I’ve been posting a lot recently about interesting programs my friends are starting in Pittsburgh, such as the World Christian Discipleship Program and the class on the Church Fathers that my friends Matt and Tim are teaching. Continuing in the theme of exciting new things God is doing in Pittsburgh, this is a plug for the Formation House, which is starting in North Point Breeze. Karen Sloan will be the “prior” of the House, a new-monastic style intentional community focused around a rhythm of prayer, work in local non-profit/service fields, and community life. The goals of the program for its participants are summed up in four “D” words: to Discern a sense of call or direction in life, to grow in Discipleship, to Develop in both a personal and professional way, and to Disperse at the end of the year as a community sent out to follow their calling in the world. For more details, click here.
It was exactly one year ago that I posted Thinking and Praying about Church-Planting – announcing that Mike and I were praying about planting a church in Squirrel Hill. One year since that day, we’ll be having worship at my house at 7:30 tonight. Mike and I will be preaching together, our friend SeungJin will be leading music, and anywhere between a dozen and two dozen people will gather in my living room to sing, pray, and take communion together. The vision of The Upper Room is moving forward, becoming more of a reality every day.
And this has me thinking about the idea of narrative. Our lives are stories, placed within the larger story of God’s action in redeeming the world through Jesus. The story of The Upper Room is not one of it popping into existence, but a story of numerous prayer-walks through Pittsburgh’s streets on cold mornings last winter, conversations with churches and presbyteries, grant applications, times of fear and confusion, and countless prayers from people all around this country (thank you supporters!!). And that led to the day last summer when Eileen and left our community in Garfield to move to Squirrel Hill. By August a group of seven people had committed to being the team that planted this church together, and we began meeting on Thursday nights at our home. We fasted then celebrated together on the day when we were officially approved as a church-plant of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Later in September we took communion together for the first time as the team who would plant this church. October, November, and December were filled with a series of prayer services at Greenfield Presbyterian, Pittsburgh Mennonite, and Waverly Presbyterian. Our seed-group took a retreat together in November and there decided that we wanted to being some Sunday evening house-church worship services beginning in January. And that’s led to tonight.
That’s the story of The Upper Room. Somehow my personal story, connected to the stories of God at work in my life and my family history, fits into the story of what God’s doing through The Upper Room. Which leads to this observation: Today would also have been my grandmother Catherine’s 102nd birthday. She passed away at the age of 95 when I was a sophomore in college. Her life had been so much a part of my personal story, that I can honestly say I would not be where I am in ministry today without her prayers and influence. My story, and The Upper Room’s story, is in turn part of her story of being the daughter of a church-planter in Colorado in the 1910’s. This past week, my other grandmother, Helen, passed away also. Our time with my mom’s family this week opened my eyes to more of the ways in which her family history has shaped and molded me.
Narratives, the stories in which we all exist, are like moving water. Story is a force that we’re caught up in, carried along and formed by the currents. Sometimes it’s painful, like water carving out a canyon, and sometimes we glide along in smooth waters. Though this week has been one of the more painful time of carving, I’m finding hope and joy in the fact that all of these rivers – our family stories and church stories – flow together in the river of life: “Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1).
Check it out: http://www.pghupperroom.com.
For those in Pittsburgh, here’s another opportunity for education outside of the traditional seminary which some of my friends are putting together. It’s called Ancient Christian Faith Initiative, and it’s a chance to study the church fathers in a class led by Tim Becker and Matt Bell, two PTS graduates who are now pursuing Ph.D.s in patristics. It will be held at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland (3400 Dawson St.) from 7:45 to 9:45 pm on Wednesdays in March and April.
As promised, here’s the sermon this past Sunday. The audio didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (too quiet and my voice was scratchy from the cold I’m coming down with), so here’s the text that I used.
I. John 7:-37-38
The ground in Israel, after a long, hot summer, is parched ground. June through September usually have littler or no rain. And while things have grown over the summer and the harvest has come, the ground is now dry, and won’t produce any more fruit until the rainy season comes. At it was at that time of year that Jesus goes to Jerusalem and stands up in the temple and says “Let anyone who is thirsty, come to Me and drink.”
John says Jesus stood up and said this in the temple on the last day of “the feast”. The feast he’s referring to is Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. It’s a harvest festival, sometimes called the “Ingathering” when the fruits of the land are brought in and the people celebrate with feasting. At the same time, it’s often celebrated by making a sukkah and living in it during the festival, remembering the years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. You may have even seen people building sukkahs in their back-yards here in Squirrel Hill last September. When Sukkot was celebrated in Jesus’ time, everyone in Israel would go up to Jerusalem. Josephus says that entire towns would go together. And at the center of the festival was the “water-drawing ceremony”. The priests would take water from the Pool of Siloam, and process with the people following them into the Temple and pour out water and wine and the base of the altar. It was a libation – a liquid offering to God. And at this festival, the Israelites would pray for rain to come. The feast was right before the rainy season, and God had told Israel that he’d provide rain if they kept the covenant. So they poured out water in offering back to God, and hope that the rains would come to that thirsty land.
II. Instead of the land, though, Jesus gives this invitation to people. And he invites all who are thirsty. Isaiah 55 uses the same language and imagery, and goes into more detail about why we thirst. Through the prophet, God says in verses 1-2, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”
Like the Israelites who spent money for what is not bread, and labor for that which doesn’t satisfy, we spend ourselves seeking other things to quench our hungers and thirsts. We too often try to quench our thirst for the living water with something that only increases our thirst. You could say it’s like drinking salt-water when you need fresh water. We keep drinking because it looks like what we want, but it just makes us more thirsty. I think an even better analogy might be living water vs. Round-Up, the kill-all weed spray. The slogan on Round-Up’s website actually says “Kills the roots, guaranteed.” We seek to water these places in our lives where we feel dry and parched, but we don’t realize we’re pouring weed-killer onto the roots that keep us alive. Perhaps it’s affirmation from other people, a promotion, an unholy and unattainable body image. Perhaps it’s money or possessions or sex. We know the places where we seek to satisfy our thirsts. But instead of new life, we still find ourselves withering. To this, Isaiah says “Come, buy wine and milk without cost.” And to this Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, come to Me and drink living waters.”
III. Rain and Snow
After Sukkot, the rainy season began, and as the name suggests, it rained. And I imagine that some of the Israelites, seeing that rain falling, recalled other words from Isaiah 55. Verses 10-11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Rain and snow nourish the earth – and that prepares the way for the new life that will blossom in spring.
God’s Word falling like rain is Jesus. And Jesus didn’t return to the Father empty or in vain, but he accomplished what the Father desired: our salvation. Back in John 7:39, John tells us that by the term “living water”, Jesus “meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” But, “Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” Jesus’ glory, in John, is his crucifixion. On the cross as Jesus died, he cried out “I thirst.” Jesus united with our humanity so much that he knows our deepest thirsts first hand. And he united with humanity so much, that he died the death that our unquenchable thirsts brought us.
The beautiful miracle in this is that the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that took the seed of his body and raised it to new life in resurrection glory, is the same Spirit that God gives to those who thirst. In Isaiah 44:3-4 God says “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.”
This image of God pouring out the Spirit on us, and us springing up like grass or trees, is I think the best way of describing how God changes us through worship. Water doesn’t just refresh: it brings change, powerful change. Rain and snow are real, forceful, tangible things. Snow shuts down our streets. Rain causes mudslides. Sometimes things get destroyed. But all of that water still ends up soaking into the ground and eventually either nourishing the land so it produces fruit, or it evaporates and returns to the skies from which it came.
As we receive God’s Word in worship, as we, in the words of St. Jerome, “rainstorms” of the Gospel. Like pounding rain, Jesus is real, tangible, forceful. As Shane Claiborne likes to say, “Jesus wrecked my life.” But the parts of us that get washed away in the flood of Jesus are the parts that would have brought death. The word for “watered” back in 55:10 actually has the connotation of “saturate, drink one’s fill.” We are called to be saturated in the Spirit of Jesus, so that he can transform our dry and weary hearts into new growth, and that is open to all who are thirsty.
And as Jesus changes us, we sprout anew, moving toward life rather than death. We turn from seeking fulfillment in that which will never satisfy, choosing life-giving water over the root-killing Round-up. And coming to the table, the change continues. we accept the invitation of the one who calls us to come and partake of him in the sacraments: the living waters, and the wine without cost. May God grant us the grace to receive Jesus here, and to be changed in His life. Amen.
Most sermons I preached while in seminary sounded like theology papers. I regret this. Sermons like the one I preached on the theology of the Lord’s Supper for Open Door had lots of head-knowledge, but little power to transform the heart. Now we’re doing Sunday evening house-church services for The Upper Room (7:30pm at my house, email me for directions), and I’m having to rethink how I preach, not only making it less academic, but struggling to find a way to talk “with” rather than “at” a bunch of people in my living room.
As a creative writing major in college, I used to write a lot of poetry. Most poems I wrote started with a line or phrase that then inspired the rest of the poem. For example, a phrase would come to me like “spin swirling sounds” and I would then spin it out into a longer poem with imagery and alliteration. As the poem grew, the sound and art of that first line guided all the other steps in writing.
This week I tried to write my homily in the same way. I still did the exegesis and all that fun stuff, but rather than write an academic lecture-style sermon, I’m attempting to be more image-driven. The images are coming from Isaiah 55:10-11 and John 7:37-39, focusing on water as it provides for new growth and life. There’s still historical information in it, but it constantly turns back to the imagery of water and new growth. I hope to post an mp3 or transcript after tomorrow.
I love Pittsburgh, and not just because the Steelers won the Super Bowl again this year. I love Pittsburgh because it’s a place where the Holy Spirit is stirring up all kinds of new, creative ministries. Of these, I’m especially excited about the World Christian Discipleship Program which my good friend BJ Woodworth and my professor Scott Sunquist have put together. This is brilliant: The one-year program is open to a broad spectrum of people, including those who don’t necessarily see themselves as called to pastoral ministry. It practices bi-vocational ministry, instilling a missionary identity in the participants. It’s affordable. My favorite part is the fact that it’s designed to be a holistic time of formation, unlike the purely academic seminary experience that most pastors have had. The goal here seems to be as much to cultivate spiritually mature disciples with a heart for mission – something which an M. Div. degree cannot always deliver.
The curriculum has seven distinctive requirements: “(1) working in a local business, (2) volunteering in a local ministry, (3) working in a local church, (4) receiving spiritual direction in an urban Christian community, (5) a 2-4 week cross-cultural mission immersion, (6) reading the Scriptures, ancient spiritual theology, and missional literature, and (7) following a religious rule.”
It also has seven core values (again copied here from their website):
Biblical: to know the Bible deeply and broadly, and obey it.
Missional: to live and proclaim the mission of God in every area of life and culture.
Communal: to share, confess, learn, and worship together as a community of faith.
Religious rule: to submit our lives to Jesus Christ under the guidance of common rhythms and practices.
Embedded: to live, work, worship, and play in our local neighborhood.
Multi-cultural: to embrace all peoples as created in the image of God.
Global: to learn from Christians in the non-western world.
Historical: to learn from the ancient Church.
Poverty: to live among, love, serve, and learn from the poor.
Christian unity: to express in unity the one faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stewardship: to care for the resources we have received from God.
It’s like a monastic training-ground for the missional church! In The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch question whether the traditional academic model of seminary is effective for training leaders in a post-Christendom world. They ask:
“Is it time to rethink and reimagine what leadership and theological formation would be like in a new paradigm? It’s worth asking about the ways Jesus developed disciples during his ministry and then considering to what degree the theological academy has mirrored this. Has the traditional model been effective? In other words, is the medium of the ‘academy’ the right medium for the message of disciple making and mission?” (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 2003 p. 154).
I think that the World Christian Discipleship Program is living into these questions by providing an alternative model, one that instills a sense of missional engagement with the world and teaches as much through practice as through traditional education. Yes, traditional seminary will still be right for many people. But for those willing to think and work outside the box, this is a great opportunity to get their hands dirty following Jesus. The Kingdom of God needs more disciples like the ones this program will shape.