GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus came up from the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This guy in a dress was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and I see the meaning of those words in a whole new light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

By its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

New Year Epiphany Prayer

O gracious God of endings and beginings, the new year gives us a chance to reflect on our goals and recommit to aligning our will with yours. The new year is a time to let go of regrets and guilt that hold us back, and so we offer them now to you.
January is a time for new hope in old dreams–dreams that cannot be fulfilled with our puny new year’s resolutions. The challenges facing our world require revolutionary thoughts and action. Please show us the way to be revolutionary agents of love, peace and justice for all of your children.

We confess, Lord, that we often lose our way in the dark. Our hopes for the new year can get swallowed up in the darkness of last year’s problems and regrets. We are heartsick about the terrible fires in Australia, about our failure to be good stewards of your creation. We pray also today for our Jewish sisters and brothers and an end to hateful anti-Semitism. And we pray also for those full of hate that their hearts will be changed by the Light of the World.

We are also saddened by the endless cycle of war and revenge that breeds more violence. We pray for the troops and their families, and we pray for President Trump and the leaders of Iran and Iraq. Give them wisdom and direction from your Holy Spirit that they will be able to reduce tensions and bring peace to that war-weary part of your world.

The journey to peace in our world and in our hearts is long and hard, Lord. It’s full of detours, obstacles and false idols like King Herod. The light of your Son seems too often to be hidden by worldly darkness. We pray that you would save us from false promises of an easy way to your kingdom. Grant us courage and faith to persevere and follow your true North Star that always leads us home to you.

We know that we will never solve every problem the forces of evil put in our way, but don’t let that discourage us. Don’t let it stop us from making life better for those we can. Let us be mirrors that reflect the Light of the World to those searching in the darkness and lead them to the one who comes to show us how to live, how to love and how to pray.

INTROVERT PSA

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me – a much-needed rest! For my fellow introverts that sentence needs no explanation, but for the other 75% of the population this is a PSA. That acronym has new meaning for me since my prostate started acting up several years ago, but in this instance it means what it originally meant, a Public Service Announcement.

First indulge me a bit of introspection, because that’s what introverts do best. I’ve been a bah-humbug kind of guy when it comes to how we Americans celebrate Christmas for as long as I can remember. I’ve attributed that to two things – the hectic work schedule of church professionals in December and my disdain for the way commercialism has hijacked the essence of the Christmas message.

But lo and behold this old dog can still have a new insight, and this year it dawned on me that my introverted personality may be an even bigger factor in my attitude about the holiday season. First, let’s be clear I’m not talking about the common misunderstanding that having an introverted personality style means being “shy.” Introverts can be just as out-going, warm, and friendly as extroverts. The difference is being all those things takes a lot more energy for introverts than extroverts because of the way the two personality types are energized.

Introverts need some downtime, some solitude to recharge their batteries, and that kind of quiet time is hard to come by in the busyness of the holiday season. Extroverts on the other hand naturally get more energized from being around people in all the family, business and social gatherings that December has to offer. And here’s an important fact that all of us need to understand. Research shows that about 75% of Americans have an extroverted personality preference and 25% are introverts. That’s important because the majority of the population is naturally going to set the tempo and determine what kind of culture we have; therefore all of us live in a world better suited to extroverts than introverts.

That’s not a judgment. Neither personality type is better or worse than the other. They are just two different ways we are wired, and we can’t change that. My anecdotal/personal experience with that is that I’ve taken a variety of personality type indicator tests, and even when I “cheat” and try to give answers that I think are what an extroverts would say I still score as an introvert.
One’s personality preference per se is not a problem. Introverts can function well in extroverted situations and vice versa, but it helps everyone to get along better if we realize how such situations affect our energy levels. For example, my wife Diana and I had a very full social calendar from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. During that 9 day period we had at least one and often more activities scheduled on 8 of those days. All of them were fun (except for a couple painful football and basketball games that didn’t turn out as we hoped) and with people we love and enjoy being around. For Diana, an extrovert, being with family and friends, going to parties, a concert, celebrating the New Year and her January 1st birthday were energizing. (Although I think even she is ready for a break now.)

For me, and I’m guessing for other introverts, that same string of busy days and nights felt like a marathon with precious little time to catch my breath and recharge my batteries. I share all that because having this insight a few days ago helped me pace myself a bit and accept myself and others for who we are and how we function. That understanding helped me feel less resentful about the hyper-extroverted way we do Christmas. I hope it is helpful to others as well.

Early January is a time for all of us to slow down and breathe, but it’s a necessity for us introverts. Happy 2020!!

T’was Two Days Before Christmas

T’was two days before Christmas and all through my mind thoughts and feelings are bouncing before and behind. On one channel bad news of the world on a continuous loop: refugee kids in cages; impeachment shots fired across a partisan chasm that divides families and friendships; violence rages in streets from Hong Kong to India; and climate crisis wildfires and extreme weather bombard our fragile planet. Another brainwave features heavy grief for the parents of a young man I will bury on Friday. A personal memory that my father would have celebrated his 98th birthday this day tugs at my heart competing with the siren song of consumerism Christmas.

And yet if I listen carefully beneath the static a still small voice proclaims a miracle where one day’s lamp oil lasts over a week—a secret humans have celebrated for millennia every time the solstice darkness surrenders to more minutes of daylight. Another voice chimes in “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I believe. And yet the cosmic tug of war between darkness and light still plays out in my frazzled brain. I drag my heels in futile resistance to turning the page of my mortality calendar into the December years of my life. Despair and hope swing light sabers to see which will rule the new year.

But I know in my better moments that incarnation doesn’t come when it’s easy or unneeded. It does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums,” but “silently, so silently” the the gift of hope is given where “meek souls will receive it still,” not in Time Square or St Peter’s but in a dark cave in a one-stable town where there was no room in the Bethlehem Hilton.

And by Menorah, or star in the east, or Solstice sunrise, the message resounds again and again – Let there be Light!

Peace and Goodwill

Note: I am pleased to share these good words from the Christmas letter of a fellow pastor. Bill Hull was a classmate of mine in seminary and has been a cherished friend now for over 50 years. I am pleased to share his thoughts as a guest contributor and offer a hearty Amen.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 RSV

As we draw near to Christmas, this is a season of anticipation, a time of promise. It is the promise of peace and goodwill, not as pie in the sky by and by or among only heavenly beings, “but on earth…among people with whom God is well pleased.” I take that to be all people.

When God created, God proclaimed the work to be “good” as in “God don’t make no junk.” We on the other hand tend to criticize or to reject and exclude those whose sins are different from ours. To do so, we pick and choose from the buffet of laws and prohibitions in the Scripture to justify our inclusion among those “with whom God is pleased.”

The promise of peace and goodwill is sometimes hard to believe. We live in a time of deep division within our own country, of alienation from those who have been our historic allies and of threats of destruction from our enemies. We live in a time of domestic and foreign terrorism, a time of increasing hatred for those whose skin color, religion or lifestyle are different from ours. We live in a time when violence, death and duplicity are all around us. How do we believe in the promise of peace and goodwill among people?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I believe that a part of the answer to believing the promise is to be the promise. I believe that part of the answer is to act as if being loving is more important than being right. I believe that part of the answer is treating all people as beloved of God, created in God’s image. I believe that it means being peacemakers, that it means being neighbors to all who need what we have and what we are.

To be the promise is eternal life here and now. It is all that we can do. The rest is up to God.

Messiah Vision, Advent Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11

When I told my wife, Diana, that I was preaching on this text she correctly pointed out to me that this story seems strangely out of place for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We’re still 10 days from the birth of Jesus and the lectionary text for today jumps 30 years ahead where John the Baptist is in prison. It seems chronologically out of whack, but if we take off our historical/literal glasses and dig into John’s important question we find it is very relevant for us in this Advent season 2000 years later.

The text tells us “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”” Why would John be asking that question? He of all people should know who Jesus is. He is the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and in that story all 3 synoptic Gospels report that after the baptism “a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That seems pretty convincing to me and not something John would have forgotten.

So why is John asking, “Are you the one?” Let’s back up a minute to the first part of that verse. It says, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” That’s what prompts the question. John is confused as many were in Jesus’ day because Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah they were hoping for.

Did you ever get a Christmas gift that wasn’t what you expected or were hoping for? Kids are pretty good at showing their disappointment when they tear into a package they think contains the new X-box from Santa and find instead underwear and socks.
That kind of disappointment is at work in John’s question: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” Jesus didn’t fulfill the Christmas wish list the oppressed Jews were hoping for. They wanted a political/military liberator and they got a suffering servant. They were hoping for Rambo and God sent Gandhi instead. They wanted a Messiah who would take to the streets and give the hated Romans their just desserts. Instead they got Jesus who ate dessert with tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the situation and the audience Matthew was writing to. Mathew’s Gospel was written 40-50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which puts it sometime after the year 70 C.E. That is a very significant date for the Jewish Christians, rather like 9/11 for us, because we know that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The temple was God’s residence in their midst and now it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. That had to be a time when the Jews and their hopes for deliverance by the Messiah hit rock bottom. They were feeling like John, imprisoned and questioning their faith. So John’s question from his prison cell awaiting execution reflects the doubts of his readers, the Jews and new Christ followers sitting in the devastation of their city and their hope.

Are you the one, Jesus? Why haven’t you delivered us? It’s the question disciples of Christ have asked in every generation when suffering and despair threaten to drown our faith. Who is this Jesus, and why is there still so much injustice and suffering in our world?

The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice came out when I was a senior in seminary, and I was drawn to the way it asked that same question about Jesus. The title song of that musical has Judas asking,
“Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

I talked one of my theology professors into letting me do an independent study on the theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. He was not a fan of rock music and very reluctant at first but finally agreed. I remember in particular one conversation we had about the scene in the musical where Jesus finally loses his cool and turns over the money changers’ tables in the temple and drives them out with a whip.

I was young and full of righteous indignation then. Now I’m old but still full of it. In 1970 I was idealistic and very impatient with the social injustices of war, racism and sexism – sound familiar? At any rate I was drawn to this angry Jesus upsetting the apple cart in the temple, but Professor Hopper cautioned me to put that incident in the context of Jesus’ total ministry. Yes, Jesus got angry a couple of times. He was human after all. But those incidents of anger are very rare and atypical of the patient, kind, compassionate and forgiving healer that Jesus was.

And that’s why John the Baptist is questioning Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus isn’t doing things the way John would have done them. Pastor Chris reminded us last week what a wild man John was. He was a man of action, calling out the sins of the big shots of his day. He followed the examples of Amos and Micah and the other Hebrew prophets who were hell fire and brimstone preachers warning God’s people of the wrath to come if they didn’t repent of their sinful ways.

But Jesus broke the mold of the angry prophet and replaced it with the Messiah
who hangs out with the outcasts of society, who is the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep instead of blaming it for wandering off. Instead of heaping guilt on the oppressed he offers forgiveness and grace to prodigal daughters and sons like you and me.

So this question is exactly what we should be asking as we prepare for Christmas. Who are you Jesus? What kind of Messiah are you really? If we don’t understand the nature of God’s incarnation in our world, if we’re looking for the wrong kind of Messiah we will miss out on the greatest gift any of us can hope for.

My heart has always been touched by a song much older than “Jesus Christ Superstar” that poses the same question. It was written during the Great Depression, another time of great suffering in our country. Robert MacGimsey was a white composer, but he wrote this song in the style of an American slave song. The version I grew up with was recorded by Mahalia Jackson, but it continues to be recorded today by other artists because it raises an important warning that we’ll miss Jesus again if he’s not what we expect. The song says,

“Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn’t know who you were.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know who you were.”

Do we know Jesus today? Would we recognize him if he or she appeared to us in the checkout line at Kroger’s or at the food pantry? Do we treat the telemarketer or an ungrateful child as we would treat Jesus? Do we take time to pray and ask ourselves if the Jesus we want for Christmas is the one God sends to upset our values and call into question our way of life?

I had cataract surgery on both of my eyes this fall. I can now see much better than before because the old clouded lenses have been replaced by new ones. Someone has joked that we will all see 2020 come January. But the real question is will we have Messiah vision? Will you join me in praying for new spiritual lenses so we can see clearly who Jesus is and what he expects of us as his followers?

Yes, Jesus is the one! And we don’t have to wait for another because God’s Emmanuel is with us here and now every step of the way. We just need Messiah Vision so we don’t miss out on his Kingdom because of preconceived notions of what that kingdom should look like. Amen

Christmas Surprise: Lessons of Orogrande

Note: This is a story I wrote many years ago. The plot would have to be altered in today’s internet and social media world, but at the same time the heart of the story is as true as Christmas itself…

It was a warm spring day in Orogrande, a nearly deserted mining town in New Mexico, 50 miles northeast of El Paso. The Sharks, Orogande’s contribution to gangdom, were gathered down by the river trying to decide what trouble they could cause that day. Jake, their commander-in-chief, spotted Palermo, the villages designated “idiot,” coming their way. Motioning for his posse to follow his lead, Jake called to Palermo excitedly, telling him to come see the big fish they had just caught. The Sharks, sensing the sport to come, quickly got into the spirit of the joke and huddled around, pretending to admire the fish. They conveniently made it impossible for Palermo to see.

As he had done so many times before, Palermo walked into their trap with child-like trust. He hurried down the river bank and bent over to see their prize. Immediately, Jake got down on his hands and knees behind Palermo, and one of the other Sharks, known affectionately to his friends as “the Blade,” tossed a handful of dirt in Palermo’s face. Palermo stood up coughing and sputtering to brush the dirt out of his eyes. One of the other Sharks shoved Palermo backwards over Jake’s back, head-first into the scummy, stagnant river.

Palermo came up fighting mad, but by that time the Sharks were on their way to torment someone else, laughing and enjoying their little prank to the fullest. Palermo dragged himself up on to the bank and looked up to see John Perez, the town’s mayor and constable, standing at a distance with a thinly-disguised smile on his face. “Hey, Palermo, don’t you know enough to take your clothes off before you go swimming?”

Palermo shouted back in broken English, “Sharks, they push Palermo in river. Why you not stop them?”
“Oh, Palermo, there’s no sharks in that river. You must be dreaming,” and Perez laughed again as he walked away.

Palermo knew it was hopeless. He had been tormented all his life by the whole town of Orogrande. The humiliating laughter rang in his ears at night and kept him awake. The taunts and insults echoed in his dreams, and often he awoke pleading for mercy from a very real-to-life nightmare. As he sat on the river bank sobbing, he tried to think. No one ever gave him credit for thinking, but Palermo thought a lot. He thought about life and wondered why it was so hard? He wondered about how he could get away from Orogrande and start a new life. He dreamed of getting even with all the people who had mistreated and abused him. But the answers he came up with were always the same. He had no money to go anywhere or do anything. People gave him enough food to survive on, and Mrs. Brown let him sleep in her garage. But no one would give him a job or enough money to get away. A few people were nice enough not to tease him. Some just avoided him and told their children not to go near him.

Palermo didn’t understand why that was so. He couldn’t remember how it all began. He had heard people call him the “orphan boy” or “that half-breed” or “illegitimate” or “bastard.” He didn’t’ understand what those words meant, but he knew how they felt. They made him an outcast. They meant that other kids had never been allowed to play with him. He had never had a chance to go to school like the other children. He had no mother or father. But most of all they meant that he was all alone in a cruel and hateful world.

Thinking about it made him cry. Then it made him very angry. He remembered what the Sharks had just done to him and all the years of torment. Anger and hate boiled up in him till he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and started back toward town. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew he was going to get even for at least some of the things the evil people of Orogrande had done to him.

Palermo went straight to Mrs. Brown’s garage. He was in such a frenzy he was not sure what he was looking for. He rummaged around the corner where his cot was, found nothing there and moved on to the other side where Mrs. B kept her car. He found a rusty old axe there and thought for moment of using on Jake or Perez. Then he spotted a can of gasoline, and he knew what he would do.
He was excited and restless. It was only 6 o’clock, and he knew he had a long wait for darkness.

He had not eaten all day; so after pacing the floor enjoying his plan of revenge for awhile; he headed for Smitty’s bar and grill. Smitty ran the only bar in Orogrande, and the upstanding citizens of the town were always trying to run him out of business. But Smitty, along with Mrs. Brown, came the closest of anyone in town to treating Palermo like a human being. “Maybe Smitty understands what it feels like to be an outcast,” thought Palermo, as he turned onto Main Street. Smitty certainly did. He was barely able to support his family on what he made at the tavern. He hated the constant harassment and pressure to close his place. But as always, he was glad to see Palermo and offered him a hamburger and some fries.

As Palermo was finishing his meal, Perez walked in. Seeing Palermo, he picked up where he had left off that afternoon by the river. Only this time he had an audience. Soon everyone in the bar was laughing furiously at Palermo. Palermo tried to ignore them. He took it as long as he could. Then the anger began to boil again. Before he knew what he was doing, Palermo pushed Perez across the room and shouted, “You not laugh when Palermo burn up your house!” Then he turned and ran out, stopping only at the drug store for some matches before going back to the garage.

Perez was annoyed at being pushed, but took the threat lightly. Everyone laughed some more at Palermo’s display of anger. Everyone that is, but Jake and The Blade who were shooting pool in the back room. Almost simultaneously, they had the same idea—a way to get Perez and let Palermo take the blame! They played pool half-heartedly until Perez left the bar. Then they took off to round up the rest of the Sharks.

Smitty couldn’t stop thinking about Palermo all evening. He had never tried to talk much to Palermo, but he really felt sorry for him. When he closed the tavern that night he walked over to Mrs. Brown’s to see if Palermo was still awake. When he found the garage empty so late at night he was afraid Palermo might have been serious with his threat. He ran down Water Street and up Jackson to where Perez lived. Sure enough, he found Palermo hiding in the alley behind the house, waiting for everyone to go to bed.

Palermo was angry that Smitty had come, but then he began to realize that Smitty was right. He would be a dead duck if he torched Perez’s house now. The whole town would know who did it! So, still angry and frustrated, but glad Smitty had saved him from making a stupid mistake, Palermo went back to his cot in the garage and went to bed. He lay awake for hours. He was still very angry about the day’s events and wanted revenge in the worst way. He was so upset he thought of pouring the gasoline on himself and lighting it. In fact, he was still wondering what that would feel like when he heard a commotion outside. He looked out the door and saw a mob coming toward the garage. Perez was leading the way.

“You stinking half-breed, come out and take your medicine,” Perez shouted. Palermo was afraid. He tried to run out the back door, but they were there too. They grabbed him and knocked him down. Someone kicked him hard in the ribs. Finally Perez pulled him to his feet and spat in his face. There was fire in his eyes like Palermo had never seen before. Perez wanted to lynch Palermo on the spot, but cooler heads persuaded him to wait until they could at least go through the motions of a trial. The mob literally dragged Palermo to the jail. He tried frantically to ask what he was being locked up for, but no one would even acknowledge his questions.

Palermo spent a sleepless night, confused and afraid. The jailer on duty kept Perez from killing Palermo, not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to. In the morning they let Smitty in for just a minute. He told Palermo that someone really had burned Perez’s house the night before. Palermo swore he had not done it. Smitty urged Palermo not to tell anyone anything until he could find a lawyer. And then Perez gruffly told Smitty his time was up.

If fate hadn’t taken a hand in things, Palermo would have been railroaded through a trial and hanged before the sun set. But as it turned out, Judge Griffin in Buena Vista, the county seat was on a two-week vacation. In that time the media latched onto the story about Palermo’s case.

Ten days after the fire, a Mercedes with California tags drove into Orogrande. It stopped in front of Smitty’s place. A well-groomed three-piece suit got out and looked around, then went inside. The stranger ordered a drink and began asking people about Palermo. Nobody in Orogrande usually wanted to talk to strangers, especially not about Palermo, but Smitty overheard the questions and asked the man why he was so interested in Palermo? The stranger said he might be able to help Palermo, but he needed to know about his parents. Smitty said he had only been in town eight years. The only person he could think of who might know anything would be Mrs. Brown.

It was a long shot, but the man headed for Mrs. Brown’s little house on Third Street. Mildred Brown was a kindly African American woman of about 60. She, too, was leery of this stranger at first, but said she would tell him what she could if it would help Palermo. He asked her if she knew anything about Palermo’s mother. Reluctantly, Mrs. Brown related the painful story. “Palermo’s mother was a Mexican girl who just wandered into town one day. No one knew where she came from. She stayed in town, mostly doing housework for people. A few months later it became apparent that she was pregnant. She claimed the baby’s father was young John Hartford, son of J.T. Hartford. Hartford,” she explained, “owns the Orogrande Copper Mines where everybody in town works. Well, Maria, that was her name, she hid here in my house until the baby came. Mr. Hartford sent his son away to school. But when he found out Maria was still here he told some of the men who work for him to ‘take care of her,’ and they killed her.” Mrs. Brown was in tears. “I don’t know why they didn’t kill the baby too, but it would have been better for him if they had!”

“And the baby was Palermo?”

“Yes. I took care of him as best I could. But they wouldn’t let him go to school. They threatened to run us both out of town if I let him live in the house with me. Everyone picks on him. I don’t blame him for setting that fire. He took so much hate for so long!”

“Here’s a picture, Mrs. Brown. Could you tell me if this could be Palermo’s mother?”
“Why yes it is. Where did you get it?”

The gentleman explained that he was one of several attorneys who had been working for the Spanish government for years trying to locate the daughter of King Ferdinand. She had come to the U.S. twenty years ago to study at U.C.L.A. She ran away from there about 20 years ago and was last seen in northern New Mexico. “You see, Mrs. Brown, if your story is true, Palermo is the heir to the throne of Spain. I saw a story about his case on CNN last week. His age and the location and the fact he had no family inter4ested me enough to check into it further. It seems to have paid off.”

Mrs. Brown sat in stunned silence. Palermo, a prince!

The rest, as they say, is history. With the best attorneys money could buy, Palermo was cleared of the arson and murder charges against him. The Sharks were convicted of arson and manslaughter and sent to prison. The whole town of Orogrande was flabbergasted and turned itself inside out trying to redeem itself for 18 years of abuse.

Palermo was flown to Madrid where his grandfather was dying. In less than a month, he had gone from village idiot, to prisoner, to crown prince. Palermo had a very hard time understanding what it was all about. But with the aid of special tutors he was soon able to read and speak both Spanish and English. He had even begun to grasp a little history and political science by the time his grandfather died and Palermo became king.

A few months after his coronation the new king announced he would be making a trip to visit the United States to confer with the President. Palermo had arrangements made so he could also visit Chicago and Los Angeles, and he wanted a special stop in Orogrande included in his itinerary.

When the big day arrived, everyone in Orogrande turned out for a parade in Palermo’s honor. It was the biggest even in the history of the town. They had streamers and banners all over town welcoming their most famous son. There was a VIP banquet in his honor at the high school. At the banquet Perez and J.T. Hartford both gave long flowery speeches saying that things would certainly have been different if they had only known who Palermo was. They apologized profusely for any “inconveniences” the town might have “unknowingly” caused Palermo. They said they were glad that was all in the past and could be forgotten now. They presented Palermo with a key to the city and revealed elaborate plans to erect a statue in his honor on the town square.

Finally, Palermo rose to speak. In flawless English he thanked his former tormentors for their honors. Then he asked to see Mrs. Brown and Smitty. The banquet committee was embarrassed. They hadn’t even invited either Smitty or Mrs. Brown. So everyone waited while Smitty and Mrs. Brown were escorted to the high school by Perez’s part-time deputy. And then Smitty and Mrs. Brown were embarrassed because they weren’t dressed for the occasion. That was soon forgotten as Palermo greeted his old friends warmly. He presented Mrs. Brown with a diamond pendant and guaranteed both of them comfortable income for the rest of their lives. It was his thanks to them for being the only two friends he ever had.

Then abruptly Palermo started to leave. Mr. Hartford stopped him and explained to him that his copper mine was in deep financial trouble. He pointed out that the whole town’s economy depended on that mine. He was wondering if Palermo could find any way to help them out. Hartford repeated how terribly sorry they all were about the way things had been in the past.

Palermo listened politely and then started to walk away again. Hartford was persistent. “Palermo! I mean your majesty. This was your home. I am probably your grandfather. We desperately need your help! Don’t you care about us?”

Palermo turned and almost laughed in Hartford’s face. “When did you ever care about me, Mr. Hartford?” With that, his royal highness left Orogrande for the last time.

No, they didn’t live happily ever after. Few people do. But lest you should judge Palermo too harshly, it wasn’t long after this final visit that sizeable contributions of cash from an anonymous source began to arrive in the office of Mayor Perez. They came with a simple designation: “For improving the welfare of the citizens of Orogrande.”

Many people speculated about this donor. Only Smitty knew for sure, and Mrs. Brown, who found herself listening over and over to an old recording by Mahalia Jackson of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy, we didn’t know who you was.”