THE 15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST or THE WEASEL, THE MOUSE, THE GREAT LIZARD ACCORDING TO ITS KIND

The audio version may differ from the transcript of this sermon, but can be found on Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/15th-sunday-since-pentecost-september-17-2017  

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Nate Hosler

As many of you know we went camping last week. My family has gone camping most every year for more than 20 years. My mother has typically has made a scrapbook documenting these adventures. About 20 years ago she documented that my brother proclaimed that he was powered by tasty cakes and Spam (my memory might not be entirely correct on this). Around 15 years ago my mom discovered her severe headaches were caused by a gluten allergy. 10 years I married someone who likes spicy foods (and myself became so inclined). A few years ago, my one brother married a vegetarian and my other brother married someone sensitive to spicy foods. Needless to say, our camping cooking has gotten more complicated.

Our Romans passage addresses the topic of dietary restrictions of a different sort. In Jesus, we see an expanding of scope of ministry. While Jesus, at times said that he was here to preach to his people—the people of Israel—he none-the-less regularly went beyond this community in acts of healing and preaching. Though laws were set up for religious purity and to define the community these were never impermeable or meant to definitively exclude. While these laws limited certain types of interaction and eating certain types of food, there was also a significant and prominent theme of “caring for the resident alien.”

Jesus regularly transgressed established religious and ethnic borders as well as made the religious law secondary to acts of compassion and healing. (For example, with the Canaanite woman; Matthew 15, Centurion; Matthew 8). Jesus gives a final word of commissioning to his disciples instructing them to go to all nations [Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”]

Once Jesus departs after his resurrection and reappearance, the disciples wait with uncertainty but in prayer in Jerusalem. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit comes down and rests on them in the form of flame and linguistic innovation. (we’re only 15 weeks past). The multi-language display allows for preaching to Jews from all over who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. [Aside: I am not into doing dramatic productions or skits. However, while in Germany with Eastern Mennonite Missions after high school my team was asked to do a dramatic rendering of Acts 2 while it was read for an ecumenical Pentecost service. I don’t remember exactly what we did but the section which includes a long list of places initially lead to us pointing in every possible direction.]

Further along in Acts, as the disciples and Apostles are still working up to breaking beyond their religious boundaries, Peter has a vision of unclean animals lowered down in a sheet as a way to show him that he needs to go and preach to the Gentiles. Peter didn’t do this lightly—it took three times. In the vision he sees the sheet lowered and then hears (Acts 10:13 “.. a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

In this context, we read our Romans passage. Romans is written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome. It is one the earliest extended Christian theological reflections. Paul was originally Saul and a zealous persecutor of Christians. He then identified his mission as reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul did not start the church in Rome. A commentator writes,

“The fact is that we simply do not know how Christianity began in Rome and who, strictly speaking, its founding apostle were. We do know, however, that there was a large Jewish community in Rome in the first century (estimated at between 40,000-50,000).”(Dunn, 838, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). Overall population was around 1 million. (Reasoner, 851, DPL). Of the 24 people named in greetings in the last chapter, at least 14 are slaves which would have descended from Jewish captives brought to Rome following Pompey in Palestine in 62 BC. It is likely that the Christian community began among the synagogues but included Gentiles (Dunn, 839, DPL). This, along with differing assumptions on religious practice led to tensions. Hence, our passage’s pastoral nature.

Our passage begins,

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.

There was a legitimate discussion over what was ok and not ok to eat: In addition to passages in Leviticus (on the first page in Leviticus I opened at random) 11:29 “These are unclean to you among the creatures that swarm up on the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind…” and the reality that meat purchased in the market was likely sacrificed to pagan idols.

Though Paul himself is in the eat anything camp he says that forbearance and welcome should be exercised towards those who in a sincere desire to follow God do things different.

 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

God has welcomed them is in this case, however, framed by the question of abstaining or not abstaining from particular foods. There are, of course, many other things which we are more likely to argue or shun each other over these days. We seek to be a welcoming congregation. We have a sign in front of the church and many of you have it in your window or front lawn “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” This phrase is repeated in Arabic and Spanish. The Mennonite church that first made these was responding to a climate which was not welcoming.  Our welcoming, moreover, is based in a biblical, theological, and faith-rooted commitment. Because of this we easily might be attracted to this “God has welcomed them.” God has already welcomed so we are not so much initiating the welcome than enacting what God has already done. While this attractedness to this phrase is legit we must also not simply pick up and fixate on a word we like. What is the surrounding flow of the argument? Is it hermeneutically and theological sound to extrapolate this beyond the issue of purity laws and food?

The passage continues,

 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Here we begin to see that it is not that there is no judgement but that it is God’s task rather than ours.  Romans 12:17,  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;” for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 So, this makes us feel better. At least God will push the car off the road that pushed me and my bicycle off the road. God, after all, will probably be better at getting even than me anyway. If you can’t beat up the bully it is better to have the omnipotent God take care of it. However, we remember that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, that Jesus instructs to turn the other check and not have it in for our enemies because we are children of God and this nonretaliation is based on the character of a God who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike—which is of course true in meteorological terms but may feel less fabulous in terms of vengeance and injustice and unfairness (soon George will notice that things aren’t fair—probably relating to trucks).

We are not to judge. It is up to God. God is both just and merciful.

The difference of practice observed is based on conscience and conviction.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.

This is extremely interesting. Is the appropriateness of the action really based on conviction? Certainly, people can be wrongly convinced. For example, it would seem that Pharaoh and his army are very convinced that they should catch the Israelites. God doesn’t say—well they thought they were right so all is well—nope, in the text the chariots malfunction and the water rolls in and that’s all.  15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In this case the people of God, led by the prophet Miriam, attribute the destruction of the Egyptians to God.

However, in our Matthew passage there is a definitive instruction to forgive.

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Action point # 1 Vs 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

It is God’s task to judge, not ours. God is both just and merciful.

Action point #2. In addition to not judging we should “resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Though we may be free we must, in all things prioritize the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers before ourselves.

 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.

Action point #3

Vs 19  “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

We are seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the Gospel of Jesus.

Advertisements

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED

Matthew 18:15-20    Romans 13:8-14

Jeff Davidson

We don’t like Matthew 18, at least not all the time. One of the reasons we don’t like it is that it’s about conflict in the church, and most of us don’t like dealing with conflict. If I have a problem with you, it’s easier to cut you off. It’s easier to say something passive/aggressive on Facebook. It’s easier to unfriend you. It’s easier to tell people what a jerk they are. It’s easier to say, “Oh well, it must really just be my issue. It must be my fault.” It’s also easier to just ignore the problem, whatever it is. It’s easier to pretend it’s not there, that it doesn’t bother me, that it doesn’t matter. 

If I have a problem with you, it can be hard to talk to you about it. None of us like uncomfortable conversations – that’s why they’re uncomfortable. It can be even harder to involve a couple of other people in the conversation. They might not agree with me. They might think you are right. They might think I need to change my ways.

It’s hard to have those conversations, but it’s important too. It keeps us from cheap grace. What is cheap grace? It’s a term coined by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…

“Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Many of you may have heard of Robert W. Lee IV. He’s the four-greats grandnephew of General Robert E. Lee. On MTV’s Video Music Awards last month, he said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. It is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.” 

Let me read part of a reflection Lee wrote for today at onscripture.com. “I never fully understood Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term cheap grace until these past weeks. You see I bear the name Robert Lee, and I am a descendant of the Confederate General who led the army against this nation for state’s rights to own slaves. I had the opportunity to speak up and speak out after recent riots surrounding the preservation of a memorial to General Lee in Charlottesville, VA. On August 27, 2017, I appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with the mother of the late Heather Healey, a young woman who was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. The hate I have received has been surreal and pernicious. The threats I have received inconceivable. But it all reminded me that Christians are easily tempted by cheap grace.

“I’m positive Jesus would have called out the message boards and angry tweets if they were around when Matthew 18 was occurring. Jesus is clear how to handle disputes, disagreements, and anger in the church. But it seems to me many of our parishioners and clergy glance over this reality for the sake of ‘righteous’ zeal.

“It concerns me that I was told my appearance on the Video Music Awards and speaking up that black lives matter was enough for Christians to come unhinged and want to confront me. Some Christians have become so blind to hate that they have forgotten the importance of Matthew 18 conversations.

“Not to brag, but I’ve been told I sold my soul, that I am not to be celebrated, and that there is a place in hell that belongs to me. Does that sound like how Christ envisioned confronting conflict and discord amidst followers of the Way? Ultimately we’re all in this together. No wonder people say Christianity just isn’t worth it anymore. The discord of our infighting has drowned out the sweet sound of grace…

“I am convinced that the heart of the gospel falls nearer to love and reconciliation than it does to statements, hate messages, and Confederate monuments. So why does it seem that the loudest Christians on the block are issuing statements, conferring hate, and seeking the safety of idolatrous monuments?

“…We don’t have to live this way. In my own mainline tradition, I want to scream that if we don’t speak up now we will lose everything we hold dear. Because Matthew 18 leaves us with great hope… ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

“It’s my prayer that the loudest voice in the room will become the voice of sanity. That the voice is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect. This way of thinking shifts the focus of our faith from internal to external, from institutional to missional. To borrow from Dr. King, none of us know what will happen to us, but we’ve been to the mountaintop and seen what’s around the bend… It is costly grace that will lead us home, into the very heart of God in which we all dwell together.”  http://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate

What I hear the Rev. Lee saying when he talks about understanding cheap grace is that a lot of people have been willing to write him off without talking to him, without understanding him. A lot of people have cut him loose without sitting down with him and listening to him and seeking God’s presence and will with him. Likewise, a lot of people who agree with him may be making decisions about others without listening to them, without hearing their stories, without praying and reflecting with them. He says he hopes that the voice of sanity “is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect.”  

The Rev. Lee had a difficult conversation with the people in his congregation after his remarks on the Video Music Awards. He ended up resigning his pastorate. That’s an example of the cost of discipleship.

Was God with Robert Lee as he considered making the remarks he did on the Video Music Awards? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say that God was with Lee, since I tend to agree with most of those remarks. It’s just as easy to say that God was not with those who have been critical of him. And it’s just as easy for people who disagree with me to answer each of those questions the opposite way from what I did.

Our reading from Matthew calls us to invest time in relationships, time in people, and time in conversations before declaring a conflict over too quickly, whether by forgiving and offering cheap grace without repentance or by cutting someone off without trying to work through things. It challenges us to be accountable to one another. It invites us to listen to each other. It calls us to pray with each other and to recognize that God is with us, with those we agree with and even with those we disagree with.

The14th Amendment of the US Constitution deals with due process. It says that “no State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”  Basically that’s the idea that certain things can’t happen to you without at least some minimal showing of need or necessity or legality. An attorney would find that a horrible summary, and how much process is actually due varies from situation to situation.

Anyway, there is a sense in which our reading from Matthew is a kind of a due process clause for life together in the church. Conflict and disagreement are a reality of all of our lives, and life within the body of Christ is no different. Denominations split, congregations split, congregations leave denominations – recently some congregations of the Michigan District of the Church of the Brethren voted to form a new district and withdraw themselves from the Michigan district. Whether that ends up happening or not we will have to wait and see.

Matthew talks about what kind of process we need to go through before we say, “You’re outta here.” Talking it over with the person, seeking the counsel of church leaders to work toward resolution, prayer and seeking God’s will – all of those things have to happen when we work towards resolving conflict with others, whether that resolution comes in the form of agreement, agreement to disagree, or saying, “You know what? We really can’t be in relationship any more.”

But there’s something else that’s due. Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Owe no one anything except to love one another. Truly loving someone means taking the time and making the effort to communicate, to reach out, to view the other person as worthy of effort. True love means working towards resolution before breaking things off.

Just as due process is messy in the real world of law, working through conflict is messy in our own lives. It was difficult for the Rev. Robert Lee, just as I am sure it was difficult for many of the folks in his congregation. It is difficult to sit down with people that we disagree with, people who we think are misinterpreting God’s will, and treat them with love and respect. It is difficult to listen to them and see if we can learn from them, and to allow them to learn from us. But it is what we are called to do. It is a part of the costly grace of discipleship. And Jesus promises that as we work through that process, he will be with us. Amen.

VENGEANCE IS MINE

 

But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.

When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.

It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.

I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.

I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.

I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.

This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.

For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.

The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.

All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.

And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.

But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.

After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.

The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.

Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!

God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”

Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”

So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!

Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.

In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.

God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?

Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Matthew 16:13-20

Jennifer Hosler

A leader stands up and says, “They are taking over. They are ruining our country. They are overrunning our cities. They are plotting, they are seeking to undermine our values and our prosperity. Those people must be stopped, must be controlled, must be contained, so that we can be safe, so that we can continue to prosper, so that we can succeed.” They. Those people.

You could assume that the leader standing up is a present-day leader but our Exodus passage demonstrates that this is a thousand-year old problem. The leader is an ancient one: Pharaoh. Thousands of year ago, it was the Israelites, the Jews, who were “they” and “those people.” Today, people are still fearfully chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We’ve seen that people of today are once again Jews but also Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender folk, and many more.

The Bible is always relevant; but, there are times when the relevance seems to smack you in the face. Our Exodus reading is one of those passages: it seems to be speaking exactly for our present day. Granted, I don’t typically run into midwives or Pharaohs. The setting is different, but the truths that we can extrapolate are pertinent, poignant, and applicable. There are two lessons I want to focus on today: 1) ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants; and 2) women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

I recently read a three-part graphic novel written by Congressman John Lewis, called “March!” March illustrates the Civil Rights Movement through the life of John Lewis, starting from his elementary school years in rural Alabama, where he lived on a farm and “preached to the chickens.” Book One shows young John proclaiming the Beatitudes to his hens, which were in his care and he loved dearly. It describes how John Lewis’s uncle took him up to Buffalo, New York, one summer, and young John glimpsed a desegregated neighborhood for the first time. Coming home, John became dissatisfied with how the black communities didn’t have paved roads and with how black children like himself had poorer conditions for their school buses, buildings, and textbooks, compared with the white students.

As John grew up, he saw Brown v. the Board of Education mandate school desegregation, the murder of Emmitt Till, and he saw the boycott that initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Later, at seminary in Nashville, John encountered the teaching of Jim Lawson, who explained how nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can be used to make “good trouble,” to highlight injustice and to bring attention to hatred and evil. Today, when tweeting about the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis often uses the hashtag #goodtrouble. Our passage in Exodus highlights some “good trouble.” There is much the church can learn from John Lewis and two Israelite midwives.

The other week, Nate preached about Joseph’s reunion with his family in Egypt, where–after a being sold into slavery and preyed upon by powerful people—Joseph eventually rose to the top of Egyptian power, the 2nd person only to Pharaoh. Joseph and his family found a safe place to reside during a famine and these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob get settled into Egypt’s land. Our story picks up after the Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers have died. As was prophesied to Abraham, the Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied (though they’re not yet quite as uncountable as grains of the sand). They’re prospering, the years pass and a new king comes to power.

For this new King, “Joseph meant nothing.” Instead of seeing the valuable assets that the Israelites could be within the Egyptian community, the king gets afraid. He thinks that the Israelites are a threat that need to be dealt with. He’s concerned about the allegiance of the “other” if war breaks out. One, commentator, Freitheim (1991), notes multiple instances of irony in the text and points out that, before the king gets all worked up about “those people,” they weren’t yet named as a people group, but as a clan or extended family. The king is trying to be “shrewd” but he ends up attributing more power to the Israelites than before. Little does he know that this paranoia, this “othering,” and this prejudice will eventually be his downfall.

The king proceeds to enslave the Israelites, forcing them to build cities to store grain. The Egyptians are ruthless and the writing in this passage emphasizes the forced labor several times, using a poetic or chiastic structure in the Hebrew:

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

they made them serve with rigor” (Freitheim, 1991, p. 30).

Despite their enslavement and brutal treatment, the Israelites—like oppressed people throughout history—still find ways to be resilient, through the blessing of God. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…” Eventually, the king of Egypt devises another plan, since enslavement wasn’t working.

One notable omission in our text is the name of the king; he has no name. The tyrant is not the star of the story and is not worth naming, even with all the riches and power at his disposal. Poignantly, two Israelite midwives are named: Shiphrah and Puah. They are women. Slave women. We learn later that they are slave women without children. And they are the named heroes (or should I say, she-roes) of this story. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

The king of Egypt calls them to him and says, “You here, when you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” These midwives are ordinary folks who do the important—but typically undervalued—job of ushering life into the world. Despite their low status and their lack of power in the ancient world, even in their own community, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king’s orders. Scripture says that they fear God, which means that they have faith and trust that Yahweh is the author and giver of life. Shiphrah and Puah care more about protecting the lives of the vulnerable than about obeying the most powerful person in the land.

Jewish baby boys then keep getting born—and living. Pharaoh follows up with Shiphrah and Puah, summoning them to his presence to account for their “wrongdoing”: “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” These Hebrew women do not cower in his presence; instead, they use the opportunity to lift the humanity, dignity, and strength of their people, whom the Egyptians view as beneath them. Hebrew women aren’t below the Egyptians; in fact, they’re stronger. Shiphrah and Puah answer Pharaoh—they flat out lie for the Kingdom of God—and say, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

God then blesses the midwives for this courage, for their defiant and cheeky words, and for disobeying the ruler in charge of their country. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation;

While it is important to recognize the ordinariness of the midwives, I also need to raise attention to the fact that they are women. Women doing God’s work. Women getting into “good trouble.” Women metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives. Thank you, Shiphrah and Puah.

Our passage doesn’t end with them. It continues and there are more women getting into “good trouble.” One commentator points that, in total, five different women are present and doing different forms of creative disobedience or resisting the power of oppression (Freitheim, 1991). In v. 22, we read that when Pharaoh can’t get the midwives to perform infanticide, he makes a country-wide pronouncement that all the Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. We don’t hear what happens overall; our narrator zeroes in to one family. We meet a Levite family who give birth to a son.

The mom hides her baby boy for three months, but a baby is a hard thing to hide in general, but especially when you are enslaved. She rebels by not doing exactly what Pharaoh says—the baby goes in the water, but not in the brutal way he intends. Baby is placed in a papyrus basket and into the water, among the reeds. Older sister watches to see what happens.

Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who sees the funny basket, gets her servants to retrieve it, and finds a crying baby. While her own dad has ordered these babies to be killed, the daughter sees the baby for what it is—a tiny human—and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Older sister steps up out of the reeds and says, “Oh hey! Should I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and older sister gets her mother, who then takes her child back alive and gets paid to keep nursing. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopts the baby and calls him Moses.

Everything that these women are doing here are in defiance of the man in charge. And the text is very clear that it is a good thing, all this disobeying orders and preserving life. Once again, women are metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives.

These women are crucial agents in the work of God. While we obviously have a church with a woman pastor, we still need to teach and preach and proclaim loudly that women can do bold, outrageous things for God and God still says, “Well done.” Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

What does it mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? To recap, we see in scripture and in history that brutal, selfish, hate-inspiring leaders always exist. We also see that God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up to violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God uses people like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and people like John Lewis, who, with his fellow student organizers of that era, integrated lunch counters, took freedom rides, and marched.

In scripture and in history, ordinary people have stood up to be used by God to nonviolently counter hatred and violence. Don’t let someone tell you nonviolent protest is not biblical or Christian: nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a biblical argument, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Jer 38:1-6; Dan 3) and in the New Testament (Mt 5:38-48; Rom 12:14-21). Civil disobedience is definitely a tool that Christians, women and men, can use to stare down hatred and prejudice and to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.

During the Civil Rights Movement and during the recent Charlottesville incident, some Christians have criticized the involvement of clergy in nonviolent protest. One of the most famous rebuttals of this criticism is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to white pastors who criticized Dr. King’s involvement in protests and sit-ins. Since it is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it should be obvious that Dr. King got locked up for said protests and sit-ins.

Dr. King (1963) wrote, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 

When asked this week if people should just try to ignore white supremacist marchers, Congressman Lewis answered, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something… You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion” (Jones, 2017).

After reading several articles about John Lewis and his witness to nonviolence (see March, 3 books; On Being, 2017), I would summarize that he believes that what we need more nonviolence, more people trained in how to love their enemies, how to stand up for the vulnerable, and how to be immovable in the face of verbal hate and even the threat of violence. We need more “good trouble,” more people being willing to link arms, to look white supremacists in the eye, and to remind everyone that both the oppressors and the oppressed are human and made in the image of God. God uses ordinary, creative people (women and men) to thwart the work of tyrants—and white supremacists.

Doing God’s work—protecting and loving and reconciling people—happens at both the most mundane and the most extraordinary levels. The midwives happened to be well-placed to stand up to violence. Are we well-placed, to stand up in ways big or small, as librarians, accountants, press secretaries, managers, students, researchers, IT specialists, coders, security workers, administrators, policy advocates, and more?  Are we well-placed as individuals, but are we also well-placed as a body together, as a congregation? We are entering a discernment phase for our church, as we are laying down BNP and learning more about ourselves and what is next. I challenge us to consider how we are—or can be—well-placed to equip a movement of nonviolence and to stand for God’s values of love and justice, in a spot where the nation’s eyes happen to be? We are front and center in Washington, DC.

Sisters and brothers, God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up against violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God can use you, God can use me. God can use us as a church here on Capitol Hill—front and center with a big old building, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. AMEN. 

 

References

Freitheim, T.E. (1991). Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Jones, A. (2017, August 24). Is ‘mass nonviolent action’ needed to fight white supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mass-nonviolent-action-needed-fight-white-supremacists-654799

King, Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

*Note: while I have read and cited this work before, I re-read the Letter this week because it was cited by Lamar Gibson, of On Earth Peace, in a blog post on the negative feedback they received about racial justice work and the events in Charlottesville: http://faithful-steward.tumblr.com/

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March: Book One. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

On Being (2107, January 26). Love in Action. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action-jan2017/

WAS IT GOD: CHARLOTTESVILLE VS. EGYPT

 

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Matthew 15:10-28

Nate Hosler

Though the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and counter protest—which included many clergy, including some Brethren pastors—happened over a week ago it remains on our minds. In part, this is because of the responses, lack of responses, and responses to responses that have happened this week. While Jenn and I were visiting her family in Toronto this week I attempted to stay focused on the visit but also needed to determine with colleagues what we should do. Do we simply issue a new statement every time there is racialized violence? (This doesn’t even account for issues like heightened tensions with North Korea). While some statement is appropriate and necessary and the ongoing effort to act rightly in the face of such situations is critical, it is also a time to dig deeper theologically. We must read our scriptures together as a community seeking the leading of the Spirit. This might not generate a quick answer but is crucial for us as a community gathered to worship God and serve our neighbors. I am going to focus on the Matthew and Genesis passages today. Within these there are essentially three different stories which appear to be not obviously related.

Recap to why Joseph is second to the king of Egypt: Abraham and Sara are promised a child even though they are old—the idea is that they will be a great nation. They, at around 100, have a child, Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah (remember the “watering the camels”) produce Jacob and Esau. After exemplary trickery himself, Jacob works 7 years to marry Rachel and is tricked by her father and given her older sister (by “tricked by her father” I mean that since the bride is veiled he switched out the sisters and Jacob only found out in the morning). Works another 7 years and marries Rachel (a strategy certain to create a “complex state of affairs”). Most siblings get into rivalries over foot races or maybe dessert portions but in this case, it was a sort of competition in child bearing and sex. In chapter 30, for example, a son of Leah (the older sister) found mandrakes in the field. On his return, Rachel, the younger sister, asked for them. Leah says, is it not enough that you took my husband but now you want my mandrakes? I’ll give them to you if I can sleep with Jacob tonight. She then says to him “I have bought you with mandrakes”). Of all the children produced by this competitive sex, Joseph, a child of Rachel (the one that Jacob wanted to marry in the first place) is the favorite. Our passage starts with Joseph meeting his brothers in their quest for food during a famine and his being a high up in the government of Egypt.

Joseph’s theological interpretation is that his ending up in command of Egypt is so that he can store up enough food to save both Egypt and his family and that this was God’s doing. The longer and more painful version is that as a young fellow Joseph lacked tact and was a favorite of his father because he was the son of the wife (Rachel) that his father loved most. He lacked tact in that he shared freely of his dream that he would rule over his brothers. This, either lack of tact or straight up arrogance (ah, younger brothers) contributed to enough animosity for his brothers to want to kill him but then settle for selling him into slavery (ah, big brothers).

This passage makes sense as part of the narrative but Joseph’s comment that it was God’s doing that he was sent to Egypt so he could save his family likely sparks the question: If God acted in history in this manner, that is that, God directly engages and changes things or makes them turn out in a certain way, then why didn’t God do something that was less painful for the entire family or just stop the famine? One might also ask this of much of the narrative up to this point—God wants to create a nation but surely there is a less “colorful” and seemingly risky way to do it. This is, however, not the question that is being posed or answered in this text. This text, as a commentator writes, is the “Primary resolution of the entire Joseph narrative” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 343). Joseph’s dreams pointed to this. The Biblical narrative shows an intricate interplay between God’s action and human action.

Joseph says, all this bad stuff was God for the good purpose of saving you from famine.

On Wednesday in Toronto I met up with a colleague. We were discussing what happened Charlottesville and generally the rise of the visibility of white supremacy groups and she noted that perhaps one good result of this notably bad trend is that what was present all along but not as visible has become visible. It’s not as though this is springing from nowhere or wasn’t already present, it is just that the environment is such that such groups feel freer to act in public. Now of course this freedom is damaging, painful, destructive, dividing….it is sinful, it is not a “neutral expression of political preferences,” it is not okay, it is not Christian, and it is not “just part of a political spectrum.” (I am emphasizing how much this is not fine because I realize the question “was it God” is risky and may imply an acceptance where there is in fact none).

Joseph essentially says the string of bad things that happen to him were from God—being sold into slavery by his family, being wrongfully accused and jailed by his master, and being forgotten and left for an additional several years by an employee of the king whom he helped—Joseph says that God planned for him to make it to Egypt for the purpose of saving his family. While I will not assert that we should read Charlottesville theologically in this manner and that we should attribute the events to God (a key theological principle being-don’t blame God for human’s mess), I believe that we can say that we can read this theologically and say that the more explicit and public exposure of white supremacy may help the church and society to see and more definitively commit to working for racial justice.

Was it God? I recognize that my statement is less definitive than Joseph but then again, I’m not that Bible. We do know that we are called to work against racism and for the wellbeing (read shalom) of all. We do know and trust that God continues to work and is present with us. So, the question “was it God?” is not the most pressing nor particularly appropriate. What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. The church had better step up. “The church” is not out there-it is us.

What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. Charlottesville is not Egypt but God is still calling and empowering us to act in the present urgent moment. Was it God? is not the question—but God is present.

In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus makes a comment that feels very –pragmatic and modern? He says these ritual ways of doing things are not what matters but what comes from our mouths matters. What we produce matters because it is an indication of our hearts.

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We can just repeat this several times without commentary and we’re set.

In the text, the next thing is Jesus responding to a woman in a way that creates some discomfort. Jesus seems to try to ignore the woman in need because of who she is. He then uses a dismissive slur.  While we see Jesus as welcoming, healing, and feeding all, this doesn’t fit. So, then we wonder, is Jesus still fully recognizing the implications of his teaching about “cleanness” or is he doing it simply to test his disciples and/or the woman. This sounds a bit speculative and may be unnecessary but certainly feels relevant. The end point is that Jesus ends up accepting and healing someone from out his religious/ethnic/political group. While the end is good I would still like to think that Jesus was simply testing his disciples to see if they got his teaching on ritual cleanness. That Jesus intentionally went through a region where he would come into contact with this “other” group and that he had already interacted with a non-Jewish Centurion in Matt 8:5-13 would lend weight to this “Jesus was just testing them” interpretation.

 Not only does Jesus heal outside his group but the woman who was supposed to lack proper theological insight has the vision to see Jesus for who he is. Notably, the spiritual insight is not limited to Jesus—who is literally the revelation of God. The revelation of the healing and boundary transgressing power of God might just show up anywhere. As much as I am sure you were hoping that this insight was limited to preachers or pastor-folk, we all must watch, wait, and listen.

Jesus demonstrates transgressing a barrier that was established to protect him. The question is not “was it God?” in Charlottesville. The question is how do we as a church respond? Better yet, how do we as Washington City Church of the Brethren at meeting at 337 N. Carolina Ave, SE Washington, DC respond? How do we or do we not define ourselves by what we say or do not say?

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We follow Jesus in transgressing boundaries to engage in acts of healing.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?

1 Kings 19:9-18, Matthew 14:22-33

Jeff Davidson

My original plan was to talk about this passage in light of our discernment process with the Brethren Nutrition Program. I’ve moved away from that specific focus over the course of the last couple of weeks, but my conclusion still applies to that process and to the discussion we will be having later and to the decisions that will be made in the days and weeks to come.   

In our reading from 1 Kings, God speaks to Elijah at a time when Elijah is very discouraged. Elijah himself kind of summed it all up twice in his dialogue with God. It’s clear that Elijah is discouraged. And he has good reason to be.

1 Kings 18 is the famous contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal in front of the sinful King Ahab. I won’t go into detail, but the short version is that the 450 prophets of Baal prayed to Baal for a miracle, but nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed to God for a miracle under more difficult circumstances, and the miracle occurred. Elijah called out to everyone who had seen the miracle to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them, and that’s what happened.

The part of chapter 19 that we didn’t read this morning starts with King Ahab reporting to his infamous Queen, Jezebel. Ahab tells Jezebel what happened at the contest, and Jezebel sends a message to Elijah. The message says, more or less, “May the gods strike me dead if by tomorrow you aren’t as dead as all those prophets of Baal.” So Elijah, reasonably enough, runs. God comes to him a time or two along the way, and Elijah runs for over 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to Mount Horeb, where he hides in a cave and goes to sleep. That’s where we are when our reading from 1 Kings begins.

I confess that I’m discouraged this morning. I was discouraged to hear threats of nuclear war made against North Korea if North Korea did so much as threaten the United States. There are people who will tell you that the President did not threaten nuclear war, but they are wrong. They are neither reading carefully, nor thinking carefully about what was said. I was discouraged to hear a pastor endorse those threats, and explicitly say that the United States should not be run by Biblical or Christian principles, but by the wisdom of the world. I was discouraged to hear the President say that invading Venezuela was something that he considered an option. I was discouraged by the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville. I was discouraged by the death of one of the counter-protesters. I was more discouraged to learn that death was the result of a deliberate act by one of the protesters. I was discouraged to learn of the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter crash. 

That’s before I even start to consider my own life. Not that there’s anything in particular going on in my life that discourages me, but our lives always have ups and downs. We always have moments of joy and moments of sadness, moments of hope and moments of despair. Hopefully there are more of the former than the latter, and hopefully the balance between the two in which we live each day favors joy and hope, but there’s no denying that there are things that happen personally, privately that could discourage us almost every day. And all of that is before we begin to consider the lives of our friends and families.

We know from scripture that God watches us. We know that God pays attention to what we do. We know that God watches and sees the small things, that God’s eye is on the sparrow, and that we are worth more than many sparrows. That’s in Luke 12, verses 6 and 7. We also know that God watches and sees the big things, not just big events but big things that are an accumulation of small events. Genesis 6:11 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” This is just before God calls Noah to build the ark and prepare for the flood. The earth, a big thing, is filled with violence. Each act of violence may in itself be a small thing, but a small sin upon a small sin upon a small sin ends up leading to a world filled with sin. And even in the midst of a world filled with sin, God is paying attention to the small details enough to find the one man who remains righteous.

I imagine God watching us and saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing to each other? What are you doing to my creation?” God was watching Elijah, and probably said precisely that to himself. So God comes to Elijah and asks the question, “What are you doing here?”

God asked the question a couple of times. I don’t know how he asks it. I don’t know if he says it in an exasperated tone, or an inquisitive way, or if he says it sarcastically. I don’t know where God puts the emphasis. There’s a big difference between “What are YOU doing here?” and “What are you doing HERE?” The next time you need a sermon idea, by the way, playing around with putting the emphasis on that question in different places and what it might mean for is an idea worth considering. It even makes for a three point sermon!

Elijah is directed to a place to wait for God to pass by, and he obeys. A wind comes, and an earthquake comes, and a fire comes, but God is not in those things. Then comes a sound of sheer silence, and Elijah listens, and God is in the sheer silence.

How do you listen to silence? Let’s try it for just 15 seconds or so. (wait 15 seconds) Did any of you hear silence? Me either. I heard a few different things, among them the sound of my own breathing. I have a ringing in my ears that I hear all the time unless there is something louder that drowns it out or that makes me turn my attention elsewhere. I literally never hear silence, if such a thing is even possible.

It’s possible for God, though, which means it’s possible for Elijah. Elijah hears God because he obeys God, and Elijah finds encouragement because he obeys God, and Elijah later concludes his ministry and is lifted up into heaven in a fiery chariot because he obeys God.

Sometimes the lesson that people take from this passage is to look for God in the silence, to look for the still, small voice. That’s not a bad lesson. We should look for God in small things. That doesn’t mean, though, that God doesn’t speak through big things too, or that God can’t shout. God spoke through a burning bush. God spoke through a pillar of fire. God spoke by turning over the tables in the synagogue. God speaks through big things and through small things, through loud voices and quiet voices. The first key thing is to always be listening, and the second key thing is to obey when you hear.

Our reading from Matthew is pretty straightforward as far as events go. The disciples are sailing back while Jesus stays behind to pray. The disciples don’t make much progress, because there’s a storm and the wind is against them. The next morning Jesus walks across the water to catch up with the disciples. The disciples are terrified, and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them that no, it isn’t a ghost, it’s really him. It’s really Jesus.

Does anyone here know who Warner Sallman is? Sallman was an artist from Chicago, and his paintings are among the most famous and the most popular of the 20th century. I printed out a couple of his paintings and brought them along. (note to readers: if you Google “Warner Sallman” you will see a wide variety of his paintings under “images.”) My parents gave me a small desk-sized print of the one with the boy at the ship’s wheel. Sallman isn’t famous by name, but his paintings are quite well known. Some people mock Sallman but I don’t want to do that. He painted out of devotion to and faith in God. He tried to and succeeded in bringing comfort and inspiration to millions of people. I can’t mock that. And if his blue-eyed, occasionally very white looking Jesus doesn’t match the Jesus of history who was Middle Eastern and likely much darker, well as the old song says, “The children in each different place, will see the baby Jesus’ face, like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace.” 

I mention Sallman because I think his Jesus is the Jesus that a lot of people still picture when they think of him. That probably started to change with people about my age, but it’s still a Jesus that is very common and very easy to find in homes and in churches all over. When I was growing up we had a couple of Sallman pictures of Jesus in our church basement. This Jesus does not look like a Jesus to me who gets angry, or who talks loudly, or who becomes animated, or that laughs out loud, or anything like that. This looks like a Jesus of the still, small voice. This looks like a Jesus who said, (speaking mildly) “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Maybe Jesus talked like that sometimes, but Jesus didn’t talk like that here. Jesus had to be loud here. There was a raging storm, with howling winds, and waves breaking against the boat. The disciples, some of them experienced boatmen, professional fishermen, were terrified by the storm. Jesus probably had to be more like an earthquake or something to be heard over the storm. (shouting) “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”

Peter was listening. Peter heard Jesus, but didn’t’ quite believe what he was seeing and hearing, so Peter says, “If it’s you, tell me to walk over there on the water!” And Jesus tells him to do so, and Peter does.

Everything is fine, and Peter is walking right along on the water until Peter gets distracted by the storm. Everything is fine as long as Peter trusts Jesus. Everything is fine until Peter becomes afraid. Then Peter starts to sink, and Jesus has to rescue him.

It is easy to be frightened. It is easy to be distracted. It is easy to be discouraged. It is easy to say that the answer is to trust Jesus, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, to obey Jesus. It’s easy to say that but hard to know exactly how to do it.

But we have to do it. We have to do it because it’s the foundation of everything else that we try to do in our lives. We need to confess and repent. Racism is real. It’s a historical fact, and it’s a fact today in systems, in institutions, and in face-to-face relationships. All of us have benefited in some way from the historical practice of racism. All of us participate in some way in systemic and institutional racism. I know that’s not what we’re trying to do, but it’s the reality. All of us are a part of the problem in one way or another, and it takes trust and faith in Jesus for us to take steps towards finding healing and hope and reconciliation.

 Faith Kelley posted something on Facebook last night that I am sharing with her permission. “Not even sure how to process everything today, but when George and I pray before he goes to bed I always ask God to help us love one another better tomorrow. That’s not enough but I think I’m on about a 2 year old level right now and so will have to do.”

I liked that. I think that we could do a lot worse than that. Go back to basics. What are the very basics of our faith?

Well, what are the two greatest commandments? To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s from Matthew 22:26-40. What is the reason why Jesus came to earth? That’s John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What’s one of the very first songs those of us who attended church as children probably learned? If you know it you’re welcome to sing it with me.

“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me. Yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

What’s the common thread in all of that? That’s right – love. God is Holy love. Help us love one another better tomorrow is about the best I can do too. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know specifically what that will mean. I don’t know any of those things. All that I can hope is that when God asks me what I am doing here, that my actions answer for me with the word “love.” Amen.

LISTEN TO HIM!

 

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.