Soft on the outside

This week I’m preaching on Ephesians 6, where the Apostle Paul writes about putting on the “armor of God.” The armor includes things like the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness,” and so on. If you Google “armor of God,” you get thousands of images with different ideas of what this armor looks like.

But I wonder if turning a metaphor like “armor of God” into religious clip art misses the point?

The armor of God is really our status as children of God, created, chosen, blessed, adopted, and redeemed by God. This status is who we are, not something we put on and take off when we’re under attack. And we are under attack. The Christian faith is realistic about the spiritual warfare going on all around us.

Eugene Peterson says that G.K.Chesterson once wrote that Christians, in relation to the world around us, are either crustaceans or vertebrates. Crustaceans have their skeletons on the outside; vertebrates have their skeletons on the inside. Crustaceans are solid on the outside, soft on the inside. Vertebrates are soft and vulnerable on the outside, solid on the inside. Peterson says, “It’s not difficult to recognize the higher form of life, Christian crustacean or Christian vertebrate. The armor of God is the embodiment, the internalization of the life of the Trinity—truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, word of God—Christ in us.”

The meaning of “armor of God” can best be understood in the church. That’s where we pray and worship and just hang out with other vertebrates like us, who are soft and vulnerable on the outside and solid on the inside.

The quotidian mysteries

Ever since I was little, I dreamed of growing up to do great things. My folks encouraged me to do my best in everything. In every job, every military assignment, I dreamed of making things the best they’d ever been. I really couldn’t imagine how to do things any other way. The bible encourages us in this. Ephesians 6:6 says “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

Doing your best is the Christian thing to do, is it not?

I was blessed to be able to take a sabbatical this summer. This meant having the time to reflect on what it truly means to rest. One kind of rest, probably the most important kind, is learning to rest in God.

In preparing for the sabbatical, I read a bunch of books by Presbyterian pastor and author, Eugene Peterson. One of Peterson’s great gifts is his ability to point to the way God works everywhere, in every moment, in everyone and everything. The greatest force in every situation, is not us, but God. This means that seemingly menial, quotidian (routine, daily) work, like doing laundry or taking out the trash, has the same significance before God as, say, curing cancer or building a skyscraper.

Because God is in everything, absolutely everything.

If Peterson is right, and of course he is, it means we can do our best in everything, but it need not kill us, because God is the greatest force in every situation, not us. We have permission to fail, because we know it wasn’t all up to us. And of course, it means that when we do the quotidian things that make up most of life, we can rest in the knowledge that we’re working arm in arm with the God of the Universe.

*The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” is the title of a short book by Kathleen Norris.

Force of the nots

Surely one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament is Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We need to teach this to our hearts in divided times like this.

When you look closely at the sentence in Greek, you find that the word “not” is used three times, and the conjunction “and not” is used twice. Five “nots” in one sentence. Paul isn’t saying that our differences are unimportant, or that they’ve disappeared. And he’s certainly not justifying slavery. Paul is pointing to the impact of the gospel; what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world. He lived the life we could never live and died the death we deserved. Then he overcame death. When we trust him in faith, he adopts us as “sons of God.” In effect, we’re like “mini-Christs,” not unlike Jesus himself.

This oneness in Jesus supersedes every human category. Each person is someone God chose to create, to love, and to be with God for eternity. Each person you meet is literally of cosmic importance.

Yet we live in a culture that insists on labelling and categorizing everyone. Your group, gender, race, religion, preference, and so on, becomes what defines you. And however we see ourselves and others, we can find a cable channel or an internet site to reinforce our point of view, deepening our divisions.

We need to let the “force of the nots” act on our hearts. We need to stand up for the oppressed, and stand against every label that obscures our best and truest identity.

You are all one in Christ Jesus.

A bite of bread and a sip of juice

Once again, we are deeply hurting as a nation. Racism and patriotism pitted against each other. It’s personal for millions of us.

Can the church offer a way ahead that is neither left or right, black or white?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday. The first Sunday in October has been set aside to remind us that we are part of one global community of faith. Christians from every culture break bread and drink the cup to remember and affirm Jesus Christ as Head of the Church.

World Communion Sunday began in Pittsburgh at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933. Nazism was on the rise in Europe, and the US and much of the world were in the grip of a Great Depression. Church leaders had a vision of uniting and saying to the world that, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are all one.

For those who grasp this transcendent reality, differences begin to fade.

Dan, our new associate pastor for outreach, and I gathered with about 40 other pastors this week to pray and sing and talk and imagine ways in which the church can help to heal the divisions among us. We are convinced that our best hope is not in government or politics or power, but in the Gospel.

The Gospel tells us that we are each more evil than we know, but more loved than we dare hope. At the Table we are reminded that we have been reconciled to God and each other through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Each of us is someone for whom Christ willingly and lovingly died.

And so, we come to the Table again to take this great reality into the center of our being.

Through a bite of bread and a sip of juice.

 

Mission and rest

This Sunday after worship, Jana and I start a three-and-a-half month time of rest called a sabbatical. We have been blessed to help lead a church which allowed us this time of rest. The church is blessed with a wonderful associate pastor, staff, and lay leaders, and so we know things are in good hands while we’re away. We have also been blessed with a significant grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, which will allow us to travel with our family. The Lilly folks believe that pastoral rest and renewal is so important that they have made over $6 million in grants to churches and pastors since the year 2000. Many of the church’s costs associated with our being away are also covered by the grant.

The grant application asks pastors, “What makes your heart sing?” It actually took months of reflection for me to answer that. If I had to answer, I would have said, “The mission.” I realized I’ve always been wired for “mission.” Whatever I set out to do became my mission. There’s always been something in my head screaming: “Never forget, the mission comes first!” And what could be more important than being on a mission for God? There are people all around who are hungry, a downtown growing with people who don’t know Jesus, members who need pastoral care, calls to make, emails to answer.

But when you turn a job into your “mission” it can be exhausting, for you and those around you.

What kind of mission are you on?

Are you wearing out yourself and those around you?

Let’s take a break.

For the next few months, my “mission” is to learn to rest. To remind myself that Jesus doesn’t actually need me for anything. To let Jesus teach my heart to sing: “I’m all you need.”

Pastors and Supreme Court Justices

Churches are often very conservative institutions. Churches don’t change easily or quickly. For the most part, this is a good thing. Churches handle the Word of God, which doesn’t change, so it’s entirely possible that churches will sometimes appear out of step with the world. So when something big changes in a local church, it’s important to take notice and celebrate.

This Sunday our church installs Dan Turis as associate pastor. Dan will become the first installed associate pastor here in nearly ten years. During that time, the church was served by an excellent interim associate pastor, but not an installed one.

In our tradition, it usually it takes a church a few years to decide what it needs in terms of pastoral leadership. A committee is then formed to work out the details and interview candidates. The congregation votes. Then the presbytery votes. It all takes about two years. The process of hiring a new head football coach or a Supreme Court justice is trivial by comparison.

Installation of a new pastor takes place during a service of worship. And it’s not the leaders of the church who preside, but a special commission of the presbytery. The music and words are different from Sunday worship.

I hope folks will come this Sunday at 2:00 to celebrate Dan’s installation.

Something bigger than any of us is taking place. This is God’s doing.

 

Caffeine and the Spirit

One morning this week, Pastor Dan and I had just left the meeting of the Clean and Safe Committee. It’s the working group of civic leaders, business owners, police, and civil servants who try to keep downtown “clean and safe.” Dan and I were pleased that our Tuesday night meals for the homeless, with our friends at Outreached Arms, were part of the discussion. This ministry lifts people up while helping address needs for health and safety.

I started to head straight back to the church, but Dan turned right, wanting to get coffee first. Standing next to the coffee shop, waiting for a bus, was a lady who yelled when she saw me: “It’s the pastor of First Presbyterian Church!”

Carla was beaming. She reminded me that my wife and I had helped her one Sunday after church to connect her with the services she needed. Now she was working, had her own place, and was enrolled in school. She said we had helped her when she was new in town and didn’t know where to turn.

Dan prayed, we all hugged, and we went on our way after telling Carla that her joy had made our day.

Dan drinks a lot of coffee, so you could say it was his need for caffeine that caused us to take the longer route back to the church. But I doubt it. It was the Spirit. It was the Spirit who allowed Jana and me to help Carla months before. It was the Spirit who filled her with joy. It was the Spirit who brought the tears that morning on the sidewalk.

Loose in the world

There’s a framed sheepskin deed, dated 1787, hanging in our church office, signed by the heirs of William Penn. The deed grants land to the “Presbyterian Congregation of Pittsburg.” The land included an ancient Indian burying ground and a Revolutionary War Cemetery, where the founders of the church (who later founded the city) were buried. As new church buildings were constructed (four have stood here), graves had to be exhumed and the heroes buried elsewhere. Seventy sets of remains are buried in the crypt in the church basement.

The current building was finished in 1905, and people from around the world still marvel at its unique combination of stone, wood, and stained glass. But two unique features often go unnoticed. Facing the street are stone plaques with the worship times. Yes, there really are things here that are carved in stone. Maybe when they built the place 112 years ago, they couldn’t imagine worshipping at another time. Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine a time when church would no longer be a focus of the culture.

The second feature is the outdoor pulpit, facing out onto Sixth Avenue. People walk by all day long, mostly without looking up. If someone did bother to look, they might not recognize that they were looking at a pulpit at all. But then they would also miss the meaning of the pulpit—God’s Word loose in the world.

This Sunday we’re going to use that pulpit for worship outside. At 6:00 AM thousands of runners will be gathering for the Pittsburgh Marathon, and we’ll be there to bless them. And at 10:45 AM, we’ll gather on Sixth Avenue for outdoor worship, and the Word will, literally, be loose in the world from here again.

If only

In the last few weeks, Pittsburgh paid last respects to two of its great leaders and philanthropists, Steeler’s Chairman Dan Rooney, and businessman Henry Hillman. Both men were wealthy, yet unassuming. They were men of stature and grace who used their gifts to make a difference in the community.

This week we paid last respects to Ryan Cenk, someone a bit less well known, but who used his gifts to make a difference as well. Ryan lost a long battle to cancer last Saturday. On Tuesday, while Ryan’s family and friends lined up around the funeral home and down the street for the first of three viewings, the people Ryan served and volunteered with prayed and sang and ate a meal together in our church. Just the week before, Ryan was serving them himself.

We sometimes make the mistake of dreaming of the things we could do “if only” we had this or that advantage. Ryan was small and looked younger than his 22 years. Even on good days, he needed help to walk; cancer at age 10 months had taken some of his mobility and sight.

But Ryan had the advantage of being wealthy in Spirit. He was certain of his stature as a child of God. He had the gift of a loving family and friends who, instead of keeping Ryan for themselves, helped him use his gifts out in the world. Ryan became an Eagle Scout, an advocate for the physically challenged, and a volunteer for many causes that mattered to him. He served food to the homeless for the last two years in our church.

Think of the difference we could make “if only….”

But wait a minute.

Have we not all been gifted, just as Ryan was? Aren’t we all children of the Living God?

What other advantage do we really need?

Easter as a verb

The commercial shows a neighborhood full of kids on the wildest Easter-egg hunt ever. They rip off their Easter ties and hair bows, and go at it, running to snatch eggs out of the air, diving to find them at the bottom of swimming pools, and even searching for them with drones. All the while, the 1970’s rock anthem, “One Way or Another” blasts in the background. Inside, parents prepare for the Easter meal in relative peace and quiet, equipped with everything they need, from Wal-Mart.

The commercial ends with the line, “Easter like you mean it.”

It’s too bad that Wal-Mart so blatantly commercializes Easter. But at least the commercial points to a greater truth: If we really understood what Easter was about, we’d live with joy and abandon, like those kids in the commercial.

We’d all “Easter like we mean it.”

The first example of “Easter like you mean it” was Mary Magdalene. On the first Easter, she ventured to the tomb in the dark. Finding the stone rolled away, she ran to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved.

Then the two disciples raced to the tomb. Peter barged right in. Hesitating for a moment, the disciple Jesus loved saw the folded grave clothes and believed.

That’s “Easter like you mean it.”

Later, when the Risen Jesus met the bewildered disciples, he commissioned them to “Easter” the whole world. Infused with Easter power, they did just that.

Easter is proof that death and the dark forces that want to control us have been defeated. We can live with joy and abandon, knowing that everything Jesus followers do is part of renewing God’s creation.

Nothing could stop Jesus from rising from the tomb, and nothing can ultimately stop Easter people like us.

Live with joy and abandon. “Easter like you mean it.”