“Today You, Tomorrow Me”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, VA
On May 4th, 2014
I Peter 1:17-23
The lectionary scripture passage I’m choosing to focus on today comes from the First Epistle of Peter. The letter was first written to an early Christian community of Gentile converts, not Jewish Christians, who were facing hostility from friends, associates and relatives and thus felt like they were aliens in their own city, almost as if they were in exile, so to speak. They had left behind old customs (the writer calls them “futile ways inherited from their ancestors”) and taken on some new ones, and the author of this letter wants them to understand that they have gained a new inheritance and that the God who raised Jesus can be trusted. Listen now for God’s word, focusing in particular on the author’s call to have what he calls “genuine mutual love.” Ponder what this passage says about what really lasts. And when you hear the phrase “live in reverent fear”, I invite you to hear instead “live in holy awe.”
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him, you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
If you were here the Wednesday after Easter for the concert that Nerissa and Katryna Nields put on in this sanctuary, you experienced a real treat. Not only did you get to hear their wonderful music and lyrics, not only did you have a chance to sing along with several folk songs that they learned at their father John and mother Gail’s knee, you had an opportunity to witness three generations of that family up here on this chancel singing. For several of the songs, Nerissa and Katryna invited their parents John and Gail to join them—and three of John and Gail’s grandchildren William, Lila, and Johnny— were up here, singing too. It was a holy and beautiful occasion.
I found myself deeply moved by the scene. And it made me think about how legacies get passed on from one generation to the next. As I watched those three generations join their voices in songs of hope and challenge, I thought of how a legacy of music, and activism, and commitment to justice and peace, and,, yes, a commitment to the church and its message of God’s love embodied in human beings as it was in Jesus, was being passed on. A commitment to church, this congregation, where Nerissa and Katryna and their sister Abigail sang some of those songs that they led us in that Wednesday night in children’s worship.
There are all sorts of legacies that get handed on from generation to generation, both good and bad, as the author of I Peter points out when he speaks of “the futile ways” his community had “inherited from their ancestors.”
Two days before the Nields concert, Judith and I made a pilgrimage to Monticello. Every parent of a UVA student needs to go to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate outside of Charlottesville. It was my first trip there, I’m embarrassed to say.
We watched the film in the Visitor’s Center. We took the house tour, and the garden tour, and the tour which discusses the experience of slavery at Monticello. The film and the tour guides rightly celebrated Jefferson’s accomplishments, which were many and varied. Among those accomplishments were authoring our Declaration of independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founding the University of Virginia, and on, and on.
Do you know that Jefferson’s tombstone doesn’t even mention that he was a two term President of the United States? I mean, what kind of remarkable person do you have to be for that to not make your tombstone? I turned to Judith at one point early in the tour and said, “He accomplished so much before he ever reached my age that I feel like I’ve frittered away my life!”
Jefferson accomplished a great many things. But even as I heard his achievements celebrated, a more complex picture of the man began to emerge. Jefferson inherited slaves from both his father and his father in law. He inherited a culture that approved of slavery. Although his lofty words laid the groundwork for liberty, and although in his flowery rhetoric he claimed that slavery was a “deplorable entanglement,” the truth is, Jefferson kept slaves, he regarded them as property, and didn’t set a single one of them free until after his death. And then he only freed five of them.
Jefferson was also a man who lived well above his means. When he died, he was between one and two million dollars in debt, in modern terms. I learned during my tour of Monticello that his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, spent much of his adult life trying to settle those debts, which led to selling Monticello and its assets, including the slaves, who were regarded as property. The tale of that auction on the lawn of Monticello is a sad and horrifying one.
Legacies can be complicated, indeed.
Today is what we have come to call Legacy Sunday here at Immanuel. Our Presbyterian denomination has for at least thirty years designated the first Sunday of May as Wills Emphasis Sunday. This gives congregations and pastors a chance to address the importance of having a will, period. It gives us an opportunity to talk about how our financial resources can continue to impact future generations, and yes, it affords us the opportunity to talk about remembering and providing for the ongoing mission and ministry of our congregations beyond our lives on earth. The decisions we make about how to treat people, about how to spend our time, and about how to use our financial resources (including how to distribute them after we’ve passed on), leave a legacy for the generations that follow us. They show in a concrete way what we think is important.
Legacy Sunday, heck any Sunday, any Lord’s Day, is an opportunity to remember that Bill Courtney is right. “Our legacies relate to what we do for others, not for ourselves.”
Courtney, by the way, served a high school football coach in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee. He was featured in a 2011 documentary called Undefeated, about how he turned the Manassas High School football team of Memphis into a playoff team for the first time in school history. But more important than that to Courtney was the fact that he had 19 seniors on that championship team, 19 inner city African-American seniors, and all 19 of them graduated from high school, and all 19 went to college.
That wasn’t easy. We know about that here.
A review of the documentary says:
At first glance, the story of the white, volunteer coach who helps a rag tag group of football players from an all-black school find success on and off the field seems scripted — and riddled with cliches that would seem to necessitate a syrupy, southern-inflected Sandra Bullock voiceover. But the harsh realities of the Manassas students, the insistent mentorship of Courtney are, for worse and for better, all too genuine. The Tigers’ distance from those first practices under Courtney and his fellow coaches to future success was not nearly as easy to traverse as the title of the eventual documentary (Undefeated) might make it feel.[i]
It’s not always easy to get from here to there.
Immediately following the service, we’ll all have an opportunity to hear from Lee Becker who was one of the young architects who worked with George Hartman and representatives of our congregation on the design of this sanctuary in which we are worshipping this morning.
I encourage you to stay for that. It’ll be a chance to reflect not only on how this space, which has hosted so many holy moments, came to be, but also on what its design is meant to encourage and foster in the people who worship here. This physical space is important to us. It took great care and vision for the future to build it, but this physical space is not just about us. It’s never been just about us.
With the leadership of the Planned Giving committee, we’ve made a push to highlight our Endowment for Immanuel, to provide for the future of this special congregation and our outreach to the world around us.
Very appropriately, our first proceeds from the Endowment, $10,000 dollars, has been earmarked as seed money for what the Session is calling The Next Big Thing. A committee of Immanuelites has already begun meeting to generate ideas for what our next Major Mission Project, involving the congregation together in hands-on service to those in need, will be. We’re particularly looking to tap into the voices and the passions of those of you my age, or near my age, and younger, because just as the generations before us did and do, we have a legacy of love to carry on as well.
Which brings us back to that long ago letter of First Peter. Writing to a group of new believers who were under threat, Peter, or more likely someone writing in his name, spoke of the futile ways they had inherited from their ancestors. But he also spoke of something enduring and imperishable, something lasting. Not like silver or gold. A hope centered in a risen Christ, a call to genuine mutual love, a challenge to go beyond oneself.
So let me close with a story. It’s a story about legacies and love and passing it on. When Judith came across this on line, she had to share it with me. She pulled out her phone on the way to Charlottesville and she said, “You have to hear this story!”
Justin Horner is a graphic designer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. In a New York Times Magazine article[ii] a few years ago, he related that three times in one year, three times, he found himself in a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Each time, to make matters worse, he was driving somebody else’s car. Someone who didn’t have the foresight to pack extra fuses or a jack in the car, or to know not to park on an incline with less than a gallon of fuel.
Anyway, each time Horner found himself broken down car, he was disgusted by the way people just flew by and didn’t stop. In each instance, the people who stopped to help were immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of whom spoke any English.
One of the times he was stopped, after a tire blow out, he put a big sign in the window of the Jeep he was driving. “Need a Jack. I’ll pay $.”
Nothing. Cars flew by for what seemed to be hours. Tow trucks flew by.
And then a Mexican immigrant family stopped. The driver of that van hopped out, went over to him with a jack, and they found that the jack was too small.
So the immigrant, quick as a lick, got a saw out of his van and cut a piece out of a log by the side of the road to prop up the jack. They used the immigrant’s tire iron to try to get the tire off, and if you can believe it, Horner says, the tire iron broke. The immigrant had his wife go on ahead in the van to purchase a new tire iron and bring it back. They went back to work on the tire and got it changed.
Here’s where I want to pick up with Horner’s words because they are so beautiful.
The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl (their daughter, who spoke English) where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.
After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.
This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.
But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”
Here’s how Horner ends his story.
Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.
In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.
That’s genuine love. That’s a legacy. Today you, tomorrow me. Today me, tomorrow you. God bless us all to be a blessing.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] “Bill Courtney Interview: Former Manassas Tigers Coach on ‘Undefeated,’ Winning Players,” Huffington Post Sports, August 29, 2012. Here’s the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/29/bill-courtney-interview-football-manassas-coach_n_1838828.html
[ii] Justin Horner, “The Tire Iron and the Tamale” The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2011. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06lives-t.html?_r=1&