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“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

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“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me,
but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently,
but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease,
without dread of disaster.’”
Proverbs 1:20-33

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The apostle James writes:  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” – James 3:1-12

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The apostle Mark writes:  “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:27-38

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Words matter.

God’s word matters, and because human beings are made in the image of God, the words we speak matter.

All three of our readings for today talk about what different groups of people say, the words they speak. In the reading from Mark, Jesus asks the questions “who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus does not ask “what do people believe in?” or “what do you believe in?” or “what do you think?” but “what do you say?”

In this passage, Jesus separates people into two groups: those who speak truth about him, and those who don’t. And he does this throughout the gospels, pointing out (in particular) the difference between what the scribes and Pharisees know about him, and what they say about him. Because they know Jesus is the Messiah but they’ll never admit it, they’ll never speak it.

What is spoken… matters.

In the reading from James, James also separates people into two groups: those who are able to control their tongues, and those who aren’t. Controlling the tongue is a tough challenge for all of us, myself included. And control of the tongue involves not just refraining from harsh words, but also speaking good words when needed. It’s about the appropriate use of words.

The ability to speak the truth, and the ability to speak appropriately, calls for wisdom, which leads us to the reading from Proverbs, one of the wisdom books in the Old Testament.

The author of Proverbs also divides people into two groups: those who are wise, and those who are scoffers. The word scoffer is kind of an old-fashioned word, one we don’t use very often. To scoff is “to speak in a scornful or mocking way; to ridicule… belittle… to speak contemptuously.”

The opposite of scoff is praise. And I think that’s important – I’ll come back to it.

But for now let’s dig into what the writer of Proverbs has to say.

Our reading from Proverbs begins with the words:

“Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice.”

When I read these words I have to stop and say, “Is this really true?” Because it seems to me like most of the words we hear every day, words we are bombarded with, are anything but words of wisdom. We hear words of advertisers, words of politicians, words of bosses, words of co-workers, words of preachers sometimes, but how often are those words actually words of wisdom?

People in our time are bombarded with more noise than any generation before us… and sometimes I think it acts on our psyches like itching powder, keeping us vaguely dissatisfied with life and feeling at odds with the world around us.

And yet at the same time Wisdom does cry out in the street. Her voice is heard. Sometimes wisdom comes to us in the words of people like Mother Teresa or more recently Pope Francis. Sometimes it comes to us in the words of a nation, like the people of Poland who said recently, “It only costs $3000 per person to save the life of a refugee. It’s a small price to pay for a human life. Let them come.” Sometimes it comes in the voice of a child, like one of the neighbor’s children the other day, who said to her mother, “Look Mom, this little kitten lost her family, can we give her a home?” (Compassion is one way wisdom expresses itself.)

On the other side of the coin, as the writer of Proverbs points out, there are people who deliberately reject wisdom. Proverbs says: “scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge.”

Nowhere is this more evident than on social media. Anytime anyone says anything on the Internet about God or faith they are sure to be met with scoffers. There are people who prowl the ‘net for hours looking for people of faith to belittle and insult.

Here’s an example I came across this past week. I was reading an article on the Huffington Post called This River Church Does Religion Right. It’s about a new kind of church down in North Carolina that is reaching out to people who are young and athletic and who feel close to God in nature, and tend to spend their Sundays boating on the river rather than going to church. This church has opened up a chapel on the beach of the river, so the boaters can pull over and join in the service and then keep on boating. It sounds like a cool idea.

In the comments section after the article there were a few people who said they liked the idea, but they were quickly silenced by comments like these:

  • “Which of the thousands of gods do you feel closer to by observing the beauty of evolution?” –OR-
  • “It is so amazing to me that anyone who has an IQ above that of a peanut still adheres to and professes myths and superstitions put forth by any and all religions.”

This is modern-day scoffing.

If it makes us feel any better, this kind of scoffing is not new… it’s just found a new venue. Back in the 1700s, British preacher Charles Simeon wrote that believers were often told their faith was “the effervescence of a heated imagination” or “the offspring of a weak, enthusiastic mind.” Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!

As I was thinking about scoffing this week and what it means to scoff, I turned the TV on – I was flipping channels – and I flipped to America’s Got Talent and got an earful of one of America’s most famous professional scoffers: Howard Stern. I don’t know the man personally, but I’ve heard stories about him, that he is a totally different person in real life, and that when his kids were growing up he wouldn’t let them to listen to his own radio show. I always thought, if this was true, it was a bit hypocritical to make a fortune feeding verbal garbage to our children that he wouldn’t feed to his own children. But I thought I’d better check my facts before I said anything, so I went out and asked Google a few pointed questions and this is what I found:

A few years ago, when Howard Stern’s daughter Emily was in her mid-20s, she gave an interview in which she said that, growing up, she was not explicitly forbidden from tuning in to her father’s program, “but there was the sense of ‘You wouldn’t want to listen; it’s not your father.’”

When she finally did listen her initial reaction was: ““I remember being like, ‘That isn’t my dad.  Who is this?’ Then once I reached the age when it was maybe acceptable to listen … it really just wasn’t what I was interested in, in seeing my dad that way, and also the content.”

Asked by the interviewer about whether she saw her parents’ divorce coming, [she] responded, “Living this character on the radio, there’s only so much you can say, ‘It’s not me’ before you embody it – I think that’s a bit of what happened.”

It’s a sad story and I share it, not to tear the man down, but as an example. Jesus warned all of us when he said, “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”

BTW there is a ray of hope in the article: Stern’s daughter is now a practicing Orthodox Jew and is in the process of sharing her faith with her father. I pray God’s blessing on those conversations.

In our reading from Proverbs for today, Wisdom speaks and says to the scoffers: “when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind… Then [you] will call upon me, but I will not answer; [you] will seek me diligently, but will not find me.” (Prov 1:27-28)

Wisdom is not being vindictive; wisdom is telling it like it is, because wisdom can’t be gained overnight. When the day of trouble comes, either we’ve done our homework or we haven’t. Now is the time to search for wisdom, before the hard times come, before we’re so set in our ways that we can’t change.

Scripture has a great deal to say about wisdom, and the value of wisdom, and how to get wisdom. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” Notice the tie-in between wisdom and praise again. And when scripture speaks of the ‘fear of the Lord’ this does not mean we’re ‘scared of God’ but more like ‘in awe of God’. Seeing God as awesome is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Proverbs 2:6-13: “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding… he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones…” Wisdom includes knowledge but just knowledge; it also includes God’s protection, God’s justice, and God’s preservation.
  • Proverbs 8:10-11: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
  • Proverbs 19:8: “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:20-24: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
  • James 1:5: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”

From these verses we can see that wisdom is connected to understanding; praise; protection; enlightened self-interest and self-care; humility; prosperity; and faith.

So what can we take away from this? First, as scripture says, “God is not willing that any should perish”. Even those who have scoffed in the past are welcome to turn away from their scoffing and learn wisdom. God’s wisdom is found in God’s word: God’s written word in the scriptures, and God’s living word in the life of of Jesus, the Word of God.

Secondly, if any of us feels that we lack wisdom, or need more wisdom, we should ask God for it, knowing that this is a request God has never said ‘no’ to, when asked with a whole heart.

And third, if the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom, then praise is the result of wisdom. We need to take the opportunity to praise God whenever we can, by whatever means we can: in prayer, in song, in the words that we share with each other.

So this week, as we walk with God, let us seek after wisdom… pray for wisdom… and praise God.  AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/13/15

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The Fall 2014 edition of In Community magazine for Carlynton-Montour features an interview with Burgatory’s executive chef Brad Kohut.

In the interview Kohut offers advice to beginning chefs — and on reading it, I thought “this is pretty darn good advice for preachers as well!”  Here’s what he said:

First, learn how to use a knife well and how to sharpen it.
Second, always taste your food – you don’t know what’s good and what’s not if you don’t taste it.
Third, try new things and be creative – you never know what will work.
Fourth, keep it simple…
Fifth, use real food [fresh ingredients and raw products]
Finally, listen to those trying to help you.  Whether it’s your boss, another chef, or just a critic, always invite constructive criticism.”

Saving this here as a sermonette to myself. May it be a blessing to others as well.

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It only took seven years attending part-time but I finally made it!
Master of Divinity degree, 2014.

Trinity School for Ministry Class of 2014

Trinity School for Ministry Class of 2014

Trinity (formerly “Episcopal”) School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA is an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition.  Founded in the 1970s as the only evangelical Episcopal seminary in the United States, Trinity quickly became the fastest-growing seminary in the Episcopal denomination.  The name “School for Ministry” (as opposed to “Seminary”) was given because its founders wanted the focus of Trinity’s education to be on reaching the people outside the school’s walls, not hunkering down in ivory towers.

With the fragmenting of the Episcopal church in the 21st century, Trinity has chosen to shed an exclusive denominational relationship in favor of growing ecumenical and international partnerships.  Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians are now trained for ministry at Trinity as well as Anglicans and Episcopalians.

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The more I learn about race, gender, and history, the more I discover the issues of racial equality and women’s rights are inextricably intertwined.

Chains

Inspired by friend and artist Betty Douglas, I’ve been reading a book written back in 1839 entitled American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.  The book is a collection of first-hand, eyewitness descriptions of slavery in the southern United States, compiled by the American Anti-Slavery Society, one of the early abolitionist groups in the US, founded by former southerners who fled the south rather than live with the horrors they saw.

The book is heartbreaking.  It rings true as only eyewitness accounts can.  I read slowly, a few pages at a time.

Today I came across something that never would have entered my mind in a million years.  An excerpt from page 25, from the section Testimony of the late Rev. John Graham:

        “I walked up to the Court House to day, where I heard one of the most interesting cases I ever heard. I say interesting, on account of its novelty to me, though it had no novelty for the people, as such cases are of frequent occurrence. The case was this: To know whether two ladies, present in court, were white or black. The ladies were dressed well, seemed modest, and were retiring and neat in their look, having blue eyes, black hair, and appeared to understand much of the etiquette of southern behaviour.

“A man, more avaricious than humane, as is the case with most of the rich planters, laid a remote claim to those two modest, unassuming, innocent and free young ladies as his property, with the design of putting them into the field, and thus increasing his STOCK! As well as the people of Concord are known to be of a peaceful disposition, and for their love of good order, I verily believe if a similar trial should be brought forward there and conducted as this was, the good people would drive the lawyers out of the house. Such would be their indignation at their language, and at the mean under-handed manner of trying to ruin those young ladies, as to their standing in society in this district, if they could not succeed in dooming them for life to the degraded condition of slavery, and all its intolerable cruelties. Oh slavery! if statues of marble could curse you, they would speak. If bricks could speak, they would all surely thunder out their anathemas against you, accursed thing! How many white sons and daughters, have bled and groaned under the lash in this sultry climate.”

These plantation owners made slaves out of their own race as well as the Africans.

It may seem obvious that it takes generosity of spirit, or at least openness of spirit, to accept different kinds of people.

What has taken me longer to see is that the opposite is equally true: it takes the same crookedness of spirit, the same evil intent, to refuse to do so: that someone who hates on racial grounds will hate just as quickly on the grounds of gender, or poverty, or any other reason; that someone who craves power or desires to be cruel doesn’t care what means they use or who their victims are.

As a teacher I know – not just believe, but KNOW – that students only excel if their teacher can see good in them and encourage the good to grow.

What will mystify me to my dying day is why some people insist on refusing the good in themselves, insist on living in darkness, insist on depriving others of liberty and well-being, as if cruelty will ever satisfy their longings.

The Civil War never really ends.

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Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, of light in the darkness.  But it is also a time of taking stock, of doing spiritual housecleaning in preparation for the arrival of the King of the Universe.  It is within this context that the writers of the daily lectionary chose the words of the prophet Amos for our consideration on this day:

“Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.  For this is what Amos is saying: “‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.'” 
Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.  Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” 
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.  But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’  Now then, hear the word of the LORD. You say, “‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and stop preaching against the house of Isaac.’  “Therefore this is what the LORD says: “‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land.'” – Amos 7:10-17 

In the Trinity School for Ministry 2013 Advent Devotional, commentary is added by retired missionary Caroline Humphrey:

“Bad news. If they did not repent, the king would be killed by the sword and the people sent into exile. Their sins: oppression of the poor (2:6), incest (2:7), rich living (3:15), gluttony, and drunkenness (4:1).  Amos’ words still speak to us today.  As I returned to the USA from the mission field, I wondered, “What is going to happen to our country?” Encountering the rejection of God which is permeating our nation has been jolting.  God and His ways have very little repute these days in our society. Is He warning us now?”

She goes on to ask how each one of us is representing God in our daily lives, in our families, at work, or in our churches.  “Do we have the guts to do it God’s way, not our way? Do we pray for the salvation of those who do not know the transforming power of Jesus?”

Questions like these have been on my mind and heart during Advent this year.  Why does it surprise us that, when greed and lust and self-indulgence rule the day, things go from bad to worse?  If Israel was conquered and her people taken into exile because of what they had done, how will our own nation avoid the same fate? And why are the churches not sounding the warning?

The line “Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom” is telling.  The high priest, with the king’s approval, forbids Amos to prophesy at Bethel (meaning: “House of God”) and claims the holy place for secular powers: “the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom.” Not God’s sanctuary or the temple of the Most High.

As then, so now: worldly powers and secular leaders challenge God’s power and would put themselves in His place.  Who will stand with Amos in declaring the one true and living God?

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Picture a warm, lazy Saturday afternoon in the countryside.  The sun is shining, and we are with Jesus and the disciples wandering through a wheat field.  We’re not walking far or very fast… it’s the Sabbath… so this is more like hanging out.  Just taking it easy.  Like a scene from Field of Dreams, you can almost see Peter and Andrew playing catch while we walk.  Jesus isn’t teaching today, it is a day off, a day to enjoy each other’s company.  And as we make our way across the field, some of the guys pick a few heads of grain, and rub them, and enjoy a snack.

WheatField

At this point, the Pharisees object saying, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”  (Luke 6:2)

I don’t know about you, but whenever I read this passage the first question that pops into my mind is: Where did these Pharisees come from?  What are they doing here?  Earlier in Luke we read they “had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17)  Some of these Pharisees had walked for DAYS just to watch Jesus.

Back to the story.  Jesus answers the Pharisees, and it’s interesting what he does NOT say.  He does not say to the Pharisees, “mind your own business”.  He does not accuse the Pharisees of being nitpicky or legalistic, even though they are being nitpicky and legalistic.

Instead, Jesus takes the conversation to a whole other level.  He says: “Have you not read what David did…?”  Back in the book of I Samuel, what David did was to eat the Bread of the Presence and give some to his men, bread which was only lawful for priests to eat.  David didn’t eat the Bread of the Presence on the Sabbath, in fact the Sabbath doesn’t even figure into that story.  Two different laws are being considered here. The common thread is the reason for the laws being set aside.  In both cases, people were hungry.  And the law was never meant to keep hungry people hungry.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus amplifies this by saying: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”. (Mark 2:27)

On another day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and he sees a man whose right hand is withered.  And the Pharisees are there, and they are looking for reasons to make accusations.  And Jesus knows what they are thinking.  So after asking the man with the withered hand to come forward, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  And then Luke says Jesus looked around at the Pharisees… looking each one in the eye.  The watchers are being watched.

Then Jesus says to the man with the withered arm, “stretch out your arm.”  And as the man attempts to obey, the impossible… becomes possibile… and then becomes reality.  (The old English preacher Charles Simeon gives us a side note at this point: he says Jesus asks the man to reach out, not because reaching out will heal him, but because while “God does not need our efforts, He requires them.”)  How often is Christian living like this?  Faced with the impossible… we pray, and we follow Jesus, and then the impossible… becomes possible… and then becomes reality.

What a moment!  I wish the story could stop right there.  Jesus rules, the man is healed, and it’s time to celebrate.  But the Pharisees won’t have it.  They go out, and according to Mark’s gospel, they conspire with the enemies of God’s people to destroy Jesus.

It’s at times like this that I just don’t get the Pharisees.  Most of the time I get them.  In fact I get them a little too easily for comfort.  I mean…

  • They have studied God’s word.
  • They have studied religious tradition, the teachings of the masters
  • They know better than most people what the Bible says and the consequences of disobeying God
  • They know God’s harshest words throughout scripture are aimed at religious leaders who compromise with the world
  • They have suffered on account of the sins of rival religious groups (like the Sadduccees and Zealots)
  • They have suffered on account of false messiahs

Up to that point I’m right there with them.

But these miracles Jesus does – go beyond anything anybody has ever seen.  And his teaching has a ring of truth and power and compassion about it.  He gives a clear, bold, true interpretation of Mosaic law and challenges the Pharisees to step beyond themselves.  Jesus is not trying to evade the law – he is teaching a deeper and greater devotion to the law.

Some of the Pharisees will eventually come to follow Jesus.  But most won’t.  What is it that keeps them away? Love of power? Fear of losing face? Devotion to theology rather than God?  Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is this: in passing judgement on Jesus, the accusations of the Pharisees are the very things they themselves are guilty of: doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.  In fact in conspiring to kill Jesus they are doing what is unlawful, period.

And I think that’s the central point of this passage.  For all who seek to follow Jesus, we need to beware of leaven of the Pharisees

But I think there’s a strong secondary point to consider too, and that is what Jesus is saying about the Sabbath.  Jesus sees the Sabbath not as a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to obey (which is how the Pharisees see it).  He also doesn’t consider it unimportant or irrelevant, as many people do today. Jesus sees the Sabbath as a gift from God to humanity – something to be of service to us.

The Sabbath is meant to be a time of rest; one day out of seven that is free from labor no matter who you are, no matter what you do.  It is a day when all people, rich or poor, male or female, employer or employee, stand on equal ground.  It is time to lay burdens down… to enjoy God’s presence… to enjoy the company of family and friends… away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.  The Sabbath is about living life to its fullest, taking time for what really matters, not just in this life but also in the life to come. And that is why God takes the Sabbath so seriously… why Mosaic law makes Sabbath-breaking a capital crime.  Because to take away the Sabbath is to take away the things that make us fully human.

In today’s society the Sabbath is hard to keep, because there are so many demands on our time, so many expectations on the part of others that we be available for them 24/7.  And the consequences of breaking the Sabbath appear to be small.  But they’re not.  As CS Lewis once said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”  Sabbath-keeping is how we prepare for that.

So in Luke’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples – taking a day off from the ministry and from the crowds – spending time with each other, enjoying each others’ company – set us a perfect example of how to keep the Sabbath.

May we follow their lead in our own lives. AMEN.

Sermon preached at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, 4/22/13 on the following text:

“On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.  But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”  And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?”  And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered.  And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.  But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there.  And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored.  But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”

 – Luke 6:1-11

 

 

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