Sermons by Jason Gerlach

Sermon 02/16/2020: Endless Choices

February 19, 2020 by cmc_admin


Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37


click to view transcript

To begin, a few details about a middle-school sleepover that took place in the early 1990s with a church friend named Tony. My mother dropped me off and, immediately, Tony and I ran to the outdoor basketball hoop. As functionally an only child, I relished each opportunity to play one-on-one basketball against a peer. Throughout the game I practiced my Iverson crossover, which provided either an open jump shot or, if I kept my dribble, a reverse layup. The game lasted until one of us scored twenty-one points. I'm not sure who won. Afterward, he invited me to his bedroom, saying, "I've got something to show you." Secure in his bedroom Tony pulled out the picture of a Playboy centerfold. He unfolded it. I had never seen a picture like it before. I remember feeling scared and ashamed. But, also, intrigued. After a few moments I told him I felt uncomfortable. So, together we decided that we'd discard the photo. We ripped it into pieces, placing the shredded picture into a brown paper bag. With the bag in hand we snuck out of the house and ran to the nearby barn. Inside the barn were large cylinder grain bins. We located an empty one, opened the lid, and threw the paper bag inside of it.

We spent the rest of the evening playing basketball indoors at the Nerf net above the kitchen door. We watched a movie. We talked. Eventually we fell asleep.

In the morning, we went down to the nearby stream, selected a stick, threw it into the water, and then spent a few hours trying to keep it from running ashore. We were certain that if we could guide it through the stream it would end up in the Chiques Creek. And, if successful, the stick would eventually float into the Chesapeake Bay, and, then, into the Atlantic Ocean. For some reason we viewed this as a major accomplishment. We felt a sense of pride when the stick reached the Chiques Creek and floated out of view.

As we walked back toward Tony's house conversation drifted but, eventually we questioned why we'd ripped up the picture of the centerfold. We took off running toward the barn, located the grain bin, retrieved the paper bag, and set the pieces on the ground, flipping them so that they displayed the image, piecing them together like a puzzle. As the picture took its form Tony suggested that we adhere the pieces together utilizing Scotch tape. He ran off to retrieve Scotch tape from his house, leaving me alone with the picture. During the time alone I realized both the power of pornography and how lust could control me. Tony eventually returned with Scotch tape. As we taped the pieces together I again shared my discomfort. He agreed, stating, "It's not like you can see anything anyway since we tore it into pieces." We discarded it a second time and returned to the basketball court until my mom arrived to take me home.

This morning's passage in Matthew, if understood literally, claims that in that moment Tony and I committed adultery. Correct? Which leads me to ask the following questions: is lust as bad as adultery? Is anger as bad as murder? Should I throw away my eye when it leads me astray?  Should I cut off my hand when it causes me to err? And, is there even value in selectively choosing which parts have caused the harm? Are we not holistic beings? These types of questions go on and on. They quickly become overwhelming. So, in the end, are parts of this passage to be understood literally or, rather, metaphorically? If so, which parts signify metaphors?

The verses from Matthew come from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which begins in chapter five and continues through the end of chapter seven. Notice the opening and closing comments that bookend these chapters: They begin, "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain…." Three chapters later, they conclude by stating, "When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…." So, it's important to recognize that the Sermon on the Mount had an impact. People listened. People appreciated what Jesus taught and wanted more of it. The amount of followers flourished because of the things he shared with them while on the mountain.

So, too, it's important for us to wrestle with how these verses which, sound like judgment, compare to the larger narrative of God's offer of forgiveness. How is it that hard-hitting verses about anger, lust, and honesty were appreciated by the people who listened to him on the mountaintop? And, why did the people want more after hearing them?

In recent years the Church (our church included) has taken necessary steps to open up conversations about sexuality (ie., the discernment process leading up to becoming a Welcoming church; Safe Church policy; Circle of Grace curriculum) but, by and large, the Church has outsourced conversation about sex and sexuality to families. Only rarely are the subjects of pornography, lust and adultery addressed in the church despite technological advances that have increased the possibilities of access; despite how they impact us at every age and along the gender spectrum.

On a lighter note, it was around the same time as the sleepover at Tony's house that I was struggling with an aspect of life in my parents' home: mealtime. I hated when my mom served baked potatoes. And, to me, it felt like we ate baked potatoes often. At meal time, I'd sit down to an empty plate. Instead of a centerpiece there'd be a plate of butter and the salt & pepper shakers prominently located, within reach. My dad would recite the same prayer before supper, "Father, in heaven, thank you for this food and for the hands that have prepared it." Then my mother would gather the baked potatoes from the oven. She'd place a steaming potato in the middle of my empty plate and I knew the rest of the night would be dreadful. I knew that I'd still be at the table long after my parents had finished their food, cleaned the dishes, and moved to the family room to watch the weather channel and the nightly news broadcast. I COULDN'T get the baked potato down. It had no flavor. I'd push it around my plate. I cut it into smaller pieces. I'd slather it with more butter. I'd sprinkle it with more salt & pepper. Correction: I'd COVER it with salt & pepper. The word 'sprinkle' doesn't adequately describe how vigorously I'd shake the seasoning. With every minute I delayed eating the potato it became colder and, thus, worse. As the potato cooled the whole problem compounded. Under my breath, I'd mumble words in anger.  I'd wonder why I had been left alone to suffer.

I know how this story makes me seem: awful, stubborn and childish. As well as a whole host of other things. My hatred for baked potatoes extended even to the Mr. Potato Head I was gifted one year. I never played with him. I stuffed all his excessories away, leaving without a smile to haunt me or beady eyes to stare in my direction, and hid him away.

It wasn't until years later that I had a change of heart because of a new concept… the potato bar. When I learned that it was acceptable to slather a potato in cheese, broccoli, bacon bits and sour cream, then, baked potatoes finally made sense. For the first time they had flavor. They were now bearable to eat. Over the years, I've come to appreciate baked potatoes but, it took flavor, a lot of it, for me to get to that point.

We've become dependent on flavor, haven't we? It's a selling point in any grocery store aisle.  Differences in flavor lend to new varieties, increased options, and, ultimately, more financial revenue.  All around us are cheap, convenient, subsidized foods that seem like the real stuff but leave us unhealthy.  Most of those foods are loaded with flavor. Other foods are loaded with artificial flavoring and preservatives yet taste horrible... like plain baked potatoes. Some foods have been processed to death.

Sometimes the same thing can be said about our decision-making. How do we taste the reality we hunger for when all we have eaten is filler and a chemist's tricks on our taste buds? We must learn to taste again. We must be educated anew about real stuff, learning again what causes our health to suffer so that we can make informed choices. When Jesus says that anger is as bad as murder and lust as bad as adultery, he is delivering a flavor education that teaches the difference between fresh, locally produced fruits and artificial flavoring. In essence, Jesus is asking me to reconsider my reliance on fats and lipids, which don't contribute to my health, which I choose to slather over the plain baked potato right in front of me. 

In the Netflix show Ugly Delicious chef David Chang explores questions that are currently being addressed within the culinary arts. Questions like: Why is that Italian food has long been considered great (and thus expensive) compared to Korean food for instance?  He also addresses questions like: Does anyone own barbeque? Or, is it okay to reinvent dumplings? The second season of Ugly Delicious will drop in March. I'm not a foodie but throughout the first season (rated TV-MA for language) I was captivated by how chef David Chang spoke about cultural appropriation, explaining, "...if someone wants to make Korean food, great. Doesn't mean they have to be Korean. It's making a dish and using it in a way that's going to be respectful of both cultures you're trying to fuse together that's important." In one episode he uses shrimp and crawfish as the vehicle to talk about change, respect and tradition by noting that chefs in New Orleans continue to cook these foods as they have done so for centuries. Food, history and lineage are all tied up together. Recently, in contrast, Houston chefs have begun cooking shrimp and crawfish with new recipes. New Orleans needs to carry on their beautiful tradition but Houston doesn't. Houston can do whatever it wants.

Through the show Ugly Delicious, his podcast episodes, and his popular restaurants David Chang is inviting everyone into questions of cultural appropriation pertaining to food, history and the fusing of cultures long viewed as separate.

Now, consider God's commands in the book of Deuteronomy. At that time Israel's most recent memories, habits, and formation were within the Pharaoh's land. Pharaoh not only used the people of Israel as chattel but, also woven into the fabric of society was deep-seated fear of Pharaoh, particularly around the scarcity of resources such as food and power, resources that must be procured from sometimes begrudging and seemingly inconsistent gods. The people of Israel lived there, enslaved not only in body but also in mind and habit to the idolatries of Egypt and its rule. Deuteronomy explains how to re-habituate the people of Israel away from such enslavement of body and soul toward a new way. The prescribed practices touch not only on intimate spaces such as how to trust YHWH in their eating or sexual life, but also how to treat those they may be tempted to despise or fear as potential competitors.

In Deuteronomy, YHWH acknowledges that living through times of restraint and indulgence tries the patience of human beings; thus, YHWH beckons them to remember that YHWH has made them for a deeply -- not cheaply -- joyful life. In essence, YHWH pleads with the people to: "Keep the faith, hold fast, walk a long way in my direction."

YHWH's pleading can best be described as a clarion call. A shrill reminder. A message loud and clear, reminding people of the ways that make for a good and full life.

And what could be more graceful than to be offered concrete ways of living against a world that often mocks such discipline. For humans are embodied beings whose patterns of daily living either disentangle us or reinforce chains of fear and self-centeredness.

And, in Matthew, Jesus calls out to anyone listening to form habits that prevent unhealthy living. The clarion call here is to attend to your thoughts and words; pursue truthful relationships with others. The new community Jesus is bringing into being pursues these characteristics:

-- overcoming anger through reconciliation

-- keeping lust in check through discipline

-- honoring marriage through lifelong fidelity

-- choosing simple and honest language

Are these characteristics too idealistic? Are they possible?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is inviting everyone into questions of cultural appropriation pertaining to Old Testament scripture, history and the fusing of concepts long viewed as separate. The larger point, it seems, is that by doing more than required, Jesus is inviting forth a new community; Jesus is inviting the disciples to bear witness to another reality. "You have heard that it was said... but I say to you." That's cultural appropriation. "You have heard that it was said... but I say to you." That's providing a reminder, a clarion call, about what's been asked of followers of Jesus. Or, that's the practice of fusing what was with something new.

We're faced with choices on a daily basis. Endless choices about everything from what we place before our eyes to the foods and seasoning we select for nourishment. Choices pertaining to whether or not to follow Christ's teaching. Will we approach one another honestly or prop up an image of ourselves that makes us look better, that makes us look good? Will we give to others our true selves or something artificially constructed? Will we offer others the honest answer or the preserved image?

Daily, we're faced with decisions that'll bring about greater life, or death.  Amidst each of these choices God pleads for us to choose life.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 01/26/2020: Net-Mending

January 30, 2020 by cmc_admin


Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Isaiah 9:1-5 and Matthew 4:12-23

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There are a few group games our youth like to play at Snow Camp. Saturday evening, a week ago, after Myron Blosser's session, we played two games: one game includes foam finger rockets, trash cans, movement and strategy. The other game takes place in the dark. Youth group members work together to locate the pieces of a flashlight and assemble it before... it's too late.

My role during the second game is to hide the four parts of the flashlight: two D batteries, the lightbulb and the flashlight casing. I then randomly assign roles, start the game, and serve as a time-keeper until the game is over. Each time we play I'm struck by how uncomfortable it feels to move around in the dark. Humans move awkwardly when their view is obstructed. We shuffle gingerly, arms out-stretched, hands and feet sweeping in front of us so we don't knock into furniture or walls. Although it takes a few minutes, our vision compensates and, in time, we're able to see better.

When surrounded by darkness we gravitate toward light. We are drawn to it. This is notable in the game as youth group members search first in the areas of the room that are lighted by exit signs or near windows through which light filters in from the exterior wall sconces. As the game progresses they work collaboratively to assemble the flashlight, hoping their efforts will bring light to the game's mystery.

As we look at Matthew 4:12-23 this morning, it's important to highlight that Jesus moved intentionally to a place where things weren't all figured out.

The text says Jesus withdrew to Galilee when he learned of his cousin's arrest. A move to Galilee, where historically it was claimed that the Gentiles walked and sat in darkness, could be viewed as a curious decision. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali (sons of Jacob and tribes of Israel), located between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, was considered an impure area populated by many who at the time were considered unclean. As outlined in the book of Judges, these two tribes lived among the Canaanites in the area. And, it was in this territory ("the shadow of death") that Saul and his three sons, including David's beloved friend Jonathan, were killed. Zebulun and Naphtali were annexed by the Assyrians in 733 BC, bringing forth the contempt mentioned in this morning's Old Testament reading (Isaiah 9:1.) Yet this is the area Jesus chose. Possible reasons for retreating to Galilee include refuge from fear; cunning wit; even prophetic fulfillment.

It was along this seaward route, while traveling through Galilee, that Jesus met working-people.  First, he met Simon and Andrew. Actually, as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus met Andrew (who at the time was one of John the Baptist's disciples) before his brother. Andrew, then, invited Simon to come with him to meet Jesus.

John's Gospel includes another two-step introduction. Jesus met Philip. Philip then invited Nathaniel to join them, as Philip and Nathaniel knew each other previously. They grew up in the same hometown.

Notice the recruitment that took place in the first days of Jesus' ministry by Jesus, by fresh converts and by neighborhood friends.

What might we learn from their example?

From the beginning of his mission, it's apparent that Jesus will be a light for the world, providing hope to people who languish in darkness and the fear of death. It is from here -- this geographic location of Galilee -- that Christ's light began to shine.

We see this first in Jesus' leadership. There are numerous characteristics of good leadership from the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus prioritized face-to-face contact with real people. These verses are often referred to as Jesus' call to the disciples -- okay -- but let's not overlook that Jesus asked each of them, speaking to them face-to-face.  Good leaders invite others to join them, for anyone who follows extends the reach of leadership. Followers provide accountability. Followers share their experiences with their acquaintances. Followers are often receptive to teaching and those who are apt students may find themselves to be closest to the leader. Thus they must understand who the leader is and what the leader hopes to achieve. In return, concentrated attention is often given to an inner circle of followers. More so than to anyone else insight and inspiration is given to a select few which will produce tremendous long-range results because followers will continually implement the leader's objectives in which they have come to believe. Good leaders are in touch with many people, especially through listening to them, but good leaders choose followers who can speak on their behalf; those followers must be truthful and loyal.  

It was along this seaward route that Jesus also met James and John, the sons of Zebedee, at work on a boat. Two more fishermen. Actually, within these few verses in Matthew, Jesus has called a third of his core group of disciples. With fore-knowledge he knew many of the disciples would come from the shoreline communities around the Sea of Galilee. Why might that be?

Remember these were working-people, which makes it seem like they had fully matured. They seem to be beyond their years of schooling.

It's known that Jewish education followed this pattern: children (age 6 to 10) were tasked with memorizing the Torah. That's right! Their education consisted of memorization instead of subjects like mathematics, foreign language, physical education and geography. At age ten each student was invited to recite the Torah (that's... Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), and by reciting, I mean, word for word. Students who successfully completed this task were invited to move up to the next level of education. Those students (think, "intelligent") would continue to memorize scripture with the goal of committing the entire Old Testament to memory by the age of fifteen or sixteen so that they might sit for the second test, pass it, and then be selected by a Rabbi to carry on the oral tradition.

Students who didn't pass the aptitude tests were denied further education. They were sent home. Instead of further educational opportunities they began learning a trade. Usually, it was in their family's business. Simon (Peter) and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when Jesus met them. James and John were their father's understudies. At some point, further educational opportunities came to an end for Simon (Peter) and Andrew; for James and John. They weren't the most learned. And, no Rabbi had selected them to carry on the tradition.

There is yet another stark difference between Jesus' call to his disciples and the traditional method of Rabbinic recruitment. Let's say that Nathaniel -- for instance -- had been invited by a Rabbi. If this was the case, he would have followed the Rabbi only for as long as it took to attain Rabbinic status. The call of Jesus, however, was absolute, disrupting the lives of potential recruits, promising them… a break from business as usual. There was no halfway; no part-time; no temporary discipleship. Disciples renounced their livelihood, left family behind and followed Jesus completely. The invitation was to remain beside him forever. Accepting the invitation put them in danger.

After all, to live a long life in first-century Palestine, you played it safe, you stayed out of trouble and minded your own business. You obeyed the rules of the empire and its religious subservients, the scribes and the Pharisees. You do what you were told.

Those who espoused revolutionary politics, the Zealots, waged guerilla warfare against the Roman imperial outposts and, when caught, were tortured and crucified. They became examples. So, many people chose to play it safe. The Gospels tell how the disciples learned that Jesus' actions and teachings were illegal and, in time, realized the implications of their allegiance to him. They could be arrested and executed as revolutionaries -- and, yet, as they learned the seriousness of their actions Jesus instructed them to respond without violent retaliation or revenge but instead with love, forgiveness and peace.

What might we learn from their example?

Remember that James and John were at work on their father's boat when Jesus met them.  Two more fishermen. Notice that the text says nothing about casting a net. James and John were mending their nets.

I don't regularly fish. The times I've fished I've used a pole with a line, bobber, a hook and bait.  Through those means I've caught… one fish. It was the size of the banana from my lunchbox. A pole is for sport fishing, for recreation. Nets are used for industrial fishing, for businesses. And, nets need mending often. Tending to them was as important as good casting technique or the knowledge of water temperature and migration patterns. Frequently used nets tore or unraveled at the corners. They needed to be knit together regularly. On a recurring basis.

A few years ago we were gifted this comforter, which quickly became a family favorite. So much so that it now needs some love and attention. Imagine if this comforter was a fishing net. If James and John cast it into the sea, waited the appropriate amount of time, and then retrieved it the fish seemingly caught in it would escape through the hole. It needs mending or its usefulness is limited.

This past Thursday evening Pastor Jennifer, Lonnie Yoder, Mike Brislen and I attended the quarterly Harrisonburg District Delegate meeting. It was held at Immanuel Mennonite Church at 6:30 pm. It included another step in the process of Community Mennonite Church's reaffiliation from Virginia Mennonite Conference to Allegheny. Thursday evening, Harrisonburg District delegates released CMC in preparation for Virginia Mennonite Conference to do the same on Saturday, February 1st. Thursday's meeting was unique. It centered around table fellowship.  We sat at tables. We ate soup and bread together. We shared communion. We talked face-to-face. Paula Stoltzfus, a member of Harrisonburg District Executive Committee, offered the following liturgy of transition:

Our church family is ever changing.

Loved ones are born into the family

And loved ones come to the end of their lives.

Individuals come and go in our church life.

Congregations come and go in our Conference life.

It is important and right 

That we recognize these times of passage,

Of endings, transitions, and beginnings.

 

Each of us was given grace 

According to the measure of Christ's gift.

The gifts he gave were 

That some would be apostles, some prophets, 

Some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

To equip the saints for the work of ministry,

For building up the body of Christ,

Until all of us come to the unity of the faith

And of the knowledge of the Son of God,

To maturity, to the measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7-13)

 

We are grateful for the ministry we have shared together.

With joy we recall what we accomplished with God's help,

And with sadness those dreams not fulfilled.

We are grateful for your ministry

And for your influence on our lives.

We ask for forgiveness for mistakes made and expectations not met.

 

O God, you have bound us together for a time

As congregations to work for your church in this place.

We give you thanks for the ministry we have shared.


I've abbreviated the liturgy a bit to share it with you this morning. On Thursday, it concluded with moments of silence, collective spoken words and the Lord's Prayer. Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church, named his deep appreciation for CMC over the course of forty (+) years. He lamented failures of the District and Conference. He hoped that Harrisonburg District churches will find ways to reconnect with Shalom MC and hold onto current relationships with CMC despite our reaffiliation. Afterward, I received words of encouragement, hugs and handshakes. I believe other CMC leaders did as well.

In times of disunity it's best to remember that Christians belong to Christ. Christ hasn't been divided! Throughout our reaffiliation process let's remember whose we are.

In Galatians 3, the apostle Paul advocates over against divisions, which he calls schisma, a noun used in the Gospels to describe a rip in a cloth. Rather, Paul argues, Christians have been united (katartizo) in the same mind and purpose. In essence, Paul is saying that we've been knit together for proper use or mended just as fishing nets were mended. Christians are literally woven together. Like a net, we become a functional, flexible fabric -- that when cared for and put to right use offers life-giving sustenance to us and those around us.

We're called to practice the communal discipline of net-mending when our communities unravel at the corners or rip down the middle. Some view this work as reconciliation. Others approach it from a net-working model.

By God's grace, Jesus invites us, along with Andrew and Simon (Peter), James and John, and so many others to follow the light that's emerging around us.  Jesus does not force anyone to follow him. People do walk away. But, as recorded in Matthew, some choose to follow immediately, responding to the radical discipleship Jesus offered them, even risking their livelihood. Others, after accepting the invitation, extended it to a sibling or a neighborhood friend.

What might we learn from their example? How might we be attentive to our frayed relationships? How might we best be mended together with others both as we re-affiliate with Allegheny Mennonite Conference and as we respond when Jesus asks us, as net-menders, to offer life-giving sustenance to others?

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 12/10/2019: One Day

December 10, 2019 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Matthew 24:36-44

 

click to view transcript

On December 1st my parents remove two tattered boxes from the hallway closet.  Both boxes contain bundles of old (faded and yellow) newspapers. Inside the bundled up newspaper are ceramic figurines: sheep, donkeys, camels, shepherds, maji, Mary and Joseph, and an elaborate stable.

This was a day I cherished while I lived in their home.

Along one family room wall there was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf made from stained walnut.  The bookshelf displayed a full-set Encyclopedia; family pictures; a few books, including one written by a relative named Horst Gerlach, which captivated me to no end.  And there were other keepsakes, mainly from vacations.

Two-thirds of the family room wall was shelves.  The middle third, however, was different. Toward the bottom, the shelf jutted out to create a square protuberance.  It was almost the size of a folding card table. Inside the square, my parents kept their television. And, on top of the television was a large shelf.  Throughout my childhood I spent a lot of time, especially the first day of each December, staring at the figurines displayed on the large shelf. I wasn't allowed to touch them because my older brother had chipped one in his childhood.  (IDK, something about a broken camel's ear). But, I'd slide my hand along the green felt below the figurines, which either resembled my parents' well-manicured lawn as fill-in for Bethlehem terrain or, simply, was included so the figurines didn't scratch the shelf below.  I'd stare into Joseph's face, considering his thoughts and misgivings. I'd wonder how anyone could sit atop camels for days and whether that was wise. It looked like it would hurt. I'd ask myself why all the visitors were from the fields or distant lands and not the surrounding, nearby homes.  I'd ponder whether the star had been there all along or had actually moved through the sky.

Most of all, I was perplexed that in my parents' nativity scene there wasn't a figurine for baby Jesus.  Each morning I'd check (and I can remember the anticipation I felt those first days of December every year), but the space between Joseph and Mary remained vacant.  It was, as if, the expectant mother and father set aside all month to await their child's birth. (I know that, along with many other months, that is exactly what they did.)  But, a nativity scene without baby Jesus for all those December days throughout my childhood felt unfinished. Something was missing. In all of my friends' homes baby Jesus smiled up at Mary & Joseph each December day.  I knew this was true because I checked. There he was in the Snavely's living room; on the Guidi's kitchen counter; even a large plastic representation in the front yard at the Yanefski's home. Couldn't my parents see that?

"So, what was going on?" I wondered, "Why didn't our nativity scene include baby Jesus?"

It wasn't until Christmas Day that baby Jesus appeared.  He was the smallest figurine. Even smaller than the two lambs.  But, there he was for that one day.

I later figured out that for each December day leading up to Christmas the baby Jesus figurine was hidden behind a set of children's books from the 1920s three shelves above the nativity.  He was nearby all along but a part of the scene for just one day.

With Christmas over, the following day was spent re-wrapping the figurines, carefully placing them in the tattered boxes, and returning the boxes to the hallway closet for the year.

Out of many days of searching, anticipation, uncertainty and worry both for myself and everyone else... after all those days, all of a sudden there's one day that's different.  One day set aside for Immanuel, God with us. One day until next year. But, one day. Why? It's a question I've wondered about for sometime. So, this Thanksgiving, I asked my parents about it, "Why only one day?" I asked, "Was it representative of your theology?  Did you decide together that you'd keep the baby Jesus figurine hidden away until Christmas because it would reinforce a mindset that in this life we're always watching and waiting and someday that'll change but it hasn't yet. One day things will be different. Was that your rationale?  Help me understand."

Over the years I've become aware of my go-to anxious behavior at family gatherings.  I'll bring up funny mishaps from previous years as a form of deflection. I'll ask a lot of questions.  In moments of frustration I'll feign being deaf to solidify a posture of avoidance. But, this time I wanted my posture to be more mature.  I wanted to listen better. I wanted to share about my life rather than interview everyone for no apparent reason. My parents' responses led to a time when around the table each of us shared what we are awaiting.  Once around the table it became clear that we are waiting for different things. In their 80s my parents are waiting for something very different than me and Wendy; and they are awaiting almost the inverse of their grandchildren.

Outreach Commission recently responded to an invitation from MennoPIN (Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network) to consider whether our congregation might work toward establishing a fraternal relationship with a church, mosque, hospital or school in Gaza.  For November's Monthly Gathering, Joe Roos, chair of MennoPIN, created a powerpoint presentation about the Gaza Twinning Initiative and invited Dorothy Jean Weaver to present it on behalf of MennoPIN.

Here are a few facts shared that evening: two million people currently live in the Gaza strip.  It's borders are tightly controlled by Israel. Gaza's off-shore fishing rights have shrunk because Israel wants to exploit gas fields near the coastline, severely limiting Gaza's fishing industry.  Their water is undrinkable; fuel supply restricted; they have access to electricity for only 3-4 hours each day. The movement of goods and services in and out of Gaza is subject to Israel's discretion.  (And, all of these things have been going on for over ten years.)

It's impossible to travel to Gaza because Israel allows access to very few outsiders.  A long-distance twinning relationship is the next best thing. MennoPIN hopes that through establishing fraternal relationships congregations in the United States can share in the suffering of the people of Gaza as well as express care and love.

That evening of the Monthly Gathering about forty people attended.  Afterward, nearly half of them expressed that they were ready to establish a fraternal relationship with Gaza.  The following Thursday, Church Council processed the idea and approved that Outreach Commission could move forward in this direction.  I relayed this information to Joe Roos. He informed me that we're one of eight congregations who've responded to the Twinning Initiative.  He seemed overjoyed but explained that it'll take time to establish a fraternal relationship. He wrote, "We have direct contacts in Gaza, but two things are making it difficult to get a relationship set up in a timely manner.  The first is communications.  For us in the United States, communication via email is straightforward.  We receive an email immediately and can quickly respond to it. But for people in Gaza it is not so easy due to the limited electricity and unreliable computers.  It is difficult to maintain quick and reliable contact. It will, of course, be a reality in your communications once your twinning relationship has been established.  This is part of the reality of life in Gaza. The second is the people of Gaza are under constant threat from Israel's blockade (for over 10 years now).  Poverty is rampant. Israel severely limits the amount of food coming into Gaza. Drinkable water is scarce.  The persistent presence of overhead drones with tear gas and bombs plus the bombing attacks by Israeli jets present an ever-present risk to life and limb.  These serious distractions are having a limiting effect on our ability to communicate as well. Again, this is the reality of life in Gaza."

In closing he wrote, "The time it takes to establish a twinning relationship is one way of getting to know what life is like in Gaza.  Thank you for your patience and understanding. We will be in touch again when the relationship is ready to go!"

Advent is a season of asking questions.  I anticipate that one day we will have an established fraternal relationship with a church, mosque, hospital or school wherein we will know questions that some Gazan people are asking?  Until then, I will not venture to guess at their questions. We have our own, which may be similar or very different.

So, too, Advent is a season of waiting for God to break into our lives.  Where is it that we're waiting for this to happen and in what ways? I find that I often wonder: Is the world supposed to be like this?  Or is something wrong? Why is it that so many of the people I know, deep down, have this sense that something isn't right? How can the world can be filled with such beauty and good, and yet be filled with the opposite at the same time?  It shouldn't be like this, should it? God what are you waiting for? Why don't things get set right? We could hope that it gets better. We could wait for it to get better. One day it might. But, I want a God that's active now! I need a God who teaches me about today.  I need a faith that guides how I live and helps me understand the world around me.

There are historical indications that some followers of Jesus settled into the expectation of a protracted historical period.  They touted that Jesus raised from the dead but the world goes on; that the Temple was destroyed but still history goes on as before.  But, Matthew warned against this attitude. In this morning's passage, Matthew calls for attentiveness. Be aware! The passage is a composite group of sayings (through intertextual study you can see how Matthew pulled together these verses from the previously written gospel of Mark and other sources); a composite highlighting the suddenness and uncertainty of the hour of judgment.  The aim is to motivate those listening to do the will of God while they still have the opportunity, before the judgment comes upon them. Matthew seems to recognize liminal space, but, even so, the reality of the final judgment is crucial for Matthew.

Here, in Matthew 24:36-44, there's a call for action.  For Matthew, doing good deeds is the authenticating expression of one's discipleship.  Throughout his life Jesus gathered disciples and taught them to exemplify their fidelity through good deeds.  Disciples are, in the very definition, followers who learn to be a certain kind of student. Over time they represent their teacher more and more.  They are measured by how well they remain faithful. Disciples learn to be a certain kind of presence in the world. They continually work to become people of peace, mercy and hope and they commit to partnering with God to make this world as God originally intended it to be.

In this passage Jesus pointedly describes ordinary, everyday activities, such as growing and making food for our daily survival.  It is in the midst of those quite ordinary activities that God will come to us and call us away. One ordinary day people were tending their crops in the field.  One ordinary day people were grinding meal together. People will drink and dance and eat and get married like they have always done, Jesus tells us. Into that very ordinariness God comes to us.  Be aware!

That's the story of Advent and Christmas.  The mystery of God's incarnation in the child Jesus is very much an ordinary event -- the birth of a baby, just like so many other babies.  Be aware! When all around us life seems ordinary we risk overlooking God's extraordinariness. Be aware!

Our questions may not be answered during Advent.  How can the world can be filled with such beauty and good, and yet be filled with the opposite at the same time?  The season of Advent may not heal our frustrations, uncertainty, and hopelessness in the midst of situations that anger us to our core, but my hope is that we can live our lives in extraordinary ways in recognition that our lives are different, very un-ordinary, because of the presence of Jesus.  As Christ's disciples may we work to become people of peace, mercy and hope and may we commit to partnering with God to make this world as God originally intended it to be.

By the way, I now know why my parents' nativity scene didn't include baby Jesus except for that one day each year.  It's less about their theology than I expected. See they feel a connection with Mary and Joseph for they too expectantly waited for the last nine months of 1961 until, on Christmas morning, they rushed to Lancaster General hospital where my brother, John, was born.

In Advent we wait... for one day is not like every other.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 07/28/2019: Wrath & Love

October 3, 2019 by cmc_admin


Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Mark 15:15-32 & John 20:1-18

click to view transcript

[MANUSCRIPT coming soon]

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 05/26/2019: God's grace finds us where we are

June 4, 2019 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Revelation 21:10 & 21:22-22:5 and Acts 6:9-15

 

click to view transcript

It's Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the summer travel season.  Fridays in June, July and August are the busiest travel days of the year in the United States.  Select any one of them and you've selected a day of greater nationwide travel than even the day before Thanksgiving, which many assume is the busiest day of the year.  The season of summer travel has begun!

I'm reminded of this fact, about this time each year, when in conversation with high school seniors anticipating their upcoming graduation, summer trips, and educational or gap year plans for the fall.  Those conversations take me back to that same time in my own life when I learned of an opportunity in Central Java, Indonesia.  Were I to mark my life with push pins and yarn on a map, I'd be able to track how one decision led to a next: from Central Java to Harrisonburg, from afternoon conversational English and Bahasa Indonesia classes where together Agung, Edi, Susanti and I guided each other through the ins and outs of practical language choices to a more permanent pursuit of congregational ministry with children, youth and young adults.  Little did I know that responding to that one decision, heart opened to the possibilities that would transpire from that point forward, that it would guide my life through one transition after another.

Similarly, I've recently held premarital counseling sessions with three couples who will be married this summer.  The sessions have centered around the results from the Prepare/Enrich instrument, building communication skills, learning how (as a couple) to make financial decisions, planning the wedding ceremony, and discussing the upcoming transitions of living arrangements and the commitment they are making to each other.

There are yet more venues in which I've heard about upcoming transitions.  The Dean House Voluntary Service Unit Committee has heard from both Ali Zuercher and Liza Brenneman that they will conclude their time at the organizations they are serving and move out of the Dean House this summer to pursue graduate school opportunities.  So, our committee has been in conversation with four college graduates who expressed some level of interest in our Voluntary Service location.  We're still awaiting a commitment for next year as those four individuals have, for a variety of reasons, decided not to join the unit: one was offered a lab technician position at UVA; another selected Americorps as her volunteer organization; another will begin a role as resident director at a Mennonite college this fall, and the fourth expressed a pressing need to save money toward further schooling opportunities.

On Tuesday, I heard senior track teammates pass along nuggets of wisdom to the members of the team who'll return next year; things like, "if your coaches demand a hard workout with lots of sprints, give it your all, you'll see the reward by the end of the season."  "Or," another senior piped up, "you can throw discus and shot put and then not have to run hard workouts."  The remaining seniors encouraged their teammates to try out new events, to spread encouragement around, and to get to know all teammates equally.  The track team congregated together after the school-wide spring sports reception took place, in which many heartfelt goodbyes were expressed for an athletic director who'd served the school faithfully for twenty-two years.

I've also heard transition comments in conversations about CMC's conference affiliation decision; and in conversations with people who'll move back to Harrisonburg soon; or those who've committed to stay in their current work setting for the next year but then seek out other vocational opportunities; and as the current members of Catechism class assess whether their next step is to join the church.

Many have expressed their questions about their upcoming transition by saying something along the lines of "What does it mean?  I wonder."  Or, "We're asking ourselves, what's next?"

And I haven't even mentioned MC USA's biennial convention or the many trips that members of our congregation are leading to Jerusalem, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Guatemala to only name a few.

Some summer trips will go smoothly.  Others, will not.  I don't know if you know this but Paul, the apostle, traveled.  Alot.                                                          CLICK SLIDE

And, as recorded in Acts 16:6-8, which comes directly before this morning's passage, the text says Paul and Timothy wanted to travel broadly but couldn't.  Listen to the text: "They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia."  It also says, "When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas."

So, according to the text, Paul and Timothy stumble around the region running into one barrier after another.  Bared by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bithynia, they appear backed into a coastal corner at Troas by God's repeated, declarative statement, "NO!"  These earlier verses, if included in this week's lectionary reading, remind us that God is in charge of this mission; that the church sometimes searches for God's calling in mistaken directions; and that God's Spirit speaks into what humans consider to be frustrating and difficult times of discernment.

It isn't until Paul experiences a night vision that his next step becomes clear.   Spurred on by a dream, Paul is called to travel across the sea to search out a Macedonian man beckoning for him to, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

So, they set off.  Three dudes on a boat at night.  Paul, Silas and Timothy.

Allow me to back up.  Paul received the vision alone, but, as recorded in verse 10, the vision had to be interpreted by someone other than Paul alone.  Listen: "When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them."  Interpretation requires more than one person and it is at this point in the story that the communal "us/we" enters the story.  There are two possible explanations for how the communal we enter the story: (1) did the narrator transition from an eyewitness to a participant seemingly swept up at the moment?  Or, (2) did the author select communal we language as a narrative technique so that readers of Luke/Acts could assess their place in the story?  Whatever the case, the language choice confirms that Paul and others felt God was using the Macedonian dream man to bring about immediate action.  Preachers were needed in Macedonia.  GO!  Formerly the message was NO!  Now, it's GO!

Although I find the night-vision-as-God's-call curious, it's not as curious to me as the fact that there's no further mention about the Macedonian man.  Once in Macedonia, he seems to be forgotten.  Instead, Paul, Silas, and Timothy hang out for some time and then (later) meet a woman named Lydia.  She was one of several women who gathered at a place of prayer on the Sabbath, possibly the site of a future synagogue.

A few days ago I didn't know much about Lydia nor the town of Thyatira.  But, in researching the person and place, as well as consulting with Pastor Jennifer, here's the piece of information I found most relevant.  Despite much political unrest, power grabs and the uncertainty and disillusionment experienced when empires were overthrown around her, Lydia held onto her cultural background and distinctiveness.  If we traced her family lineage we'd find ancestors who lived during the reign of Cyrus the Great and the Persians after they defeated the Lydian capital of Sardis.  Other ancestors would have lived through the time period when the Greek empire ruled the area.  And, still, other ancestors lived under Roman rule.  Despite all of those cultural machinations (Persian, Greek, Roman) Lydian culture wasn't completely erased.  Interestingly, Lydia's own name serves as a cultural identifier for people from a specific region.  Her name, Lydia, signifies a place of origin rather than a personal name, which suggests that she may have a former slave.  But, at the point of Acts 16, she's a free woman who works with textiles -- purple textiles to be exact.  This detail about purple textiles counters what I just shared about her as a possible slave.  So, how do we resolve these disparities?  Aligning what we know (that Lydia worked with purple textiles and that the city of Lydia was in Thyatira) we can access that her status may have been more like a well-to-do householder than a former slave.  Thyatira was an important center of the wool trade.  A guild of wool workers is mentioned in an old inscription, and other inscriptions name several dyers and fillers in and around Thyatira, as well as the neighboring cities of Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae.

Now before I continue on… may I highlight just a few things?  Though Paul, Silas, and Timothy apparently waste little time getting to the Macedonian city of Philippi they are required to wait.  Not much happens for a while.  Patiently waiting, they were there for some days (just how long it was we're not sure).  The appeal in the night vision seemed urgent, and their response to it was immediate, but the results were not seen right away.  When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise.  Paul's vision had involved a Macedonian man.  But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman from the area Paul had just left in the east.  Lydia had also traveled by boat to Macedonia possibly along the same route as Paul, Timothy, and Silas.  She was transient like them.  Simple explanations about God's mission are clearly going to be wrong.  How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia, where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi.

In Acts 16:9-15 I'm struck by the humility of the characters; wandering, waiting, respecting cultural, religious and societal practices while drawing near to people, talking, befriending, accepting hospitality.  I'm struck by it until I'm not.  Well, what I mean is that I'm struck by it until I read one phrase. It's a qualifying phrase that explains that Lydia was "a worshipper of God".  When I read the phrase I feel confounded.  Now I know why the phrase is included in the narrative.  I know the phrase identifies her as Jewish.  I get it.   But, to me, it stands out when compared to the humility and respect throughout all other parts of the passage.  Why include it?  Is this a distinction Paul, Silas and Timothy readily looked for: whether a person was Jewish or not?  Possibly.  Or, was it included for those who would hear of their travels?   Does it help signify something in the post-resurrection world, I wonder?  Does it function to distinguish between what is or is not Christian?  And, does that distinction carry with it some form of judgment?  Does it tidy up an question of Christian identity (former versus present) and function similarly to the times Paul asks about the character of Christian lives, about the shape that Christian practice takes, in order to prevent the breakup of Christian community along lines that follow differences between Jewish and Gentile practice, between upper- and lower-class lifestyles and privileges, or between those who continue to eat meat offered to idols and those who do not.  Does it function to distinguish an alternative society, a special kind of club?

Theologian Kathryn Tanner points out that "...because of several complicating factors, Christian identity simply cannot be secured by a sharp cultural boundary."  She provides the following reasons: (1) it's rarely clear on what side of the boundary something falls (Say the boundary is supposed to mark a sharp religious difference; Christian practices gain their identity as religious practices that exclude those of any other religion.  Still up for grabs is whether any of the practices at issue are religious or not) and; (2) where the boundaries are drawn is never fixed; social practices that are excluded at one time and place are included at others.

The reason the phrase "a worshipper of God" stood out because it functions differently than the rest of the passage.  Again from Tanner, "Although all that seemed relevant about another way of life was that it was not Christian ... the missionary impulse in Christianity tended to work against a dichotomous typification, against a 'they are all one way and we are all another' mentality."  Heralded should be Paul, Silas and Timothy openness of heart to God's mission and guidance.  However, when retelling their journey they noted the boundary Lydia traversed: once she was not a part of us, now she's included.  I ask again, "Was this information necessary?  For whom was it included?  Were a similar story to happen today would it have been included?  I'd venture to say no.  As Tanner notes, "This suggests, contrary to the influential views of H. Richard Niebuhr, that in the Christian case relations with the wider culture are never simply ones of either accommodation, on the one hand, or opposition and radical revision, on the other, but always some mixture."

A number of years ago three friends and I spent a week toward the end of summer traversing the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  During the trip we sought out local swimming holes and used book stores; we hiked the Long Trail; we swatted flies in Bar Harbor; we staked out J. D. Salinger's residence; we ascended Mt. Washington; we ate Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream.

At Mt. Washington's peak we headed toward the Visitor's Center along with many other visitors.  We were thirsty but, even more, we were uncertain about the time.  Our campsite for that evening wasn't nearby and we guessed it to already be mid-afternoon.  We felt pressed to begin our return trip.  At the Visitor Center's entrance, we met up with a family of four.  We held the door for them or they for us, I can't remember.  What I do remember is that one of us asked the father if he could tell us the time.  He told us by turning his wristwatch in our direction.  We thanked him and went on our way.

Innocuous, right?  Nothing to it.  We were all summer visitors to a National landmark years before the proliferation of cell phones as time-telling devices.

It would be innocuous if there wasn't more to the story.  Three days later we checked into a Youth Hostel in Portland, Maine, just before dinner time.  Together we'd decided that this would be the evening we'd eat at a restaurant as the next day we were headed to Bar Harbor where we had reserved a campsite for our final nights.  We asked the Youth Hostel caretaker for restaurant suggestions.  He gave us some suggestions; two nearby "weren't bad," he claimed, but his favorite was much further away but "well work the walk."  As it happens with a group of friends; three wanted to eat at one location while the other did not.  In time, we found ourselves walking across town aimlessly, still undecided about which restaurant to choose.  We rounded a street corner and I took note that we were walking toward a family.  A block separated us but they have headed our direction on the same side of the street so the distance was narrowing.  All of a sudden, I knew that I knew these people.  I nudged my friend and asked him, "Is that the family we met at Mt. Washington?"  He looked and nodded.  As we neared the family, we stepped onto the street shoulder to allow them to stay on the sidewalk but as we did so, my friend called out to the father, "Can you tell us the time?"  The father stopped and looked at us.  His face changed numerous times over surprise, perplexity, fear.  And then he recognized us.

This time we introduced ourselves.  Explained our trip.  They did the same.  We tried to convince them that we weren't following them.  But, when we recognized them my friend explains he felt like he had to repeat the question we'd asked at the Mt. Washington Visitor Center.  It was awkward.  We laughed it off and then went separate ways.  At the restaurant, my friends and I talked about it throughout our entire meal.

Many years later I wonder what the family thought of us.  Was it something they dismissed as a coincidence?  Did they feel at the time (or since) that we had ulterior motives?

As much as it's unsettling to meet someone in an unfamiliar context many of us have experiences of just such an occasion.  We can be visiting a foreign country and meet someone from our hometown or other times it takes no more than five minutes to figure out via some version of six degrees of (Mennonite) Kevin Bacon that we know each other or that our grandparents knew each other.  We could all share similar stories.

But, I can't shake this experience.  It's one I think about often.  I don't know how to feel about it or its probability.  Should we have, in the moment, even acknowledged their presence or let it pass?  Should we have been open to something even more: inviting them to dinner or telling them the details of the remaining days of our trip to assess whether we'd overlap a third time?

God's grace finds us where we are.  When we hold onto dichotomous boundaries unaware of how they cause harm or, when we feel we've missed an opportunity to befriend other people, not only once but twice, possibly causing uncertainty or fear.  And, God's grace finds us amidst upcoming transitions.

This morning's passage shows that along life's circuitous routes God is in charge of God's mission.  God sets its direction, and God determines its results.  But, the characters responded to God's mission with hearts opened: (1) Paul, Silas and Timothy were open to shifting travel itinerary; (2) Lydia was open to listening to Paul, Silas and Timothy; (3) Lydia's household was open to joining her in baptism; and (4) Paul, Silas, and Timothy warmly receive Lydia's hospitality.  These characters opened their hearts to God's work.  God's grace found them where they were.  God's grace finds us today where we are!  Amen!

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 11/18/18: Feedback Loops

December 10, 2018 by cmc_admin

Lessons from Jesus: Wisdom or Rumors?

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

"Feedback Loops"

Scripture: Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:11-25

 

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

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Sermon: June 10, 2018

June 14, 2018 by cmc_admin

Journey Forward: Witness to God's Peace

"Seeing What's Possible"

Sermon by Jason Gerlach

Scripture: Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 5:38-48

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon: February 18, 2018

February 27, 2018 by cmc_admin


Lent I: God's promises for all creation

"Life Has Been Leading Up To This Moment"

Sermon by Jason Gerlach

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts or subscribe, check out our main podcast page.

Sermon from August 6, 2017: Everywhere and Nowhere

August 8, 2017 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Jason Gerlach

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts or subscribe, check out our main podcast page.

 

Sermon 02/26/2017: What is on the Horizon?

March 8, 2017 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach, on Matthew 17:1-9.

Click here for a transcript

A mountaintop. A summit. An apex.

Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop. Maybe they thought it was for the view? Or, maybe they were grateful to be out of the valley? Certainly they were able to see Jesus at work in the valley, what, with all the people, all the requests, all the need. Maybe they were simply glad for the break? Little did they know that their mountaintop experience would consist of seeing Jesus in radiant clothing or that they would hear God's voice. Although, if they'd been listening to the Hebraic stories of Moses and Elijah, they might have picked up on some common motifs: master, disciples, mountain, cloud, audience, and vision. If they were familiar with those stories, they wouldn't have been surprised when they heard God's voice on a mountaintop.

How would you define Jesus' mountaintop experience? Was it simply a story of confirmation? "This is Jesus, listen to him." Was it a form of reaffirmation, echoing Jesus' baptism? Or, would it better be categorized as a precursor of his resurrection? Just how would the disciples have understood their mountaintop vision of Jesus wearing shining white clothes, surrounded by Moses and Elijah? That is the question!

For a moment, let's consider Moses and Elijah who appeared on the mountaintop with Jesus.

For Moses, in Exodus 24, the mountaintop was a place of commune. Another opportunity to relate one-on-one with God. It was also the place of memory. And, it's the setting for one of my favorite biblical thought experiments. In response to God's invitation, Moses climbed Mount Horeb and remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights. I find that I am fascinated by imagining how Moses spent his time during those days and nights. When I think about Moses's lengthy stay, I've considered that it probably took some time to find an adequate stone tablet, sizable enough to fit ten commandments into two columns and large enough that he could round off the top of the columns. And then he needed to locate a pointed, chisel-like stone as carving tool. And, he needed to brush up on his penmanship perhaps. And, he needed to figure out spacing. And, he needed another stone in case he messed up. And, he needed… (forgive me, I'm being facetious). But, I do wonder whether all of that carving took forty days, some five hundred hours? If not, how did he spend the rest of his time?

See, I imagine that Moses started carving right quick after he located the stone and the carving tool. He carved Thou shall have no other Gods than me. Done. Then, Thou shall not take the Lord's name in vain. Then, Remember the Sabbath. Then, Honoring parents. And then, (oh boy!) this was where things got real. Moses was a volatile man. Hidden away, deep within him, was the memory of a time he'd like to forget. Years ago, in a fit of rage he had given into his anger and killed an Egyptian, then buried him, and a few days later fled the area when he realized that what he thought was concealed, was actually known by many. While on the run, Moses encountered God for the first time, hearing God's voice in fire flaming out of a bush. God called out to Moses. A relationship began between Moses and God. And, despite the significant roles Moses played in leading God's people, in which his relationship with God surely deepened, Moses held onto to his secret. But, on the mountaintop, communing with God for forty days, that's when everything caught up to him. Can't you just see it? "Moses, are you ready to carve the next commandment? Go ahead, carve Thou shall not kill." (Laughter) Maybe at this moment, Moses cowered. Or, bewildered, he walked aimlessly in circles. Maybe he stammered or stared at God, slack jawed. Maybe the reason Moses was on the mountain forty days was because of his own avoidance.

But, when I imagine this story, I envision Moses eventually coming around. He needed to talk to God about what had happened all those years ago. By naming it, Moses was able to experience a deeper relationship with God, including forgiveness upon claiming the error of his ways. From the mountaintop, he was able to view the horizon for the first time. Maybe it now looked different than before. Relief. Release. Maybe he held his head higher, and could now see further.

Interestingly enough, Moses finished carving the ten commandments, headed down the mountain, became angry, and then returned to the mountaintop not only to re-carve the ten commandments but to ask God to forgive the people as God had forgiven him.

If Moses represents relationship, Elijah might possibly represent immortality. For Elijah, the only person in the Bible to return to the mountaintop once shared by Moses and God, the mountaintop setting was refuge. He found shelter in a mountaintop cave after traveling forty days and nights to escape the enraged Jezebel. Later, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah's life was preserved for eternity as the biblical account records his ascension to heaven in a whirlwind of of flaming chariot and horses.

Now, these are the characters who gather around Jesus at his Transfiguration. What did Peter, James and John think of their presence? Did they understand their presence as emphasis on relationship and immortality? And, how did they make sense of the shining white clothes or the veiled reference to resurrection? Was the mountaintop for them, a place of foreshadowing?

Allow me to pause and check-in. I recognize the possibility that when I started talking about mountaintops, you revisited your own experience of Mt. Washington, Kilimanjaro, Pikes Peak, Matterhorn or Table Mountain. Or, Mass-of-nothing; I mean, Massanutten. These experiences stick with us because of the journey of hiking to the top as well as the vantage point they provide. From mountaintop, the horizon seemingly goes on forever unless other mountains or clouds obstruct your view.

If Peter, James and John were awed by the natural beauty around them, that detailed has been lost. Their experience on mountaintop was one of worship, but also fear. Ecstatic that they could witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together, they wanted to celebrate and preserve. But, they also felt unsettled, possibly wondering whether they could live up to the command to "Listen to Jesus" or fearing for Jesus's life and their own. Descending the mountain, Peter, James and John may have seen, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.

This combination of worship amidst fear has recurred over and over again throughout history. Stories abound of imprisoned Christians whom, refusing to recant, followed a fairly common routine leading up martyrdom, which consisted of letter writing, prayer, singing familiar memorized songs, and even hymn writing. Persecuted Anabaptist would gather in haymows for meetings and worship. Throughout the Antebellum Era of the late 18th and 19th Century, slaves would secretly leave the plantation during the night and congregate in "hush harbors" in a nearby forest. Wet quilts were hung from trees forming a temporary tent-like structure (something like Peter's imagined dwellings?). The quilts were damp so that they would absorb the sounds of worship. For the time of prayer, a large stockpot was placed on the forest floor and one slave after another took turns praying aloud but directly into the pot to muffle the noise. Dried leaves and shells were spread on the paths leading to the hush harbor to provide warning if a plantation owner was searching the forest. Hush harbors provided the only opportunities to worship; together slaves would sing, pray, and discuss promising stories and passages in the Bible that offered hope. Amidst constant fear, they would congregate to worship; hush harbors serving as their mountaintop throughout their lived everyday experience in which there was little hope on the horizon.

We read the Transfiguration story prior to Lent as a reminder. The harrowing journey of Lent will conclude in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, the resurrected Christ is notably different than the Transfiguration. The resurrected Christ isn't wearing shining white clothes, the resurrected Christ is disfigured, his wounds visible to anyone who comes near.

We live in a time where everything has become one subject. When from one day to the next another "disfigured" body can be targeted: the alien, the Muslim, the transgendered, the marginalized, excluded, problematized. In fact, this isn't how it should be. Instead, society from the Biblical story up through today, will continually be assessed, concerning whether it is just, based on its attentiveness to the widow, the alien, and the orphan.

The good news of Jesus's resurrection is not only victory over death, it's a recognition of the falsity that only some are considered disfigured. The disfigured Christ shows that the contrast is not between abled and disabled but between the temporarily abled and disabled. The disabled Christ should remind us of the fluidity of all bodies. If anyone experiences disfigurement, then the body of Christ needs to break itself open and make room. We are called to parody the world when bodies are marginalized, excluded, problematized.

What is on our horizon? What might tomorrow bring? Can we see beyond it?

Theorist José Esteban Muñoz encourages the practice of futurity, which he defines as the process of seeing something that is not yet here. He states, "Indeed to access [this] visuality we may need to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise, beyond the limited vista of the here and now." By doing so, one embraces potentiality. The present is not enough. And instead one should look beyond the horizon to glimpse the future that is not-yet-conscious.

The Transfiguration, it seems to me, might best be understood as the process of seeing beyond what is on the horizon. Maybe Peter, James and John glimpsed the shining white clothes representing the not-yet-conscious future. For them, the "here and now" was toxic. They were ridiculed, persecuted. And, Jesus: he was abducted, convicted, disfigured.

If we are to catch a glimpse of the Transfigured Christ it'll be while we worship. And then, we too will echo Peter's claim, "Lord, it is good that we are here." In response, a voice from heaven, stated: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."

For Peter, James and John listening to Jesus meant descending the mountain possibly realizing, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.

In listening to Christ today we will find commune and refuge but even more we will accompany the disfigured Christ to address all that is toxic and divisive in the here and now. We cannot glimpse the Transfigured Christ if we don't listen to Jesus and the call from long ago to provide for the widow, the orphan, and the alien among us.

Together, let us acknowledge the fluidity of all bodies. Let us listen to Jesus. And, let us worship as well as envision what lies beyond the horizon.

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Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 1/1/2017: Greatest of All Time

January 11, 2017 by cmc_admin

salt-types
Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

Click here for transcript

It's a New Year! It's a beginning. It's fresh. Now what if beginning in 2017 you responded in the negative to every suggestion, request, or inquiry whether inward or outward? You'd decline new opportunities at work. You'd deny the inward nudge toward altruism. You'd reply "no" without further explanation to text messages, phone calls, emails. You'd rebuff the people closest to you. Even worse, you'd limit imagination, possibility, knowledge, discernment, and the flutterings of the Holy Spirit. What would happen if, for once, you chose 'you'? What would you be saying 'yes' to if you always responded in the negative?

You wouldn't acquiesce to your dog's pleading eyes. You'd scoff at handshakes and a waving hand. You'd build higher walls, firmer barriers. You'd think of faster, more emphatic ways to say 'no'. You wouldn't contribute to congregational singing, heck, you wouldn't even turn to the correct page. You'd reject any opportunity to participate in something larger than yourself: a group of friends, a task force, a Ministry Support Team. "Nope, I'm good," would be your reply.

To begin the New Year with this thought experiment is to tip our hat toward absurdity. It feels a bit much. Who would want to live like that?

If in 2017, we can't always respond in the negative, can we do the opposite? Well, to consider that possibility we'd engage in a different thought experiment, yet one that would conclude as equally unsatisfying.

My maternal grandfather, Jacob Harnish, loved his wife. Together, Jacob and Alta raised six children. Their eldest child is my mother: Mary Jane. Jacob was bi-vocational, he operated a family-size farm and he was a Lancaster Conference bishop. He carved wooden tops and enjoyed watching them spin across the kitchen table, eventually they either fell off the side or bumped into the flower vase, which stopped their rotation. He enjoyed the game Uncle Wiggly. He owned a radio, but kept it tucked away in the attic. He felt Alta's cooking was too bland. Yep, not enough salt. So, underneath the same kitchen table that provided a smooth surface for his wooden tops, Jacob built a small tray. It was positioned a few inches to the side of his knee. And, everything was measured correctly so that a rectangular Morton salt tin could easily slide onto the shelf. Upon plating their food, Jacob would wait for Alta to briefly return to the kitchen, he'd slide the tin from underneath the table, shake it over his food, and return it to its concealed location before she reentered the dining room. The hidden salt shaker went undetected for many, many years.

In 2017, don't sneak around to suit your taste. Let your preferences be known!

Throughout 2016, we've identified an Olympic sprinter, gymnast, and swimmer as GOAT. We've recognized greatness among us in Lin-Manuel Miranda and FLOTUS. We've commemorated the greatness of those who've recently died: a legendary boxer (Muhammad Ali), a golfer (Arnold Palmer), and a news reporter (Morley Safer). Each one has been labeled GOAT. Each of these individuals -- in comparison to many others who share the same field of work -- can arguably be identified as "The Greatest of All Time". G-O-A-T. GOAT. This term gets thrown around to describe a premier athlete, or a play that stands out on a basketball court or football field. Posthumously, we claim a musician, or the musician's most acclaimed album, as the greatest ever. Commemorating celebrity accomplishments or showing reverence for a beloved relative, we'll select the emoji profile of a goat, preferencing the kitchy acronym over the silliness of a picture of a domesticated animal.

At this point, you may be convinced you know where this is headed. Yes, Jason, we get it: Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. If that's what you're thinking, well, (1) obviously, (2) there might still be something for you to consider before this is finished.

Along with Ben Risser, pastor of Ridgeway MC, I've regularly visited inmates in the Rockingham -- Harrisonburg Regional Jail for almost eight years. Over that time it became increasingly unsettling to me that only about 10% to 15% of the inmate population had access to religious Bible studies, Sunday night worship services, or Christian counseling. The unsettled feeling led to angst and then, more recently, it led to a vision of Mission Worker intentionally placed within the jail. So, Ben and I approached Virginia Mennonite Missions to ascertain their approval. Over the past weeks, we've considered the possibility with jail authorities, we've written a job description, interviewed candidates, and finalized approval of a new halt-time position. I'm glad to announce that Jason Wagner will be the new jail chaplain. You may or may not know him, but on January 29th he'll join our worship service to share about this newly created position.

Months ago, when Ben and I identified a need within the local prison we were uncertain what might emerge. When it became apparent that position and person might come together, I celebrated the evidence of God at work. How marvelous! For me, the pairing of Jason's skill to the position stirred me deeply. For this dream to be satisfied seemed to confirm the timing. There is a time, and it's now!

Visiting those in prison is the sixth of six good deeds listed in Matthew. It's one of the good deeds Jesus lists as the authenticating expression of one's discipleship. I've wondered if it's listed last because of its ongoing nature. No matter how often -- weekly, daily -- persons in prison are visited, their circumstances will not be altered. Visitation, prayer, friendship can go a long way in bringing about the necessary life changes, in encouraging those incarcerated to authentically express their own good deeds as witness of Christ's love for themselves and their cellmates. Visitation can help "pass the time" but it won't reduce the sentence. All the other deeds listed in Matthew: providing for the tangible needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick change the person's circumstances significantly. By distributing food, water, clothes, and medicine a person's hunger or thirst can be satisfied. Clothes and medicine protect the body through fabric and antibodies. Even, the status of "stranger" can be altered significantly if the welcome is genuine. However, prisoner visitation signifies that these good deeds need to be regular, repeated. It also complexifies what Jesus is saying by signifying a group larger than one person, in essence, highlighting that there are many who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and unknown by categorizing these good deeds along with a prisoner known to be surrounded by many other prisoners.

Despite all that is being done in Harrisonburg (including thermal shelter, food distribution, Faith in Action, Suitcase Clinic, and initiatives to provide better transportation), the "Great Judgment" story makes it clear that the "sheep" had not even recognized the Risen Lord present in the needy, but yet, they acted out of compassion. Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. The emphasis here is that faithful servants are those who act compassionately and justly in all situations. Whenever I encounter someone in great need, I have two choices: I can provide direct, material assistance, or I can quite literally go to hell. The whiny, half-hearted middle ground I've carved out for myself isn't found in the text. It isn't there even though I turn to it often.

In September I attended the annual ASALH (Association for the African American Study of Life and History) conference. It was held in the Richmond Marriott. I've traveled many times to the campus of Union Presbyterian. It's one of the place I know in the city. Over the past five month the turns have become routine. The landmarks are now familiar. But, the Marriott, I had no idea. To raise the stakes, that Saturday evening it poured. Despite the rainfall, the trip was going well until I realized that GPS was taking me onto a toll road, which wouldn't have been a problem except I hadn't prepared for it and only had a few coins with me. There was not even one dollar bill in my wallet. So, before I turned onto the toll road, I made a decision: I'd keep following GPS, in the hope that it would eventually direct me toward the Marriott, but every time GPS suggested the toll road, I'd force it to re-route. Additionally, I'd begin looking for a convenience store, which would have an ATM machine. This plan led me out of downtown (away from the Marriott) and into a residential area -- a prime location for a convenience store, right? I decided to drive deeper into the residential area, pausing at each stop sign to consider the options: left, right, straight. After the fifth time of choosing straight and driving further away from downtown, I came to yet another stop sign presenting the same options. It was pouring. It was dark. And, not a single person was around. Of course, the residential area did provide a "convenient" ATM. In despair, I chose to turn instead of continuing further away from my destination.

The turn led me to an overpass, which took me overtop of the toll road I was avoiding, and eventually back into downtown. It seemed as if it was one of the only places to crossover, at least in that part of the residential neighborhood. I arrived at the the Marriott, attended the conference, and withdrew money from the ATM before departing for home. This time I willingly chose the toll road. When I arrived at the toll booth, I realized my stupidity. The toll was 75 cents! I grabbed change from the glove box, paid the toll, and drove home w/o needing the money I'd withdrawn from the ATM.

The other times I travel to Richmond, I'm presented with an opportunity that reinforces the absurdity of this middle ground of unresponsiveness. Almost every time I pass a man with a sign sitting along the street two blocks from the school. "Anything Helps!" Usually I keep my earbuds on and drive by without making eye contact. Midway through the semester Union sent a campus-wide email indicating that they were providing gallon ziploc bags full of "necessities" to distribute to anyone in need. The final week of the semester, I grabbed one of the gallon ziploc bags and, when I passed the man, handed it to him through the car window. The drive home passed quickly as I remembered his smile.

Every time, I have a rather stark choice: learn to live as a sheep or accept a goat's unhappy destiny.

Sheep aren't smart, and as established earlier, the "Great Judgment" story indicates that cognitive awareness is less important than repetition and attentive awareness. But, neither are sheep proud. A key to living as a sheep may be paying proper attention to others, seeing "the least of these" as they are seen in today's gospel – not as indigent recipients of my occasional surplus, but as channels of grace, indeed as the source of grace, as Christ himself.

I've been wrong all along to see myself as benefactor and savior to the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, and imprisoned. Only in rare moments of graced introspection do I grasp the honest truth: I'm unsatisfied remaining a sheep. I want to be – and, more importantly, be seen as – the Good Shepherd, some form of a savior. Yet, in the few occasions I've taken the time to be truly present to those truly in need, I inevitably received far more than I could ever offer to someone. I found myself beneficiary rather than benefactor.

None of this provides a complete program of Christian living but it identifies a place to begin at the start of a new year!

In Matthew's gospel, the "Great Judgment" story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, "…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified." If he'd lived for thirty or fifty more years, he'd have established an organized game plan, including gradual steps and target audiences. He died before this was possible, but he identified a direction. It's a good thing that what we have is only a template. It's a good thing that we need to try, mess up, and try again. It's even better if we never realize that attentiveness to others has become modus operandi. At a similar point in John's gospel -- just before Jesus' Passion -- Jesus tells his followers, "I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12). In Revelation, the voice John hears, states, "Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]" (Revelation 21:3). We have the opportunity to become the Greatest of All Time. Not a goat, but GOAT. We have the opportunity to recognize that God is among all of God's creation, and if we surrender totally to caring for others greatness will follow. But only if we remain vigilant against co-opted terms for political gain. But, only if we give of ourselves. But only if, as a community, we provide opportunities to connect people to need and connect to people in need.

It's astonishing! In caring for the needs of others we're ministering to God!

Maybe there was a time to sprinkle in a bit of your wishes here or there. That time is gone. Maybe there was a time to sneak in a morsel, to bring about change unbeknowingly. That time is gone. Now is the time to embrace Christ's template. To try, to mess up, and to try again. Now is the time to protect people from divisive speech or action and to identify when our actions cause division. Now is the time to guard persons experiencing any form of discrimination. And, now is the time to articulate who we are becoming. Now is the time to explain why following Christ matters and why it is the greatest task of all time!

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 8/7/2016: Is the Steering Wheel Broken?

August 10, 2016 by alisha.huber

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 06/05/2016

June 7, 2016 by alisha.huber

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 03/20/2016: If You See Something, Say Something

March 21, 2016 by alisha.huber


Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Drama: Emmaus Road

December 31, 2015 by alisha.huber

Emmaus by Janet Brooks Gerloff

On June 6, 2010,  Pastor Jason Gerlach shared this retelling of the Emmaus road story.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 11/22/2015: A Life for an Eye World

November 23, 2015 by alisha.huber

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.

In his sermon, Pastor Jason referred to an interview with Kathryn Fenton. You can listen to that interview here.

Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!

Sermon 6/7/15: "Between One and Sixteen Ounces"

June 8, 2015 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

Sermon 4/12/15: "Right Hand on Left Side"

April 13, 2015 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

Sermon 2/15/15: Everything's off balance

February 16, 2015 by cmc_admin

Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

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