En Route

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21

When I tell people that I work at a 911 center they often ask what the hardest part of the job is. They wonder about high-stress calls where people have been shot, or barricade situations, or perhaps childbirth or CPR calls. All of those things can be stressful, but there is one stressor that remains kind of constant through all high priority calls. That constant is the waiting.

When you’re on the phone with someone who’s been shot, or someone who’s been injured in a car accident, or someone who can’t breathe or someone who’s giving birth, obviously those situations are stressful in and of themselves. But adding to that is the stress of waiting for someone to arrive. Whether it’s the police department or fire and rescue services, as a call taker you know that nothing’s going to get a whole lot better until someone gets there. No one’s going to be treated, or rescued, or whatever until help arrives on scene.

Each call has a timer on it that shows four things. The first one is when the call was entered. When did I as a call taker verify the location of the emergency, decide what type of emergency it is, type up what was going on, and hit “enter” so that the call would go to a dispatcher.

The second step is the time the call was dispatched. If I enter a call and send it to a dispatcher at 8:00, the time of dispatch shows when the dispatcher notified a unit about the call and told them to respond. For high priority calls like the ones I mentioned, it’s usually just a few minutes. For a more routine call like a noise complaint or a parking violation, it can be up to 30 minutes or an hour.

The third time shows when the dispatched unit marks en route, or on the way. This is almost always within a short time of being dispatched. It can be up to about five minutes if we’re dispatching firefighters or EMS workers who are asleep at 3:00 in the morning, but it’s rarely as long as that.

Finally, the fourth time is when the responding units mark on scene at the site of the emergency. This can vary a lot, based on how far the units have to come, what the traffic is like, what the weather is like, and other variables.

For me, it’s that “en route” part that can be stressful because all you can really do is wait. There are some calls, like calls about a burglar in the house or someone who’s been shot or stabbed, where we don’t want to disconnect with the caller. We try to gather additional information about what’s going on, get a description of what the suspect looks like or where he or she went, what the weapon looks like and where it is, things like that. On some medical calls like a childbirth call, we give delivery instructions and then care instructions after delivery, or some emergency instructions if the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s throat. We monitor what’s happening until rescue units are on scene.

What makes that time stressful is sometimes the situation itself; other times it’s the person you’re on the phone with who is frightened or worried or angry. People keep asking “When will the ambulance get here? When will the police get here?” and I keep saying “They’re on the way. They’re coming as quickly as they can. They’ll be there as soon as possible.” I say those things with an eye on that third timer – the one that tells me when units marked en route, how long it’s been that the caller and I have been waiting. It is so hard when you know someone is hurting or frightened or in danger, and units are still en route.

The story of Nehemiah is kind of a cool story. Nehemiah was an official in Persia. He heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem, and got permission to travel there to rebuild the temple. He begins seeing that the defensive walls around Jerusalem are rebuilt, and he declares a time of Jubilee in the midst of poverty and famine. This means that he required all debts and mortgages to be forgiven so that the poor could use their money to purchase food.

Then Nehemiah assembles the Jewish people and has Ezra read to them the law book of Moses, the Torah. The people confess their past sins, remember how God has helped them, and rededicate themselves to God’s worship and God’s service.

What strikes me here is how the reading of God’s word brings sadness to the people. They realize how far they are from God’s will. They recognize how far they’ve fallen, and they regret it bitterly.

But Ezra tells them to be joyful! The presence of God’s word symbolizes an end to their failures and their darkness and their ignorance. The proclamation of God’s word is a time for rejoicing! A time for celebration! A time to share with the poor! God’s word is a reason to be happy, not sad. God’s word is a reason to rejoice. God’s word is a reason

to think of and take care of the poor, of those who are not able to prepare for themselves.

In the New Testament, Jesus says starting in verse 18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then in verse 21 he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What is it that has been fulfilled? There are still captives – not just prisoners in jails, but people held captive. People enslaved. People trafficked and bartered.

We still have blind people – not just people who are physically limited in their sight, but people who are blinded by greed. People blinded by anger. People blinded by racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry. People blinded by nationalism. People who are blinded to the reality of the joy of life in Christ.

The oppressed are still with us. Oppression is sometimes political, in places like North Korea or China or Cuba. Oppression is sometimes economic as folks are oppressed by crushing debt and predatory interest.

There’s overlap between oppression and blindness and captivity depending on how we want to define them, but we can be sure that whatever it is that has been fulfilled, it hasn’t ended these things.

But Jesus didn’t proclaim the end to these things, to captivity and oppression and blindness. Jesus proclaimed that the end of those things was coming. Jesus proclaimed that the end was on the way. Jesus proclaimed that the end was en route.

The whole idea of the Kingdom of God existing within the midst of the fallen kingdom of the world is hard to grasp. Being citizens of both kingdoms is really challenging. Christians at different times have resolved the tension between the demands of the two kingdoms by withdrawing as much as possible from the kingdom of the world and living as fully within God’s kingdom as possible. That’s their way to be “in the world but not of the world.” Rod Dreher’s book from last year The Benedict Option tries to work at this idea, recommending that Christians consider living in intentional communities such as the Bruderhof.

There’s something to all of that, but the response to the proclamation of God’s word can’t be retreat – at least, not a permanent retreat – from the world. Hearing the word of God from Ezra at the Water Gate, how were the

people of God supposed to respond? By going out to find the poor. By meeting their needs. By having a party – one that everyone could attend and from which everyone would benefit!

That’s the same call that we face as Christians today. Jesus has proclaimed that captives are to be released, and that the blind will recover their sight, and that freedom is coming for the oppressed. “Are to be” released; “will recover” their sight; “is coming” for the oppressed. These things are en route. These things are on the way.

They have happened to some extent, but not to a full extent. The proclamation of the coming reality has been made – the units have been dispatched and they have marked en route. We are among those units of the kingdom that are already here, that have marked on scene. We are the ones to start working for that release, that recovery, and that freedom. We are the ones who are to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to declare and live out the Jubilee. To claim and live out of the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Kingdom is here, but some of its members and some of its results are still en route. The Kingdom has been proclaimed. Our

response isn’t just to wait for units to arrive. Our response is to celebrate and to act. Amen.

Where the Joy Meets the Vipers

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas?  Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day?  Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers?  How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?

What?  Oh yes, the vipers.  I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers.  Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble.  The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.

We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy.  Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.”  All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.

Who, however, rejoices at vipers?  People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things.  I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference.  The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork.  I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.

On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.

I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers.  There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.

The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him.  It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to?  Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.

I find that a little scary.  In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper.  Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9:  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared.  They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers.  They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is.  So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”

Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way.  (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say?  His preaching was getting through to the people.  Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?”  And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?

Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives?  Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?

Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit.  No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.

Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices.  He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.”  Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.

In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”

That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it?  You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice.  But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.

Vipers represent evil.  I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap.  I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do.  Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often.  Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. We are vipers.  Where is the joy in John’s response?

The joy is that we can do it.

Bless What Lord?

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8

I said in my Facebook post about today’s service that I was going to start the sermon with a grammar joke. It ended up not fitting into where I went with the sermon, but since I promised a grammar joke you’ll get a grammar joke.

A panda walks into a bar. He takes a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the bar, shells them, and eats them. Then the panda pulls out a gun, fires it in the air, and begins to walk out of the bar. The bartender says, “Hey! What was that about?” The panda says, “Look it up in a dictionary,” and heads out the door. The bartender grabs a dictionary from someplace and looks up the definition for “panda.” The definition says, “Panda – a white and black bear-like mammal which eats shoots and leaves.”

That’s the joke. It doesn’t have anything to do with the sermon. If you don’t get it you’ll just have to think for a while after the sermon.

I remember the first time I visited Washington, DC. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember wondering if we would get to see President Johnson when we toured the White House, so I couldn’t have been older than nine.

I was so amazed at the buildings. Of course the ones that caught my eye the most where the famous ones that I’d seen on television – the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. I don’t remember the Washington City church from that trip, although we probably drove by it because we always drove by the Church of the Brethren, if there was one, everyplace we vacationed.

I remember the first time I saw the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren. It was in the United Methodist building, across from the Capitol and next to the Supreme Court building. I was a freshman in high school, I think, and I was so impressed to meet Ralph Smeltzer, the director of the office. He talked to us about what it would be like to visit our representatives and our senators, and he had this big office with books and papers everywhere and I just thought how wonderful it must be to be Ralph Smeltzer and to live and work in Washington, DC and to lobby and organize on behalf of justice and peace in the Capitol and around the nation.

I think that’s what it felt like for the disciples when they visited Jerusalem with Jesus. Our reading from Mark 13 opens up with the disciples wandering around looking at the temple and the other grand buildings in the capital. “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I can almost picture Gomer Pyle looking up at skyscrapers saying, “Goll-lly!”

I don’t know how many of the disciples had been to Jerusalem before, if any. It probably was a pretty impressive place. And you know sometimes a place doesn’t have to be physically impressive or incredibly magnificent to seem pretty wonderful. Looking back at it, Ralph Smeltzer’s office probably wasn’t all that fancy. But to a high school freshman who cared about his faith and who cared about politics and cared about what his faith taught him about politics, it was one of the most amazing places in the world.

Jesus’s reaction to whichever disciple was playing Gomer Pyle is a little surprising at first. Jesus says, “All these buildings? This fancy temple? So what? Sooner or later it’ll all just be rubble. Just a big pile of rocks.”

Some of the disciples are maybe a little worried about when that’s going to happen, and so they approach Jesus privately and ask him exactly that. They are probably looking for some comfort, some reassurance from Jesus. They are probably expecting to be told not to worry, because Jesus is the Messiah and if they stick with him it’ll all be okay.

That’s sometimes what we want from Jesus, isn’t it. Sometimes we want Jesus to reassure us, to comfort us. That’s natural, and that’s one of the things Jesus does for people. One of Jesus’s titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” and we sing songs like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus being a comforter, a supporter, someone who gives us strength and who encourages us through the Holy Spirit, all of that is perfectly appropriate and perfectly Biblical.

But there is another Jesus. There is the apocalyptic Jesus.

The literal meaning of “apocalypse” is an unveiling or a revelation. Over the years the word has taken on more than just the literal meaning. “Apocalyptic” or “apocalypse” now are used to refer to something incredibly destructive, and often to predictions of the end of the earth. That’s the Jesus we’re getting here, a Jesus who is talking about the end of the world.

And that Jesus, the apocalyptic Jesus, offers the disciples no particular reassurance, at least about the timing. In fact, he doesn’t actually answer their question. He says that the disciples need to be careful that they are not led astray, that a lot of people will try to lead them astray, that they should not be alarmed when they hear about wars and rumors of wars, and that there will be a time of earthquakes and famines and wars. Trust me, that’s not reassuring.

The meditation on the back of the worship folder mentions Harold Moyer. Harold was an associate pastor here at Washington City back in the early 1950s. Seeing Harold’s name made me think about some of our history here.
Washington City was a big congregation back then, with a couple of hundred people in attendance every Sunday morning and that big pipe organ in the balcony booming out the hymns every Sunday and all the rooms filled with Sunday School classes and all the offices filled with pastors and associate pastors and intern pastors and a secretary or two.
Back in the 1950s Washington City decided to do some church planting. They planted the Good Shepherd congregation in Silver Spring, the Arlington congregation, and the Woodbridge congregation. People who were members at Washington City who lived in those communities became members of the new congregations. When I pastored at Woodbridge there were eight of the charter members left who had been members here.

Washington City provided pastors as well. In 1956 Harold Moyer became the first pastor at Woodbridge, and later spent many, many years at the Williamson Road congregation in Roanoke.

If someone had said back in the 1950s that one day the Washington City congregation would have Sundays where less than a half dozen people were here, that the congregation would find it a huge challenge to deal with the basic maintenance of the physical structure here, that it would be financially impractical to have a full time pastor let alone the multiple staff that they had, that there wouldn’t be any kind of regular Sunday School, that the organ would likely be beyond repair, I don’t know what people’s reactions might have been. That might have felt apocalyptic to them. That might have felt like the destruction of everything that they held dear.

But all those things happened. All of those things have happened in just the last ten or fifteen years. And we’re still here. We’ve come out on the other side of a lot of those things. No, we still can’t use the organ but we have people sharing other musical gifts that fit us better than a fancy pipe organ would. And I say that as someone who has been known to listen to organ music from time to time.

No, we can’t really afford a full time pastor, but we have a ministry team that functions pretty well for who we are now. We don’t have a traditional Sunday School, but we have regular gatherings to study the Bible and to share in prayer and visioning and community. We’re not a big church numerically, but we’re bigger and more stable than we had been. We had times where it seemed like it might be impossible to meet the needs of maintenance of the building, but we’ve come through much of that and in some ways the building now is in the best physical condition it’s been in for a long time.

That vision that might have felt like an apocalypse to the people of this congregation in the 1950s has become a reality where we have something special here. We have something good that is happening. We are making a difference for people. We are touching people’s lives. We are seeking and sharing justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After what might have felt like an apocalypse to people here in 1952, we have come through to a different kind of congregation. Not a better congregation than theirs was, and not a worse one, but a different one. Probably a better one for this time and place, just as the congregation they had was a better one for their time and place than ours would be.

Apocalyptic Washington City congregation became the Washington City congregation that we have now and for which I am very thankful.
Likewise the future that apocalyptic Jesus proclaims isn’t the end. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s scary, and it’s hard to picture. But in the end we’ll feel fine, because we know that a different world is coming. This world will pass away, but a new world, a new kingdom of love and peace and the rule of Christ, will take its place.

The Psalmist in our Call to Worship from Psalm 16 tells us to bless the Lord. Our inclination is to bless the Lord of comfort, the Lord that protects us from our enemies and strengthens us and heals us and gives us courage. And we should bless that Lord.

We should also bless and be thankful for the apocalyptic Lord. We should bless the Lord that warns us of hard times to come, that tells us of the destruction of earthly things that in this moment we think are important but have no eternal significance. We should bless the Lord who creates challenge and even destruction so that a new and better world can replace what we know now.

I hope we’re thankful to God not just this week, but all the time. I hope we’re thankful for all the sides, all the aspects of Jesus’s personality and ministry. I hope we can be thankful for comfort and peace, thankful for food and friends, but also thankful for apocalypse and for the world that will follow, both in our own lives and in the world at large. Amen.

Lower Than the Angels

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

I’ve always had a soft spot for Psalm 8, our Call to Worship. Back in high school one of our choir pieces set Psalm 8 to music, and then in the middle of it was a spoken adaptation of part of the Psalm. I had the speaking part, and I still remember my lines exactly. “Thou hast made man a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with honor and with glory. Thou has put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

I’ve remembered that reading ever since I learned it over forty years ago, and I think it’s a good psalm to use on a Sunday where we are washing feet and celebrating communion.

What strikes me is the hierarchy that’s in the Psalm. There’s God, then the angels, then humans, then animals and birds and fish. It’s not stated, but I guess that nature itself in terms of mountains and trees and things would fall just under animals, birds, and fish.

The writer of Hebrews catches exactly what it is that makes this such a good psalm for today. God’s at the top of the organizational chart, and then nature at the bottom. There’s five parts to the chart, and humans are right in the middle with two things above and two below. Then in Hebrews 2:9 it says, “…but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

In other words, God, in the form of Jesus, steps down off the top rung of the chart right down into the middle with us. Lower than the angels and you know what? Actually, lower than us.

That sounds strange to say, but it’s true. Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so how can he be lower on our chart than us? If you look at it that way than I agree. But consider: Jesus didn’t just become a human, he became a servant. He ate with outcasts. He called tax collectors down from trees. He forgave adulterers. He knelt and washed the feet of sinners.

If Jesus had been the Messiah people expected, a king or military leader or ruler, then he would have been above us on the revised chart, just as the President or those the world calls successful are perhaps a little above us in such a ranking, and he would have been just a little lower than the angels.
Instead, Jesus went straight to the bottom of the human hierarchy. He became a servant of servants. He allowed himself to suffer the degradation and mockery and death of a criminal. Jesus became that which others looked down upon and disdained.

And it was only then, after the death, that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and resumed his rightful place as Lord and Ruler of our lives.

As the writer of Hebrews knows, it is in servanthood and suffering that Jesus demonstrates God’s love for the world. We now enter a time where we will symbolically be one another’s servants. If this time remains merely a symbol, though, then it’s not worth it. Jesus calls us to take the servanthood that is symbolized here and to live it in every part of our lives. Amen.

Crumbs for the Dog

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37

This is a Bible passage that always makes me think. There is something going on, and the text is not entirely clear exactly what it is. There are some traditional answers that have been used over the years, and I’ve probably used them myself. But as I stand here this morning I confess that I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in the first part of this text.

Jesus wants a break, so he goes to Tyre. Tyre is a city that is mentioned many times in the Bible and in secular sources. It’s a seaport, and it was one of the major commercial ports of David and Solomon’s time. As recently as 20 years before Christ’s birth, Tyre was operating as an independent republic, but by
Jesus’ time it had been incorporated into the Roman Empire.

Jesus goes to Tyre the same way some of us might go to the Outer Banks or to Ocean City. Jesus wants to get away, to relax, to take a break from things. So he goes to the seaport of Tyre, and he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s there.

How well do you think that worked? How well do you think it would work if Pres. Obama or Pres. Trump wanted to go someplace and not let anyone know they were there? Jesus was not as well known in his day as those two are, but he was well known enough. Jesus’ fame as a healer had spread to Tyre, and once he arrived word got around that he was there.

A Canaanite woman learned that Jesus was there, and ran into the house. She knelt at Jesus’ feet, and begged him to heal her little daughter who was possessed by a demon. That the woman is Canaanite matters. The Jewish defeat of the Canaanites was viewed as God’s gift. It was confirmation of the status of the Jewish people as God’s elect. It was celebrated in Jewish traditions. This woman not only was not Jewish, she was someone that the Jewish people looked down on.

This whole question of Jewish rituals and traditions may have been on Jesus’ mind when he went to Tyre. In Mark chapter 7 before our Gospel reading, Jesus had been criticized by the Pharisees for not keeping Jewish law.
Now we’re to the point where something is going on that I don’t understand. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus says no. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s the part I don’t get.

I understand what Jesus is saying when he says no. Jesus is saying that he came for the Jewish people, the people of Israel. Jesus is saying that his healings and his blessing are for the people of Israel first, and then for the Gentiles. His ministry to the Jews is not finished, and the Gentiles will have to wait.
I get that part. What I don’t get is why Jesus has to refer to this woman as a dog. What, precisely, is she doing wrong? She has a daughter who is possessed by a demon, she has heard that Jesus is in town, she believes that Jesus can cast out the demon, she approaches Jesus and asks him to do what she believes he can do. I get that Jesus might want to say no, but I don’t get what looks like a gratuitous insult added on to the end of it.

That’s still an insult, just to be clear. What was one of the major criticisms of Pres. Trump’s response to Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s book and her press tour? He called her a dog. And a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And it was.

There are a couple of traditional explanations for what Jesus is doing. One of them tries to soften Jesus’ words. He wasn’t really calling her a dog – he was calling her a little puppy. It was a kind of affectionate joshing. I’ve seen that a time or two, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure that makes it a whole lot better. Whether you think “puppy” is sweeter and kinder than “dog” is up to you, but it’s still a pretty rude thing to call a woman who has come to beg for healing of her daughter.

Another explanation is that Jesus is testing the woman. I guess that’s possible, but it really doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because the woman has already shown a lot of faith and a lot of courage by approaching Jesus as she had. She’s already shown that she believes that he can heal her daughter, she’s already done the work of figuring out where he is and how to get through to him, and she’s already overcome the natural antipathy between Jews and Canaanites to ask for help. This woman has already jumped through several hoops of one kind or another; it seems cruel to make her jump through yet another.

There are a couple of other things that go against the “test” explanation. First, there’s no indication in the text itself that this is a test of any kind. There are many places in the Bible where people are tested, and in almost all of them it says that they were being tested. Not here. Second, if this is a test of some kind it would be the only one in Mark’s version of the Gospel.
Is it possible that Jesus is just being rude? A couple of weeks ago Micah talked a little bit about Jesus being fully human and fully God. If Jesus was fully human, if Jesus was tempted as we are, if Jesus felt the emotions that we feel, then why couldn’t Jesus feel exasperation? Why couldn’t Jesus feel unwarranted anger or frustration? Why couldn’t Jesus say something rude to somebody?

One of the things we can learn from this passage is that Jesus really was fully human in addition to being fully divine. Jesus really did have the same feelings that we do, both the good ones and the bad ones. Jesus really does understand the temptations that we face and recognize the ways that we can fall short. God understands what we’re going through. God has gone through it too.
The next twist in the story is the woman’s reply to Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I admit, I wouldn’t have thought of that. If I’d been in that woman’s place I probably would have started to cry, or I would have shouted back at Jesus in anger, or I would have just kept saying, “Please, please, please.” Using Jesus’ imagery of food and dogs and turning it around on him would never have occurred to me. It’s really clever.
And after the woman says that, Jesus replies that because of what she has said her daughter has been healed. Not because of her faith. Not because of her persistence. Not because of the love she was showing for her daughter. But because of what she had said.

It is possible that Jesus is referring to her faith or her courage or something
similar. To come up with a line like that in the midst of what was happening would certainly require a lot of bravery and a lot of faith that your words would matter. But that gets us back into the “testing” explanation we had before and that doesn’t feel right. Also, frankly, it implies that Jesus knew all along that he could heal the woman’s daughter, but that he would let her walk away and leave her daughter demon possessed if she didn’t come up with the right answer. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Something that doesn’t necessarily feel right but that might be closer to the truth is that Jesus learns something in this story. We don’t think about Jesus learning. And to be honest, why would we? Jesus is a part of the Godhead. Jesus was present at the creation of the world. As the old hymn puts it, “Immortal, omnipotent, God only wise.” If God knows everything and sees everything, then why would Jesus ever have to learn anything?

It’s possible that the baby Jesus was born speaking perfect Aramaic and Hebrew. It’s possible – the Bible doesn’t say anything about it one way or another. And that’s why it’s doubtful. When Jesus discusses things with the Jewish scholars in the temple at age 14, the Bible makes a point of mentioning it. It’s just about the only thing between the ages of 3 and 30 that the Bible does mention about Jesus. Don’t you think that if Jesus had been born speaking the native language perfectly that the Bible would have found a way to let us know?

So someone had to teach Jesus how to speak. Someone had to teach him Aramaic, the everyday language, and Hebrew, the religious language, and maybe even a little Greek since there was a Greek influence in the area where Jesus grew up. His father Joseph had to teach Jesus about carpentry. Jesus probably went to some sort of religious school from time to time, and he was probably homeschooled aside from religious training, but someone taught him things.
Maybe Jesus is learning here, in our story from Mark. Maybe Jesus is learning that his role as Messiah encompasses more than just the Jews. Maybe Jesus is learning that the Gentiles don’t necessarily have to wait for blessings until the Jews are all taken care of.

Maybe Jesus is teaching. Maybe in his initial reply Jesus is expressing what the disciples believe, and then uses the woman’s clever response to demonstrate to the disciples that wisdom, intelligence, and blessing are not the sole province of the Israelites.

We can’t get inside Jesus’ head to figure out exactly what it is that is going on for him. We cannot know exactly what this story means for Jesus, or what motivated him to respond as he did. We can have ideas about it, but we can’t know. Sometimes we have to live without answers, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t worth asking.

This passage can still teach us a lot, though – a lot about ourselves and our faith. Do we have the faith, do we have the courage, to do as this woman did? Are we willing to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to insult and hurt like she did? Are we willing not just to open ourselves up, but to push through and persevere when our actions are mocked and our faith is challenged?
Are we willing to open ourselves up to wisdom and teaching from outside our regular sources? Whatever your politics, are you able to share with and learn from people who disagree with you? Wherever you are in your faith journey, do you recognize all the different places and people that God can use to bring wisdom to us? Are we able to learn from people who we might otherwise look down on?

Are we open to the transformation of our lives after an encounter with Jesus? That’s what happened to this woman. She begins the story as the mother of a troubled, demon-possessed girl. She ends the story transformed, the mother of a little girl who is as happy and healthy as other little girls of her time. That’s a change. That’s a radical re-making of her lifestyle and her expectations, and while it’s a positive change even positive change can be difficult and stressful.

This can be a difficult passage, but it is also a hopeful one. I take comfort in being reminded that Jesus had the same emotions that I do. I take hope in knowing that there can be healing, even if at first it seems like healing is going to be denied. I take courage that faith and prayer make a difference. I thank God that I’m one of the dogs that gets some of the crumbs. Amen.

I Sought the Lord

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Psalm 34:1-8

Wherever it appears in the Bible, whenever I read the phrase “I sought the Lord” my mind goes to a song from 1965.  I was too young to know the song when it was a hit, but it continued to be played on the radio a lot for several years and you’ll still hear it on any oldies station.  The song was by the Bobby Fuller Four, and it’s called “I Fought the Law.”

I’m not going to try to sing the whole song, but the part of it that I always think of is repeated several times:  “I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.” My brain automatically changes the words to “I sought the Lord and the Lord won.  I sought the Lord and the Lord won.”

Now that doesn’t make perfect sense, because “sought” is not a win-or-lose kind of a thing unless you’re playing hide and seek.  “Sought” does not imply some kind of a contest or a battle or keeping score or anything like that. “”Sought” implies, well, seeking.  Looking for something. Trying to find something.

It’s kind of an interesting word to use when we think about God, because as Christians we believe that God is always with us.  In John 14:16-17 where Jesus is saying good-bye to the disciples, he promises that he will pray for the Holy Spirit to be sent to the disciples.  Later in Acts chapter 2, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire, and Peter preaches about the Old Testament prophet Joel who proclaimed that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be given to all believers.

So we know that the Bible teaches that God, through the Holy Spirit, is always with us.  We know that in our heads. Sometimes it’s hard to feel it in our hearts, though. Sometimes our hearts are heavy and we feel as if we need to look for God, to seek God’s presence, even though our heads tell us that the Spirit is always with us, closer than our own breath.  God is with us. God’s Holy Spirit surrounds and is within us.

The other image in this Psalm that speaks to me is there in verse 8:  “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”  It’s not an issue for Ayuba yet, but sooner or later parents have to figure out how to introduce kids to different foods and how to have them eat foods that they may not necessarily like but that are necessary for good health and growth and development.

Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what the food actually is.  I watch cooking shows sometimes and they’ll work with Rocky Mountain Oysters.  There aren’t actually oysters in the Rocky Mountains. They’re just called that because if you called them bull testicles no one would buy or eat them.  Sorry, not interested. That might be the tastiest, most healthful dish ever. I might like Rocky Mountain Oysters better than I like popcorn with salt and lots of butter.  It doesn’t matter. Nope, nope, nope, nope.

I find that is true even with things that I like, or that I once liked.  When I was a kid mom would fry up some liver, and it was one of my favorite meals.  I really enjoyed it. And when I was in seminary doing my intern year in Orrville, Ohio there was a cafeteria that had liver.  I had it there and enjoyed it a lot.

Now?  Not interested.  Actually that’s not true.  I am a little interested, but my head is filled with people telling me how gross liver is and although I used to enjoy it quite a bit I can’t quite bring myself to try it again.  I tell myself that nobody can make it as well as my mom did, and that might be true. I don’t know if I’ll ever have liver again or not, but for now I am not willing to try it and see if it is good.

As a pastor you run across a lot of people who are that way with God.  They have had a bad experience with a church, or they read about a Christian leader who has said or done something that is hurtful to them and they just have no particular use for the organized church.  But still at important moments of their lives, like weddings or funerals, they want some sort of representative of God. They want a pastor or a minister of some kind to bring God’s presence into whatever the event is.  They want someone to reflect on what God might mean in their life or their marriage or the life of their loved one.

I’ve been that representative in a lot of settings.  As I think back over it, I think I may have done more weddings for people who are not a part of a church than for people who are.  Sometimes those weddings or funerals lead people into a deeper relationship with God than they had before. Sometimes they even start attending a church and developing a support system of brothers and sisters who can help them develop and use their gifts.  Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Either way, it’s an opportunity for people to taste God.  A chance for people to taste and see that God is good, that there is refuge in God, that God does not wish them ill.  It’s an opportunity that each of us have in our lives as we live and work and talk and share with so many different people from so many different places religiously, emotionally, and philosophically.

Sometimes when people taste and see that God is good, they seek more.  They seek after God in a way that they haven’t before. They find the refuge that David talks about in the Psalm.  They find protection, and strength, and safety. We each have the ability to provide that taste of God. We each have the gift of the Spirit’s presence that can speak through us to those who are seeking God.

It’s a difficult week in some ways for people who are seeking God.  We have the Unite the Right 2 rally going on here in DC today. At my workplace this past week we had a particularly difficult shooting call.  There are many other things in many other lives that I am not aware of or that I don’t have time to mention. Each of you know of difficult and hard times either in your own life or in someone else’s that could lead one to wonder where God is, and where to seek for God.

Back in 1986 Fred Rogers wrote the following:

“I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels. For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”

When we seek the Lord we can look to those who stand against evil, who demonstrate against it.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those who try to save others from evil, even at the risk of their own lives.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those that help, doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, volunteers, neighbors, and friends.

It’s not that they’re perfect people.  They’re not. In other contexts they might be people we wouldn’t particularly like or wouldn’t particularly have much use for.  It is entirely possible that there are people attending the Unite the Right rally that are in other contexts helpers that God uses.  It is entirely possible that there are counter-demonstrators at the rally that are in other contexts people we would disagree with, people we would keep outside of our circle of friends.


This is no surprise.  The Bible teaches that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Everyone, from the worst racist to the most kind and gentle person you can think of, and everyone in between.  Including us.

That’s one of the reasons it’s important for us to be among those who seek the Lord.  We need forgiveness. We need mercy. We need grace. We need the Way and the Life, just as much as the worst person you can think of.

In the song, fighting the law didn’t work out for Bobby Fuller.  He fought the law, and the law won. When we can say “I sought the Lord” it’s a different result.  When God reaches out through us to others so that they can seek, and taste, and see that God is good, it’s a different result.    “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Amen.

Triage

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Mark 5:21-34

How many of you have gone to the emergency room of a hospital for treatment on your own, not taken by an ambulance? How many of you got in for treatment right away as opposed to waiting a while? I’ve had both over the years. When I was a pastor in Dayton I wasn’t feeling well and was having some chest pains, so Julia drove me to the ER. When I told them I was having chest pains, they waved me straight in. No waiting.

The last time I went to the ER I was having a lot of pain from a kidney stone. I’d gone to my primary care physician, doubled over in pain. She gave me a shot for the pain and sent me on to the ER. Once I got there I told them what was going on and then we waited. And waited. And waited. I wasn’t doubled over any more – the shot had kicked in – but it still hurt. Since it was only a kidney stone, though, I had to wait around 45 minutes or so until I could get in.

That’s called triage – sorting out the different people waiting in order to figure out which problem is the most severe and which patient should be seen first. If any of you watched MASH on television, you’ll remember that there was an added step to the triage process. Not only was the triage doctor supposed to figure out who among the wounded soldiers was most seriously injured and therefore who should go on in for surgery first, the triage doctor was also supposed to figure out who was so badly injured that surgery would be a waste of time and resources. If the effort and skill and materials spent on one wounded soldier who would almost certainly die anyway could be better spent saving two or three other lives, the triage doctor was supposed to make that decision and see that the other soldiers, although perhaps less seriously wounded, got in for surgery first.

Peter Woods used the image of triage to write a blog post about this morning’s gospel reading a few years ago. I hadn’t really thought about it this way before. You’ve got two women. One of them, Jairus’ daughter, has a lot going for her. She’s 12 years old, which in our day means she’s still a little girl but in Jesus’ day meant that she was coming up on child-bearing age. She’s part of a powerful family. She’s got her whole life, her whole future, ahead of her. She has the potential to have a lot of influence, in one way or another, over events in the future. She has the potential to bear children, to create life, to nurture little kids and teach them about the rabbi who saved her life and bring them into right relationship with Jesus Christ.

All of that doesn’t even consider the kind of influence Jairus has. I know Jesus told him not to say anything, and I’m sure that Jairus will do his best to obey, but he’ll know. And sooner or later he’ll tell somebody and that person will tell somebody else and word will get around and it will create a lot of good feeling for Jesus.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. She’d been having this problem for as long as Jairus’ daughter was alive. We don’t know her name. We don’t know her family’s name. We don’t know if she had any family besides herself. She may have had money at one time, but she doesn’t any more. She has limited resources, limited power, and as far as we can tell not much of a future.

If we were going to do triage on these two people based on what the Bible says, who would we tell Jesus to heal first? I don’t think it’s a very close call. I think most of us would tell Jesus to spend his time and his power and his resources on the little girl. If he had time and if he felt like it then Jesus could come back and heal the older woman later, but if we’re being practical then the little girl with her life before her, the daughter of an influential man, should come first.

The older woman may have been afraid of a result like that, because she did not approach Jesus and ask for healing. Instead she said to herself, “Jesus doesn’t even have to know I’m here. I don’t want him to say no, so I’ll just sneak up on him and touch his cloak and I’ll be healed.” And that’s what she did, and that’s what happened.

Of course Jesus knew that someone had touched him. Jesus being God and therefore being omnipotent and all you can’t really sneak up on Jesus. So Jesus said, “Who touched me?” Again, Jesus probably knew who touched him. My parents used to ask “Who broke this lamp?” or “Who ate these cookies?” when they knew perfectly well it was me, no matter how much I tried to blame my sister. It’s probably the same thing here. And the woman fesses up, and Jesus commends her faith and sends her on her way.

In the meantime, people come to tell Jesus and Jairus that it’s too late. Jairus’ daughter has died. The time that Jesus spent with this woman, asking who had touched him when he probably knew perfectly well who had touched him and then listening to her little story and telling her it was all okay and she should be proud of her faith and all of that, the time that Jesus spent talking to this woman with no money and no future may very well be what cost the little girl her life.
Of course, we know that’s not how the story goes. Jesus goes on to the house, takes Jairus and his wife in to see the dead girl, tells the dead girl to get up, and she gets up. It’s a happy ending for everyone.

There are a lot of morals to this story. Every life is precious. Jesus is no respecter of the social status of persons. Faith makes a difference. The poor are as worthy as the rich, those with little future are as important as those with a long life ahead of them, folks without power or influence matter just as much as folks with power and influence. I could go on – there are easily a dozen different morals here just at first glance.

Here’s one. What looks like the most important thing may be important, but it may not be more important than lots of other things. Does that make sense?

I read Micah’s sermon last week, “God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages,” and I loved it. I thought it was an excellent sermon. If I could have gotten by with it, I might have just preached it again this week. I liked it so much I had Bob leave the title on the sign out front this week.

I also loved the rallies yesterday both here in DC and around the nation. The theme was “Families Belong Together” and there were over 700 rallies scheduled all over the country. Were any of you in the local rally here in DC? I know I had some friends who came to DC for the rally and others who participated in other cities.

As much as I am in sympathy with those rallies and as much as I think that the zero-tolerance policies at the border are both morally wrong and practically ineffective, I don’t want to let that issue blind me to other issues that may not get as much media play, that may not stoke the same kind of outrage across the nation. I don’t want to let the unique circumstances that Pres. Trump’s actions have created make me believe that there aren’t other issues and other causes and other people just as worthy of my time.

There are something around 11,000 people without permanent shelter in DC, and on any given night over 1,000 sleeping on the streets. Some of us here know some of those people through our work with the Brethren Nutrition Program, but for others of us those 1,000 people on the streets are no different than the woman who touched Jesus’s garment. We don’t know who they are, where they are, what their issues are, or how to help them. No one is marching for them. I don’t know how long it’s been since any of them were on the front page of the Post.

There’s been a lot of outrage on social media about a woman who said on Fox News that a lot of her African-American friends had told her that the conditions that some of those immigrant families are being held in looked better than the projects that her friend had grown up in. I don’t know if anyone actually told her that or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone did and if it was true. Some of those projects were and are horrible. Back in 1981 Jane Byrne, Chicago’s mayor, moved into the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago to draw attention to how bad it was there. Things got better, at least at that particular project, and at least while Mayor Byrne lived there, but there were plenty of other projects in Chicago and elsewhere that no mayors moved into and where no one paid attention and where nothing got any better.

The lesson of that Fox person’s anecdote, by the way, isn’t what some people think it is. Whether she meant it this way or not, the lesson isn’t that immigrant families in custody have it too easy. It’s that housing projects in the United States need to be vastly improved and not made worse as Secretary Carson has suggested.

We in the Church of the Brethren, in this congregation especially, know that the spotlight moves from issue to issue far too quickly, and that in our 24 hour news cycle yesterday’s outrage is today’s footnote and tomorrow’s memory. On April 15, 2014 the Boko Haram group of Muslim extremists kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok. Huge headlines. Demonstrations, marches, rallies, some led by Nate and the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. At my last check after escapes, releases, and reported deaths there are still 112 of those girls in custody. 112 still held prisoner over four years later. When’s the last time you saw something in the Post about that?

None of this, of course, even begins to touch on people and situations that would never make the newspapers anyway. None of this deals with families that we know through school or work. None of this deals with people we live next door to. None of this deals with our own lives or our own households. There are issues like these all over our lives, some catastrophic and some matters of quiet desperation.

I’m not suggesting that the folks who marched have misplaced priorities or shouldn’t have been marching. They should have and I am glad they did and I am proud that I know some of them. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be outrage about the zero-tolerance policy on many levels. I’m not suggesting that God will not judge those who put children in cages. God will judge those people, and I hope that they repent of their evil.

I just know that in my own life it is easy to be distracted by the big story, the major outrage, the tragedy of the day. And if that’s a challenge for me, it’s probably a challenge for other people too and so it’s something that others might keep in mind just like I do. What I am thankful for is that this isn’t a challenge for Jesus. Jesus doesn’t do triage. Jesus deals with the needs that are there as he finds them, large and small. People who are young and old, people who are rich and poor, troubles that as the world views them are important and trivial. Jesus deals with them all. I hope that with God’s guidance and power we can do our best to do the same. Amen.