First Congregational Church
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Fifth Sunday in Easter
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
If I were a bettin’ person, I’d bet that most of you all have never heard the story of Horville Sash. Horville had a humble job in the offices of the largest corporation of the world. He worked as the gofer in the lowest reaches of the building doing what he could to help other people do their jobs, but often he wondered and thought about the floor just above his.
Then came a day when Horville found a bug scurrying across the floor. As the mailroom clerk, Horville had only bugs to command - to bully. He raised his foot to flatten the helpless speck. "Spare me." The bug spoke. A speaking bug? Horville spared the bug and his reward was a wish. "I wish to be promoted to the second floor." Done. Horville's boss told him the good news that very day. Horville marched to the second floor as MacArthur and Patton rolled into one.
Wait. Horville heard footsteps on the ceiling of floor number two. There was a third floor. A higher level meant higher wages and more power. The next day, Horville rose to the third-floor job of sales coordinator. But he wasn't satisfied, he now knew there were other floors, many others and the promotions were like kerosene to a flame. He went to the 10th floor, then to the 20th, then 50th, and the 70th. Horville sat by the indoor pool on the 96th floor.
The next day Horville discovered, and it was only by chance, a stairway leading up - to another floor? He scrambled up the stairs on to the roof. He was now the highest, the most powerful. And content. Horville headed for the stairway.
Just as he turned to go back down to his office he saw a boy near the edge of the building with his eyes closed. "What are you doing?" "Praying." "To whom?" The boy answered, pointing a finger skyward, "To God.”
Panic gripped Horville. Was there a floor above him? He couldn't see it. Just clouds. He couldn't hear the shuffling of feet. "Do you mean there's an authority above me?" "Yes." The bug was summoned, "Make me God. Make me the highest," he said. "Put me in the type of position that only God would hold if he were on earth.”
The very next day, Horville began work as a gofer in the basement!
The context of this morning’s scripture passage was Jesus’ last night, after he foretold of his betrayal. When Judas took the bread of indictment and Jesus told him to quickly do what he was going to do, Judas took off.
31 When he (Judas) was gone, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. 33 "My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. 34 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
Thank you, Peg. This week we hosted the Ministerial Association meeting, comprised of the pastors of many - most of - the churches in Benzie County. We were commiserating over the news that there would be no Baccalaureate this year due to disinterest, while reminding ourselves that there are some things that will not go back to “normal” after covid, even though normal is only a setting on the washing machine. Then one of the pastors shared a recent statistic that Benzie County is not only the least churched county in the state but in the nation.
Whether that statement is true or not, there is a myriad of reasons why people avoid congregations of faith, and we could spend a few hours regaling tales of people we know, or knew, that parted ways with organized religion. But the thing is that we need communities, places where we belong, with people who belong to us, perhaps most especially places of worship, lest we turn into persons we never wanted to be.
I know I’ve used this illustration before, but it’s like a perfect diamond on a sunny day. Fred Craddock tells the story of a restaurant owner who was going around to various tables to see how everyone was doing. When the owner, Ben Hopper, came to the table with Craddock and his wife, who were on vacation in Tennessee, the owner asked Craddock what he did for a living. Being an ethical vacationing preacher, Fred said he taught homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University. (Homiletics is the art of preaching. And yes, it’s a thing.) At that point, Ben Hopper pulled up a chair and said, “Well then, I’ve got a story for you.”
"I was born not far from here, across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born, so I had a pretty hard time. When I started school, my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunchtime because the things they said to me cut me so deep. What was worse was going to town on Saturday afternoons and feeling like every eye was burning a hole through me, wondering just who my father was.
"When I was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in the church on me.
Just about the time I got to the door, I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me. ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’ he asked. I felt this big weight coming down on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. ‘Wait a minute!’ he said. ‘I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’
With that, he slapped me across the rump and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.’ The restaurant owner looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, "Those were the most important words anybody ever said to me, and I’ve never forgotten them." With that, he smiled, shook hands with Craddock and his wife, and moved on to another table to greet old friends.
And as he walked away, Craddock – a native Tennesseean himself – remembered from his studies of Tennessee history that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected to the office of governor men who had been born out of wedlock - as if that makes any difference. One of them was a man named Ben Hopper.
Without knowing, we may be sitting next to a Ben Hopper, needing someone to recognize the familial resemblance - here or in the grocery store or at the beach or wherever. (But don’t slap people across the rump. It’s just not a good thing to do anymore.)
I came across a little snippet this week from a person named Michael P. Green. He said, “The sign that you followed Abraham was circumcision. The sign that you followed Moses was keeping the Sabbath. The sign that you followed John the Baptist was that you were baptized. The sign that you follow Jesus Christ is that you love one another.” (I thought about dropping a microphone and walking away at this point, but I didn’t want to be mistaken for a comedian and rapper.)
Within the book of John, there are two other passages that parallel this one that sits between them: one that includes Jesus’ words to wash one another’s feet, and the other in which Jesus talks about laying down one’s life for one’s friends. The love of which Christ speaks spans the mundane to the heroic. And it is by seeing that love acted out that others will know we are Christ’s disciples and that it is possible to live to a higher standard in this world and that it makes a difference.
Chelsey Harmon, of Calvin Theological Seminary, introduces all of us to a Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, who lived in the first 80 years of the 1600s. In Ms. Harmon’s research of this theologian, she uncovered his belief that heaven isn’t a place, but being fully in God’s presence.
In Thomas Goodwin’s words, love is God’s delight. God delights to love us, and God delights in our love for one another. (Note - we’re not talking about “liking” one another - or love based on emotion, but on a decision to love.) He goes on, “God delights when our lives share God’s love because it shows 1. that we trust God’s love to be enough, 2. we relish God’s love and God relishes us relishing God’s love.”
Mother Maria Skobt-sova’ was a Russian Orthodox nun who was also part of the French Resistance during WWII. Although she ended up dying in at Ravensbrück concentration camp, she described the “job” of loving one another, not really as a job, but as a way of seeing, thinking of each person as an icon. Icon paintings guide focus and attention to Christ, not by looking at the icon, but through it. Her point was that seeing each person as an icon, to be honored and venerated, helps us to sense the whole world as one church, with us as windows that have the holiness of the living God upon us.
There are certainly instances and individuals that may seem - from our side of eternity - well beyond deserving such love. I’ve struggled with that - loving someone who seems like they are beyond the pale.
Maybe it’s not very noble, but I can come up with a starting point, dipping my toe into God’s Divine Delight for such a person that seems so vile or unworthy in my eyes. I can at the very least, pray that they have a good night’s sleep.
It doesn’t cost anything, there’s no skin off my nose, I can pray it with all the genuineness of heart, and we are all the better for it. When that prayer settles, it changes to God grant me the ability to pray for more for this same person or what needs my prayerful thoughts and time, and for God to take care of what is not my business. And if that is helpful for someone, so be it. We are all called to love one another.
I don’t know if it caught anyone else’s ear, but the passage begins with Jesus saying, “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” Now - after Judas fled the upper room to go forward with his dirty business. We don’t know if Jesus’ thought included the disciples falling asleep while he prayed and the prediction that Peter would betray him, but “now” that Judas was to do the great evil of relationship betrayal, now Jesus feels “glorified.” It sounds wrong, but the nature of our glory lies in sacrificial love - love that lays our desires from revenge to apathy on the altar of loving one another.
In the opening line of a recent Steve Garnnerss Holmes poem, he started by saying, “Love is not a feeling but an act, a movement of the heart from here to there, of gratitude and reverence for someone, a commitment to their well-being, to share space with them in the circle of being, to being co-members in this Body of life. It is a giving-and-receiving of being. In other words, it is Divine Delight, which is not the same as Turkish Delight, which seems to be like jello squares, so there’s that. So we pray.
God of all Love, thank you for so loving us, that you delight in us. Help us to allow such depth and domain of love to flow over to all those who need to be reminded of their Divine Delight, even should it rub our fur the wrong way. Thank you for being so much more than an icon or an impersonal religion police officer. Help our hearts to love as you love, however that has to happen, that this world can be what you’ve seen it to be, mainly because you do your job and we do our jobs. For loving us and showing us how to love, despite our imperfections of loving one another, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.