Saturday, July 8, 2017

...And a Cup of Cold Water..


At Oakdale

Oakdale, Pennsylvania is still its own little town in what is now the ever expanding greater airport sector of Pittsburgh. Once a farm town, it’s most historic moment was probably the great munitions factory explosion of 1918.  And probably more than one recent devastating flooding experience. There’s a long tradition of girl’s softball. A corner store/deli named Sil’s where I was  greeted with a slivovitz toast to welcome 1995. And a Presbyterian Church I was blessed to serve in 1994-1995.

Some in Presbytery were surprised when I went there because by reputation they were conservative evangelical and I was thought to be beyond liberal.  But in the sermons I preached before I came I took the Bible seriously. Very seriously. And I could see their highest value was community. As was mine. They had just been through a young pastor who had demanded a much beloved community member  who would do anything for the church had to give up what the young pastor deemed to be an immoral relationship. That was not going to work in Oakdale. 
I will always remember the elder who said to me, Pastor, sometimes you just have to set principle aside and do what’s right. And of course we shared Steelers. And Pirates. And Penguins. Black and gold. 

There was also a marvelous mythic story about one of the community’s only Jewish members facing down the Ku Klux Klan, cooking a potato on the burning cross and staring the leader into beating a hasty retreat from this clearly dangerously crazy person. 

It was a beautiful year. After having my own interest in music reawakened, I shared that gift with them. A pastor/lounge singer friend of  mine and I put together a band and did a special Christmas concert. And my aunt helped put together a Christmas choir. And my friend Dan joined us and we did music together. He gave me a set of new strings when I left.  

After 20 years, last year I was coming back to Pittsburgh for  a wedding. And wanted to play a gig so I called Dan to join me. And he invited me to join his band for a church street fair and Sunday morning.  I met the new pastor, a dynamic young woman named Robin who had come to them following a painful congregation split. She basically wrapped them in love and opened the doors wide. At the street fair …and on Sunday morning…the new emerging inclusive community was clearly visible. (A visible as tattoos!) Her supportive camp director husband and new child were welcome additions to the community. I could feel the quiet vibrancy and grown sense of self-confidence. 

So I was saddened to learn that this year Robin and family and returned to New Zealand. And so I made plans to come back to Oakdale and share a Sunday with those who had remained faithful. And of course sing with Dan….
Dan and Bob

These were my reflections in the Sunday before the 4th of July…



                                           And a cup of cold water….

There is so much that we could  talk about. It’s the  4th of July weekend. The first thing I  think about is not fireworks but cook outs…hot dogs hamburgers, baked beans, especially baked beans the way my mother made them. …In New York City where I live, the day this is the public swimming pools open....

I have two very distinct memories…It was 1976, the bicentennial year…I had been invited to Pawnee, Oklahoma for the annual Pawnee nation reunion and pow wow. An elder in my congregation was the former chief. In Tulsa, he worked for the postal service. But with his people he was a chief. For the week of the pow wow, all economic differences from the outside world were set aside and the people lived communally from a common store house. The pow wow opens with “flag song”…not the Star Spangled  banner, as I light have expected, but a song about the young men who went away to fight for the US in foreign wars… a welcome home  for those who came back and a song of morning for  those who did not…One of the sons was a trader in Indian jewelry. And he gave me a ring from the southwest of turquoise and coral..It’s gone through a lot, been lost and regained twice. But I have essentially worn it every day for 40 years…and am wearing it today.

It was 1983 in Nicaragua…during the peak of the  contra war…Our country, my country, supporting those contras.  So I was understandably shocked to see our flag flying high at their foreign ministry…we always honor countries that are celebrating  their revolutions they said .

Set all that aside a moment…I want to get deeper  into the 4th…but through the scriptures…

First, the story of Isaac… in all honesty, this is a troubling and disturbing story…what is its point? What is it about? Remember how Isaac and Sarah could not bear children? And then finally Sarah gets pregnant and laughs…and that child is Isaac, the sound of laughter…Isaac…the one he loves…(Uh, but what about Ishmael? Ismail? In Islam, it’s him…well, actually, it’s a complicated history, but most Muslims believe it was Ismail/Ishmael who was bound. And Abraham  tells him what is going on and and he agrees and encourages his father..and rolls over so his father won’t see his face. So it will be easier. We could certainly explore that. 
But imagine how Abraham would feel…asked to sacrifice his beloved son…isn’t there a question to ask here?…

Is this really a test? Some say the real test was that Abraham was supposed to refuse…BUT…that doesn’t seem accurate to story..

Historians say this story is a mythic explanation of the end of child sacrifice. among the Hebrews.  BUT…stay inside the story..some say this experience affects Isaac for the rest of his life…that he never felt quite completely  safe..always somewhat wary of this strange God.

Was this really about Isaac’s faith? (“God will provide…” he says. Does he truly believe this? Is this an affirmation, when God provides the lamb?)

Dan and I sang Leonard Cohen’s telling of this story…he wrote it at the peak of the Vietnam era…he saw sacrifice of children as not inspired by awe for wonder or wrestling with a demon or the lord…or mystery…….(I need to say, I believe we could use a draft….where all of us must share the define of our country equally…we would  all wrestle with the sense of any particular war …instead, for most of us, wars are fought by other people’ children…wearing camo sports uniforms isn’t quite enough….) 

Okay…Question one ….how would you feel?

 God honors Abraham because: 
…since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me….

One could argue, that in Jesus, this is exactly what God does….

But I need to be honest…I can’t roll with the idea that we are so bad, God requires a blood sacrifice to excuse us and set us free and thereby kills his own son…this is not someone, this is not a God  I would want to be with…this is a frightening  character…
BUT..what if God is saying…I love these people so much, i want to know them them. What it feel like to be them….I will join them in their midst…I will send my very son to live with them…show them how to live…even if knowing them, it will me cost his life…I‘ll go that far…for love…And that is a God I can go with..

Leonard Cohan doesn’t judge Abraham..he allows the mystery..and remain …when my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the word…

He does criticize those who sacrifice  children with no vision, no wrestling with demons or God…

And here’s where I’m easing back into the 4th of July…are there ways in which innocent children are being  sacrificed today? Or perhaps what kind of world are we  leaving our children?  I’m asking you to answer that question, talk about it with your friends…and ask what then are we to do?….

I can’t leave this without a word from Jesus..(that’s, after all, why we’re here…) Jesus says:

whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The wife of my predecessor pastor at West Park, Evelyn Davidson believed that the LGBTQ community felt abandoned by the church …and that in Jesus name we were called to show a different face, the face of Jesus.  So she set up a water table to pass out cos of cold water to hot marchers ash the PRIDE march. Literally a cup of cold water in Jesus name…To this day, volunteers pass out water on PRIDE Sunday at the Evelyn Davidson Memorial Water Table…And so I ask you…who is hot and tired?  Who is thirsty? For water? Thirsty for love? Oh if only every child were as loved as the children I know of this  congregation…

That’s what we do…we can offer cool water in Jesus name…to ALL  and I do mean ALL God’s children…..

Let those with ears to hear, hear….


Our music was truly fun.
Bob, Dan and Jamie
Terry who as a teenager played for Oakdale is still there at the keyboard 22 years later. We sang Dan’s Johnny Cash inspired “C-Minus Christian” and closed with my Teddy Mape’s memorial “Rest Awhile..”

                                                                     "Rest Awhile"


I shared these words with my final prayers…

You were truly blessed by Pastor Robin…she brought love and light and laughter back here….you have courageously stayed faithful both before and after her and as you prepare for a  new pastor you bring that faithfulness as a gift…
In the future, we will need communities that can sustain themselves with or without a pastor…it all depends on mutual accountability…this is what is needed..
1.Be there for one another…always
2. Study together …with discipline and commitment
3. Worship…celebrate…share at a deep level…without reference as to how, when or where…
4. Act together…
You can do this…you have done this

Thanks for all you gave to me and my family…


There was time for goodbyes to so many special people. Like the Kehms, part of the glue that holds it all together.
Bob and Eleanor
(Along with so many more..) And recovering my shoes as I left to go to a Pirate game a year ago…and found them here in the same place a year later…and yes, on may way to another game today….

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