JESUS, MEAT, AND VEGGIES

Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28; 1 Cor. 8:1-13

Jennifer Hosler

How do we show love? Sometimes, it’s by holding back on the meat. Across the US, traditionally, meat and potatoes or meat and some other starch, are ubiquitous on the table. Many of our folks in this congregation come from places like Missouri or central Pennsylvania—traditionally meaty places. We also have several people in our congregation who are vegetarian or vegan. If you are or have been vegetarian (or have close family members who are), you’re aware that it can be an adjustment for some folks to recognize and understand your dietary restrictions.

For some cultures in the US or around the world, it’s unfathomable that a person would not eat meat. Here in the US, I’ve been to family gatherings and formal church conferences where the vegetarian “options” were just a pile of cooked vegetables, without a single source of complete protein. “Oh, they can eat the salad!” is a common refrain. When Nate and I lived in Nigeria, one of our colleagues from the US was a raw food vegan. She typically didn’t tell Nigerians this and just stuck with, “I don’t eat meat.” She kept it simple because that itself was astounding: “but what about chicken?” was one response I heard.

My sister-in-law eats vegetarian and it has been an adjustment for some of our Hosler family. This situation allows for love to be shown in a somewhat unique way: by trading ham loaf for an acorn-squash-quinoa-and-cranberry dish and by making sure that our camping food options include black bean burgers along with the hot dogs and bacon. Considering someone’s needs and conscience is a part of love.

Our main text this morning (1 Cor 8:1-13) talks about food, but it has a very foreign context from our own dietary concerns of today. Today, people who decline meat likely have other reasons than that the meat was used as part of ritual idol worship.

While we don’t have the same context, by exploring how and what Paul taught the Corinthians, we can learn how to handle difficult and controversial issues in the church. Three themes come out of our texts today: 1) Following Jesus involves wading through grey water; 2) To quote Paul directly, “knowledge puffs up, love builds up;” 3) Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Following Jesus involves wading through grey water.

We read three texts this morning. While I’m going to spend most of our time on 1 Corinthians 8, I think the texts together help us to understand various perspectives on discerning God’s truth throughout history. In Deuteronomy, we arrive at a very specific time point for the Israelites: Moses is about to die, and the people of Israel are finally going to enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the Sinai desert. The risks for the community are high. The people of Israel have seen Yahweh do great things in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, but they’ve also seen the destruction that happened when they were tempted to tame Yahweh into a golden calf. With a recently delivered Mosaic law and the people’s faith being so new, Moses commands the people that speaking for God is not to be trifled with. Interpreting the Law and leading the people’s faith was to come from a clear leader, a prophet, who would follow in Moses’ steps.

Our passage in Mark is set more than a thousand years later. After experiencing kings, priests, prophets, exile, and return to the Land, Jewish interpretation of scripture had moved to local community settings, to synagogues. People could follow rabbis as they traveled or spend time in the synagogues, doing readings from the scrolls that held the Torah, Prophets, or the Writings, and hear scholars interpret the text. In our Mark passage, Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum at the start of his ministry. He teaches and is interrupted by a person “with an unclean spirit.” Jesus releases that person from the unclean spirit and the congregation astounded. The people murmur, “A new teaching—and with authority!” Jesus is not necessarily teaching new content; rather, he is interpreting the Hebrew scriptures in light of a new era in God’s history of salvation. The demonstration of God’s power in healing serves to authenticate Jesus’ message. Seeing God working underlines Jesus’ teaching as being from God.

In 1 Corinthians 8, we see another perspective on discerning truth and interpreting scripture. We’re reading someone else’s mail (as one commentator describes it) and entering this pastoral application and extrapolation of biblical truths to various ethical dilemmas. What I find very profound in the lectionary pairing of these texts is how the arc of salvation history also brings with it a transition of biblical interpretation. We go from interpretation being in the hands of prophets like Moses or his prophetic descendants, to Jesus doing midrash and interpreting texts in new ways in the synagogues, and now to a spiritual leader like Paul saying, “ya’ll—it’s not about just eating or not eating.”

What’s striking about this is that church leaders in Jerusalem have already prohibited eating idol meat (Acts 15:28-29). In Acts, when Gentiles, with all their questionable eating habits, get welcomed in by Jewish Christians, the Jewish church leaders draw a strong line next to idol meat. Yet not much later, here to the church in Corinth, in the context of church life and muddling through on how to follow Jesus together, it’s not so black and white. Paul indicates that things are grey.

Now that the truths of who Yahweh is, who Jesus is, have solidified (generally speaking)—the early church starts wading through the grey water of how to apply Jesus’ teachings in their everyday lives. It’s murky and complicated. This, sisters and brothers, is the place where we are. Following Jesus involves wading through grey water. It’s not clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love.

Knowledge Puffs Up; Love Builds Up.

Before we get to love, we need to talk about arrogance. Arrogance is everywhere: it is in our homes, in our churches, in our work places, on social media, and most certainly in our political discourse. While it is a given that people—we all—should have convictions and beliefs and even want to share or discuss them with others, the common tendency of today is to speak arrogantly. We state things so forcefully and derisively, just off the bat. We speak in ways that assume (even if we don’t say it aloud) that those who disagree with us are idiots. We also denounce the intentions of those who disagree with us without actually having a face-to-face conversation. Most of us (all of us) could admit to “knowing” that we are right and to stating things so definitively that there is not even room for a conversation. Have you done that recently? With your partner, with a friend or colleague, within this church, on facebook or some other social media?

The apostle Paul, brother Paul, is writing to a church that is having issues with arrogance. Paul has heard word from some church members that there is a lot of conflict. The Corinthian church themselves have also written a letter to Paul with some theological questions that are tearing their church apart. 1 Corinthians is Paul’s way to pastorally address these issues from a distance.

In chapter 8, Paul deals with the hot topic of food sacrificed to idols. He knows that everyone has an opinion. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’” or, we “know that we know that we know.” I imagine Paul dictating this letter and using the Greek equivalent of finger-quotes around “knowledge.” We know that all of us possess “knowledge” – but let’s face it, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.

One of my favorite lines in a mewithoutYou song sounds like verse 2: “those who really know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know.”  Paul says, “Ya’ll who think you know something really don’t know; you’re missing the point of all this (sweep around, indicating church). While you’re going to have different consciences on this issue, what is most important is that love is clothing all your conversations and how you treat one another, in light of your convictions. What’s important is us loving God and being known deeply by God, to the core of our intentions.”

Paul then goes further into the idol discussion and to understand what he’s saying, it’s helpful to have more background context. The church in Corinth was mostly Gentile, with some Jewish Christians who had initially started the church. Class and social status were a big problem for the congregation, which is something that comes out later in 1 Corinthians when talking about the Lord’s Supper. According to one commentator, the mix of social and economic classes found within the church was something unusual for their time (not found in other settings) and even probably for ours (Hays, 1997).

A common cultural practice was to host meals in Roman temples. Meat would be sacrificed within the temple and served at the meal. Though the ritual and the meal were not necessarily together, these were social events in places that also had religious connotations. Apparently, the Christians with “knowledge” were taking part in these meals and the “weak” Christians believed that it went against the conscience of their devotion and worship of God alone. Paul says that the important thing here is not whether one eats or doesn’t eat, but whether the knowledge about faith is building up the community in love. 

Paul explains that yes, the “knowledge” people are right, in that while there are many “gods,” but for Christians, there is only one. He says, “for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6). Paul explains that while this is the case, people within the church are coming from different backgrounds.

Some have been used to worshipping idols, so eating the meat is hard to separate from the religious practice. It makes them feel like they are betraying God by eating; forcing them to eat goes against their conscience. Paul is worried that the “freedom” or “liberty” of some will lead others down a path away from allegiance to Jesus. Paul says that he himself would not eat meat if he knew that it could lead a sister or brother down the wrong path. It’s not about being right or wrong here, but about loving those in the community and walking together. Paul asks, this “freedom” that you have—what does it do to the community? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Even though we don’t have to deal with this specific issue of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, there are several secondary applications that are relevant for us today. The first and loudest message from this passage is that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Paul tells the early Christians that their actions and discourse can negatively affect the church community.

I’m not on facebook much, but I recently saw a fellow COB brother in another state write this, “I’ve drafted three political posts today and decided to delete them each time.” Our culture is rife with arrogance, know-it-all-ness, and the need to proclaim our “knowledge.” But even if we “know,” do we really? Is it really building up? It’s likely that some or a lot of what we say or what we post (or want to post) do not align with the values of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words.

Sisters and brothers, are we wasting too much time displaying our “knowledge,” whether interpersonally or online? How have we—each of us—been puffed up in ways that harm the church community, or other relationships? How have I? How have you?

Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Another principle that I think we can draw out from this text is that wrestling is an important part of Christian community. I don’t mean leg wrestling or thumb wrestling, though those could certainly be added to our community life and be beneficial in some ways. What I mean, of course, is wrestling with murky, grey, ethical issues like eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. The church in Corinth needed to talk about issues of conscience, discipleship, and faithfulness in relation to a practice so everyday like eating! Basic living in their society and in ours have serious implications for where our allegiance lies. The question for them was, “can I eat this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” What are our questions, our “can I do this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” The church today should be a place to examine what else might constitute idolatry. We need to be able to wrestle with ethical conundrums about power, status, wealth, arrogance in speech, and more. 

Doing this well requires relationship, requires gentleness, requires an abundance of love, authenticity, and transparency. Having conversations about money and power and status can keep us from slipping into worship of that which is not God. The fall bible study was one place to have some of these conversations and, in the past, Sunday school potlucks and the young adult gatherings also provided safe and authentic spaces where we could wrestle together. How can we continue to make these spaces and build these relationships in our community? What leadership can you give to help schedule or facilitate or host a gathering where we can wade through the grey water together, clothe ourselves with love, and wrestle with the ethical issues of 21st century life? What leadership can you give to foster these settings?

Sisters and brothers, following Jesus involves wading through grey water; it’s not always clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love. Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words. Love is what guides us and should cover us as we wrestle together about how to ensure our allegiance is to Christ alone. AMEN.

Reflections by Members of the Congregation

James 4:1-12, Colossians 3:12-17

This is the seventh sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/reflections-november-5-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Will Morris
This passage has particular resonance with me because it speaks to an on-going, interior
argument of sorts that constantly goes through my head, where I try to reconcile the Christian humility discussed in the passage with my life here in our power and material obsessed society. The writer speaks of submission to God and opposing ‘friendship with the world.’ I take ‘friendship with the world’ to mean adopting values where we prioritize our own security and comfort over others’ well being, where we justify our own excess on the meritocratic grounds that we earned and deserve all that we have, and further, though we might not admit it to ourselves in these terms, that one’s worth is determined by the wealth we display and positions of power that we hold. We are called instead to submit with humility, to God and one another, to temper our individual ambitions and build the kind of community that raises up “the spirit made to dwell in us.”

The question I often wrestle with is how to submit when I spend so much of my time
trying to figure out how to get ahead in my career and improve my family’s economic position. After all, is it wrong for us to want to get out of debt now, avoid being a burden on others when we’re old enough to retire, and have enough when the time comes to give our hypothetical children as much opportunity as possible? Is it wrong to have a lifestyle that supports flying across two continents regularly to visit family? I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I am wary of how I can use those questions to justify unhealthy ambition in my career. I feel like the world around me is telling me that I should be “killing it” all the time, that it’s up or out, that I should be full of pride (or walk with ‘swagger’ as the company emails put it) and that my number one purpose is satisfying my client – even when my client’s goals conflict with my own core values. Having friendship with the world is being successful in the sense of the wealth I
accrue for myself and my firm’s partners. It’s hard to submit to God and seek humility when I’m looking for approval from the people and institutions around me in that context.

The thing is, I can sense how self-destructive it is to get caught up in all of that even as it
occurs. It’s impossible to find personal satisfaction in those things, and it’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with others when I view them as my competition and rivals. I want to draw near to God and build meaningful relationships with those around me, and to an extent I’m able to when I stop worrying about my performance metrics and stop angling for position. I’m constantly re-learning that our society is structured to reward the proud and gain from conflict, which goes against the Jesus way.

Turning from the world isn’t easy though – the passage even says “let your laughter be
turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” in verse 9 before the promise that God will exalt you. I know ultimately there is greater joy in closeness to God and neighbor that can only be realized through submission to him. I’ll keep trying to figure it all out day-to-day, but being humble with others, recognizing that we’re all beloved of God and equally in need of his grace, is a good first step.

Jennifer Hosler

Full on Zombie Mode (the war within you)

Being in a PhD program, my intellectual oomph gets maxed out with school, so I don’t have the mental energy to read literature. After a very think-y type day, what I like to do is watch something entertaining. One of the shows I’ve watched involves zombies, but not in the gory horror movie sense. In one show, there’s a main character who just happens to be both a medical examiner and a zombie.

Her job as a medical examiner gives her access to the ethically-sourced brains that she needs to remain like a normal person, and not go staggering around, gasping for brains from peoples’ skulls. The morgue brains give her visions as a side effect, which are helpful in solving crimes with a police detective. A mix of a zombie, comedy, and crime show.  One catch is, if her life is threatened (as can happen solving crimes), her eyes turn red and she enters what she calls “full on zombie mode.” An inner zombie rage comes out. It is difficult to manage, because her red eyes and enormous strength will give away her secret that she’s actually undead.

James writes about a war within us, with forces and cravings that lead us to do rather despicable things. While none of us go into full-on zombie mode, there are times when our impulses lead us to do things that we are not proud of. Seething with anger or frustration, our inner animal can be ready to verbally abuse, ridicule, put down or put someone in “their place” with our sarcasm and biting “wit.” Or maybe we don’t wield words, but we wield guilt, using it as an emotional tool to achieve the ends that we seek.

James says that this war within ourselves even leads us to murder. But none of us have gone that far… or have we, if James is referencing Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus says, you think murder is wrong, but hating someone in your heart will equally make you susceptible to judgement.

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just really crave to hurt them? Physical pain isn’t usually what I’m tempted to partake in, but to verbally wound someone, to hurt them deeply, to say the words that seem so perfectly suited to shut that person down and put them in “their place.”

Last week, I spoke about the fruit of the Spirit and the gentleness and pure-hearted mercy that characterizes wisdom from above. The fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James describes – these all seem to build on one another, in ways that complement each other. Gentleness, it seems, is linked to self-control. Peace—working through conflict in a constructive way—is linked to these too, as well as love and kindness. While these fruit, this wisdom from above, are what we are aiming for as Christians, we must be realistic and even blunt in acknowledging that sometimes, we just want to tear someone’s head off and eat their brains.

In the zombie show, there are moments when the main character is in “full-on zombie mode,” in the heat of the moment responding to some type of life-threatening situation, that she seems so close to continuing down the zombie path to attacking and eating her friends. In her zombie rage, somehow her human remnant needs to find a way to take back control and live out her human morals of not eating living people. Somehow, a spark of humanity awakens her back to the way she truly wants to live. Her human-self triumphs over her zombie-self.  

There are times when I’ve been in arguments or frustrated situations where I am thisclose to tearing someone apart, or saying something that I might regret for a long-time, maybe even forever. And this small, creeping thought, whispers that I’m entering a danger zone. This momentary Spirit-whisper provides an opening to resist, to I remember what I am, or to remember whose I am – a child of God, redeemed and reconciled, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

This moment allows me to pivot and turn back from the relationship-damaging brink. The Hebrew word for repentance means literally “to turn.”  In that whisper, there’s a softness, a turning or pivoting, which allows me to submit to the wisdom of Jesus. It’s a wisdom that steps away, cools down, recognizes wrong, apologizes, reframes, and tries again at a better way.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (vv. 7-8).

What is the war that happens within you? Is it responding wrongly in anger and verbally beating someone to a pulp? Is it a temptation to actually use physical force? Maybe your war is different. The monster raging can involve many things. Maybe it involves sexual fantasies about someone who is not your partner, getting too close with someone who is not your partner, watching pornography, crossing proper boundaries on social media or in person that constitute sexual harassment, maybe it is lifting things from the office, or cheating figures in your finances. Or some other monster. There are monsters that lurk within us, sisters and brothers, and temptation is real. What is yours?

In the midst of temptation, there will always be a moment where – if we can hear it – the Spirit whispers for us to resist, to turn back, and gives us an opening (maybe momentary) to choose a way that better reflects the wisdom of Jesus. James says that if you take this moment and remember whose you are, God will draw near to you and bring you out of that temptation. If you’ve already gone there before, you don’t have to keep falling into the same trap. Repentance and confession are just as real as temptation; God is gracious. God is jealous for you (in the good way), that is, God earnestly seeks you. God wants you to live in the wisdom of Jesus as a redeemed and forgiven child of God.

Jerry O’Donnell

Everyone could use a healthy dose of humility. Some people could probably use a few.

Do any of you have a friend or know someone who always “wins” or always has the highest score in whatever they do? Well this was me as a kid, as I, believe it or not, struggled with humility.

I’m chalking it up more to immaturity, though, not so much a desire to disobey God. Finishing first and winning was everything to me, and in the unlikely event I fell short—I’m kidding, it happened a lot—I refused to accept it. As a preschooler or even into my early elementary years, I would get physically upset when I didn’t win. Probably worse was how I reacted when I did win.

I didn’t care about sportsmanship at all. I had no compassion for whom I may have just defeated or how they might have been feeling. All I cared about was how good winning made me feel and how I must have looked to others around me. Again, as a little guy obsessed with winning games, sporting events, academic competitions, what have you, my drive was not to displease God and exalt myself, but I was clearly seeking the ways of the world.

Our passage in James talks about how being a friend of the world, choosing worldly desires, makes us an enemy of God. James goes on to say God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I don’t know if I first received this lesson in humility in James or whether it was Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

What I do know is that as I matured, I began to understand the importance of humility—both how one appears to others and also how one feels about oneself. I could feel the change within me as I cared more about the people I interacted with in areas of competition. No matter what the end result was, I felt a sense of joy because of the fellowship/companionship with all. In the same way, other people have affirmed this change, as it has been outward as well. Now many people will say things to me like, you’re such a good sport, or wow, you don’t care who gets credit? To which I reply, hah! Look how good I am at not caring who wins! Just kidding.

It’s a daily challenge, as humility continues to be undervalued in a world of exploitation of so many for the gain of so few. I will continue to do my part in my life in this church, in my place of work, and in my circles of family and friends to promote teamwork, and doing things together to make sure everyone is loved and respected. I hope you will join me in drawing near to God in this endeavor so God will draw near to us.

Carolyn “Care” Nestman

Have any of you ever done something that you felt God specifically told you not to do? I have! When I was 17 I dated my high school’s “golden boy”. You know the guy. The one who gets straight A’s and is the drum major of the marching band, but is still super cool. We actually had a teacher say that she wished her daughters would have dated my high school boyfriend. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, when we started dating, I felt God telling me that this was a terrible idea. It got to the point where I had a prophetic dream about how I should not be with this person, but I refused to listen. I was 17, I obviously knew better than God. To make an EXTREMELY long story short, in the 4 years that we dated we managed to plan a wedding, and I lost myself. The happy peppy person that stands before you didn’t exist when I was in this dysfunctional and controlling relationship. During this time I had also stopped going to church and spending time in the word.

After I broke up with him, I felt like this huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer bogged down by my disobedience, I had this joy that I didn’t realize was missing. I spent more time in church, and eventually started doing my daily devotionals again. And I’ve been much better at listening to the voice of God as the Spirit continues to direct my path.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t completely over, and I’m not magically fixed now that I’m spending time with God again. 5 years later, I’m still healing. I was visiting the city where he lives, this past weekend, and I realized that I am still REALLY ANGRY. But even in this, there is something so utterly comforting knowing that I can turn to God in my anger, and say “I made a huge mistake, and I need help to fix the brokenness.” And as I draw nearer to God, I can feel and see the Holy Spirit continue to work in my life and continually wraps me life in her joy and love.

GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO US

Luke 18:9-14 & Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22

Micah Bales

 

I was raised in an activist household. My parents had really strong political opinions, and I grew up in an environment of really intense ideology. For me, as a child, that ideology was what would today be broadly described as “progressive.” Our family was actively engaged in struggles for peace and justice in a variety of ways. We were hard-core Democrats.

Living in Wichita, Kansas, being an outspoken Democrat meant something. It meant swimming against the current of our surrounding political culture. It mean being a loser during our mock elections at school. Later on, in high school, my outspoken views meant that I didn’t have many friends. I was openly mocked by other students, and sometimes even by teachers. I got used to living a life of resistance to the mainstream culture, but being socially excluded was painful in ways I don’t think I even fully understood at the time. Standing by my beliefs meant being judged on a daily basis, and I grew to be a pretty judgmental person myself.

When I was really young, in grade school and middle school, I had some amount of ideological stability, some ground to stand on. Because even though my family was in the minority as Democrats in Kansas, I still felt like I belonged to a well-defined and somewhat respectable camp. Bill Clinton was president for most of my conscious childhood, and I was a big fan. I admired Clinton, and looked to him as a champion of the ideas and causes I believed in.

But early on in high school, that all fell apart for me. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton launched Tomahawk missile strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. They said they were making VX gas there, but it turned out it was mostly aspirin.

This really upset me. I felt certain that Clinton had timed the strikes to draw attention away from his embarrassing political situation at home. I was shocked and disillusioned by what I saw as my president’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of others to maintain his image and grip on power. From that point on, I was no longer a fan of Bill Clinton. Soon, I didn’t even consider myself a Democrat. 

I stayed away from mainstream partisan politics for quite a while after that. It wasn’t until the 2008 presidential elections that I allowed myself to get excited about a potential president. For me, Barack Obama was a truly inspirational candidate. After eight years of nonstop war, growing poverty, and environmental destruction, I was desperate for someone who would aim our country in a better direction. Still, I felt really nervous about pinning my hopes on this freshman senator from Chicago. I couldn’t forget how deceived I had felt in the past when I had put my trust in the partisan political establishment. 

But Obama promised he would help the poor. He promised he would heal the earth. I wasn’t sure whether he was the real deal or not, but I decided to take a chance. Along with so many in my generation, I cheered when Barack Obama was inaugurated President of the United States.

In the seven and a half years since Faith and I just about froze to death watching Obama’s inauguration on the Washington Mall, the political situation in our nation has gotten worse in many ways. Now, I don’t want to deny the real progress that has taken place over this time. I’m thinking of the extension of health care benefits to millions more Americans. The growing recognition – both legal and social – of LGBT equality, and a broadening conversation about what it means to be black in a country that was built on the backs of millions of African-Americans. I can see how we are growing as a country.

And yet, during this same period, so much has gone wrong. The endless war on terror, launched by President Bush and his henchmen, has only been expanded under President Obama. This administration has developed the high-tech surveillance state to extremes unheard of before in human history. And despite Obama’s promises to heal the planet, the threat of climate change is even more dire today than it was when he was first sworn in.

And the whole spirit of this country. It’s gotten terrible. I mean, I don’t mean to say that things were great before. But during the last eight years, we’ve been going to a whole new level of nastiness. Open hatred has become normal. Religious bigotry. Racism. Misogyny. Classism. All types of behavior that were once considered limited to the lunatic fringe of American politics have been ushered into the inner sanctum of our newspapers, television broadcasts, and presidential debates. It’s hard to know how to respond sometimes.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t always respond well. It’s easy for me to hate people who are on the other side from me politically. I often find myself casually dismissing their humanity, dismissing the very real fear and anxiety that so many Americans, of all political persuasions are feeling right now. Rather than let myself feel that pain, it’s easier for me to get into battle mode. It’s easier to attack others, to project my own fears onto them – the worry I have about the direction our country, our world is headed in.

This is something that I need to be real about. It’s easy to hate people, and it’s getting easier. This whole environment we’re in right now encourages it. We separate ourselves from one another – by politics, by class, by race, culture, geography, and so many others. Rather than having the hard conversations with one another, it’s easier to stand far off and judge others – often people we don’t even know.

The Gospel reading today is all about this kind of anonymous hatred. Jesus asks us to imagine two people standing together in a public place. And – I hope you’ll forgive me – I’m going to take some liberties with the story this morning. We don’t have a Temple today, and there are very few places where people of all shapes and sizes come together. So let’s imagine these two parents sitting next to one another in their cars as they are waiting to pick up their children from the local elementary school.

One of these parents is a socially conscious progressive. She buys organic. She drives a Prius and is getting solar panels installed on her house. She contributes a good chunk of her income to charity, and she volunteers for all sorts of good causes. She considers herself one of the good people. She’s part of the solution. She’s on the right side of history. She wishes others would get on board and come around to her perspective. Or at least get out of the way.

There’s another parent out in front of the school, waiting for her kids to come out. She drives a beat-up SUV with an NRA sticker on the back windshield. She’s not sure whether President Obama was really born in America, but she’s suspicious of anything the liberal media has to say about it. One thing she does know for sure: This country needs a change immediately, because things have gotten pretty bad. 

So as they’re sitting next to each other in their cars, waiting for their children to emerge, they’ve got some time to think. The first person, she’s thinking about the lady in the SUV. What a gas guzzler. She notices the NRA sticker, and she wonders how anyone could actually think that way after all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last couple years. That lady is probably a racist. She’s probably voting for Donald Trump. Thank God I’m not like her.

The other woman doesn’t have any idea that she’s being judged. She doesn’t know, because she’s not really paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around her. She’s deep in prayer. It looks like the bank is going to foreclose on her house. Her husband lost his job a year and a half ago, and keeping up with the mortgage has been a struggle since then. She’s praying, because she knows she needs God’s mercy. She knows that there’s no way she is going to get out of this situation by her own devices. She needs a miracle. In her frustration and despair, she cries out – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 

The point of Jesus’ story seems clear enough to me. It doesn’t really matter whether the lady in the Prius is making better life choices. (The Pharisee was definitely making better life choices than the Tax Collector.) The most important thing to God isn’t whether a person’s ideology is right, or whether they follow all the rules. Jesus tells us that what God really values is a broken heart and contrite spirit. Genuine repentance is more pleasing to God than all the superficial righteousness we can produce on our own. 

This is relevant to me. I don’t own a Prius, but I fit the bill of this modern-day Pharisee. I like to think that I make good choices, that I’m a good person, and that I get the blessings that I deserve for my good behavior. Maybe you do, too. This is a pretty normal, natural way of thinking. 

But it’s not Jesus’ way of thinking. In Jesus, I meet a God who longs for me to let down my defenses and embrace the reality of my own spiritual poverty. I want to believe I’m strong, but I’m not. I want believe that I have it all together, but I don’t. I want to belong to the right causes, the right church, the right political party. But God is a lot less concerned than I am with being right. In the face of all this darkness and despair, Jesus is focused on being love.

I believe this story – the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the self-righteous progressive and the Republican – is relevant to all of us, regardless of our politics. Because the sickness that we’re seeing in this election goes a lot deeper than an election. It’s much bigger than the candidates who are asking for our votes. It’s not just a matter of parties, lobbyists, and super-PACs. It would be so much easier if we could locate the problem outside ourselves and go about curing it. But the reality is that there is something truly wrong with us. This sickness is within us, and it’s being played out in our daily lives. 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to look our sickness straight in the eye – to own it, and ask God to make us whole again. Jesus invites us to live lives of courage. Following him is going to demand bravery, because this life is really scary sometimes. Instead of seeing the fear, and ugliness, and pain as our ultimate reality, Jesus shows us how to embrace these challenging situations and take them as an opportunity for redemption. Forgiveness. Sacrificial love. 

When I hear the hatefulness being spewed by the media, both right-wing and progressive. When I see those Trump bumper stickers and sneer. When I look at people around me and judge them because they’re not as enlightened as I am. I’m living my life in fear. I’m living my life outside of the love of God. I’m not being a friend of Jesus. 

It’s hard to imagine sometimes – for me anyway – this life of God where tenderness is more important than winning, and love is more powerful than walls. It’s a challenge to stay awake to all the times that I judge others – and feel like I’m well-justified! It’s humbling to realizing that even when I’m right, my judgment and bitterness make me wrong. 

In this country that is being torn apart by the need to be right, the need to win, this obsession with overcoming our fears by defeating external enemies – both real and imagined – what does it look like for us to walk in the broken, humbled way that Jesus shows us? What does it mean for us to see ourselves in the Tax Collector, and open ourselves to the forgiveness that we desperately need? 

We can’t do it on our own, but the Holy Spirit will give us power and strength if we ask for it. If we cry out together – “God, be merciful to us, sinners!”

WARNINGS, MOUNTAINS, AND CONSUMING FIRE

Hebrews 12:14-29; Psalm 103:1-8

Jennifer Hosler

Nate and I recently spent time in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The landscape is staggeringly beautiful. Expanses of sheer, sharp mountains, turquoise lakes, acres and acres of pine trees, aspen trees, and larch trees. We hiked most days and found ourselves climbing steeply through fields of alpine wildflowers and heather. When we would get to the top of a mountain or to a mountain pass, all of a sudden, we would be surrounded by views of more mountains, by vistas of glaciers and icefields and forests. I found myself repeating, “This is so amazing.”

At the same time, we were constantly aware of the danger that comes with such wild beauty. At high altitude, the weather can change quickly. Sometimes, you can’t see what clouds are on the other side of a mountain pass or peak. When you summit, you may be met with spectacular views and ominous clouds that are soon accompanied by driving wind, chilling rain, and lightning. Without a waterproof jacket, a map, and some wisdom, you could easily get cold and lost and/or struck by lightning.

The Canadian Rockies are one of the largest concentrations of glaciers, layers of ice that are thousands of year old. These vast expanses of glacier ice contain both visible and invisible crevices; walking without the help of an expert might mean that you fall into a deep crack and quickly succumb to hypothermia. The region’s pristine turquoise waters are often icy cold, since the snow pack melts off in June and the lakes and rivers are often fed by glaciers. The magnificent glaciers, lakes, and rivers can each hold threats.

Even if you are just trying to enjoy the serene beauty of the forest, if you don’t make enough noise, you could stumble upon a grizzly bear and partake in an unexpected confrontation. Quite a few trailheads have signs warning hikers and visitors, “You are in Bear Country!” The wilds of the Canadian Rockies bring both joy and nourishment to the soul; but the wonder and rejoicing need to be accompanied by the sober realities of ferocious weather, chilly rivers, icy crevices, and grizzly bears.

Rejoicing accompanied by warning. A sober message followed by encouragement. While studying for this sermon, I learned that this happens throughout the book of Hebrews. There is an interplay of warning and encouragement. At least four other warnings can be found before chapter 12. Each is followed by words of encouragement, words about the great salvation, blessings, and rest that come to us through Christ Jesus. In today’s passage, we go from warning to encouragement, and back to a brief warning.

The author of Hebrews (whose exact identity is unclear) gives the early Christians three messages, which are relevant for us today in our own journeys of following Jesus. Message number one: Watch out, that you don’t make rash and foolish mistakes that will affect your faith and your life! Message number 2: At the same time, remember which mountain you are on. Remember that you come to God through Jesus the Messiah, that you come reconciled to God through Christ. Message number 3: Our God is a consuming fire. Don’t let God’s grace be a reason that you neglect God’s call for holiness in your life; remember that God is in the process of purifying your heart.

Watch Out

Typically, I bike to church each Sunday and most places in the city. Nate does as well, and one morning that he was coming to preach, an unwise motorist carelessly pushed open a car door as he was going past. It could have ended in tragedy, but it ended mostly with some scuffs.

Biking is a fantastic mode of transportation, it is eco-friendly and provides exercise. But despite the benefits, you can’t brashly bike down a road expecting that cars alongside you will see you or that the people in the parked cars remember you are there. Awareness of the dangers—and the wisdom to act accordingly—are key to being safe when biking. You don’t want to be the person for whom everyone cringes: biking recklessly, running lights when there is heavy traffic, not signaling, and not wearing a helmet.

In today’s passage, the author of Hebrews basically says, “Don’t be that guy.” “That guy” is a man named Esau (Hebrews 12:16). Esau was the son of Isaac, brother of Jacob. The God of Israel in the Old Testament is often referred to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not the God of Esau.

We need to back up to the book of Genesis briefly (25:29-34; 27:30-40), during the time of the patriarchs of Israel. Isaac and Rebekah have two twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau comes out first, with Jacob holding onto his heel. Esau, being firstborn just by a few minutes, is culturally given more rights and status. Esau becomes a hunter; Jacob kind of handles the affairs around home. One time, Esau comes back from a hunting trip “famished,” just when Jacob has cooked a terrific lentil stew. Jacob trades the food for Esau’s birthright and inheritance; Esau treats it pretty flippantly and doesn’t really think about weighing his appetite over his future.

Flash forward to when their father is dying—their parents don’t know about this oath. Through some deception by Jacob and his mom, Isaac gives all of the blessing to Jacob. Esau is left with basically nothing and is unable to escape the consequences of a rash decision several years before.

Let’s reread verses 14 to 17: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.”

While we likely won’t exchange our inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup, there are modern lessons to learn from Esau. We don’t often think of the gravity of our actions. Sometimes we put a lot of thought into our words and our actions; other times, we fly off at the mouth. “Ehh, you know, I’m just saying crap.” We flippantly behave in ways that are not good for our own health or our spiritual well-being.

The author of Hebrews is telling us to watch out—don’t act rashly because your actions have consequences. Pursue peace (right relationships) and holiness (integrity, honesty, generosity, patience, kindness, and more).  Watch out for bitterness and things to come up between you and others in the church. Watch out for things that divide and things that lead you astray from God. Watch out for high standards in your most intimate relationship; don’t treat sex as something to throw around when it belongs in a covenantal relationship.

Watch out—because you don’t know how your actions and words can lead to unforeseeable consequences. When we act rashly, we can act foolishly and both we and the faith community can suffer from our actions. Harsh words can lead to enmity, can lead to tearing a family or a church apart. A lack of integrity in something small can lead to lack of integrity in something much, much bigger like corruption and scandal. Flirting with a colleague may seem harmless but can lead to an affair and the loss of your spouse. Gossip and slander can lead to damaged relationships or, in a workplace setting, to losing your job. Each action and decision we make, even the smallest ones that may seem fleeting or unimportant, can have life-long or even eternal repercussions. Words can’t be unspoken. You can’t unsleep with someone. You can’t undo a lie. Stains on your record of integrity can be impossible to remove. The message to the early church and to us is “Watch out, and don’t be like Esau!”

Remember which Mountain We Are On

We are urged to use caution in our words and our actions. At the same time, we are to remember what we have received in Christ Jesus. While we see a warning and an exhortation for peace and holiness, we are also challenged to remember, as the author in Hebrews puts it, “which mountain we are on.” Verses 18-24 read, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word could be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous judge made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Now there is a lot of context here, like with the mention of Esau earlier, that the original audience would have known but we need to be good students of the Old Testament to understand. The author is talking about the book of Exodus, when the Israelites had left Egypt, were in the desert of Sinai, and when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. At that point, God was revealed in a way that stressed the holiness of God and required ceremonial holiness of God’s followers, the people of Israel. People had to be ritually clean and the community risked disease and death when they disobeyed God or did not enter God’s presence appropriately cleansed. It was wonderful to be freed from slavery in Egypt—but also terrifying; who did the Israelites sign themselves up to follow?

The author of Hebrews draws a distinction between two mountains: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Mount Zion is Jerusalem, a whole new framework of interactions, a new covenant in Jesus. The Hebrew Scriptures, the early encounters with Yahweh, the Mosaic Law—those all laid the foundation—but reconciliation to God through Jesus was the ultimate goal. Jesus is the Righteous One, the perfect human, in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy. We have a mediator who brings us into God’s grace, and cleanses the sin that clings so closely to our hearts, thoughts, words, and actions. In another reference to the Hebrew scriptures, we read that Jesus’ blood speaks louder to God than Abel’s blood. The blood of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, cried out to God, loudly declaring Cain’s guilt. The blood of Jesus, on the other hand, speaks a better word—a word where the cycle of sin and guilt is broken and where humans are reconciled to God.

So while the author of Hebrews says, “Watch out!” There is also a message to remember the grace and forgiveness and reconciliation we have in Christ Jesus. Watch out; but if we mess up, Jesus is our faithful mediator of the new covenant. We will likely still need to deal with the earthly consequences of our rash actions or words, but we can’t undo the reconciliation that we have in Christ Jesus. We are marching to Zion, to the heavenly city where Jesus reigns.

God is a Consuming Fire

The message to the Hebrews is, “Watch out!” and also, “Remember which mountain you are on!” And the author of Hebrews follows these two lessons with a third: don’t forget that God is a consuming fire.

In the United States, 90% of forest fires are caused by humans, compared with about two-thirds in Canada. Forest fires can be devastating, as the town of Fort McMurray saw earlier this year and as California sees quite regularly. Yet forest fires can also provide a crucial opportunity for ecosystem renewal. Natural forest fires are one of the ways that boreal forests are renewed and sustained. By releasing nutrients and stimulating new growth, forest fires can allow boreal ecosystems to thrive; certain species of trees require the heat of a forest fire in order for their pinecones to open and germinate (Natural Resources Canada, 2016).

It sounds very alarming to read that our God is a consuming fire. It stands appositional to the grace and mountain of rejoicing mentioned earlier. But what the author of Hebrews is saying is, don’t let God’s grace be a reason that you neglect God’s call for holiness in your life; remember that God is in the process of purifying your heart. God is a consuming fire.

The consuming fire is one that can remove the debris that is choking out new life. God’s consuming fire can foster renewal. God is in the business of shaking away the things that are superfluous and unnecessary, in order to let unshakeable—the eternal and the holy and the good—remain. The Creator seeks to purify us, purify this world, so that love, truth, and beauty might remain. And since we are receiving the Kingdom of God, we are called to live our lives in ways that honor God. The author of Hebrews urges the early church to heed God’s call (part paraphrase): See that you don’t refuse the One who is holding you accountable and transforming you! God deserves your devotion and commitment. And while you are being transformed, “give thanks… [and] offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

Sisters and brothers, we are called to watch out—our words and actions can have long-lasting consequences for us, for the church, and for others. We are called to remember what mountain we are on: a mountain of grace, Mount Zion, a mountain where we are reconciled to God. We are called to worship God with reverence and awe, and to remember that our God is a consuming fire. Our life in this world is a story of God bringing renewal and reconciliation. The grace that we receive requires reverence and awe, and dedication to the One who reconciles and redeems, who purifies, forgives, and transforms. This consuming fire can be difficult and painful, but can lead to stronger faith, a brighter witness, and healthier relationships in the church.

Is God is calling you to “watch out,” saying, don’t be like Esau? What rash and foolish words or deeds put you at risk of following in Esau’s footsteps, making irreparable damage to your relationships, to the church, or to your integrity? Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Do you need to be reminded that we are people of Mount Zion? God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in unfailing love. We have a mediator in Jesus through whom we can boldly enter the presence of God, expecting grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

We are all going through a process of refining; God is calling all of us to offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe. May we grow deeper in love, mercy, forgiveness, and holiness, through our God who is a consuming fire. AMEN.

The Kingdom of God has Come Near

2 Kings 5:1-14, Luke 10:1-16 

 Micah Bales

The Fourth of July brings up a lot of conflicting emotions for me. As a follower of Jesus, who was crucified by the nations, I’m skeptical of nationalism in all its forms. The rise of the nation-state has led to some of the bloodiest wars in human history. And for those of us who are following political developments both in our country and abroad, it’s clear that nationalism remains a force that can inspire fear, division, xenophobia, and outright warfare.

I’m also very aware that the United States was built on a foundation of almost unspeakable horror. Mass confiscations of land from the Native American inhabitants. Genocide of countless indigenous nations. Centuries of racialized slavery, followed by the de-facto serfdom of African Americans. Brutalization, rape, murder, intimidation, and campaigns of terror have been some of the building blocks of the society we live in today.

In many ways, this story continues even now. We are reminded by our brothers and sisters in the Black Lives Matter movement that the systematic subjugation of black people is a present-day reality in cities and towns across our nation. America has built its economy, culture, and self-understanding on a race-based hierarchy that persists, regardless of the laws that have been passed.

So I hope you’ll all have some compassion on me if I confess that I have a difficult relationship with the Fourth of July. I love my country. This is the land, the culture, the people who have created the person I am today. I love America like I love my own mother and father. But love does not mean that we ignore blindness or abuse; rather, it demands that we seek the best and most life-giving path for those whom we love. To love our country means to pray for it. We ask God to bring healing where we see the scar tissue of historical evil and the wounds of present-day pathology. We pray for the strength to grow and change.

We show love in the stories that we tell, and in the dreams we dream. We should never forget the long history of murder, theft, and oppression that stains our national conscience, it would be a mistake to stop at condemnation. Jesus tells us that he did not come to steal, kill, or destroy – and neither must we. In the name of Jesus, there is abundant life – even for a people as fallen and lost as we are.

As people who love God and our neighbors, we have a responsibility to dream a more hopeful future for our nation. There is more to America than the horror of hatred and genocide. In spite of all the lies and betrayals of America’s past and present, there is an undeniable beauty to be found in this country. Like all the nations of the world, God has created America in his own image, no matter how marred that image has become by the sins of generations.

There is an alternative story to be told about the United States. It’s a hopeful story, one that we can choose to encourage and live into as a people walking in the way of Jesus. As I consider what this alternative American story might look like, my mind keeps coming back to the Statue of Liberty. For more than a century, this statue has stood in New York Harbor as a symbol of American pride, openness, and hospitality. Viewed by millions of new immigrants to American shores, it has become an icon of who America is, and who we are called to be.

This statue reminds us that we are – and are to remain – a nation of outsiders and misfits. From the beginning, this land has been a haven for persecuted religious minorities. We’ve been a safe harbor for the refugees of bloody wars. America is a nation that has founded itself on the boldness and courage of those who dared to dream of a better life for their children. We are a land of invention and inspiration, all built on the sweat and ingenuity of people who would have been voiceless peasants anywhere else.

Back in 1883, when the Statue of Liberty was being constructed, an American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called “The New Colossus.” This poem captures a vision of America as a land of welcome, hospitality, and freedom for all people. It’s a vision that, if fully embraced, would transform our nation forever. Listen to what Emma Lazarus says about the Statue of Liberty and the nation it guards:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That’s beautiful. That’s what America is about. In my heart, I know that this expresses the true spirit of our country. This is what God created us to be. A mighty woman with a torch: Mother of Exiles. 

Our readings this morning come from a time that pre-dates the United States by more than two thousand years. Yet there is a resonance between scripture and the challenge of history and vision that faces us here in Washington, DC in 2016. The encounter between Naaman and the prophet Elisha illustrates how the power of God can overcome the shadow side of our national identities. This story teaches us to embrace a more expansive vision of who God is and the work that he is up to – in all nations and among all people.

In the book of Second Kings, we find Naaman, an Aramean military leader, conducting low-intensity warfare against Israel. Naaman was a really important man in his society. He commanded the entire armed forces of Aram. As such, he was on regular speaking terms with the king. In many ways, he had it made; he was a total insider.

 But there was serious trouble in Naaman’s life. Despite all of his power and privilege, he suffered from a skin disorder – commonly referred to in those days as “leprosy.” And while none of us today would be too pleased with having a serious skin disease, this kind of illness was a much bigger deal in the ancient world. For the people who wrote the Bible, having a skin disease meant that you’d be excluded from the community. Lepers were untouchables, forced to live on the outskirts of populated areas and restricted from participating in social life or worship. Lepers were outcasts and rejects, unfit for contact with people or with God.

Naaman felt the weight of this social ostracism. Despite his great power and influence, he couldn’t save himself from the humiliation of leprosy. No one could. I have no doubt that he had tried all sorts of remedies. He probably searched high and low in his homeland of Aram to find a cure to his condition, but he found nothing.

So when a young slave girl, captured on a recent raid into Israel, told Naaman’s wife that there was a man in Israel who could cure his leprosy, Naaman went immediately to the king of Aram. He got permission to ask for help from the king of Israel, taking along with him gifts, and a letter from the king of Aram.

I think warfare must have worked a little differently back in those days than it does today. After all, Naaman had just recently raided Israel and carried away a bunch of loot and some of its residents. But apparently relations were good enough – or Israel was scared enough – that Naaman could come for a visit to Israel’s king and deliver a letter from the monarch in Aram.

Still, Israel and Aram were definitely not friends. When Naaman showed up with his request, the king of Israel assumed that the request was a prelude to war. “I have no idea how to cure anyone of leprosy! The king of Aram must just be looking for an excuse to invade!”

But when the prophet Elisha heard what was happening, he told the king to send Naaman his way. This foreigner would learn from first-hand experience that “there is a prophet in Israel.”

I think it takes a little bit of imagination to fully appreciate the next scene. Naaman pulls up to Elisha’s house, with all his horses and chariots – serious battle gear – and asked to see the prophet. I imagine what this would look like today: the top general of a whole country rolling up in a humvee, flanked by some armored personnel carriers – probably with helicopter support. Imagine them stopping in front of Elisha’s little rowhouse and knocking on the door.

You’d expect Elisha to open the door. But to everyone’s surprise, Elisha never even comes out to greet the visiting general with all his warriors. He just sends a servant to deliver his message: “Go wash in the Jordan river seven times, and your skin will be made clean.”

Here’s the crazy thing: Naaman almost refuses to do it. He’s ready to roll his chariots all the way back to Aram with nothing to show for it. He came so far for this, why did he almost miss out on his big chance for healing? Well, to start with, he was definitely a little peeved that Elisha didn’t even bother to come out of the house for him. Here he was, an important Aramean leader, second only to the king, and this local shaman couldn’t even make the time to emerge from his hut and greet him? Ridiculous! 

And anyway, even if Elisha had shown more respect, Naaman had beaten Israel frequently enough on the battlefield to know that his nation had better water to offer than the Jordan. As far as Naaman was concerned, Aram was a far better country than Israel. He was beginning to regret that he had ever decided to humiliate himself by begging for help from these foreigners.

Despite his deep need for healing, Naaman’s pride almost prevented him from undertaking the simple act of cleansing that could change his life forever. His sense of national superiority blinded him to the work that God could do through simple things – like the Jordan river – and simple people – like the clearly “inferior” Israelites.

Fortunately for Naaman – and probably for the cause of peace between Israel and Aram – a wise servant convinces him to give the prophet’s words a chance. Despite his misgivings – and his sense of national pride – Naaman finds that the waters of the Jordan do indeed cleanse him from his skin disorder. The cure that he had been seeking for years finally came – not from Aramean military victories or cultural achievements, but rather through the help of a foreign people and a God that Naaman had never taken seriously.

Naaman came to understand that God is at work beyond the borders of Aram, and that even an apparently weak, unassuming, downright strange person from Israel could be a source of transformation and renewal. Naaman was changed forever. Where once he had been a jingoistic nationalist, he became a believer in a power beyond the borders of his home country, one that reconciled him to his foreign enemies. 

This spirit of humility and reconciliation is waiting to be born again among us today, here in 21st-century America. Like Naaman, many Americans are frightened, dismissive, and even contemptuous of people who are different from us. There is a growing sentiment that foreigners should be excluded from our society, and that the greatness of America lies in its isolation. But in the encounter between Naaman and Elisha, we learn that the power of God can be discovered most powerfully when we cross the cultural, political, and ideological barriers that normally separate us.

This is the same experience, the same vision that we discover in the Statue of Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus – a dream of a nation that welcomes the stranger, the homeless, the refugee – all those who are yearning to breathe free.

This is the vision that we find in Jesus, who sends us out defenseless, to share the news of a kingdom that is beyond tribe and language and national borders. In this new community, we welcome everyone who is hungry for freedom and ready to join in the adventure of discipleship. This Fourth of July, what could it mean to embrace this vision of independence: freedom from the chains of nationalism that so often blind us? Walking in the way of Jesus, are we ready to discover God’s plan for our nation?

LOVE AND ARROGANCE

1 Samuel 2:1-10; Romans 12:9-16

Jennifer Hosler

If you’ve been coming to this church for a while, you probably know that, at Washington City, we take the whole Bible as our scriptures but we try to emphasize the words that Jesus taught during his ministry on earth. When asked what the greatest commandments were, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-38).

In light of this, we recognize that as followers of Jesus, we are called to have our actions, our thoughts, and our attitudes defined by love. We’re called to love. Great! But what exactly does that look like? Sometimes it’s difficult to think about love beyond a warm or sentimental feeling – and this is how our culture often defines love (feeling love). Yet we see in Scripture that love is defined both as the expression of certain healthy traits and actions – and also as the absence of specific unhealthy traits and actions. One of the most well-known scripture passages about love, 1 Corinthians 13, represents this very well. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not selfish, love is not self-seeking, love is not rude. Several other passages in scripture, including today’s text in Romans 12, help us learn how love is manifested beyond vague warm fuzzies. They say, “Love looks like this. Or this doesn’t look like love.”

Reading today’s passages in 1 Samuel and in Romans 12, I was confronted with the topic of arrogance. Both of them mention arrogance. In Hannah’s prayer, she declares, “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (v. 3). In Romans 12, the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, saying, “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:16).

Arrogance, as defined by Webster’s English Dictionary, is “the act or quality of having unwarranted pride or self-importance.” A second definition is “haughtiness.” Haughtiness isn’t a term we use much: to be haughty is to be “proud and disdainful; having a high opinion of oneself, with some contempt for others.” Arrogance doesn’t mesh well with love. Arrogance promotes the self; love lifts others up. Arrogance says that the self is the most important; love prioritizes the needs of others.

There are three truths about love and arrogance that I see in today’s scriptures. First, we see that the world teaches us that people with status are worthy of respect and people without status are worthy of ridicule. Second, we see that the LORD, Yahweh, is the One who re-orders the world and turns upside-down the status system as we know it. He lifts up the lowly, he gives barren women children, and he fills the hungry with food. Third and finally, we see that followers of Jesus are called to live out God’s Kingdom and continue to flip the world on its head—fleeing from arrogance and loving all the people whom the world says are nothing.

Those Who Have Status Have Respect

We’re approaching the 2 year anniversary of the Federal government shutdown in 2013. Of all the political discourse from that time, one of the most memorable items to me is a facebook post. Metro had been pretty deserted for a few weeks. When the shutdown finished, Metro ridership increased back to normal as government employees and contractors were able to head back to work. A friend of mine on facebook wrote: “It’s so lovely to see all the DC commuters on the Metro looking busy and self-important again…” As you probably know, it’s not uncommon in DC to encounter people who have power or influence or who think they are pretty important. It would be interesting to know by some psychosocial measurement – which U.S. city would rank the highest for the most self-important or arrogant people. I wouldn’t doubt that DC would be close to the top, but we’d probably have some fierce competition from other cities.

People have a tendency to conflate power or money or some other type of status as being related to a person’s self-worth. Net worth is often conflated with self-worth. Even if it isn’t said explicitly (though it often is), our media imply that people with status are more worthy as human beings. Important people have the right look, the right clothes, the right size, the right job, the right type of family background. People without these things are less important – less worthy of time, of interest, or of kindness. Unfortunately, this seems to be a consistent problem with humanity – for millennia, we’ve been trying to say who is in and who is out, who deserves shame and who deserves honor.

Hannah and Peninnah – Arrogance and Honor

The context of one of our passages, 1 Samuel 2, is a context of shame and derision, based on a person’s social status. Before we talk about chapter 2, we need to understand what happened in chapter 1. To situate our passage in history, the book of 1 Samuel starts after the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, after they wandered through the wilderness, and after they entered the Promised Land. It starts at the end of the time of the Judges, some leaders and some heroes who helped the people of Israel get through a chaotic time. When we arrive in 1 Samuel, this is a time before Israel had any kings and before the temple was built in Jerusalem.

In chapter 1, we first meet a man named Elkanah, who is an Israelite from the tribe of Ephraim. Elkanah has two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. We learn right away that Peninnah has children, while Hannah does not have any children. Aside from the fact that he has two wives, Elkanah seems to be a somewhat decent guy. He goes up to Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was, and completes the yearly sacrifices to Yahweh. He gives portions to Peninnah and to Hannah to sacrifice so that they too can fulfill their ritual duties within Mosaic Law. But as could be expected with polygamy, all is not well in their household.

In ancient times, infertility was considered a curse and children were the ultimate blessing for a woman. Children were thought to be a stamp of God’s approval; not being able to have children was like a stain on your individual moral and religious character. Peninnah regularly mocks and derides Hannah for her infertility. Peninnah judges Hannah as not worthy because their culture said that she wasn’t worthy. Eventually, this wears Hannah’s spirit down: she weeps and won’t eat.

Yet Hannah does not remain passive – she sets out to intercede before Yahweh at the house of worship. Hannah asks the LORD to see her misery. She vows that if she conceives, she will dedicate her firstborn son to the LORD as a Nazirite. The priest Eli sees her lips moving in prayer and thinks she’s a drunk woman. He berates her but she stops him saying, “Actually, I’m just a desperate woman praying before the LORD. Don’t think that I’m a worthless woman – I’m just praying to God.” Eli realizes his mistake and blesses Hannah. Hannah goes on her way, conceives, and bears a child whom she names Samuel. When Samuel is no longer nursing, Hannah brings him to the house of worship, offers a sacrifice, and gives Samuel over into Eli’s care.

Then, we get to the moment of today’s passage, chapter 2. Hannah has handed over Samuel and then she praises Yahweh – breaking into a beautiful song (a song that becomes the basis for Psalm 113, a praise song used frequently by the people of Israel). Hannah praises Yahweh because “the LORD is a God who knows and by him deeds are weighed” (v. 3). In other words, the creator of the universe wasn’t looking at outward or cultural symbols of status.

Peninnah, in her arrogance and self-importance, didn’t see the quality of Hannah’s faith or her integrity. Peninnah only saw that Hannah didn’t measure up to their culture’s understanding of status and self-worth. Yet the LORD saw Hannah’s heart and her faith, saw her misery, and acted to bring about change.

Yahweh Turns the Order Upside-Down

Interestingly, Hannah’s song of praise becomes more than about her – the LORD’s one act is seen as a symbol for how Yahweh works. God is revealed as the one who redeems, re-orders the world, and turns the world upside-down. Yahweh lifts up the despised and the lowly. Hannah declares, “There is no one like God. He breaks the bows of the mighty, but the weak He gives strength. The once-well fed end up working for their dinner, while the hungry are filled to the brim. The infertile woman has seven kids, while the woman with many loses hers. The needy and the poor are lifted out of the dirt and given places of honor.”

As the Message translation puts it, “God brings poverty and God brings wealth; he lowers, he also lifts up. He puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, restoring dignity and respect to their lives—a place in the sun!”

Hannah’s song takes her circumstance – God giving hope to the derided and outcast – and connects it to the nature of who Yahweh had revealed Himself to be. This is a story of the strange, eternal God, the ‘I am who I am,’ who has acted mightily in the past and made a tiny group of former slaves into a people with their own land.

The story of Hannah is one of many stories in Scripture where Yahweh chooses the poor and despised, where He turns the world’s ideas of status and glory on upside down, and exalts the outcast. Little did Peninnah know when she mocked Hannah that her rival would have such great faith, that Yahweh would see Hannah’s suffering, and that Hannah’s faith would lead to a child who becomes a famous leader in Israel. As a boy, Samuel serves at the Israelites’ house of worship and hears the voice of God. He eventually becomes a leader of the Israelites and is even used by the LORD to anoint David as King over the people. Hannah, once despised, is lifted up as a woman of faith and sacrifice because of the divine acts of Yahweh.

The Love of the Church can Transform Lives

When I was growing up, my mom was a single parent and we didn’t have a lot of money. I wore hand-me-down clothes and lived in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere northern Canada. While I excelled academically in school, I struggled with insecurity. In 8th grade, I moved across the country with my mom and started a new school. I remember my best friend at the time occasionally making strange comments, things like “kids of single parents aren’t likely to do well in school or go to university.” (Wait, what did you say?)

As we approached the transition to high school, my friend applied to a special enrichment program that was somewhat selective. She and her parents discouraged me from applying but my 8th grade teacher told me that he thought I should. I did and I was accepted. At 8th grade graduation, I received the math and the English awards. I realized that my friend wasn’t very happy. Like Peninnah, she was looking at parts of me, my social status, and making judgments about my worth and competency – and like Peninnah, she was wrong.

I continued to do well in school but still struggled with insecurity and self-confidence. I started going to a youth group at my church and learned about an opportunity to serve on an international mission trip. I applied and went to Kenya for two months with a team of 23 teens from across Canada and the U.S. The trip was incredibly formative in many ways. In Kenya, I experienced a different culture and I was exposed to the dramatic differences in standards of living around the world. I saw people whose basic needs were not met and that reshaped how I understood the world.

Beyond that, my trip to Kenya was the first time I felt truly loved and accepted by people other than my family: people didn’t care if I wasn’t thin, what clothes I wore, if I was athletic or tripped over rocks a lot while constructing the house we were building (I did). My sisters and brothers in Christ considered me worthy of love, compassion, and kindness – and that changed my life. I realized that I was a beloved child of God and saw how that was the reason why my team loved me. This love freed me to be kinder to others. It helped me understand my self-worth didn’t come from my clothes or my family background or how cool I was considered. Sisters and brothers, the love of the church can transform lives.

Love as the Opposite of Arrogance

Followers of Jesus are called to flee from arrogance, self-importance, and judgment – and are called to turn towards love. Love is the opposite of arrogance: love associates with the lowly and doesn’t claim to be worth more than others. Love sees all people as created in the image of God – equally so – whether rich or poor, black, white, or brown, young or old, homeless or housed, male or female, small or large, gay or straight. Beyond these big social markers of prejudice, love also looks past whether someone is awkward, considered uncool, whether someone is a bit strange, or struggles with depression or anxiety. Love associates with the lowly; love isn’t haughty or self-important or arrogant.

Hannah’s song and Romans 12 struck me this week because inward arrogance is something that I occasionally struggle with. Not that I actively think, “Hey, I’m better than someone,” – but I imply it sometimes. I imply that I’m better than someone when I don’t want to extend kindness to a person who doesn’t fit an image of who is “worthy” of my time and energy.

Scripture is full of places where God turns upside-down what it means to be “worthy” of love or kindness. Hannah gets her prayer answered. Mary, an unwed pregnant virgin, becomes blessed among women. Jesus intentionally reaches out to blind beggars, corrupt outcast tax collectors, and women seen as sexually deviant. The love that we are called to, friends, is a love that looks past what the world sees – to see people created in the image of God, worthy of love and kindness and hospitality and care.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. AMEN.