First Congregational Church
January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after Epiphany
“Theology of Place”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For those who don’t know, there is a website that “investigates” the truthfulness of claims made on the internet, called Snopes. I’m not sure how it came to be, but I discovered that the story about four college students showing up late to a chemistry test - is true.
As can happen to the best of us, the students stayed up too late the evening before, thus their tardiness to the test. On their way to class, they determined that they needed a good excuse, so they came up with the tale that their car had a flat tire, there was no spare tire, and it took a long time to get help. The professor said he understood the situation, and told them that they could make up the test the next day.
Obviously relieved, the students went back to their dorms and studied with all their might, and arrived on time for the make-up test. The professor gave each of them their test. The first question, worth five points, was a rather easy one about molarity and solutions. The students were thinking that they had a chance. They turned the page to see the next question, worth 95 points: Which tire?
Before going any further, I have to apologize for the sermon title. At the time it seems rather clever. After the bulletin was printed, it occurred to me how feeble it is. But I think the point behind it is still relevant, and perhaps you may think the same - in the end.
I chose to go to Charleston on my vacation, because, for whatever goofy reason, I have always been drawn to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars of this country. Not the wars so much as the history they represent and how people lived. Over time, I’ve read tons of material and accounts and viewpoints of those eras. But it wasn’t until I was standing in front of Fort Sumter that I realized it was a man-made island, built before the technology of hydraulics or even steam. And it was while standing in the doorway of the slaves’ quarters of the Aiken-Rhett House that I realized that not all slaves were housed in small cabins, like on the larger plantations.
The Aiken-Rhett House is shaped like a U - with the stables along one side, the cooking and laundry along the other side and the owners quarters at the bottom, joining the two sides. It just hadn’t occurred to me what it would be like to sleep in those quarters - in the heat and humidity of the southern clime, without a direct window to the outdoors and air, over an already hot kitchen or laundry, or over the odiferous stables. We get big pieces of understanding and insight when we take in location.
Turning our attention to the scripture passage for this morning, there are lots of names of places that may mean little to us 21st century followers of Christ. Except that they’re not complicated.
The passage begins with Jesus withdrawing to Galilee. According to Matthew, Jesus was last in the Judean Desert, where he was tempted. Depending on the specifics, the trip from the desert to Galilee was 95-125 miles. The average speed of walking means that the trip would have taken up to a solid week.
Before Jesus came along, the area - from our scripture passage - was known by the names of the twelve tribes of Israel - after Jacob’s twelve sons. Two of the four areas nearest the Sea of Galilee were Naphtali and Zebulun. By the time Jesus came into the picture, the area was known as Galilee. It’s sort of like what was formerly South Frankfort, known as Elberta today. Within Galilee were several cities, but the two from our passage, Nazareth and Capernaum, were almost 50 miles apart - from here to the other side of Traverse City.
Jesus Begins to Preach
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”[a]
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus Calls His First Disciples
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Jesus Heals the Sick
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Thank you, Jim. With all the background before hearing our scripture passage, I’m hoping it was easier to think about the scene of lakeshore, with various boats, the smell of a fish market, the sounds of buyers and sellers making their business known to everyone within earshot. And in the middle of a regular day, Jesus picked out a couple of regular guys to join his crew with the intent to change the world - forever. And Jesus did it not just once, but twice on that seashore.
We may think it a dramatic scene, but it is no more dramatic than the Holy Spirit nudging a handful of people, in a fledgling port city in northern lower Michigan, over 150 years ago, to start a Sunday School, and then to start meeting in homes, while arranging for itinerant preachers to visit, all leading up the establishment of a body of Christ near and dear to more than a few folks around the world.
As those early folks farmed and kept store fronts and raised children, God called individuals out to do some world changing endeavors - from the selling of land at a really good deal, to the laborers who literally laid hands on the studs and walls and ceiling and floor around us, to those who ponied up the funds to do even crazier stuff - like raising a sanctuary and putting a meeting room room below, adding a whole two story wing, not to mention acquiring a bell and even restoring the steeple to house said bell. After all that, one might be tempted to wonder what is left for any one of us.
Given the odds, on any given Sunday, there are some folks here who could care less about what God wants of them. Isn’t going to church enough? There are surely some among us who have put in their time and why should they (we) have to think about doing anything further in this life - with whatever time we might have left?
There is a group page on Facebook called “I’m a Choir Director.” On that page, people ask for suggestions for their girls chorus, their church choir, how to deal with indifferent administrators and parents. It’s a good page.
One of the people who follow that page is a woman named Susan Gartman Almjeld. This is the scenario she shared. Back story: My last name is difficult to pronounce, so I often use "mom yelled" as the basis of saying it (drop the beginning m). The students have co-opted the phrase and now just call me Mom yelled.
"Jingle Bells" is my nickname for an 8th grade singer - since 6th grade. She always had a bell on her backpack and merrily jingled down the hallways, leaving smiles in her wake. She also suffers from depression and is truly struggling this year. I noticed during Tuesday's rehearsal that my Jingle Bells was having a hard day. After class, she came and stood by the piano and waited until everyone was gone. With tears running down her cheeks, she asked for a hug. I enveloped her and let her cry and repeated my mantra to her, "you are enough." "You are loved." (Yes, she is getting professional help; yes all staff are keeping our eyes and ears on her)
Bright and early this morning, she gave me a handmade card and a thank you. We shared smiles and tears. If all else fails, I know I have helped my Jingle Bells in some small way.
Maybe a better title for the sermon might be something along the lines of “Keeping the Bells Jingling,” or “In Some Small Way.” Whatever it might be called, it is our reminder that God doesn’t call us after we’ve done this thing or that thing or because we happen to be in a particular place at a particular time. God calls us - and has need of us - in the most usual of moments, in the most common of circumstances and in the most everyday encounters. In fact, just like the four brothers from our passage, we aren’t necessarily called out to do anything super crazy, except being willing to do what we know to be the right thing and the good thing and the needful thing.
While I was searching for good travel jokes, because of all the traveling mentioned and insinuated in the scripture passage, I came across a couple lines that caught the brain. “On a road trip, I remember passing a sign that said, “Rest Stop 1 Mile.” I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s really big.”
Being kinder than we might feel at any particular moment, being more forgiving when we’d rather do anything else, realizing the sacred in the ordinary are all really big things that will continue the legacy started by those folks well over 150 years ago, right here in little old “Frank’s Fort,” as well as the legacy of the One who came to change the trajectory of this world forever. It is a high calling, but the execution of that call is so simple and straightforward, taking what we know to be the higher road. So should we pray.
Gracious God of All Time, thank you for seeing each of us, as so special and so unique, out of the breadth of time and beings. Sometimes when the way grows drear, we forget that you have called us to continue your holy and sacred ministry of love. Sometimes the aches and pains and darkness and uphill battles can seem overwhelming. When those times come, give us those glimpses of where we are, when we are, and who we are - being yours - to help this world that is so in need. Remind us, God, that our mission is that same as those from the seashore that day, to proclaim the Good News of your Kingdom, and the heal every disease and sickness among the people. For our own healing, the healing of those whom we love and for your Good News, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.