Babe, You Rock!

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 14, 2017
Scripture: 1 Peter 2:1-10

The sermon title today, I will admit, is a really bad pun on our Scripture.  But, Peter practically forces me into it.  In verse 2, Peter appeals to us all, “as newborn babes” in the Lord.  Then, in verses 4 through 8, he goes into some word-play of his own with the work, “rock”, as in, how the Lord is like a rock, a stone, a cornerstone, a foundation stone.  So, all in all, I think “Babe, You Rock!” is a pretty good summary of Peter’s train of thought here.

But, he starts off with these rather severe-sounding words in verse 1: “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and slander,” In other words, Peter’s telling them, quit faking it with each other , you all!  You’re only making things harder on yourselves!”  It’s as if Peter were saying to them, “O, what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

Deception?  Insincerity.  Envy.  Slander.  Malice.  What in the world was going on with these folks, do you think?  Well, something’s eating away at them.  These Christians are under a lot of stress; they’re afraid; they’re uncertain.  They are in circumstances which require them to be caring and honest and humble and gentle with one another; in other words, the exact opposites of how they were presently treating each other, and Peter calls them out on their misbehavior.

These Christians didn’t know it, but they were living through a pivotal moment in the Christian movement, and it was putting them in a rather serious identity crisis.  They were nearing the end of what we commonly call “the New Testament Era”.  What did that mean for someone living in the Roman Empire in the closing years of the so-called New Testament era when nobody really understood it or had any idea of what the next era might be?

Which leads me to ask us:  what does it mean to be a follower of Christ and to be a community of Christ at the end of the modern church-era in these United States?  You do realize or you do at least suspect, the door has now closed on some sort of Christian era that once dominated the U.S.   The great building boom of the 1950’s included the great building boom of American Protestant churches, but that era’s gone now, and nobody is really sure what comes next.

What do groups of people do when they lose their sense of identity?  When they lose their sense of security?  They grow suspicious; they start questioning other’s motivations; they grasp at straws; they tend to just get mean with each other.  That’s what Peter’s addressing here in chapter 2, verse 1.  He says, getting testy and nasty and suspicious is not going to help you folks out in the churches across the Empire to figure who you are in this era now ending that’s leading into whatever is coming up next.

Pockets of persecution against Christians are starting to happen.  It’s not happening wide-scale, but it is happening enough for the folks in these churches to get really, really concerned for their safety and well-being.

A few Sundays ago we read in 1 Peter, chapter 1, especially verses 6 and 7 where Peter acknowledges that they are suffering “various trials,”, that their faith is being tested as though it were “gold…tested [refined] by fire”.

What’s the persecution these Christians are experiencing?  Well, here’s a handy way to get into the shoes of Christians near the close of the first century in the Roman Empire:     when you see someone you identify is a Muslim American, what do you think?  What do you wonder?  Do you wonder about their loyalty to our government, to the “American-way of life”?  Do you wonder whether they may be somehow compromising our nation’s welfare?

If that’s the sort of suspicion that creeps up on you when seeing someone you identify as a Muslim American, then welcome to the world of Christians near the end of the first century in the Roman Empire.  Christians were being singled out as potential threats in their communities.

It’s not that these Christians were actually guilty of anything at all.  It just that the Christians, for religious reasons, could not take the public oath of allegiance by saying “Caesar is my Lord.”  They could not take part in public ceremonies pledging their absolute fidelity to Caesar.

Loyalty to Caesar was the glue that held together this vast collage of ethnic and racial groups that was the Roman Empire.  That loyalty was expressed not only by paying taxes and obeying the law.  That loyalty was expressed by participating in the civic religion of the Empire, which was, worship Caesar as god.

If you read through the rest of this letter, you will read Peter devoting a lot of space advising these Christians on how to behave in their communities to work against this kind of civic slander.   Read on further in chapter 2, verses 11 to 17; read on in chapter three, verses 13 to 17.  He tells them, for example, in chapter 2, verse 17, “Honor all people.  Love the Christian fellowship.  Fear God.  Honor Caesar.”

But, they could not worship Caesar.  Because of that, Christians were likely to find themselves put out of a job.  Their non-Christian neighbors who now knew their faith-commitment would shun them.  Merchants were closing their doors to Christians.  There were isolated cases of execution of Christians.1

That will make any Christian believer and any Christian church sit up and ask themselves some hard questions about their identity:  who am I, who are we, in this faith of ours?  How are we to give witness of our faith in the larger community outside of our church fellowship?

Is this what challenges University Baptist Church in our community?   In our culture, our place, our time:  do you feel singled out as a threat?  Are we being accused of not supporting the community’s welfare?

As a Christian believer and as a Christian clergyperson, no, I don’t see us being persecuted for our faith here in Charlottesville.  We’re mostly just being ignored.  We’re not being persecuted; people have simply pushed us to the back of their shelves where they’ve left us until our expiration date comes and goes and our usefulness to them finally expires.  That hurts, and that insults us.

What do we do?  Where do we turn?   Peter writes, you got to get your nourishment, your strength, your identity focused in Jesus and in his Gospel.  Plain and simple and, at times, also very hard.  Anything other than or less than Jesus and his Gospel among you will not serve.  Anything else, anyone else, simply is not the genius of who you are or what you are to be about.

Verse 3, Peter makes an observation, which, implicitly, is also a question;   “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord”, right?   “You have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”  That’s what this is all about.   This is what has gotten you personally involved and committed to this whole movement of believers going…men and women, free and slave, Jew and Gentile…one by one by one:   “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”

So, Peter writes them and us, let that taste guide you; crave that food for yourselves over and over.  “Like newborn babes…like newborn infants nursing at the breasts of their mothers,” Peter writes, “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.”  Anything else won’t grow you up into health and strength, Peter’s saying.

By “growing up to salvation”, Peter means more than just getting saved.  Peter is saying much the same as the Apostle Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 13, that they were to attain “maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  That’s what Peter means here in verse 2, “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”

With what are you, personally, nourishing your soul that’s enabling you to grow up in your experience of salvation in Jesus Christ?  I think Peter’s metaphor here in verse 2 gives us permission to ask one another, “what have you been drinking?”  Are we drinking the pure spiritual milk that’s enabling us to embody the fullness of Jesus and of his Gospel?

What do we understand we mean, when we speak of the Gospel of Jesus?  What does the Gospel of Jesus mean to you, and are you feeding yourself so that you are growing upwards into that Gospel?  Not everything that comes packaged as Gospel is all its cracked up to be.

 You may recall the boycott against the Nestle’s Company back in the 1980’s over the way they were marketing their baby formula.  Nestle was aggressively marketing baby formula in developing, third-world countries, especially among poor women.  They were telling mothers that baby formula was superior replacement to breast milk.  After all, if moms in the U.S. and Europe were turning to baby formula then they can be sure it’s the best thing going for their newborn children, too.

The problem was, no one was bothering to teach these moms about sterilizing the bottles.  The other really big problem was that these third-world country moms had no access to clean water.  They were using polluted water in unsterilized bottles to mix the formula to feed to their infants and their babies were getting sick and dying.

Nestle’s marketing campaign to the poor was so successful, doctors and health officials in those countries had a very hard time convincing these moms that their own, natural milk was exactly what their newborn infants craved and very much needed to thrive and to grow up healthy.2

We need pure spiritual milk, Peter tells us.  We’ve at least got to do a taste-test with whatever we’re trying to feed our spiritual lives.  Does it taste like what we first experienced when we first “tasted the kindness of the Lord”.  You remember what that tastes like, don’t you?  Peter says in verse 3…let that taste guide you in what you’re feeding yourselves.

What Peter does next is a prime example of a very important way we must feed ourselves.  We must know the wealth of spiritual understanding in this Book that is our Bible.

“This is who you are now,” says Peter, in verses 4 through 10, “because this is who Jesus is for you.”   Peter uses some special, almost technical, terms to describe Jesus to them.  All of these terms find their origin and meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures, the books of the Bible we call our Old Testament.  At the time Peter’s writing, it is their only Bible.  What we call our New Testament was still floating around as separate writings, yet to be agreed upon as Scripture.

Apparently, somebody’s been teaching these Gentiles what’s in the Hebrew Scriptures.  At least, Peter is assuming that’s happened, otherwise what he’s writing to them is going to be gibberish.  If they’ve got at least some familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, then what Peter is writing to them is a thing which should have caused them to marvel and to be astounded at this faith of theirs.

What Peter cites in these verses enable them to answer, this is who we now are in the sight of God.  They would have been filled with a newborn passion for their purpose, their calling, in this place and in this new era for them in the Roman Empire.

“Spirituality” is a word very much in vogue now.  Our spirituality…our sense of God and what that means for us…again, is what Peter calls our first taste of “the kindness of the Lord”.  That spiritual experience has got to find focus and content; we got to have some substance of understanding.  If we aren’t focused in our faith, if it has no real definition or substance, well, we’re like those folks we too easily deride, who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

You remember that old, standard definition of poetry that we learned in junior high school?  The 18th-century English poet, William Wordsworth:  “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility”….the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.

Spirituality is this spontaneous and often overflowing powerful feelings of the Divine mediated to us in our souls.  But, it becomes poetry, and prose, with reflection and focus and articulation.   Scripture for us…the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures…these are our definitive, authoritative, and inspired recollections in poetry and prose.  Our Scripture enables us to give rational meaning to our faith experience.   We human beings have got to have that kind of spiritual focus if we are to have religious meaning operating in our lives.

I was reminded of this truth while listening recently to an interview on the radio about feats of human endurance.  In February, 2014, Ben Saunders and his partner, Tarka L’Herpiniere, achieved what Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott failed to do:  they became the first persons to successfully travel by foot from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back.  The pair did it on skis, each one of them pulling loaded sleds that weighed 440 pounds.

These two men skied 1,800 miles in the most hostile conditions imagineable.  They were outdoors for nearly four months.   They lived that way in 24-hour sunlight, covering ½ a mile per hour pulling those sleds behind them.  Ben Saunders said it was like living inside a ping-pong ball.  Everything was a blinding white:  they couldn’t see the horizon; they couldn’t see the ground; it was all one, big, brilliant white blaze.

They skied in single-file, and every 1-1/2 hours, they would trade position, each man taking his turn leading.  Saunders said it was such an incredible relief to be in the second position following his partner.  For this reason:  he finally had something to focus on.

He could focus on his partner’s blue jacket.  He could focus on the sled’s red cover.  The sleds themselves were yellow.  Saunders told interviewer, how hard it was to explain to anyone the sense of relief they found in being able simply to focus on something that wasn’t all white.3

Peter wrote to give these early Christians something truly remarkable to focus upon…their identity in Christ; their mission, as he writes in verse 9, “to declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.”

But, how do we do that?  How do we declare the wonderful deeds of God if we ourselves don’t know what those deeds were and what those deeds continue to be about?

Spiritual nourishment cannot be force fed.  We’ve got to long for spiritual nourishment and find it, and we’ve got to find it in Jesus and in his Gospel.   These early believers, by and large, did that, and that’s why we’re here some two thousand years later talking about them.  They found their focus.  They found their identity refreshed and restored.

Know Jesus; know his Gospel; let this be who you are as a congregation going forward; find the best ways to do that not for what went before which is now gone.  Find the best ways to live this kindness of Jesus for what era now lies before you yet to be.  Let that be your focus, nurtured in Christ, continuing to grow in salvation.

 

1 Among the many scholarly treatments of consequences of civic suspicion of Christians and the public rituals of Emperor worship are:  Leonhard Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times, tr. Robert A. Guelich, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1970) pp. 108-117; Leander Keck, The New Testament Experience of Faith (St. Louis:  The Bethany Press, 1976) pp. 125-127, 150-151; James Blevins includes descriptions throughout his more popular work, Revelation As Drama (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1984) e.g., pp. 86, 89.

http://www.businessinsider.com/nestles-infant-formula-scandal-2012-6/#the-baby-killer-blew-the-lid-off-the-formula-industry-in-1974-1

3 Interview by Guy Raz of Ben Saunders, “What Does It Take To Endure The Harshest Climate On Earth?”, The TED Radio Hour, NPR NOW, Feb. 11, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Help Me! I’m a Sheep!

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 7, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 23

Two verses in the 23rd Psalm especially caught my attention this past week, verse 1 and verse 5:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, and “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, and fill my cup to overflowing.”

Both verses of this ancient song brought to mind some contemporary songs.  I will not sing either one, but only recite the lyrics.  Here’s the first song:

“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

There are six more stanzas, but I’ll stop there.  Anybody know whose song that is?  Anyone?

It’s Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”.  It’s from the first of his three Gospel albums that we talked about two Sundays ago.1

You’re gonna have to serve somebody…which came to mind for me, because it’s all just another way of saying, you’re gonna be somebody’s sheep, and somebody’s gonna be your shepherd.  I don’t care who you are or who I may think I am, I am and you are, somebody’s sheep and they are our shepherd.

We don’t like that!  I am nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

“Sheeple” was a word in the news this past week.  The folks at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary have just added the word, “sheeple”, to their newest edition:

“sheeple:  informal–people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.”2

Are you among the “sheeple”?  Even if we have totally opposite political and economic or religious or anything-else views, we are all likely be somebody’s “sheeple”.

We don’t like that!   We are nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

Why do we react so vehemently to being called anybody’s sheep?  Well, let’s look again at the good ‘ol Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.  People who act like sheep are called, “sheepish”, which the dictionary defines as: 1)…meek, timid, stupid; 2) affected by or showing embarrassment caused by consciousness of a fault…”3

No one likes to be thought of as timid and stupid; nobody likes to have another person around making them feel embarrassed or ashamed.  We will not be made to feel “sheepish” because we’re nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!

Cards on the table…pastors, preachers, and priests are among some of the worst offenders at trying to turn people into sheeple.  We excel at shaming people into line, which is a gross abuse of our shepherding call.  On behalf of my cohorts of the cloth, I apologize for our bad behavior of trying to make sheepish sheeple out of the Lord’s good people.

That said, though, the wisdom of Scripture reminds us the issue is not whether we are sheep; it’s which way we as sheep have chosen to go and whom we have chosen to follow.  Whether by intent or by default, says the prophet, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isa. 53:6)  Which I could further paraphrase, “everyone has chosen some other shepherd to follow in a way other than God’s way.”

This morning, hear verse one of Psalm 23 with the emphasis on the word, “Lord”, rather than where I think we usually emphasize verse one, which is on the word, “shepherd”.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Our psalmist already accepts this basic reality of the human psyche and of human practice, that we all are sheep, and, therefore, we all have looked for and found or we have been claimed by, a shepherd of some description. His focus in this verse one–indeed, his celebration in this verse one–is on Who has found him and Who has led him:  the Lord Yahweh, that’s who is my shepherd.”

Our writer’s not boasting; he’s simply astounded at this truth of his experience.  He reflects on his life’s journey thus far, and what he sees there affirms for him, over and over, who it is that has ultimately guided and provided for him throughout his life:  “The Lord Yahweh is my Shepherd, who has caused me to find good green fields and abundant, re-stor-ative places along the way in my life’s journey.”

What is your earliest recollection of God in your life?  Have you taken the time, as this psalmist did, to look back and to seize on that moment when you first discovered that the Lord God is your shepherd?

May have been in church, but not necessarily.  The very next psalm, Psalm 24, verse 1, reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,”.  Anywhere on this good earth can be where your divine moment of realization occurred.

My earliest conscience experience of God shepherding me came when I was somewhere around ten years old.  It happened in some woods in the middle of the night as I was running for dear life.  Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

When I was a boy, we lived right on the western edge of Martinsville, Virginia.  There was my street, South Askin Street, and down a wooded hillside below us, there was one other street, Burchland Drive; that’s where my friend, Ricky, lived.  And, then, beyond Ricky’s house, there were woods…woods going all the way on over to extreme southwestern Virginia.  I think maybe the suburbs of Galax are what you’d come to next.

There was a dirt road that went a mile or so beyond Ricky’s house out into those woods and ended up in a clearing.  So, Ricky and another boy and I hatched a plan to go camp on a Friday night out in that clearing out in the woods.  The plan was we’d sleep over in Ricky’s basement, and after his parents had gone to sleep, we’d sneak out to our camp.  Then, we’d get up real early the next morning and sneak back in before his parents got up.

Right after school that Friday afternoon, we hauled our pup tent and our sleeping bags and all kinds of paraphernalia out through the woods to the clearing where we pitched camp.

Somewhere late into the night, long after dark, long after we’d stuffed our faces with roasted marshmallows and we’d settled down into our sleeping bags, the wind came up with a fury and this most gosh-awful lightning storm and rain storm hit those woods and lit it up like the middle of the day.

Ricky and the other boy shot out of the tent, running for all they were worth back down that dirt road through the woods to the safety of his house, leaving me to wonder if I should do the same.  I watched them running away, through the strobe-light flashing of the lightning, and then I grabbed up my sleeping bag and took after them, running for dear life, dragging my sleeping bag behind me!

Lightning was striking all through the woods; the wind was whipping through the tree tops; the rain was pelting me; my friends were long-gone on down through the woods.

I ran and I ran and…suddenly…I quit running.  It was as if someone else had suddenly come up beside me, and stopped me and turned me around, and said to me, “wow! just look at that would you?!”  So, I did.  Total peace, complete calm, incredible delight, filled me as I stood there and took it all in…the lightning, the thunder, the trees dancing to all of it.  With me, a presence which allowed for no fear, only joy.

However long I stood there totally rapt with this display, I don’t know.  But, there came a moment when I felt as though I were being dismissed to go on back to Ricky’s house.  So, I walked, ever so slowly, with no fear and no hurry, not wanting to leave that place or that moment.

Now, there’s nothing special about me.  I can get struck by lightning just as easily as the next guy.  Nowadays, if I’m hiking in the woods and a lightning storm starts brewing, I get myself somewhere lower and closer to the ground, in a hurry.

But, that particular moment, now nearly fifty-two years ago, continues as my marker for when I became conscious of God.  Do you have such a moment?  Whatever the moment was for this writer, the psalmist recalls his own experience and knows, God is my Shepherd and to God I look and trust myself.

We are somebody’s sheep; we are following somebody?  Is God our shepherd?  More specific to us, is God now revealed in Jesus, your Shepherd?  He’s not going to lead us in some path other than the one he himself walked on this earth; does your life’s path bear some resemblance to his?

Then, there’s verse 5:  “You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies.”  Even as we follow the Lord, we must still find ourselves walking among enemies who threaten us.  Those are the persons and the powers who would intimidate us or shame us, making us feel “sheepish”.  We just feel sheepish around them.  These are the folks in whatever guise who would make us into their “sheeple”.

But, that’s not God.  God takes sheeple and transforms them into people, with dignity and honor.  Jesus himself never strikes me as a sheeple-sort of man.  I doubt Jesus ever blushed and said, O pshaw, go on now.  God prepares a banquet and welcomes you as though the guest of honor, to take the place of honor with God.  Do you dare live into that fullness of the honor God extends to you?

“You prepare a table for me, abundant and gracious, in the presence of people who don’t think I really should be there and who would stop me if they could.  But, you, Lord, say no to them, and so, I too can say no to them; I can embrace the fulness of life you offer me.”

Lee Ann Womack performs a song.  It’s called, “I Hope You Dance”.

These few lines I’ll quote:

“Don’t let some hell bent heart/leave you bitter.
When you come close to selling out/reconsider
Give the heavens above
more than just a passing glance.

And when you get a choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.

Time is a wheel in constant motion/always,
Rolling us along.
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder,
Where have all those years gone?

[So], when you get a chance to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.”

Embrace the banquet and dance…follow our Lord, the Good Shepherd, to the good that God has prepared for you.

___________________________________

1 The three are: “Slow Train Coming” (1979), “Saved” (1980), and “Shot of Love” (1981)

2 http://www.npr.org/2017/05/01/526349470/merriam-webster-adds-sheeple-as-an-official-word

3 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sheepish

HADUK-1

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 30, 2017
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35

Let’s take a moment to look at today’s sermon title printed in the bulletin.  This is going to be kind of like a Rorschach Test.  What do you see in that sermon title?    Does that mean anything to anyone here this morning?   Anything?

It’s the license plate number off a pickup truck I followed one day out of Charlottesville on my way home.  I was driving east on Route 250 and came up behind this truck at the last traffic light heading out of town.

The sermon title is what was on the driver’s license plate.  It’s a vanity plate, of course.  Maybe the driver’s last name?  Hah-duck?  Haddok?  I don’t know, maybe  the guy’s from Norwegians or some such people and it’s the family name?

I don’t know the driver; never had seen him before that day at the stoplight, and I’ve never seen him or his truck since around here.  But, the moment I saw the license plate, I knew the driver.  If the owner of this truck just happens to be listening by radio this morning, you can let me know if I’m right or if I’m wrong.

I’m pretty sure that this vanity plate is pronounced “Hayduke”, as in George Washington Hayduke III.  Hayduke is a character out of a novel by Edward Abbey.  Abbey’s novel is entitled “ The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which Abbey later followed with the sequel, “Hayduke Lives!”

Abbey’s character, George Hayduke, is a ex-Green Beret, Vietnam vet.  His speciality in Vietnam was explosives.   He comes home embittered and scarred by his war experience; he retreats into the wilderness of the American Southwest.   That’s where we meet him.

Hayduke emerges from the wilderness to join up with an odd collection of other individuals to form what they will call, “the Monkey Wrench Gang”.  The members of the  Monkey Wrench Gang are not really environmentalists, so much as they’re just anti-development.  They’re especially aggravated over the damming up of the Colorado River.

So, the Monkey Wrench Gang proceeds to sabotage, vandalize, and generally harass any developer who attempts to start a project in the southwest desert lands.   Hayduke, ever true to his explosives training, is constantly brandishing sticks of dynamite, always wanting to blow up something:  bull dozers, construction shacks and whatever else his fellow gang members will let him blow up.  He really wants to blow up one of the dams on the Colorado River, but they won’t let him do that.

I enjoyed reading both “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and its sequel “Hayduke Lives!”, but not enough to go put vanity plates on my truck about it.  But, this guy in front of me at the stoplight, he’s got a major commitment to the life of George Washington Hayduke III.

As I said, I’ve never met the guy.  I would guess that most people pulling up behind him, would kind of scratch their heads, take a shot at pronouncing what they saw there on his license plate, and just assume it’s an odd, last name on a vanity plate.

But, having read these books by Edward Abbey I think I could do a fair job of describing him and his values he’s identified with so strongly that he puts it out there like a coded message on his truck for other like-minded people.

That is a lot like what our Gospel reading dramatizes for us today.  There’s a context—a large body of writings, the Hebrew Bible—and then comes a coded message that ties it all together for these two friends from Emmaus.

They’re traveling home, when they encounter a stranger on the road.   They know nothing at all about this guy.  As Luke describes in verse 27, the stranger reminds them about writings of Moses and the prophets.   Then, he conveys  a kind of coded message.  He takes bread they’ve offered him, he gives thanks for it, he breaks it and gives it to them.  It speaks volumes to them.

A loaf of bread:  as common and as ordinary an object for them, as a license plate on a truck is for us.  But, for these two travelers from Emmaus, when they see this stranger take up that loaf of bread, it’s suddenly not just a loaf of bread.

The breaking of the bread signifies something in the light of those Scriptures;  it represents, it announces, the most unexpected thing, Jesus of Nazareth…Lives!    And, in fact, it is Jesus of Nazareth himself, the Resurrected Christ, who breaks bread with them.  Something about that summed up for them what their Teacher was all about.

Now, in fact, this whole walk to Emmaus is a brief re-enactment of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus, the stranger, the rabbi, traveled from village to village on his way to Jerusalem.  As he encountered people along the way Jesus would open to them the Word of God.

As Jesus did that traveling and teaching, something would ignite within the hearts of his listeners, a new life would erupt from deep within their souls, and they would see this traveling rabbi as something more.  Dare they believe?  Dare they commit themselves to this Teacher?  Dare they allow themselves the hope that this is the One to redeem Israel?

Cleopas says as much in verse 21, But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.   They had hoped.

On this his Resurrection Day, Jesus once again puts on his teaching mantle.  He starts off with a bit of rebuke that I find a little surprising; the circumstances being what they were, I sure wouldn’t have expected these two or any of the rest to do other than what they are doing:  shaking their heads, coping with shock and horror and grief so profound one wonders how they manage to get up and go on with their lives at all!

But, of course, we’ve got to extend to Jesus a little understanding, too.  Afterall, he’s the one who just got crucified, so he’s had a rough few days! In my personal theology, I think the crucifixion came as something of a shock for Jesus as much as it did for his followers.

I don’t think Jesus himself knew exactly what God was going to do next on that past Thursday night.  Jesus only knew to preach and teach and live the Gospel:  the kingdom of God had come.  It was a Gospel that gathered all who would come to share around God’s table.  Through Jesus himself, through his flesh-and-blood life, he was forming a new body, a new Israel, a new covenant people of God.

That previous Thursday night at dinner, he had told them, “This cup [of wine] which is poured out for you [represents] the new covenant in my blood [in my very life force].”

In his very person, through his obedient testimony, God was now establishing God’s kingdom community of love on this good earth, around Jesus.

The problem was, there already were plenty of kingdoms firmly in place, who were presently running the show.  Their kingdoms simply didn’t allow room for yet another kingdom to come set up shop, not even the kingdom of God.   So, all the powers that be:  ecclesiastical and political and imperial, combined their collective self-interest and killed Jesus.  Plain and simple.

Jesus went through with it all, saying to God, “I don’t get it. But, I see where all this is headed, and if this is what you want, so be it.”   That’s a rough paraphrase of Jesus’ prayer, Garden of Gethsemane, Luke chapter 22, verse 42:  Father, if thou are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

Not what he wants, says Jesus, but he goes on obedient to God to the bitter end and gasps out his last mortal breath, Luke chapter 23, verse 46:  Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!, and then he dies.

Lo and behold!  On the third morning, God vindicates and validates Jesus’ faith and obedience.   Jesus awakes to discover, he is the Resurrected Christ.    If we’d gone through all that, we’d be a bit impatient, too, to get that group of disciples roused back up out of their despair and get on with the work at hand!

In resurrecting Jesus, God says:  this is how the kingdom of God gets done.  You gather all who will come to  my table and you break bread with them, which means, of course, the folks who’ve got the bread share it with the folks who have no bread, so that everybody gets something to eat.

We focus on the cross, we focus on the empty tomb, but what does Jesus focus on?  The bread.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus uses bread.  Luke chapter 9, verses 10 – 17, Jesus acts out that truth in the feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus receives five loaves and two fish, blesses it and feeds those thousands.  And all ate and were satisfied, Luke writes.  And they [i.e., the twelve apostles] took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces, Luke tells us.

Which was Jesus’ way of saying to each of those Twelve apostles:  here, each of you get a basket of bread to hold:  hold it!  Feel the weight of it!   Remember this!  This is the kingdom at work.  Food that feeds the hungry; food enough for all with plenty left over, when you first thought there was not anywhere enough to even get started feeding this crowd.

On God’s earth and under God’s kingdom-rule, there is plenty enough for all with more than enough left over.  The bread signified the kingdom of God’s abundance and care.  But on earth ruled by human rulers in their own self-interests, there is scarcity with little left to be distributed.

The feast of the unleavened bread, the eve of his arrest, Luke tells us,  Jesus again breaks the bread and passes it to each of them so they each have a piece of bread; he passes the common cup of wine so each can have a sip.  Jesus says, this is my body which is given for you….this is my blood which is poured out for you.   Jesus is saying to them, and to us:  this is my life…if you receive my life, it now becomes your life, too.

“My way of life is now your way of life.  My witness of God’s community of love now come on this earth is now your witness of God’s community of love now come on this earth.  Live it!  Jesus tells them.  Live it, even if the powers that be don’t like it.  Because I warn you, they will not like it at all. Live it, even at risk of life and limb, if you must!

Jesus gives them the bread, he gives them the cup, and he warns them:  “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘the servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”  (John 15:20)

The stranger who meets these two along the way, assumes the role of Teacher once again.  They welcome him into their home.  They welcome him to their table.  They offer him their bread, and he assumes the role of Host, blesses the bread and returns it to them.  Now, they get it.

The burning which smoldered now bursts into flame.  Now, they become the ones who are impatient.  Even now, in this late evening hour, they must rush back to find the others still hiding away in Jerusalem.   They return to discover heir fellow followers are already well on their way to waking up to the truth.

Verses 34 35:  The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon!  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.  “Oh, my goodness, how could we not see that!”  perhaps they said to one another.

When I went out to California to get my year of training as a furniture maker, I rented a room from a couple named Meg and Kevin.   Over the first few weeks, we had few meals together there in their kitchen to get acquainted with each other.  They told me about a class they were just about to finish up in Japanese calligraphy.

There was a retired Japanese man named Shozo Sato who lived just north of town.  He taught flower arranging and calligraphy and did some pottery and so forth.  I thought, well, that’s all very nice.  As they were winding up their class with Mr. Sato, Meg and Kevin wanted to show their appreciation by hosting a dinner for him and his wife.  They invited me to come to the dinner, too.

It was a nice, quiet meal there in their dining room; just the five of us:  Meg and Kevin, Mr. Sato and his wife, and me.  The food was good, the conversation was pleasant, and then that was that.  The Sato’s went home, I helped Meg and Kevin clean up and then I went to my room.  A nice evening.

It was only a few months later that I learned that this pleasant retired Japanese man was actually Dr. Shozo Sato.  If you were to go on-line and google Shozo Sato, you would read something like this:

“Shozo Sato [is] an internationally renowned Japanese master of Zen arts and [a] visionary theatre director, most known for adapting Western classics to Japanese Kabuki theatre.” *

Yada, yada, yada…then here comes the kicker:  In 2004, the Emperor of Japan awarded Shozo Sato with “The Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure”, which is somewhere along the lines of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and getting knighted by the Queen, all rolled up in one.  That’s who I had that quiet intimate dinner with that night!

When I learned that, all I could do is smack myself in the forehead:  “think!  think! what did I say?!  what did I talk about?!  how many ways did I embarrass myself and bring shame on the family name?!”  Honestly, I have no clue.

I didn’t understand with whom I was breaking bread.  I couldn’t appreciate the significance of who this was before me.   So, I can guess a little at what these two folks from Emmaus felt like when they finally figured out with whom they shared this meal.  Too often, I do the very same thing at the Lord’s table.

Regularly, we share this meal we call, the Lord’s Supper.   Do we see who is at table with us?   To our detriment, I believe—we have isolated this meal, as a look back, to one specific night long ago in Jesus’ life.  We have assigned it one specific meaning, it’s a kind blood sacrifice so God can forgive my sins so when I die I get to go to heaven.

To assign only that narrow meaning to this Lord’s Supper, I think is like me seeing Mr. Sato as just a nice retired Japanese man who happens to teach calligraphy classes in a studio out behind his house.

The bread and the cup:

the meaning of the Kingdom of God among us on earth, is in this meal;

the reasons why the kingdoms of this earth joined up to kill Jesus, are in this meal;

the way of doing church in this world among these kingdoms of the world is in this meal.

In the breaking of the bread, whenever we do it, may God grant the Spirit of the Living Christ, to rouse us up out of our stupor, so we will leave this room, to call others with this good news:  The Lord has risen indeed!  The kingdom of God has now come among us!

Where Did You Go, Bob Dylan?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 23, 2017
Scripture: John 20:19-31, 1 Peter 1:3-9

Poor Thomas!  In our Gospel reading, in verse 24, John tell us that, Thomas, one of the Twelve, [was] called the Twin.  That’s how everyone knew Thomas before this particular day:  “hey, everybody, here comes Thomas the Twin.”   But, because of this Sunday, one week after Easter, Thomas will be now and forevermore known as what?  “Doubting Thomas”.  He never lives it down, does he?

For the record, Thomas is a resolute, determined sort of  guy.  John’s Gospel account shows us this courageous Thomas earlier in John, chapter 11.  That’s where John tells us about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus has only recently left Jerusalem, where he just barely escaped getting stoned to death.

Word comes for Jesus to go back near Jerusalem to visit Lazarus, who’s lying mortally ill, near to death.  But the disciples protest, Rabbi, the [leaders there] were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again.  All, except one disciple.  John tells us, Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.  Let’s see this thing through to the death, says Thomas.  So, maybe we could call him, “Thomas the Brave”.

Later, they’re there in the upper room with Jesus having the Last Supper.  John writes in chapter 14, of how Jesus seems to be talking in riddles about going away and then coming back and he seems to try to reassure the disciples by saying, And you know the way where I am going.

Of course, the disciples have no idea what Jesus is talking about, so it’s Thomas who just says it: Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?  So, maybe we should call him “Honest Thomas”.

But, no, he gets stuck with being Doubting Thomas:  Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.   That’s on Easter Sunday, in the evening.

A week later, Jesus appears again to the disciples.  Thomas is there this time and Jesus says, “I heard what you said, Thomas.  Here I am:  do what you said you need to do to believe I am alive.”  Of course, then, Thomas says, “no, Lord, I don’t really need to do that.”    Jesus then pronounced this blessing, this beatitude:  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Simon Peter is there in the room and hears this blessing.  About thirty years later, Peter will write this letter we call First Peter.  He seems to have that blessing of Jesus’ in mind when he writes,  we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead….Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.

In other words, Peter is writing, you are the ones of whom the Risen Christ spoke, when he said to Thomas—and the rest of us there in the room:  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.   That’s us, here today, in 2017.    Blessed, are we, who have not seen Jesus, and yet we speak of him and feel for him  a love as for a dearest friend whom we’ve always known and who continues with us.  With no bodily proof, we believe.

Well, yes and no.  Yes, as far as I know, none of us have seen Jesus appear bodily before us, and yet we believe.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate having the occasional proof that Jesus is alive and well and at work.  More than we may think, we rely on a little living proof as did Thomas.

Bob Dylan was living proof for me back in 1979.  Bob Dylan…troubadour of the 1960’s counterculture.  The voice of a generation in revolt.  Well, in November of 1978, Bob Dylan had a vision of Jesus appear to him, enough that he converted and began quite publicly professing his faith in Jesus Christ.

The only time Bob Dylan has made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live was in 1979.  What does he sing? “Blowin’ in the Wind”?  Nope.   “The Times They are A-Changing”?  “Tangled Up in Blue”? No.  “Just Like a Woman?”  No.  He does an extended version, “Gotta Serve Somebody”, which was off his album, “Slow Train Coming”.  That was his first of three explicitly Christian themed albums over three years.

This was great stuff, I thought!  I was in my mid-twenties, listening to Bob Dylan who was a genuine Christian voice.   Proof in flesh and blood, of the Risen Lord, who had converted Bob Dylan, albeit into a somewhat eccentric, Pentecostal end-times version of the faith.   But, let’s not nitpick.

And, then, Dylan’s so-called “Christian period” came to an end a few years later and that was that.   There went proof.  Where did you go, Bob?   I was kinda counting you to shore up my faith as we advanced through the years together…see!  see!  Bob Dylan proves its!

Well, that’s between him and God.  None of my business, but I was just sort’a hoping, you know, he’d have stuck around to be a representative of the faith.

You may have your own version of physical proof to shore up your own faith.   Tim Tebow, for example, or any other number of Christian athletes.  Although, it generally seems to work better if it’s an outright non-Christian kind of famous person who has a very public, dramatic turn around.   Wow!  Now that’s a boost to the faith.

That’s, o.k..  But, don’t underestimate this truth:  you have your own faith experience; you are your own flesh-and-blood, witness of the Resurrected Lord.  Jesus, and then Peter, wants us to know:  you, too, have a precious, precious gift you bear within you.

This is not an easy thing into which we are called, to live into this faith, to continue true to this hope that lives within us, in the resurrected one whom we call Christ, or Jesus, or Lord, or simply, God.  As Peter describes in 1 Peter, chapter one, verses 6 and 7, there will be hard times to live our faith:   In this you and I rejoice, though now for a little while we may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith may….What?

My RSV uses this strange word, redoundso that the genuineness of your faith may be redound to the glory of Christ.   Had to look up that word “redound.”  It means “to have the effect of”, or “to result in”.  O.K…”that the genuineness of our faith may have the effect or result of bringing glory to Christ.”

That is our ambition and our inspiration, that in good times and in hard times, in these various trialsthe genuineness of [our] faith…may be found to result in the glory of Christ.

What in the world does that mean?!  Does that mean God is checking us out, to see just how genuine our faith really is?  Are we on trial before God?  “Well, I don’t know, maybe they believe, maybe they don’t…well, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?  I’ll just put ‘em through wringer and see who’s left standing.”

No.

No.

No.   Peter is not writing, to portray God as standing back, arms crossed, looking at us, doubting and wondering and saying, “I just don’t know about that one…they may be just blowing smoke.  Let’s put him/her to the test and see what happens.”

I know one way that insidious terror got rooted and nurtured in me.  It was that annual rite of spiritual abuse called the Spring Revival, or Fall Revival.  That’s where we’d actually pay some itinerant preacher to come to town for a week or two and harangue us.  He didn’t know us or anything about our lives, but to hear him berate us night after night, we were perpetually trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes.

We’d actually show up for six or seven nights running, plus two Sunday mornings just to sit there and have our faith dissected and discarded as a worthless exercise in self-serving self-righteousness.  Did you all ever do that to yourselves here at University Baptist or at whatever churches you grew up in?

When I was twelve, our church inadvertently invited some poor preacher who just was not cut out to be a revivalist.   He just did not have the heart to rip into people the way we seemed to need getting ripped on a semi-annual basis.

It was the final Sunday morning service of that particular revival when I came forward and made my profession of faith.  It was a very moving experience for me.  My mom later told me, she knew it had to be the genuine work of the Holy Spirit because this guy couldn’t preach worth a darn.

Don’t let anybody do that to you.   Don’t do it to yourself.   God’s not going to do it to you.

What Peter writes to say is this:  we have been born anew to a living hope…to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept [safe] for who?  For you.  You and me, along with Doubting Thomas and Simon Peter and Bob Dylan, all of us who slip and slide hither and yonder on way into heaven:  we, have got a treasure more precious than gold within us.  And what does Peter say in verse five:  God is the One who is guarding us.  “You, who by God’s power are guarded through faith.”

God is guarding us.  Colossians 2:13 says it quite well:  For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

The fiery, refining fires of faith are not lit by God; it’s the gold within us that shines through all and endures, that’s God’s doing.  That’s what Peter wants us to understand and to find great comfort and courage.

No, in this life you and I don’t get to see Jesus in his resurrected body, as was granted the Apostles and the others in the weeks after Easter.  How blessed are you! proclaims Jesus.  How marvelous, declares Peter!  Without seeing him, you believe in him, and you love him; that kind of faith is like a big chunk of gold ore in our souls out of which God is shaping the precious testimony of Jesus Christ.

In the early spring of 2004, I was hiking in the steep mountains of Northern California along the South Fork of the Eel River.  As I was walking along the river’s edge, I heard this splash.  I looked around and didn’t see anything.  Then I heard another splash and then another, and still I didn’t see anything.

So, I stopped and just stood there and watched the river.  Now, when I say river, at this point it just looked like a mountain stream flowing in a flat, wide meadow.  As I stood at that wide, shallow section of the river, I saw what was making the splash.  It was salmon fingerlings making their way to the Pacific Ocean.

As you know, the adult salmon leave the Pacific, swim back upstream to the source of the rivers into which they were born, they lay their eggs.  The eggs hatch and then the little salmon swim their way back to the Pacific.

Here, the river bed was wide and rocky and gravely.  The water was very shallow.  So, these salmon fingerlings were having to physically flop themselves time and time again through this shallow section of the river to keep on making their way to the Pacific.  That’s what I was hearing making the splashes.  So, I just stood there for about a half an hour, watching this wonder of nature, these little fish flopping themselves along, in and out and back in the water, over and over, until they got past this shallow section of the Eel River.

Now, consider this:  the water through which these salmon were flopping themselves along the way to the Pacific, it was the very same water they’d been swimming in just fifty yards upstream; it would be the very same water they’d be swimming in fifty yards downstream.   It’s just that here in this particular spot, the riverbed had changed and it made the journey a bit tougher on the salmon fingerlings.

Not a single salmon birthed up in the steep mountain headwaters of the Eel River could just put itself in neutral and float its way peacefully on back to the Pacific.   There were a lot of twists and turns and shallows and bears and mountain lions for every one of those fingerlings along the way.

But, what didn’t change ever for any fingerling was the water.  The water was the medium into which they were born, and through which these fish would swim and reach their destination:  the Pacific Ocean.

Faith is like that water.  Faith was the medium through which we were born into Christ.  Faith is the medium in which we travel.  The riverbed, though, it will change from place to place along our journey.  We have been, as Peter puts it, born anew into this living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.   God bore us into this life of faith, this precious flowing water.   There will be twists and turns and shallows and obstacles, again, what Peter calls these various trials.

But always, you may be sure, you’re swimming in the same water, you are journeying in the same faith that will see you to the One who is drawing you always, just as there is something drawing those salmon to the Pacific Ocean.

It is the same medium of faith that saw Doubting Thomas and Simon Peter safely over the shallows and through the twists and turns to God.  It is the same medium of faith which will get Bob Dylan mumbling and stumbling to where Bob Dylan needs to be.   It is this same faith, this living hope born through the Resurrected Christ, born in you and me by the Spirit of God, that will get us safely to God.  It is this same faith gathered in this body called University Baptist Church, that will get this congregation safely along its journey.

If you doubt, well, keep swimming…you’ll find the proper depth for your faith ahead of you…it’s there, just keeping swimming even when your swimming looks a lot like flopping.   You and me and we all, are blessed, for we believe though we have not seen, nor can we even imagine, this rich inheritance that awaits us by God’s grace.

The 400-Meter Resurrection Run

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 16, 2017
Scripture: John 20:1-18

We have two advantages this Easter morning that Mary Magdalene and the other followers of Jesus did not have:  first, we know it’s Easter morning; they didn’t.  Resurrection was outside of anyone’s experience.   They weren’t expecting it, they weren’t looking for it.  Honestly, who would, and who does?

The summer of 1975, I was twenty years old, living at home with my parents in Hopewell, Virginia.   It was a Saturday afternoon.   I was outside in the backyard, sitting in a lawn chair, working on my bicycle.   I was a bored kid home from college for the summer, no romantic interests happening, so I spent a lot weekends bicycling.

So, I’m sitting out there in the yard on this summer afternoon.  It was a sunny, clear day, nothing going on, you know, just ho-hum and I look up from my bike.  No particular reason.  I just look up.  And I see an airplane flying down our street…not rolling, not being towed behind a truck.  It was honest to goodness flying down the end of our street!

Our house was two long blocks from where the end of the street came to a t-intersection with another cross street.  Directly opposite that t-intersection was a small open field.    An airplane–a little single engine private plane—had lost power.

Perhaps the pilot was aiming for the field…I don’t know.  Like I said, it was a small field, and perhaps the pilot recognized that fact when the field failed to grow much larger as he got closer in.

The pilot brought his aircraft down across that open field, cleared the power lines and then dropped it right down at the end of the street.  He rolled it down that first long block, stopped it right in the next intersection, where it tipped over on its nose.

There was no warning.  No noise.   Just this weird experience of looking up and seeing the most unexpected thing on this dull summer Saturday afternoon, the sight of an airplane flying down my street.

Of course, things got real exciting pretty quickly.  The plane stopped, tipped over, a few moments later, the pilot hops out—he didn’t actually stoop over and kiss the pavement, though I sure he was probably thinking about it.  Within a minute and I mean within a literal 60-seconds, that intersection was totally clogged with traffic and people and fire trucks, all converging on this pilot and his airplane there in the street.

I did not get up that morning expecting to see that.  I didn’t even look up from working on my bicycle expecting to see that.   Of course, I’m pretty sure the pilot wasn’t expecting that either when he took off earlier that day.   So, that’s one advantage we’ve got over Mary and the others today:  we know to look for it…it’s Easter morning.

The other advantage we’ve got, is that the sun’s up and we’ve got daylight.   Mary and the others don’t have that advantage yet…it’s very early on this Sunday and still dark, as John tells us in verse one.   Mary is moving along by herself in dark.  Perhaps she stumbles along, picking her way carefully down an unfamiliar path, her arms full of bundles of bandages and containers of various spices.

Mary is carrying these in order to apply them to the battered corpse of Jesus.  She’s going to give his body better treatment that the others were able to give it when they hurriedly placed it in the tomb two evenings earlier.

Only those of you who have suffered Mary’s kind of grief can fully appreciate her state of mind.  Since Jesus’ death, Mary’s sleep-walked through the daylight hours of Friday and Saturday, and sat wide awake through the long dark hours of those two nights.  Her thoughts have stumbled over the simplest of details, easy things which turned in to dilemmas seemingly beyond her capacity to do.

On this early morning of the third day, Mary doesn’t even consider what is the most basic dilemma confronting her:  how is she going to move that huge, heavy stone that seals up Jesus’ tomb?  How is she going to talk her way past the Roman guard that Pilate stationed there to prevent anyone from gaining access?

How confused Mary must have been, then, to discover the stone is rolled away; the Roman guard is gone.  Well, Mary can no more imagine a resurrection to explain this, than she could imagine an airplane swooping in out of the sky.

Mary can only assume what was more likely, that the enemies of Jesus had broken in and stolen the body of Jesus.  They’d probably hauled it off to burn it in the dump outside of city walls, burning away any last vestiges of this troublemaker.

This is where the pace of this first Easter morning picks up considerably!   Suddenly, there’s a lot of running going on in the dark.  Everybody’s running:  Mary runs back into town to find Peter and the disciple whom the Gospel describes as the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.  Most assume that that was John.  So, Mary runs for all she’s worth, going first to find Peter, and then she and Peter run to find John.

The Scripture says both Peter and John then run back out with Mary to the tomb.  We’re told John outruns Peter; he gets there first.  Peter comes in second.  It’s a kind of sacred footrace, isn’t it…who can get to the empty tomb first.  So, I think we need to introduce a new commemorative Easter event called “the 400-meter Resurrection Run”.

It’s be a big hit here in Charlottesville.  We’ve got all kinds of runs, Spring, Summer, and Fall.  The 400-Meter Resurrection Run would fit right in.  We could do it immediately before the annual Easter egg hunt out at the Marshall’s farm.   Or, maybe we could shut down this stretch of Main Street heading down through mid-town.

It would be a three-person team event, with each team composed of one woman and two men.  The race would start with a spot designated as “The Empty Tomb”.

The race begins with the women team members lined up at The Empty Tomb.  “Ready, set and go”!  Each woman would run the first 400-meter leg from The Empty Tomb, to Point Peter.  Then, she and the first male team-mate at Point Peter would run together to Point John, collect their second male team-mate and then all three would race back to The Empty Tomb.  First one’s there win a ribbon and little trophy shaped like, I don’t know, an empty tomb.

Why all the running?   I think I know why Mary was running.  She was running to get reinforcements.  She was running to stop something else horrible from happening.  She was running to get someone to help her track down whoever stole the body of Jesus, get the body back and then give it a better burial that what it got the first go-round.

Mary would probably need someone to help her go to Pilate.  Pilate posted the guard; only Pilate could release the guard from its duty.   Pilate would be the one who’d know what had happened.   If ever the anger of grief got transformed into righteous indignation, surely Mary’s anger must have been the most indignant and the most righteous anger of all.

I’m not sure why Peter and John are running.  Clearly, they were not expecting a resurrection.  Really, I don’t think Peter and John were expecting or seeking anything.  They are simply reacting to Mary.  They’re reacting to the outrage she poured out at them when she finds them, when she screams out in her horror:  they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.

So, if Peter and John are seeking anything that early morning, they are simply seeking to pacify Mary in her hurt and anger.  She’s wanting to do something, so they’re doing something:  they’re running to the tomb.  “See, Mary?  We’re running!  We’re doing something!  We’re going through some vigorous motions.  They don’t really mean anything, but we’re doing them!”

Easters can be like that, can’t they?  We can put ourselves through some pretty vigorous activity around Easter time.   We get up; we go.  We’re not sure what we’re expecting really, nor what we’re seeking.  But, we go.  As Peter and John go, for Mary’s sake.

They reach the tomb.  They can see that something has happened.   John wins the race and gets there first.  But, John doesn’t go into the tomb.  Peter then runs up, huffing and puffing right on past John.

Peter enters the tomb, and he sees what Mary has not yet seen.  He sees the burial wrappings, laying all neat and orderly on the low, stone shelf where the body had lain.  What grave robber takes the time to unwrap a corpse and fold up everything so neatly?  That’s a puzzle.  John comes in, and he sees these same things.  They see what neither of them had come expecting to see.

Verse 8 tells us something started to click for John.  It says John believed.  He believes probably with just some inkling of it all possibly being true:  Jesus is resurrected.  Not enough to say anything to anybody, but he’s starting to get his head around it.

We have no idea what’s going on with Peter.  Peter came neither seeking nor expecting anything other than more bad news.  He leaves, perhaps so muddled and confused he can’t put two thoughts together.  John and Peter are so lost and uncertain and speechless, they simply turn around and go back home.  They leave Mary Magdalene there by herself.  They offer her no consolation, no plan of action, nothing.

Mary finally stoops down and looks inside the tomb.  She sees two men in there, sitting on either end of the shelf where the body of Jesus should have been.   Strange…Peter and John said not a word about there being these men there.   But these are messengers from the Lord Jesus, and he hasn’t sent these messenger for Peter, or John, or anyone else.  He has sent them to Mary. are not messengers sent to them; they are messengers.

They speak first, prompting Mary with this question:  Woman, why are you weeping?   Why are you crying, Mary?    Still distraught over her true loss, that Jesus has been killed, she persists in believing she has lost even more, the body of Jesus stolen from her.  She answers, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

Mary turns to find a third man standing there, whom she assumes is the caretaker.   She proceeds to ask Jesus, in effect, what Jesus had done with his own corpse.1   Maybe they’ll laugh about that together later.  But, for the moment, Jesus doesn’t answer her question.  He simply speaks her name, Mary.

When someone calls out our name, they’re not only calling us to themselves, they’re first calling us to our own selves.  Where ever else our thoughts may be, whatever may be distracting us, when we hear our names called, we are called into the present  moment.  We’re called back to ourselves:  “hey, that’s me!”  Jesus calls Mary to himself, by first calling Mary back to herself.2

Mary’s panicked, desperate race to recover Jesus’ body is over.  Because Jesus is there, present, with her.  He is very much alive, embodied before her in a way that defies our understanding.

She’s said over and over that what she wants is to find the dead and decaying body of Jesus, crucified and much in need of a proper burial.  But, what Mary truly wants, in her heart of hearts, is Jesus.   She realizes that truth, as she comes back to herself, that what she wants is not some shell of her former Lord.   She wants Jesus, and that truth, she realizes in an instant, as she hears Jesus pronounce to her, her own name.

The Season of Lent is such a long, drawn out affair.  Give up this, surrender that. Then, finally, we find our way into Holy Week, with a joyful Palm Sunday and the foreboding shadows of Maundy Thursday and the somber, funereal notes of Good Friday and Saturday Vigil.  Then, the sleepy-eyed Easter Sunrise and then Easter Worship and somewhere in there an egg hunt or two.  And, who knows, someday, maybe we’ll squeeze in a team event such as the 400-meter resurrection run.

After all that, we like Peter and John go home in a muddle.  Once again, we may return home somewhat believing it might be true, as with John, or we may be still very much not believing, as with Peter.  Some go on, in a sort of quiet grief because they think they no longer have even the shell of the faith they once had in the Lord.  That was Mary’s plight.

Who wants the shell of what once was, but which the world has now taken away from us?  Not me, that’s for sure.   No one should.  Have done with dead Saviors.  But, be willing to look up once more.

Perhaps one day you will look up, for no reason—again, why would anyone look for what they’re not expecting?  But, we’re just going through the day, and it’s as if we hear someone call our name.  The experience, the sensation, calls us to ourselves in this present moment.  Perhaps we realize in that same moment or perhaps only in hindsight as we consider it, there is recognition in the voice that speaks to us.  It is when we realize, Jesus lives and calls us yet again to walk in this resurrection life.

1 Paul Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1985) p. 104.

2 ibid, 105.

Is That Your Donkey?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 9, 2017
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

It strikes me odd sometimes as to what the Gospel writers chose to tell us.   This is Jesus about whom they’re writing.  They had so much material to work with, and yet the Gospel accounts are such short documents.

If the police came knocking on your door and said “quick!  everybody in the neighborhood needs to evacuate!  You’ve got five minutes to gather what you can and get out of here!”  What would you grab up, throw in the car, and head out with?  It would be things that were really, really significant for you and your family, right?

It’s a similar dynamic going on here.  Out of the massive body of experiences and teachings with Jesus, these writers of our Gospel accounts grab up just a few precious things to pass along to us.  That’s why it is indeed odd to me, what Matthew, Mark and Luke chose to tell us about this day that we Christians traditionally call Palm Sunday.

If I said to you, “quick!  What happened on Palm Sunday?”  You’d most likely tell me, “well, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and people waved palm branches and threw their coats down on the path in front of Jesus and shouted ‘hosanna’.”  True enough.

But, do you realize what Matthew, Mark and Luke spent most of their space writing to us about?  They all chose to devote the majority of their Palm Sunday accounts talking about the donkey!  All three Gospel writers devote well over half of their verses to tell us how it was that Jesus came by his ride into Jerusalem that day…they tell us about the donkey!1   Weird, right?

It’s Mark and Luke who tell us about some of the villagers questioning the disciples:  “hey!   You two…what do ya think you’re doing?  Is that your donkey?  I don’t think so!”  That’s the jist of what these bystanders are saying in Mark’s version.  Luke says these folks are actually the owners of said donkey tied up there in the street:  And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Hey!   What are you doing?  Is that your donkey?”  Again, that’s a paraphrase in modern English.

The world itself—says John–could not hold all the books if all the things Jesus did were to be written, so what do Matthew and Mark and Luke choose to tell us?   They tell us the backstory of the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday…really?   Is that information really crucial to what happened on that day?

Here’s how I would have written it.   I would have just skipped verses 2 – 6 altogether.  Instead, I would have picked up at verse 7, with something like this:   “And finding a donkey, the disciples placed their garments on it; and he sat on it.”  And, then, get on with Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  But, no!   Instead, they take up all these precious verses to give us the blow-by-blow about getting the donkey, as if that’s so important.

“Look,” says Jesus.   “I want a couple of you to slip over into that village down the road.   There’s going to be a little donkey tied up there.  Now, listen, because this is important–untie that little donkey and bring it here.”

      “Now, somebody’s probably gonna see you.   They’ll probably shout at you, you know, like ‘Hey!   Is that your donkey?!”   Just tell ‘em, ‘The master needs it, they’ll get back soon enough’, and then grab the donkey and get back here quick as you can.”

And, then, after Mark and Luke tell about Jesus telling the disciples about the donkey, they both use up yet more precious verses to narrate, how in fact, that is what happens, blow by blow.   All this back story on the donkey before ever getting around to telling us what’s really memorable about that day.

What is important about Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem would seem to be this:   Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem.    In doing that, Jesus was acting out an ancient prophecy.  That prophecy told the people one day, the Messiah will arrive in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey.  That was the prophet Zechariah, as recorded in Zechariah chapter 9, verse 9.

Apparently, though, the Holy Spirit impressed upon the Gospel writers the importance of asking the question, “Hey!  Is that your donkey?”   They state it not once but twice:  first, we hear it from Jesus, and then we hear it a second time as they describe it as it happens.

Now, as a general rule, when, in Scripture, the writer alerts us by telling us, “here’s what’s going to happen”, and then the writer repeats it by describing that event happening, that is the writer waving a flag at us.   Basically, the writer is saying, if it’s worth me repeating, then it’s important.

So, let’s hear about this important day one more.  This time, though, hear it were as a play being performed, because that is, afterall, what Jesus is doing, isn’t it?  Jesus is enacting an ancient prophecy, and he does it in three acts:  first act, on the road outside of Jerusalem—Jesus, “this is what I want you to do—go into the village and get the donkey–and this is what’s going to happen—you’ll have to answer a few questions.”.

Second act, on a street in a nearby village—enter the disciples who untie a donkey and start walking off with it.

“Hey, you two!”, someone objects.  “Is that your donkey?  I don’t think so!”

“Uh, no, it’s not our donkey, but the Lord needs it; you’ll get it back when he’s done with it.”

“Oh.  O.K.”

So, if we were to boil it down to its essence, two-thirds of the Palm Sunday story is about getting the donkey.  Then comes the third and final act—Jesus enters Jerusalem riding somebody else’s donkey.

There’s a few things going on here, but here’s the point:  these unnamed villagers, whoever they were, when they learned that Lord needed of something they owned, they gave it without further question.   If only all us villagers were so ready to do the same, when the Lord Jesus calls upon us.

“Hey, you!  Yeah, you, there asking about my finances.  Is that any of your business?   I don’t think so!”

“Well, no, but the Lord has need of your money; you’ll get it back a hundred times over when he’s through with it.”

“Oh.   Well, o.k., then, here you go!”

Is it our donkey?   Or, is it the Lord’s to use, as God has need, to do God’s redeeming work on this good earth?

I am fully confident in God’s providence to work around me when I fail to offer what God would be pleased to receive from me, what God might ask of me.  If I ignore God’s leading, it is really to my loss, not God’s.

But, there is also at least a short-term loss for whomever God would have had me to in some way assist, or influence.  They suffer loss, too.  There is something that goes missing which interrupts the flow of how God would have worked had I cooperated with God.

Perhaps because we’re talking about Jesus needing a donkey to ride, it puts me in mind of the well-known proverb, “For The Want of a Nail”.  One version goes this way:

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a nail, the world was lost”- T. Rundgren

Imagine if the two disciples had come to unhitch the donkey, and the exchange had gone this way:

“Hey, you there!   What’d ya think you’re doing?   Is that your donkey?”

 “Uh, no.  But the Lord has need of it.”

 “Well, you go tell the Lord he can go get his donkey somewhere else and leave mine alone!”

Do we ever react that way?  Afterall, we’re the ones who put in the hours at school.  We trained.   We took out the loans.   We take care of our stuff, and we leave other people’s stuff alone.   We work dog-bone hard for what we’ve got, and this donkey would not be parked out front of my house if not for the sweat of my brow.

Furthermore, I want it to still be parked out there when I need it, so, no, now is not a good time to be taking my donkey off somewhere for who knows what.

There were other villagers there around Jerusalem to whom Jesus could have turned; other people who knew Jesus and who counted themselves among his followers.  So, I have no doubt he could have sent two more disciples to look further for another donkey.

But, they offered what Jesus had asked of them.  To them belonged this privilege, and they did not turn away from it

Before the parade, before the laying down of garments in the road and the waving of palm branches and the shouting of Hosannas!, before all of that, there first were some unnamed folks in a nearby village who lent the Lord their donkey, just because they heard the Lord had need of it.   Matthew, Mark and Luke devote the majority of their verses to drive that point home to us:  to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, Jesus needed somebody to loan him their donkey.

Now,  I need to let you know:   I didn’t pick the text out for this week in order to write a stewardship sermon.  Really, I didn’t.   We’ll just chalk this up as one of those divine coincidences.  So, here we are;let’s forge ahead with a four applications.

Application 1:  your Finance Committee and Stewardship Committee and Nominating Committee:  they’re sort of like these disciples that Jesus sends over to the village, aren’t they?  One way or the other, these folks are all saying the same thing: “the Lord has need of your donkey…how about it?”

It’s interesting that Jesus anticipates the question, “what are doing with my donkey?”   It’s is a legitimate question to ask, when someone wants to use something of ours.  As owners of the donkey, you have a reasonable basis to ask, “what plans do you have for my donkey?”

You need to understand why you’re being asked to give your money to support your church ministries.   You need to take time to understand, what is our mission?   What are our various ministries?   How exactly am I being asked to offer my various skills and gifts and time and talents?

The Lord needs your donkey, and here’s why.

Application 2:  There was a direct connection between these villagers loaning Jesus their donkey and Jesus getting to ride into Jerusalem that day to fulfill the prophecy.  There is a direct connection, for example, between your offerings and…

– making sure the lights get turned on and the heat and the water and all the rest are here in good working order.

– making sure that supplies are here for your teachers to use to teach the children the great stories and truths of Scripture.

– making sure that missions personnel have what they need to accomplish the mission for which the Lord has called them and for which we have commissioned them.

– making sure your own personnel are here helping you accomplish your mission here on this corner.

So, no donkey, no Palm Sunday parade.

Application 3:   Preparation.  Jesus sending the disciples to get the donkey; the disciples obeying and in fact getting the donkey and bringing it back to Jesus—all of that was what?   It was preparation!  It all was preparing for the ultimate mission of Jesus fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy to let the people know, the time had arrived.

The time is fulfilled, preached Jesus, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

 Next Sunday marks our one-year anniversary together in this interim time together.  These past 12 months, you may have felt like what those other disciples left standing around with Jesus, waiting for those other two disciples to get back with the donkey.  You’re waiting, waiting, waiting, for that Senior Minister Search Committee to finally get back here with that fine candidate to recommend to you.

This interim time you find yourselves in?   It’s preparatory.  So, what do you need to do, personally, to prepare yourself to see this church move into that new day, following Christ, serving Christ, carrying out your part of Christ’s mission?

On the day of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the first two acts were all preparatory.   Only then could there happen the third act.

Application 4:  The third act of Palm Sunday is action.  When those two disciples returned to Jesus and the others, they didn’t seem to spend much time standing around admiring what a fine donkey it was.   Jesus got on, and they headed on into Jerusalem.

To recap:

  1. The Lord needs your donkey. It’s time to ask and answer once again for yourselves as members of this congregation, “who’s donkey is it?” You have a responsibility for the financial welfare of this church; you have a responsibility to serve and to leader in  its ministries and mission.
  1. No donkey, no parade. Without you yourself and you as a congregation cooperating, this mission called University Baptist Church won’t keep going forward.
  1. Two-thirds of Palm Sunday was all about preparing for the action to come. This interim and all that it has demanded of you and will yet demand of you is getting ready.
  1. The third act of Palm Sunday was action. When you call your next Senior Minister and that clergy person is here with you, the Parade starts, and you, all together, are the parade. The community out there?  They’re the folks watching, and many of them will be quite surprised and delighted to hear themselves say with joy, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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 1 Matthew devotes 64% of his verses, Mark devotes 55% and Luke devotes 58% to describe how Jesus came by his ride into Jerusalem that day.

These Old Bones

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 2, 2017
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

About a year ago this time, my dog, Boo, and I were taking our daily walk in the woods, when he and I sniffed out a box turtle that had just died.  I’ve since read that box turtles on average live for 50 years, and some even live up to a hundred years.  So, this turtle could easily have been my age when it died.

I noted where the dead turtle lay and then left it alone to let nature run its course.  So, that was around March, early April.  This past late October, I took a look and there was the turtle shell, now emptied of its occupant.  So, I gathered up all the pieces of the shell and a fair number of bones that hadn’t been scattered off in the woods.

I cleaned everything up.  Some of the plates on the shell, called “scutes”, had started to flake off, so I glued those back on.  I attached the two bottom panels; those are called the plastron.  I sprayed a few coats of lacquer on everything, and I restored the turtle’s bones back into its shell, which seemed like the right place to keep them.

And, here it is, all finished.  I keep the restored shell and bones sitting on the corner of my desk in the Pastor’s Study here at the church, because I think it’s attractive.  Every so often, I take a look at it; most of the time, it just sits there on the corner unnoticed.

What if, one day, while I’m busily at work, the shell started to twitch around over there on its corner of the desk.  And then, not only is the shell twitching around, but I start hearing the click-clacking of the bones dancing around inside of the shell.  The shell would have my full attention.

Suddenly, four little legs pop out, front and back, and then slowly the turtle’s head emerges from the shell, it stretches out its long neck, and then it begins crawling across the desk.

I would let out such a yell!  There are three ways out of the Pastor’s Study, not counting the windows, and I would be out one way or the other in a hurry.

My turtle come back to life, as frightening as that might be, is nothing compared to what Ezekiel describes happened to him.  God takes hold of Ezekiel, he says in verse 1, and takes him away somewhere, and plops him down in a field of bones.   Thousands and thousands of human bones lie there before God and Ezekiel.  As if that weren’t horrifying enough, Ezekiel says in verse 2, God then drags him to and fro across this vast field of bones.

Then, God asks Ezekiel in verse 3, “What do you think, you mortal man, can these bones live?

It’s a very specific way in which God addresses Ezekiel throughout this experience:  “son of man”.   Here in verse 3, and then in verse 9, and a third time, in verse 11.  “Son of man, son of man, son of man.”

The word here translated as “man” when spoken in this way by God always meant one thing:  remember, human, you are mortal; do what you may to survive for as many years as you can and then you die.  From dust you have come, to dust you shall return.”

As if Ezekiel, standing here in the middle of these acres and acres of human remains, needed any verbal reinforcement of his mortality.

Ezekiel’s entire life has been one constant reminder of that fact, the tenuousness of his existence.  He and his people have lived on the edge of extinction for generations now.  Well over a hundred years before Ezekiel’s first breath, the brutal Assyrian army had overrun and destroyed ten of the twelve tribes that lay north of Judah.

The two remaining tribes in the southern kingdom of Judah were allowed to continue to exist only as they remained subservient to the Assyrian king and then to the Babylonians after they defeated the Assyrians.

Twice, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has sent in his troops in to Judah to clean house, killing rebels, hauling citizens away into captivity back in Babylon.  Ezekiel who served as a priest in Jerusalem was among the first group of Jews Nebuchadnezzar deported back as prisoners.

When yet a third rebellion broke out, Nebuchadnezzar decided the Jews were just was not worth the bother.  He sent his army back into Judah this time to lay absolute waste to the land.  The army plundered Jerusalem, and then leveled it all to the ground; there was nothing left of the once glorious realm of King David.

In our time, our military veterans could appreciate Ezekiel’s horror from what they themselves witnessed in warfare.  Refugees of war-torn territories in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria could appreciate what Ezekiel himself had experienced in his lifetime.  Decade after decade and generation after generation with its casualties, it’s devastation:  this was Ezekiel’s own life-experience; he understood mortality.

But, you and I don’t have to be thrown into the absolute depths of war’s fearsome destruction to appreciate something of what’s happening here.  We simply have to consider, honestly, our own frightening losses, the experiences that remind us of our own mortality.  We might allow ourselves to sit, open-eyed as no doubt Ezekiel’s eyes were opened wide, and to confront what we fear even now is slipping away from us.

Story’s told of a man who saw another man much larger than himself, brawny and tough.  The first man said with great admiration, “I think if I was as big and tough as you, I’d go out in the woods and find me a big bear to wrestle!”  The second man looks back at the first man and says, “well, you know, there’s lots of little bears out in the woods, too.”

We all have our own personal-sized bears to wrestle with.  We don’t have to encounter the worst thing that anyone might possibly go through; we just have to experience our own personal worst thing and deal with that.  Or, even better, allow God to deal with that experience along with us.

“Son of man, can these bones live?”  Coming from any other source, we would be right to be offended.  We would be justified if we answered harshly, how thoughtless a question!  how unfeeling to ask such a thing of a person!   How cruel a taunt to throw in the face of ones who have suffered as Ezekiel and his people have suffered, seeing their fellow citizens slaughtered.

Such a question coming even from Go might cause us to turn away.  Ezekiel comes close to such a reaction.  He will venture no commitment of himself in answering God.  In his mind, in his heart, in his soul, he simply can’t go there.  So, instead, Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you…you know.”

Ezekiel sounds reverent in his reply, and on the surface, he is being reverent.  After all, he’s a priest and a prophet; he knows how he should talk to God.  But, God has stood Ezekiel on a precipice of faith and asked Ezekiel to jump, and Ezekiel just can’t do it.  Ezekiel is frozen in place:  he won’t actually bolt and run away from God, but neither can he throw himself into this impossibility, not even with God—”such a question only you can answer, God.”

Cynicism perhaps has formed a tough callous over Ezekiel’s faith.  He dare not expose himself to fresh hurt; he can bear no more wounds from trusting God.   Maybe despair has eaten its way through whatever personal resilience remained in his psyche.  He himself may be as dried up as these old bones there at his feet.

Ezekiel doesn’t doubt that God has the power to accomplish whatever God wants to do, but maybe that’s the issue for Ezekiel:  does God care any longer to do good for them?  Because Ezekiel is no fool, he knows that whatever this is that’s now happening, it is about Israel.  It is about his people and the promise God made in covenant with them through Abraham.  Would God restore life to these long dead descendents of the Covenant?  Would God make live a vital witness among the nations?

God tells Ezekiel in verse 4, “prophesy to these old, dead bones Ezekiel.  Say to them, ‘hear the word of the Lord’.”  Whatever the state of Ezekiel’s faith, he is obedient.  He prophesies even to old, dead bones.

Those bones start swirling and clicking and clacking across this plain, bones searching for their mating parts, reassembling themselves into whole skeletons now lying there in this vast valley.

But, this grotesque show isn’t finished yet.  No!  Ezekiel watches in stupefied horror as thin shoots of ligament and tendon begin stretching out, wrapping around those joints, joining them tightly back together, bone to socket.  Muscles begin massing around limbs and torsos and heads, sealing up appendages, closing around organs.  Thankfully, finally, skin starts growing, covering up this bizarre display of human anatomy not meant to be seen.

But, still, Ezekiel’s mandate is not completed.  “Prophesy, Ezekiel,” says God in verse 9.  “Prophesy to the wind.  Come winds from the four corners of the earth and fill up these dead people with breath that they might live.”

And the winds of the earth do just that.  From east and west, from north and south, the winds race into that great open plain, bodies twist and turn as the winds wrap around them, and suddenly, with a great gasp an army of lungs draw in and breath out and, verse 10 says, “they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.”

God says to Ezekiel, “my people exist as though they were buried in their graves.  Therefore prophesy to them,” God commands Ezekiel in verses 12 and 13 and 14, “and say, Thus says the Lord:  Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home…and you will know that I am the Lord…and I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”

They couldn’t accomplish this for themselves, these daughters and sons of mortal flesh.  But, God who commands the resources of all creation, who gives life and who delights in life, God can and God will raise up people who bear witness of God among all the rest of the human family.

That’s you.  That’s me.  That is this congregation:  we all together children of our ancestors, inheritors in a long-lived faith; a living faith at times seeming to die out, yet by God’s grace, a faith which God reanimates and reinvigorates in such people even as ourselves to live vibrantly in witness of God in this generation.

At what precipice of faith has God placed you?  At what precipice of faith has God placed University Baptist Church?  What do we see lying before us which bridles our faith?

Can these bones live?  It’s not a trick question.  It’s God’s invitation to welcome God’s refreshing Spirit, restoring whatever violence of life has robbed from us.   Can these bones live?

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.

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