Sermon for February 4, 2018: The evidence of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13

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Two newsworthy events happened this past week. One was the State of the Union address and the second was the super blue blood moon. What is interesting to me is that both of these events – one dedicated to human concerns and the exercise of human power and the second a tribute to the power of nature itself – had something to teach us about the presence of God among us.

If you got up early enough on Wednesday morning, you might have observed three things: the moon was brighter, it appeared somewhat elongated, and it was darkish red over much of its surface. These characteristics identified it as “the third in a series of ‘supermoons,’ when the Moon is closer to Earth in its orbit... It [was] also the second full moon of the month, commonly known as a ‘blue moon’ [and] the super blue moon [passed] through Earth’s shadow to give viewers in the right location a total lunar eclipse. While the Moon is in the Earth’s shadow it [takes] on a reddish tint, known as a “blood moon.” So, super blue blood moon. That’s the scientific explanation; yet, although “cosmic events may be explained scientifically, their full beauty and meaning are often unavailable, indescribable.”[1] For me, such galactic events are a reminder of the unknowable power of God, a power that is too great to comprehend, but at the very same time brings us closer to God by reminding us of his perpetual presence among us.

“The season following the Epiphany invites us to think about [the concept of] God made manifest,”[2] God among us. Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is both “out there” – like the super blue blood moon – and in here, knowing us intimately and constantly available to us. “The more we look and bring things into the light, the more we see God in the most ordinary of circumstances. God is not only in mountaintop moments, but around every corner and daily human encounter.”[3]

Such God-filled everyday moments were recalled at the State of the Union address in the stories of several special guests. The practice of presidential special guests at the speech is relatively new. “In his 1982 State of the Union speech, [Ronald] Reagan... started a tradition by inviting Lenny Skutnik to attend...On Jan. 13, [when] an Air Florida jet crashed into Washington D.C.’s 14th Street bridge. Skutnik jumped into the Potomac to pull a victim ashore…But Reagan’s appreciation didn’t stop with the invitation to watch the speech, and as Reagan discussed ‘the spirit of American heroism at its finest’ he also spoke of ‘the heroism of one of our young government employees,’...[thus launching] the inclusion in the State of the Union routine of what speechwriters henceforth called ‘Skutniks,’ meaning guests invited to attend the State of the Union who are also honored in the text of the President’s speech. Not every year has a ‘Skutnik,’ but since then every president has invited ordinary citizens whose actions and lives exemplify themes and ideals of the speech to attend and praised their actions during the speech.”[4]

Inclusion of these every day American heroes may be done for political purposes, but the presence of these people actually reminds us that it is through the grit and courage of individuals simply trying to do the right thing that the world changes for the better. Lenny Skutnik, David Dahlberg, Todd Beamer, Daniel Hernandez, and Ashlee Leppert, were not thinking of the will or power of earthly rulers when they selflessly acted on behalf of others. That is why they inspire us. Each of these people did what they did because they understood what it means to truly love your neighbor. Their behavior was, especially to the people they saved, not about any specific political idea, but rather evidence of God’s constant healing presence among us. Each of these people is an example of preaching the will and power of God through our actions.

It is what the author of the letter to the Corinthians means when he talks about using freedom to become a slave. In our culture, we tend to think about freedom in terms of how it benefits us. But Paul’s definition of freedom is different. For him, “freedom,” is the opportunity to understand and identify with those who have need of God. “Paul’s point [is] that “the gospel envisions freedom as the right of individuals, not to do as they choose, but rather to relinquish their rights for the sake of others [-to choose self-sacrifice]. True Christian freedom therefore expresses itself in service.”[5]

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law seems to have understood this. Over the years, many people have expressed dismay at the part of this gospel story where Simon’s mother, having been healed by Jesus, immediately starts serving the disciples, but if you read the text carefully, you may note two very important things. First, Jesus heals her simply by lifting her up. Just like the exorcism we heard about last week, there is no fancy show, no political statement; Jesus merely helps her up. Secondly, at no point does Jesus or any of his disciples ask her to serve them. She makes that choice. “This is no woman bowing to cultural convention and keeping in her restricted place as a servant; this is a disciple who quietly demonstrates the high honor of service for those who follow Jesus.”[6] What she does is not slavish duty, or obedience. It is not done out of a sense of disempowerment or fear. “Simon’s mother-in-law interprets the gift that she has received; her service cannot be understood as a woman’s menial work under the domination of lazy males, but as a true messianic ministry…For that reason, this woman is Jesus’ first servant and joins him in the radical announcement, in action, of the kingdom of God. [She is] his first deacon.”[7]

This story gives us a great deal of information about the nature of God and how Jesus demonstrated it in his ministry. First, it tells us that God’s healing does not need to involve a complicated ritual. It can be a simple as reaching out a hand to help someone up. Secondly, we learn that it doesn’t matter where it happens. In last week’s pericope, Jesus healed in a synagogue. This week, it's in the house of a friend. “Christianity began [by] being affirmed socially…in daily life, in small communities.”[8] “Jesus’ grace transcends all the limits imposed by the dogma of religion.”[9] It happens whenever and wherever it is needed. Finally, this story shows us that preaching and healing go hand in hand. In both last week’s gospel and the story we heard today, word of Jesus’ ministry is spread not because of what he says, but because of what people have seen him do. These three things: unassuming kindness, everyday opportunity, and demonstrating our faith, are the same basis for spreading the gospel in our own time. They are astonishingly simple and, I believe, instinctual. Human beings may be incredibly flawed and foolish, but we are made in God’s image, powerfully connected to God, and pulled to act as God would have us do. So, let us do what is natural to us: look for God in the breathtaking wonder of nature and in the inspirational actions of our fellow beings, and when we recognize it, thank God, praise God, and preach God. AMEN.

[1]Verity Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 314.

[2]Elizabeth C. Knowlton, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 325.

[3]Elizabeth C. Knowlton, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 323.

[4] Merrill Fabry, (January 30, 2018), “This is why U.S. presidents started name-dropping their State of the Union Guests,” TIME online,