Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ordinary 16C, July 21, 2013

“The Jesus Distraction”

Luke 10:38-42

38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Of course, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens more frequently than I’d like.  Out of the phone calls I receive over the course of a week, I estimate at least ninety-five percent of them begin something like this:

“Hello Susan?  This is so and so.  Listen, I know you’re busy but I wonder if you could…”

“Susan, I know you’re busy.”  I HATE hearing those words at the beginning of a phone call.  Not because I hate the person calling.  Not because I hate doing the things that people are calling to ask me to do. No, I hate hearing those words because I know it has happened again.  When people tell me that they know I’m busy, it means that, despite my best intentions, I’ve somehow drifted into the “Martha zone.”   While I wasn’t paying attention, I unintentionally began to give off the aura of being terribly “busy.”  And that aura of “busy” keeps people at a distance, doesn’t it?  “Busy” gives the impression that I’m somehow more important than I actually am or that what I am doing is far more interesting than the person on the phone or even the person standing right in front of me.  That offending stink of “busyness” makes meaningful relationships with people I care about strained at best, impossible at worst.  When I become distracted by a million small things, it always means I have been less attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit and things in my life are way out of whack.

The Martha zone.  That crazy, noisy, frustrating place.  We’ve all been there.  Sure you have.  Just ask your spouse.  Your kids.  Your best friends.  We’ve all been there.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes it’s good to keep a reasonable amount of psychic space between one another.  Boundaries are important.  We all need to know when and how to say "no."  We all need time and space for rest.  If you are an introvert like I am, there is an absolute requirement for me to balance my time with other people with lots of quiet and privacy, or I will lose my good humor and gentle demeanor. 

And yet, I am always uncomfortable with people who give off that “busy, busy, busy” signal. I know a lot of people who constantly give off that vibe. They are the kind of people who cut you off in traffic and cut in front of you at the checkout line.  That kind of busy, busy, busy almost inevitably leads to a blow up, which is exactly what is happening in the story we have in Luke today. 

Do not doubt that this familiar story of Mary and Martha is about a conflict between two sisters -- one is having a really good day, and one is having a really lousy day.  Mary is having the kind of day in which everything has gone just right, leaving the luxury of time for a quiet conversation with a beloved friend who, in this story, just happens to be Jesus.  Martha is having the kind of day in which nothing is going right and it’s going to take some kind of a major miracle for her to get dinner on the table. 

When a bad day becomes an overwhelming day, Martha reacts the same way you and I would.  First, she begins to feel put upon.  Then she feels abandoned.  Finally, she loses her cool.  In a fit of fury, Martha decides that it’s all Mary’s fault.  Her sister is being a total slacker and she’s going to let Mary know exactly how ticked off she is.  To be more precise, Martha’s going to ask Jesus to tell Mary what a slacker she is. Martha puts on her martyr makeup, plants her dishpan hands on her aching hips, and has herself a good old-fashioned pity party right there in front of Jesus.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

This is one of those texts from the gospels that tend to make everyone who reads it more than a little uneasy.  Because this story of Mary, Martha and Jesus can be interpreted in ways that can end up making us feel that we cannot win, no matter which side of the Mary versus Martha controversy we find ourselves on.   

Some have interpreted this story as Luke’s effort to stifle women who are trying to exercise too much authority in the early Christian community.  So Luke tells a story in which Jesus criticizes Martha for being way too mouthy, and praises Mary for being silent and docile.  The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really square with the rest of Luke’s gospel.  Women are not at all silent or sidelined in Luke.  This is the gospel that begins with the obscure and ordinary young girl singing about the proud and haughty being brought down from their high places of power.  This is the gospel in which a poor widow is so outspoken in her cries for justice that she makes a powerful judge cave in to her demands.  So I think we can safely toss the idea that Luke has a problem with strong women.

Other interpretations suggest that Jesus is criticizing us for being too distracted with the busy work in the church.  That Martha is so busy with the cooking and the stewardship campaign and the broken boiler and the midweek dinner that she has forgotten why she’s in church to begin with.  Maybe Jesus is criticizing Martha for being too religious and she should be more like Mary – more spiritual and studious.

The problem with that theory, of course, is that Jesus did not do ministry in an abstract, spiritual way.  As one commentator pointed out, God did not write a dreamy Valentine in the clouds that said, “Hello world, I love you.”  No, God became embodied, active love in Jesus Christ – the One who entered into the muck and mire of ordinary life.  Jesus was never afraid to get his hands dirty; he touched and healed and ate and drank and got involved in the earthly details of being a human being. Jesus came as the one who serves, not to be served.  Surely, Jesus isn’t giving Martha a hard time for getting dinner on the table and keeping life moving along.  Because isn’t it true that someone has to take out the garbage and clean up the communion cups and make sure the lights stay on?  If all of us sat around like Mary, things would quickly fall apart. And can you imagine Jesus walking into a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and saying, “Stop all this busy work.  Leave the poor, the homeless, the hungry behind.  Come and sit at my feet and meditate instead?”

Last week, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught us about the importance of loving our neighbor in real and tangible ways.  He talked about the love of neighbor that is willing to stop and pull a bleeding man out of a ditch.  Some say that here in this story of Mary and Martha, Jesus is teaching us about the importance of loving God – which is what Mary demonstrates as she sits quietly at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

But we cannot separate loving God and loving neighbor, and this is what I think Luke is getting at in today’s story.  We cannot live out our faith by only being prayerful or only doing good deeds.  We cannot live our lives as Mary or Martha.  We cannot choose to love God or love neighbor. We have to somehow mix the two together so that love of God and love of neighbor become intertwined so deeply that you cannot tell where one ends and one begins. 

I thought about Mary and Martha this week as I was preparing for our Adult Vacation Bible school evening on centering prayer.  A lot of people showed up, many more than I ever expected given the sultry temperature of the church this week and the subject matter.  But I was delightfully surprised that 18 people came on a hot and humid Wednesday night to sit in a room without air-conditioning, to hear about an ancient form of prayer that requires no special reading, no special skills, and no special spiritual gifts.  Centering prayer requires absolutely nothing other than emptying our minds of our own thoughts, distractions and worries, and wait patiently in silence for God to fill in the empty spaces we’ve created.   All centering prayer requires is the willingness to sit in silence and wait upon the Lord. 

Which is actually much harder than it sounds.  As we discovered together on Wednesday night, emptying our minds and making space for God’s word is really, really difficult.  We live in a noisy, busy, anxiety-driven world. For those of us still in the working world, we often begin our days with a to do list and frantically chase after each item in order to get it ticked off.  Even for those of you in retirement years, there are other anxieties about health issues and money and adult children and aging parents – all of these are the kinds of things that fill you with worry and distractions.   

The problem we have – and the problem Martha has in this story – is not that we have too much to do, but that we are pulled in so many directions that we are no longer distracted by Jesus who wants us to go in his direction.  We are so distracted by the stuff of our lives that it is difficult for Jesus to distract us with the stuff that leads to wholeness and healing.  The crazy, awful worry we carry around makes it hard to hear Jesus’ voice inviting us into a different life filled with much better distractions -- God’s word of mercy, love and grace. 

Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Lk. 12:22-26)

These words that tell us to stop worrying are perhaps the hardest for us to hear as modern people.  We know that what bothers and distracts us keeps us from being fully present to God and fully present to our neighbor.  We know we should make time and space for God to speak into our hearts and lead us to the sort of work that fills us with love and joy instead of anger and resentment.  We know that worrying kills our spirit in a million different ways, and yet there are days when worry plays on continuous loop in our muddled human brains.

And I wonder…what would it look like if a person – or a church – was utterly distracted by Jesus?

Perhaps it begins by tending to those disciplines of prayer and worship and silence that help us to forget ourselves – if only for 20 minutes a day – so we can hear God.  Perhaps that is how we can improve our odds of choosing the better part, the good part, the connection to God who is Goodness itself.

A person distracted by Jesus, I think, is not motivated by things or problems or consumption or impressing others or judging others or even saving others.  A person distracted by Jesus is at peace, knowing that he or she is loved so thoroughly that they can take the risk of deeply loving someone else, even that stranger in the ditch on the side of the road.  Without constantly coping with the rivalry of doing more or wanting to be more, we can attend to the crazy demands of life without feeling like a victim or a martyr.  We can keep at our work in the kitchen, get dinner on the table, and still hear Jesus.  We can catch his voice no matter where we are because we know what Jesus sounds like.

Our best laid plans, our most compassionate actions, even our most generous contributions of time, talent or money will eventually lead to us being as miserable as Martha if we are not led there by our distraction by Jesus. If our good works are not rooted in God’s loving vision that seeks to repair and restore the whole creation, we will end up broken and beaten down.  Without the distraction of Jesus to keep us focused, we will most certainly burn out.

Tom Long tells the story about a church youth group on a mission trip in Jamaica.  On the trip, the group visited a local elementary school there and observed a classroom seriously overcrowded with children, most of them poor, all of them very needy, noisy and unruly.  The folks on the mission trip were astonished by the way in which teacher interacted with those children.  Despite the poverty and chaos so apparent in that classroom, the teacher carried herself with great calm and patience, and treated every child with tenderness and love.  The group observing her decided that only way the teacher could possibly do such difficult work was because she really loved teaching.  But they were surprised to hear her say, “Oh I don’t come here everyday mainly because I love teaching.  I come here everyday because I love Jesus, and I see Jesus in every one of those children.” [1]

Our work as a community of faith cannot be rooted in our love for the church, for the Bible, for your pastor, for your leadership, or even by people close by or people half way around the world.  But we can believe that we have the capacity to love all of these things and people because we were first loved by Jesus.  It is God’s love that feeds us, enlivens us and empowers us to do all the things we do.  If we can just manage to stay distracted by the distracting presence of Jesus, I am pretty sure we have chosen the better part.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Tom Long sermon, “Mary and Martha,” July 22, 2007.  Accessed on, 7/18/2013.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summer Voices -- Guest Preachers for July and August

Summer time not only means vacation time.  It also means an opportunity to hear new and interesting voices in the pulpit.  Please join us this summer at 10 a.m. worship to hear these diverse voices from around the congregation and around the presbytery.

Sunday, July 30 -- Rev. Karen Battle

Rev. Battle was formerly director of justice ministries for Pittsburgh Presbytery.  Currently, she is the organizing pastor of Hazelwood HOPE (House of Prayer for Everyone), a new church development in Pittsburgh Presbytery

Sunday, August 4 -- Keith Mihelcic

Our own Keith Mihelcic will be preaching and leading worship while Susan is away.

Sunday, August 11 -- Alan Olson, Senior at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Alan is about to begin his senior year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Alan is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA),  a member at Sixth Presbyterian Church and under care as an inquirer with Pittsburgh Presbytery.  Alan recently completed a field education placement at Crafton Heights U.P. Church with Rev. Dave Carver, and has gone on mission trips to Nicaragua, Israel, Mexico and, most recently, Bolivia.

Sunday, September 1 -- Rev. Eugene "Freedom" Blackwell

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ordinary 15C, July 14th, 2013

“A View From The Ditch on the Jericho Road”

Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This week I watched a video in which the actor Dustin Hoffman talked about his preparation for the movie, “Tootsie.”  In the 1982 movie Hoffman plays a male actor who can’t get a job until he transforms himself into a woman named Dorothy Michaels and gets a role as a female character on a soap opera.  In the video, Hoffman discusses how before agreeing to do the movie, he insisted that the producers show him how he could be convincingly transformed into a woman.  Hoffman wanted to make sure that the makeup artists could so transform his appearance that he could walk down the streets of New York and everyone would believe he was a woman and not a man in drag.

Well, the make up artists did their work and then shot footage to show Hoffman what he would look like playing the character of Dorothy Michaels.  Hoffman looked at himself on film and said, “Well, I do look like a woman.  But couldn’t you make me a little more – well – beautiful?”  The makeup people assured him that what they had done their best and Hoffman was as “beautiful” as he was going to get.

For Hoffman, it was a moment of deep understanding.  He realized that if he had been born a woman instead of a man, the way he appeared as Dorothy Michaels was what he would look like.  And that woman he saw on film was not beautiful, at least by normal standards.  In fact, Hoffman realized that the woman he saw on the screen was the kind of woman he had ignored all his life. 

Hoffman realized how much he had missed in his life because he had ignored some women simply because they were unattractive, although they might have been really interesting people.  Hoffman said that the movie, “Tootsie” was never a comedy for him after that.  He realized how deeply steeped he had been in society’s conventions of what makes a woman worthy of attention.  And the missed opportunities to know some extraordinary women saddened him.

We always say that outward appearances don’t matter, right?  We teach our children that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But we know that’s not really true.  Just look at all the conventionally beautiful people on the front cover of the magazines next to the check out counter at the Giant Eagle. 

We say that we do not discriminate against people of color anymore.  But we know that’s not really true.  Just spend a few minutes listening to the commentary about the Trevon Martin case in Florida or check in to the uproar surrounding Paula Deen’s employment practices. 

We say that we will not tolerate bullying in our schools.  But we know that’s not really true.  Just ask the parents of a gay child or an autistic child or a fat child or the parents of any child whose appearance or mannerisms fall outside the standard definition of “normal.” 

As Christians, we say that we love our neighbors just as much as we love God and ourselves.  But we know we really don’t love everyone like that.  Just ask the people who live under the I-579 bridge on the north side who are being thrown out because the people who drive by their makeshift encampment don’t like looking at homeless people on their commute to the suburbs.

And all of us know the right thing.  We know it’s the right thing to not judge people by their appearance.  We know it’s the right thing to pass legislation to outlaw discrimination based upon the color of someone’s skin.  We know it’s the right thing to have rules in schools so that children are safe from being bullied to the point of deciding that suicide is the only way out.  We know it’s right to protect people who are homeless due to mental illness or addiction or just plain bad luck.  We know the Ten Commandments and we know the Apostle’s Creed, and some of us can recite the books of the Bible and the names of the disciples.  And there’s even at least one person here who knows how to go to seminary and pass ordination exams and become a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA.

But there’s often quite a large gulf between our beliefs and our actions.  In this text today, it is clear that Jesus is on to us – all of us who say the right things, but act quite differently.  All of us know the right answer to the question the lawyer asks Jesus – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus knows that the lawyer will come up with the correct legal response. 

The lawyer knows the right answer because he is an expert on the law of Moses. The words roll right off his tongue:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”  “Bully for you,” says Jesus.  “You have given the right answer.”  And with that, Jesus seems pretty much finished with this particular conversation.

But the lawyer can’t quit while he is ahead.  He goes on to ask Jesus:  “Who is my neighbor?”  And with that question, the lawyer gets tangled up and blue with Jesus. The lawyer wanted Jesus to give him a list of the right kind of people to love and hang out with at parties.  The lawyer wants to know whom he should love and whom he can safely ignore. 

But, unfortunately for the lawyer, neighbor-loving isn’t reducible to a list that you can post on your refrigerator.  In fact our list of neighbors to love includes everyone.  Even the people that nobody else notices.  Maybe especially the people that nobody else notices.  The ugly.  The unwashed.  The profane kind of people who use offensive words that grate on us. The smelly ones who could use a shower. The ugly girl standing against the wall at the party who wishes she could disappear.  The fat lady coming home on the bus with a grocery bag full of Doritos, trying her best to ignore her two sticky whiny children who are getting on your last nerve.  Our neighbor is everyone that Jesus loves and since as far as I can tell Jesus loves pretty everyone, the lawyer’s goose is cooked the minute the question comes out of his mouth. 

In the gospels, Jesus is really good at noticing people that everyone else is ready to blow right by or pretend they don’t see.  Have you ever noticed Jesus doing that?  Like all the time?  How Jesus spends a lot of time and energy on the people to which nobody else pays the least little bit of attention? 

Leave it to Jesus – he always ends up with the oddballs -- the scraggly kid with the runny nose in the corner of the room, that little hussy at the well who has slept with every low-life in town, the obnoxious IRS agent perched up in a tree, the bleeding woman in a massive crowd.  Jesus sees people that everyone else wishes would just shut up and go away.  Those are the messed up people that Jesus NOTICES.  Over and over again.

Let’s look again at how Jesus defines “neighbor” for the lawyer.  You know this story.  There is a man, an ordinary Jewish man, traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He is attacked and left for dead by a band of robbers.  The bleeding, injured, beaten Jewish man is lying in a ditch on the side of the road.  Three men pass by.  First a priest.  Then a Levite.  And then a Samaritan.  The priest and the Levite are respected religious figures associated with the Jerusalem temple.   They are the good guys in the Jewish religious culture.  They are the ones in charge and keep things in the temple running pretty smoothly. 

The reason isn’t given, but neither the priest nor the Levite stop to help their beaten up brother.  Perhaps they are having a really busy day.  Perhaps they are on their way to an official function in Jerusalem, maybe a Presbytery meeting or a groundbreaking for a new education wing.  Maybe they are just plain too scared to stop in a really dangerous neighborhood. 

But luckily for the guy who is bleeding to death in the ditch, a third man comes along.  He is a Samaritan who has somehow ended up in a neighborhood he doesn’t belong on a road he probably never uses.  He is a Samaritan – a member of a group loathed by the Jewish people and the same people who refused to extend hospitality to Jesus and the disciples just a few chapters earlier.  The disciples listening to this parable must be thoroughly disgusted when hear a reference to the Samaritans.  Remember that these are the people that James and John wanted to rain down fire on.   No, not those guys, Jesus!

I can imagine them all – the disciples, the lawyer, the people around Jesus listening to a story about a Samaritan and waiting for Jesus to get to the punch line. “And after the Samaritan did all that – the bandaging and the pouring and the carrying him to an inn and paying for his room, and telling the innkeeper to take care of him and put it on the Samaritan’s bill.  After all that…the Samaritan robbed the innkeeper and raped the innkeeper’s wife and set the whole place on fire.”  In their fevered imaginations about those bad, bad Samaritans, the folks around Jesus could barely expect that the Samaritan would turn out to be the hero of the story. 

But he was.  And I bet that made the lawyer crazy.  All he had done was ask a simple question about who is and isn’t a neighbor, and he gets this terrible story that makes the temple leaders look awful and, worst of all, the stupid, stinky Samaritan is the hero.  In fact, when Jesus asks him, “Which of these three was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the lawyer can’t even spit out the word.  The lawyer can’t bring himself to say, “Samaritan.”  Yet at the end of the story, what does Jesus say?  Jesus tells the lawyer to go and be like the Samaritan if the lawyer wants to inherit eternal life.  And the lawyer probably went off thinking that he’d rather be dead in a ditch than get anywhere near a Samaritan.

Or maybe not.  I don’t know.  Tell me this -- if you were beaten up and stuck in a ditch, who would be last person in the world you’d want to help you?  What Jesus seems to be saying is that’s the person you need to love.  The person who gives you the heebie-jeebies.   Maybe even a kid wearing a hoodie and baggy pants and carrying a bag of Skittles. That’s your neighbor right there. 

Jesus had a habit of noticing and hanging out with the “the last person you’d want to see in a dark alley on a dark night in a bad neighborhood” kind of people.  And this story suggests, at least to me, that Jesus didn’t notice those people because they were necessarily more messed up than other kinds of people.  Or because they needed healing any more desperately than your average stockbroker or Presbyterian minister.  

I think Jesus noticed those messed up people because they are the kind of people that come through in a pinch.  They are the kind of people who were as generous with their hearts as they were with good stories and food and wine when Jesus was staying in their homes.  They are the kind of people who believe that stopping to help someone change a tire on the side of the road is more important than being on time to a meeting. They are the kind of people who would remind you that it wouldn’t kill you to say a kind word to the sweaty fat lady on the seat across from you on a PAT bus on a hot afternoon who is just about to lose her mind with her whining kids.  Maybe you could even tell her that her little girl is beautiful even if it’s not entirely true. 

There’s a quote I have on a collage in my office.  I only recently found out that John Steinbeck said it…but it goes like this:

"If you're in trouble, or hurt or need -- go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help -- the only ones." 

Maybe God’s preferential treatment of the poor has less to do with what we should do for them, and more to do with what messed up people have to teach us about mercy and generosity and grace.  Maybe – just maybe --  ­we are the ones in need of rescue and God sends us people we don’t want to deal with to remind us that God’s love is shockingly radical.  Maybe we are the guy who has been beaten up, robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road? Perhaps it is in relationship with the stranger, the outsider or the one we fear that we will be lifted out of the ditch and healed, fed and loved?

The good news of the gospel is that we are not left alone in a ditch.  The One who seeks us out may be unrecognizable to us at first when he or she peeks in to see if we need help.  But in the gestures of kindness, compassion and mercy, we may realize that we are looking right into the eyes of Christ in face of a stranger who is the last person on earth we’d want to see. 

And you know what’s even more amazing?  We have countless opportunities, every single day in ordinary mundane moments – to be Christ for someone else.  Even a stinky Samaritan on a hot bus in the middle of the summer. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ordinary 14C, July 7, 2013

Guest Preacher -- Mark Shannon

"Two by Two" 

2nd Kings 5:1-17
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
16“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
                  Here we are at this time when many people travel away on vacation.  Some people travel with their families and others travel to meet relatives at a certain destination.  It may be a wedding that is the reason for the trip or perhaps a reunion.  But in the summer, when people go on vacation they travel along with others.  Have you ever gone on vacation by yourself?  I know that many resorts these days are catering to single people as potential customers.  Even Disney markets their theme parks to people travelling alone.  Before I met my wife, I spent all of my vacations alone.  I didn’t go anywhere, though.  I enjoyed being away from the job but life became much more fun when my wife and I began to travel together.
                  You’ll notice in both our Old and New Testament Scripture passages for today that the people are on the move.  They’re not on a pleasure trip but in both cases there is reason for celebration along the way.
                  First we meet a man named Naamen.  He is a mighty man of valor who has won a major victory for the king of Syria.  By distinguishing himself on the battlefield he became a trusted and valued subject of the king.  In our culture Naamen’s position would be comparable to that of a general who becomes a national hero.  Notice that the text says that Naamen did not win the victory in his own strength.  The Bible says that the Lord used Naamen to bring about victory.  This foreigner who did not know the sovereign God of Israel was chosen by the Lord for His own purpose.
                  In the Bible, a person’s name was significant and gave an indication of the person’s character.  Naamen’s name means “the beautiful” and perhaps this meant he was a very handsome man.  Yet even though he was a hero in battle Naamen suffered from the disease of leprosy.  Though he may once have been a handsome man, leprosy would lead to his disfigurement and death if he didn’t find a cure.
                  Before Naamen could take his journey, we are introduced to a slave girl.  She was a daughter of the nation of Israel and as such she had a reverence and concern for the Lord; and not just a concern for God, but for her heathen master Naamen as well.  She reports to her mistress, the wife of Naamen that there is a God in Israel that can bring about healing in even the most dire of circumstances.  Her words set in motion a physical journey to seek medical treatment and begin the process of a spiritual journey in the life of Naamen.
                  Consider the servant girl.  Even in the position of a slave in a foreign land, away from her family and among people that were alien to her, she still had the presence of mind to remember her heritage and the Lord of her people.  She also took to heart the command that each one of us has heard our Lord make to us, namely that we tell others about Him and be bearers of light to the darkness that surrounds us.  We should never let our circumstances dissuade us from sharing the good news we have heard and have claimed for ourselves.
                  Many years ago I faced a spiritual crisis.  My own faith was severely put to the test and I had serious doubts about whether or not Jesus belonged to me or if I belonged to Him.  But as I read the Bible and talked over the situation with strong Christian friends, I came to realize that even though I had doubts, I could still be faithful to God.  And then it was announced that Billy Graham would present one of his crusades here in Pittsburgh.  Many people in our congregation attended classes that were held in preparation for the event so that we could participate in the experience.  During one of these classes I learned about the need for counselors that would mingle among those coming forward after the altar call.  Even though I had a weak faith—and even though I was weak in the knees as well—I went forward onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium and talked to people who were curious about entering the kingdom.
                  So the servant girl’s message is relayed and Naamen sets out accompanied by a large entourage of servants bearing gifts and good will to the king of Israel.  After some delay on the part of the king Naamen  is granted an audience with Elisha, the man of God.  Elisha tells Naamen to bathe in the river and he will be healed.  Naamen is insulted.  He came all that way just to bathe in a river that might have who knows what in its waters?  Weren’t there plenty of good rivers in the country of his origin that he could have washed himself in far more easily?  Disgusted with the prescription he has been given, Naamen orders his followers to pack up the caravan and prepare to head home.
                  Good thing he wasn’t travelling alone, right?  If Naamen had made the journey to Elisha by himself he would have missed out on all the good stuff.  How often have we given up on accomplishing a goal without knowing how close we were to achieving it?  If we are in the midst of a quest to find a job or complete a task that is worthy of our endeavors, we cannot give ourselves the luxury of giving in and giving up!  The comedian Jay Leno tells a story about his early days in Hollywood trying to break into show business.  When he was starting out, he would make the rounds of the comedy clubs in Los Angeles in order to audition his act.  When he arrived at the clubs, he always took the last place in a long line that stretched in front of him as people before him presented their acts, each person hoping to make it in the big time.  As the hours went on, people ahead of him started to drop out of line in frustration and Jay Leno would move up and take their place.  He realized that just by standing in line and being prepared he was making progress by not giving up.
                  But Naamen wasn’t travelling alone.  As it turned out, he had a friend in low places.  Even as he was about to take his leave, a servant in Naamen’s retinue stopped him by saying that he didn’t have anything to lose by taking Elisha’s advice.  We don’t know anything about this servant.  Scripture doesn’t say whether he knew the Lord, like the slave girl that appeared earlier in the story.  But whether this servant knew God or not, he spoke a word of advice at the right time that struck a chord in Naamen’s heart.  God used the words of this servant just as he used the slave girl and Naamen himself when he was on the battlefield.
                  Years ago when I was in the midst of the crisis I spoke about earlier, I was making my rounds in the office I worked in, my thoughts deep in depression.  As I passed by the desk of one of the secretaries  she stopped me and asked what was wrong.  I sat down and told her some of the things that were on my mind.  She took the time to listen and offer some encouragement.  As I left her desk I said thanks for the conversation.
                  “Oh, that’s all right,” she said.  “You’re my concern.”
                  I pondered her words as I went about the rest of the day.  “You’re my concern,” is what she said.  In my state of mind, seeking answers to some profound questions of faith, I thought to myself that her words to me were probably the same words that Jesus would say to me.  That idea carried me through the rest of the day and through many other bad times.  I still remember this incident today.  So often, if we stop thinking about our own problems long enough, we might perceive the means by which God is trying to help us through our suffering.  Pay attention to the right words spoken at the right time and we may glimpse how much God cares for us.
                  Turning to our Gospel lesson for today we see that Jesus is giving his chosen band their marching orders.  He doesn’t send them out one by one alone to proclaim the kingdom.  Instead he pairs them up and sends them forth.  Even though they could probably cover more ground if they went out by themselves, the Lord knows what lies ahead on the road.  He knows that one person may grow weary on the mission field and that doubts and temptations may lead one person to stray from the path set before him.  But a companion on the way will support and encourage his partner.  Together their witness of what they have seen will be more persuasive.  One person is weak where the other is strong, and vice versa.  When the night is dark and the harvest is lean, two people can pray together and know that the Lord will be with them.    Two people together can share in the excitement of the journey and recount details of their adventures that one person alone might not remember or might think are insignificant.  Yes, the Lord sent them out two by two for a reason.
                  And look what he tells them about provisions for the trip.  He says don’t pack a lot of supplies, and don’t take much money, either.  They, and we, are to travel lightly.  This will allow them to see God’s provision for them as they set out to do His will.  When we travel today, we want all of the modern conveniences.  My wife shudders when I tell her stories about camping trips we took as a family.  Some people think they’re “roughing it” if the television in their hotel room doesn’t get as many channels as they have on their sets at home.  It might do us some good to pack less and expect more from the Lord who accompanies us on our vacations.
                  Jesus also has something to say about the local cuisine on this journey these disciples are taking.  He says what every good mother has told her children for generations.  “Eat what’s in front of you.”  Don’t complain about what is not set before you.  They need to be grateful for the hospitality that is shown to them by strangers. 
                  Have you heard the missionary’s prayer?  When a meal with unknown ingredients was set before him one missionary said this prayer silently:  “Lord, I’ll get it down if you’ll keep it down!”
                  It sounds like Jesus wants His travelers to keep on the move.  They are to gauge the response they receive after their proclamation of the gospel.  If someone rejects their message, they are to move along to the next village while reminding those people that the kingdom of God was near them for a time.   Jesus Himself didn’t spend much time with people who rejected His authority.  He had work to do and places to go to accomplish it.
                  When we travel through life as Christians, what kind of companions should we look for?  Jesus called his disciples and they went off as He commanded without much choice about who they would walk with in His entourage.  But how are we to choose our helpers in the work of God?
                  One rule of thumb goes something like this, and I hope it’s helpful to us all.  When we are looking for fellow Christians to befriend, we should look for a person who can be like Paul to us.  This person should be a mentor to us in the faith, reminding us and correcting us as need be while still recognizing the value of our friendship.
                  We should also look for someone who can be like Barnabus to us.  Barnabus was a disciple who accompanied Paul and other apostles on their missionary journeys in the New Testament.  The name Barnabus means “encourager” and we need to find those individuals who can strengthen and support us in our walk with the Lord.  The world is opposed to us and it’s easy to become discouraged.  We need to be reminded of the truth from time to time and a person like Barnabus can do that for us.
                  We should also look for someone who can be like Timothy for us.  You’ll remember that Timothy was a young man who had been raised in the faith by his devout mother and grandmother.  The apostle Paul took Timothy under his wing and gave him inspired advice as Timothy set out to become a new and painfully young pastor.  Likewise, we need to find someone to whom we can pass along our knowledge of the kingdom.
                  Take a moment this week and see if you can identify people in your life who resemble Paul, or Barnabus, or Timothy as they minister to you.
                  We get a glimpse of the joyful return of these disciples that Jesus sent out.  They rush into His presence at the end of their trip bursting with excitement about all of the miraculous things they saw and that were accomplished through their ministry. 
                  Jesus brings them up short by recounting a strange incident He saw.  He tells his disciples that when He was in heaven, Jesus saw Satan fall in defeat and humiliation away from the presence of almighty God.  That statement must have put a damper on the proceedings!
                  Make no mistake, as Christians we have a sworn enemy in the person of Satan, or the devil.  He is a created being who is bent on deceiving us into thinking that the Word of God is a lie.  He would like nothing better than to rob us of the joy of our salvation.  Let me be clear.  He has no power to take away our salvation.  Jesus said once a sinner repents and turns to the Lord that no one can snatch that person out of the Lord’s grasp. 
                  Have you ever considered that almost every one of the miracles that Jesus performed was also accomplished somewhere in the Old Testament?    Jesus fed the multitudes and God delivered manna in the wilderness.  Jesus raised the dead and Elijah brought back the dead son of a widow he was friends with.  Jesus healed the sick and people like Naamen were also healed in the Old Testament.  But Jesus was the first Person in Scripture that cast out demons.  This indicates that only He has the power and the authority and the strength to do this miracle.  The disciples could do this task only in the power of His name but He never told them to take on the devil and his followers by themselves. 
                  Sometimes in our walk with God we face temptation and oppression from the devil.  At those times it would be best to seek out someone who has a strong faith in order to pray together and commit the matter to God.  Don’t go into battles of that kind by yourself.
                  Take heart, though!  Notice that Jesus paints a picture of the enemy in defeat.  His doom is sure as the hymn tells us.  We have the victory and we’re just waiting for the Lord to bring about the conclusion of this epic struggle between the forces of light and the minions of darkness in His own good time.
                  Remember too that Jesus took the most important journey on His own, by Himself.  Even though He was accompanied by others up that lonely hill to the cross, only He knew the reason for the journey and its outcome.  He walked up that hill for me and He took those steps for you.  As we remember that journey, let us be mindful that He expects us to take what we know and bring that message into the lives of those around us.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Adult Vacation Bible School This Summer at EUPC

An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines/Practices – Summer VBS for Adults

Join us for four (4) evenings in July and August to deepen and enrich your practices of prayer, worship and reading of scripture. 

Wednesday, July 17 – 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. @ Emsworth U.P.
Pastor Susan will introduce us to the practice of “centering prayer.”  Centering prayer is a method of prayer that goes deeper than verbal conversations with God.  It teaches a silent communion with God, a method of being open to the gift of God’s presence, and is a way of receiving a deep and intimate relationship with God.  Drawing upon the texts, Intimacy with God by Thomas Keating and Forty Days to a Closer Walk with God: The Practice of Centering Prayer by J. David Muyskens, we will seek to discover the healing presence and indwelling intimacy of the Triune God through this ancient practice.

Thursday, July 25 – 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. @ Emsworth U.P.
Pastor Susan will lead us in the practice of Lectio Divina  which is a method to listen to God through the words of the Bible.  The Latin words for the four aspects of lectio divina are lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio which mean reading, reflection, response and rest.  This is a prayerful, contemplative way to read scripture and allow God’s word to rest in us.

Wednesday, August 14 -- Meet at East Liberty Presbyterian Church

East Liberty Presbyterian Church is located at the corner of Penn and Highland Avenues in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The main entrance is on Highland Avenue. Street parking is available in the blocks close to the church, and there is also a parking lot behind the Carnegie Library.

We will gather at East Liberty Presbyterian Church at 6:45 p.m. for an hour-long Taize service of sung prayers and meditation.  East Liberty’s service is based on a style of worship developed at the Taize community in France founded in the 1940s.  Originally a refuge during the war, Taize has developed into an ecumenical prayer center for visitors from all over the world. Today the Taize Community is made up of over a hundred resident brothers, both Catholics and from various Protestant backgrounds/traditions. Taize wants to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separated peoples.  After the service, Pastor Susan will be available to accompany those who would like to stay and walk the prayer labyrinth in ELPC’s outdoor courtyard.

Here is a brief video about the Taize community:

Thursday, August 22 – 7:00 p.m – 8:30 p.m. @ Emsworth U.P.
 On this evening Keith Mihelcic will lead a split study on two often neglected, yet vitally important "lost" disciplines:  fasting and (the practice of) solitude. In Scripture everyone from Job to Jesus practiced both and we will look at how engaging in these two "lost" disciplines will enable us to walk closer with God and live our lives more in accordance with His will.