Thankful for the mess

A consumer reporter for one of the morning talk shows got in a bit of trouble last week. The reporter said that because everything is more expensive these days, one way to save money was to not serve turkey for Thanksgiving. The reporter said that might have an added benefit: some guests might not show up.

The reporter’s advice wasn’t well received.

Does anyone need a reporter to tell us that we can save money by buying cheaper entrees?

Isn’t the point of Thanksgiving to give thanks together?

Aren’t the ones we get together with the ones we’re most thankful for?

In the movie Christmas Vacation, Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold drove has family crazy trying to have a “Fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.” He nearly destroyed his house in the process.

But we all know from experience that things would have been a mess even if Clark had not been trying way, way too hard.

Relationships are messy, especially family relationships, and most especially when family relationships are combined with high stress and high expectations. 

And yet long ago, when God walked the earth, Jesus was always eating with his friends in high stress situations: 

A wedding where the wine had run out.

In the home of a man he’d just raised from the dead.

In a locked upper room with disciples afraid they were next to be crucified.

The Apostle Paul said that God demonstrated his love for us this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Let’s be thankful for the mess.

Maybe we can even spot Jesus there too.

Thanksgiving precedes the miracle

Two years I ago I did a sermon series on the book 1000 Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, by Ann Voskamp. It was her story of going from a life of self-doubt to finding joy in all things.

Ann’s earliest memory was from age four, when her baby sister died in an accident in front of their farmhouse. The tragedy defined her family’s life.  

Many years later, someone suggested that she make a list of 1000 things she was thankful for:

Consider the blessings in your life.

Write them down.

Give thanks for them.

She did, and inventorying her blessings became a habit. She began to see the blessing in the simplest, everyday things.

Ann Voskamp came to understand that “Thanksgiving precedes the miracle.”

Jesus gave thanks, and a few loaves and fish were enough to feed 5000.

Jesus gave thanks, and Lazarus came out of the tomb.

And on the night of his betrayal, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it with the disciples, and that preceded the greatest miracle of all, the cross and the empty tomb.

Giving thanks is not a way of conjuring up a miracle, of course.

Giving thanks is a practice of the heart that makes God’s blessings real to us.

This Sunday after worship, our church family is going to do an exercise called Asset Mapping to help us discover some of the gifts with which God has blessed us.

We just might discover gifts we’ve overlooked in ourselves and each other. We just might discover ways to honor God by putting those gifts to use in ways we never imagined.

This is also the week set aside for giving thanks for our gifts, so let’s be sure to do that.

Thanksgiving, after all, precedes the miracle.

Unity

Years ago, Jana and I belonged to a Corvette Club. You could join the Corvette club if you owned, say, a Mustang, but why would you? You’d probably prefer to join a club made up of Mustang owners.

On election night recently, Democrats and Republicans could have saved money by renting one hotel ballroom and partying together. But why didn’t they? They preferred to hold separate rallies for their candidates.

Consider all the relationships we have in life. All of them are based on some common interest, belief, or trait.

Every relationship we have is based on some criteria that includes some people and excludes others.

The things that unite us with some people separate us from others.

But there is one exception: our relationship with Jesus Christ.

In John 17, Jesus was praying to his Father just before he was betrayed. He prayed for himself and for his disciples. Last, he prayed for the people who would believe in him after he was gone, based on hearing the disciples’ message alone. He asked his Father that, “All of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

Jesus Christ made an exclusive claim to be one with God. He’s the only person in history who’s gotten away with that. Every other person claiming to be God was forgotten long ago.

But Jesus is also the most inclusive person who ever lived. He transcends all barriers of culture, nationality, language, gender, race, and more. 

If Jesus is the source of your relationship; if you’ve been welcomed into God’s family by grace alone; it doesn’t matter where you live or what kind of car you drive or if you drive at all.

We are all one in him.

Abuse of office

One of the privileges we have as a church is to raise up new pastors. For over two centuries, people who’ve gotten their start in ministry here have gone on to make inestimable contributions to God’s kingdom.

But it’s not getting easier to raise up pastors.

I recently read an account of why churches have been splintering. One phrase seemed to sum up the problem: “Catechized by the culture.”

Church members might go to church for an hour a week, but for the remaining 167 hours they’re steeped in the culture.

How do churches compete?

In many cases, they don’t. They capitulate.

Some adopt the solutions of the culture.

Some adopt politicians as saviors.

The late Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, wrote about how he and other pastors were invited to receive weekly training in mental health by the county health department. The instructor was a prominent psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins. The idea was that pastors would be better equipped to respond to a growing mental health crisis. At first, Peterson appreciated the training. It was heady stuff. But slowly he realized that he was seeing his parishioners as “problems.” Instead of someone beloved by God, he saw “depression” or “anxiety.”

Peterson wrote: “By reducing them to problems to be fixed, I omitted the biggest thing of all in their lives, God and their souls, and the biggest thing in my life, my vocation as a pastor. I was trading in the complexities of spiritual growth in congregation for the reduced dimension of addressing a problem that could be named and understood.

“Would I embrace the emotional gratification of solving a problem that could be diagnosed and dealt with head-on, rather than give myself as companion in searching out the sacred mysteries of salvation and holiness?”

This week I took part in seminary training for supervisors of field education students. It was on trauma, something we face in our downtown neighborhood every day. We’ve offered similar training here before.

But this training was solely from a secular perspective. “Meditation” and “mindfulness” were offered as ways to deal with trauma, but not prayer.

When I pointed out that there was nothing about Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t well received. One field education supervisor told me that my comments were, “An abuse of my office.”

When Jesus prayed his great prayer in John 17, it was in the context of the greatest trauma in history, his own. He said, “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

The culture offers lots of tools to help pastors cope with trauma, their own, and the trauma of those they serve. I use them often.

But if I were to leave out Jesus, that would be abuse of my office.

New reality

Over the last year and a half we’ve lost so much, and for most of the time we haven’t even been able to process our grief properly.

Loved ones got sick and we couldn’t hold their hand.

Those close to us passed away and we couldn’t hold a funeral…or a wake.

People suffered alone because there was nothing else to do.

The first Easter began with the women getting up before dawn and going to the tomb with spices to pack around Jesus’ body.

What an awful thing to have to do.

But at least it was something.

Over the last year and a half nearly every one of us has had to confront the reality of tombs, the actual ones and the metaphorical kind.

So many of us have had to confront the reality of life without a loved one, or without a job, or without the business we worked hard to build.

Dreams were buried. 

Look, I don’t have any snappy answers to make it all go away; but I do know this: When the women got to the tomb that morning, they experienced a new reality. 

The tomb was empty.

And Jesus met them. 

He told them not to be afraid. 

And he gave them something new to do. He said, “Go and tell.”

You’ve got new work. You’re not packing spices around the dead; you’re proclaiming new life.

All those tombs we’re facing are real, but because of the resurrection, we can see them in a different way.

Tombs don’t have the last word.

In Jesus Christ, we will always have something new to do.

Good grief

In a famous scene in John 11, Jesus met his friends Mary and Martha outside the tomb of their brother Lazarus. Jesus knew what he was going to do. He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead.

Two times, John tells us, Jesus was “deeply moved.”

The Greek word is embrimauomai. Matthew and Mark use the same word to mean “sternly warn” or “harshly rebuke.”

How can it also be used to describe Jesus in that moment?

Instead of being gleeful that he was about to raise his friend—vindicating his ministry and proving that he was one with God—Jesus was angry.

If death is “natural,” as some say, why are we in agony when we lose a loved one?

The only explanation is that Jesus—better than anyone who ever lived—knew how awful death really was. He didn’t create us to get sick, get old, get into accidents, and die. Death is a violation of the created order.

Three times John tells us that other people were present, having come to comfort Mary and Martha in their grief.

Simply being present is one of the most important ways that we help others process their grief. Yet for the last year and a half, much of our ability to process our grief has been limited by the pandemic.

In our Sunday, October 31st worship service we will offer up our prayers for our loved ones, especially those taken from us during the time when we weren’t able to be fully present for each other.

If you would like the name of your loved one to be part of the service, prayed over, and listed in the bulletin, please let us know. Call the church office at 412-471-3436 or email Hannah Durant at hdurant@fpcp.org.

In raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, Jesus set in motion the final events that led to the cross. Jesus doesn’t save us from suffering so much as he walks with us in suffering. And we do know this:

Jesus hates tombs. He didn’t stay in his own tomb very long.

He doesn’t want us to stay in ours either.

No cure for being human

That’s the title of the short book I just read by Kate Bowler, PhD, a Canadian author and Professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. Bowler’s area of study is the “prosperity gospel,” the American idea that God rewards you with health and wealth if you have the right kind of faith.

Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 35.

The irony of a believer, seminary professor, and national expert on the prosperity gospel getting a terminal diagnosis was not lost on her.

If you struggle with a serious diagnosis, for yourself or a loved one; if you think “everything happens for a reason;” or if you wonder what to say to someone who’s hurting, you should read this book.

Bowler doesn’t give a list of answers.

Rather, she chronicles the things that friends, acquaintances, doctors, technicians, and even strangers said to her while she was trying to come to grips with her own finitude. But Bowler is a person of faith. She doesn’t struggle as a person who’s devoid of hope.

A long time ago, Jesus was faced with his own finitude. It was hours until his arrest. In less than a day he’d be dead. Jesus knows how hard life can be. In dark moments, it’s helpful if we can remember that he didn’t give us platitudes.

In giving his life he gave us a future.

Kate Bowler told of going to an Easter sunrise service led by her pastor friend Richard who had his own terminal diagnosis. Seeing Kate sitting on a folding chair on the lawn, he looked at her and grinned. Kate said, “I broke all decorum and waved.”

As Richard opened his mouth to preach, he paused for a breath, and glanced back toward the sun coming up through the trees. “His mouth twisted in a look of wry astonishment, as if surprised to see the sunrise once again.”

In person

A few years ago we refinanced our mortgage. A few months later, we got a notice from the county that our property taxes hadn’t been paid. Now the mortgage company is supposed to pay the tax out of an escrow account we pay into every month. This had been working fine for the previous four years, but since we had refinanced, I figured things just got out of sync.

So I called the 800 number for the mortgage company. Do you think I got a person?

No. I got a voicemail menu, but none of the choices matched the problem I had. I kept pressings buttons until I got a person. He said I needed the “mortgage service line,” and gave me that 800 number in case I got disconnected when he transferred me. 

When I was disconnected, I called the mortgage service number. Do you think I got a person? Not at first. But when I finally did, she said she could see the problem, but she couldn’t help me. I needed to talk to the tax department and she would connect me.

You know where this is headed.

When I got to the tax person, she said yes, the tax wasn’t paid, but it wasn’t their fault. The problem was the company which handled the closing when we refinanced the note. So she gave me their number.

You know I could go on.

We’re still in the house. 

There are many organizations downtown that offer help to hurting people, but nearly every one of them sends you to voicemail first. If you’re homeless, living on the edge, it can be endlessly frustrating and discouraging.

Sometimes, when hurting people come to the church, all they want is to connect to a real person.

Jesus knew he was about to be betrayed, so he was telling the disciples what they most needed to hear: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14)

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus said, “Don’t you know me, Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”

Don’t you see, Philip? I’m offering you a personal relationship with the living God! 

I’m not a helper along the way in life, I am the way.

I’m not a source of truth; I am the truth.  

I’m not a guide to better living, I am life.

It seems to me that the great hidden tragedy of the pandemic is the untold suffering of people denied human contact in the interest of keeping them safe.

Jesus could have saved himself a lot of trouble by beaming faith into our brains.

He could have waited a couple millennia and made robocalls.

Instead he came in person.

One people

Wasn’t the pandemic supposed to be over?

Wasn’t the election supposed to heal the divisions between us?

How’s that working out?

We’re still deeply hurting as a nation, as people.

I’m convinced that the message we proclaim here—and try to live—contains the best hope for our hurting world.

Since 1933, Christians around the world have set aside the first Sunday in October as World Communion Sunday. Back then, Nazism was on the rise in Europe. The US and much of the world were in the grip of a Great Depression.

It was worse then than it is now.

And so church leaders said to the world that, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are all one. Christians from every culture eat the bread and drink the cup to remember and affirm Jesus Christ as Head of the Church.

We come to the table to take this great reality into the center of our being.

In our lesson this week, the Jews had gathered to celebrate the Passover as they still do today. At the Passover meal, the host speaks from a text called the Haggadah. The host takes a piece of unleavened bread, and says, in part, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.”

But when Jesus gathered with his disciples, he reframed the Passover meal for his followers for all time. instead of saying the usual words, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus was saying, “This is the bread of my affliction.”

The Exodus would no longer be the defining moment in the history of Israel. Jesus was saying “My death and resurrection—this is the defining moment—not just for Israel, but for all people in all times and places. My death and resurrection, symbolized by the cross, that’s what sets you free.”

Jesus is saying, “You don’t need to remember the Angel of Death.” “Remember my death.”

We want to see Jesus

Sometimes, when people find out that I’m a minister, they feel the need to explain to me why they don’t go to church anymore and what they believe (or don’t believe).

I had one of those conversations the other day. There are too many religions making too many claims, the fellow said. How could you possibly sort them all out? Growing up he’d been an altar boy, but now that he had kids of his own, he wasn’t going to make them go to church.

It was variation on the popular idea that all religions are basically the same. 

Jesus didn’t believe that. 

Neither did the religious leaders who wanted him dead.

It was the time of the great Festival of the Passover. Jesus had made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding a little colt. The religious leaders’ plot to arrest Jesus was in motion.

It was then that some Greeks who’d come to worship at the festival went to the disciples and asked to see Jesus.

This was the Gospel writer John at his ironic best: The religious insiders wanted to kill Jesus. The religious outsiders wanted to worship him.

We don’t know if the Greeks got their meeting with Jesus or not, because instead of answering, Jesus started saying mysterious-sounding things, like, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” 

Jesus died when he was lifted up on the cross.

No other religion claims that.

It’s the beauty of that which draws all people to him.