Sunday, January 14, 2018

From Modest Roots

PROPERS:          2 EPIPHANY, YEAR B        
TEXT:                 1 SAMUEL 3:1-10 (11-20); JOHN 1:43-51

ONE SENTENCE:        The ability of God to speak and move through people and circumstances is not limited by the absence of power, position or potency.        

            Deep in the heart of Mississippi, in the midst of red clay hills and piney woods, there is a county that largely escapes notice.  It is rural, poor, sparsely populated and well off-the-beaten track.

            A work colleague many years ago told me the purpose of such an area was “to hold the earth together.”

            Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is the school known as Last Chance U – East Mississippi Community College – where athletes with academic, behavior, or other problems go for one last chance at a major college opportunity.

That small school, also known as Scooba Tech, is where Sports Illustrated’s designated Toughest Coach that Ever Lived, Bull Sullivan, coached his own brand of football in the 1950s and 1960s.

That small, rural county, Kemper County, is made up of little communities – such as Electric Mills, Porterville, Wahalak, and Dekalb.  One would be forgiven for wondering if anything good could ever come from there.

Which makes it even more surprising…

Early in the 20th century – August 3, 1901, to be exact – a child was born in rural Kemper County to a young couple.  He grew up and got his schooling in the poor country schools in Kemper County before enrolling at Mississippi A&M – now Mississippi State University – where he was a cheerleader.

After graduating, he attended law school at the University of Virginia.  There, this young redneck from Kemper County, was selected for Phi Beta Kappa.  It would not be the last honor he would receive.

He served in the Mississippi Legislature for four years before being elected circuit judge – a mid-level state court position.  This child of poverty was becoming known for his unflinching integrity.

In 1947, John Cornelius Stennis won election over five opponents – including two sitting congressmen – to the United States Senate.  He succeeded Theodore G. Bilbo, the race-baiting firebrand who had been refused a seat in the Senate earlier in the year.
For the next 41 years, John Stennis served in the United States Senate.  This new senator made a name early. He challenged Joe McCarthy during the height of the Red Scare.  He wrote the first ethics manual for the members of the Senate.

For sure, he was a creature of his culture and his society.  He would not fare well in today’s political environment with today’s issues. As we all learn from time-to-time, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”  That would be true of some of his positions.

But this man with roots close to the soil made an indelible impression on Washington and the nation.  He was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee for 12 years.  He was the senior-most member of the Senate for eight years.

He kept the promise that he made at the outset of his career – “to plow the furrow straight to the end of the row.”

His memory is much revered in his native Mississippi – not because of power or influence, but because of his integrity.   From humble roots.

And his humility and accessibility.  I once visited him at his office in Dekalb late in his tenure.  His office was a tiny red brick building just off the square in the small town.  Above the transom of his door were painted the simple words, John C. Stennis, Lawyer.  To walk into that office was to walk into history – with ample testimony from pictures, proclamations, and letters.

So much for the idea that rural settings cannot produce transformative leaders.

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Philip, the apostle, was from the seaside community of Bethsaida.  It was likely a thriving fishing village – especially compared to the tiny hamlet of Nazareth, up in the hill country of Galilee.  Perhaps there was even an air of superiority when residents of the seaside towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida spoke of “the hill country.”

Yet Philip was impressed with what he had found: “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  This, he told Nathanael.

Nathanael was not so easy sold, and remained skeptical. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he replied. He had a set opinion of folks who came from those areas.

Nathanael’s skepticism was not long-lived.  When Jesus saw him, he said, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” A brief conversation ensued, leading Nathanael to utter a profession of faith: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

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And, out of the mouths of babes… Look at the first lesson.

Samuel was a young boy, having been given over to the Lord’s service by his mother.  He was living with the elderly Eli, in the tent which served as the home to the Ark of the Covenant (If you have watched Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know what I am talking about).

In the midst of one night, while the young Samuel was sleeping, a voice called to him four times.  The first three times, Samuel ran to Eli’s side, assuming the older man had called him.  Anticipating a fourth time, Eli suspected the voice was God’s, and encouraged Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, because your servant listens.”

And listen Samuel did – and he later conveyed the divine oracle to Eli.  The news was not good, but Eli recognized it for what it was: genuine.

The simple child was a prophet from God.  Samuel would fill that role well during the remainder of his life. He would anoint the first two kings of Israel.

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            We have all heard the saying, “Big gifts come in tiny packages.”  Likewise, the movement of God can come from unexpected places.

            Ogden Nash once penned the words, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” An insignificant tribe of Middle Eastern Semites were selected as God’s chosen people.

We could add to that saying the oddity of choosing Abraham and Sarah, the reclusive prince Moses, the shepherd boy David, and most of all, the Nazarene carpenter Jesus – from Nazareth.

            God’s profound movements have seldom come from palaces, families of wealth and means, or from positions of power.  In fact, it has largely been places of power and affluence that have been sources of conflict, controversy, and brokenness in Salvation History.

            The more simple places… and simple people… have been the agents of God’s grace.

            The hand of God has not been shortened in the past.  And if past is prologue, it will not be shortened in the future.  God will move where he will through anyone he chooses.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Work in Progress

TEXT:                 MATTHEW 2:1-12; ACTS 19:1-7

ONE SENTENCE:        The message which God has sought to convey through Salvation History is still in need of realization. 

            If you blinked, you missed it.

            Yesterday, January 6, was one of the great feast days of the church year:  The Feast of the Epiphany.  Its more full name is the Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

            It marks the beginning of the season of Epiphany – the season between Christmas and Lent.  We also know it, more commonly, as Mardi Gras.

            The most famous image of the Epiphany, though, is frequently confused with Christmas – the Three Wise Men.

            The story of the Wise Men appears only in the Gospel according to Matthew.  In the gospel lesson from yesterday’s feast, we are told of their visit and of the gifts they presented to the Christ child – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

            Tradition has given these three wise men names, though scripture does not: Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar.  We are told they came from the East, and that is typically associated with the ancient kingdoms of Arabia and Persia.

            We are also told by scripture that they visited Bethlehem during the reign of Herod.  That would have been prior to 4 B. C., by which time he had descended fully into madness before dying of what polite company would call a “social disease.”

            Joseph was a dreamer. He had profound dreams – messages from God. In one dream, warning signs prompted the father to take Mary and the newborn child to safe refuge in Egypt.  There, he and the Holy Family stayed safe until Herod was dead and gone. Later, he took his family to Nazareth in Galilee.

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            There is an interesting undercurrent in this story which probably escapes notice.

            First, as an important foundation: Understand that the event of Jesus’ birth for those of us who are Christians is a radical intervention by God in human history.  It is the Incarnation – the beginning of a major chapter in what we could call Salvation History.

            My understanding of the sacred story told in scripture is that God is again-and-again seeking to show us his way toward the fullness of life which he offers us.  He tried to do so with the Law.  He tried to do so with the Kings.  He tried to do so with the prophets.

            As Eucharistic Prayer C says, “Again and again you called us to return.  Through prophets and sages, you revealed your righteous law.”

            But, sadly, human beings did not get the essence.  We missed the point. Yes, in some cases and at some points in history, we got the details.  But God sought to give us the spirit of the Law.  That is where Jesus came in.

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            Travel back in time a bit with me.  After Jerusalem had fallen and been destroyed in 587 B. C., the Jewish people saw those devastating events as God’s judgement on a rebellious people.  Even more so, they saw the exile in Babylon – and their decades’ long separation from the Promised Land – as God’s additional retribution.

            It was a low point in Salvation History.

            But think for a moment: What was the nation, and who was the king, which allowed the Jews to return to their homeland?  Who allowed them to rebuild the Temple – the very Temple where Jesus would walk and teach 500 years later?

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            Hold those thoughts for a moment. Let me ask you this question.

            If the Wise Men came from the East, what nation did they come from?

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            The answer to the first series of questions is known for certain.  It was Persia and King Cyrus who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  Persia is modern-day Iran, and Cyrus was the king of that nation.

            And what about the Wise Men, coming from the East?  They were coming either from Arabia or Persia – modern-day Saudi Arabia or modern-day Iran.  Most traditions hold that they came from Persia.

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            Twenty centuries have elapsed since the time of the Wise Men. Twenty-five centuries since the return of the Jews from Exile.

Iran now poses an existential threat to other nations in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia is a dominant and threatening military force in that volatile region.  Israel is being criticized by nations around the world – I might add, somewhat appropriately – for “separating the sheep and goats” of Jews and Arabs in their land.

            We needn’t go beyond the Middle East to know the world is torn by conflict.

            As a world, we still have not gotten the message – even considering the lengths to which God has gone to get the point across.

What’s more: In our own homes and lives, we are separated from those we love.  We carry resentments that burden our hearts.  We have broken spirits which seek joy and peace in our private trials.  We seek to find meaning in behaviors, places, and substances which provide only temporary solace.

            The need for progress in Salvation History is still strong.

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            A contemporary translation of the Bible into Spanish is named, “Dios Habla Hoy”. That means, “God speaks today.”

            He does indeed.  Years ago, there were signs of hope – olive branches, if you will, or movements from the Spirit – from nations that are now in conflict with others.  But those stories from so long ago need to point us toward the spirit which God seeks to give us.

            It is the Holy Spirit – the willingness to love, forgive, comfort, welcome, reconcile, and die to self.

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            In the second lesson today, from the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul asks some disciples in Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit in their baptism.  They replied that they had only received John the Baptist’s baptism, for the repentance of sins.

            Paul laid hands on them and they received the Spirit.

            The full gift of the Spirit is what God seeks to give the world today.