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.”


Winning the argument

Sure there are lots of people who say it never happened, but some things are undeniable:

  • The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important event in human history.
  • Jesus Christ is the most influential person in history. No other figure in history even comes close. His followers today number about 2.6 billion.
  • The Bible is the most widely read book in history.

And so as we come to the Sunday before Easter, known both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, it makes sense to reflect on the events that catapulted Jesus to unparalleled significance.

We hear every day about conflict in our public discourse—one side shouting down the other. It’s almost seems that each of us thinks our cause is the most important thing going.

And so it should give us pause when we consider the way Jesus handled what really was the most important thing going.

On trial for his life, he did nothing, said almost nothing.

“If you say so,” is all he said to the Roman governor, the one who had the power of set him free.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” were his last words.

On the greatest stage in history, the greatest actor in history chose to say nothing.

Maybe we need to consider the silence of Jesus the next time we’re in an argument with a friend or a loved one. What’s the cost of “winning” our point? What do we gain by ripping someone on social media? The next time we find ourselves insisting on our own way, perhaps we ought to consider whether our position is really all that righteous.

The only righteous person who ever lived was silent in the face of his accusers.

Compared to Jesus, almost no one remembers the words of other famous people.

But the silence of Jesus, not to mention his word, still stands.


What we live for

Five years ago, we started a wedding ministry for folks who aren’t church members. Our church is a bride’s dream, with a long center aisle, Tiffany windows, massive pipe organ, and close to many reception venues.

But being the perfect wedding venue isn’t easy.

When I first talk to couples, I ask if they want to take their vows with integrity. Do they think they should spend as much time preparing for marriage as they do picking a out a cake? Of course they say yes, and I’m pretty sure most mean it. Then I ask if they’re involved in church. Usually the answer is no. They figure they ought to be in church, but they’re crazy busy; the world tells them church is optional, and they don’t need a church to be “spiritual.”

Taking Christian marriage vows with integrity, without the support of a church, isn’t easy. So we spend a lot of time exploring the basics of the Christian faith.

When the big day comes, the church fills with people who are a lot like the bride and groom. They’re also crazy busy, and they too have been told that spirituality is a do-it-yourself proposition.

So I figure the wedding homily is one of the few chances these folks will have to hear the gospel. The world tells them marriage is all about you, so find a spouse who makes you happy. But they know in their hearts it’s a lie; it loads a spouse with burdens they were not meant to bear. I try to show them that Christian marriage is about gospel reenactment; mutual sacrifice, where the bride and groom take on the roles of Jesus Christ for each other.

People are starving to hear this.

After the wedding last Saturday, a young lady met me at the reception and told me how wonderful the service was. She said she’d never heard anything like it. Later, as my wife and I were leaving, she approached me again. She said she wanted to teach her child about faith, but didn’t know where to begin. We stood and talked for nearly an hour. She asked great questions. Her friend who was a member of an Orthodox church, joined us. She said she rarely went to church; it was too hard to get her kids to go.

At one point, the first young woman apologized, saying she was wasting my time with dumb questions. Her friend told her not to worry. “This is what he lives for,” she said.

Oh my, her friend was right.

The weeks and months creating this ministry, building it over five years, and the 25 or so hours’ investment in each wedding were all worth it.

I pray those two young ladies will continue seeking, and if they come to worship here, we’ll welcome them in a way that will make them want to go deeper in their faith.

This is what Christian mission looks like today. It’s meeting people where they are. Having conversations. Being real.

Sure it’s a big investment in others, but not to worry. It’s worth living for.