Rev. George Miller
Oct 21, 2012
Today we celebrate Sebring’s Centennial; to do so I’d like to tell you the story of two George’s, a century apart.
The first story takes place in the modern day; August 28, 2012 to be exact. I was driving home from work, a good day that had concluded with a spirit-filled visit with someone in which we talked about every facet of life, good and bad, happy and sad.
I was driving south on 27 with Lake Jackson in full view, thinking about the day, when it happened.
I was coming to the turn where CVS sits on the corner. Up ahead, on the left side of the highway was an older man wearing a hat. He had no shirt on, a big ol’ pot belly sticking out and in his arms he was carrying a bicycle tire. Only the good Lord knows why.
I watched as this half-nekked, hat wearing, pot-bellied man sauntered across the highway with a wheel and I was non-plussed; unfazed.
That’s when I realized I had truly arrived. When you can see such a thing and do not even so much as blink an eye, you know you are comfortable right where you are at.
I thought to myself “Only in Sebring can you see such a sight” and I realized that either you got it or you did not.
Those who did not get it probably only lasted a few years; those who did stayed a lifetime.
Now let’s jump back a hundred years ago to talk about someone who “got it.”
He name was George Sebring, a pottery maker, self-made millionaire and business entrepreneur from Ohio.
He was known for the fine china he crafted with intricate gold borders and angels. But ultimately he would be known for the town he created: Sebring, FL.
When Mr. Sebring came down here he may have seen pine forest, but what he envisioned was a city where citrus could be grown, Christian workers could retire and sick people could heal.
Embracing that vision, he went about constructing roads and sidewalks, buildings and utilities. He crafted a unique circular downtown that caught the attention of northern bankers.
What was it about the area that spoke to George Sebring? Sure, there was Lake Jackson, which seemed to be just the right size.
It was also because when he looked out he saw a land of “sunshine, fruit and flowers.”
…Now, no disrespect to Mr. Sebring, but apparently he must have failed to notice it was also a land of unbearable summer heat, alligators and water moccasins…
Funny how one chooses what one wants to see. For some the glass can be half full, for others the glass is half empty.
For some it rains 6 months out of the year in Sebring, and that’s bad; for others it is dry 6 months out of the year; and that’s good.
Which becomes our jumping off spot for today’s message, because we are not just here today to celebrate our town’s 100th anniversary, but we are here to study the word of the Lord and to wonder what God has to say to us today.
And I have to tell you: this is not the easiest of scriptures. Sure, on the surface it sounds just fine and soothing, but just underneath alligators and water moccasins seem to lurk.
Psalm 91 has had a controversial past. There are those who like it; there are those who think it should have been thrown out of the Bible.
The reason why? The claim that the promises made in this scripture are absolutely unrealistic.
Let’s take a look at what it has to say:
-that nothing evil will ever happen to us
-that angels will make sure we never as much as dash our feet
-that we can safely walk over lions and poisonous snakes
Can any of us honestly say this is absolutely true? If so 9/11 never would have happened. If so, Rev. Lawrence would have not broken his leg. If so, we’d be able to swim in all the lakes of Sebring without fear of being eaten alive.
But that ain’t so.
And, if we are not careful, this is the kind of scripture that can be used to beat people down. “Oh, did your house get robbed? It must be because you did a really bad thing.”
“Oh, did you fall and break your foot? You must not have had enough faith.”
I recall a few weeks ago when I heard a sermon in which the preacher basically blamed Aaron Doty for his own death.
And how often have we heard someone say “If you just believed…”
That’s a horrible thing to say when a loved-ones on life support or someone’s child is in ICU.
If taken literally, Psalm 91 makes it sound like the righteous will never have a problem for the rest of their life, which we know is completely untrue.
So what do we do? Do we simply ignore this scripture? Do we grant it the license to have poetic hyperbole? Can we find ways to parse it apart to find the bits of sunshine, fruits and flowers we know to be true?
Let’s try the later. First, I like how the reading begins. It states the Lord is our refuge, the Most High our dwelling place.
In essence, what the author is saying is that God is our home. I think we can all agree with that.
God is the place we can turn to and know we are welcome. God is the place where we are known by name. God is the place where we can be ourselves and not worry about what others say.
The world out there may be full of alligators and cotton mouths but we know with God we are safe and we are loved.
Next is the claim “I will be with them in trouble.” It reminds me of Exodus where God reveals God’s name as “I AM WHO I AM.”
“I will be” is God’s promised presence enduring forever.
It’s the assurance that God gives us that no matter what we face, no matter what we endure; God is right there with us, validating us, listening to us, wanting to share with us the gift of life.
So, there are bits of this reading we can say are extremely untrue, and there are passages that we can find easier to agree with.
What do we do?
I believe there is a way of looking at this scripture and using its hyperbole as a way to find inner strength.
I believe this scripture can encourage us during the difficult times when we need to believe in the impossible.
I believe that there are times in our lives in which we are asked to make the choice that is correct as opposed to the choice that is popular.
It is especially during those moments when we need to hear scripture such as this with images of trampling snakes and protective angels, which gives a poetic sense of assurance when faced with touch choices.
For example, there is one part of George Sebring’s legacy I am so proud of. As the story goes, he saw our town as a “delightful, wholesome community” where proclaimers of God’s word could retire.
One day Mr. Sebring met a world-renown black evangelist named Amanda Smith. He was impressed by her preaching style and promised that he would help her retire to Sebring when she was ready.
Now keep in mind this was in the 1920’s and the south was still very much segregated. Keep in mind he was white and she was black, he was male, she was female.
A whole kind of lotta’ trouble.
When word got around that a black woman and her black companions were going to be living in a house on Lakeview Drive built by George Sebring, you could imagine the gossip that went around.
Eyebrows were raised and somebody came up to George and said “You better watch out.”
To which he responded “It’s fine; it does not matter if only I, my family and Amanda Smith live here.”
Later, it was also George Sebring who welcomed the first Jewish family and donated a lot for their synagogue.
I guess you can say 70 years before us, he was saying to the community “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”
Though I can’t speak for him, I wonder how influential scripture like today’s reading was to him.
Had Psalm 91 in any way given him the courage to believe that with God by his side, no racist lions or anti-Semitic snakes were going to keep him from doing what was right?
That is the gift of this scripture. That in using extreme, unrealistic hyperbole, it gives us the ability to set the bar a little higher, it challenges us to envision all the possibilities and it gives us an idea of just what eternal life can look like if we lived more by faith and less by fear.
In conclusion, today we have a chance to celebrate the legacy of our town’s forefather. A man who saw beyond sand hills and pine forests and realized he could create a place where east meets west, where north meets south.
Yes, there are sun and stars. But there are also clouds and storms.
Yes, there are forests and flowers. But there are also allergens and weeds.
Yes, there are chanting birds and sand hill cranes. But there are also alligators and water moccasins.
But somehow, through the grace of God, we learn how to coexist. To learn how to celebrate the good; to look beyond the bad.
To give thanks that for the past 100 years God has given so many of us a place to call home, a refuge, a dwelling place.
And we give thanks for this wonderful place in which we have gathered to worship, to baptize our believers, to bury our dead, to celebrate in communion, and for this Centennial to say in God we are satisfied; in God we have enough.
Amen and amen.