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"Lit Up"

#91-40
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 2, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries


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Text: Acts 11:24

So far, that morning over breakfast at the local diner in Waco, Texas, Mrs. Dorsey had not so much as cracked a smile for David. If Mrs. Dorsey had any laugh lines on that ninety-year-old face of hers, she wasn't showing them. If she had any honey sweetness in that voice of hers, she wasn't sharing it. If she had any impulse to pull you in for a big bear hug, she wasn't letting on to it. Not today, not for David. Not yet. David, a man in his late fifties with a head full of receding gray hair, an accomplished columnist with The New York Times, was supposed to be interviewing Mrs. Dorsey, but she may as well have been his teacher and this meeting may as well have been detention. Mrs. Dorsey had been a teacher in Waco, Texas, for 50 years. David had invited her to breakfast, hoping to interview her that morning, and for good reason, because Mrs. Dorsey is a living history.

Fifty years ago, in 1970, after teaching 20 years and having earned her master's degree in education, she was among the first Black teachers in the Waco, Texas, public school system to be reassigned to the all-white school right at the start of desegregation. Not only had she successfully weathered the blows of that storm with professionalism and no-nonsense discipline, she'd climbed a second mountain after retiring from the public school system. She used her life savings to start a preschool, a private preschool for economically under-resourced children, and led that school for another 15 years after she'd retired. Mrs. Dorsey was a woman who knew who she was. And David? Who was he, sitting across from her? A privileged white guy from the East Coast? David would later write about this first meeting with this remarkable woman. He said, "That morning over breakfast, Mrs. Dorsey presented herself to me as a stern drill-sergeant type. A woman who was tough, who had standards, who laid down the law. She told me, 'I loved my students enough to discipline them.'"

David, who had interviewed senators and celebrities and presidents, admits that he was intimidated by her. Just then, a teddy-bearish white man in his sixties, another Waco local, enters the diner. From across the room, he sees Mrs. Dorsey sitting at the table with David and calls out. He marches directly over to the table, smiling as broadly as is possible for a human face to smile, leans in inches from her face and says, in a voice that fills the room, "Mrs. Dorsey. Mrs. Dorsey, you are the best. You're the best. I love you. I love you," he says, grabbing the woman by her shoulders and shaking her way harder than any ninety-year-old woman ought to be shook. And David, the reporter, watching this scene unfold, wrote of that moment, "I've never seen a person's whole aspect transformed so suddenly. Mrs. Dorsey, in the presence of this teddy bear of a man, was transformed into a ray of sunshine." The old, stern, disciplinarian face that she'd put on in David's presence vanished, and in its place, a joyous, delighted, nine-year-old girl appeared.

The New York Times columnist who witnessed this, David Brooks, tells that story in his book: How to Know a Person. He uses the story as an example of one of two ways to interact with a person. You can be, on the one hand, an illuminator, or on the other, a diminisher. Now, when a diminisher interacts with a person, he or she tends to make that person less of what they were made to be, but an illuminator ... an illuminator like the man who greeted Mrs. Dorsey in the diner, an illuminator is someone who shines the brightness of their care on people and makes them feel lit up, loved, treasured, respected.

The illuminator who made Mrs. Dorsey light up in the diner that morning was named Jimmy. Jimmy Dorrell. Now, Jimmy could make Mrs. Dorsey light up partly because he had a history with her. The two of them had been community development leaders in Waco for decades and had worked side by side on several projects over the years. But David Brooks, in his book, How to Know a Person, mentions another important fact about Jimmy, that which formed him into the illuminator he had become. See, Jimmy is a Christian. Now, it is a bit striking that David Brooks mentions this fact about Jimmy in his book, because he's not writing a Christian book, per se. He's writing a New York Times bestseller, a book written to engage with a secular audience. David, the author, is ethnically and culturally Jewish and had spent much of his adult life as an atheist and is in the habit of not assuming any particular religious belief on the part of his reader.

But David here mentions Jimmy's faith. Why? Because it is the crucial fact about him that has made him into the person he's become—his faith and his faith community, and not faith in a generic way, but a specific tradition, an account centered on a single historical Person, Jesus, who is called Christ. David writes, "When Jimmy greets a person, any person, he's trying to live up to one of the greatest callings of his faith. He's trying to see that person the way Jesus would see that person. He's trying to see them with Jesus' eyes—eyes that lavish love on the meek and the lowly, the marginalized and those in pain and on every living person."

In other words, when Jimmy or any other Christ follower sees a person, he brings with him the conviction that this person, created in God's image, is so important, so valuable, so loved and treasured, that Jesus, God's one and only beloved Son, was willing to die and rise for them, reign and return to renew all things for them. So it follows that Christians like Jimmy are going to greet people with respect and awe and reverence. At least on our good days. Now remember, David, the author who told the story in this book, is coming at this with a perspective of a secular Jew who didn't believe in God for much of his life. But, as he explains elsewhere, over the years David had gotten to know Christians like Jimmy and had spent time among Christians and had been drawn to the beauty of the Christian way of seeing people.

Now, at that time, David wasn't ready to believe it was true, but he did agree nonetheless that it was beautiful the way Christians were formed to see people. Of course, Christians, being human beings in a broken world, we have our bad days. We are not yet the illuminators we were made to be. We still diminish others, we treat them as less than what they were made to be. And we still think we're exceptional and that the world revolves around us and we fail to see ourselves as small but important lights in the greater constellation of God's grace and favor. Or sometimes we just have so much nonsense going on in our heads that we don't even notice the people around us. So yeah, we have our bad days. And that's why sometimes it takes an outsider perspective, like David's, to see the illuminating beauty of Jesus and His story and His community, to see what's still there, even when we miss it.

I've been reading David's book, How to Know a Person, while also reading the book of Acts in the Bible. The book of Acts recounts the happenings around the first community of Christ followers. And David's book has helped illuminate the beauty there for me. Acts tells about this new community that was gathered around Jesus, how the community began to grow like gangbusters. Acts 11, we hear that not even persecution could stop it. The movement had started in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified for claiming to be the Jewish Messiah. And when He was raised from the dead and appeared to His followers, they believe that He is who He says He is: God's illuminating Light for all the families of the earth, first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles.

Many Jews in Jerusalem believe the message, but not all of them. And a terrible persecution breaks out. Most of these new disciples of Jesus are run out of town. They leave Jerusalem and resettle in new cities like Antioch, in Syria, 300 miles to the north. In Antioch and other cities, they share the message about Jesus, their Messiah, but only with their fellow Jews. Now, why only Jews? Why not everyone? We can't know exactly what they were thinking. Maybe some still believe that the Jewish nation was exceptional, and this led them to diminish other people, a trap Jews sometimes fell into. Just read the book of Jonah. Or maybe it wasn't any sense of superiority, but just that they had so much rattling around in their heads, they didn't even notice the non-Jews around them. Whatever it was, something new began to happen for them in the city of Antioch. Some other Jesus-following Jews had come into Antioch, and they started talking with the Greeks, non-Jews, telling them the good news about Jesus, that He is the Lord, the king of all.

And the book of Acts says that the hand of the Lord was with them, and many people believed and turned to the Lord. Now, when news of this reaches the ears of the church in Jerusalem, they want to know what's up, so they send this guy named Barnabas to Antioch. Barnabas seems to have been an illuminator like Jimmy. Because when he gets to Antioch, he doesn't first see all the problems that would inevitably arise with a bunch of new followers of Jesus—their misunderstandings and half-truths and distortions they'd bring over from their former world views. Barnabas doesn't see all the problems that would inevitably come from having a multi-ethnic, multicultural community. No, when Barnabas gets to Antioch, he sees one thing: the grace of God. He sees the illuminating light of God's beaming face shining on them. Barnabas saw the light and lit up, and he encouraged them to stay faithful to Jesus with all their heart because the Bible tells us Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.

Barnabas also saw that he needed some help. So he travels on foot about a hundred miles to the west, to the town of Tarsus and finds Saul. Now Saul, remember, he's the guy that almost nobody trusted, many people hated and some wanted dead. Saul had been one of those Jews, like the prophet Jonah, who didn't want anything to do with God's light for the nations. But that living light marched over, grabbed Saul by the shoulders, and shook him to the core. Saul would be lit up for Jesus, like Mrs. Dorsey for Jimmy. Saul's light, however, seems to have been a little different from Barnabas's, less of a warm, nurturing, grow light and more like an up-in-your-face spotlight. Because just about everywhere Saul went, telling people about Jesus, somebody wanted to kill him. So the church leaders made the call to send Saul away, back to his hometown, back to Tarsus, where he could do some soul-searching and maybe rethink his tone.

That's where Barnabas finds him, years later. And when Barnabas sees Saul, he doesn't see a washed-up has-been. He doesn't see a pot-stirring rabble rouser. He doesn't see a liability. He sees something others had overlooked. The Bible doesn't tell us what Barnabas said to Saul when he saw him, but I imagine that he smiled as broadly as a human face can smile and said, "Saul of Tarsus, Saul of Tarsus, you are the best. I love you. And I got a job for you." He brings Saul to Antioch, to this motley, multicultural, mixed-up new church, and for the next year, they meet with them there and teach them. And many people are added to the Lord. It's there, in Antioch, for the first time, the disciples of Jesus are called "Christians." People who reflect the light of Jesus Christ. Reflect, and sometimes refract. And on our bad days, totally eclipse.

Even Barnabas and Saul had their bad days. The book of Acts shines light on that, too. Later, in Acts 15, we hear that Saul, who now goes by the name Paul, Paul and Barnabas had a falling out. After years of being friends, traveling all over the Roman world together, risking life and limb together, they get in a fight; they split up; they go their separate ways. It may be the saddest moment in the book of Acts. So what caused it? We're told that it was over a mutual friend who'd had a regrettable lapse in judgment. Barnabas wanted to keep the friend on the team. Paul didn't. Paul still loved this friend as a Christian brother, but he no longer trusted him as a co-worker. Paul, it seems, still tended to see people like that spotlight that exposed their shortcomings, and Barnabas, he tended to be more like an accommodating, nurturing, grow light.

But I don't think we can say that Barnabas was the illuminator and Paul was the diminisher. No, they were both reflecting the illuminating light of Christ, but in different ways. Because the light of Christ isn't a generic stamp of approval. It's not just another secular way of telling everyone, "You be the best version of yourself. You do you." No, the light of Jesus is Law and Gospel, which all Christians reflect imperfectly: the exposing search light that reveals your shortcomings, the warm grow light that nurtures you right where you're at. As one beloved pastor put it, "Jesus says to all of us, 'Cheer up. You're a worse sinner than you ever imagined, and you are more loved than you ever dared to hope.'" That's the Law and Gospel light of Jesus. It was shining on Paul and Barnabas and the believers in Antioch, and it was shining on David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and once secular Jew, who authored the book I mentioned earlier.

In a recent interview, David explained how that light came to him. He had spent many years getting to know Christians, being around Christian communities, Christian universities, and schools. He said, "I was a complete atheist, but I found it so deep and beautiful, convincing and beautiful. And then gradually, it seemed true. I didn't have a moment when Jesus walked through the wall and said, 'Come follow Me.' It was gradual. It went from beautiful to true." So David became a Christian, sometime in 2013 or 2014, a transition he likens to investing in the stock market in 1929. But even if Christian stock has since crashed in our culture, David knows that the light of Jesus still shines, even on our bad days. Maybe it's a little like how David first saw Mrs. Dorsey in that Waco diner. At first, he didn't put much stock in her intimidating drill-sergeant personality. But when he watched how Jimmy lit up in her presence, that put her in a different light.

When I read about Mrs. Dorsey in David's book, I find myself wishing, wishing I knew her as a person. So I did some searching on the internet, and I ran across an audio interview that she gave in 1993. If you want to hear it, search "the oral memoirs of LaRue Dorsey." That's LaRue, spelled L-A-R-U-E, Dorsey, D-O-R-S-E-Y. It's in the digital collections of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. If you listen, you'll get to hear some of that honey sweetness in her voice that she wasn't quite ready to share with David that morning. See, Mrs. Dorsey is also a Christian. She has her bad days like the rest of us, and maybe she was having one with David that morning. She is still being transformed in the light and love of Jesus. The preschool she started after her first retirement was licensed for two-, three-, and four-year-olds. It was called LaRue's Learning Center. And at LaRue's Learning Center, Mrs. Dorsey said in that interview, "We are a hugging school. We hug every day, and we say every day, 'I am God's child. I am somebody. I may be poor, without skills, but I can learn.'"

Mrs. Dorsey's students knew that if they were having a bad day and they weren't doing what they knew they were supposed to be doing, they knew that they wouldn't hear any of that honey sweetness in Mrs. Dorsey's voice. But it wasn't because she didn't love them. No, she would shine the searchlight, put that spotlight up in your face, lay down the law in love, because she wanted you to know you are God's child. You count, you make a difference in this world. Listening to Mrs. Dorsey's voice on that recording, I can close my eyes and see her students light up. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.





Reflections for June 2, 2024
Title: Lit Up

No Reflection segment this week.




Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Holy Spirit, Light Divine" arr. Peter Prochnow. Recording courtesy of The Hymnal Project, Michigan District, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

"O Jesus, King Most Wonderful" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"O Day of Rest and Gladness" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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