Force was by far the worst.

Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, wasn’t the coldest of the northern tier bases. It wasn’t the snowiest (184 inches our first year there). It wasn’t the remotest (the nearest mall was in Bangor, a town of about 30,000, 170 miles away).

Loring wasn’t the leader in any single category; but Loring was the sweepstakes winner.

When the weather finally did get warm enough to go outside, the black flies made it nearly impossible. (Black flies are to mosquitoes what murder hornets are to bees.)

Loring had been on the base closure list for years, so the infrastructure had been neglected. Our first home was a 750 square foot apartment in a fourplex with no garage or carport. Sometimes the snow completely buried our Corvette.

Loring was so unpopular that maybe a third of people who received orders got out of the service rather than accept the assignment. The ones who were left found their three-year assignments extended to four, five, or six years.

But for me, the worst thing about Loring was the complaining. Nobody but the hardiest outdoor types wanted to be there; everybody else complained.

Jana and I escaped Loring after three years, and every assignment after that was better. But even when we were assigned to great places, some people still complained.

Nobody likes a complainer, right?

But here’s an interesting thing. God says, “Bring your complaints to me.”

Something supernatural can happen when you cry out to God.

When you focus on God, your “why” questions can become “who” questions. Who is this God who cares about me?

I’m not saying that self-centered whining is OK. Neither is pouting when you don’t get your way.

But the one who set the stars in place cares about what you’re going through.

Telling the truth

I recently read a book about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” (it likely started in Kansas, not Spain) called The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John N. Barry. It’s not an easy read, with many different narrative threads. But it’s also one of those books everyone should read, because there is much to learn from the great pioneers of science and medicine from a hundred years ago.

And much to learn from the mistakes of the past.

There are two interrelated and overarching lessons of The Great Influenza: leaders must tell the truth, no matter how hard; and the virus will have its way, no matter what.

In 1918, truth was the first casualty. President Woodrow Wilson had mobilized every facet of the country’s life to fight the war in Europe. Telling the truth might, he reasoned, hurt morale and damage the war effort. Wilson never said a single public word about the pandemic.

In 1918 medical science and virology were in their infancy. The way viruses behave is so much more complex than most people realize. Not just the way the virus spreads, but the way they interact with human beings, changing, mutating as they spread. Sometimes getting stronger, sometimes weaker. 

The way we communicate today, with sound bites and tweets, makes it hard to get the truth out. And with our limited attention spans, are we even willing to listen?

By the time the Spanish Flu had played out, after the world had seen three waves of it, only a few of the remotest places on earth were spared. Remote Eskimo villages had been wiped out. Even in the cities that did everything right, in the long run casualties were just high as everywhere else.

Psalm 77 has some powerful imagery of God bringing order out of chaos. In verse 17, the psalmist says, “The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed.” And then in verse 19, “Your path led through the sea…though your footprints were not seen.”

God is bringing order out of the chaos. Nature can see it, even the water can see it. Shouldn’t we?

Through this pandemic, God has given us an enormous opportunity to seek God and to teach our hearts that we are not in charge, of nature, of our lives, or really much of anything.

But God is.

This takes practice, work. Like the psalmist, we have to keep reminding ourselves that God is the one who brings order out of chaos.

Here’s another truth.

We’re not in charge, but God is.