Friday, April 19, 2019

A Day in the Life of Pontius Pilate


He awakes, with his tongue hot and dry and his whole chest raw like a wound.  So even before breakfast he makes his first major decision.  While still in his pajamas, he walks downstairs to the closet where he keeps his extra cigarettes, takes out the two and a half cartons that he finds there, and puts them out with the trash.  There are the remains of a pack in the pocket of his suit coat and some loose cigarettes lying around the house in various places.  All of these he carefully destroys, slitting them with his thumbnail and flushing the tobacco down the toilet, so he wouldn’t be tempted to fish them back out of the garbage.  After dinner the evening before, the talk had turned to politics and they had been up for hours, talking and smoking.  This morning he is paying the price for it.  He knows all about the surgeon general's warning.  He has seen the usual photographs of a smoker's lungs.  He has been a three-pack-a-day man for over thirty years.  So his prebreakfast decision is a decision for life against death, and he sees it as his death that he slits open with his thumbnail and flushes away.

He is Pontius Pilate, of course: the procurator of Judea.  His day is starting out well, and he feels better for it.  He has just taken a step to become a new man, a better man, a man who can handle whatever the world brings without relying his tar and nicotine. Not even the morning paper, filled with stories of poverty, crime and corruption, upsets him as he leafs through it in the back seat of the limousine that carries him through the city.  As the car rolls along he glances out at the world from time to time through the tinted windows.  Children are playing in the dirt, heavily armed policemen patrol the streets, and beggars crowd the temple gates.  Other people could carry on about how rotten everything is.  But Pilate's business is to keep the ship afloat from day to day.  And he is not doing a bad job of it.  There are no major complaints from Rome.  The Jews are content.  And he himself, if not exactly happy, is happy enough.

When he was a young man, he dreamed of greater things than being a provincial procurator, but he could have done a lot worse.  His sons had the best education money can buy.  His wife keeps having troubling dreams, but she is in the hands of a good therapist.  Their marriage isn't what it used to be, but he keeps looking forward to the day when they can retire to the villa outside Ostia.  That will be relaxing.  But in the meantime, he has appointments to keep, and he keeps them.  When he arrives at the office, the sitting area is full of people waiting to see him, texting and tweeting on their phones, and reading old copies of Time Magazine.

The chief of the occupational forces is in a sweat because a Jewish festival is upon them and he expects trouble from the fanatics.  The Jewish God, not knowing which side his matzoh is buttered on, wants Rome out; he wants the peace that passeth understanding instead of the peace of Rome.  Pilate starts to reach for a cigarette, and then remembers.  He picks up a pencil instead and starts to chew on its eraser.  What passeth his understanding is the Jews themselves, who have never had it so good.  What passeth his understanding is how they can knock themselves out for a God who supposedly runs history, when history has run over them and left them as beggars in this strip of rock and desert that they call the Promised Land.  He orders the guard doubled around the temple and the whole garrison put on alert until the Passover passes over.

And the appointments continue.  The tax people are full of excuses for why the quota wasn't filled last quarter.  A man has a scheme to solve the city's water problem, which so happens to include Rome buying his property to build an aqueduct.  An epidemic is raging through the old slave district, and there are complaints about packs of orphans scavenging on the streets for food.  A few days ago there had been some kind of demonstration at one of the city gates with an up-country preacher at the center of it, and the Jewish leaders want to handle this troublemaker before things get worse.  But of course, because of some arcane religious requirement that Pilate really doesn’t understand, they can’t come into his office to speak to him.  With a grunt and a grumble, still clenching the pencil in his teeth, Pilate gets up from his desk and walks out to meet with them. 

Once outside, he takes the pencil out of his mouth and asks matter-of-factly, "What are the charges?"  One of the ringleaders stands up and said, "If he wasn't a troublemaker, we wouldn't have brought him here!"  Pilate sighs.  The day may have started out well, but these pesky Jews are enough to drive anyone to distraction.  With all of their strange customs, Pilate never comprehended the things that get them worked up.  And he didn’t particularly care, either. Now they bring a man in, someone who was supposed to be a messiah, whatever that is, and they won’t even tell him why he is such a menace.  But Pilate agrees to see the man if that’s what it will take to keep the peace.  If they want him to see their God, he will see him too.  The more the merrier.

As Pilate walks back to his office, he gets a call on his cell phone from his wife.  She’s had another night of bad dreams.  As she goes on, he can hear that she's crying.  And Pilate can picture her, sitting there with the phone cradled between her ear and her shoulder so she can light a cigarette like she always does when she starts to cry.  He can almost smell the smoke as she lights it and then starts talking again.  He tries to distract himself, to keep from thinking about the cigarette. As his wife talks, he stares out the window.  Down in the courtyard a ragged child is talking to a soldier.  On the windowsill a pigeon preens her feathers.  Finally his wife hangs up, and he swings back to the desk.

While he was talking, they had brought in the up-country preacher for questioning. Pilate is caught off-guard, and before he knows what he is doing he takes a cigarette from the box on his desk and lights it.  The man stands in front of him with his hands tied behind his back.  You can see that he's been roughed up a little.  His upper lip is puffed out and one eye is swollen shut.  He looks unwashed, and he smells unwashed.  Pilate is not sure if the man looks ridiculous, or if he looks pathetic.  If it were just the two of them, he would give the man busfare and send him back to the boondocks where he came from.  But the Jews think he’s trouble, so Pilate stands up and takes a good look at the man.  He can't quite explain it, but even with the swollen eye and torn clothes, the prisoner seems to carry himself with dignity.  There seems to be more to this fellow than there is to the ordinary fanatic. 

"So," Pilate says, "You're the king of the Jews."  He almost doesn't understand the man's reply, between his thick country accent and the split upper lip.  "Is that your own idea, or did someone else tell you that?"  Pilate flicks the ash off the end of his cigarette into the ashtray.  The trouble with these Jews is that none of them are willing to give a straight answer to a simple question.  This backwoods preacher is making him uncomfortable, as though he belongs in this office and Pilate is the prisoner.  So he tries to regain control with a more straightforward question.  "What have you done?"  But the man with the split lip doesn't give him an answer to that question.  Instead, he answers Pilate's first question. "My kingdom is not a part of this world."  He isn't sure what the man means by that, but he did catch the part about being king.  Finally, one of these Jews said something that he can understand.  "Oh, so you are a king, then!"  And the man replies, "You could say so.  I have come to bear witness to the truth."

Pilate has to sit down.  The day had started out well, but now everything is giving  him a splitting headache.  Maybe at a different time, in a different place, with a different person, Pilate would enjoy talking about truth.  Philosophy is one of his hobbies, after all.  But not with this fellow, who doesn't act the way prisoners are supposed to act.  Truth.  Why talk about truth?  Where did this guy get the idea of talking about truth?  Pilate takes a long drag on his cigarette, and with narrowed eyes and a cynical smirk he sneers, "Truth?  What is truth?"  He asks it half because he would love to hear an answer to the question, and he hopes this man has one.  He asks it half because he is certain that there is no answer, and that would mean he has one less thing to worry about.  But this man with the split lip gives Pilate no answer.  No answer except, with his one good eye, he stares Pilate straight in the face.  Pilate cannot match his gaze, and he hurries out to speak with the Jewish leaders again, leaving the man with the swollen lip and unsettling presence behind in his office.

He finds the Jewish leaders just outside the lobby, impatiently pacing on the sidewalk in front of the building.  When they see Pilate come out they gather around with angry, challenging expressions on their faces.  “Well,” they ask, “are you going to crucify him or not?”  Crucify?!  Who said anything about crucifying this fellow?  They save that kind of punishment for the worst of the worst.  At most, he needs to be gotten rid of quietly, not be made into some spectacle.  But no matter what he says, Pilate makes no headway with these stubborn men who surround him.  They demand nothing less than crucifixion.

It occurs to Pilate that perhaps it was not the best idea to leave the prisoner alone in his office, so he hurries back inside.  All this running back and forth takes a toll on him, so he pauses a moment to catch his breath before going back into the office.  Maybe it’s because of what all those years of smoking have done to his lungs, or maybe it’s because he simply doesn’t want to have to face the man again.  What was it about him? Not even Caesar himself could unnerve Pilate the way this – what was his name? – Jesus – did.

When he enters, Pilate finds the man staring out of his office window at the city below.  He looks sad, but oddly not for himself.  He seems to be more concerned about the people below than he does for what might happen to him.  He turns to Pilate as he closes the door, with the same piercing, inscrutable gaze.  By now Pilate is beside himself.  He desperately wants another cigarette to calm his nerves, but he knows it won’t do any good. 

Exasperated and frustrated, he shouts at the man, “Who are you?  Where did you come from?”  But the only reply the prisoner gives is that unsettling look, before he turns to stare out the window once more.  “Don’t you understand?” Pilate practically screams.  “Don’t you know that I could have you crucified if I wanted to?”  The man turns back, with an amused look on his face.  “The only power you have over me is what God has given you.  The people who brought me here are worse criminals than me.”  And then again, he goes back to looking out the window.

In his younger days, Pilate had fancied himself an athlete.  But all these years of smoking cigarettes and sitting behind desks have taken a toll on his health.  Wheezing and breaking into a sweat, he makes the trip back to the elevator, down to the lobby, and out the door again to confront the pompous fools who were making today such a nightmare.  “Fine!  If you want to string this man up, go right ahead.  Here he is!  I don’t care what you do, just get that man out of my office!”  And under his breath he adds, “And get him out of my life.”

Back in his office, some time and several cigarettes later, Pilate gets out of his chair to look out the window: the same window that the mysterious man had been looking out of earlier.  By now, he supposes, the troops are probably done beating the man and are on their way out the city to crucify him.  Sure enough, in the street below he sees the procession going outside of town.  He is surprised to see how many people are following behind.  Apparently this Jesus is more consequential than Pilate had given him credit for.

His mind goes back the question he had asked earlier in the morning: “What is truth?”  Not truth as in “what is right and wrong?”  But a different kind of truth.  The truth that shapes reality and brings meaning to existence.  What is truth?  What really matters?  What is at the center of what makes life worth living?  What gives purpose to governing a province, or trying to quit smoking, or saving up for a retirement villa in Ostia?

As Pilate continues to look out the window at the man being led to his execution, he is startled to see the man pause, for just a moment, and look up at Pilate as he is watching.  There is that look, one more time.  The gaze that penetrates to the depths of Pilate’s soul that he does not even know that he has.  This time, it drops Pilate to the ground, sobbing in tears.

At that moment he realizes that he had asked the wrong question.  Instead of asking “What is truth?” he should have asked “Who is truth?”  Now he knows the answer.  And he has sent him out to die.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Saved from and Saved for


We are saved by Jesus Christ.  This basic declaration of our faith takes on powerful significance this month as we remember how he won our salvation through his atoning death on the cross and his victorious resurrection from the grave.  Many minds much wiser than mine have pondered exactly how Christ saved us, and what this salvation means.  Although it ultimately is a glorious mystery that lies beyond full human comprehension, we celebrate this salvation, and we honor and worship the God who provides it.

As we prepare for the Easter season, I’d like to ponder three questions what arise as we consider our salvation in Jesus Christ.

1. AM I SAVED?  Unfortunately, many people worry about their salvation.  Have I done what it takes, or believed what I need to believe, in order to be saved?  This form of thinking probably arises from comparing the salvation that Christ provides with other desirable things: we have to earn them or deserve them.  The entire point of Christ’s self-giving love is that there is nothing we need to do receive, other than simply to open our lives to it.  If you want what Christ has to offer, it is already yours.

2. WHAT AM I SAVED FROM?  The simplest, most obvious answer is that we are saved from sin.  But that simply leads to another question: what is sin?  We commonly understand sin to be the acts of disobedience and destruction that we commit: those things that hurt God, others, creation, or ourselves, or which violate God’s will.  Christ has saved us from punishment for these actions, even if we still must face their consequences in our world.  But the Bible also portrays sin as the force that opposes the reign of God in our lives and in our world: it is the power of evil.  Christ’s death and resurrection has freed us from sin in this sense as well.  We are saved from broken relationships, from isolation from God, from fear and despair, and so much more.

3. WHAT AM I SAVED FOR?  We may not ask this question as often as we ask the others, but it may be the most important question of all.  Christ has saved us for a purpose, for a reason.  In salvation he equips each of us uniquely to serve him each in our own special way.  We Presbyterians in particular are aware that God has a plan for our lives: that our salvation is the beginning of a life lived for him.  God’s love for us extends beyond rescuing us from the terrible situations we find ourselves in, and which we often bring upon ourselves.  He loves us so much that he wants to include us in the great work he is doing to establish his kingdom and to bring all creation into the glory that he has prepared.  He loves us so much that he has chosen each of us, individually and as a community, to play our part in his great plan. 

As we travel together from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter, I invite you to contemplate not only what Christ has saved us from, but what he has saved you to do in his name and for his glory.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spiritual Nutrition


Our 4 year-old granddaughter is learning about good nutrition in preschool.  She is now very good at pointing out what is “good” food (chicken, milk, vegetables) and what is “sometimes” food (ice cream, pop, cupcakes).  “Sometimes” food is, as the name suggests, food that you can eat every now and then.  But if you make a habit of eating only these foods, you’re not going to grow big and strong….just big and fat.

What’s true about physical food for our bodies is also true about spiritual food for our souls.  The sorts of spiritual influences you surround yourself with will affect the health and condition of your soul.  So what are you feeding your soul?

Some people enjoy the spiritual equivalent of twinkies.  They look appealing, taste good, and go down easy.  But they provide only empty calories that fail to support and active and healthy body.  Spiritual twinkies are the feel-good messages that surround us.  They tell us that someone else is the problem, and that “somebody” ought to do something about it.  They tell us that we are perfectly fine just the way we are.  Instead of challenging or stretching us with new ideas to ponder, they simply spit back out at us what we already believe, so that we can remain comfortably ignorant.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the spiritual equivalent of tofu.  While tofu may have its fans, most people find it as appealing as library paste…only not as tasty.  There’s no doubt that it’s healthy, but most of us find it so unappealing that we’d rather take our chances with greasy hamburgers and French fries.  Spiritual tofu has no interest in winning over friends: just speaking the hard-to-accept truths of life.  They convey the message that in order to be spiritually healthy, you must live a bland, harsh life devoid of any joy or excitement.  It’s good for you, but it’s not very good.

Fortunately, God loves us too much to allow us only the choice between twinkies and tofu.  He wants us to enjoy the goodness of the life he’s given us, and he wants us to find that enjoyment in what fulfills and strengthens us.  The spiritual nourishment that he offers is more like chicken soup: healthy and satisfying at the same time.  It will challenge and stretch us, but also provide us with joy and peace.  Just because something feels good does not mean it is God’s message of comfort for us.  And, just because something sounds challenging and difficult does not mean that it is God’s message of guidance for us.

Unfortunately, however, spiritual food doesn’t come with nutrition labels.  So how can you tell twinkies and tofu from chicken noodle soup?  Or, to quote 1 John 4:1, how can we “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”?  We can find a hint in John 10, where Jesus tells us that the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd.  The more time we spend listening to and for our Shepherd speaking to us, the easier it will be for us to recognize his words of guidance in confusion of the many messages we receive.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Finding a Balanced Self-Understanding


Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you (Romans 12:3).

Worship at Old Union Church each Sunday includes a Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, because of the important message they give.  They bring to our awareness the key aspects of our relationship with God, which we can so easily slip away from.  Confession and Pardon provide us with an honest appraisal of who we are in the eyes of God, when our own self-estimation or the messages we get from people and influences around us can easily lead us astray.  It is our way, each week, to heed Paul’s advice to the Romans.

On the one hand, as Paul puts it, at time we “think more highly of ourselves than we ought.”  The human psyche does a wonderful job of glossing over our own faults and shortcomings.  We may be quick to point out how others are at fault, but we can usually find a convenient explanation for our own actions.  Or, we simply forget about the error of our ways or the faults of our character.  We surround ourselves with people who will puff up our ego and make us feel good about ourselves.

Confession gives us a healthy correction.  When we become aware in worship of the majesty of God, our self-pretension becomes exposed for the fraud that it is.  Confession reminds us, each week, that we are not holy and perfect.  We are not as wonderful as we think that we are.  Confession knocks down our pride, especially when it is based on an over-inflated view of ourselves.

On the other hand, Paul encourages us to think of ourselves “in accordance with the faith God has distributed” to each of us.  Just as our human nature may blind us to our faults, it can also magnify them to the point that we are overwhelmed by our inadequacies and faults.  Confession, if it is not balanced by an assurance of pardon, only drives us more deeply into the pit of self-doubt and shame.  Voices around us and from our past far too often accuse us of our sinfulness, and the guilt that we bear.

The Assurance of Pardon helps us to see ourselves in a different light: in the light of the faith that God has given to us.  The assurance declares that we are valued and honored in God’s eyes.  We are precious and beloved by the Creator of all things.  There is so much to us that fills God with delight and joy when he considers us.  The assurance reminds us of the great lengths to which God went so that we may enjoy the fullness of his love.

The Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon steer us safely between the dangers of pride on one side and of shame on the other.  If you think too highly of yourself, the Confession of Sin will humble you.  And if you believe you are worthless, the Assurance of Pardon will proclaim the goodness that God finds in you.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Keep Christmas Real


Last month our church  youth group took part in “Alive Pittsburgh,” an outreach to homeless people held on the North Side.  Hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of guests spent the day together, meeting each other and enjoying the festivities.  The event included clothing give-aways, competitions and prizes, vision and hearing testing, haircuts, music, and food.  Our group was assigned to the prayer team, which meant that we got to spend time talking with the guests, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and offering to pray with them.

Of the dozens of people that my partner and I got to know, one couple touched me more deeply than the others.  I would guess that they are in their mid to late twenties, and if I had met them anywhere else I wouldn’t have had a clue that they are homeless.  They are living in a tent in a homeless camp in the city.  When I asked if there was something they’d like to pray about, they told me that they are expecting a baby.  We prayed for the baby and mother’s health, a safe delivery, and that they would find a place to live before the baby was born.  I couldn’t tell underneath her heavy winter coat how far along the woman was in her pregnancy, but the odds are that the baby will arrive long before the return of warm sunny weather.

As I reflected later upon my encounter with this couple, soon to become a family, I realized that the Christmas story isn’t so warm and fuzzy after all.  Mary and Joseph were much like the couple I got to know: worried about finding a safe and warm place for their child to come into the world.  The reality of Christ’s birth was much harsher than what is portrayed in the nativity scenes we’ll enjoy this month, complete with stables, friendly animals, adoring angels and worshiping shepherds. 

When we sanitize the Christmas story and convert it into heartwarming tale, we miss the entire point.  Jesus did not come to mingle with the satisfied, with those who will give and receive frivolous and extravagant gifts, with those who will gain ten pounds in December because of all the good cooking.  Jesus came to share life with parents giving birth in the cold, with families driven from their homes out of desperation or violence, with those whom everyone else ignores or reviles.

And when Jesus comes into our hearts, he turns them toward the “least of these,” as he called the suffering and abused people of the world in one of his parables (Matthew 25:31-46).  As we are transformed more and more into the image of our Lord, we are drawn more closely to those whose lives he came to share: those whom the world would rather throw away than acknowledge.

As we seek the coming of Christ during this Advent, may we care more about homeless parents than Christmas carols, more about refugees than tinsel and lights, more about the mistreated than a new pair of fuzzy slippers.

"The Nativity," by Gari Melchers
in my opinion, the most realistic depiction of Christ's birth:
an exhausted mother and a worried father

[PS: If you want to make a difference for the homeless in Pittsburgh, such as the couple I met, I encourage you to connect with LIVING Ministry.]

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Proposal to Reduce Hateful Speech


As I said in my sermon on Sunday, “Hateful words spawn hateful deeds and violence….  The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday proved that we cannot afford this kind of talk anymore.  It is too dangerous, it has real-world consequences, and it literally kills people.”

I see a great deal of hateful speech on Facebook and other platforms for communication, much of it motivated by politics.  I suggest the following strategy for us all to confront and challenge hate.

From my time in Ghana, I’ve come to appreciate how Christians and Muslims work and live together with mutual respect and care.  In the days after 9-11, some Islamic extremists tried to incite hatred against Christians in Ghana.  The Christians did not have to respond or react to it all, because the Muslim leaders immediately and strongly condemned the hatred that these extremists displayed.  May we follow their example in our political disputes.

It’s natural for us to condemn hateful speech coming from the other side of the political divide.  Doing so, however, only fans the flames of anger and division.  Instead, let’s police the extremist language coming from our own political tribe.  Conservatives, call out the hateful rhetoric of the alt-right and other right-wing extremists.  Progressives and liberals, oppose dangerous words coming from the far left.

It’s much easier to notice and point out the excesses of people with whom you disagree.  It’s much more productive, and advances the cause of peace and justice, to correct those who share your overall perspective.

This is one way in which we can honor those who died on Saturday, by doing our part to improve how we debate and disagree with each other.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Christian or Church-ian?


Peanut butter and jelly.  Salt and pepper.  Bread and butter.  Milk and cookies.  Macaroni and cheese.  Pancakes and maple syrup.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  My goal is not to make you hungry, but to think about things that naturally go together.  Some less delicious combinations include lock and key, socks and shoes, needle and thread, nuts and bolts.  I’m sure you can come up with many more examples!

However, we’ve lost the connection between two other things that go together as naturally as pencil and paper: church and faith.  From the very beginning of Christianity, it was impossible to imagine one without the other.  Those who put faith in Christ were part of the church.  And those who were in the church put their faith in Christ.

On the one hand, the experts tell us that increasing numbers of people claim to be able to live out their Christian calling individually.  They want no part of the complicated, demanding, and sometimes frustrating issues that come working together with other people.  These believers are quick to point out the many obvious flaws with “organized religion” and claim that they don’t need other people to follow Jesus.  While we do have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that relationship constantly draws us into relationships with others who call him Lord.  By my count, Scripture offers about thirty “one another” commands: what we are to do together, and how we are to treat each other.  Without any exception in the Bible that I can find, when God calls someone he calls them to share life with others.

On the other hand, however, are the people whom I’ll call “Church-ians.”  They care deeply about their congregation and their fellow members.  These are the faithful who attend church regularly, give sacrificially, and show up at all the special functions.  They want the building to be good repair, the pews and Sunday School classes to be full, and the church accounts to run in the black.  As commendable as such values may be, they are merely empty husks if they are not motivated and empowered by a love for the Lord. 

Just as the Bible encourages to live out our faith in community, it also condemns empty deeds of religiosity.  Isaiah railed against those who come near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from him (29:13).  Jeremiah mocked those who celebrated in the temple of the Lord while their lives were utterly divorced from his teaching (7:1-11).  Jesus himself offered a tongue-lashing against those who maintained and promoted religious institutions and practices but utterly missed the mark when it came to love and devotion (Matthew 23:13-39 and Luke 11:37-52).

If you count yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” I challenge you to investigate how the Bible teaches us to live out our faith together.  And if you are devoted to the health and well-being of the church, I challenge you to consider what motivates that devotion.  Either way, you will discover a joy of living that’s better than hugs and kisses, healthier than soap and water, and more inspiring than the sun and moon.