I had to reach, deep down into my heart to retrieve this true story. It’s from a time long, long ago, thirty years long ago, in a place far, far away—McLean, Virginia.
My youngest daughter, Paige, who married last year, was maybe four and a half years old. Christina, her friend, also four and half, lived just around the block. She was at our house for a playdate. Paige and Christina were sitting on the family room sofa. So have in your mind now, two little people. Their legs are outstretched in front of them, because, you know, their legs aren’t long enough to sit as grown ups do, with feet to the floor. Their legs are even too short to dangle.
I have just poured them a treat—some skittles--round sugary candies, different colors, the same size and shape as M&Ms—Each held their skittle collection on a paper napkin on her lap. You got that picture in your minds? I am close by, in the kitchen, and listening in on their conversation. Paige says to Christina in her high pitched child’s voice, “Let’s eat all the other colors first and save the reds for last, because the reds taste best.”
And Christina, in her matching high-pitched child’s voice, says, “Ok.”
Then after a pause, Christina adds, “You know what this is called? It’s called deferred gratification.”
So then Paige, calls out, “Mom, Christina just said deferred gratification”—like Christina has said a bad word or something. I am pulled into their conversation to explain to my daughter, what I hope you will agree, is a really heady concept for a four and a half year old, and probably for even a twelve year old.
Christina’s dad, at that time, he’s moved on to bigger and better things, but at that time, Christina’s dad was the managing editor of US News and World Report. No telling what impressive vocabulary and lofty concepts Christina was exposed to—and I’m guessing she got her dad’s smart genes, too. Probably by now she is a lawyer on track to become a Supreme Court Judge, or a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate or something.
Then, there is Nomi. She is a neighbor friend and a professor of Music at UVA. She’s small—like maybe 10 pounds lighter than the woman you see before you and she’s short like me. She has two little children. Busy lives, she and her husband. He’s a music professor, too. Nomi went with us to Richmond to talk with and pressure our legislators to enact sensible gun laws. She was one of over thirty of us at the General Assembly on Martin Luther King Day.
Now imagine those thirty people squeezed into State Senator Mark Obenshain’s office. We wanted to talk with Mr. Obenshain because he serves on the Courts of Justice which was considering gun laws for our state.
Mr. Obenshain himself isn’t there, but his aide is. She introduces herself to us and then each of us takes a turn introducing ourselves. Then we begin a conversation. It’s obvious the aide does not see things our way. After a brief exchange the aide throws out some legal term, maybe thinking that a few good legal terms would end the conversation. She has sized us up as pastors and professors, students, and retired folks from various non-legal walks of life.
Anyway, music professor Nomi jumps in. “Oh yeah?” Then she spews forth legal-ese like it’s her native tongue. All heads turn toward her. I’m thinking, we’re probably all thinking: “Who IS this person?” She does a fine job stating our case. I find out later, that although Nomi is a Music Professor, music is her second life career. Nomi has a law degree and in her first career, she was a human rights lawyer. Whoa! And she’s maybe 35 years old? How’d she have time for that?
And then there is…. Jesus. Years ago, again in McLean, I am teaching the church’s Sr. High Church School class. We are talking about the seven deadly sins—We broach the sin of anger. I challenge them. “Is anger really a sin?” I mention to them that Jesus got angry. They look surprised, so I say, “You know when he was at the temple in Jerusalem? Remember, he pulled out a whip and swung it around his head and crack, frightened a lot of people? He turned over the tables of the money-changers? You know.”
The class—of about 12, thirteen youth—all regular church goers, look at me mystified. No, they don’t know. So we take out our Bibles and read together what we just read from John a few minutes ago.
Thinking on that now, it makes sense to me that they did not know. They were familiar with the fair-haired, fair skinned, white-robed, if you ask me, slightly anorexic-looking Jesus sitting on a rock, surrounded by children—that’s the picture that hung at the entrance in the church’s education building. No one is going to tell little children about the fiery Jesus who turned over the tables in the temple, and cracked a whip. Tell children about that Jesus and they learn to be afraid of him- either that, or the story becomes a license for them to throw temper tantrums!
The story of Jesus overturning the tables, though, is important to our understanding of who he is. This story suggests that Jesus is more than an academic who knows scripture backwards and forwards, although he is that; he is more than an itinerant story teller; although he is that, and he is more than a healer, although he is that. He, is also, what some Jesus scholars refer to as a revolutionary. It’s the revolutionary side of Jesus that is exposed here in this story—a side that we are not otherwise privy to in the whole of scripture.
What I am getting at is, and what this story about Jesus underlines: people are complicated and way more brave and smart and complicated than we give them credit for. Given the right situation and their own sense of integrity, their more nuanced and infinitely larger souls shine through.
That’s what happened with Christina. In the comfort of our home, which she came to know as her home-away-from-home, she was safe from the misunderstandings and ridicule of her peers. In that environment, she revealed to us her infinitely more complex, and mature self. Nomi did that, too—as an adult, comfortable in her own skin, she didn’t have to think twice before she shot back with words and smarts to that aide in Mr. Obenshain’s office; and a righteous Jesus did that. Secure in his self-understanding as God’s son, he did what he knew to be right.
So—what would it take for you and for me to let our larger selves, indeed our souls, shine through? Drugs, hard drink? There is that. Better than drugs and drink, though, is to do some soul searching. Learn to know ourselves, and to accept ourselves for who and what we are. Find out what our values are and be willing to stand up for those values.
Now here I should clarify. It is NOT true that Jesus said Know thyself. Those two words were inscribed on the temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece. And it was the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, not Jesus, who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But there is something similar in scripture. Paul writes in Second Corinthians, 13: 5: Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?”
Once we have examined ourselves and know ourselves and our values, and once we have claimed Jesus’ as our Lord and Savior, then we are ready to take a stand—to follow in Jesus’ stead, and let the pieces fall where they may.
Thinking specifically about Nomi and Jesus now, what would inspire you and me enough that we would feel compelled, driven, duty-bound to reveal our larger selves? What would it take for you or me to stand apart from the madding crowd?
I want to end this sermon by sharing with you one more story—this one about a young man who was recently in the news—this week as a matter of fact. He DID stand apart from the madding crowd, secure in his own sense of who he is and his own personal values. At least that’s my take. See if you don’t agree. It comes to us from Iowa University.
As I said, it was recently in the news, but we have to go back 25 years ago to understand what happened.
On January 19, 1993, so again, 25 years ago, Chris Street, died in a car crash in Iowa City. He died just shy of his 21st birthday. Chris was one of the best basketball players on his nationally ranked University of Iowa’s Hawkeye team. Before he died, he had chalked up 34 consecutive free throws for his team—and those 34 consecutive free throws was a record breaker.
Fast forward to 2018. The team has another star athlete. His name is Jordan Bohannan. Jordan is the youngest of three boys. His older brothers were both star basketball players at the University of Washington. Safe to say that basketball means a lot to Jordan’s family as also to Jordan.
Just last week, Jordan is on the court with his team, playing against Northwestern. He has a basketball in his hands. He’s lining up for the free throw—it would be his 35th consecutive free throw win if he made it. I watch the replay of that shot on-line. The ball leaves Jordan’s hands and…it hits the hoop’s rim—and does not go through. Jordan touches his chest, and then raises his hand toward the gym’s ceiling—as if to say, “This one was for you, Chris.”
It turns out it WAS for Chris. Jordan admits later that he purposefully shorted the free throw shot so that Chris could retain the consecutive free throw record. His reasoning, as Jordan tweeted after the game: “Life is bigger than basketball.” Standing apart from the madding crowd, a larger soul is revealed.
May we all have revolutionary basket ball court moments like Jordan and revolutionary temple moments like Jesus. Amen