A New Thing

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21

Sports fans are familiar with the concept of “tanking.” In baseball the Baltimore Orioles are actually a good example of this right now. The Orioles have been a good team for several years. Last year they were not a good team, even though they had a lot of the same players they’d had when they were good. But some of those players had gotten a little older and weren’t as good as they used to be, and weren’t likely to get better again. If the Orioles were going to get back to being a contending team they needed to get rid of these older, higher-priced players. This would give them room on their roster to try out a whole lot of younger players, players who both might develop to be better than the older players and who would be a lot less expensive to pay than the older players. This would free up money to invest in finding and signing even more good young players.

The downside of all this is that it means that for the next two or three years, the Orioles are likely to lose a lot of games. They aren’t necessarily trying to lose these games – the players are playing as hard as they can and trying to win. But they aren’t good enough to win, at least not yet, and

that means that they will lose more games in the short term, which gives them better draft choices of amateur players, which means that in the long term they are likely to get better and contend again. Does that make sense?

That’s what is meant by tanking. Putting together a team that is young and cheap and not likely to win now, in hopes that they will develop and that you can find and sign some better young players and be a good team again in a few years. It is very difficult and very frustrating for fans to watch a team that is tanking, but the fans usually understand what’s going on and are willing to put up with losing now in the hopes of winning in the future. It has become a part of the regular cycle for sports teams.

In Psalm 126, our Call to Worship today, we see this interplay of hard times and of good times, of struggle followed by joy. In verses 1 and 2 it says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;” The laughter and the joy comes after Zion’s fortunes are restored, which means the laughter and the joy come after something bad and difficult and hard. The laughter and the joy come after a time of turmoil and a time of desolation. You see it again in the prayer captured in verses 4 through 6, particularly in verse 6. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the

seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” With faith in God after pain comes rejoicing, after risk and work comes reward.

I preached a sermon here several years ago about being adopted. I don’t remember if it was after Nate and Jenn started worshipping with us or if it was before then when I was doing pulpit supply around 2005 or so. To sum that part of it up, I’ve known ever since I was a little child that I was adopted. When I was around 40 or so my doctor recommended that I see if I could find out anything about the medical history of either of my birth parents, as things related to that can start to develop more as we get older.

I asked my parents if they knew anything, and they had a possible name, and they said they would see if there was anything more that they could find out. I took the name that they gave me and played around on Google a little bit and found a couple of other names, maybe, but not really enough to do anything with or about.

A while later when I was visiting my parents they gave me an envelope with all kinds of information about my birth mother. They learned that I had been named Derrell Gebhart at birth, and they had learned who my birth mother was. They had visited a couple of her sisters, one of whom was related to a family that we knew. They had found some pictures of my

birth mother, including a high school graduation picture and others that her sisters had, and they had recorded some stories and information from her sisters. They told me that I had four brothers and sisters. They’d learned that my birth mother had died of ALS several years ago.

I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do with all of this information. I’d just wanted to know a little bit about my medical history – I wasn’t trying to do any genealogical research or anything. I couldn’t process all of it and so I mostly didn’t do anything with it. I let it sit.

A year or so ago my sister-in-law Gaye bought a package of Ancestry.com DNA kits for family members. She had one left over, and wondered if I would be interested in using it. I was – I’m a little bit interested in history and I’d heard stories about my Davidson ancestry being German/Irish, and I wondered if that was true. It didn’t occur to me at all that this test would not trace my Davidson ancestry; it would trace my Gebhart ancestry, my birth ancestry.

When the results come back on these things, there are different pages to click on that give you different information. The first one that I looked at was about geography, and I learned that based on this DNA sample they estimate that a large percentage of my ancestry is from England, generally speaking – Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

A smaller percentage is from the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe.

Then there was a tab for possible DNA matches with other people. I clicked on this tab, and then I knew. The first name it showed was a possible first cousin, and I realized that it was a match from my birth family. I recognized this person’s maiden name as the same as my mother’s last name after marriage. I knew it was possible we were first cousins, but I don’t know if I had considered that we were a closer relation than that.

I wasn’t ready to do anything with the information. I’m not sure if I even told Julia about it – I thought I did, but she says I didn’t. Anyway, I just let it sit.

A few months later this person I matched with wrote to me asking if I knew how we could be connected. She couldn’t figure out how we could be cousins and couldn’t find the connection. I still wasn’t ready, and still didn’t do anything.

A week or two ago it occurred to me that I should probably write back to her. I thought that it wasn’t fair for my own uncertainties to leave her with questions about herself or her family that she couldn’t answer. I wrote back that I thought we might be connected through my mother and shared what information I could remember. The material my parents prepared is still

boxed up somewhere after our last move, I think, so while I could remember her maiden name was Gebhart I couldn’t remember her first name for sure.

She wrote back with her mother’s name and wondered if we might share the same mother. I replied that since I wasn’t sure about my birth mother’s first name I couldn’t say based on that, but that there was one piece of information I remembered that might settle it. My birth mother died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

She replied that so had hers. I was pretty sure We were brother and sister.

I’ve spent the last few years withdrawing from people emotionally I think. My work takes a toll on me, and my coping mechanisms for the stress of work are to eat mindlessly and watch TV or play games on the Internet mindlessly. My sister Lori, who I grew up with and was also adopted, died a couple of years ago. I got closer to my parents during the year or two that they lived with us, but then they moved back to Ohio so there is a lot more geographic distance and the various issues they are dealing with can create some emotional distance sometimes.

All of that is to say that while this wasn’t totally unexpected once I’d seen the DNA results, I still wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My sister

shared that she was struggling with mixed feelings too. Her first message after we confirmed our relationship said near the beginning, “It’s almost more than I can grasp and at this point I feel kind of numb” and said near the end, “…despite the pain I am thankful our paths have crossed.” While I worked with and through the pain of never having known my birth mother, she had a pain that was almost the opposite: the pain of thinking you knew someone and finding that they had a secret or hidden past and maybe you didn’t know them after all.

Over the last week or two we’ve both made strides processing our feelings and reaching some conclusions. Her last message to me ended saying, “P.S. As time goes on and the shock of all this wears off I have to tell you I am so excited to have another brother.” I feel the same way about her and the three other siblings I haven’t met yet.

The theme of great joy coming after great pressure or pain or worry or stress is a common one in the Bible and in life itself. We talked about how it shows in our Call to Worship, Psalm 126. Our scripture reading from Isaiah opens with a reminder of the bravery it took to have faith and trust that God would part the waters so that Israel could escape from Egypt. We see in nature examples of butterflies that come from cocoons, or flowers that grow from bulbs.

One of the most famous sermons of the 20th century is called “It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming.” It was made famous by the sociologist Dr. Tony Campolo, who adapted it from a sermon by the great African-American preacher the Rev. Dr. S. M. Lockridge. (Shadrach Meshach Lockridge.) Lockridge was a pastor for decades in San Diego, and wrote a sermon around the darkness of Friday, when Jesus was on the cross, dying. The disciples were discouraged. Peter had denied Jesus three times. The man they believed was the Messiah, the Son of God, had died on a cross like a common criminal.

But Lockridge’s message was to not be discouraged. It was Friday, yes, but Sunday is coming. The resurrection is coming. We should cling to our faith in God, because the blood of redemption, pouring out of the broken places of Christ’s body, truly redeems on the Sunday that is to come. Easter Sunday when Jesus is risen from the grave and his followers see his victory over the grave.

We are going through something of a Friday as a congregation. We’ve had families who were important and active members of our body move away. We’ve seen our attendance at worship go up and then back down again, and we have difficulty sometimes in finding people to fill the spots that need to be filled in our administrative structure.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know it will be wonderful whatever it is.

We’re going through something of a Friday as a denomination. Along with a lot of other denominations attendance and giving are down, evangelism in multi-cultural settings is a challenge, and we are facing differences that seem like they may be impossible to reconcile around certain issues. The denomination may end up splitting.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. Whether that means a Spirit-led renewal within our own denomination or two new denominations no longer arguing over various issues but each moving forward with God’s Spirit and God’s leading as they discern it I don’t know, but I know that whichever of those happens it will be wonderful.

We all have pressures and doubts and pain in our own lives. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know that God will lead you through it and that you will end up in a much better place as a result.

In my situation, I know what at least part of the new thing is. I have a new relationship with a sister and at least a couple of nieces. I spoke on

Facebook yesterday with a new brother. I have some new family to be connected with, new stories to learn and to share, new memories to make. I know what the new thing is, although I still don’t know what all it will look like, but I know that God is in it and it will be wonderful.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Thank God for the new thing. Amen.

Forty

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

Numerology is the branch of knowledge that deals with the occult significance of numbers. What I am talking about here is not numerology. While these numbers may have some significance in the Bible, they have no special power. They are not predictive of anything. There is nothing of the occult about them.

There are at least three numbers that show up in various ways in the Bible. One of them is the number three. With three, it’s not just a Bible thing. Two is company, but how many are a crowd? Three. How many times is a charm? The third time. Bad news or celebrity deaths or the deaths of people that we care about seem to come in – yes, threes.

Who can tell me some threes in the Bible? The trinity – God the Father or Creator, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Peter denied Jesus three times. The rooster crowed three times. Noah had three sons. Three visitors appeared to Abraham. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days. Jesus was in the tomb three days. In John 21 Jesus affirms his love three times. Jesus’ public ministry lasted three years. Even in our

scripture reading today Jesus is tempted three times, and three times responds with scripture.

Another significant number is seven. How many sevens in the Bible can we think of? The first and most obvious is the seven days of creation. No animal could be sacrificed until it was seven days old. There are seven “I am’s” in the Gospel of John that Jesus used when He spoke of Himself. Jesus mentions seven woes (or judgments) on the unrepentant in Matthew 23. In Revelation there were seven letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation and there were also seven trumpets announcing judgments by God in the Book of Revelation. We are to forgive people seventy times multiplied by… seven. Joshua and Israel marched around Jericho seven times while seven priests blew seven trumpets before the walls came crashing down. Elisha told the military commander Naaman to bathe in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed of his leprosy. There are plenty more sevens that I was not aware of at all.

How about forty? What are some forties that you remember from the Bible? One of them should be easy – Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and prayed and fasted. So did Elijah and Moses. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. The rains that brought about the Great Flood lasted for forty days. In the Old Testament, forty years is considered a generation. Goliath taunted Israel for forty days before David

defeated him. Just like with threes and sevens, there are still more forties that we could mention.

This is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a period that lasts how long? Forty days, not counting Sunday. The word “lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that meant “spring”, and the forty days of Lent are a symbolic reenactment of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness and that we read about just a little while ago. The reason that Sundays don’t count in the forty days of Lent is that each Sunday represents kind of a mini Easter in anticipation of the resurrection to come. Sunday is a special day all on its own aside from Lent.

A lot of times people give up something for Lent. Sometimes it’s something they enjoy eating or drinking or doing but they want to give it up as a way to discipline themselves. Chocolate is something that a lot of people give up. Sometimes it’s television, or social media. I once gave up French fries for Lent, and I made it. I had no French fries for the forty days plus Sundays, and I survived. Somehow.

Today’s theme in our series of Lenten services is “In the Wilderness” and encourages us to think about facing temptation. There are a couple of examples from the forty list we had earlier of being in the wilderness, literally, and both of those involved facing temptation.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before finally entering the Promised Land. There had to be temptation along the way – temptation to give up. Temptation to just stop where they were and put down some roots. Temptation to forget about God’s promises, forget about the covenant, forget about the Promised Land and what might be waiting ahead.

There are plenty of times in Scripture where the Israelites are complaining about something or other. They’re complaining about not having food, not having water, later they complain about the food that God provides. Each of those reflect a temptation – a temptation to chuck it all and go out on their own away from where God has called them.

And every time that happens, what does Moses do? He reminds them of all the good things that God has done. God brought you out of Egypt. God provided you manna. God did this and God did that and God has met your needs and God continues to guide you. Moses reminds them of their history, of God’s words and actions and commands in their lives.

When Jesus is tempted, that’s what he does too. Three times Satan tempts Jesus. Each time Jesus answers with scripture, with things that God has said about how we are or are not fed, or who we are to worship or what God says about tests. Jesus refers back to scripture, and takes his cues from God’s word and God’s leading.

Actually it’s a little deeper than that. The three passages that Jesus quotes are from Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy is the book that sums up the lessons that God taught the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness. Lessons of trust in God that the Israelites had to learn time and time again as they wandered in the wilderness and later as they abandoned God yet again and demanded a human king for themselves are repeated through the example of God’s son Jesus Christ with his own time of temptation in the wilderness.

The flood was forty days. Okay, a flood isn’t usually what we think of when we think of wilderness, but aside from the boat all that’s left is God’s creation. Water, animals, birds, fish, humans, and whatever of the earth lies beneath the water after forty days of rain. The waters begin to subside after around 150 days. And then once the ark is on dry ground, God establishes a covenant with Noah that renews the relationship between the Creator and the creation.

After Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he begins his public ministry. Luke chapters 1 through 3 are all about the birth of Jesus, the boy Jesus in the Temple, John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus really hasn’t done very much yet. It’s not until after his forty days of temptation in the wilderness that his ministry really begins. It’s not until after the forty days of temptation that the new covenant of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.

The lesson of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness isn’t just that we can rely on scripture to help us resist temptation, although that is part of it. The lesson isn’t just that God can and will strengthen us to stand up to Satan and to the earthly powers that he represents, but that’s part of it too. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness doesn’t simply mean that our faith in God is enough to make it through extended times of loss and loneliness. That’s true, but there’s more than that.

After the time in the wilderness comes the good stuff. After the time in the wilderness comes some great event that sets the tone for the future. After the time in the wilderness God’s blessing is poured out.

What came after forty days of rain and then the water receding? A promise from God that the earth would never again be covered with a flood, and the opportunity for humankind to start again. What was next after forty years of wandering in the wilderness? The Israelites entered into their own country, their own promised land. What happened after forty days of Goliath’s mocking? David defeated Goliath and rescued Israel from its enemies.

And what’s after Jesus praying and fasting and resisting temptation for forty days? He begins his public ministry. God’s kingdom is proclaimed on earth in a way that it never has been before. God has come to earth in human form, and will die, and will rise again.

That’s even how it is for us in our simple little Lenten disciplines. If you give up sweets for forty days you know what? You’ll be healthier afterwards. If you give up candy, or French fries, or television, or Facebook, you’ll probably be healthier and happier and less stressed out. It’s not as good as the kingdom of God, but it’s still good nevertheless and it can provide the basis for a healthier way of living that could revolutionize your life if you let it.

Time in the wilderness, resisting temptation, relying on God, trusting God, and obeying God, can bring us renewal in so many ways. I know that it is true, and I pray that you will find it so in your own life whether it’s days or months or years, whether it’s three or seven or forty. Amen.

You Who Listen

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Do you ever get into a conversation with somebody and after a little while your mind starts to wander? That happens to me more than I like, and after a time I find that I don’t quite know what’s going on in the conversation anymore. Either the other person will ask me a question and I have no idea what they’ve been talking about or something will click and I realize that I haven’t really been listening to the other person. I’ve heard them maybe, in the sense that I’m aware that they’ve been talking, but I haven’t really been listening.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. A dictionary definition for hearing is “to perceive or apprehend by the ear.” Hearing means that your ear has picked up a sound that has been made somewhere. Listening is “to hear something with thoughtful attention; to give consideration.” If you’re talking to me and I’ve tuned out, then I’m hearing you. The sound waves are still going in my ear and striking my eardrum. I’m just not listening. I’m not paying thoughtful attention to you. Julia says this happens more often for me than it should.

The Bible recognizes this difference. Revelation 3:22 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Those of you who can hear, who can apprehend sound, listen – pay attention – to what the Spirit is saying. Jesus draws the distinction himself a few times. For instance in Mark 4:23 Jesus says, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” There’s a difference between hearing and listening.

I think our Gospel reading from Luke today is one that a lot of people hear, but that not a lot listen to. I get it. Jesus is asking us to do hard things in this passage. That’s not a surprise. Jesus asks us to do hard things lots of places. I think this one, though, is one where a lot of us struggle.

One of the other readings for today is the end of the story of Joseph from Genesis chapter 45. You probably remember the whole story – Joseph is his father’s favorite, and to symbolize that favor Joseph received a beautiful coat from his father. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and threw him into a pit, and intended to kill him. Later instead of being killed Joseph was sold into slavery.

It’s a long and fascinating story, but eventually Joseph ends up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. There’s a famine and Joseph’s brothers, who tried to kill him, end up in front of Joseph begging for food.

Joseph reveals who he is, forgives them, and he tells them to bring his father to Egypt as well and he will see that they are taken care of until the famine is over.

I think that’s one of the best examples of loving your enemy that I know. There are a couple of things that make it powerful to me. First is that in this case, Joseph’s enemies were his family members. I guess you could think that would make it easier to love them because he knew them and was connected to them by blood. I think that would have made it harder to love, harder to forgive. There’s a sense of betrayal there that you don’t get with someone who isn’t part of your family.

It’s also powerful because Joseph actually has the means to do harm to his brothers. He could really take his revenge if he wanted to. I’ve been hurt by people who I’ll never see again. Forgiving them doesn’t make a lot of difference to them one way or another; it’s more something that I need to do to be at peace with myself. But would I be able to forgive them if I could hurt them as they hurt me? Could I let it go if I had the ability to cause the same levels of worry, of stress, of fear, that they caused for me? I think so, I hope so, but to be honest I don’t know because I’m not in that position. The people who I might consider my enemies aren’t kneeling before me in fear of their lives and hoping I will allow them food to survive.

This whole passage is hard because it’s hard to know how to apply it sometimes. It’s easy for me to say that I should love my enemies but it’s hard to know how to do that in every situation. What about turning the other cheek?

That one is interesting. Matthew records it a little differently than Luke does. In Matthew 5:39b, Jesus says “If anyone wants to strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That’s a difference that matters.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Wink talks about how in Jesus’ day Jews only used the left hand for unclean tasks. It was tough to grow up a left handed Jewish kid. Most people are right handed naturally, and Jews would have been especially careful to use the right hand. Even gesturing with the left hand was wrong.

So if I am right handed and I am going to strike you on your right cheek that means I’m going to backhand slap you. If I were to hit the left I could make an open-hand slap or I could use a fist, but to strike the right cheek almost requires a backhanded slap.

Let me quote Wink himself from his book “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.”

The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you…wants to sue you…forces you to go one mile…”). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.

So Jesus isn’t saying, “Be a doormat.” Jesus is saying, “Assert your equality. Declare your humanity.” Gandhi said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out of this as well.

Samuel Lloyd was one of the Deans of the National Cathedral. In a sermon he said of this, “Sounds like impractical idealism, doesn’t it—just caving in to evil. But in fact, Jesus is acting as a savvy community organizer advising followers who are having to contend constantly with the oppressive Roman rulers. When you have no power you have to find ways

to stand your ground and maintain your dignity. So over-respond, Jesus is saying, and show your oppressor for who he or she is. Let them overplay their hand, and you will be the one who walks away with his dignity. Civil rights leaders knew that when they sat down at segregated lunch counters.”

Jesus is speaking to the poor and the downtrodden, to slaves and Jews and women and prostitutes and children. It’s different for us, though. We aren’t particularly downtrodden. We may not be rich, but we’re not living in poverty either, at least I hope not. We’re not among the rulers of the world or even of this nation, but some of us work for them. There are times when some of us are in the power position in a relationship, and other times that we’re in the position of weakness in another.

The lesson, I think, remains whatever our position is. What does it mean to love my enemies? At least in part, it means that I treat them as my equal. It means that I treat them as humans, as people, not as dogs or animals or something or someone lower than I am by some measure.

The power of Joseph’s story isn’t just that he forgives his brothers. People who have been wronged in a relationship are the people in the power position. Joseph was the one with the power – not just the politicalpower, which he surely had as well, but Joseph was the one with the moral power. Joseph was the one who had been beaten and stripped and given to slavers.

And despite having the power position both physically and morally, Joseph treats his brothers as equals. He hugs them. He kisses them. He tells them to bring their father. He reunites the family. He recognizes their feelings and their guilt and he shows how God used it to bless them and so many other people. And how does the passage end? “And after that his brothers talked with him.” After all of that they gather and they talk once again, as they haven’t been able to talk for many, many years.

Part of treating people as human is taking them seriously. Part of treating people as equals is to listen to them, to try to understand their view, to take them seriously. I struggle with that sometimes, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do. I know, I know, that “You who listen” that opened our Gospel reading wasn’t a command. But if we listen to Jesus, not just hear him but listen to him, then we have to take him seriously. We have to internalize what it is he’s telling us in the verses that follow.

And what he’s telling us is to love our enemies. To do good to those that persecute us. To insist on our own humanity, but to also grant humanity and equality to those we disagree with, those who have power over us, and to those over whom we have power.

I hope all of us try to be among those who listen, both to God, to our friends, and to our enemies. Amen.

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.