Pittsburgh Marathon, 2019

This Sunday is the Pittsburgh Marathon. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world will be downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

For the last nine years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of people walking down the street to their corrals.

Many people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious for a higher power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that matter to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important.

People I’ve prayed with in years past come up to thank me. It seems that my prayers for a following breeze sometimes are answered.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue. What a privilege to be the church in the heart of the city.

Through the roof

The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of how a group of friends brought a quadriplegic to Jesus to be healed. Unable to make their way through the crowd, they went up on the roof, dug a hole in it, and lowered the man through.

Some years ago, I heard the moderator of our denomination say she frequently preached on this passage in her travels. She said that she used to preach that the church was like the quadriplegic, but that she had reconsidered. She now thought the church was like the friends who brought the quadriplegic to Jesus. 

OK. The church has lost some of its privileged place in the culture. The church can get paralyzed, crowded out.

But the moderator missed the point. The story isn’t about the quadriplegic or his friends. It’s about Jesus.

In the last few days, a few unruly guests have disrupted our compassion ministries. Since the cold weather shelter has closed for the summer, the homeless downtown can be seen everywhere, and some are causing problems here.

While we were dealing with this, hundreds of Christians worshipping on Easter were killed in church bombings in Sri Lanka, reminding us that Christians are still being martyred around the world today. 

For many years to come, it is going to get harder to be the church, not easier. Our church can’t escape the challenges of the city, even if we tried to wall ourselves off. We can be paralyzed by fear, or we can summon up our courage and do bold things.

There is someone this broken world needs. He’s still someone worth going through the roof to get to.

Put off by religious types?

A few weeks ago, our sons helped lead the funeral service for their grandmother (my wife’s mother). Presbyterians call this “A Witness to the Resurrection and a Celebration of Life,” and so our sons made sure that the resurrection was front and center at the service. Like her late husband, Lorraine lived with the assurance that she belonged to God; that this life was not all there is; and that one day she would rise to see her loved ones again.

The loss of a loved one is one of the few occasions when people open up about faith. One person expressed views that ministers often hear: he didn’t believe, he said, because he’d been turned off by the rules and hypocrisy he’d seen in church growing up; the religion he’d experienced seemed too confining; and there were plenty of people on the Internet who shared his views.

Acknowledged.

But what does any of that have to do with the fact that Jesus Christ, who was stone cold dead, came out of the tomb?

Are you telling me that, because you were put off by some church people, that’s going to influence the way you understand the most important event in history?

You let a bad experience of church shape how you understand reality itself?

Far from being confining, the resurrection is the most liberating news you could possibly hear. The resurrection means that we can live with courage and love and hope because we have proof that God is for us, and that God is dealing with the problem beneath all our other problems.

Of course, if Jesus really did come out of the tomb, and I believe he did, it creates a bigger challenge for us than what to do about “religious” people. The risen Jesus calls us to choose him so that he might use us to transform the world today, and so that one day we might rise with him and live with him forever.

What’s influencing that choice for you?  

Question of authority

This week is Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while excited crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” (Save us!).

For the first time, Jesus accepted the crowds’ adoration and their proclaiming him as the king.

But Jesus didn’t head to the palace for a coronation, he headed to the temple to clean house. In the only act of violence he ever committed, he drove out the currency exchangers and the sacrifice sellers.

The religious leaders asked, “Who gave you the authority to do these things?” It was a fair question. The religious leaders’ job was to uphold practices that God had founded a millennium before. The only one with the authority to overturn those things was God.

Which is why Jesus went to the temple (where God resided) and not the palace (where the king resided.)

So, the question this Sunday is one of authority. Who has authority to come into your place and clean house?  Have you let Jesus have that kind of authority over your life? Has he cleaned up lately? Ever?

Jesus cannot be your helper, or your moral example, or a nice teacher. He claimed to be God. If he’s not turning things over and setting things straight, is he really God to you?

End of exile

This Sunday we come to the end of our study of the Old Testament figure Nehemiah. But the ending of Nehemiah is a letdown.

God had brought his exiled people back to Jerusalem. Despite all kinds of opposition, the walls were rebuilt, the city was secure, the sacrificial system was restored, and the people were worshipping again.

After 12 years as governor, Nehemiah stepped aside for a time. When he returned, he found that the people were doing the same kinds of things that had made God angry centuries before. There was legalism, cronyism, materialism, and more. Angry and frustrated, Nehemiah immediately sought to correct the problems.

Had the reforms been for nothing?

Not without self-pity, Nehemiah cried, “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God.”

It’s one thing to take the people out of exile.

It’s something else to take the exile out of the people.

It’s one thing to lead a reformation.

It’s something else to be content with God when the reforms don’t seem to last. 

What we miss, if we don’t know our Bibles well, is that the Book of Nehemiah marks the end of the Old Testament history. Everything that comes after Nehemiah is wisdom literature or prophetic writings. The Bible is basically silent about the history of God’s people for the next 400 years, until the New Testament writers come on the scene. 

Someone told me recently that they had prayed and prayed but God had failed to answer their prayers. Therein lies one of the great questions of life. It seems to me that for every answered prayer, there’s a reform that didn’t fully take, and a frustrated reformer who can only cry out to God.

But for Nehemiah, all was not lost. The people were worshipping, if imperfectly. The Holy City was restored, if still under assault.

Maybe the point is to make us long for the once-and-for-all reformer, Jesus Christ.

Relationships

I just finished six years on the board of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. My term ended with the PDP’s annual meeting, where civic leaders describe the state of downtown. There are many good things going on downtown, but there are also many hurting people. This means there are many, many ways for the church to care for the city and share the faith.

When I started at the church ten years ago, I’d see an occasional article with predictions of a resurgent downtown. At last it’s true. There’s been $8.5 billion in new construction within a half mile of the church over the last ten years. $300 million worth of projects are underway right now. There are condos, apartments, restaurants, and all kinds of new businesses. One signature project, Lumière, with 86 new residences, is half a block away.

The challenge for us is that a resurgent downtown no longer thinks it needs the church. So how do we reach it?

Relationships.

My understanding of this started with my classes and experiences in mission. Missionaries must do at least two things—care for people and share the Gospel. They must get to know the people they hope to reach, learn their language, live and work with them, and make a difference in their community. And after all that, hopefully they’ve built a relationship out of which they can share the Gospel.

Ten years ago, I imagined that the beauty of the church building, the church’s programs, or even my preaching would bring people to faith. But slowly I’ve learned to repent of those ideas.

It’s relationships.

Who’s in

This Sunday after worship, our church is hosting the musical production, “The Prodigal Sons.” I hear the show is great. It’s based on Jesus’ most important parable.

A man had two sons. The younger one demanded his inheritance from his father, and then squandered his father’s wealth in wild living. But then he came to his senses. He returned home and threw himself on his father’s mercy. “I’m not worthy to be called your son,” he cried.

The father who’d never stopped looking for him, welcomed him back as a son.

The older brother was out in the fields doing his duty, as he’d always done. When he saw that his father had welcomed his brother back home, he became angry. The father pleaded with him to come in, but (apparently) to no avail. “You owe me!” the son said.

I’ve said many times, when I finally understood this passage, it changed my life.

I’d always thought that the point was to be like the older brother: Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like that awful younger one.

But that’s not what the parable is about at all.

It turns out that there are two ways to be our own savior, one by being bad and one by being good. At the end of the story, it was the “good” brother who was on the outside of his father’s house looking in.

Saying “You owe me!” to the father is a sure sign of a deadly spiritual condition. This is why, on the greatest day of his father’s life, when at last he had his son back safe and sound, the older son refused to celebrate.

When the truth of this finally dawned on me, I understood why so many people are put off by church. They look at the church and what they see (fairly or not) is a bunch of unhappy older brothers.

And as often as I’ve preached and taught on this passage, people still tell me, “I don’t see what the elder brother did wrong.”

Let me put it this way. There are two ways to approach God. One is to say, “I’m not worthy,” and the other is to say, “You owe me.”

I’m not God, but it would seem that the ones God welcomes are the ones who say to God, “I’m not worthy and I know I will never we worthy.”

The ones who think they deserve to be in, are out.

The ones who know that they deserve to be out, are in.

Fear

This week, dozens of wealthy parents were charged with fraud after paying millions of dollars to a man named William Singer, who ran a bogus college prep company. Singer bribed admissions officials, test proctors, and coaches to guarantee kids’ acceptance into elite universities. One couple paid $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California on the rowing team, though neither girl had ever taken part in the sport.

Why would parents, who were able to give their kids every advantage, do something so dishonest?

Didn’t they fear getting caught?

My guess is that the parents were afraid of how they might look if their teenager didn’t get into the “right school.”

We’re studying Nehemiah, the Old Testament exile who God called long ago to rebuild Jerusalem. With God’s guidance, Jerusalem was rebuilt. Then, incredibly, the former exiles turned on each other. They cheated one another out of property. They charged one another interest on loans, something God had forbidden.

Nehemiah’s rebuke to the cheaters: “Shouldn’t you walk in fear of our God?”.

“Fear of the Lord,” doesn’t so much mean a fear of getting caught, or even a fear of going to hell. It means healthy reverence. And it’s the kind of fear that usually comes with love and hope.

We shake our heads at wealthy parents who cheat, but what of the exiles in Nehemiah’s day? They’d come back to Jerusalem with nothing except the grace of God. You’d think they’d have each other’s back; instead they cheated each other.   

I wonder what our lives would be like if, instead of trying to take advantage of each other, we worked to cultivate a healthy fear of our God?

Who knows, we might not be afraid of, say, our kids’ score on college entrance exams.

Holy moments

Some of the best moments in the life of a pastor happen at the end of a long aisle. 

Take weddings. I’ve gotten to marry dozens of times. In my job I get to stand at the end of a long center aisle and watch as a bride, in the moment of her life when she is perhaps most radiant and beautiful, makes her way toward her husband. So many people live together today that you might think that marriage is no big deal. But that’s not what it feels like when you’re standing between two trembling people.

Then there’s communion. People line up down the aisle, waiting to tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice. It’s a bit awkward, frankly; it’s hard to tear bread neatly. But then, shouldn’t we feel a bit awkward? Are we not entering together into the great mystery of salvation? I get to say the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

And last, there’s Ash Wednesday. The people who line up down the aisle know they need to be there. They know that only through confession and repentance, symbolized by ashes, can they receive the true life Christ offers. I get to enter in to a moment when total strangers make themselves vulnerable before God, as I make the sign of the cross in ash on their forehead.

Radiance and beauty, mystery and salvation, vulnerability and life, at the end of a long center aisle.   

Beloved Dust

One of our most ancient stories pictures God as a gardener, reaching down and scooping up some dust, and forming the first human being with his own hands. God then breathed into the man’s nostrils, and he came to life. The Hebrew word, athaam, means “earth.” It’s no surprise that the first man was called Adam.

There’s a one day a year on the Christian calendar when we remind ourselves that we came from dust, and that’s where we’re headed. We’re all dust, the mightiest and the humblest of us. There’s no denying where we came from, and there’s no escaping where we’re headed. 

But we’re dust that’s been made alive by a loving creator. His own breath is in us, literally and spiritually. The least of us is an incredibly complex creation, and God’s supreme work of art.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remind ourselves that we’re dust; dust that’s been made alive and that remains utterly dependent on God. We also remember that the God who can do the unimaginable…make dust out of nothing and then make dust come alive…loves us with unimaginably great love.

And so, on Ash Wednesday we remember what the pastor says at a funeral, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But we’re beloved dust.