Church 101

Rev. Rebecca Messman

October 31, 2021

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘”he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’-this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

 

I like getting to church early. Maybe its prayerful prep time or an antidote to anxiety. So, last Sunday, my first Sunday, I was the first one here with the exception of some charismatic squirrels. I opened the door to the church with my brand new key that was shiny and still sharp on the edges and stepped in with a mug full of glee and anticipation that comes with every new key. The motion sensor lights snapped on and it felt like the Book of Genesis. Let there be light.

I placed my sermon on my new desk, straightened a pile of folders full of operating manuals that promised to tell me exactly how this church operates, and crowned my sermon with a fresh bulletin, which for Presbyterians functions as a safety harness so no one falls out of any chairs unexpectedly.

With everything decent and in order, I moved to the hallway, for a reason that soon seemed not worth it, because my office door then closed behind me, with my sermon, keys, purse, and phone locked safely inside. Alone in the church, I heard myself say “Well, God, I guess you’re stuck with just me now.” I could feel the quiet embracing me, a love that was old and unconcerned by doors and locks. It raised the hair on my arms. Then, I heard a car door slam. “Oh, it’s not just me. Hallelujah!” You better believe I felt a love of neighbor in that moment. A surge of interdependence. The thrumming need for community. I flung open the door, startling two deacons like a tame Halloween gag, and eventually was let back into my office. Thank you Charlie.

I didn’t plan it to go that way, but it was Church 101. There have always been just two keys to the church: The first, love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second, love your neighbor as yourself. We call this the Great Commandment. In modern lingo we might say, receive love, give love, repeat. That has a nice ring to it.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all feature some version of the Great Commandment. But Mark is unique in his Jewishness. A scribe asks Jesus to rank the commandments, and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. That is called the Shema. The Hebrew word for hear. You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and your soul and your strength… Jesus adds to it, “And all your mind.” Every teacher delights in that. My grandmother would say, God gave us minds and wants us to use them. Then Jesus links that ancient, very familiar command with another one from Leviticus like a bonus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe repeats it back like a model student, and then says something like, “And that is more important than the offerings and the financials.” And Jesus responds, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God.” And whether he meant that to say “yep, basically that” or “look, this is way bigger than you,” either way, the Bible considers this a Jesus mic drop moment because the text ends with “After that no one dared ask him any questions.”

The famous preacher Barbara Brown Taylor was speaking about the great world religions and highlighted how all of them have a version of the Great Commandment. She said, “We are all fingers pointing to the moon, at something so luminous, so numinous, the light that shines on each and all, casting the same reflection in every eye, even a basketball sized whale eye, though never the same reflection two nights in a row… “ Then she zeroed in on Jesus here in Mark, “The Great Commandment does an odd thing to those who think the sacred is up there. It takes the finger pointing to the moon and turns it to point at something much closer, at a neighbor or a stranger or a grey whale or a Japanese bush warbler, and then it bends it again to point to the self’s own heart… Near or far, coming or going, it is all one love, one love, one love, one.”

The Christian faith always points beyond itself. Any time we think we own the moon or can lock up the light, you can bet God will call forth the un-lockers to free us from that illusion. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus presented Peter with the keys to the Kingdom, the very first church keys that ever there were, though they were probably only words, these words. Throughout art history, if you see a guy with a halo and a key, you know it’s Peter. I often feel smart knowing that. Apparently that began in the 5th century, and appeared in sculpture and paintings and then came to symbolize the papacy.

Along the way, though, the church started locking up the light. Empires do that when they are nervous. And instead of devoting itself to the Kingdom of God and the poor, it started charging people, primarily poor people, for forgiveness. And so, God called forth an un-locker. That’s why today we celebrate the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. He protested the way the church had commodified grace and made itself the grifting hand of the government. Grace can never be purchased. It can only be given, and as such, we give to God not as a way to stave off damnation or acquire worthiness or avert budget short-falls or even get what we want, but we give out the depth of our gratitude for this one love, one love, one love.

After the Reformation, of course, the faith continued to point beyond itself, and it continued rattling some old doors. You see, for a while the church thought that women ought not have all the keys to the church. They could have keys to the kitchen, maybe, or the Sunday School wing, but not the Pastorate. They were welcomed to open their wallets for the plate but not their mouths in the pulpit. And, again, God called forth un-lockers. Though she was not alone in hearing that call, on October 24, 1956, 65 years ago last Sunday, God called forth Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. From then on, many girls started to notice that their keys opened doors that no one had knocked on before.

That was the case for a woman named Rev. Roxana Atwood and a group of Christians in the Burke area who met in homes and a community center. They knocked on doors in this area and grew a new church. In 1980, the Washington Post quoted Atwood, “ ‘The children of our church will have to think of the church as people, because their building keeps moving around!’ said Atwood, one of only a few organizing women pastors of a Presbyterian Church.”

What a fortunate thing, to know the church as the people and to imagine from the start  that buildings can move and change, if those same two keys are used. Those keys helped you open preschools and trade schools and churches in Kibwezi, Kenya. More than 300 children a week go to those schools who might not have. Those keys unlock housing for those who might have been sleeping in their cars. They unlock a place to laugh and cry and laugh again for the bereaved. Quiet for the stressed. Incomparable belonging for the LGTQ neighbors. A handbell for a 9 year old to ring and a place in the choir for those who need weekly reminders that human beings still can learn how to harmonize. And of course, those keys lead us to a big table, to feed the church on Christ’s grace so we can keep moving.

What a fortunate thing that the children of the church knew the church was the people and that the building could move around when a pandemic hit and the building needed to expand yet again. So of course, you learned how to point to God on screens and pray while typing on computer keys. Of course you figured out a drive-through Christmas Eve nativity and delivered a healthy lasagna to a neighbor who had lost her spouse so she would not have face an empty fridge too.

Someone told me this week, “gosh, kind of stinks to start ministry at a church during October, you know, Stewardship season. You get your key and then pass the plate, huh?” And I said, “I honestly love it.” The person looked at me as if I was an alien or an undercover church consultant. Both are rather scary. But I said, “Giving works on me. I know I can put a check in an envelope, or bake something for a neighbor, or give my kid an extended hug, or make a caring call or this week, vote, and it’s like the ignition of holy kind of engine. I start to think about all the ways people have cared for me and loved me and shaped the world for me, whew,” I fan my face, “suddenly I get weepy with gratitude and I can run on that energy for a long time.”

The bottom line is, giving to God always gets me out of my own way. It unlocks me from fear and consumerism and selfishness and sends me blinking in hope. That’s the core teaching of the Reformation. Of course, there is brokenness in the world. Marriages fail. We lose people we think we can’t live without. Racism and greed stomp on the fragile. But because God so loved the world, God did not dodge that brokenness in us or detach from it or commodify it or tweet about it. God sent Christ to free us from all that harms and divides us. To give his life for us that we might have even more life through him, and then God made of us Christ’s body so that we might spent all our days becoming un-lockers ourselves.

The other night, I was on my first BPC Women’s Bible Study Zoom. We were studying the story of Tamar. Spoiler alert: Tamar’s love story is no Hallmark movie. But being good Reformed Christians, these women studied those words with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength and all their beautiful minds. One of the prompts from the curriculum asked participants to share their wedding photos. Women pressed their wedding pictures onto the Zoom screen, some of them grainy with age, others with sleeves that foretold they were from the ‘80s. Some women shared that they not married, or well, not anymore. And then came the deep stories that needed a tissue or a few minutes with the camera off. And you could almost hear the clink as people unlocked some stories that had been sealed off, locked up, pushed down for a long long time. And around the Zoom, they shared honestly. They gave each other luminous grace. They helped each other see beyond the white hot pain of now to something hard to grasp but still very good. Not the promise that everything would be fixed. But the promise that it could be shared and that is liberating. Light from God’s heart reflected from face to face, one love, one love, one love.

The 14th century poet Hafiz wrote this poem:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

 

Here’s what I know. When we give to the church, we unlock all sorts of things. Those keys might have rather mundane labels like Sunday School supplies or Christ House or Kibwezi partnership or personnel or choir. But in the hands of Christ, they break chains of poverty and unlock music from the mouths of children. They bind up the brokenhearted and set the captive free, including us.

Amen.

Throw Off the Cloak

Rev. Rebecca Messman

October 24, 2021

Mark 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Let us pray. Lord, startle us again with your truth so that we might not only see you but see ourselves and each other as you see us. And in my words, may your people hear your word. Amen.

An interesting thing happens to a child in a robe at the front of a church. They begin to feel … like the Holy Spirit, I guess. And I don’t mean peaceful and serene. Oh no. I mean they believe because people don’t really react to them that they must be invisible. And they can move in powerful, uncontrollable ways.

That’s how it was for me anyway, sitting in the regal pew at the front of the chancel at First Presbyterian Church Danville, my parents socked away in the pews and the choir loft. One Sunday, I had earned an entire box of Andes candies during Sunday School for saying all the beatitudes. And at some point during the sermon, stricken with hunger, I took the box out of my acolyte robe and began to eat the candy. Now, even though she was about 12 feet away on the other side of the chancel, the other acolyte, my friend Kelly must have seen the gleam of the green wrappers. Since she probably felt invisible and powerful too, naturally she motioned for me to throw her one. Throwing candy in a robe is harder than it looks, it turns out. On the third try, likely around when the Pastor was landing his third point in the sermon, I landed a mint right onto her lap.

As I think back on it, I would hazard a guess that my parents along with half the choir and the Sunday School teacher saw the whole ordeal. An elegant older woman named Lib Cuttle, who lived up to her last name, hurried over to us after the service, and said “I saw you tossing those candies… And I want to say,” I blanched, “when God gives you something good, share it like you mean it!” Then, she put her hand out and I slapped a mint into her soft hand.

As I recall, not a single person threatened to expel us from the acolyte gild, if there was such a thing. The result was a budding sense in me that I was accepted there. That I could be seen as I truly was and still bear the light of Christ. That there is a wild delicious love out there and it was worth throwing your whole life at. And, well, here I am. Still at the front of a church, still taking risks for candy and Jesus, still amazed by the generosity of God.

Today, I think of Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on his cloak, shouting out to Jesus from his normal spot on the Jericho road. I imagine he felt invisible but in a more desperate way. He was part of the landscape that many people chose to ignore, hoping the stoplight turns green. His name wasn’t even about him. It means son of Timaeus. What’s interesting there is that, depending on what translation one uses, his name could either mean Son of the Unclean or Son of Esteem. Maybe like all of us, he was a little of both.

Bartimaeus could not see and probably believed no one saw him, and yet he becomes one of the most significant people in the New Testament. The Bartimaeus story is short, just six verses, but in many ways, this story is a hinge on which swings the whole Gospel of Mark. The first half of Mark is set in Galilee. There, Jesus teaches in parables and tangles with the authorities. Jesus heals a bunch of people, like the woman who grabs his cloak.  And yet most people remain blind to who Jesus is. Blinded by wealth, the rich young ruler goes away sad. Blinded by their ambitions, the disciples jockey for status around Jesus. Blinded by tradition, professional holy people take great offense at Jesus. And then, in the second half of Mark, right after this story, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly with cloaks thrown before him. Even as his identity is uncloaked, Jesus is mocked, draped with a purple cloak as he faces the cross for all of us. And in the heart of the book of Mark, Bartimaeus sits on his cloak and makes the first public declaration that Jesus is the Messiah: “Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Even before his vision is restored, the blind man sees clearly. The invisible one, the last in line, he is the one who sees and follows first. That is a core Gospel message.

Another thing moves me deeply about this story. Bartimaeus had just one thing, one possession in the world, his cloak. That was it. That was all he had to shield himself from the sun and rain, from the dust and disgust of others. His cloak was his source of income, like a street guitarist leaving his case open to collect loose change. It was a security blanket and then some. And after so many years of being ignored, all of a sudden, he heard these lovely words from a formerly irritated crowd, “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” And that was enough. That and a wild hope hanging on this guy Jesus. That was what caused him to throw off his cloak and leap forward.

Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” I love that Jesus didn’t assume a particular answer. There is such dignity in that. And Bartimaeus responded, “Teacher, let me see again.” I love that Bartimaeus knew the answer. It takes spiritual maturity to know what you really want. So many people don’t. And it takes vulnerability to actually speak the words. That requires you to open yourself to hope. Bartimaeus threw off his cloak in hope, and it seemed like, at least according to Jesus, the healing was done at that point. “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And with his feet already on the move and his cloak in the rearview mirror, his vision came back and he joined Jesus on the way.

Today, here we are, the pandemic still draped over the globe like a cloak, making it darn near impossible for us to see much of anything down the road and harder for us to see each other. Some of you might have felt invisible during this stretch. Unwitnessed during one of the best or worst times of your life that would have ordinarily been deeply shared. There is ample data that shows that a basic human need is connection, to see and be seen, by other human beings. So, to feel unnoticed at work or invisible at school or ignored in your family, that is often a greater ache than conflict or illness. Sometimes people who feel unseen create conflict or become ill when what they desperately want is connection. And when the church faces so much uncertainty, hardly able to see Advent, much less the five year plan, and when the church feels invisible in the social landscape, it is hard indeed. So, maybe we understand Bartimaeus on the road better than we thought.

And we all have our cloaks, I suspect, those things to which we cling so that we are not exposed, so that people know how to treat us, so that we can manage all that we can’t see. We all have our cloaks. Maybe it’s wealth and influence enough to shield us from as many risks as possible. Maybe it’s credentials and personality and beauty enough to keep us from loneliness. For me, I love a good routine. I love to know what I am doing. I eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch. I love to throw on my cloak, head out into the world, and assure myself that the future will be more or less the same. There is nothing inherently bad about a cloak. And with the popularity of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Halloween coming, they seem to be popular. Thanks to Zoom, you can wear a cloak over your work-out clothes and all seems normal.

However, the cloak can get heavy, can’t it? When we end a day feeling like all we did was amass or organize stuff. When we feel like our vision has grown dim and it’s been a long time since we felt childlike delight before God. When our routines and pandemic fears cover us like listless weather, the cloak can get heavy. The cloaks we keep around us can trip us up and make it very cumbersome to follow Jesus with the fresh vision of Bartimaeus. That is when our souls cry out from the roadside of our lives.

And when that happens, you can be sure Jesus will take notice. You can be sure people around you or friends you trust will start to say, “Take heart… Get up… he is calling you.” You can be sure Jesus will ask at some point, “What do you want?” And maybe you surprise yourself with the answer. Maybe you hear an answer from your own lips that you didn’t expect.

Maybe you leap up off that cloak and find yourself in a new ministry, like a church whose signature Bible quote is “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” That is how it is going for me. Apparently I am not alone. The Fall of 2021 saw the largest number of Americans starting new jobs in decades. It’s time to throw off the cloaks of how we have always done it and know that God meets us there with a new thing.

Maybe you throw off the cloak, committed to giving in ways that feel new and exuberant. When we give, we get to feel like kids again, marveling at what God has dropped into our laps, unwrapping the gleam of purpose, and tasting the sweetness of generosity that comes back to us when we pitch it to others. Do you know what the medical term is for inability to see what is close to you? Presbyopia. It means old eyes.

So, if that is you, you are invited to throw off the cloak and see your life and your church and the world in a new way. Maybe you call that neighbor who has been a real challenge for you politically. Maybe you put your phone away for an entire day so that your eyes awaken to your neighborhood. Maybe you read a poem or join the choir or spent an afternoon with a 3 year old as a way to bring color back to your vision. Maybe throwing off the cloak means noticing where the film of despair or the fog of anxiety or the scales of grief have clouded your vision and you let yourself be seen just as you are. Throw off the cloak. See your lift as a gift that has been dropped in your life and then share it like you mean it.

I learned recently that Lib Cuttle entered the church triumphant at age 101. She threw off the cloak of this mortal life and now walks with her God. She never had biological children but she mentored at-risk children and taught Sunday School for 80 years and she made people like me feel seen. My life is evidence that she changed the way the world looked through her bold discipleship.

I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes, a poet in the lineage of Bartimaeus.

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

BPC Welcomes Rev. Becca Messman as Senior Pastor

Burke Presbyterian Church (BPC) is thrilled to announce the arrival of its new Senior Pastor and Head of Staff, the Reverend Becca Messman. She will preach at BPC’s Sunday morning worship service (10:00am, in person and online) for the first time on October 24, 2021.

Messman joins BPC from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, where she served for 15 years—5 years as co-pastor and 10 years as associate pastor. There, she ministered to a congregation of about 600 and helped to launch a new worshipping community of recent immigrants called Lunch for the Soul. “Becca has a profound commitment to social witness and mission,” said Eva Thorp, a member of the BPC Pastor Nominating Committee. “It really complements her gifts of pastoral care and preaching.”

A prolific writer, Messman has served as Vice President of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine and co-authored “Cultivated Ministry,” a book about church vitality. She was Co-Chair of VOICE, Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. She served as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Guatemala and speaks fluent Spanish.

The ministry of the church includes vibrant and engaging programs for all ages, as well as strong local and international mission partnerships focusing on hunger, housing, health, and education. BPC recently completed a major construction project, adding a bright and spacious gathering space and expanding seating capacity in the main worship area. The BPC Preschool occupies the lower level of the building and provides a child-centered, developmental program for young children ages 3 to 5.