Sermon 1/1/2017: Greatest of All Time

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Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach

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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!


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