The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

In it but not of it (sermon for May 24)

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An older version

An older version - with the same problem!

My first regular job was in a small jewelry store in Burlington, Iowa. I was about 15, and I worked for the princely sum of $.65 per hour.  I’ll tell you about it in a moment.

First, listen to Jesus as he prays for his followers, just hours before the mob comes to take him to his death.

John 17:6-19 (NIV)
Jesus Prays for His Disciples
“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.

They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.

That must have driven them crazy.

Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

13″I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

17Sanctify[b] them by the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

Perhaps you can picture an old jewelry store.  It’s in a long, narrow storefront building. The front door is set back in from the sidewalk a few feet, and on either side are display windows.  Opening the door, you’d see (on the right and the left) display counters that ran clear to the back.  At the back on the left was the jeweler’s bench, and beyond it, the door to the safe.  On the right was a little stairway that ran up and back to the mezzanine – a little balcony affair – where the owner of the store sat at his desk.  He sat with his side to the rail, so that by turning his head he could peer down on us below, intently studying what was happening (or so it seemed to a 15-year-old.)

What glass cases look like

Glass cases—60's era?

But back to the display counters.  Under the glass of those cases were beautiful things.  In one or two of them, there were rings of all kinds – wedding bands, diamonds, rings set with semi-precious stones.  And the rings were held in velvet-covered, padded trays, about the size of my laptop’s keyboard.  The velvet was a rich color – maybe red or purple, seems like.  It pillowed up between slots, making rows, and in each slot was one ring.

Now selling rings was tricky.  When a customer want to see one, I’d slide open the counter’s wooden back door, reach in for the tray that held that particular ring, and set the tray on top of the glass.  There was a cardinal rule about showing rings. I know because I broke it once.

The rule was never leave a tray of rings un-attended. It would be a simple thing for a supposed customer to lift one of the rings out of its velvet slot.

So a customer asked me a question this time; I took the ring and walked back to the owner, who was standing at the back of the store.  I held it up, opened my mouth – and he snatched it from my hand as he strode past, eyes on the tray. And I got a chewing, later.

Were there two empty slots in that tray, rather than one, it was decision time, and the decision was a losing proposition either way.  Either we would have to accuse the customer (or me!) of stealing a ring, or simply take the loss.  Not good.

When we sold a ring, we clerks couldn’t come up with another right away, labeled and ready for sale, so we’d put in little guitar pick-like plastic tag – dark purple, I think.

Every time one of those went in, tho, it made the ring tray less valuable and less attractive. You can imagine, if the store owner had been lazy—he was not—and let the ring tray fill up with tags, all but a slot or two, that tray wouldn’t have gotten much attention; it wouldn’t accomplish its purpose.

But a customer might see a ring and say, “Do you have any more of those?”  And more would be brought out, and the value and attractiveness of the tray-full would increase.

If the owner took the time to make up for all the sales, he’d bring a group of rings down from his desk on the mezzanine, pull out all the tags, and put in beautiful, gleaming rings with precious stones. Opals, I remember.

Let me make up a story in that scene.

Suppose the owner went away and left the employees in charge.  And suppose years went by, he didn’t come back, and the employees (who were pretty elderly) grew older, and couldn’t keep up with the store, and the ring trays began to fill up with tags.

As the employees became old and tired the ring trays became mostly tags, and the other things – the clocks, the watches, the flatware – were likewise under-stocked.  Suppose the beautiful old store went downhill, customers stopped coming, inventory stopped moving, bills didn’t get paid, and it gradually just shut down and the doors were locked.

Dust settles down on everything. On the ring trays, one or two rings gleam, but they’re dull now, dusty. And those who walk by and remember what it once was, feel the failure of it when they glance in.

Suppose that one day, many years later, the owner’s son comes back to town to remember the place where he was little, and discovers that the old store has closed – it had just wound down and self-destructed.  He steps over the wind-blown trash and leaves at the old store’s entry, peers through the dirty windows—there are the glass cases on either side of the aisle, dusty now—and he can just make out the ring trays full of tags (but only one or two rings), and as the sun pierced the dusty air, he could see that they were still beautiful, but only recollections of what had been.

He remembers so well.  And in the staring and remembering some dreaming begins.  Is there any chance of bringing it back?  He walks down the block to the bank and introduces himself—they had known his father—and he gets the key and opens the door and, before you know it, he’s weeks into scrubbing the cases and shining up the silver and winding the clocks and watches and steaming the dust out of the carpets and it doesn’t even smell dusty anymore.

But the inventory is a problem. Those few rings shine—but so few.  And under the cash drawer one day he finds the safe combination and spins the dial and clanks down the lever and there are shelves of rings there.  He takes them, like his father had, up to the office on the mezzanine and prices them and brings them down and takes out the plastic tags and fills the trays clear full.  And how they gleam when he turns on the lights in the old cases!

He throws open the front door and turns over the “closed” sign to “open” and there’s the store, new again, back to doing the beautiful things it was designed to do, but had long since quit doing.


God made, as I understand it, a world with one people, filled with perfect love, alive in a perfect place. But they preferred to distance themselves from God, and could no longer know the intimacy with him—or each other—that they once had known.  And they began to kill one another.

The Babel story describes the birth of lust for empire.  And God divided them into cultures and languages, so their desire for dominance would spread more slowly, I suppose. Now they were no longer able to talk even with one another.

But people were created in God’s image, and they all had some of God in them, and some did heroically well.  More commonly, though, power and wealth took over, and empires grew, and wars were fought, and lands were wasted and millions slain.

And there were two worlds now—the heavenly, spiritual world that ruled itself by love, and this world, that ruled itself by power and wealth.

And God could have destroyed it all, but that wasn’t his way. So he went to live among them, and show them what the heavenly world’s ways looked like when they were poured into a human life. It challenged, of course, the way things were in this world, so they killed him—but not before he had planted the ways of love—the ways of another world—indeed, the ways of the foundation of this world—in a few. Then he rose again and melded himself into their hearts by his Spirit, and sent them to demonstrate the world that once was to the world that it had become. And the two worlds were on their way to becoming one again.

For in the musty gloom of this self-destructive world, the way of love began to shine through people. They were of the heavenly world now, and didn’t fit into the loyalties of this one—they had switched allegiances from the kingdoms of this broken world to the kingdom that created it. And for that, they were sometimes hated (as he had been), for they just didn’t play by the rules that kept the rich and powerful rich and powerful, and lots of people told them that the ways of love simply weren’t practical at all in the “real” world—not knowing that the ways of love had begun it, and had triumphed over the worst it could do.

But the shining ones knew. And the things they did, the acts of love, the care for the poor, the insistence on loving their enemies instead of hating or killing them, the putting the least first in what they did, to others was sometimes terribly attractive, and some of them came to know the ways of love, too, and be filled up with them, and began to gleam like the rings in the dusty old jewelry store.

And one day, they believe, the owner’s son will return and re-open the store in the way it was intended to be, and the ways that gleam so strangely now—and so very unrealistically, some say—they believe will become the radiance that fills the whole world with love.

For they were not preparing for another world, as they sometimes thought – but preparing for the re-making of this one – or perhaps for the re-unification of the two into one, as it was in the beginning.  Just listen to Revelation 21:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

“Coming down,” see it?  We think and talk of “going up,” but this place is here. Watch:

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.

He comes to live with them, not them going to live with him, as we commonly talk about it.  He comes to their —our—place.

They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

* * *

I was at Mercy hospital in Iowa City, in the cafeteria. I had been visiting someone—it was about the time my mother was in the hospital. I was eating alone.

I saw a pressed white shirt—looked up—a security officer walked in, saw me, came my direction.  It was my friend Stan Murray. He pulled out a chair, sat down (as I recall), and said, “How’s your mother doing?”

And there was the gleam, right there in the hospital cafeteria.  A gleam from the way I believe the world once was and will be again.

Shine on, dear friends.  Shine through the grime and self-destruction of this suicidal world.  Shine on, humbly and gently and unstoppably and lovingly, until love once again becomes the jewel of others’ dreams, the glimmer that makes risking everything just hopeful enough to try.

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One Response

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  1. Thank you, Monte.

    Joe Hayes

    May 27, 2009 at 12:12 am

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