Finding My “Sense of Place”

Preacher: Chloe Soliday

Scripture Reading: Psalm 104

The story of how I ended up at Creation Justice Ministries here in Washington, DC and what has happened since is truly a special one. Let’s go back in time to my Brethren Volunteer Service orientation at Camp Pine Lake in Eldora, IA. This is where my journey began.

I went into BVS last September not really sure about what project I should take on. I had a few favorites, but there was no guarantee I would be placed at one of those locations. At orientation, each volunteer spends a significant amount of their time exploring all of the different project options available to them. There are several large boxes full of files on each of the potential projects, which certainly felt overwhelming. It didn’t take long before I started to feel frustrated- none of the projects I really liked were working out, and I couldn’t seem to find one that was calling me. Days passed, and as others gradually came to find the right place for them, I was still struggling. Then, at lunch, one day, Dan McFadden, the director of BVS, presented us with two new files. One of them was for Creation Justice Ministries. I immediately snatched up the file and began reading as I ate my lunch. I was very excited because earlier that year, I had met the director of Creation Justice Ministries, Shantha Ready Alonso, at a presentation in DC as a part of the 2017 Christian Citizenship Seminar. I was inspired by the work that CJM was doing, and I wanted to get in on the action.

A few days later, I had an interview over the phone with Shantha. She let me know that my fate at CJM was resting on a grant proposal coming through and, in addition, her board approving taking on a second BVS member. This was not just any grant- it was an Appalachian regional organizing grant. Being from central Pennsylvania, I had a personal connection to Appalachian issues and was enthusiastic about advocating for a region that I knew and loved.   At this point, people were starting to be officially accepted by their top choice. Meanwhile, I was anxiously awaiting my own confirmation. Days passed, and still, I had not heard back. There were ten people in my orientation group, and it came down to myself and one other person who didn’t know where they would be serving. Finally, when our group was out for dinner in Des Moines, I found out that I was going to DC. I was relieved and overjoyed to be heading to work at CJM.

Fast forward to today- I have spent months learning about the mission of Creation Justice Ministries and the justice issues that we take on daily. On the CJM website, our mission statement is as follows: “Creation Justice Ministries educates, equips and mobilizes Christian communions or denominations, congregations, and individuals to protect, restore, and rightly share God’s Creation.  Based on the priorities of its members, with a particular concern for the vulnerable and marginalized, Creation Justice Ministries provides collaborative opportunities to build ecumenical community, guides people of faith and faith communities towards eco-justice transformations, and raises a collective witness in the public arena echoing Christ’s call for just relationships among all of Creation.”

As per my opportunity to work at CJM coming from an Appalachian grant, I have dedicated most of my time here to Appalachian-related work. I helped organize the second State of Appalachia Conference, a regional gathering of faith leaders passionate about bringing justice to Appalachia. I drafted opinion pieces on the RECLAIM Act, a piece of federal, bipartisan legislation that aims to clean up abandoned mines and create new economic opportunities for coal communities across the country. One article even caught the attention of its target, Mitch McConnell- I must say, I’m pretty proud of that. I had the opportunity to travel to Charleston, WV to testify in front of the EPA in support of the Clean Power Plan. These are all amazing things I never imagined I would be doing in my time in BVS, and maybe not after that either. I’m not sure what I expected to come out of all of this, but I was surprised to find that I had created a renewed connection with my home in Appalachia and strengthened my own sense of place. Before coming to CJM, Appalachian issues were something that was part of my normal surroundings. Now, I had the chance to help change things for people from my own community. It has been a powerful and humbling experience, to say the least.

I am truly grateful for this challenging journey of discovery and growth that I embarked on through Brethren Volunteer Service. I feel like I’ve been able to share God’s love through acts of service- advocating justice, working for peace, serving human need, and caring for creation along the way. I can say with absolute confidence that I believe every day should be earth day, and that creation care is so important to life. That includes caring for our neighbors, especially those who are vulnerable and marginalized like Jesus did. This experience has certainly tested me and hasn’t always been easy, but I am glad that I chose Brethren Volunteer Service at this time in my life, and more specifically, Creation Justice Ministries. They have helped me to travel a little farther down the winding road to discerning my calling. And, most importantly, brought me closer to God.

 

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The Sabbath is Made for People

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

When I first moved to DC, and Faith and I started thinking about doing ministry here, I did a lot of reflection on the spiritual condition of our city. Over the course of my first few years here, I became convinced that busyness, over-work, and high stress were some of our most important challenges. I hoped that Faith and I could minister to those who are overwhelmed by the intensity of life in our city, the many demands that are put on us by our work. This stress and busyness has the potential to choke out the seed of God in our lives.

I’m sad to say that, in the time I’ve lived here, this city has probably changed me more than I’ve impacted it. Over the last nine years, Faith and I have had two children. We’ve been employed at increasingly demanding and time-intensive jobs. At this point, I wouldn’t say that our level of busyness and stress is much different from most other people in our life stage and social class.

That’s not great. I know that my life isn’t exactly the way God intends it to be. I know that my busyness and burden often distract me and pull me away from the life of presence and freedom that Jesus invites me into. I know that I need to be called back to wholeness, right relationship with my family, friends, work, and God.

So I was really grateful to see that our passages for this morning focus on sabbath, both its foundations in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching on it in the New. I’m thankful, because I need to hear the wisdom of the sabbath. I need to be invited into the rest and peace of God. Maybe this speaks to your condition, too.

The sabbath is about as ancient a concept as you can get. God celebrated the first sabbath on the seventh day of creation. After creating the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, men and women, God rested for a day from all his labors. Following this model of good work followed by true rest, God taught his people, Israel, to observe a sabbath day of their own. This special, holy day each week would be a period of rest.

The sabbath wasn’t just a reduction of work. It wasn’t like what a lot of us Christians experience today, where maybe we take a few hours off to go to church, maybe go out to lunch with friends, and then get right back into the productivity and busyness of our lives. For God’s people in the Old Testament, and for Jews today, God’s sabbath was a cessation of all work.

Why would God command us to refrain from all work for a whole day every week? It’s easy to imagine God as some kind of random rule-maker in the sky, handing out weird instructions that we’re supposed to follow, because, you know, God. But the sabbath is not random or capricious. As we read together in  the Torah, we find that the origin of a religious sabbath comes about in a very specific context. That context tells us a lot about what the sabbath can mean for our lives as children of the God of Abraham and followers of Jesus.

So what was the situation when God instituted the sabbath? It came as part of the law that God set out immediately after liberating the Hebrews from slavery, four hundred years of forced labor in the land of Egypt. The sabbath is a mark of freedom, of health, of social harmony and economic justice. The sabbath is for all people – even the male and female slaves, even the animals!, have a right to a total cessation of work on the sabbath.

The sabbath is a call to humility. To remember, as it says in our reading from Deuteronomy, that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The sabbath has the power to bring justice because it puts all human effort into perspective. Our lives are but a breath. God doesn’t need our help any more than a parent needs assistance from a young child. God’s effort is decisive; human effort can be, at best, a token expression of our love for the Father. (Paul expresses this thought in his second letter to the Corinthians, “this extraordinary power [of the gospel] belongs to God and does not come from us.”) By honoring the sabbath, we honor the God who through his power created the universe – and then rested.

We could all benefit from honoring the sabbath today. We need rest. We’re tired, and we work too much. We need space to breathe. To worship God, setting aside all our temporal preoccupations. To remember who we are, and whose we are. We need the sabbath to teach us how to love again. Love ourselves. Love God. Love neighbor.

Our whole culture is feeling the loss of the sabbath. We’re noticing the impact of a society that no longer reserves even one day of rest each week. Sunday shopping comes at a price. Our weekends are crowded with activity. Many employers expect us to be on and available, 24/7. There’s very little space to listen.

The sabbath acts as a check on our human tendency to over-extend ourselves. It sets a hard limit on our time, energy, and planning. It’s an opportunity to yield ourselves to reality and our own limitations, rather than being forced to do so by sheer exhaustion and burnout.

The Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day had 99 problems, but keeping the sabbath wasn’t one of them. They kept it religiously. The Pharisees were sort of the good “churchgoing” Ned Flanders of the ancient world. They were scrupulous in their observance of the law of Moses. Among the hundreds of other regulations that they followed, they were almost ridiculously careful not to do anything resembling labor between sundown on Friday and dusk on Saturday.

And yet, for all their piety, the Pharisees were missing the point. They embraced the sabbath, and all the law of Moses, but they had forgotten that they were liberated slaves. They had become the authority in their society, and the interpretation and enforcement of the Torah became a powerful lever for them to exercise that authority. The law often loomed larger than the God who established it. Just as the priestly Sadducees loved the Temple more than they loved the uncontrollable God of the Tent, the Pharisees loved the letter more than the Spirit.

Jesus saw this. He was harder on the Pharisees than on anyone else. Because they knew so much about the kingdom of heaven. They knew so much about God. And yet their attitudes prevented them from experiencing the real life, power, and purpose of God’s reign. Not only that: In their zeal to convert others to their misguided focus on rules and ritual, they blocked the door for others to enter into the kingdom of God.

God made the sabbath for people. God’s creation exists to bless us; it allows us to experience wholeness and holiness. The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath.

Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities on this point. He was busy moving throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and gathering his disciples. Jesus was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and the Pharisees were curious to see what this new teacher was all about. They hoped he would be one of them. A lot of his teachings sounded familiar to the Pharisees. Jesus definitely wasn’t siding with the priestly elite in Jerusalem. Maybe they could form an alliance.

But when the Pharisees actually met Jesus, what they found disturbed them. Rather than a teacher who was first and foremost concerned with observing every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law, they saw that Jesus tolerated his disciples breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone knew that Jews weren’t supposed to do anything resembling work on the sabbath – that included food preparation. Yet Jesus didn’t say a word when he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples started plucking and eating grain.

The Pharisees saw this and they got really upset. They appealed to Jesus to reign in his followers. “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Check your boys, Jesus; they’re running wild.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees in a very particular way. He didn’t agree with them. In fact, he flat out contradicted the Pharisees. But he didn’t do so by denying the importance of the sabbath. He didn’t reject the law of Moses and God’s commandments in scripture. Instead, he reframed the conversation in terms of the broader story of God’s people. It’s not enough to simply say, “the Bible says this,” or “the Bible says that.” The Bible says a lot of things. What truly matters is what God is saying, and how God is revealing himself throughout the scriptures – and in our very lives.

So Jesus responds, not with a rejection of scriptural authority, but with an expansion of it. “Haven’t you ever heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

When David and his crew was hungry, they ate the food that was available. The daily bread that God offered them. In that moment, God’s power to bless and provide for David overrode the static, non-contextual rules laid down in the laws of Moses. In general, only the priests were supposed to eat the consecrated bread in the Temple. But in that particular time and place, that holy bread was God’s way of caring for David and his men – providing them with rest, comfort, and sustenance.

Jesus sums it up this way: “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

The sabbath is made for people. The law was written for us. The word of God is not a harsh rule laid upon us as a burden; it is the caring hand of God guiding us, providing us with what we need. It is a gift of God, to be received in context – in particular time and circumstances, according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

People like the Pharisees – both back then and today – have a tough time wrapping their heads around this. For so many of us, the purpose of religion is to provide a clear and unambiguous set of rules to live by. Do this; don’t do that. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle! Follow the rules and you will be safe. Follow the rules, and God will love you.

But God does love you. God does love you. He gives us the law precisely because he loves us. God doesn’t give the law as a set of terms and conditions we must follow to receive his love. Love comes first. Love is the first motion. Love is the ground and source of the law. And love must reign over the law if we are to receive it as God intended.

The law is made for people, not people for the law.

But most religious people just can’t understand this. Especially religious people with power. And have no doubt about it, that’s what all this is about. Our rules and regulations are about power. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we use the law to shape the society that we live in. We create a set of expectations that must be followed. Those who step out of line are subject to peer pressure, ridicule, shame – and even violence. To challenge the rules that govern our culture is a dangerous act.

It’s not too long into Jesus’ ministry before he performs such an act – one so dangerous, so threatening to the Pharisee’s cultural and religious system, that they have no choice but to respond. One way or another. They can join Jesus or they can reject him; but they can’t assimilate him. They can’t pretend that Jesus is a good old Pharisee who they can integrate into their social order. Jesus won’t play ball.

This moment of revelation happens not out in the field, but in the heart of the Pharisee’s social and religious life – the synagogue. Jesus comes to the house of prayer on the sabbath. Jesus is an emerging local celebrity at this point, so maybe they invited him to lead worship and interpret scripture for them. Or maybe he just showed up for prayer. Whatever the reason, Jesus came to this particular synagogue on the sabbath, and the religious leaders knew he was coming. They were watching to see what he would do.

Because there was this guy in the synagogue that everyone knew. A man with a withered hand. People had heard that Jesus frequently healed the sick, and they wanted to know: Would Jesus break the Pharisees’ sabbath prohibitions to heal this man?

The people in the synagogue were watching Jesus. And he was watching them back. They wanted to see whether he would heal on the sabbath. Jesus wanted to know whether their hearts were so lost to the love of God that they would condemn compassion.

Jesus calls the man with the withered hand forward, up to the front of the synagogue where Jesus was seated.

Silence. Jesus looks at the people of the synagogue. The best and brightest in the town. The religious leaders. Everyone who is anyone.

Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Silence. Nobody moves. They just watch Jesus. Will he do it? Will he break the rules? Will he defy the authority of the teachers of the law? In the synagogue?

And it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” How could these folks be so sensitive to the commandments of God in the past and so completely miss the motion of God’s spirit in the present? How could the Pharisees know so much about God, yet fail to recognize God in their own lives? What did it mean that God’s people were living in a temple of scripture and yet failed to receive the sacrament of compassion?

The sabbath was made for people. Hungry people. Thirsty people. People with withered up hands, who because of their physical deformity were excluded from full participation in religious life. The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

In this moment, Jesus resolves to live into the full meaning of the sabbath. He demonstrates what the sabbath looks like in flesh and bone and sinew. He heals the man standing before him, re-enacting God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He frees this man from physical bondage, and invites everyone present in the synagogue to be freed from the spiritual bondage of rules-lawyering religion without pity, without mercy, without love.

“Stretch out your hand.”

I want you to stretch out your hands with me. Stretch out your hands, and remember everything that God has done for you.

Stretch out your hands, and remember how he has brought you up out of slavery. Slavery to materialism. To selfishness. To addiction. To death.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.

The sabbath of God is within us. And we so desperately need it. We can’t live without the sabbath, without God’s rest, abundance, and liberation.

The sabbath is life. The sabbath is rest and freedom from slavery. The sabbath is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, and one which we must accept if we are to experience the peace and blessing of God’s kingdom.

What does it mean for you to embrace the sabbath in your life? What needs to change? How does your heart need to open, your mind be renewed, your habits shift?

Stretch out your hands. Let us promise together that we will be a people of sabbath in this city. Let our lives open up a space sabbath rest, sabbath grace, and sabbath justice. Because the sabbath was made for people.

As the Spirit Gave Them Ability

Preacher – Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings – Acts 2:1-21

How many people watched the royal wedding yesterday? I was asleep so I missed the whole thing, but I heard about it from Julia and read about it on social media and looked up some of it on various websites. One of the things that a lot of people mentioned was the homily by the Very Reverend Michael Curry. I heard so much about it that I looked it up and read the text and watched the video. I don’t do that for a lot of sermons that aren’t preached here.
It was a good sermon. For those of you who didn’t see it or haven’t read it I recommend it to you. One of the images that Curry used was that of “contained fire.” He talked about how people who drove to the service were able to drive because of the power of contained fire, and that people like him who flew there flew because of the gift of contained fire. Fire contained, fire harnessed so that it is not roaring out of control and destroying all in its path, but fire harnessed so that its energy is directed for good. Energy used to create, and not to destroy. Energy used to build up and not to burn down. Energy used for good, whether to cook food or to power machines or to allow for the existence of the internet.

That’s an interesting image when we consider the scene in Acts chapter 2. Last week Jenn contrasted the Ascension with Easter and Pentecost, describing the latter two as “earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church.” That’s a pretty good description. Not only are there tongues of fire coming down from heaven, but people are speaking all kinds of different languages, pretty much all of the languages of the known world. The fire is probably frightening, so people who see it are screaming, and then those touched by the fire start speaking in foreign languages and presumably speaking loudly enough for others to hear them. It was such a spectacle that onlookers thought they were drunk.
That isn’t always how the Spirit has worked, though. The tongues of fire that danced down on the heads of the believers on that first Pentecost, the many languages heard by folks near and far, those great and showy events are the exception and not the norm. The Spirit’s presence doesn’t usually show up in quite that noticeable a manner.
I did a funeral last Tuesday for a work colleague’s mother. She had five surviving children, and each child was going to offer a remembrance about their mom, starting from the oldest to the youngest. The second child had expressed concern to my friend about whether or not he could do this. That’s not surprising. It’s an emotional and difficult time, and add to that the fact that a lot of people are not comfortable at all with speaking in public. My friend asked me about it and I told her to let him know that if he wanted to prepare something but wasn’t able to say it that I or someone else could share it for him.

Instead, what happened was that when the oldest child got up to speak, the second child stood with him and put his arm around him and held him as he spoke and softly encouraged him when he was having trouble. The second child did the same thing for the other children who spoke. He was just there with them, holding them, as they shared their memories and their feelings, and he went back to their seat with them and gave them a hug when they were done. And then he repeated the whole thing with the next child.
I loved that. That presence, that action, told me more about that son and more about his feelings for his family and his mom than any amount of words could have done. The Sprit’s presence was very real in that moment and in that place. The Spirit had not given that son the gift of public speaking, but had given him the gift of support and love to share with his siblings. That’s a wonderful gift to have.
I may have told this story once before, but that’s okay. When I was a pastor in Dayton, OH it was time for me to preach the community Thanksgiving service for our area minister’s association. The service was going to be at the Residence Park United Methodist Church, an African-American congregation a couple of miles away.
I didn’t do anything particularly fancy to prepare. Frankly, I pulled out an old Thanksgiving sermon that I’d preached someplace else, and edited it and reworked parts of it and hopefully improved it. Come the night of the community service, I was preaching my sermon and I made some kind of a point, and someone in the back said “Amen!” Not just a quiet “amen” but out loud and enthusiastic. I made another point, and someone else did the same thing. Without my planning and without my knowledge, this old sermon that I had punched up a bit had turned into a call-and-response sermon that had the congregation interacting with me.

I loved that feeling. I talked a while back about how the interaction that comes with a live audience helps a performance – that was in the context of NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” program. That interaction definitely helped my preaching that night. It was exciting to me – I loved it!

A couple of years later it was my turn to preach again at Residence Park. I thought back to that first sermon and remembered how much I’d enjoyed the experience, and I set out to write a call-and-response sermon for that setting. I worked hard on it and I was proud of it and I was looking forward to sharing a sermon at Residence Park once again and feeding on the energy from the interaction with the congregation once again.

Guess what – silence. No one said “amen.” No one said anything. It could have been worse – they could have said “help him, Jesus” – but I dodged that one. It just didn’t happen. That particular gift for that style of preaching was not one the Spirit had chosen to give me at that time.

The Spirit does whatever the Spirit is going to do. The fire of the Spirit can’t be directed or controlled in the same way that the fire is that the Rev. Curry talked about at the wedding. But it is sometimes a controlled fire or a harnessed fire, like at that memorial service I talked about. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real in the actions of the second child, offering his gifts of love and support silently to his brother and sisters. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real even if it wasn’t a showy, explosive, tongues of fire moment.

Likewise, although I tried to control and channel the Spirit at my second Residence Park sermon, it didn’t work. You can’t just tell the Spirit what to do. That was my mistake. The first time, the Spirit spoke to me and through me. The Spirit was in control. The second time, I tried to control the Spirit and it wasn’t happening.

Friday was National Ride Your Bike to Work day. We declared today Ride Your Bike to Church day today, and some of us rode bikes in. When I was in HS I might have given it a shot. I used to ride a lot back then and would ride pretty long distances. Now, not so much and especially not trying to come in to DC from Manassas on crowded roads.

Was riding a bike to worship today an expression of the Spirit’s presence? I think so. Sometimes riding a bike is easier that driving or walking, but not necessarily on a hot day like this. We didn’t encourage people to bike to church today because it was easier or more convenient or cheaper, even though it might be some or all of those.
We encouraged it because it’s a symbol of God’s care for creation. It’s an example of what good stewardship looks like. It’s a small statement on how we are to treat the world and of God’s vision for the world. In other words, it’s an expression of the Holy Spirit.

Not a big expression. Not a flashy one. Not a noisy one, unless your bike really has some problems with its chain and its gears. But it’s an expression nevertheless of what God calls us to as Christians. It’s the Spirit speaking through us.

One of the points of the Rev. Curry’s wedding homily yesterday is that the power of love can transform the world. He asked people to imagine what the world would look like when love is the way and he said, “No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.”
Those things are all true. If we can live out of the love that God has shown for us, live out of the love that led Jesus to the cross to die for our sins, live out of the love that the risen Jesus has given us in the gift of the Spirit, if we can live out of the love that became visible on Pentecost, we can make that world real. I should say, God can make that world real through us.
The Spirit is a tongue of fire that comes down from heaven and gives us words to speak. The Spirit is real in the babble of voices in every language heard that first Pentecost. The Spirit is real in a man with tears in his eyes standing next to his siblings at his mother’s funeral. The Spirit is real in the riding of a bicycle on a wet morning to come to church, even when something else might be more comfortable. The Spirit is real in preaching and prayer and praise and worship here in this place and at the royal wedding yesterday and at places of every size and location in between the two. The Spirit is real in each of us, and in all of us.

Let us listen to the Spirit in our lives. Let us know the gifts that the Spirit has chosen to give us. And let us live out of those gifts. Amen.

Cloud Gazing and a New Reality

Preacher – Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings – Acts 1:1-14; Ephesians 1:15-23

A little voice asks, “Where is Jesus? Is Jesus going to be at church today? Is Jesus buried in that cemetery that we drive by regularly? Is that man Jesus?” These are some very real theological questions, as asked by a preschooler. Doing preschool theology is not easy, particularly when there are concepts or realities that are difficult for even adult theologians to wrap their heads around. The Ascension of Jesus, like the Resurrection, is an act of God that stands contrary to our understandings of reality. People are not typically raised from the dead. Neither are people whisked up into a transcendental reality and seated at the right hand of God.

The Resurrection and the Ascension are big concepts where theology and physics mix in ways that are beyond all our comprehensions. Both the preschoolers and the adults need to spend time pondering and absorbing the miraculous nature of it all.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. It technically falls on forty days after Easter, which was this past Thursday, but I chose to exchange the lectionary Sunday passages for the Ascension passages because Ascension is often overlooked. Easter and Pentecost both stand out as earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church, while the Ascension is a bit quieter. Though somewhat less showy than the resurrection from the dead or the coming of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day still brings with it miraculous circumstances and deep theological significance. In fact, the Jesus story is not complete without the Ascension.

The Ascension continues the shift in reality which started Easter morning. Because of the Ascension, Jesus reigns in cosmic glory and sends the Holy Spirit to be with the Church at Pentecost. This new reality enables the disciples to continue the Jesus story in mighty and powerful ways. Yet the nature of the Ascension (Jesus not being physically with us) also means that the church must actively struggle to keep our new reality in focus.

The Big Goodbye

Goodbyes are always hard, but I can’t imagine the goodbye that we see in Acts 1: Jesus leaves the disciples. It’s been forty days since Jesus was resurrected. After the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing during those 40 days, being with the disciples, teaching them, walking with them, eating with them, and even cooking them fish (John 21:1-14). 40 extra days with Jesus! I imagine the disciples were comforted by Jesus being with them, but they probably tried to avoid thinking about if and when Jesus might leave.

One day, while he is eating with them, Jesus gives the disciples what would be his final instructions. Jesus says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. While John baptized with water, in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).

Even though the disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days and several years before that, they still weren’t always tracking with Jesus. The disciples come closer to Jesus and crowd around him, asking, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus doesn’t exactly say no, but basically. Jesus reorients the disciples away from speculation about the culmination of history, reminds them that it isn’t about empires rising or falling but about continuing Jesus’ work, witnessing to Jesus’ work. He responds, saying, “the timing isn’t for you to know. God the Father is working out that end. But you—you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.” Jesus tells them they won’t be alone, instructs them to wait for the Spirit, and leaves mysteriously. Jesus goes up. The disciples are left gaping, jaws hanging open, gazing at the clouds. The book of Acts says, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (v. 9).

I won’t try to explain the weird trans-dimensional process that occurs here or the physics of it. I trust that Jesus actually ascended and went to the Father, though that place isn’t a literal “behind the clouds” in our earthly sky. Luke wasn’t trying to be scientifically accurate but was using words to indicate Jesus’ ascension and connecting it to the presence of God’s dwelling place. In the Hebrew scriptures, clouds often symbolize the presence and power of God (Boring & Craddock, p. 367; cf. Exodus 13:21; 19:16; 40:34; Ps. 68:4; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13). Without knowing the technical details, Jesus is taken up and goes to the presence of God.

The disciples stand agape and reasonably so. They’ve just seen something miraculous, marvelous, and other worldly. I’d stare too. Beyond the natural shock at one’s teacher and messiah finally saying goodbye and leaving, the exit is pretty jaw dropping. The gaping jaws of the disciples only come shut when two messengers in bright white clothing snap them out of it. “Hey, Galileans! Why do you keep looking up? Stop gawking. Jesus, who was taken up to heaven from among you, will surely return again—in a manner just as mysterious” (v. 11).

Somehow, the combination of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ ascension, and shiny bright messengers (clearly from God—pay attention to those folks in shiny bright clothing), this combination helps the disciples finally put it all together. They set out on their way and quickly head back to the main part of the city to pray and wait for the Spirit, as Jesus instructed them to do. They don’t know what’s coming, but they pray and focus on this new reality—a reality of a crucified, raised, and ascended Jesus, who is lifted up to reign with the Creator of the universe.

A New Reality

How do we know what reality is? When I was a small child, around 7 or 8, I remember asking myself, “How do I know whether I’m sleeping or in a coma or whether my life is all a dream? Is this real?” I would pinch myself to try to be sure.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is a man who has suspicions that reality is not as it appears. He goes about his work and everyday life, with a growing desire to learn about an alternate reality—another world and dimension that he’s heard coexists with and is, in fact, more real than his everyday experiences. Neo meets up with Morpheus, Trinity, and their crew, who lead him out of his tranquil but naïve existence. They guide Neo to a new reality, where he has a purpose and is part of a broader mission to save humans from their slavery to machines.

Our second reading today is from the book of Ephesians. This letter reads more like a sermon than other letters, such as Philippians or the Corinthian letters, and Paul includes sections that seem to be hymns or worshipful poetry. Our passage is one of those sections, that acts both as a prayer and as a poetic discourse of superlatives about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

In Ephesians, it’s been more than days and weeks since Jesus ascended—it’s been years. The context and audience of the Ephesian early church is very different than what we see in Acts. The gospel of Jesus has spread around the Roman empire and beyond. It’s mostly made up of people who never encountered the earthly ministry of Jesus, who didn’t break bread with Jesus, didn’t see Jesus heal the sick or cast out demons, didn’t see Jesus crucified, didn’t meet with Jesus after he was raised from the dead, and didn’t see Jesus ascend behind the clouds. These people, both Jews and Gentiles, have heard the Good News, the gospel of Jesus, and believed that they should follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The apostle Paul, with his spiritual gift of shepherding, knows that Jesus and Kingdom of God still needs to be made real for these new Jesus-followers, and so he prays for them.

He prays this way: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I don’t stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. And what do I pray? I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:15-19).

Paul wants them to know the depth of the new reality—a new power and work of God in the world—that is made possible only with a Messiah who is crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven. The Ascension of Jesus has given the Christians hope, purpose, and power. Paul continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (vv. 20-23).

Paul prays that the church would know—despite not having seen Jesus face to face, despite the fact that we are in an in-between age when we aren’t fully experiencing God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven—that there is a new reality. He prays for them to know this new reality where Jesus is reigning, where sin and death have lost, and where all humanity (Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, and all other divided identities) can be brought together before God, in Christ Jesus. The church has the power to be Jesus’ body, to continue Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance in a world of pain and captivity. Paul prays that the early church’s hearts and minds would be given wisdom to see this new reality in existence. He prays that the power of Jesus—the crucified, risen, and ascended One—would be made concrete and tangible, that they would know the source of strength and life to continue his work in this world.

Remember to Breathe, My Dear

Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathing isn’t something that we typically forget to do – it’s an autonomic process. Breathing goes on without any involvement of your consciousness, without thinking or planning. Yet one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re in labor, you do need to intentionally remember to breathe. I’ve had some practice contractions, or Braxton Hicks contractions, and the pressure gets so intense that I’ve found myself holding my breath to brace against them. I’m glad that these “practice” contractions happen – to give me a glimpse of how I might respond when the real labor comes and to prepare accordingly. Since then, I’ve been trying to practice breathing.

Yet, breathing practice isn’t just beneficial for pregnant people. A colleague of mine has a reminder on his computer that will typically go off during our meetings. A little screen pops up that says, “Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathe in, Breathe out.” The intention here is for deep breaths, centering breaths. These breathes can calm you down, lowering your stress. Deep breathing can help remind you of your values, your purpose, and your source of strength. Breathing deep can help us listen to our bodies, become aware of our emotional and spiritual state, and can help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit (and in Hebrew, Spirit and breath use the same word). Intentional breathing can be a type of prayer that focuses our hearts and bodies on God.

Like the early church in Ephesus, we too have not had the privilege to be physically present with Jesus. We didn’t get to hear him teach on the mountainside, receive bread from him, be healed by him, and we didn’t see him resurrected or ascending. The nature of the Ascension means that the church must actively struggle to be centered and focused on Jesus’ new reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real thing; we don’t have Jesus walking beside us and so it’s easy to just fall into a trap, thinking that our daily routines are all that exists. Our jobs, our schools, our families, our bills to pay. But Jesus ascended and made another cosmic reality that runs alongside and intersects our ordinary lives.

Following Jesus involves training ourselves, requires that we find ways to keep the Kingdom of God at the forefront of our minds, to keep it a reality. It involves building our skill for breathing and paying attention, for seeing God at work and for making ourselves available for God to use in this world.

Take a deep breath with me. Remember to breathe, my dear. How can you cultivate time to focus on the new reality, to look for and open yourself up to God’s work in this world? Cultivating time to pray is like remembering to deep breathe – it’s how we draw our strength, life, and energy from God. It’s where we tap into the power of the ascended Jesus. Is there a time in your commute when you can take deep breathes and ask for the Holy Spirit to move and reveal? Can you find some quiet moments to center in the morning? Can you stop and take a minute to breathe and reorient yourself to God in the evening, taking stock of the day and considering if and how you saw God at work that day?

Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised. Jesus ascended – and is seated above, empowering us through the Spirit to continue his work in this world, until he returns to make all things new. Sisters and brothers, let us remember to breathe and find ways to keep the risen and ascended Jesus in our focus as we live out our roles as his Body, the church, making his love and power manifest in this world. AMEN.

How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

Preacher – Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

 

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

This is a Wilderness Road

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Yesterday morning, somewhere between 5:30 and 6, I made the connection that my sermon was titled “This is a wilderness road” and that I would spend the day before preaching it running on trails. Though the race was not a surprise (it took some wherewithal to leave the house at 2:45am and begin hours of running at 5) I had not made the connection—which was, it turns out, only superficial, until I was running through heavily muddied trails by light of a rather dim headlamp (Jenn, we should make a note to buy new headlamps). Whereas the wilderness road in Acts was actually wilderness, mine was a trail full of people not far from a city and staffed with aid stations and medics in cause of injury. Whereas Philip was sent to the wilderness with a mission by the Spirit of the Lord, I was there for reasons personal and perhaps unexplainable. Philip’s going to the wilderness is thought to have contributed to the beginnings of the church in Ethiopia which has produced, among other things, magnificent religious art (some of which is displayed this morning), my going mostly led to a feeling of accomplishment and severe soreness this morning. So, there is no connection between my wilderness road and the one in Acts except that my wandering thoughts noted early yesterday morning

In the Gospel of John (chapter 17), in the last hours before his crucifixion, we hear Jesus praying for the unity of his people. He knows that the coming crisis will stretch and push them and so he prays. Since he prays in the hearing of his disciples it is also a sort of pep talk and exhortation. At yesterday’s there was now prayer but there was a pep talk of sorts. Dean Karnazas, a well know ultra-marathoner, gave us some words to motivate but also included things like—the trails are really muddy and here the mud is slick like ice—which is more concerning than encouraging. When Jesus does the pray/pep talk/warn act it is for unity. It is not unity because unity is nice but because unity demonstrates the truth of their message. Unity demonstrates the truth of their message. In Jesus’s words “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21).

The witness, the possibility that what these crazy disciples say about Jesus might be true is based on their unity (not their seamless arguments, dazzling sermons, or their social media presence) —they must be united in a profound way. The shorter booklet of 1 John carries on this concern. Throughout the writing we can see hints that all is not well. In 2:18 in an exclamation that could have been penned by our own Micah we read—”Children, it is the last hour! A you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” Verse 26, “I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you.” And just before our passage, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

A commentator writes, “The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself…The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Forth Gospel for those in ‘the world’ now was being aimed at fellow Christians. (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 589)” Throughout this text John holds two major themes—right thinking about Jesus and right living in light of this. [“John returns to two major subjects repeatedly as he writes: christology and ethical behavior…The secessionists had embraced an aberrant form of christology that led them to make wrong judgments about Christian living” (590).]

John demonstrates an intense concern that right belief and right living are of utmost importance. It is not merely doing the right thing, NOR is it just declaring belief in the right thing.

The spirits must be tested and the test is love. The teachings and actions must be tested—the test is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This verse tempts us to make it into a formulaàGod=Love and to Love=Knowing God.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

The initiating action of love was from God. We learn of God’s love through God’s action, we demonstrate our connection to God through our own acting in love. In fact, the invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another. The invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

There should be a direct causal link between God’s love for us and our love for one another. We have been loved by God, how can we do anything else but love one another?!

“his love is perfected in us.” Made perfect? Presumably God’s love is perfect love but if God’s love is to be lived then our participation in this love adds something to it—or at least manifests it concretely in the world. It is made complete

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

There now seems to be a second test of our “abiding” in God. That is, the reception of the Spirit. Which sounds like it should be good empirical or measurable results. If not empirical then at least a matter of philosophical defining or perhaps in writing a definition for a dictionary—which seems definitive. I have been learning, however, that even the dictionary is a complicated thing. In Word by Word lexicographer Kory Stamper describes in often humorous detail the work of a dictionary writer and editor. It turns out that the process of editing or writing a dictionary is about documenting and describing how a word is used rather than prescribing how it should be used. The two requirements to be hired are a degree in some subject (a range of disciplines is good since an economics major has different vocab than a biology-she notes a strong representation of medievalist majors.) and to be a native English speaker.

The later of these is due to SprachgefulleI, the feel of the language that comes with it being your first language—sometimes something just doesn’t feel right and then the editor knows to dig deeper. The offices contain accumulated scraps of uses of words which are filed and considered in this process. She tells of the, at times extensive revision process in which senses are considered and while talking shop at a dinner party she amazed the academics by proclaiming that she had spent a full month revising the word “take.” After describing, what to most of us would be an excruciating and unimaginable process a co-diner, with dramatic pause notes having worked 9 months on editing “run.” (Stamper, 148).

Defining or measuring the presence of the Spirit may indeed be a difficult test. The Spirit presence may also be difficult.

Our passage in Acts gives a picture of the Spirit’s activity. The disciple Philip is getting on with the work of Jesus. There are healings, preachings, and rapid expansion of the church. In chapter 7 Stephen testifies, it says, “filled with the Holy Spirit , he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….but they [the mob] covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.” While killing him, Saul stood by watching and approving. The Spirit that it seems that we thought we wanted to display…is hardly a ticket to a life of ease. The Spirit might just get you killed. Saul then goes about and severely persecuted the church. This Spirit filledness—leads to actions—which leads to persecution—which in verse 1 of chapter 8 leads to a scattering.

Though scattered this didn’t stop them. Vs 4 reads “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip was one of them and went to Samaria. Now, Samaria might sound familiar. Remember Jesus and the parable? The Good Samaritan? The general consensus was not with Jesus and the “goodness” (potential or innate) of a Samaritan. Samaria was a place of enemies. The place that was outside of okay. None-the-less, the good news is preached and received, the Apostles come down to verify (it did, of course, stretch credulity), and the Holy Spirit power came upon them. Philip was rockin’ it—major successes, rapid church growth in a new locale. And then…and then the “angel of the Lord” said, go to another place—and abandoned place—a deserted place. In case the reader doesn’t know that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza is such a place the writer notes parenthetically that “(This is a wilderness road).” Rather than be where the action is, go over there. After providing commentary and then baptism to the Ethiopian Eunuch the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…Philip found himself at Azotus….

All of this, then, becomes an expression of verse 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

A writer asks “who is the protagonist is in this story?” (Willimon, Interpretation, 71). The angel of the Lord and demands and then the spirit of the Lord instantly transports Philip elsewhere once the meeting, explanation of the scripture and baptism are finished.

Meanwhile, returning back from the Spirit excursion to the dusty and desolate lands….

14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Here we have the right belief—the confession, proclamation, assertion that “Jesus is the Son of God.” There are some of us that may “skew ethical”—not that we are necessarily particularly ethical but that we have reacted to Christians who assert that it is all a matter of belief—the notion that you should check the correct dogmatic box and you’re set—For those of us who skew ethical in our emphasis, this verse chastens us. It challenges us. (I wouldn’t necessarily say rebukes us). This confession is not simply in the vein of “actions speak louder than words” but seems linguistic. It is content bearing—it IS connected to practical ramifications BUT can, in some way, be spoken. [The Brethren are non-creedal—which doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything but rather that we don’t think it is summed up in a tweet or so.]

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Abides, abides, abides—When I see the same word show up I wonder—my biblical language major brain dings. Since there are not one for one translations of words the same word in an English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same original word. This happened when reading the 1 John 4 and John 15 passages. Though the word “abide” shows up many times and in both. The John 15 passage uses a much different metaphor to illustrate abiding. Remaining with or in or connected to.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears  no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit….4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing….8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God is love,

       Remain in God.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalms 104:10-24, Romans 8:18-25

On our vacation, Nate and I had the joy and privilege of spending time amidst wonderous natural beauty and marvelous, astounding animals. We hiked up Table Mountain in Cape Town. We spent hours marveling at African penguins that waddled and swam and napped in little rocky nooks. Our breath was taken away by the dark skies of KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the Milky Way shone brightly for us in a coastal town with very little light pollution (and the power went out, which helped us further). The vastness of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, was awe-inspiring – and somehow, I can say that even though I was stung by a Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish while swimming near Durban.

I can’t mention all of the beauty and delight we had on a river full of hippos, at the sight of Nile crocodiles, at the sound of lions crunching their hard-caught meal, or when driving through the gorgeous green mountains of Swaziland.  

King David, in Psalm 19, wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1-4). Our natural world is beautiful, and its vastness and grandeur point humans to the Source of all life and goodness.

God’s Good Earth

God’s story and our story start out with the natural world in focus. In the beginning, the universe was formless chaos. God the Creator took what was chaos and made beauty. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God is the Creator and originator of every living thing. The notion of something being made by God inherently imbues it with worth and value. Beyond that inherent value, God the Creator explicitly deems every aspect of creation—night and day, sun, moon, and stars, water, land, plants, animals in the sea and on dry land, and human beings—to be good.

The meaning of “good” here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay.” It isn’t “good enough.” For the Hebrew word tov, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. An ancient Jewish commentator Rashbam translated tov as beautiful. We mark Earth Day today because God’s story (and our story) starts out declaring that the earth and every living creature is from God, by God, and good.  

Our Genesis Creation story tells us about the value of our natural world. It also tells us about who we are and should be as humans. We see that humans are created in the image of God and this means that humans have a task in relation to the world.  God blesses humans, calling them to “Be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28). What exactly does this filling, subduing, and dominion mean?

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis argues that this text has often been misinterpreted, equating subdue and dominion with exploit. Yet to understand it as exploit is to miss the broader biblical message about God’s creation. One way to understand dominion is to think of humans as being given power and authority like God (humans were made in God’s image), to care for everything under their stewardship—just as God cares for both humans, lilies, and the smallest sparrow (Matthew 6:26-31; 10:29-31). Nowhere in scripture does God exploit creation; therefore, the stewards who are made in God’s image (people!) are not supposed to do dominion in that way.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) further adds that “The ‘dominion’ here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals… Thus, the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (p. 32). This interpretation fits well with the parallel account in Gen. 2, where God commands Adam to “till and keep” the earth where God has placed him (Gen. 2:15).

Humans fulfill their God-given purpose when they enable ecosystems to thrive. When we protect and sustain the earth, we live out our role as God’s image-bearers. The big picture from Genesis 1 and 2 is that the earth made by God, the earth is good, and that humans are called to protect and care for it.

In the New Testament, we see Creation as good enough for God to be manifest within (John 1 – the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood) and we read that all created things were made by and through Jesus (Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2-3). Jesus made and intimately knows and delights in the creeping insect, the budding flower, the newborn kitten, and even the adult human. This “made-by-Jesus” label is something that clearly should impart honor and value to the environment and living creatures.

For some Christians, they can acknowledge that God made the world and maybe that it was originally good, but they don’t want to go further. Those facts aren’t enough to motivate them to change the way they live or to think that caring for the environment is an important calling for the Church. An argument is often made that caring for the environment pales in comparison with preaching the gospel of Jesus, with saving souls and transforming human lives. I believe that this argument is faulty, because it involves an incomplete and shallow understanding of Jesus’ redemption work in our world. It’s not an either/or dilemma. God’s redemption throughout the Bible (from Genesis through Revelation) is actually portrayed as touching every corner of Creation, both human souls and healthy ecosystems. This is the powerful gospel of Jesus that we proclaim.

The Gospel Will Reach Every Corner of Creation

The world recently mourned the loss of the last male northern white rhino in the wild. Around the world, there are many species of animals that are on the brink of extinction or have not been seen for many years. Just yesterday, I saw news that North Atlantic right whales do not have any documented offspring during this breeding season. Pollution, overfishing, entanglement, and blows by passing ships are all factors that are stressing these whales to critical endangerment. While one can talk about the economic, social, and political factors that affect the health of these whales, a biblical perspective leads me to believe that the underlying factor is human sin.

Any time you see ecological devastation in the bible, the cause is human greed or idolatry. If we look from Genesis through Revelation, we can see pictures of sustainability and wholeness as designed by God, we can see destruction and environmental degradation caused by human sin, and thankfully, we can also see God’s vision for the earth’s renewal and redemption.

Starting in the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, we can see that the natural order designed by God allows for ecosystems to sustain all organisms. There’s a harmony depicted, with God the Creator holding everything in balance. In Psalm 104, God’s hand is over the natural order of ecosystems, animals, and people. Humans and animals are pictured with all that they need, in a world rightly oriented around God the Creator. It’s when people take their eyes off the Creator that ecosystems are shown to go sideways.

In Exodus, when the people of Israel receive the covenant through Moses, following God has direct implications for the well-being of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living included both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. This eventually comes to fruition.

Later, in the prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land itself mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die. The prophet Ezekiel chastises the Israelites for trampling the land and polluting the water (Ezek. 34:18). In the prophet Jonah, we also see that animals are part of God’s beloved creation, affected by the consequences of human sin. Yahweh calls on Jonah to preach so the Ninevites repent, to save the population of people and cows (Jonah 4: 9-11). God was not just concerned about the destruction of people, but also the destruction of animals; Jonah’s reluctant message delivered both.

During the days of the prophets, things looked bleak because of the consequences of human sin. But amidst prophetic messages of judgment and consequences, Yahweh also sent images of hope and redemption. The Hebrew prophets pointed beyond judgment to an ecological wholeness that would characterize the final reign of Yahweh; reconciliation with God would go hand-in-hand with a fertile, bountiful, and healthy ecosystem (Amos 9:13-15). Peace in the last days would not only include salvation and freedom from violence, but also ecological peace and wholeness—even peace between people and animals (Isaiah 11:6-1; 65:17-25).

These messages continued as God’s Messiah, Jesus, came to deliver hope and redemption. One of the most famous passages cited about Jesus’ redemption is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” The Greek word for “world” here does not just refer to humans; a Methodist pastor and author Rebekah Simon-Peter explains that “The word world is actually kosmon in Greek—the cosmos… Jesus’ love is not just for humans, it’s for all creation. That’s why he said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (Passi-Klaus, 2015, April 17). Jesus’ salvation redeems human hearts and everything else. In Colossians, we read that “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

One of my favorite passages of scripture illustrates this further: the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, which has been enduring suffering and persecution, and says that it isn’t just the early church that longs for God’s redemption. Not just humans; “all creation waits and groans for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-25). The earth yearns for Jesus to reign, for an end to sin and war and violence and greed and destruction.

Some Christians do not see redemption this way; they see God doing a complete purge of everything on earth. The notion that “it’s all gonna burn” can be a rather convenient theological cover for greed and indifference to God’s creation. Most importantly, I don’t think it’s biblically accurate. While some New Testament voices do use images of fire and destruction to talk about the coming of Jesus’ Kingdom, Jewish tradition does not understand these to be obliteration for something completely different. Rather, fire was used for purifying and healing, much like the biblical image of metal purified or the ecological image of new life after a forest fire. When passages like 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 21:1-7 talk of new heavens and new earth, the cultural context likely means new as renewed and healed. Understanding it this way also makes more sense alongside passages like Romans 8 and prophetic visions of renewal.

The biblical story starts out with God creating and declaring the created world to be “good.” The last book of the bible shows us a Kingdom where Jesus reigns, where the curse of sin is no longer prevailing, and where God’s full reconciliation will define the world—a redemption that transforms humans and all created things. Jesus declares in Revelation 21:5 “Behold! I am making all things new!” Jesus is making all things new.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

So what does this mean for us? We see in scripture that 1) Creation is good, made by God, and humans are to care for it; and 2) that the gospel of Jesus leads to transformation in human relationships with God and human relationships with the earth. If these are the case, then there are several implications for our lives as Christians. We are to

  1. Act in ways that honor God’s creation, protect it, sustain it
  2. Learn about the impact our lives have on the earth
  3. Find ways to live lightly on earth and reduce our consumption, so that we are not trampling God’s creation (to use the image from Ezekiel).

I’m sure we’ve all been overwhelmed by data and guilt about our role in environmental degradation. Talking about the environment can be paralyzing for folks. So, my exhortation for us today is for three things: 1) connect with God’s Creation in a concrete way, 2) explore change as an individual, 3) help us explore change as a church.

How can you find a way to tangibly connect with God’s Creation on a regular basis? Can you walk or sit outside in the sunshine? Can you tend a plant at home (growing an herb indoors can be easy for apartment dwellers) or garden at church (we’ve got a garden you might have heard about in the announcements)? Can you sit next to or walk along the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers. Take opportunity to praise God and to consider that the earth, the sun, the plants, the trees, the water—these good things—are also each declaring their praise for our common Creator. If you do this already, add a new psalm or song to your outdoor routine to deepen the sense of prayer and worship.

How can you as an individual find a way to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? Can you switch out some disposable, single-use plastic items for reusable items? Bring your own utensils or metal straws? Can you cut out meat for one meal per week? Can you try public transit, cycling, or walking?

How can we as a church find ways to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? For starters, we do need some volunteers to improve how we recycle and think about sustainability. Can you help us? We need someone to put clearly marked recycling bins in all rooms where church folks and other guests meet. We could use a little extra coordination for our potlucks to try to reduce (and ideally eliminate) our use of single-use plastic items. Maybe it is by finding volunteers to wash metal utensils (whether it’s washing them at home or at church). Can you help us with outreach and communication to better highlight the steps we have already taken to care for the earth, such signs that tell the community about our solar panels, rain barrels, or our gardens?

I don’t have the answers or even all the right questions that we should be asking. Thankfully, one of the beautiful things about community is that we can learn from each other and challenge each other to live in ways that honor and protect the goodness of God’s creation, demonstrating the power of Jesus’ gospel to transform both our lives and this world. Let us journey together as we follow Jesus, living lightly on God’s good earth. AMEN.

References

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Passi-Klaus, S. (2015, April 17). Christians and Creation: ‘You can’t love God and ignore the Earth’ Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/christians-and-earth-day-you-cant-love-god-and-ignore-earth