A week before Christmas and our move to DC, my husband’s friend recommended that we Netflix A Man Called Peter. I won’t ask if you know the movie. That would probably be like asking a New Yorker if she knows Bat Man. But for those who’ve just moved here, A Man Called Peter’sthe iconic film from the 50s about Peter Marshall who, as a young man in Scotland, hears God’s call to the ministry and ends up at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. While Joe and I initially opted instead to Netflix the one about John Wimberly’s ministry at Western. Alas, it has yet to be released and we could only add it to our cue. Maybe the DVD of his retirement will be its launching point!
Anyway, A Man Called Peter is a solid film with dozens of memorable scenes. Beginning with, a young Peter Marshall’s dramatic fall on his way home from work and the vision of God’s call on his life/ to the clip of his future wife standing on a truck bed giving a shout out to Christian women at a college revival, to Peter’s charge for us to serve one another and for all to worship and even play pool in that grand house of prayer, A Man Called Peter is chocked full of testimony to God’s mercy, grace and providence. But the most poignant scene for me was near the end of his life, when Dr. Peter Marshall is standing before the US Senate on his first morning as Chaplain. During what seemed to me like an Hour of Power Prayer – no notes, he calls upon God to guide the assembly as they’re contemplating any decision for our nation. He beseeches the members of congress to seek God’s will faithfully, especially when effecting legislation that secures the welfare of the people. – Always look up toward the heavens and set out on the road God desires them to take.
Can something as seemingly elusive as a star in the sky lead us to the presence of God in our midst? That notable Presbyterian pastor, Peter Marshall, was sure it is so. And I don’t believe that the magi had any doubt, either.
“In those days,” in those days of Jesus’ birth, life for most was hard – really hard – and people were looking for a savior. The disparity between economic classes in the Holy Lands was tremendous. – More extreme than we can get our minds around, even at Western Presbyterian Church, simply due to our advantage of living in the United States. King Herod had initiated ridiculously aggressive, unaffordable projects that threatened the independence of the people of Israel. Previously common seaside villages became Roman column-appointed, mega-ports. A new transportation infrastructure was put in place. And the new Jerusalem temple? Amazing. More efficient agricultural methods were imposed upon family farmers. Subsistence farming became surplus farming to keep up with the financially unreasonable demands placed upon the people by their king. Eventually, many Israelites handed over their families’ generations-owned land to pay their otherwise impossible-to-meet tax burdens. Many workers were being treated like slaves. People became poor. Dirt poor. People died. Good people died for “only Herod knows why” reasons…And the folks in the Holiest of Lands became resentful. – a resentment that grew over time as more and more of the everyday people fell victim to the tyranny of the king.
As if these economic struggles weren’t enough, the Jews resented even more Herod’s self-appointed title as King of the Jews – years before Jesus was born. Now, you may’ve thought that Herod was a Roman, being appointed to a Roman throne. But he was not. He was a “friend” of Rome having leveraged his father’s successes. And just as Herod wasn’t a Roman, Herod wasn’t a Jew. To the Jews, Herod was impure and an imposter. His mother was an Arabian and his father was an Edomite! So, how could an impure infiltrator be the leader of the Jews? Net/net, they were justifiably bitter of him and neither their plight nor their bitterness t was lost on Herod, or Rome, or the magi.
The people were looking for a different kind of king – a real savior from all of their traumas – economic and religious. And along came a few or a few hundred astrologers – the text is not clear, although we commonly assume that there were three wise men if only because of the three gifts named in the text. Anyway, what may’ve started out as even one astrologer may’ve caught steam. I want to believe that this one or three became ten then, who knows? Maybe the band grew to more than two hundred as the men and women desperate to find a salve for the wound of the people descended upon Jerusalem. I want to believe that they were righteous Gentiles not unlike you and me who were intent upon finding a God-ordained king who would truly save the world and not just a handful of elite. I suspect God attracted these wise men – these astrologers – to the nighttime sky and they quickly felt that they were on to something. Big. Something as elusive as a star in the sky was about to lead them to the presence of God in their midst. Herod wasn’t about to take this sitting down.
When much of what we know isn’t the way we thought it should be; When the people or places or experiences all around us are just plain uncomfortable; When life events occur – even tremendous ones like marriages and milestone birthdays, college tours, promotions and retirements; When situations come upon us that seem oppressive or threatening or just plain different or new, most of us look for some way to make things right, or maybe regain our footing, or at least regain a sense of normalcy. It’s an agitation. We’ve been agitated, as the original Greek text suggests of Herod. From the point where something interrupts the usual course of our existence, we necessarily become troubled as if the waters had been stirred. And all of us who’ve been troubled or agitated by anything that disrupts the status quo will agree: it’s a natural human response to feel at least a tinge of fear (for that’s the word the commentators who translated the NRSV chose to describe Herod, “he was frightened.” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.)
At those points of agitation, in spite of any sense of fear, I suppose that there are some who might just take an adventurous leap right onto that freshly paved path. Maybe they have an innate sense of where God is calling them to be. Maybe they’re just bold. But an unabashed embrace of change is rare. More often, we make a quick retreat to consider how we might move forward with prudence. But from my experience, most of us figuratively (if not literally) curl up into a fetal position, searching inward for whatever answers or methods or processes or reactions have served us best in the past.
Yet so long as we’re looking inward on our life history or others’ for answers to what is now or potentially to come, it’s impossible for us to be looking upward toward God’s intentions. It’s impossible for us to stay on for the road God has charted for us since the foundations of the earth were drawn and remain a fully participating member of God’s creation.
And so as we slowly evaluate our agitated world from whatever safe space we’ve created, we are urged by our creator God to seek guidance from the one who has known how the world will turn since the beginning of time. God urges us to take comfort in our covenant relationship with the Lord to discern what road might bring to the place God yearns for us to be.
Has something changed in your world? Has something agitated your world? Is something troubling you today? Is fear gnawing at your soul? With crises near and far sickening our souls, with John Wimberly’s retirement weighing on our hearts, with dead-end jobs and broken relationships and sickness lending us pause, with new jobs and new relationships and a new year that’s beckoning you to start afresh, with your desperate need for just a plain cup of coffee so that if I don’t stop preaching so that you can get to fellowship hour NOW you’ll just scream…What is stirring you up? Let us all look forward with hope.
While most of us will feel the need to find some way to retreat from a new situation in order to evaluate what might come next, we certainly don’t want our fear to govern our way of life so that our retreat becomes a place to hide. Especially in our life as a church in transition, there are at least three other pitfalls we’ll want to safeguard against. First, we want to insure that our fear doesn’t lure us into complacency or paralysis from progressing along the course God has charted for us, let alone progressing along the course God has charted for us in a community that needs us still. To me, the word “interim” can be code “for stuck in between” if we’re not careful! Second, we will want to safeguard against becoming so firmly entrenched in our previously conceived, personal convictions or worse, our perceived position in the church that we become unhelpful in conversations intended to strengthen and build the body of Christ. And third, we wouldn’t want to become so completely unable to cope with change that we confront our fears with a vengeance, lashing out at what is most obvious or closest or nearest to our midst in order to reclaim a sense of the past that we want for ourselves. Or, like Herod, become so consumed by fear that we retrench into survival-mode and lash out in a destructive and utterly irreversible way. As God has set the stars in the sky, God has set each one of us here today to set in motion something new and exciting.
May we all remember how Jesus entered the world as softly as a newborn to show us that perfect love casts out fear. May we always remember how our Lord shows up again and again to be the one who is at one with us in every breath, every experience of life, every reason to celebrate and every reason to scream. May each one of us remember that our Lord and our God tells us to not let our hearts be troubled, but believe in God’s mercy, and grace and providence meant for us and all of those we meet. And may you and I avoid looking down at each step in our fear that we’ll stumble, and in looking down neglect looking toward the heavens for God’s guidance along our way.
There is nothing elusive about our God in the sky that won’t lead us to notice our God in our midst. There is nothing elusive about our Lord God at all that will allow us to fall from God’s plan for ourselves, or for church, or for the world.
With the confidence of a Christian, have faith. And if you fear that a road we’re on is taking us to a place where you don’t believe we’re meant to be, pause, pray, participate with your whole self! Pay attention. Keep watch for the coming again and again of God-experiences in your midst to become the milestones of hope that lead us all toward meeting God in just the place God needs for us to be together in Christ. In our ever changing world, when we are constantly being agitated for one reason or another, we can all look to the transcendent one (who is above all and in all and through all), and we will find that the transcendent one is as present as a child by our side, coming again and again to be at one with us as individual Christians and as a church, now and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.