Living Parables

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Reading: Matthews 9:35-38

You may find it funny that the title of my meditation is “Living Parables,” but that the scripture we read does not, in fact, include a parable. I thought it was a bit strange, but that’s because, at first, I didn’t get the right sense of the Annual Conference theme. Brother Samuel Sarpiya was the Annual Conference moderator and he chose this year’s theme, Living Parables, and selected this Scripture for his opening night sermon.

This year, my Annual Conference was different – joined as I was by a tiny 5-week old baby (as far as we knew, the youngest conference attendee there). My mind during worship was not always focused… occasionally hogged by feeding a baby, comforting a baby, or just generally snuggling a cute baby. So, I re-listened to Brother Samuel’s sermon and I understand more about the conference theme. His point was not that the parables are living (though they are, as the Living Word of God). Rather, it is that we – you and I, children of God – are living parables. We are living parables. Brother Samuel had us repeat after him, “I am a parable.” Say it with me, “I am a parable.” I am a parable.

Jesus used parables to teach his disciples. Brother Samuel defined these as “heavenly stories with earthly meaning” to illustrate how God was acting in the world. In Matthew 9:35-38, we see Jesus going through all the towns and villages, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people. Jesus showed compassion to those around him. To his disciples specifically, Jesus said that the harvest was plentiful, but the workers were few, and to ask “the Lord of the harvest” to send out workers into the fields. Brother Samuel’s message is that we—you and I, sisters and brothers, our lives—are the stories meant to illustrate how God is acting in this world. We are the stories. We demonstrate the Living Word of God through our lives.

This happens as individuals, as a community, and as a denomination. One of the highlights of Annual Conference was the Church of the Brethren video report. There is always a written report, but the video reports of the past few years have illustrated the work of the church in beautiful, hope-filled ways (shout out to Wendy McFadden for her inspired creativity as producer).

This year’s video can be found on our church’s facebook page and it highlights the COB as the “not-so-big church” – a church that is small but has big ideas. Big ideas of peacebuilding in Nigeria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of disaster relief and solidarity with sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico, of caring for children during disasters through Children’s Disaster Ministries, of commitments to service, and more. This not-so-big church denomination works around the world and points to something much bigger than itself—the way of Jesus.

This also happens at the congregational level. Brother Samuel shared about the congregation that he pastors, Rockford (IL) Community Church of the Brethren. The church plant sought to build off its strengths and resources to minister to the community. They run a mobile technology and arts lab, while also teaching kids conflict resolution skills and building bridges between the community and police. Not everyone can or should have a mobile technology lab, but every church should be engaging its community. Brother Samuel said that at times, he sees churches not doing anything outside of their buildings, that the churches are just waiting or hoping for people to come in.

For 37 years, our congregation labored and ministered through the Brethren Nutrition Program, a soup kitchen ministry for people in need. We laid it down last year, realizing that the community’s needs have changed. We also had very few people from our congregation who could be involved in the daily work of that ministry—which took place during the lunch hour. We began a discernment process to think about our gifts and strengths and what God might be calling us to next. That conversation is not over.

Brother Samuel’s call for us to be Living Parables reminds me to pick up the questions: What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs? I recognize that “community” in our city and broader metro area can be a vague thing. It could be neighborhood-specific or generally applied to several million people in the “DMV.” So perhaps the best starting point is to think about our strengths and to reflect on Jesus’ word in Matthew 9. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the One in charge of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest and to reveal where the harvest is and what the crop looks like.

The “not-so-big church” lives out its calling of Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together. My prayer is that we have a holy imagination to live out our calling as Washington City Church of the Brethren. We want to be a church “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” Let us go and find our gifts and strengths and holy opportunities to live out this call. AMEN.

Trinity Sunday—We have had enough of sermons from pulpits

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: John 3:1-17; Romans 8:12-17

“We have had enough of sermons from pulpits.” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits. This rings in my ears.

Weeks ago, the Great March of Return was mounted to nonviolently protest unjust treatment in Gaza. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade, surrounded by an electric fence, with limited means for survival for 10 years.

On Monday May 14th, 2018 60 Palestinians—were killed by snipers during a nonviolent action.

On Tuesday May 15th, Churches for Middle East Peace gathered next to the White House for a vigil to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the Catastrophe as it is called by Palestinians driven from their land.

On Wednesday May 16th, I was asked, as a member of the board for Churches for Middle East Peace to facilitate the Q & A section of a talk by Naim Ateek—known as the founder of Palestinian Liberation theology. In his new book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict, he notes that the theology that was taught to his people by Western Christian missionaries couldn’t bear the weight of the displacement of 1948 and the Occupation of Palestine. He writes, “When the catastrophe struck, our Christian community was not ready for it. People’s faith was not always resilient enough to withstand the tragic impact. Some of our people lost their faith…They felt that the spirituality they were taught by the missionaries was one of resignation and acceptance of their fate as the will of God” (Ateek, 3).

This theologian, Naim Ateek is “big stuff” in theological circles. I do not typically say things like “I was honored to do this…,” I’m either to pompous or too informal but, as a theological ethicist, this was pretty great.

Also, on the panel was Tarek. Tarek, a Palestinian activist formerly with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine, gave an impassioned plea for action. He said, “We have had enough of sermons from pulpits!” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits…

My task this morning is to preach a sermon from a pulpit. Not only that but this is Trinity Sunday. To many of us the theology of the Trinity is probably about as esoteric as it can get.

While a sermon may be “just” words, it also can be a tool for justice. The work of the sermon and the preacher draws us to God and to neighbor and should draw us into the street. Not only this, but our church sits in a particular location and has a particular calling, a particular gift—a responsibility. We are taking up geographic space on Capitol Hill.

Taking up space is not neutral nor necessarily positive, however. This land also had original inhabitants on it—the Piscataway Nation. Who were also displaced through violence. But while it is not neutral in terms of innocent or without harm, it is also the possibility to participation of the work of justice.

It was my job to read the text this week. To read the text prayerfully and with care so that this morning I can do the audacious act of proclamation. Though we may gain from historical figurations and formulations about the doctrine of the Trinity, the work this morning is to read the texts. But not just to read the texts—to read them in light of the world. To read them for a “theology of the street” as Tarek admonished.

If you were to read this text with a highlighter for notating appearances of the persons that make up the Trinity you would see:

Vs. 13 “if by the Spirit.
Vs. 14 “led by the Spirit of God…are children of God.” –you get two there.
Vs. 15. “Abba! Father!” and “very Spirit”
Vs. 16 “heirs of God” and then…”with Christ.”

So, there you have it. That is why this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday. All three persons of the Trinity show up in the same passage. We also see the way that the persons of the Trinity interact with our lives. Listen again to the text,

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Now tell me—how do we relate to the Trinity? It’s like a knot! The pieces and our relationship are so interwoven that an effort to detangle, delineate, separate into categories or otherwise make it neatly comprehensible is a risky endeavor. The social relationship of the Trinity makes these relationships and processes and formation of our lives to that of God’s life possible. This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why there can really be no difference between theology of the street and of the pulpit—if both are done as they should be. They are one—but we have often tried to stay in safety. By we, I mean Christians who should have been on the street.

The passage focuses on being led by the Spirit and being children and heirs of God. Which is splendid! My parents got some inheritance money from an uncle and they were able to visit the Canadian Rockies—a long-time dream of my mother, and they were able to take all of their children and spouses. If this is being an heir, then being an heir to God—now that must be quite spectacular. Being led by the Spirit we are heirs to God. Which puts us as co-heirs with Christ—also fabulous sounding. Co-heir, co-anything with Christ sounds like being a buddy with God incarnate (Jesus did say to his disciples, I now call you friends).

So the Spirit leads which results in a relationship of child-ness to God and in some way adjacent to Christ.

This all sounds dandy. The passage concludes 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him…. if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Our tendency, which is quite natural, is to focus on the first and last of these.

We are heirs to God! We get God-stuff!

We will be glorified with Jesus! We are going to be famous like Jesus!

We like the sound of being co-heirs and co-glorified but we often skip the co-suffering. And if we admit there will be suffering we likely are thinking of something like discomfort-lite rather than anything parallel to Jesus.

Another place in scripture where the phrase “children of God” is noted is in Matthew 5:9. In this we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And in the example of Jesus we know that peacemaking is not conflict covering or avoiding or minimizing. If we look at the world, in Gaza (with blockade, hunger, protests, and sniper deaths), in Houston (with school shooting), in Nigeria—we know that peacemaking requires justice and sacrifice and risk and compassion and courage.

Omar Harami, Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and struggler for justice described peacemaking for me in this way:

“The city of Jerusalem is the city that gave witness to our faith- the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Lord, we are also in a way the city of Jerusalem as we continue to testify to the miraculous resurrection.

Peace is a beautiful word, even the worst tyrants talk about peace and claim they desire it, but their peace is not the peace of our lord.

Like every dish, the right ingredients and the proper way of making it will determine the success in making it to tasty meal.

We as Christians believe that Justice is the main ingredient to make peace, peace without restorative justice is simply impossible. Our faith mandates us to be justice seekers to make peace possible. The world is in need for justice, on many levels, human rights, economic justice, environmental justice etc… be justice seekers please.

Peace is not the final goal in our faith, its actually reconciliation… peace is only the path between justice and reconciliation. Please don’t be peacemakers, be demanders of restorative justice who work towards true reconciliation.
Philippians 4:7 -And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We are called into the very life of God led through the Spirit into co-suffering and co-glory with Christ. We are called into the very life of God in the streets.

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”