torn to pieces

When you draw up a contract to buy a house, you put down “earnest money” as proof to the seller that you’re serious. The money goes into an escrow account, and if you back out of the deal without good reason, you lose it.

In the ancient world, you had to do a bit more to prove that you were serious.

In one of the foundational stories of the Bible, God promised Abram, later called Abraham, he would build a great nation out of Abram’s descendants. But after many years, Abram was still childless. Abram wanted proof that God was still serious.

God told Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, and a ram, as well as a dove and a pigeon.

Abram obeyed. And then, without being asked, he cut the animals in two and arranged the halves opposite each other.

As strange as all that sounds to us, it made sense to Abram. Everyone knew that Abram was preparing a contract ratification ceremony. When a great king made a contract with a lesser king, the lesser king would sacrifice animals and then pass between the pieces. He was saying that if I fail to keep the contract, you can tear me to pieces like these animals.

But God didn’t command Abram to pass between the pieces. A smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

God, the greatest king of all, had passed through. Why?

Why God and not Abraham? It took centuries before we learned the answer.

God indeed made Israel into a great nation, but Abraham’s descendants disobeyed God. They failed to live up to their end of the contract. But instead of tearing them to pieces as they deserved, God sent his Son.

We backed out of the deal, but he paid the price.

He was torn to pieces so we could remain whole. 

blood

The Chosen is a video series on the life of Jesus that you can watch on streaming services. It’s the best cinematic portrayal of Jesus I’ve ever seen. Some pastors I respect warn that shows about Jesus can’t help but introduce ideas that are unbiblical. Writers add material from their own imaginations to keep the story moving.

OK, but why do I find myself weeping in every episode?

Like season 2, episode 3, based on Matthew 4:24:

“News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.”

The Chosen imagines what that might have been like. It pictures Jesus ministering to people all day long, the line never shorter than 50 people, Jesus never taking a break.

Meanwhile, it imagines the disciples relaxing around a fire, leaving occasionally to take their turn at crowd control. They get to know each other. They wonder why Jesus picked them. They remember that they used to think the Messiah would be a warrior. The healings are nice, but when will the revolution begin? Would the crowds still come if the healings stopped?

And they complain, too. Didn’t they walk for four hours just to get here? What’s next on the schedule? Jesus didn’t say.

As it gets later tempers grow shorter and they’re about to come to blows. That’s when Jesus appears, staggering by them to his tent, too exhausted to eat. His mother follows, taking off his sandals and washing his feet.

And wiping the peoples’ blood off his hands and face.   

Unbiblical?

Did you ever imagine what it would be like to minster to people as Jesus did? At the end of a day like that, you’d be covered with more than peoples’ blood.

Most Christians remember that “Jesus died for my sins.” But do we remember, can we imagine, the way he lived for us, stepping into our deepest hurts and our deepest messes?

Before his blood covered us, our blood covered him.

Immeasurable worth

Rachel Denhollander is the former gymnast and lawyer whose faith gave her the courage to expose the abuses of Olympic Team doctor Larry Nassar. She told her story in the 2019 book, What Is a Girl Worth?  Rachel has also written children’s books, one for girls and one for boys. She wants children to understand that they are of infinite worth because they are made in the image of God.

In this time of mental health crisis, we ought to get Rachel’s books and read them again and again.

Even if we don’t have kids.

Here’s an excerpt from How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

How much, how much are you worth precious girl?

How much is a little girl worth?

More than the sun and the moon and the sky.

More than the shimmering sea.

All the beautiful treasures of earth… (God says)

You are worth more than all that to me.

You’re beautiful, worthy, and you should be loved…

Because of all that you are.

Different from anything else in the world.

You are precious beyond all the stars.

You bear God’s image—mind, body, and soul.

Lovingly made to be perfect and whole…

…Your value is found not in what you can do

Or the things you accomplish and win.

It is found in how you were made precious girl…

Created and cherished by Him.

Your worth cannot fade; it will not go away.

It is not changed a bit by what happens today.

No one and nothing can make you worth less.

Just what is your value? You don’t have to guess.

No one has power to change what God’s done,

And he says you’re worth everything, even his Son.

Worth all the pain, worth great sacrifice,

Worth leaving heaven, worth giving his life.

How much, how much are you worth precious girl?

How much is a little girl worth?

Worth so much more than all my words could say.

No one and nothing can take that away.

Our Father

My father was well known for his laugh, which often came out as a great roar. Interestingly, he made pretty much the same sound when he sneezed.

He could also roar when he was frustrated or mad.

Sometimes, when lying in bed at night, I would hear a muffled roar coming up from downstairs. I would hold my breath, listening for the next sound to find out what kind of roar it was.

My father often worked late and I would be in bed when he got home. Then it was possible that the roar from downstairs was his reaction to a report my mother had given him about the trouble I’d gotten into that day.

But no matter what kind of roar it was, my brother, sister, and I always knew our father loved us.

Of course my father wasn’t perfect. He could be moody, and we learned to avoid going into his room when he paid the bills. He never had a new car, choosing instead to take us on big family vacations. And oh my, he made sure our Christmases were special.

One of the truly amazing things believers take for granted is that we get to call God, “Father.”

“Father” was how Jesus taught his followers to address God.

Psalm 108 says that our Heavenly Father is totally compassionate, totally forgiving to his children. He never treats his children as their sins deserve. He knows how fragile we are, but in our Heavenly Father’s arms we will live forever.

Think about that. God is the creator of a trillion galaxies, and he says to those who fear him, “Call me Dad.”

Agents of change

Francois Clemmons was born in Birmingham and was raised in the 50s and 60s in Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up singing in the church choir and got music degrees from Oberlin and Carnegie Mellon. 

In 1968, Fred Rodgers invited him to play the part of Officer Clemmons, the friendly neighborhood police officer, on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS. But Francois had been raised in a ghetto where they didn’t have a high opinion of the police. Francois knew that Fred was taking a risk in casting a black actor as a police officer. Fred convinced him to take the part, making him the first African American to have a recurring role on children’s TV.

The most memorable scene between Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons was broadcast in 1969. Mr. Rogers was resting his bare feet in a kid’s swimming pool on a hot day. He invited Officer Clemmons to rest his feet in the water with him.

Francois later said, “The icon Fred Rogers was not only showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I got out of that tub, he helped me dry my feet.”

Fred ended every program by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” But that day, Fred looked right at Francois when he said it. 

He asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” Fred said, “I’ve been talking to you all along.” 

This Sunday, Patrick Myers, the Executive Director of Ligonier Camp and Conference Center, the amazing Christian adventure camp our church owns, will be preaching from Luke 10 on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The camp’s theme this summer is “Agents of Change.”

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. He never pastored a church, but his understanding of what it means to be a neighbor came out of his relationship with Jesus Christ.

We need the one who came from heaven to earth, to not only risk his life, but to give his life, freely, gladly.

When we grasp the radical, self-giving love of the Great Samaritan Jesus Christ, we can begin to be agents of change. 

Not makeshift

One of the Bible passages traditionally read on Pentecost Sunday is the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, how the earliest recorded attempt at urban development went wrong. Commentator Derek Kidner said, “The building materials are makeshift, and the builders are weaker still.” Even as they built a monument to themselves, they felt the need to huddle together.

If God had not come down to confuse the language and scatter the people of Babel, they would have eventually scattered anyway. The Tower of Babel hadn’t been “built to code.” It was built without God, which is half-built at best, and it wasn’t going to last.

Millennia later, after Jesus had returned to God in heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-21). The people in the crowd heard the apostles speaking to them in their own native language.

The Holy Spirit had reversed the confusion of Babel. The Spirit was telling them who built them and why.

In the same way, the Spirit reminds us that we are not makeshift; we were not half built.

We were meant to rise to become living monuments to the Builder. 

How could he? How could they?

Like the rest of us, I’ve been reeling from the news of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. For a moment last Tuesday, I thought that something so awful might bring people back to church.

And then I remembered what I was still reeling from last Monday: The news of sexual abuse by leaders at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a massive cover up, over 20 years. It was a lot like what happened in the Catholic Church.

Just what church are people supposed to go back to?

If even its leaders abuse the most vulnerable, then the church deserves to lose people’s trust. This is why Jesus aimed his harshest criticisms at the religious leaders of his day. One of his most famous confrontations occurred in John 8, where the leaders were willing to exploit a vulnerable woman just to discredit him. 

People, even leaders, are capable of the worst kind of evil.

God’s own son was put to death by the worst kind of evil, which is, strangely enough, why people need to come back to church.

After Jesus fed the 5000, massive crowds followed him. But then he started to say things like, “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” It was so hard, the crowds all left, including some disciples.

Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”

Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

People do need to come back to church. As broken as we are, there is still truth here.

And Jesus’ words of eternal life.

Visible wounds

This Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension, we get to sing one of my favorite hymns, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” The third verse goes:

Crown him the Lord of love, behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified; no angels in the sky can fully bear that sight, but downward bend their burning eyes at mysteries so bright.

The risen, flesh and blood Jesus was taken to heaven with his wounds still visible in his hands, feet, and side.

And his wounds are still visible in heaven. 

It’s an incredible claim. I get emotional every time I think about it.

When Jesus was raised from the dead his wounds were the proof that it was really him and not somebody else. 

Now Jesus is in the heavenly dimension. He’s glorified, and humanity is glorified with him. 

Meaning us and our wounds. 

Jesus takes all the things we suffer in this life, the hurts, the scars, visible and invisible, and transforms them from hurt into glory. 

I don’t know why there is so much hurt and suffering in the world. Most of it is due to human sin, rejection of God. But in becoming one of us, suffering with us and for us, it has to mean Jesus cares. It has to mean our wounds matter to God.

That’s why he was taken up for us, wounds and all. 

Do you know any retired hockey players? Have you seen them up close? I’m pretty sure they wear their scars and their false teeth as a badge of honor.

The scars say “I did this. I had a full life. I really lived the life of a hockey player.”

If a hockey player’s wounds are a badge of honor, what do you think God can do with our wounds? 

The wounds we suffer in this life become a source of glory in the next. 

The things we’re tempted to cover up in this life become a source of beauty in the next. 

Believers don’t suffer in vain.

Jesus glorifies our wounds, and because of the Ascension, one day our joy will be infinitely greater for the wounds we suffer here.   

Touching

It’s a word we often say when something stirs deep emotions. It means that something affected us in a profound way.

But why say, “touching?”  Why not just say “moving” or “affecting?” How is it that a word that means “having a common border” or “adjacent” came to signify profound feelings?

Well, why did God come into the world in-person as the God-man Jesus Christ? And when he came, why did he go out among the crowds of hurting persons?

He didn’t sit alone on the top of a hill and expect people to come to him.

He didn’t wait until the age of electronic media and make commercials.

He came to touch and be touched. You could hold him and smell him. You could feel the scratch of his beard on your cheek when he kissed you. Why?

It’s got to mean that we were created to touch and be touched. And that means, the more isolated we are from others, the more “out of touch” we become, and the less we become our truest and best selves.

Of course, not all touching is healthy.

And a few take advantage of our need for touch to satisfy some perverse impulse.

Matthew 9 tells of a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years. She told herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I’ll be healed.”

She was right, and it’s still true for us.

We have to let him touch us, through worship, Christian community, prayer, and more. The more he touches us, the more we become who he created us to be.

Blessing the runners

This Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years. Tens of thousands of runners, and visitors from across the country and around the world, will be downtown. It’s like no other day all year.

First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral next door are right in the middle of it all.

Roads are shut down all over the city on Marathon Sunday, making it hard to get to many churches. But not our churches. You can take the “T” to the Wood Street Station, or drive in and park in the Mellon Square Garage, each a half a block away.  

God put us in the perfect place to bless the city on Marathon Sunday.

We will be out on Sixth Avenue at 5:45 AM, blessing runners. You should join us.

Many runners are so scared before the big race that they’re shaking. They wonder, “What was I thinking when I signed up for this?” Some are quite literally looking for a higher power.

Some are running to raise money and awareness for a loved one who passed away, or who suffers with a particular condition. Some are running to glorify God. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace means a lot to them.

People I prayed with in years past come up to thank me. They remind me that I had said that when they “hit the wall” around mile 20 they would experience a “following breeze.” They tell me that prayer was answered.

This year, after we bless the runners early in the morning, we’ll hold a combined worship service outside at 10:45, weather permitting. Our friend, The Very Reverend Aidan Smith, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, will preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. What a privilege to be the church in the heart of the city.