Choosing a Place
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
April 15, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
More than two years ago I traveled to the Pentagon to visit the Secretary of Defense Office of Military Professionalism. I was sent there with a small team to learn a lot and help the Alaska National Guard begin rebuilding from a troubled past. There we met some extraordinary people who possessed a high degree of intelligence, wisdom, and drive. They were also endowed with compassionate hearts driven by the necessity to ensure our entire military, everywhere around the world, maintained a highly moral and ethical environment. About a dozen people from all branches of service and a variety of ranks represented the group. Among them was an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel named Kevin Basik.
Kevin represents one of the most positive and driven people I’ve ever met. He was a graduate of the Air Force Academy and earned a PhD. He worked really hard to be personally accountable in just about everything in life. One of his personal projects is to not take his wife and kids for granted and therefore, he commits himself to being very intentional, in every minute he spends and every action he considers, about his relationship with her and his entire family. In that way, all of us Alaskans found him to be a little scary. Kevin has now gone on to retire and teach at the Air Force Academy. Recently he gave a talk on leadership and I’ve shamelessly borrowed and built on some of his thinking. He tells us leadership needs to be confident, competent, and committed. (I add two more “Cs” – courage and character, but that’s a different story.) In his talk, Kevin mentions an extremely valuable attribute in leaders embodies the ability to make good choices.
He used the following story set in Richmond, Virginia after the close of the Civil War. (There are various interpretations of this story making it somewhat of an American myth, yet I like Kevin’s version and go with it this morning.) The setting was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on a warm June Sunday in 1865, right after the Civil War ended. Toward the end of the service it was time to celebrate holy communion. The church had both white and black congregants, though they sat separately and the whites took communion first. On that particular Sunday morning, as the story goes, a well dressed elderly African American gentleman walked forward and knelt at the communion rail and waited alone before the white congregants had even started. There followed several moments of awkward silence and the body of the church didn’t know what to do. Then, an elderly white man with snow white hair and beard stood up near the front right side of the church and walked toward the center aisle. At that moment, all waited to see his choice. Would he turn to the left and walk out in protest, or would he turn to the right and take communion. As it so happened, he turned to the right and knelt not far from the African American gentleman and they were served communion. The elderly white gentleman was Robert E. Lee, formerly commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Kevin Basik told that story to underscore the point that on any given day, at any given time, every one of us will be presented with moral and ethical choices. By turning one way we can choose to ignore or even work against right actions and behavior. Or, turning another way we can choose the right and make a stand against amoral and unethical conduct. In many instances, choosing the right path embodies the need for courage, because it also may well mean working against the strong currents of popular culture and cast a person in very unfavorable circumstances within the general population.
The verses from first John read earlier speak to the way God gives Christian believers the heart to be leaders in this world with confidence, competence, and commitment. It all starts with the lavish love from God upon which our lives as believers are built. John emphasizes the special relationship with God and how he owns us as a parent to “teknoi,” the Greek word John uses which means “little children.” On a few occasions over the years I’ve climbed some of our beautiful Chugach mountains overlooking the fine city of Anchorage. The city is very clear from the mountaintops and on a nice sunny day one can see little tiny dots of traffic moving about, watch tiny airplanes filled with people take off from the airport, and see many tiny houses and buildings where we live and work. There is no sound from the city up there. Just evidence we are nothing but tiny specks. We are even tinier specks when compared to the whole state, the whole country, the whole world, the whole galaxy, and the whole universe. John could have said, “Dear friends, we are tiny specks of God.” But he didn’t. He revealed we are God’s “teknoi” – little children. Pastor Edward Markquart wrote: “By naming us his children, this shows that God loves us. God loves us immensely and knows our vulnerability, our helplessness, our childishness, our foolishness, and is patient with us because we are his little children.” We are not mere specks.
Because we are God’s children and God knows us and we know God, then John goes on to say, “All who have hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Therefore, we don’t just belong to God as little children, we also belong to God in word, action, and deed. “Everyone who sins breaks the law;” continues John, “in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” When we are in Christ and when Jesus lives in us, the conditions then are set for us to choose well. At the end of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” both the hero and the villain make it to a room full of chalices where presumably one of them is the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. A well-worn and centuries old knight from the middle ages named Sir Richard is present and still guarding the chalice room. He warns the newcomers that if they drink from the cup of Christ they will live, yet if they choose the wrong one they will surely die. The villain greedily grabs what he thinks is the right cup, dips it in water and drinks from it. Soon, he realizes his mistake and within seconds he dies an agonizing death and turns to dust whereby Sir Richard dourly declares, “He chose poorly.” In and through Christ we are equipped to not sin and when we face those moral and ethical choices in life, we are also able to choose well. As John so surely concludes, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”
On April fourth we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I remember I was with my older sisters when we heard the news and it was a somber day. Dr. King lived these words we hear from the epistle written by John. First, he accepted being one of God’s loved children and furthermore lived the dream of sharing that love in a way that was truly transformative for an entire generation. Throughout the years of his ministry he faced way too many moments being confronted by the choices of standing up for and doing what is morally and ethically right when threats of bodily harm came to him and his family, and crosses were burned on his lawn, and violence and vandalism were ever present. Yet he never wavered, never shrank, and chose the memorable path to move an entire society in a better direction. He was not led astray. He was righteous, because he was right. He courageously followed his calling in Christ.
Today, in the gospel reading from Luke, Jesus once again appears as the risen Christ to his disciples. His post Easter message to them, resonates for us even two thousand years later. He’s here with us, because he loves us. He’s here with us, because he desires us to be righteous in his love. He’s here with us, to instill the spiritual courage needed to make the good choices when confronting the evils and challenges of this world. His disciples took the message and fearlessly established his loving church in a world bent on death and destruction. And here we are centuries later continuing his legacy of resurrected life and love through this body of Christ. Yet hinted in the words from 1 John this morning, that it’s not enough to just be called the church, to be called Christian, or to claim some shallow sense of believing in the love of Jesus.
Nowhere is this pointed out so clearly as by the 1994 genocide of about 850,000 people in Rwanda. The Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles posed the disturbing truth in a sermon when he asked, “… how such brutality could have occurred in ‘the most Christianized country in Africa.’” Indeed, Rwanda is ninety percent Christian. Sayles cites theologian and ethicist, David Gushee who points out: "The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees - they guarantee nothing." Then Sayles asks why that might be and offers these three thoughts: “Because not everyone who claims to be Christian has yielded to Jesus' command that ‘we love our neighbors as ourselves’ and has not understood the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: Everyone is my neighbor. Because we can never be sure of the motivations that bring people to worship, we are here for more reasons than we know, probably for more reasons than we can imagine. Because Christian people are influenced, not just by Jesus Christ, but by social, economic and political systems and by assumptions, ideas, loyalties and feelings that are at odds with the gospel.” He then boils down those three thoughts to this one simple notion: “In other words, it cannot be assumed that Christians are actually following Jesus.”
The message from 1 John ought to remind us that God, through the great love lavished upon us from the Father, desires to keep molding and shaping and creating us to be more and more like Jesus. That is easier to do when we become “teknoi” – little children – who are willing to be formed and fashioned by the example of loving parents. Jesus told his followers to become like little children, to be vulnerable to the wonder and awe of God’s ever-present surprising love that creates amazing daily miracles. Why are any of us even here in worship if we do not believe at some level that Jesus is working to make our lives more authentic? I believe we’re here together today because the power of Christ has worked in our lives in many little ways and some big ways to be the person God created us to be in order that we might well join him on the fabulous journey of love and, as John wrote in his letter, “… we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
There’s a highly acclaimed video series entitled “I Am Second” where people, sometimes celebrities and sometimes not, testify about how God changed their lives through Christ. One depicts a woman who used to identify with all the wrong choices in a life of prostitution. Now, as a child of Christ, Annie Lobert no longer identifies with the life of brokenness and abuse, but a whole person, a child loved by God. Once upon a time, she had been abused by her father and then her boyfriend and “… yearned inside for the power to exact revenge over men. Money to have nice things. To be someone important. It over rode any caution in her life and within a short time she was selling her body, gaining the money she thought she thought was her answer to a better life.” Can you just hear the words from 1 John now? “Dear children, do not let anyone [including yourself] lead you astray.” For Annie Lobert being led astray “… was a lie. The money instead went to her violent pimp and for many years her world descended into a hell filled with prostitution, cancer, drug addiction and no future. Yet when she cried out to God in her darkest and most dangerous moment, hope arrived to give her a second chance.” When she cried out she finally made a good and righteous choice that saved her life. “The one who does what is right is righteous, just as [Jesus] is righteous.”
God turned Annie Lobert’s life completely around, from her living hell to a life filled with love and lived in grace. She is “teknoi” – God’s little child – with the one who fills his mansion in heaven with all of us broken children who belong to the loving, eternal presence of the one who will reach to the farthest depths and the most desperate places to find his lost sheep – “teknoi” – we, the little children. We always have a home with God when we make it our choice – to choose Christ – to have an eternal place with Jesus. Amen.