Overlooked, Ordinary, and Anointed

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, March 26, 2017
Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Standing here before you today, I can’t help but admire this simple but beautiful rose, representing the joyful news that a new baby, Hannah, has been born into Sarah and Brent’s family. They now enter again into that wonderfully exhausting stage of life, with middle of the night wake-up calls, and leaking diapers, and soon enough yogurt in her hair—and in her ears, and down her arms, and on back of her legs…. Seriously, how did you get yogurt on the back of your legs?? Perhaps I am projecting…

Having young children, like many things in life, can be both challenging and rewarding. One of the great upsides is having an excuse to re-watch all the classic Disney movies. It won’t be long before Hannah will get to discover The Lion King, and Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, and other classics… like Cinderella.

One of the most beloved Disney characters, Cinderella ends the movie as royalty, but she begins her story as the neglected sister who is stuck at home doing the chores. With a fancy ball planned for the prince to choose his bride, Cinderella’s stepsisters are eager to make a good impression, while Cinderella is given even more work to do. Diligently she sets about her chores, all the while singing with her animal friends. Of course, we know that her story has a magical and happy ending, but this morning I bring Cinderella up because of this early part of the story, when Cinderella is the insignificant, overlooked sister.

It’s a feeling we can all relate to; I’m sure we all could tell stories of rejection in one form or another, stories of when we felt invisible and discounted. The kid whom no one asked to go to the homecoming dance. The last one picked in gym class, selected as an afterthought because no one else was left. The person who came to church and nobody said hello. At a party, everyone else is laughing and in on the joke, and you’re watching from the sidelines.

That’s where Cinderella finds herself early in the movie, and oddly enough, that is also where we first meet the great King David in today’s Scripture lesson. In time, he will become the great unifier of Israel, military champion, author of so many psalms, Israel’s greatest king. Centuries later, he’ll still be the one everyone remembers and longs for: “if only we had another king like that…”

But we’re not there yet. In today’s Scripture passage, he’s nobody. An ordinary kid.

Instead, our story starts with Samuel, the great prophet and judge of Israel. God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, saying to summon and examine Jesse’s sons, because one of them is going to be the king. In nervous anticipation, they gather for a worship service, and then Jesse presents to Samuel each of his sons. Well, each of his sons except for David.

David is back at home watching the sheep. Perhaps like Cinderella, he is waiting alone, singing songs with his animal friends! Who knows? What we do know is that, like Cinderella, he didn’t get an invitation to the elite celebration, where his siblings were jockeying to become royalty, but instead he’s stuck at home with the chores. Somebody’s got to watch the animals so the more promising brothers can be presented to Samuel. David is overlooked. Invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.

But God sees. When everyone else, even Samuel, was focused on the brothers right in front of them, God was calling the one that had been overlooked and forgotten.

Does it make you wonder who we’ve overlooked?

Here we are at a worship service, dressed up to present the best side of ourselves, not unlike Jesse and his sons at their worship service. Might God be calling for someone who isn’t here? Who have we overlooked?

I think of the people working the weekend shift at the hospital across the street, who can’t come to Sunday morning worship. Or the young people working minimum wage at restaurants where we’ll get lunch in a little while, or the police officers, rescue squad, military, on-call plumbers and HVAC folks. Or within this building, the people in the nursery, leading children’s church, ushers, sound technicians…

David was watching the sheep so that the others could go to see Samuel. Whose work are we relying on to allow us to be here? Who is it that we may have overlooked, but God is calling and God is using?

Samuel looks at each of the brothers before him and then asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“Well, there’s the youngest, watching the sheep.”

And then there’s this amazing moment in the story. Samuel says to go get him. “We’ll stand here until he arrives.” And then they wait.

And they wait.

And they wait.

Eventually someone finds the flock of sheep, sees David there humming a song to himself, and says to him, “Hey man, they’re all waiting for you”, and so David runs back over. He’s dirty, sweating, out of breath. He finds his dad and his brothers, standing beside some strange old man with a long beard, and they’re all staring at him. The old man walks over to this kid, still panting and looking around, and says, “This is the one.” Samuel slowly takes some oil, pours it on his head, and says, “You’re the new king of Israel.” And then he turns and walks away, leaves town, and goes home.

Standing there stunned, still sweaty and out-of-breath, only now with olive oil in his hair, is that same ordinary teenager named David.

It’s a strange way to choose a leader, is it not? By all accounts, there’s nothing particularly remarkable or kingly about David. It says he’s a good-looking kid, he knows how to be a shepherd—but so did his brothers and everyone else in town who had sheep. He’s simply… ordinary. In no way is he qualified to be an army general or a king.

Think about it. If you were an Israelite trying to survive in Jerusalem, would you want your leader to be some teenager picked at random off the side of the road, with no skills, experience, or qualifications? Of course not! And especially not during a time of war and instability, with dangerous enemies pressing in from all sides. You want your commander to know what they’re doing.

This is a very odd way to pick a king. And for me, it raises the question: how do we choose our leaders? Or to bring it closer to home: how do we pick the next pastor for this church?

What will our future pastor be like? Will she be a strong preacher? Will he have a PhD? Do you anticipate someone with lots of experience, a dignified manor, lots of energy and enthusiasm, a devoted family? Will they be tall, and attractive, with a full head of hair… Or not…

We all carry in our minds certain ideal traits and characteristics that we look for in a leader—and with good reason. We want someone who’s good at what they do. The difficulty is that we can so easily get stuck on the externals. It’s human nature. Even Samuel had to be reminded by God: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The choir sang it for us a few minutes ago: not “he that ruleth over men must be a decisive and charismatic leader”… but “he that ruleth over men must be just.”

And so, as our search process continues, we pray for God’s guidance, because we are trying to follow Samuel’s example: he was listening for who God had called, not choosing for himself. We too are trying to discern God’s calling, rather than relying on our own judgment and preferences.

It’s a hard process, and one that demands a lot of prayer, from all of us. But we trust that God is calling the right person, just as God was calling the right person in King David.

David was the one God had chosen, even though he had been overlooked by his father and brothers, and even though David didn’t seem particularly special or unique. He was just a shepherd kid from a shepherd family, like all the rest.

But even though he was overlooked and ordinary, God chose and anointed him. And then his story takes off.

In the following chapter, David—still unimposing and unproven—will face off with the giant Goliath, and when he does, do you remember what his strategy his? He’ll use his slingshot. Listen to his words of explanation: “[I] used to keep sheep for [my] father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth.” [1 Samuel 17:34-35] He’ll use those same skills against Goliath. He didn’t defeat Goliath with military might, but with the skills of a shepherd, directed by God.

God didn’t need him to be something he wasn’t; God took the ordinary parts of David’s life and used them. David the shepherd.

Because that’s what God needed. God needed him to be a shepherd over the people of Israel, to gather them in as one nation and hold them together. It was David the shepherd who could do that.

It was David the shepherd who would write down those songs he was humming out in the fields, to give us the beautiful psalms that continue to guide our worship and devotion. Like Psalm 23, which begins, “A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”

Who else but David the shepherd could give us those words?

And I think the same holds true for us. Might it be that what God wants from us is the ordinary parts of ourselves that we so easily overlook?

In the story today, when the father, Jesse, comes to present the best he has to offer to God, he brings the sons he think are most kingly. But God was looking for the one who seemed ordinary.

Do we do that, too? Do we discount our own contributions because we don’t seem special enough? Or even within ourselves, do we only offer to God the parts of ourselves that we’re most proud of, that seem most admirable? Perhaps God wants from us the contributions we don’t consider all that remarkable.

There’s work for all of us to do, in one way or another.

Today’s bulletin insert has information about our Intercessory Prayer Ministry, signing up to come in to the church’s Prayer Room regularly to pray for people. It’s nothing fancy; but God uses it.

Or consider the various Circle of Caring Teams, through which church members help others by providing rides, baking casseroles, sending cards, changing light bulbs, making visits and phone calls, … and lots of other ordinary acts of compassion and generosity. They always need more volunteers…

In a month, we have our annual day of service, Operation InAsMuch, when we’ll try to make our neighbors’ lives a little bit better through a host of small projects, unremarkable on their own, but nevertheless used by God to extend and broaden God’s kingdom here on earth.

Perhaps God is calling you to bring the ordinary parts of yourself to help in one of these ways, or in another way that you will discover. Whatever it is that God calls of you, don’t be surprised if the contribution God is asking may not seem all that noteworthy, but it is something God has plans to use.

After all, this is the God who anointed an ordinary shepherd and made him the king of Israel.

It’s the same God who later would speak to some ordinary fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and said to them, I’m going to make you fish for people.

It’s the same God who spoke to an ordinary peasant girl in a backwater town and said, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. … The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David… his kingdom will never end.” [Luke 1:31-33].

God takes those who were overlooked and ordinary, and God anoints them to do God’s work in remarkably ordinary ways.

May that be the case for us too: that whenever we feel insignificant and invisible, we take heart that God sees us, if no one else does; and that when we don’t feel we have anything special to offer, we discover anew that God is calling us anyway, to take the ordinary parts of ourselves and let them be anointed in the service of God. Amen.

The Jar Left Behind

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 19, 2017
Scripture: John 4:5-34

I’ve brought with me this morning a little musical instrument called a mouth harp or a jaw harp.  When I was eight years old, my Uncle James Motley on my mother’s side gave me his own mouth harp.  This isn’t the one my Uncle James gave me.  That one is packed away in some box stuffed into our attic…if you saw our attic you’d appreciate why I wasn’t willing to go looking for it.

When I was eight, my Mom and Dad and sister and I traveled over from Martinsville to Lynchburg to visit my Papa Motley.  Papa Motley had suffered a significant stroke, so my Uncle James and his wife had taken in Papa and Granny Motley, to live with them in their little apartment in downtown Lynchburg.

My Uncle James owned a diner there downtown.  It was Sunday, so the diner was closed in accordance with the blue laws, but at lunchtime, Uncle James took us down to the diner so he could grill us something to eat.

My sister and I were sitting on stools there at the lunch counter, the adults were all sitting in a booth, and my Uncle James comes and sits on the stool next to me.  He takes this little dark gray gizmo out of his shirt pocket and hands it to me, “ya know what this is, don’t you?”

“No,” I said; I’d never seen one before.

He said, “It’s a juice-harp!  You play it like this.”  Then, Uncle James took the mouth harp back from me, put to his mouth, and started plucking away at the little wire piece, and he played a tune for me.  Then, he handed it back to me and told me to give it a try.

He probably knew what to expect; I put it to my lips, gave the little metal piece a twang with my finger and it immediately whacked my front teeth, which was none too pleasant.  Uncle James laughed, took the mouth harp back, and proceeded to show me how to avoid doing that and how to breath in and out as the little metal piece vibrated.

Uncle James said, “Me and my  buddies used to go drinking; we’d sit at the bar drinking, and after a while I’d pull out my juice-harp, and I’d play a song on the juice-harp and my buddies would sing along…we’d have a great time.”

“Here,” he said, “I don’t need it anymore, so you can have it to play on.”   And, with that, he put the mouth-harp back in my hand, and that was that, and he went back to being short-order cook for the family.

Handing over his mouth-harp was more than a simple gift from Uncle James to his nephew.  Leaving behind his mouth-harp signified the way of life he’d also left behind.  Of course, I didn’t understand that as an eight-year old.  To me, it was a simple gizmo to play with; for Uncle James, it was a token of the days and nights he’d lost in an alcoholic haze with his drinking buddies.

I recall this moment with my Uncle James because I believe our Gospel writer, John, is doing something like this in verse 28.  John records an action which appears to be of little consequence, but in reality, it was a deeply significant action.

In verse 28, John slips in this note about this Samaritan woman, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to town….”  On first reading, this would seem equivalent to someone observing the exchange between my Uncle James and me, and then writing, “then, handing his mouth-harp to his nephew, the diner owner went back to the grill.”  But, as with my uncle handing over his mouth-harp, the Samaritan woman leaving her water jar by the well marked a significant turning point, a turning point not simply in the telling of the story, but a significant turning point for this woman.

The water jar.  This woman goes out beyond her town in the heat of the noonday sun rather than going in the cooler early morning as was the usual way with the other women in her town.  She carries a jar to draw the water from the well.

The water jar.  It’s a practical necessity for anyone to draw water out of this particular well, a well as deep in its physical depth as it is deep in its heritage.  The jar is a practical necessity which the stranger whom she discovers there at the well, tired and thirsty, did not have.

The water jar.  The water jar becomes the object through which she and the stranger will begin their conversation that dares cross barriers they both know so well ought not be crossed, barriers of heritage and ethnicity and religion and gender.

This water jar.  The woman brings it with her empty.  She expects to take it back with her filled with water, a heavy but necessary burden she must bear, day in and day out.  But, unexpectedly on this day, she will leave the jar at the well, still empty, and, instead, she will return to her town and to her neighbors herself now filled with the wonder of Jesus, this stranger she meets and with whom she converses.

The jar left behind by Jacob’s well that day.  John records this in his Gospel account not as an incidental note; he leaves that jar sitting there in plain view for you and me to see and to contemplate its meaning.  “This is an icon,” John is telling us.  “It is a graphic symbol full of meaning”.   “It signifies what this woman has left behind so that she may take up the life of the Messiah, the Christ, whom she has now met.”

The jar left behind is John’s challenge to us:  what must you leave behind, dear reader?  what must I leave behind? what thing once so essential to us must we set aside with no further thought because of what we have discovered in Jesus?

With my uncle, that tiny bit of iron and wire he kept in his shirt pocket signified years of drinking himself into drunkenness.  The mouth harp reminded him of money lost in bars and in lost work, friends with whom he once shared a way of life from whom he had to separate himself to find a new life of sobriety.

For this Samaritan woman, the jar represented all that she had brought with her that day to Jacob’s well that could have kept her from receiving this new life God had for her through Jesus.

What she brought with her in that noontime hour was a cultural heritage forged in racial hatred and religious dispute.  What she brought with her under that blistering sun was her own identity as a woman living in a society with rigorous constraints on her value and her utility to men.

She brought to the well a habit of mind that elevated the inconsequential to the level of the insurmountable.  She brought with her a defiant spirit founded not on clinging with integrity to her ideals.  Her defiance lay in the deep wounds of personal failure.  To put it mildly and politely, her life was complicated.

Jesus and his disciples are on the road again.  They’ve left the Jerusalem area, in south-central Palestine.  They’re walking north to return to Galilee up in the far north.

We call it Palestine now.  What it was to the Jews in the first century was the once glorious but now compromised Promised Land.  It was once the proud kingdom of Israel, brought to its fulfillment under the reign of King David.  Israel, under the Kingship of David, was the pinnacle in Jewish history, when all the Twelve Tribes–north, central, and south—were united.

But subsequent leaders had squandered the Jews’ rich heritage.  Within in a mere two generations, following King David’s death,  the nation of Israel has split into two kingdoms, the northern one with a majority of tribes, named Israel.  The southern kingdom, with only two of the tribes, was now called Judah.  The fortunes of these two nations  rose and fell across the centuries, until finally, the Assyrians swept in and destroyed Israel to the north.

The Assyrians forced the essential citizens of Israel into exile.  Then, the Assyrians took people they’d conquered from other nations and resettled them in Israel, to mix with the Jews who were left behind to tend the land.  It was these people who became the Samaritans.

Stretching across the midriff of Palestine like a bad case of hives lay Samaria.  How the Jews hated the Samaritans.  The Samaritans were a constant reminder of the Jews’ wasted fortunes.  The Samaritans occupied land and holy sites of the Jews’ own religious and national heritage, such as Jacob’s well, and claimed them as their own.

The Samaritans had taken on some of the Jews’ own Scripture, claiming the five Books of the Law as their own religious heritage and then, in the view of most Jews, the Samaritans twisted and distorted that Scripture to justify their existence and their claim to the promises of God.

Last Sunday, Iowa Congressman Steve King made a big splash in the news.  He posted this tweet:  “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Later asked by CNN interviewer Chris Cuomo to clarify his comments, King said he “meant exactly what I said.”

“You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and…you need to teach your children your values,” King said. “In doing so, you can grow your population, you can strengthen your culture, and you can strengthen your way of life.” 1

Those words of Congressman King could have come straight out of the mouths of first-century Jews to express their disdain for the Samaritans then occupying the middle territory of their once great kingdom ruled by King David a thousand years before.

Which is why this woman is so taken aback, first, to see this Jew sitting at a well in Samaritan territory, and, then, she is incredulous that he would actually acknowledge her presence by speaking to her, and actually asking to drink from a jar that had touched Samaritan lips.

Think back a mere 60 years to our own state and community.  Could you imagine a white man asking a black woman if he might step up next to her and take a drink from a water fountain marked “colored only”?   You can imagine that woman’s shock and suspicion and fear that this conversation was even happening

All of that animus and mistrust lies deep within the psyche of this woman, as deep as the water that lay at the bottom of Jacob’s well and as ancient as the stones surrounding that well.

But, at that well in Samaria, Jesus sat himself down–tired, hungry, thirsty.  Jesus sees this woman approach where he sits, a woman whom his culture has been encouraged him to hate, a woman whom his religion has taught him to despise, a woman whom his people’s leaders have prayed God to send the Messiah who will purge their land of such foreigners, a woman so beneath the dignity of a man to address directly as though an equal, because of her gender and because of her infamy as a sinner.

It is all too much for this woman to take in.  This man, this Jew, his simple but wildly inappropriate request for a drink of water…it dares to strip away and expose her life at every level of her being.

So, instead, she fends for herself by retreating behind the most inconsequential minutia of practicality:  verse 11, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with…you have no jar..and this is one deep well.”

She seeks to put Jesus in his place by resorting to what in her eyes is so obvious any fool should see it:  verse 12, “Do you think you can do better than our founding father, Jacob, who built this well that not only sustained the lives of his family but the lives of generations of families right up to this day?”

She attempts to deflect Jesus into the always tempting digressions of religious discussion:  verses 19 and 20, “Sir, you must be a prophet, so let’s talk about the relative merits of where’s the best place to worship God.”

Failing to dissuade Jesus from addressing anything of present significance for her own life, she turns to the what she is sure even he, a Jew, and she, a Samaritan, might agree on:  verse 25, “God is working out a divine plan, and when the Messiah finally comes, he’ll explain it all.”

What Messiah might that be whom God will send someday to “show us all things”?

It’s the Messiah who knows in his own flesh and bones what it means to be tired and hungry and thirsty with no means to satisfy those needs.  It’s the Messiah who dares sit alone in the territory of the ancient enemies of his people.  It’s the Messiah who dares extend to a woman the same deference as he would extend to a man.  It’s the Messiah who would risk the taint of a woman with whom her own village women would not associate.

It is this Jesus with whom she has been sparring back and forth, back and forth, who desires only a simple drink of water from her and who in turn, offers her the life and love of God.  Verse 26, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am he…I am just the kind of Messiah who would speak with one such as you.”

Just then, the disciples of Jesus show up, and according to verse 27, they are just as appalled to find their Master speaking with a woman and the woman herself was appalled by his speaking with her.  Their reasons, of course, are totally from the other side, though.  They are appalled as Jews who longed for God to restore the kingdom to Israel, as Jews who dared think this Jesus, this descendent of David, just might be the promised Messiah King.  Most of all, they are appalled simply as men to see this Righteous Man violate all norms of propriety and status and authority accorded to men over women.

But, note this about these disciples:  as John tells us in verse 27, not a one of them is willing to say out loud to Jesus what they are thinking.  They’ve learned, you don’t say such things to their Master unless you want to hear chapter and verse just how wrong they’ve gotten most everything about God and the kingdom of God.  They’ve learned to keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut.

In the meantime, John tells us in verse 28, “leaving her jar behind, the woman went back to town”; she is filled with wonder that she may have just had an encounter with the Christ.

Have you had an encounter with the Living Christ?  The Christ of this Gospel, as told by Matthew and Mark and Luke, and—for us, this Sunday—as told by John?

What inhibits us from embracing this Christ?  What necessity do you or I think we must keep on carrying, day in and day out, which an encounter with Christ would supersede and reduce to an afterthought?  What encumbers our free and full proclamation of this Good News, that would entice others to come and meet Jesus?

From what wells deep and ancient do we draw what we thinks sustains, while Jesus sits close at hand to offer us living water which quenches what this world cannot satisfy?

What jar must you leave  behind?

_____________________________

Theodore Schleifer, “King Doubles Down Controversial ‘Babies’ Tweet”, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/13/politics/steve-king-babies-tweet-cnntv/

 

Strawberry Fields Forever

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 12, 2017
Scripture: John 3:1-11, 16-17

 

In 1967, the Beatles released a 45 rpm record that gave the music industry quite a jolt.   On one side of the 45 was the song, “Penny Lane”, written by Paul McCartney; on the other side was “Strawberry Fields Forever”, written by John Lennon.

Both songs recalled locales from The Beatles’ childhood years.   Penny Lane was a bus stop where Paul McCartney as a boy would catch rides to go meet up with his friends.   Strawberry Fields was a children’s home run by the Salvation Army which had a garden where John Lennon and his friends would go to play.

So, 1967, here’s this 45 rpm record, two songs recalling childhood gathering spots with friends, both songs by the same quartet, the Beatles.  But, that’s where the similarities ended.

Lyrically and instrumentally, these two songs diverged dramatically.   “Penny Lane” has lots of place references that anyone could recognize; there’s a bus stop and a fire house and a bank and a barber shop.  Those are common reference points for most anyone. The tune of “Penny Lane” is bright and lyrical and vibrant and very accessible.

Then, you flip over the 45 and play “Strawberry Fields Forever”. It goes off into some whole other direction known as “psychedelic”.  The lyrics are more like riddles, the tune keeps shifting keys, the tempo is weird.  They did things with the editing in the studio that just weren’t done in producing a typical pop song of the day.

D.J.’s, fans, other bands, record executives, wondered:   “what in the world is this record, with this strange song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”?  Most of all, they wanted to know, “how can we possibly get in on it?”  Because, this standard 45 rpm record The Beatles had put out there on the market clearly was something new and significant that marked a major shift in popular music.

That’s something of what Jesus was doing.  Yes, what Jesus did was a early first century Palestinian version of The Beatles’ 1967 release.  Nicodemus and his brethren on the Sanhedrin, they could follow along and tap their toes to the “Penny Lane” variations of their faith.   Then, along came Jesus on the flip side.  He took the words and the tunes and the tempos of that same faith inheritance and reconfigured them into a different kind of “Strawberry Fields Forever” song.

All the Jesus-fans; other rabbis; especially, that exclusive group of religion executives known as the Sanhedrin; they all wondered, “What in the world is that Jesus from Nazareth is putting out there?”

One of these religion executives named Nicodemus considered whether he might like to get in on whatever this new thing was that Jesus was doing.   On the surface, Jesus spoke of things with which Nicodemus could identify, because he and Jesus shared many common points of understanding of God.  Yet, Jesus’ way was so different as to be downright impenetrable to Nicodemus.  He wants to know and to understand what the lyrics mean that are coming out of Jesus.

Knowing and understanding.   Knowing and understanding  were to Nicodemus what making music is to a musician.  Knowing and understanding the things of God are what Nicodemus thrives on.  Could it be that this young rabbi from Nazareth knows and understands something of God that he’s missed, something that’s more or different?  He has to be very careful about these questions he has, given his position in the religion business.

This has to be a private meeting between him and Jesus; no one else can know.  So, Nicodemus goes out after hours and catches up with Jesus.   It’s nighttime.  It’s a great time to skulk about; the sun gone down, everybody gone home, shut their doors, gone to bed.

Nicodemus finds Jesus.   He begins with what seems to be a safe-enough statement, there in verse 2.  “we know that you are a teacher come from God”.

Nicodemus is hedging when he says “we”.  He’s hiding his own doubts, in the safety of the larger group of Sanhedrin.  His encounter might go badly, word somehow might get back to the Council that he’s met with Jesus–who know exactly what Nicodemus’ fears were?  He’s covering his backside:  “Well, that’s not what I really thought; it’s what everyone else thought…it’s the safety of the group.

But, likely, the “we” of whom Nicodemus speaks doesn’t really include many others of the Council, if any at all, in fact.   I seriously doubt that Nicodemus took a straw poll earlier that day among his fellow execs in the Sanhedrin.

Nicodemus is out there on his own, under cover of darkness, because this is his personal quest to know and to understand Jesus.

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.

Nicodemus extends Jesus the courtesy of acknowledging Jesus’ standing as a rabbi.  He offers Jesus a degree of religious authority, which Jesus should have received as a great honor coming from a member of the Sanhedrin.

It’s like the elder, senior executive coming into the cubical of a lowly entry-level employee and saying, “I’m sure you’ve got some great ideas that you might to share with me so I can better run this great company.”

Jesus says, “nope; not playing that game with you.”  Whatever Jesus has to say to Nicodemus will come from within Jesus’ own sense of authority, whether Nicodemus chooses to acknowledge it or not.   “Not sure who this ‘we’ may be, Nicodemus, nor what you all think you know about me, but truly, truly, I say to you, this is what I do know.”  Jesus speaks out of his own authority.

Three times Jesus will set himself in counterpoint to Nicodemus, each time beginning with Truly, truly, I say to you.   He does it immediately in verse 3, in verse 5 and in verse 11.

With his first, “truly, truly” in verse 3, Jesus pivots off Nicodemus’s status as a religious elder.  Nicodemus has earned his standing through education, through religious service and leadership, through the wisdom of his long years.   That’s how he’s come to receive this great honor of serving on the Sanhedrin Council.  Jesus tosses it all out the window in verse 3.

Truly, truly, I say to you, Nicodemus, unless one is born anew…born over again…born from above…he cannot see the kingdom of God.   The phrase is a little ambiguous, whether it’s “born anew”, or “born over again” or “born from above”.

Nicodemus chooses to go with the literal and silliest choice, “born over again.”   How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?   Thanks for that image, Nicodemus!

But, Jesus runs with it, with his  “Truly, truly” number two, in verse 5:   Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Some folks like to see “born of water” as referring to baptism; that’s possible.

But, I agree with others who think Jesus is playing off of Nicodemus’s reference to physical birth when he says “born of water”.  That’s the moment when the expectant Mom announces to everybody that her water’s broken; get me to the hospital!   In that watery moment, the process of physical birthing has begun.

There also is a process of spiritual birthing that must begin.  It begins with the Holy Spirit generating spiritual life within a person.   That’s the way one enters this spiritual reality Jesus likes to call, “the kingdom of God”.  You and I can’t generate nor sustain spiritual life.   We can’t do that.   We’re mortal; we do well just to keep our mortal selves alive and healthy, and eventually, we can’t even do that.

Only the Holy Spirit of God can infuse and sustain the eternal life-force within mortal beings.  This is what Jesus means in verse 6, flesh gives birth to flesh; the Spirit of God births spirit.

This verse 6 opens up the way for a digression worth making.   “Flesh gives birth to flesh; the Spirit of God births spirit.”  In other words, my mother could birth me as her mortal child.   But however hard she tried, Mom could not birth me as God’s eternal child.   The only mom that ever got to do that was Mary, mother of Jesus.

God dearly loves every single baby ever born to any mom, anywhere, at any time.  God fully intends that every infant mature across the years of childhood into an awareness beyond herself or himself, into an awareness of God’s intimate love for them, a love which they then embrace for themselves.

A child may be a royal terror to adults, but that doesn’t make the child a sinner in God’s sight.  That just makes them children who need the guidance and discipline of the adults responsible for them.

Well, what about babies and children and original sin?  For the most part, a lot of what is said about original sin is just a bunch of religious trash talk.   Babies are not born tainted by some sort of original sin which would, therefore, mean they are born already cursed of God.  The only curse children are born into is being born into a world corrupted by the sins of those who’ve come before them.

It works this way:  God’s love reaches out in constant pleasure upon every child, the way sunlight warms the ground drawing forth the seed to germinate and sprout and bear fruit.  That’s the Holy Spirit working, and the process often goes as God intends.  Tragically, too often this response to God’s love gets delayed and delayed and delayed, and the ground becomes hardened and thorn-infested and besieged by prey, as Jesus once described in a well-known parable, the Parable of the Sower.

That’s why the Lord sends workers out to chase away the prey and rip up the thorns and break open the hard ground and plant new seed:  that our call to evangelism:  “good news!  God still loves you despite the years that have gone by and despite whatever you’ve been doing all those years.”

O.k., that’s the end of our digression on verse 6.

Apparently, verse 6 confuses Nicodemus; we can assume that based on what Jesus says in verse 7, Don’t look so befuddled, Nicodemus, that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew’”.  So, Jesus switches metaphors.   Instead of birth, he talks about the wind.

Jesus uses the same word for “wind” that can also be translated as “Spirit”, so not only is Jesus switching up metaphors, he also is making a pun.   The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

The wind is always blowing somewhere.   The elements of wind are always present:  you’ve got the atmosphere itself and the heating and cooling and low pressure fronts and the high pressure fronts slipping under and over each other and creating atmospheric turbulence we call the wind.  The wind is always moving and interacting with everything in its path.

The point Jesus is making to Nicodemus is:   we don’t command the wind.  The wind is simply there, and the wind does its own thing.   All we can do is experience its presence and its effects upon us.

So, Jesus says to Nicodemus, to enter the kingdom of God, this community of God’s beloved, is like a baby born of the parents’ love and essence; or, to come alive to God is like being awakened by the wind brushing across one’s face:  that’s what the moment of entering God’s Kingdom is like, Nicodemus, says Jesus.

No doubt, by this time finding himself thoroughly exasperated, verse nine reports, “Nicodemus asked Jesus, ‘How can this be?’   To which Jesus answered, ‘Really? Are you a religious person who claims to lead others but you don’t get this most basic truth?’”

Which leads Jesus to his third declaration.   This third “truly, truly” takes them full circle to where Nicodemus started off this little chat in the dark.   Remember, Nicodemus started off in verse 2  by claiming what “we” know based on what “we” have witnessed.

So, in verse 11, Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; [the problem lies with you all, Nicodemus, for] you do not receive our testimony.

Receiving.  Receiving.   Maybe that’s the problem.  Nicodemus and his fellow execs on the Sanhedrin are not the folks accustomed to “receiving” anything, especially things of God.   Instead, they are the ones who pass judgment, who hand out decisions, who issue the orders.  They’re not geared to receiving; they’re in charge.

With each of these three declarations, Jesus hammers away at Nicodemus’s sense of control and entitlement and authority over matters of God and Spirit.   This unseen yet present reality we call the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, you don’t choose that life:  that life first must come to you, and you follow the Spirit.

Well, where does that leave us?  It leaves us mortals in pretty bad fix is where it leaves us.  It leaves us with absolutely no hope except one:  that God chooses to give us that birth, to send that invigorating wind, to impress of that testimony upon our souls.  God alone, saves us.   So, it’s a very good thing God is in a saving frame of mind toward humanity.

One Saturday, Karen and I went strawberry picking in a beautiful strawberry field out in Nelson County.   As we started picking berries at the end of our row of strawberry plants, a young family with two little kids started picking berries just a few rows over.  One of the children was a little boy probably 3 years old, maybe 4.

At the very first plant he comes to, the little boy says:  “Daddy, daddy, I found a strawberry!” “O.K.,” says Dad, “pull it off and put it in your bucket.”  Two seconds later, the little boy with great delight shouts, “Daddy, I found another one!”  “O.K.  If it looks like it’s ripe, then pull it off and put it in your bucket.”

A third time this little boy announces with great surprise and delight to his parents, “I found another one!”  Then, he seemed to catch on:  there were strawberries everywhere around him to be found.  So, he settled in to picking and filling his little bucket.

Jesus spoke of birth and wind, and I’m using strawberries.  Spread before us, children of God and children of this world, are acres of strawberry fields, up the hillside and on over the rise beyond where we can yet see; “strawberry fields forever”.  We do not have to worry about God providing fresh strawberries for us to find.

God is generous beyond our asking or imagining or desiring.   God has caused to spring up at our feet and all around us as far as the soul’s eye might see, the rich fruit of God’s own Self, God’s own Spirit.

But will we see, as with that child’s delight, “I found one!”   God most certainly will then say to us, “well, pull it off and receive it…it’s yours to have.”

This was and is and always shall be our salvation.  In whatever way your soul perceives the Spirit of God testifying to you, in whatever way you as a congregation discern the Spirit of God leading you, then, please, “pick that fruit and put it in your bucket” while it’s still in season.

Hiding Places

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 5, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 32 

 

“My Precious!” “My Precious!”  Many of you will recognize who spoke those two words.

If ever there was an illustration tailor-made to Psalm 32, it is Tolkien’s trilogy fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings.   At the heart of the conflict is who will control the magical gold ring of the evil Lord, Sauron.

Through many and long misadventures the gold ring is lost until the day two simple and innocent hobbits named Deagol and Smeagol find the ring.  The gold ring immediately asserts is diabolical powers over the two hobbit friends, with Smeagol finally strangling to death his friend, Deagol, so that he alone may possess the gold ring.

Over the many years that follow, Smeagol hides himself away so no one dare discover his precious possession, the gold ring.  In his secretive and isolated existence, the hobbit, Smeagol, deteriorates and transforms in a withered and wretched creature known as Gollum.   Gollum is consumed with only one passion, jealously hiding and guarding and adoring the gold ring he now calls, “My Precious!”

Our Psalmist would have appreciated Gollum’s desperate plight.  Keep in mind, this writer of Psalm 32 was a good person.  He was among God’s covenant people.  In the eyes of his community, he was a wise man and teacher; probably he was a priest.

He, most definitely, was not among the unclean and unredeemed people known in the Hebrew as the “goyim”.  But, though he was not among the goyim, he seems well on his way toward becoming some kind of ancient Gollum.

There had come a time in his life when he seized upon some desire, some act, which in turn, had laid hold on him.  He could not let it go, whatever it was.

The consequences, he recalls now for his listeners, were devastating:

“When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through
my groaning all day long.
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength
was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (verse 3)

Whatever this man’s sin was, he understood his action was contrary to God as he had come to know and to understand God.

The Hebrew word for “sin”, you’ll recall, means “to miss the mark”.  It means that you knew you were supposed to be aiming your efforts one way.  But, for whatever reason, you missed it.  Apparently, this guy missed the mark in a big way.

But, he says, in verse 3, I couldn’t admit my failing to God, “I declared not my sin”, he says.  He persists in denying the truth of this betrayal of conscience between himself and God.  Instead, by what he says in verse 5, he did what?  He tried to hide his sin from God.

The energy it takes him to keep up the pretense that “all is well with my soul” brings him to the brink of ruin.  Thankfully, finally, he just gives up.  He surrenders himself to God, ready to face whatever consequences must come.  He recalls, in verse 5, “I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity [anymore]; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’”

 What happened next is not what he feared would happen.  Whatever his dread of God’s retribution, he discovered that fear and dread of God were unfounded.  He recalls the experience, in wonder and in worship, “thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.”  And, then, God never mentions it again.

In verse 5, the writer uses a phrase to describe how he once hid his sin from God. It’s the exact same phrase he uses up in verse 1, where he writes of God hiding the psalmist’s now-forgiven sin.  In verse 5, he says he had covered up his unconfessed sin in hope that God would not see him for what he had done.  In verse 1, he says that, even better, God covered up his confessed sin so nobody—not even God—ever saw it again.

The psalmist does mention hiding in one other place in his account.  Down in verse 7, he says with great assurance before God, “thou art a hiding place for me, thou preservest me from trouble; thou does encompass me with deliverance.”  This time, the phrase “hiding place” comes from a whole other word in the Hebrew language than the word he used earlier to speak of his hiding his sin from God and God then hiding his confessed and forgiven sin.

With God, we never have to play this desperate game of hiding sin.  Whatever we think to hide from God, yes, God also wants to hide it, putting it far away out of sight for all time from both God and us.  So, bring that sin to God and let God deal with it in forgiveness and compassion.  God is not our enemy set upon robbing us or hurting us.  As verse 7 tells us, God “encompasses us with deliverance.”

The psalmist wants us to understand this truth he had discovered in his own life.  That’s why he’s willing to share this embarrassing story with us.  So, he challenges us with a bit of humor in verse 9, “be not like a [stubborn] horse or a [dumb] donkey,” as I was.

When I was about twelve or thirteen, I was staying with my aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm down in Pittsylvania County.  My uncle and cousins were hunters; that was an important part of their rural identity.  Hunting was not at all part of my upbringing.

So, while I was staying with them, my uncle thought it might be good to introduce me to using a shotgun.

He took me out to the edge of some woods that bordered a pasture, well away from anything that I might accidentally shoot.  He brought along a paper target he was going to clothes-pin to a bush for me to shoot at.

My uncle broke open the barrel and showed me how to insert the shell into the chamber.  He closed the barrel, and then he paused with great deliberation and said, “these triggers are very sensitive, so you don’t rest your finger on the trigger.  You keep it outside of the trigger guard until you’re ready to take your shot.”

Then, without thinking better of it, my uncle gave me the shotgun to hold while he walked over to clothes-pin the paper target to a bush.   And, of course, as my uncle walks away from me, I naturally turn my body in the direction whence my uncle was now walking with his back to me.

As my uncle began pinning the target on the bush, apparently I let my finger come to rest on the trigger.  Instantly, KABOOM! and just to the left of my uncle’s derriere a grouping of bushes flew apart in a flutter of leaves as birdshot scattered through them.

My uncle, with great control so as not to run back and throttle his nephew, turned and looked at me from his kneeling position, and firmly said, “I told you those triggers are sensitive and not to do that, didn’t I?”  “Yes, sir, you did,” I replied.  “I’m sorry.” And, that was that.

I had missed the mark in the biblical sense by neglecting what my uncle had told me about the trigger.  Thankfully, I also missed hitting my uncle’s backside with birdshot.  My uncle never mentioned that incident to me again.  I know for a fact, he never told my own father, because my Dad would have really laid into me one way or the other if he’d found out I had nearly shot his brother.

For my uncle and cousins, a shotgun was not a weapon of self-defense.  It was a tool for providing wild game for themselves to eat because they enjoyed it.  But, the shotgun also is a tool that can bring terrible harm, intended or not, as I almost demonstrated when I ignored my uncle’s attempts to teach me its proper use.

God has entrusted to us these incredible tools of human soul and human mind and human aspiration and human body.  Sometimes through ignorance, oftentimes through willful neglect, and sometimes through malicious intent, we misuse what God has entrusted to us.  We miss the mark.  We sin.

However this psalmist had missed the mark with God, yes, God knew, just as certainly as my uncle knew the instant I ignored his warning about the trigger.  God in some way spoke to this man about what he’d done, not in words, but in this psalmist’s own God-shaped conscience, his God-informed understanding spoke to him of his sin.

We dare not try to hide from God nor should we dare hold on to what would make us want to hide from God in the first place.  We can offer ourselves and our sins openly to God, to be forgiven, to be released of that burden, and to be restored into the full and unfettered joy of God’s love for us.

Then, we can join the psalmist in verse 11, and “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice…and shout for joy…you [also] upright in heart.”

 

 

The MoJo of Jesus

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 26, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 17: 1-9

Transfiguration Sunday

 

“The MoJo of Jesus”…what in the world could that possibly be?  Well, let’s first consider how “mojo” is generally described.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith describes mojo as “that positive spirit—toward what we are doing—now—that starts from the inside—and radiates to the outside.”1

He says that “Our Mojo is apparent [to others] when the positive feelings toward what we are doing are coming from inside us and are evident for others to see.”

Goldsmith’s description captured my attention:  Mojo—that positive spirit that radiates so others can see it.  I read Goldsmith’s words about the same time that I was first reading this Scripture, anticipating this Sunday.

This Sunday in the Christian year we call “Transfiguration Sunday”.  It’s our annual remembrance of this moment in our Lord’s life, when he takes Peter, James, and John up on this mountain and there, as Matthew describes it, “… he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (verse 2).

The word Matthew uses there for transfigured you’ll recognize; it’s the word “metamorpho-o”.  We usually learn that word in elementary school when it comes to caterpillars and butterflies:  the seemingly magical process where a yucky caterpillar spins its way into a grayish, boring pod, where it then appears to sit inert and dead.  Then one day, out comes a beautiful winged creature called a “butterfly”.  It’s the process of metamorphosis.

Same word as Matthew uses here:  Jesus was metamorphosed in a way that expressed an inner reality that normally was not apparent to the physical eyes of the disciples, as though his mortal body were the cocoon and his inner spiritual self was the butterfly.

The transfiguration of this mortal, Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth:  his face, now says Matthew, turning into a visage of brilliant, radiant light like the sun’s own brightness.  Apparently, his body was shining this same light causing his clothing to turn an incandescent white like the filament of a light bulb.

I thought of Matthew’s description of Jesus’ transfigured body and Goldsmith’s description of Mojo as “positive spirit…that starts from the inside—and radiates to the outside….evident for others to see”.

That’s it, isn’t it?  The Transfiguration of Jesus was the MoJo of Jesus made plain.  But, again, then, what exactly was this Mojo of Jesus?

People speculate that the Transfiguration was Jesus’ divinity spilling out of him, like water getting squished out of a wet sponge.  A sponge can be quite wet even if it’s not dripping  wet, but give it a squeeze and out the water squirts through all those pores.

Was the Transfiguration that?  Was Jesus’ mojo his  supernatural essence, superseding his mortal flesh?  Was Jesus like some amazing supernatural burrito, flesh enwrapping a divine filling? Thankfully, the early church rejected such a simplistic understanding of Jesus, as though he existed in two neatly separated parts, body and spirit.

Well, what was the Transfiguration, then, if it wasn’t the divine nature of Eternal Christ shining out through the pores of the mortal flesh of Jesus?  I’ll tell you what it was:  it was the MoJo of Jesus showing through, that’s what it was.  And it’s to be our Mojo, too.

I would define the MoJo of Jesus this way:  it is Jesus’ “Moment of Joy On-Going”.  I know it’s kind of corny, you know, “M-o, J-O…Moment of Joy On-Going”, but for Jesus, I think that’s it:  Jesus’ MoJo was that he knew, he experienced, he felt in his inner most self, God’s joy in him and his joy returned to God.  That was what was radiated from him there on that mountaintop.

Before you pooh-pooh that claim, go watch children at play when they don’t know they’re being watched.  It’s sheer joy wiggling out their bodies.  Go watch two people very much in love looking into one another’s faces when they don’t know they’re being watched.  Their faces glow in the pleasure each finds in the other.  Go watch a grandparent being all goo-gooey with their grandchildren.  They glow with delight in the children of their children.

You can’t separate the two…the emotion of joy and the physiology of joy.

Physicists describe four fundamental interactive forces at work in the universe.  There’s gravity, there’s electromagnetism, and there’s two others called “strong nuclear” force and “weak nuclear” force.  These four invisible forces interact with matter from the sub-atomic to the intergalactic.  You and I would not be what we are except as these four forces interact with the stuff that is us.

There is, though, a fifth fundamental interactive force at work in this material universe.  You all know it.  It is love.  Love, plain and simple.  You can’t quantify love, you can’t hold on to it, and yet love interacts with every bit of matter, because there is no bit of matter in this universe that can be shielded from the presence of its Creator and Sustainer, God.  Even God cannot be separated from the interactive force of love because God is love itself, says the Scripture.  1 John 4:8 says, “The one who does not love does not know God for God is love.”

And I would argue that the prime evidence of love’s presence is joy.  Joy, as in delight:  exuberant and radiating at its best, though subtle when required.  But whether shining brilliantly without reservation or contained out of the wisdom of necessity, God who is love delights in every bit of God’s creation, and we humans are the fortunate ones whom God created to understand and to mirror that love as we delight in God.

It is a joyful moment when a person glimpses the love with which God delights in him or her.  It’s like nothing else in this created order because its source lies not within creation; it originates within our Creator.  If we in our lifetimes get but a single glimpse or two of God’s joy in us, it is enough to propel us into ecstasy.

Consider, then, Jesus, who never allowed anything to dim that joy in his own experience.  Whatever he had to surrender, whatever sacrifice, he made for his ultimate joy in God.  Jesus knew that Moment of Joy On-going.

That’s the limitation on Goldsmith’s description of Mojo.  His description I think is a good one, but it’s self-limiting because it’s entirely self-referencing.  Goldsmith’s Mojo:  “that positive spirit—toward what we are doing—now—that starts from the inside—and radiates to the outside.”

Yes, it’s our task of maturing, to grow up to become a person who knows who we are in our values and our aspirations and to live with integrity according to our values and our aspirations.

But, there is so much more to life than living with integrity to ourselves; it’s our living with integrity to God.  It is the intentional living in the ever-present experience of God’s love because God is the overriding joy in our lives.  Whatever threatens to divest us of that joy of God, whatever lesser source of joy presents itself in distraction or betrayal from our joy in God, we turn away from it.  That’s the meaning of repentance.

Jesus, this child of Mary and Joseph did that, over and over, as his growing years challenged him in all the ways our growing years challenge us, challenging Jesus to dampen the joy of God within him.  Yet, he persisted where we all failed, and that divine joy continued in Jesus undiminished and growing.

Into his young adulthood, Jesus chose the joy of God, moment by moment until that moment he realized he could not remain there in Nazareth as the dutiful son of Mary; he could not remain in his father’s service as the dutiful apprentice to Joseph’s craft; he was more God’s Son than he was their son.

Here, in this moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, God calls on Peter, James, and John, in verse 5:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  God speaks now of Jesus on this day of Transfiguration just as God spoke on that earlier day by the shores of the River Jordan,  as Jesus came up from the water at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:17)

Jesus knew God’s delight not as a proposition written on a page and memorized in his head.  Jesus knew God’s great pleasure not as a fleeting feeling of euphoria.  Jesus knew God’s delight in him as one, constant moment drawn through every moment of his mortal life:  this Moment of Divine Joy On-Going.

It was this Mojo of Jesus that kept him on-track and going despite everything else that could have tripped him up in the clutter of life and despite the abuse that stripped away at his humanity.

That, indeed, is where Jesus now finds himself.  Jesus can see where it’s all headed as he heads for Jerusalem.  To continue true to God, to keep on bearing witness of God who is love, will bring his death.  Jesus knows he is about to have his dignity, literally his flesh, stripped off of him.  But, he keeps on going up to Jerusalem.  How?  Why?  Because of the abiding presence of joy he knew in God’s love.  There is now nothing left for him to deny or surrender; all that is left is the pure joy of God radiating from within him.

Interpreters of this passage typically say this experience of transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah at Jesus’ side in conversation with him…this is all about strengthening Jesus for the trial he is about to endure.  No doubt, that is true.  But, it is not only for Jesus’ benefit; it is also very much for the benefit of Peter, James, and John.  Through their later witness, it will be for the encouragement of all of Jesus’ followers.  Jesus knew, they all would need this vivid reminder of Jesus’ own joy as they also experienced the demands of the cross.

See how Matthew introduces the Transfiguration?  Verse 1, “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.”  Six days after what?  What’s the reference point there for Matthew’s first readers?  Six days after what?

Six days after Jesus has told them about their own crosses.  As Matthew records in chapter 16, beginning with verse 24, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

Will they cling to all the stuff of this world, or will they falter under the load of abuse that must come their way?  Or, will they leave all that aside in order to cling to the Jesus who is their joy?

Matt Paxton is a member of the Richmond church where I served as interim pastor before coming to serve here with you.  You may not know Matt’s name, but you probably do know something about what he does for a living.  Matt worked up until very recently for the  A&E cable channel show, “Hoarders”.

Matt Paxton and his crew are the men and women who actually come in and haul out the stuff until the house or the apartment are empty, and then they do the final cleaning so the person can move back in.

Before he removes the first thing, Matt says he goes in and talks with the obsessive hoarder about all the possessions and the meaning those things have for him or her.  He tries to help them do a kind of mental and emotional sorting through of their things.  Matt assures them he’s not there to rob them or deprive them.  When he’s satisfied that the owner understands his purpose, then Matt and his crew don their protective gear and get to work.

That profound mental illness that culminates in a literally life-threatening clutter is the extremity of what Jesus reasons with his followers, “what will it profit any of you if you gain all the stuff of this world only to forfeit your lives?”  (chapter 16:26)  Why surrender your ultimate joy, Jesus was challenging his followers, choose God’s Moment of Joy On-Going for themselves at whatever the cost.

What’s that kind of MoJo look like?  It looks like a metamorphosis happening in your life; it looks like a transfiguration.

Do you each know just how much God delights in you?  Do you grasp what pleasure your life brings to God?  Can you say, without embarrassment, without self-censoring, without self-reproach, “God rejoices in me.  God who is love, loves me.”

Not in theory, mind you; not hinging on some if, and, or but.  The love of God penetrates through the darkness of the Universe, pierces through the cloud cover of earth’s atmosphere, ranges far and wide across the landscape until coming to rest right on you and, there, God’s love having found you, God smiles with a smile only you can bring to God.  If you understand that reality, if that is your experience, how could you not radiate like a hot neon light glowing in the darkness too much in this world?

God’s love is not for you to earn; it is present for you to receive.  The Spirit of the Resurrected Lord Jesus, the Christ, continues to make that experience real.  That’s some kind of MoJo to have at work in you and at work through you.

 


1 Marshall Goldsmith, Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back When You Need It, (NY: Hyperion, 2009), p.5.

 

Uncommon Sense

Preached by Rev. Donna Hopkins Britt, February 19, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48, Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18

Rev. Donna Hopkins Britt

When Thomas Paine was writing Common Sense in the mid-1770’s, many people in the American colonies were pleased to have the king of England as their head of state.  Yes, it was a long 4,000-mile sail to England to ask permission for various things; yes, there were other problems; but they couldn’t imagine those problems being worth a revolt.  Better just to leave things the way they are.

Thomas Paine sought to prove that, if they remained tied to England, there would be no status quo.  Things would get worse for people in the Colonies, no matter what.  Better to take a stand, he expressed: establish their independence and their own government.  The greater gain was worth the losses; that was “common sense.”

As in the American colonies, Jesus and his followers were living under foreign rule.  Rome was their distant ruler.  Like the colonies, if Jesus and those like him stayed in their place, accepting foreign rule, there would be the appearance of peace.  If they protested, or revolted, they knew they would experience the harsh weight of the Roman Empire.  Fear works; it is how many governments stay in control.  If you saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, you may remember how those in control deterred disobedience, such as by pirates.

When living under a ruler one preferred were not in power, how does one live in a way that would please God? How does one live as a faithful disciple of Jesus?

Jesus sought to explain his uncommon form of living to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s Gospel passage is taken. We’re about a third of the way through the Sermon.  Jesus started with the Beatitudes, if you’re familiar with them, and he has continued with six “antitheses,” they’re called; six contrasts that begin with, “You have heard that it was said …” where Jesus reminds of them of Hebrew scriptures, as we have been reminded this morning. Common knowledge, such as the scriptures, was common sense.

But then Jesus contrasts this common knowledge with a radical new understanding of God’s reign: “But I say to you…” something surprising, that pierces more deeply into human nature.  Anytime we encounter this little 3-letter word “BUT” in scripture, it’s like a flashing yellow light cautioning us to “Pay attention!”

Verse 38 is # 5 in the series of 6 antitheses or contrasts, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” [This is called lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation”] 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….”

This is not common sense.  Common sense says that if you turn the other cheek, you’re setting yourself up to be a doormat; you’re setting yourself up for defeat.

The Lady of the Rivers, a book by Philippa Gregory, is set mostly in England, in the 1400’s, when turf wars were different, but still common. The English king is a devout Christian, and requests from opposing forces a truce on Palm Sunday.  When the opposing leader sends word that he does not agree with the truce, the king’s advisers recommend that his army be equipped and ready for battle.  The pious king, who was not mentally well, calls on Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”  This is not common sense.

Jesus seems to have no great concern for what makes sense to commoners like ourselves.  He sees with a different perspective. He sees with God’s eyes.

Abbé Michel Quoist wrote a book of prayers published about 70 years ago.  In one prayer, he begins his prayer to Jesus:

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

I would then see the universe, humanity, history, as the Father sees them….
Everything summed up in you, things on Earth and things in Heaven.

Jesus understood that every day, every act could be filled with love. Every part of chapter five of Jesus’ adds a wheelbarrow full of concrete to the foundation of the house of Love.  The holy house of love is not built on the gooey, fleeting feeling of new, romantic love, though that is really fun!  …Real Love is expressed in action.  It is lived.  It also is uncommon sense.

40… if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 Jesus’ goal is not merely non-retaliation, but taking what is handed to us, even if it’s malicious, and transforming it, making it better than it was.  People could sue for a coat, but if someone gave away their cloak, they would have nothing to wear.  Literally, nothing.  Roman soldiers could impress upon a commoner to carry his gear for a certain distance only. Pick up his gear, and carry it twice as far, Jesus says. And if you have something to share with someone who begs, or seeks to borrow, give.  Do not refuse.

In a book about poverty (What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty), Ruby Payne and Bill Ehlig tell of a person who was part of the poverty class.  He asked a friend to keep the money he was earning, because he knew, if someone asked for it, he would give it to them.  It wasn’t because he was threatened; it’s just the way of life.  If you have something to share, you do so.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus concludes.

Our God in heaven is perfect by being gracious and patient, generous and forgiving.  When we act like God, we are perfect … or whole, or mature, or complete, which are other translations of that Greek word “teleios.”

Jesus concludes the whole section by funneling it all down to love. If we are familiar with Leviticus, and who of us isn’t… just kidding about that … Let me start again, if we were as familiar with Leviticus as Jesus was, we would have known this regulation from the Lord:

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself….

As such, Jesus begins the final of the six antitheses:

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;

Restated: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Loving our neighbor—people who are nearby; people who are like us—can be inconvenient, but it’s not impossible.  Loving our enemies?  That seems impossible.

Most weekdays, I am in one, two, or three Roanoke City or County public schools.  It trains elementary children to prevent child abuse, or recognize and interrupt it if it’s happening to them.  Last Saturday, I represented my organization, Children’s Trust, at a local family Expo, where I loved hearing from children, “Hey, I saw you at my school!”

The best comment was from one of their moms, when she said that her daughter came home excited and told her all about what she learned!  The more we talk publicly about abuse, the more children feel able to speak up when it happens to them.

There were a couple of sad stories, too, though, like one mom who said, “Yeah, my kids have been through that.  Their dad’s locked up now, though.”

Then there was the 4th grader who stopped by once with an adult, and picked up a pinwheel, which is the symbol for child abuse prevention.  Maybe an hour later, she was still there and came back while her adult was talking at a nearby table for foster parents. I was attaching the heads of the pinwheels to the stems when she commented, “I’ve been to Children’s Trust.”

“Really?” I said, as she peeked inside a brochure about protecting children from abuse.  She read a few lines, then pushed the top trifold back down and said, “I’ve read enough.  Yep, I’ve read enough.”

She had been to the Children’s Advocacy Center, where my co-workers do forensic interviews with children who may have been abused. She had spent time with our facility dog, a black Labrador whose job it is to respond to emotional cues and comfort kids while they’re being interviewed.  She had visited the Center not on a fun school field trip; she had been there to respond to difficult questions about the trauma someone had unfairly inflicted on her.

That someone is among my set of enemies. I do not know him or her, but cannot like anyone who intentionally hurts a child.

Jesus says nothing about liking our enemies. He may not have liked unjust people either.  But Jesus does tell us to LOVE our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.  In this way, we may be children of our Father in heaven.

This is not a conditional love, as in, “Only if you accept me, I will love you”; or “If you do what’s right, then I will receive you into my kingdom.”  God blesses with sun and rain those of us who behave and those of us who misbehave; those of us who repent, and those of us who feel no remorse.  If we truly believe every single person is made in God’s image, Jesus tells us to act with love, even toward our enemies.

Does that mean that those who violate us go free? No, but we are called to pray for them.  Douglas Hare says, “Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of the response” (Matthew/Mark, Interpretation, p 60).  This is uncommon sense, and yet this is the true discipleship to which Jesus calls us:  the pathway to crucifixion.

Is there an enemy who comes to your mind?  A family member? A neighbor? A co-worker?  A church member? Someone from your past that you desperately want to forget?  What would happen if you tried to do what seems impossible and sought to love that enemy?

If that co-worker asked you to do something demeaning, what if you found a way to do more, not out of spite, but because Jesus desires it?  If that church member disrespects you, again, what if you found a way to give that person an extra dose of compassion by finding out something they need and taking it to them?  What if someone has abused you? I can’t tell you what to do there; I only know that many people who were abused as children find freedom when they tell about their abuse and begin to release their bitterness and pain, and work toward forgiving their abuser.

We become able to do such difficult things because we have seen Jesus go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, allow people to take all his clothes, love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him.  He knew that his reward was not in revenge.  His reward was not in retaliation.  His reward was found only in love.

Matthew Boulton says that “Jesus advises defiance…a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.  Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination…. The centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms” (FW Year A Vol 1 p 385).

Instead of Jesus calling us to love only the people who love us, he calls us to be uncommon, to live contrary to the selfish part of our nature.

A 14-year-old I know fits the description of “contrary.”  If it’s 15 degrees outside, he wears shorts anyway.  If it’s obvious he didn’t know something, he says, “I knew that.”  If he’s in his sister’s way and she asks him to move, he responds, “That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.”  Everything is opposite.

So it sometimes seems in God’s kingdom.  We are too used to looking at our enemies through our own eyes, and not through God’s. It is not easy to be disciples of Jesus, but it is good.  In fact, it is perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Listen again to the beginning of the prayer by Michel Quoist:

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

 

Beware the Jesus Bobblehead

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 12, 2017
Scripture:  
Matthew 5:13-20

 

 

Last Sunday, we took a look at verses 1-12 here in Matthew, chapter 5.  It’s what we commonly call The Beatitudes.  The word beatitude comes into our English from the Latin word meaning happy.  In Christian use over these many centuries, beatitude has come to mean the state of “supreme blessedness”.  The original word Matthew used meant “very fortunate”.

So, we get Jesus’ drift:  we have come into a really marvelous state of being in this life.  Nine times, Jesus says, “…blessed are you…blessed are you…blessed are you.”  I presented these beatitudes as a kind of clothing, each blessing as though an article of clothing in which we are dressed as though dressed by Jesus Christ.

To be dressed by Jesus, as we might guess, will mean that we will be differently clothed in contrast to the many ways we might be clothed in this life.  So differently clothed are we as citizens of the kingdom of God that we will encounter misunderstanding and hostility.  Jesus wants us to understand that harsh reality of opposition.  It comes in his final beatitude, in verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil nonsense against you falsely on my account.”  It means you’re wearing your Jesus-clothes well.

But, again, what does that look like, to be clothed in Christ?  Well, I have here with me this morning one way of depicting what Jesus looked like, all dressed up in his Jesus-clothes.  This is a Jesus Bobblehead that some well-meaning soul gave to me.  It’s a very Anglo-Saxon, Roman Catholic, depiction of our Palestinian Jewish Lord.

As with other bobblehead versions of famous figures, this Jesus Bobblehead has his little body, with his great big head mounted on a spring, so his head can bob around and back and forth.  It’s really handy when you need some guidance from Jesus.  “Jesus, is my wife the luckiest woman in the world?”  See!  Jesus is bobbing his head up and down: “Yes,” says Jesus Bobblehead, “that is indeed a true statement.”  Oops, no, now he seems to be changing his mind on that question.

The Jesus Bobblehead I really wanted to get is called the Buddy Christ Bobblehead.  It’s based on a movie that I won’t name because I’ve watched it a few times, and I cannot as your interim pastor, recommend it to you.

In this movie that shall not be named, there’s a Catholic Cardinal named Cardinal Glick, based in New Jersey.  Cardinal Glick wants to revive interest in the Catholic Church, so he comes up an outreach campaign called, “Catholicism WOW!”  For Cardinal Glick, the Catholic Church has an image problem; it’s the crucifix.

The crucifix is a symbol commonly associated with Catholicism.  The crucifix presents Jesus crucified on the cross, his face contorted in agony.  Cardinal Glick finds the crucifix is way too depressing.  So, he proposes to replace the crucifix with a new symbol of the faith that he calls, “the Buddy Christ”.

The Cardinal has a news conference to kick off his “Catholicism WOW!” campaign.  Next to the Cardinal is what appears to be a statue covered up with a sheet.  With a dramatic flourish, the Cardinal  pulls off the sheet revealing the life-size sculpture of “the Buddy Christ”.

Buddy Christ is based on the famous painting, The Sacred Heart of Christ.  I’m sure you’d recognize if you saw it.  It’s your iconic, handsome Caucasian Jesus, with thick long hair flowing down around his shoulders, an immaculately trimmed beard, and a bright red heart that seems to glowing out his chest.

Buddy Christ has got this wide, toothy grin.  He’s wearing this big red heart medallion on a pretty red sash across his chest. He’s winking; he’s pointing at you with one hand, while giving you the “thumbs up” sign with his other hand…he’s everybody’s Buddy, Christ.  You can get Buddy Christ’s in a fairly expensive bobblehead edition.

Jesus Bobbleheads are fun.  They’re always smiling, always bobbing, always just what they are, a big, empty-headed – and, some would say, sacrilegious – depiction of our Lord.  Jesus Bobbleheads in many forms are always tempting alternatives to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.  This world and even many preachers in this world offer to you and to me many versions of Jesus other than the Jesus who was and who is and who is to come, the Jesus who calls out, “blessed are you destitute ones, you grieving ones, you starving, thirsting ones…you are the blessed ones, for to you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus says, you are blessed, for in your need, you have sought and found what only, finally, is real:  purity of heart, mercifulness, humility, genuine peace of spirit that compels you to be a witness for peace, so much so, you willingly suffer for that peace you’ve found.  That’s why you’re harassed and persecuted.

Of these people and of us, Jesus says, you have come to the kingdom of God.  But, having once found our way, desperate, starving, thirsting, to our Lord, having been clothed in the character and qualities of our Lord, have we continued to be so clothed, have we continued to fill our closets only with the garments of Christ, or have we returned so quickly to the rags of this world?

Jesus warned his listeners there with him on that day, as Jesus warns us even in this day, we can lose that spice, we can dim the light, we can trade truth for fakery, we can walk in an apparent righteousness which is no righteousness in reality.

Or, to use my little sermon gimmick this morning, we can trade away the genuine Jesus for this more convenient and agreeable, bobblehead rendition of our Lord, and often at great sacrifice.  Our flawed and even blasphemous image of God can be very demanding and rigorous.

Jesus cautions his listeners about the most demanding, rigorous representatives of God on earth imaginable:  the Pharisees and the Scribes.  But, says Jesus in verse 20, they offer distorted images of God:  “For I tell you for a fact:  unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you’re doomed!  You will never see the inside of the kingdom of heaven.”

Well, the people must have heard Jesus say that and thought to themselves, “that can’t be right!”  “The scribes and the Pharisees know the Scriptures backwards and forwards!  The scribes and the Pharisees are the epitomes of godly righteousness!”  “Good heavens!  If that’s what it takes to please God, then we might as well just give up now!”

We need spiritual guidance; we need spiritual mentors.  Our guides and our mentors must help us to discern the leading of our real Guide and Mentor who is the Spirit of Christ, rather than themselves.

As a young man in my early twenties, I went through something of a personal spiritual revival.  Very eager to prove my worthiness of God’s favor, I thought I should get me down to our church every Tuesday evening for personal visitation.

If you’re unfamiliar with that weekly tradition, usually on a Monday evening or a Tuesday evening, a tiny clutch of church members would meet at the church building around 6:30, divvy up names and addresses of people to visit that night.  These might be recent visitors to church services or names submitted by church members of their neighbors and relatives whom they thought needed a visit.  So, we’d pair up, take two or three addresses to hit that night, say a prayer, and off we’d go.

Since I was a novice visitor, they assigned me to very experienced weekly visitor, a much older church member who’d been visiting folks on Tuesday night visitation for decades.  We’ll call him “Bob”; honestly, I don’t recall Bob’s real name.

So, Bob drove us to the first home.  We sat there in Bob’s car, reviewed the names and other information we had, said another quick prayer, and off we went up the sidewalk with Bob in the lead and me trailing putting on a brave front, knowing I was doing the right thing although dreading what lay ahead.

Lady comes to the door, welcomes us in to her living room, gathers her family there on the couch with her.  Bob sits in a chair across the room from where I take a chair.  Bob reintroduces us, “Hi, I’m Bob and this is Gary and we’re from Bon Air Church.  We were given your names because a concerned friend thought you might like to know more about our church and especially that you might want to know a little more about Jesus.”

Then, Bob looks across the room at me and smiles real big and says, “And Gary now would like tell just why he loves the Lord.”  Just like!  With no warning, Bob throws me into the deep end of the witnessing pool and expects me to put out this marvelous testimony of my faith!

“I don’t know, Bob…can’t really say off the top of my head exactly why I love the Lord.  You know, if you’d given me a little warning maybe I could come up with something to save these poor folks from their wretched spiritual state, but, no, Bob, you didn’t show me that simple courtesy, did you?”

Of course, I didn’t really say that.  In fact, knowing myself, in my admiration of Bob as such an advanced Christian witness, I’m sure that I didn’t allow myself even an inkling of reproach toward Bob.

But, I had a pretty good idea of how Bob would answer that question, so I started saying what I thought Bob would say.  I gave a pretty good Bob-witness, but I sure didn’t give a real Gary-witness as I sat there in the witness chair that night.

See how the little Jesus Bobblehead started getting shaped in me?  Not trusting that I was clothed in Christ, I started clothing myself in Bob.  I began taking on a form of faith, borrowing from this person, Bob, and other persons in their faith that all looked pretty much like a Bob sort of faith.

Somehow, I couldn’t believe that Jesus would really want me to say what was actually true:  something about how spiritually uncertain I was, how I had become, sad, confused, desperate to please Jesus and not really knowing how to do that.  How these folks here at Bon Air really seem to know what they’re doing, and they really seem to love the Lord, and they actually seem to really love me, too.  So, I just told the Lord I’ll do my best to serve you and that’s why I’m out here in your home tonight with Bob.  “And, now, back over to you, Bob!”

The scribes and Pharisees had a pretty well-set depiction of God which they expected everyone else to hold to.  The scribes and the Pharisees were all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, “the Law and the Prophets” as Jesus sums up the Hebrew Bible there in verse 17.  And, to tell you the truth, Jesus continues on there in verse 17 down through verse 19, that’s what I’m all about, too:  I’m all about knowing and keeping the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, every last dot and dash of it, and you had better be about that, too, says Jesus to his horrified listeners.

What in the world were they to do now?  The scribes and the Pharisees…these were the guys who knew how to do that!  If we can’t look to the scribes and the Pharisees to show us what it means to know and to keep every last little bit of the Law and the Prophets, then what are we to do?  Who will show us what that means?

Well, if the scribes and Pharisees won’t do it for us in the way that pleases God, then I’m pretty sure a Jesus Bobblehead of anyone’s design and construction won’t do the trick either.

Nothing I’m saying diminishes the need for you and for me to know this book.  In fact, Jesus directs a pretty severe warning to those of us who dare preach and teach among God’s people.  Right there in verse 19—Jesus includes us all, of course–but since we preachers and teachers and evangelists and other promoters of the Christian faith present ourselves as one’s who know a thing or two about God, well, we’ve got an extra responsibility, don’t we?

So, please hear me quite clearly this morning:  you yourself need to read and to grapple with the pages of this book, from Genesis on through to Revelation, and the maps in the back, too.  Out of the abundance of that study, if you do it the Jesus-way, the Spirit of God will be forming within you the fullness of Jesus because only the Spirit of God can do that in you.

It is an adventure of soul-formation.  It is a journey along which we will often stop and rest for a while, where we will pitch our tents and sometimes where we will stop and raise a religious fortress.  But, don’t be surprised if one day, the Spirit of the Living Christ comes chipping away, perhaps even sledge-hammering our way at our fortress doors.

That’s why Jesus was so critical of the scribes and the Pharisees…they were very much into building religious fortresses, religious forts constructed of layers of their Scriptures stacked one atop the others, so much so, they could no longer here the voice of God calling to them from on the other side of the wall they’d built.

Of course, there’s the other pitfall:  Jesus warned us about the scribes and Pharisees, so we end up  all our time reacting to their excesses and their foibles of the faith as played out among us Christians.

The Arctic Monkeys is a British band…isn’t that a great name for a band?  The Arctic Monkeys’ first big album is entitled, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”.

“Whatever People are Saying a Christian Is, That’s What I’m Not.”  Perhaps the loudest, most public personifications of our Christian faith are absolutely not what you are in your personal Christian faith.  Fair enough.  But, then, who are you in your own faith in Christ?

If those folks there that day had gone away saying, “Praise the Lord, whatever those scribes and Pharisees are, that’s certainly what I am not!”  “Those scribes and Pharisees have totally messed up saying the Law and Prophets have to say about God, so good riddance to the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus says, Nope, don’t get to do that, my friends.

“My goodness, I sure don’t like what I’ve been taught about all that stuff the Apostle Paul wrote…good riddance to him!”  “I sure don’t buy into all that crazy stuff I’ve heard people preach from the Book of Revelation…good riddance to those nutty chapters of the Bible.”

“That whole blood bath theology in the Old Testament and that whole blood bath theology in the New Testament…glad that’s not what I believe.”

No, says Jesus.  I have not come to lead you away from the resources of biblical faith…Jesus says, I have come to fulfill those resources…you’ve got to know what it is, then, that I have come to fulfill.

You are the salt of the earth….you are the light of the world….Let [them] see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (verses 13-16)

Let’s let Jesus say who we are and what these good works are all about.  We can trust Jesus on that subject.  That’s why Jesus, one day, climbed up on this mountain, and gathered all his disciples around him, and said, “Here’s how you do it.”

So, allow the Spirit of the Living Christ to make you a little salty.  Let the light of God’s kingdom community shine brightly here, in and through this church, and in and through you.  Believe me, nobody’s going to confuse you with being just another Jesus Bobblehead out there wagging its head this way and that way.  But, maybe, just maybe, they will see something of the genuine Christ in you…and that is so worth all the risk.

 

 

 

They Don’t Wear Plaid on the Champs-Élysées

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 5, 2017
Taken from
Matthew 5:1-12

 

In April, 1997, Karen and I went to Paris.  If you’ve ever thought about going to Paris, go to Paris.  It is a truly beautiful city.  We stayed in a hotel reputed to have been the mansion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician.  It was located just three blocks off from the Arc de Triomphe, there on the grand boulevard, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

So, early every morning, we’d set out from our hotel and walk those three easy blocks.  We’d emerge onto the beautiful Champs-Élysées, look across that massive traffic circle to the Arch, and then set out on our day’s adventure.

Our last day in Paris, we wanted to go out in style.  We’d spotted a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées with a second story balcony where you could go outside, dine on the balcony, and watch all the goings on up and down the boulevard.

The weather was clear, but chilly.  I had brought with me my red plaid wool shirt that had a nice warm lining in it.  You know, it’s the kind of shirt you typically see outdoorsy types around here wear; perfect for that kind of weather.

So, there we are, enjoying lunch on the balcony of this restaurant overlooking the Champs-Élysées.  The sun was up high overhead by now, people crowded the sidewalks.  The day had warmed up by then, so I proceeded to unbutton my red plaid wool shirt sleeves and roll them up my arms.  As I rolling up my sleeves and looking over my arm, watching the crowds below, near and far, it suddenly occurred to me, “You know, you don’t see many people wearing red plaid wool on the Champs-Élysées.”

The in-color in Paris that spring was lime-green.  So, those folks were pretty easy to spot.  The default clothing color in Paris was black.  So, lots of men and women dressed in black.  But, no, I had to conclude, they just don’t wear plaid on the Champs-Élysées.

That little experience of being differently clothed came back to me as I was reading over our Lord’s teaching here we call The Sermon on the Mount.  Which is not really that strange of connection.  The New Testament often uses the metaphor of clothing to talk to us about our identity with Christ.  We wear a different kind of spiritual, moral, ethical clothing.

We illustrate that truth at our baptisms.  We strip down; we put on a white baptismal robe to cover us up, signifying through our baptism that we have put on Christ.  We are baptized, and we arise to walk anew in this world clothed now in Christ.

What does that mean?  What does Christ’s line of clothing look like?  Suppose you’re walking the red carpet this year, heading into the Oscars, and Robin Roberts stops you and says, “My, that is so stunning!  Who are you wearing tonight?”  And, you answer, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful!  I’m wearing all Christ tonight.”  What would that look like, to be dressed by Jesus?  The Sermon on the Mount answers that question for us.  Today and next Sunday, we’ll look at these opening verses of this Scripture we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Just before this, in chapter 4, verse 17, Matthew tells us that Jesus has begun preaching what will be his basic theme:  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Then, Matthew concludes chapter 4, relating how Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching… What?  “…the gospel of the kingdom [of heaven]” (verse 23).  That’s what this is about:  what does it mean now to be part of this kingdom now come through Jesus?

Chapter 5, verse 1, Jesus goes up on the mountain.  He sits down, he gathers his multitude of followers around him, and he begins describing distinctive qualities and practices that identify us with him.  These qualities and practices detail what it means for us to be adorned as children of God.

Jesus starts off calling these folks around him—and us, we hope—blessed…blessed…blessed.  Nine times Jesus tells us what we all want to hear:  “You are the blessed ones of God.”  The word, blessed, is like our word ‘happy’, only it means really, really happy for some really good substantial reasons.

How the ears of everyone must have perked up when they heard Jesus start off on that happy note:  blessed.  But, then, it seems to go downhill pretty quickly from there.  Blessed…you impoverished ones, and blessed you overtaken in grief and blessed you meek ones and you starving, thirsty ones.

That sounds like a pretty sad bunch of people to be around, doesn’t it?  I imagine at about this moment, a few people started looking at their watches and remembered there was somewhere else they needed to be!

It’s a mixed bag of beatitudes here that Jesus pronounces.  Now, most of us would be happy to receive, blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers.  To me, those qualities imply a kind of power and authority.  “Yes, you poor wretch, it within my power to ignore you or to punish you, but instead I will show mercy on you, because that’s just who I am.”  That’s a good position to be in, to bestow mercy.

To be a peacemaker implies the respect and authority others give to us, so that people in a dispute seek out our great insight that will satisfy all concerned.

Even to be called ‘meek’ in Bible terms implies a kind of power…the power of self-control.

Every so often, as I’m out riding down the interstate in my little four-cylinder Ford Focus, I get a cheap thrill.  Sometimes, I get to pass a Chevy Corvette, or a Ford Mustang, or maybe even a Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe—oh, so sweet!

They’re cruising along in the right lane, and I swoosh by them at an incredible 72 miles-per-hour, leaving them in the dust!  Clearly, with a little tap on the gas pedal, the driver of the Corvette or the Mustang or the Mercedes C-Class could leave me behind in an instant.

In Bible terms, those drivers are showing meekness.  They are freely submitting the superior power of their vehicles to traffic laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  They’re choosing not to speed.  Biblical meekness is us freely submitting our strengths, our power, our resources, in obedience to God.

Even Jesus’ eighth Beatitude, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, implies exceptional courage.  You’ve done something truly righteous that’s drawn the reproach of those with the power to punish you.  But, you don’t care…you’ve got the courage of your convictions.

Blessed are the pure in heart, Beatitude number six.  We might quibble about that one, but if I’m merciful and a peacemaker, and if I’m boldly righteous, then I must be at least a little purer of heart than your average citizen, right?

This is where our hold on the Beatitudes starts to unravel, and we’ve got to give them back to Jesus.  Dare we ascribe to ourselves what Jesus means by being merciful, being a peacemaker, being meek, being righteous?

Or are we guilty of the spiritual equivalent of buying a $10 Versace belt off a street vendor and then trying to fool ourselves and others that it’s the real thing we’re wearing?  How do we know whether we’re clothed in this blessed wardrobe of Christ or if we’ve merely clothed ourselves in some less demanding knockoff outfit?  Discernment comes with these other Beatitudes Jesus pronounces.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, says Jesus first.  It’s Beatitude number one.  This word, poor, doesn’t mean just the working poor, you know, the folks scraping by but still a roof is over head and some sort of food is on the table.  Jesus uses the word poor as in ‘destitute’, the folks who’ve moved from being working poor to having absolutely no way of providing for themselves.

I recently watched a Russian dissident interviewed on TV.  The dissident now lives in New York City.  The interviewer walked her through the hardships and deprivations the Russian government imposed on her and her fellow dissidents.  Finally, the interviewer asked, “In those circumstances, how do you know when things have hit rock-bottom.”

The woman answered this way.  She said, “In Russia, we have a joke.  You think you’ve hit rock-bottom, and then you hear someone knocking from below.”

The poor in spirit?  These are those folks knocking from below, and Jesus says, what a blessed bunch you are?  Pardon me, Lord, but I don’t think so!

“Blessed are the spiritually destitute?  Blessed are the grieving?  Blessed are the starving and the dangerously dehydrated?”

I do not want to be the guy on the bottom, knocking.  I don’t want to feel deep, unassuaged loss.  You really don’t want to see me when I hungry, because I get really cranky.  And, yes, I have been seriously dehydrated before, and I’m here to tell you it can really mess up some of your vital functions to be dehydrated!

This is hard language, Jesus chooses.  This is not what we want; it’s certainly not what we want for our children.  But, we do want for ourselves and for our families to share in the good news of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus.

Perhaps it would make us feel better if we could say Jesus isn’t talking about real poverty or grieving and so forth; he’s just using those as kind of metaphors.  Don’t know that I can say that, but even so, if Jesus is speaking in metaphors, then metaphors for what?

Basically, what Jesus is saying is, you impoverished ones, you grieving ones, you hungry and thirsty ones…you’re the people who have no illusions about yourselves anymore; you have no illusions left about this world anymore, do you?  All the usual props are stripped away; bankrupt of all sense of independence and wellbeing; we are undone and lost.  On the bottom, knocking.

We, so many of us, live clothed in illusions of self-righteousness, self-empowerment, self-serving selflessness even. We cannot be merciful as God is merciful out of our own sense of privilege and power.  We cannot be peacemakers of God’s kingdom-presence if we rely on the strategies of this earth’s kingdoms.  We don’t generally do too well at freely submitting our resources before God in the ways of biblical meekness.  Our hearts are seldom if ever pure much past the innocence of childhood.

Before we can be wear Christ, we must first see:  we stand before him barely clothed at all, in tattered remnants we gathered about our shoulders as though we’ve wrapped ourselves in the best of the world’s finery.  Jesus says, no.

We can respond to that in a lot of ways.  We may just flat out say, Jesus, that can’t be so!  Well, good news…denial is the first stage of grief, and  Jesus says in verse 4, blessed are those who grieve.  We’ve only four more stages to work through:  anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

If we reach into our spiritual pockets and turn them inside out to find them empty, well, good news, says Jesus.  If we open up our spiritual lockbox and the only thing in there is a moth trying to get out, what a fortuitous discovery we’ve made, says the Lord.

If we yearn for what this world cannot satisfy, we’re dried out and life seems only to offer up more dust to feed our hunger and quench our thirst, Jesus says, excellent!  You’re ready to hear the best invitation to food and drink any soul could imagine.  You’re ready to hear God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven’s banquet table.

Be very happy, Jesus says.  Come, let me cloth you and feed you and satisfy your thirst, says the Lord.  Come, let Jesus teach us, now, how we receive the kingdom of God now come among us.

What Do You Want Now, God?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 29, 2017
Taken from
Micah 6: 1-8


Knock, knock, knock! You go to the front door to see who’s on your porch knocking at your door.  You open the door to see a fine young sheriff’s deputy standing there holding a document you’re your name on it.  It’s a court summons.  If you’re fortunate, you’re being summoned as a witness in somebody else’s trial.

What you don’t want to go to the door to discover is that the court has sent the sheriff out to summons you as the defendant.

You most, most, don’t want that to happen if the plaintiff who’s calling you to court is God!  But, that’s exactly what’s happening here, in our Scripture this morning.  God sends the prophet Micah to summons the people of Jerusalem to court, because God has a complaint to bring against them.

It’s a jury trial as it turns out.  Well, who could possibly serve as the jury in that kind of trial?  Turns out it’s the mountains and the hills of Palestine:

“Oyez! Oyez! All rise,” says the bailiff, Micah, in verse 1.  “Plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills here your voice.”

He continues in verse 2, addressing the jury:  “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

Now, why the mountains and the hills of Palestine?  Because, they’ve watched what’s been going on there in their land.  They’ve seen everything that’s unfolded after God parceled out the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes.

So, in true biblical fashion, the local mountains and hills are the ones with the perspective to judge between God and God’s people.  God gets to go first as the complainant; verses 3-5.  (Like a lot of civil suits among family, it gets really intense, really fast!)

“My people!  What I have done to deserve this behavior from you!  Where in the world have I gone wrong!  TELL ME!” 

The events which God then relates all have to do with what God did to liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.  It’s like a set of bullet-points of how God got them safely out from under Pharaoh’s control and set them up in the Promise Land.

God says at the end of verse 5, “It was all just for you, just so you, among all the nations in the world, could know the lengths I was willing to go to save you.”  God is so distraught and so hurt.  As would any of us if we were so poorly treated by folks we’d poured out our hearts and efforts to help get a fresh start in a new place.

Now, it’s the defendant’s turn; it’s God’s people up next.  Boy, does Micah ever know their song-and-dance routine, down to every last insulting move.  Verses 6 and 7:

“What do you want from me now, God?!  Huh?  What’s it going to take to satisfy you?”

The mountains and the hills sitting over there in the jury box cannot believe their ears!  The people of God are actually going to try to bribe their way out of this…can you believe it?!

“What’s it going to take, God?  Here, I’ve got my check book out, my pen’s in my hand; you name the amount.  We’ll take care of this, and we can all get out of here.

More offerings, God?  Is that it?  You want the really expensive stuff now.  The yearling calves?  That’s a big investment down the drain, but I’ll do it.

More rams?  More grade-A olive oil?  I can do it by the cartload.

What?!  You’re still holding out for more! You’re just like all those other gods, aren’t you?  You want me to sacrifice my first-born child, don’t you?  Is that what you want, God?  You want my first-born child, ‘the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’”

Wow!  The jury’s just waiting any moment now to hear the thunder rumble and to see the lightning bolts to start streaking down, wiping out these ingrates.

But, instead, Micah takes the floor.  Micah plays the role of mediator, the voice of reason in the room.  Verse 8:

“God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

What does God expect of you, of us?

It’s like a simple, three-legged stool:  act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.  Do all three, and we’re fine.  But when we take away one of the three legs off a stool, things start to get really shaky betwixt God and God’s people.

But what about all that other stuff?  The worship stuff?  Bowing before God on high, bringing offerings, and other aspects of ritual?  Yes, do that.  But, to what end?  Their rituals had become a way of trying to keep God contained in that grand God-box called the Temple:  “God, we’ll give you what you need for the spiritual stuff; leave the business and civic stuff of life to us.”

And, oh what they did on all those other six days as they went about their business and civic ventures.  The Book of Micah isn’t all that long.  Take some time this afternoon to read it.  At least read chapters one through five that are prelude to chapter six.  They’d forgotten the rule of life among God’s people: the spiritual stuff of God is the business of God and the civics of God, is the spiritual stuff of God.

Biblical justice, biblical mercy, biblical humility.  Please notice, I am using that modifier “biblical” because as a person of faith and as a congregation of the faithful, God demands we look to God as our reference for justice, mercy, and humility.

Humility we know and embrace as a virtue, though, of course, we can’t claim if for ourselves because as soon as we do, we tend to forfeit the essence of being humble.  Humility, I believe, is the essential foundation for mercy.  That could be me, humility tells me.  If it were me, I sure wish somebody would help me out.

That’s what acts of mercy are about.  Mercy is when we’ve got the resources to help somebody out of a jam that they’re unable at the moment to help themselves out of.  Think Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan:  there’s the great model for mercy from Jesus’ teaching.

University Baptist is a congregation of humble people and merciful people. Just last night, we began our two-week turn at hosting homeless men, something we do with other churches during the winter months.  It takes a lot of effort and a lot of resources to host the homeless in our church building for fourteen nights running.

What about this third leg of the stool that is biblical justice?  Well, it might better be called the ‘third rail’ of faith.  You all know the expression, “the third rail”?  The third rail is the rail next to the two rails of a train-track for a train that runs on electricity.  The third rail is the one charged with electricity; you touch the third rail, you die.

In national politics, the third rail is Social Security:  you mess with Social Security as a politician, you die a painful political death.  For pastors, the third rail of preaching is biblical justice.  The pastor who takes hold of the topic of biblical justice and gets into the nitty-gritty of it, that pastor will experience a swift death in the ministry.  Unless, of course, that pastor’s congregation happens to be full of folks suffering biblical injustice.

What is it about biblical justice so off-putting and risky to us, when we so readily embrace these other two legs of humility and mercy?  Let me suggest the problem we have with biblical justice by offering this rule of thumb:  the more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens.  The more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens.

For most of us Baptists, the word ‘justice’ is associated with the New Testament word, ‘justification’.  Justification, for us Baptists, means getting saved:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not by works lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9.

God has justified us, made us right, with God because of God’s mercy toward us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but to what end?  End-of-life security of going on to be with God in Heaven is pretty big benefit for sure, but that’s not God’s purpose for justifying us and bringing to birth God’s own Eternal Life within us.

The purpose of God justifying us with God is so that God’s justice might reign here on earth, as in heaven, as least among somebody on earth.  Get enough people together in whose lives God’s justice reigns, and you got a shot a living in a just society.

God’s justice on this earth goes a-begging because God’s people and the great majority of God’s ordained messenger will not touch the dreaded third-rail of biblical justice for themselves and their communities.

Let me offer this illustration about biblical justice.  [MANUAL TYPEWRITER ON STAND NEXT TO PULPIT, COVERED]

Some of you may have only seen these in the movies.  This is called a manual typewriter. It’s what people in the last century used when they needed to print out a text-document.  It’s sort of like a clunky laptop that has its own built-in printer.

Everything you type on a manual typewriter is automatically left-justified.  It’s built-in by the mechanics of a manual typewriter’s construction.  The carriage gets to the end of its run, the little bell dings, you take hold of the return lever, and it slides so easily back to the left-hand margin.

The challenge of word-processing on a manual typewriter is when you want to center your text so all the words fall neatly between the left and the right margins.  Even more challenging is when you want to right-justify your text, so all the lines end in perfect alignment with the right-hand margin.

On a computer, centering text or right-justifying text, is the easiest thing in the world.  You just click on a setting, and then you forget about it.  The software takes care of the rest.  Just like that!  All your text beautifully centered or justified with the right margin.

On a manual typewriter, though, you’ve got to commit yourself to some work for all that to happen.  Remember how you center text on a manual?  You count the number of letters and spaces you want centered and divide by two; then, you move the carriage over to the center of the paper, and backspace by that number of spaces, and then you type.

Right-justifying text was just a downright pain in the wrists.  First, you had to count up the number of letters and spaces in each line.  Then, you moved the carriage all the way over to the right margin, and you back spaced the entire line and then you typed it in.  It took some real motivation before you’d right-justify much text.

What God’s people have to remember is this:  to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, is like typing on a manual typewriter.

That built-in left-justified margin so easily done on a manual?  That’s us on our own, apart from God.  Lining up our lives with our own values and goals…that’s human nature; that’s the mechanics of how we’re built.  We come already set left-justified.

That right-hand margin?  That’s God’s values and goals.  That right-hand margin is what God wants in our justness and our mercy and our humility with God.

New Testament justification so important and so essential to us?  Well, that’s God giving us a clean sheet of paper to start writing a whole new life, a life we’ve committed now to live as God desires, a life that is right-justified.

There’s still that good old built-in left margin; we can still keep justifying everything we write on that clean sheet of paper over there.  We call talk about being self-justified.  But, remember:  we’re now justified with God.  Whatever we now write from that point on, we are seeking to right-justify with God’s margin.

This life-vocation to follow Jesus, to be God’s person on this earth, is not like composing text on a computer with its wonderful word-processing software.  We can’t get set ourselves once, right-justified with God, and then just forget about what comes next.

We’ve got to do the hard work of starting every line of our lives now, aligned under God.  We’ve got to figure out, counting letter-by-letter, space-by-space, how far over toward that built-in left-hand margin we can go and wind up every line of our lives aligned with God’s values, God’s goals, God’s three-fold call, “…to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk in all humility before God.”

Pretend for a moment, that you could take break from typing out your life.  You’ve been busily composing on that fresh piece of paper God gave you in that moment you professed your faith in Jesus.  You pull the paper up to where you can read it.

How many lines of your life are all nicely right-justified over here with God?  Truth be told, for each of us, there’s going to be an embarrassing number of typos of all kinds.  Not every line is going to be perfectly right-justified; we can give each other that bit of understanding.  But, on the whole, does your piece of paper at least show a good-faith effort and at least some degree of being right-justified?

Or, as with many of us, does it look like you’ve been trying to center all the text of your life?  You know where your personal, pre-Jesus, left-margins lie, and you know where the setting for God’s right margin is, and it looks for all the world like you did the math to find that middle way, like you struck a deal with God:  God’s gets a little bit of your text, and you get an equal amount, so on balance, it’s all good.

Sorry, doesn’t work that way.  God justified us so that we would henceforth live out our lives justified with God.  God’s spiritual concerns are the concerns not just of our Sunday worship, but our Monday to Saturday personal relations and business and professional relations and our civic relations.  Again, don’t take my word for it, read God’s word on it.

What is true for us as individual followers of Jesus, is most certainly true for us a community of Jesus.  University Baptist Church, you are indeed a people of biblical humility.  With all the ways you give yourselves and your resources to help others, you are recognized as a church of biblical mercy.

What about that third leg of the stool, that third-rail?  Will you also be known in the larger community as a people of biblical justice?

It’s your story to write.

Looking for Light in All the Wrong Places

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 22, 2017
Taken from 
Matthew 4:12-17 (Isaiah 9:1-7)

“I spent a lifetime lookin’ for you
Single bars and good time lovers were
never true
Playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win
Tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again

I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong
places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of
Hoping to find a friend and lover
I’ll bless the day I discover
Another heart lookin’ for love
[‘cause I was lookin’ for love all the
the wrong places]”

Thus sayeth the prophet, Johnny Lee, in his 1980 hit, Looking for Love.

According to the much, much earlier prophet, Isaiah, there is indeed “another heart lookin’ for love”.  It’s the heart of God.  It’s God, lookin’ through the bars and pickup spots where hook-ups are many but hoped-for love is a lie…all the wrong places where God’s people go lookin’ for love, lookin’ for love, yet they go wanting.

But, then, here comes God through the doors, the Eternal Heart lookin’ for those upon whom God may pour out Divine Love and have it returned to God by Gods own people.

Interestingly, when those two hearts meet, the Divine Lover encountering the beloved, that Love which searches and that love which is found, is not at first the love of romance; it is the love of a desperate rescue operation.

The brilliance of God’s love like the beam of a search-light pierces the pitch-black night through which God’s beloved children stumble and fall.  The brilliance of God’s love is an early morning sun, unimpeded by storm-cloud or rain, the new sun rising, breaking and lifting that deep darkness lain too long over the landscape of our lives.

“The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this,” says Isaiah.  “The zeal of the Lord will do it.”  The passion of God never yields; the passion of God never dims nor weakens.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts does not surrender in defeat.  The passion of God burns ever-brilliantly, it’s fuel never lags, and it’s light never weakens.

For so long, though, God’s people have laid down and accepted as their fate the shadows which overtook them.  It is their energies that have lagged, not God’s.  It is they who have accepted defeat and a slow death under the cover of darkness, and not God who has resigned the field of combat.

We like to call ourselves “people of the Book, people of the Bible.  Well, these were the people in the Book!  These are the people in the Bible!  They had misdirected their search for what only God could offer them.  Like burned-out bums in a bar and the wasted wanna-be’s sitting at their sides, God’s people had caroused their way down across the generations, vesting their hopes and dreams in what never could satisfy what needs only God could meet.

As Isaiah references in chapter nine, verse 1, they had been “brought into contempt”.  They themselves had become a byword and a cruel euphemism for all that it meant to be lost, wandering, floundering:  “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”.

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”:  that phrase means nothing to us today.  But it meant a lot to Isaiah and the folks in his day.  Obviously, it meant a lot to the folks in Jesus’ day.  This is the prophecy Matthew chose to frame for his generation the starting-point of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew put his first readers right there on the spot on the map from which Jesus began his preaching.  It was not only a spot to which our GPS’s might take us; it was a blemished location in the religious travails between God and God’s people:  the land of infamy, the time of disrepute and despair:  “the land of Zebulun…the land of Naphtali”!  What could it have meant to Matthew and to that first generation of Christians to know this place was the land of Jesus’ origin?

Well, there were stereotypes rooted in centuries of assorted events, famous and infamous. Folks in that day were no different from us, when it came to stereotypes.  Stereotypes generally are rooted in some fact of a people and place’s history, facts that then get exaggerated and generally used a pejorative way.

For example, I’m a Hokie, here in the midst of the Wahoo camp.  I’ve learned I’ve got to accept a little grief from you fine folks here among the hallowed colonnades of Mr. Jefferson’s University.

“How can you tell when somebody’s died at Virginia Tech?  All the students ride around with their tractor lights on.”

You know, things like that.  It goes on and on.  Yes, Virginia Tech was founded as a college of agriculture an mechanical arts, but I’d like to remind us that there can be no culture without agriculture.

Working with those sorts of stereotypes, picture, if you will, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s map.  Basically, Virginia’s a great big triangle.  The short side of the triangle is what’s known as The Golden Crescent.  To quote the Richmond Times-Dispatch, from an article in 2012:

“The ancient world boasted a Fertile Crescent where civilization flourished. Virginia boasts a Golden Crescent that promotes the commonwealth’s prosperity. The crescent follows the Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 corridors. It stretches from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads. Richmond lies pretty much at its center.” 1

I don’t think anything’s really changed since that description in 2012.  So, the short side of Virginia’s triangle is this Golden Crescent, with Richmond lying at its center.

Then, you got that side of the triangle called “southside”, running along contiguous with the border of North Carolina:  Martinsville, Danville, South Boston, Emporia.

And, then, you’ve got that long side of Virginia’s triangle, pretty much following the Appalachian mountain-chain, starting up north in the Winchester area, then following on down in that southwesterly flow of I-81, down through Harrisonburg and Staunton and Lexington, and thence to Roanoke and then on down by exit 118 to that Mecca of Educational Excellence of which I just spoke.  But, staying on I-81, going and going, further down, down, down skirting the mountains as a you go through Pulaski and Wytheville and Marion.

And, somewhere along there, you realize:  you’re a long way from the so-called Golden Crescent of Virginia.  Before you get to Bristol, find a state highway going west.  Those little two lanes will wind you up and down and over and through the mountains and down into the Clinch Valley region where you’ll find yourself in places like Norton and Wise, Grundy and Big Stone Gap.

You’re in the extreme southwest tip of Virginia.  Never mind how the map borders are laid out, folks here seem to have much more in common with their neighbors in the contiguous states of West Virginia, and Kentucky, and Tennessee and North Carolina.  The Golden Crescent is whole other world from this extreme south western corner of the Commonwealth.

Now, imagine taking that great triangle of the Commonwealth of Virginia and tipping that extreme southwest corner up until its now the extreme northwest corner, with Virginia’s Golden Crescent sitting now as Virginia’s Southside.

Same wealth, same prosperity, same governmental centers of power, both for the state and for the nation, stay down south.  Same decimated coal towns, same addiction and poverty, same everything stereotypes that go with deep southwestern Clinch Valley region now in the northwest tip of the triangle.

Now, rename that southside Golden Crescent, Jerusalem and its environs, wherein sits the capital Jerusalem with all its glorious history as the seat of King David’s reign and most especially as location of the Temple.

Back up there in that now northwest corner of the Clinch Valley, that’s Isaiah’s and Matthew’s “land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali”, or as it’s better known to us, that’s Jesus’ Galilee.

Zebulun and Naphtali, shoehorned in up there between the Mediterranean Sea, and ancient Assyria and Syria and a little further over, Persia.  It’s borders were ill-defined and porous, with Gentiles and Jews coexisting in living and commerce and marriage.  The headwaters of the Jordon River get lost there among the various streams that feed into it before becoming an identifiable river you could name.  So far removed from that golden, refined, urbane place called Jerusalem.

The “land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali”, was not someplace any sane Israelite would go looking for God’s love.  Yet, there lived a native-born Galilean, who had begun to understand his unique emerging ministry.  Following his baptism by John the Baptist and his wilderness sojourn, Matthew tells us that Jesus removed himself even further back up into that seemingly God-forsaken territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.  From there, Jesus gathered his followers and launched his public ministry.

From there, as Matthew notes for us, as “…was spoken by the prophet Isaiah…‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people [there] who sat in darkness have seen a great light…for those who sat in…the shadow of death light has dawned.’”

Perhaps something of Zebulun and Naphtali resonates with you, today.  What resonates with you is not the incredulous wonder of this prophecy Isaiah recorded some 700 years before our Gospel accounts.  What resonates with you is not that latter-day proclamation of Good News by Matthew.

What resonates with you is that enshrouding darkness, this foreboding sense that God has abandoned me; somehow, I missed it and God has forgotten and passed me by.  Evidently, God’s moved on to shower this Divine Love on someone else.

Perhaps you think this about us:  poor University Baptist Church, here we sit lost in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.  Well, if we’re going to let that part of Scripture resonate with us, then we’d better be ready for this other part of Scripture that speaks Gospel to us.

We better be prepared to identify with this whole story of Zebulun and Naphtali’s fate, no longer a fate of lost opportunity and lost hope; you must as well believe and live into, this incredulous wonder Isaiah proclaimed of what God’s love would do in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali, in that place called Galilee.

“The zeal of the Lord” has done it!  For there, in Galilee, God’s light was born.  There God’s light grew strong until it pierced the darkness and shone brightly for all to see:  God, in the flesh, dwelling among all, Jesus of Nazareth.

“Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of…”?

Well, as the song finishes,

“Now that I found a friend and lover
God bless the day I discover[ed]
You, oh you, lookin’ for love”
God bless the day that it may come soon, that it may be today, when you discover, it is God looking for you, man or woman, whoever you are.  God bless the day soon to come, when you discover, friends of this church, it is God who seeks you.  God’s light alighting and shining brightly in you, God’s joy for your own souls and God’s joy a witness for you to offer, to those around us, yet lookin’ for light.


 

1  Interstate Corridors:  Golden Crescent – June 11, 2012, The Richmond Times-Dispatch/archive/ article

 

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