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Sermon – Home – January 26, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Home Psalm 27: 1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18; Matthew 4: 12-23

No more contempt for the lands of Naphtali and Zebulun. Galilee of the Gentiles is raised in estimation of the world by being the home of Jesus of Nazareth.

So what does this mean? that the merit of a place has to do with its product, the connection between it and something good– and that what most becomes a community is the possession within it of someone(s) with a good heart, who is doing Godʼs will.

This aspect of the gospel lesson– the gospel-writerʼs acceptance that a person who makes a good impression will reflect well on any place associated with him or her–is worth considering. Perhaps now especially, when a person can be anywhere and still in touch with everywhere else, when physical location has in many ways been overcome, and the world has become even smaller by communication revolutions, it is useful to remind ourselves of something which everyone once took for granted, that you and where youʼre from are interrelated in terms of what people think of you and what people think of the community out of which you come.

People who come from backwaters sometimes express their personal ambition in terms of “putting their birthplace on the map.” St. Francis didnʼt begin a life of devotion to God because he wanted people to think of Christian sincerity and humility when they thought of the city of Assisi, but try to think of Assisi without thinking of Francis.

The truth is that every place has a reputation, and it always has something to do with the people who live there. Did you ever see one of those sweat shirts they were selling in town years ago that had written on the front something like “London, Paris, Rome, Lewisburg?” People who live in surrounding communities sometimes think Lewisburg really believes that, that the town is a bit high-hat. A nicer way to think about it is to see that this community is justifiably pleased because it has been favored to be home to a university, and to have attracted prosperous residents, and to enjoy many of the pleasant advantages bestowed by civic pride and consumers with money. But thatʼs not the biggest advantage, or the most flattering thing about Lewisburg. For whatever reason, this community has for years had a large pool of persons on whom to draw for volunteer undertakings. Because of the numbers and commitment of those who want to make the world a better place, Lewisburg for a long time has provided one of the better food programs in the area. People disposed to knock the community for its big head ought to acknowledge that it also has a big heart.

Those are the sorts of things which make the reputation of a place. If people are a bit presumptuous or snobby, that adheres to the place where they are. If people are generous and helpful, that also is attached to the reputation of the place where they live.

It doesnʼt seem that it should matter where youʼre from. It seems an awfully old- fashioned notion, appropriate perhaps in Jesusʼ day, where Nathaniel didnʼt expect anything from anyone from Nazareth, and people in Jerusalem didnʼt expect too much from Galileans. Those attitudes from the first century are found in the New Testament.

The truth is, though, that at least in terms of how people talk and often how they really feel, it does matter. If you think it doesnʼt matter where anyone is from, tell someone that your niece is marrying somebody from –fill-in-the-blank. You can think of a community within seventy miles of here that would raise eyebrows as the home town of a future spouse, or if someone said that the school board was bringing in an administrator from the place, or whatever. You get the point. You and I know that the quality of the person involved may not be affected at all by our prejudice against the origin, but all Iʼm saying is that the origin makes a difference in how people react.

Likewise, the person who rises to prominence by admirable means enhances the reputation of wherever it is that heʼs coming from. It works both ways– the place a person is coming from–and this can be a metaphor as well as a zip code–bears on how that person is regarded, and a person has potential to change how a place is regarded.

Thirty-six years ago the nation learned that First Lady Betty Ford was being treated for alcoholism. She was a pioneer in making public the need for addiction intervention. Four years later, in 1982, she helped found an addiction treatment facility with an emphasis on womenʼs health concerns. It still bears her name, the Betty Ford Center.

Mrs. Ford had been an outspoken advocate of several controversial policies bearing on womenʼs health, so her openness about her personal struggles was characteristic. It also helped change the way people viewed drug dependency. Though most people understood that becoming addicted to substances spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, it still was significant not only to discover that the presidentʼs wife needed help, but even more meaningful to see that she was honest and matter-of-fact about it. The strength of her character and the favorable light in which she was regarded as a person and as a public leader helped remove some of the stigma of seeking rehabilitation services.

The power of positive associations is part of what the apostle Paul addresses in his letter to the church at Corinth. There are divisions among the members of the church. One of the symptoms of the existence of factions within the congregation is this: One party within the church identifies itself with the influential Paul; another party seeks the reflected glory of claiming association with Apollos. The Corinthians evidently perceive some difference between the approach of these two founders and make them symbols of their own competing emphases.

These church members want to make their own, trouble-making insistence on their own way appear faithful to the origins of their community, and it turns out they have a choice among the churchʼs founders of presumed traditions to which to be loyal. The divide isnʼt between more likely categories, like longer-term versus newer members, or older people vs. younger. It turns out to be between a group which thinks the experience of things like speaking in tongues indicates their superiority and other members of the church. For our purpose in this sermon, however, the point is that the groups share this common human instinct that the reputation of someone of whom people approve will attach itself, at least in part, to the cause and individuals who use the name.

There was a president in my youth who came on the television to reassure the public that he was not a wrongdoer and hadnʼt misrepresented himself. He was seated at a microphone and behind him on one side was an American flag, and over the other shoulder what you saw was a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It wasnʼt a statue of Dante, or Beethoven–in other words, not just anybody. It was Honest Abe, and it was no accident for the person speaking to present himself with honest Abe at his side.

Such symbols are important. People rely on them. Paul, in challenging the Corinthian church, doesnʼt dismiss the desire to identify with leaders. What Paul does is insist that none of the human leaders in the churchʼs history have real importance, but that the whole church has one leader with whom to identify, in Christ. Look past the human, the local, the personal, Paul says, and there is a capital-”S“ Someone associated with you. That means that Jesus should have an impact on how others see you. It also means that you will have an impact on how others see Jesus.

Our culture is very individualistic. An American tendency to allow personal freedom to foster personal development, rather than communal growth, has been exacerbated by radically individualizing technology which permits people to be where they choose, and with whom they choose, no matter what their location or who their company. It does not come easy to us to recognize the impact of our behavior on the world around us, or to accept that we are perceived according to where, or among whom, we are found.

We can hope, however, that it is true that we can rise in our potential and be seen in a better light by associating ourselves with what is noble, helpful, and kind. By the same token we must realize that those things to which we belong–our households, our neighborhoods, organizations, workplaces, professions, faith communities–any groups in which we can be put–have some of their reputation from us. We reflect on things larger than ourselves. Thatʼs a responsibility, and it is also an opportunity. We can, if we rise to the occasion, make something better out of our little body of persons, whether thatʼs a family or a club or the residents of a row of houses. By Godʼs help, and by the confidence that belonging to God should give us, we can do better in all the different roles to which our connections assign us, and bring to the wider world noteworthy good. We can be those who transform a mere place, or what is only a group of people, into something admirable, something known for selflessness, or hospitality, or generosity. We can choose to be those who elevate the status of where weʼre from by taking seriously the calling of Christ, transforming our bit of the world, whether itʼs a town or a circle of friends or a church or a family, into something inspiring to others and useful to God.

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