COME TO THE LIGHT

Numbers 21:4-9   Ephesians 2:1-10   John 3:14-21

Jeff Davidson

The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.

A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”

The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”

The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”

The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”

Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?

One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.

Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers. 

But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed. 

So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see. 

In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.

There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.

Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.

But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.

It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.

But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.

Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?

Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.

EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Mark 1:9-15, Luke 18:9-14

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

Last week, I was talking with someone about the plants I have in my garden. I mentioned the different herbs that I grow and how my bay leaf tree has survived several years, even though it is not technically zoned for our city. According to the USDA Hardiness Zones (which provide a planting and climate guide for gardeners), most of the District is Zone 7A and Bay Laurel shrubs are technically rated as hardy at Zone 8. This friend was really surprised that I knew this; he had no idea that such zones existed.

While I’m not an expert (nor do I have my degree in horticulture, like someone else in the room), I suppose I have a basic gardening literacy. I can converse about annuals and perennials that can grow in our region and I know a little bit about shrubs and trees. This literacy allows me to make informed choices about what plants to grow and where to put them in my garden. I could spend my whole life gardening and not get to the full depth of all knowledge on the subject. However, I have the tools that I need to function and flourish, producing food and beauty while learning a little more each year.

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

Like with gardening, the Bible is an area where there is an unlimited amount to know and learn. There are obscure references and details that pastors or seminary students can joke about or spend hours discussing the nuances or arguments around. While some of us can geek out about the Bible, we don’t all need to know Greek or Hebrew or be able to discourse on ancient near eastern creation stories. You don’t have to be an expert or go to seminary to have functional bible literacy.

Pastors and teachers can highlight the main points and contexts of different books so that we can all be conversationally fluent in church and when doing study on our own. Biblical literacy gives us tools to encounter scripture: to understand a bit about a book’s culture and circumstances, determine the applications to the original audience, and then apply the text to our own journeys following Jesus. The goals of our sermons at Washington City COB are to encourage and challenge each other, while also equipping everyone with skills and tools for working with the Bible on their own.

As part of that, I have both a survey and a confession (since it’s Lent, confessions are appropriate). Let’s start with the survey. Don’t raise your hand physically but, in your head, raise your hand if you’re ever read the whole book of Joel. If you have read Joel, do you think you could give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? I openly confess that I would not have been able to do so before my sermon preparation this week.  In some ways, it’s surprising, since I’ve read it several times, was a Hebrew major, and have taken an Old Testament survey class—where I was required to memorize at least one distinctive word or phrase about every book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I couldn’t remember the keyword on my own in 2018, so I dug out our old textbook. Joel’s keyword is locusts. But, while locusts are certainly distinctive, that doesn’t really tell you much about the prophet’s message.

Joel is a short book, with only three chapters. It’s a little strange, but with important prophetic calls and precious promises that extended from Joel’s time to the future. Our passage in Joel was an alternative Ash Wednesday reading and it’s fitting both to think about Lent (which started on Wednesday) and to provide some guidance for our community discernment process. As you heard during the announcements, we are continuing our post-Brethren Nutrition Program discernment, talking about covenant community, membership, ministry, church roles, and spiritual gifts.

My sermon title today is, Everyone, Come to the Fasting Party! This could be bias, but I think my title is more helpful to remember the context of Joel than just “locusts.” In a pivotal and crucial time for the people of Judah, Joel calls the entire community of faith to join in communal repentance and fasting. Joel speaks on behalf of Yahweh, connecting the hope of community renewal and restoration with an intentional reorientation toward the LORD. In a time of crisis, the people’s hope hinges on the nature of Yahweh and of the promise that Yahweh is not finished working, revealing, and transforming.

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

While I may think “Everyone, come to the fasting party!” is a better summary description of Joel, there are certainly locusts in the book of Joel. They are nasty locusts, not fun, chirpy cicadas or 17-year slumberers. Chapter 1 starts out saying, “Pass this story on to your children! Has anything like this happened before? Locusts came and ate everything we had.” Joel recounts the devastation and the mourning of both people and animals. The people are in crisis, with their survival threatened. While Joel doesn’t say explicitly that sin is the cause of all this ecological devastation, it would have been clear to the prophet’s audience.

In the Law given through Moses (commands written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), ecological devastation is presented as a consequence of the people’s sins (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living includes both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. The Covenant was an agreement between the people and Yahweh and there were serious implications for breaking the Covenant. In other prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die.

Here in Joel, locusts devour, “animals groan,” “herds of cattle wander” aimlessly without food, and “even flocks of sheep are dazed” (v. 18). The last verse in chapter 1 says, “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (v. 20). Amid this devastation, it is clear to the prophet Joel what action is required to rescue to community from the brink.

Blow the Trumpet

If this were a play, there would be a cue for the sound of a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used in Jewish rituals, especially the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Inspired by my father-in-law’s occasional use of props during sermons, I had Nate bring in my Kudu Antelope horn from Kenya. [trumpet sound] The trumpet in our text likely would have been a ram’s horn or the horn from another animal, made into an instrument that could send a signal to the people. People groups in Kenya like the Njemp or Maasai have traditionally used this horn to communicate between villages in the Great Rift Valley. Our passage begins with the LORD saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (v. 1). The LORD gives a message that everyone in Judah needs to wake up—to tremble even—and the day of the LORD is at hand.

The Day of the LORD is a motif used throughout the prophets, used to describe when Yahweh is breaking into history to either bring judgment or deliverance against the people of Israel and Judah or other nations. The Day is not like one temporal day (evening and morning), but a cosmic event in salvation history. The Day of the LORD is God at work, making things right through judgment (since people were judged for injustice and idolatry) or making things new through a promise of transformation and wholeness.

The prophet Joel receives the word to sound the horn, the day of the LORD is near. While an impending day of darkness and gloom—not to mention the preexisting locust devastation—sounds harsh and terrorizing, Yahweh really has the people’s interests at heart and wants to keep the Covenant, no mater how many times the people try to abandon it.

The LORD, Yahweh, desires that the people come back with open hearts. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12). God wants relationships with humans. “Return to me, come back to me, come home,” God beckons. Joel calls the people to turn to God, not just with some outward expression, but with true inward repentance and transformation—a genuine reorienting of their lives to Yahweh.

The God that awaits the people is neither a tyrant nor an apathetic or impassive divine being but the “I Am”—the One who has consistently self-revealed as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13; cf. Exodus 34:6). These words to describe Yahweh are the same as those revealed to Moses in Exodus and then used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In this call to return, God demonstrates proactive love by reaching out, despite the people’s obstinance and attempts at life without God. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12).

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

Fasting is mentioned again in verse 15: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, gather the people. Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The trumpets are blown, the people are on high alert, and everyone is called to partake in what could be called a communal, spiritual detox program. A healthy detox eating program might eliminate fast food, junk food, chips, soda, and other empty calories that aren’t good for you and replace them with fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options. In this biblical, spiritual detox, the people stop everything that they are doing to focus on Yahweh.

It’s a time to assess where the people have been self-indulgent, self-sufficient, and have worshipped that which is not God. It’s a time to repent of how they have worshipped things, placed profits, personal comfort, or material possessions over people. It’s a time to recognize and confessing of having lived as though they had no need for God. For our individualistic culture, fasting, repenting, and mourning over sin are things that we are generally inclined to do privately. We don’t say, “Hey, let’s everybody come to the fasting party!” partly because our culture assumes that our own lives and decisions are independent from those around us. “You do you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone directly.”  But for the people of Israel, the individual’s relationship with God is linked to the community’s relationship with God.

Individual repentance is linked to the corporate or communal repentance; individual well-being is inseparable from the community’s well-being. The call to return to God goes out to everyone: young, old, men and women. It’s not just the priests, not just the prophets or leader, not just adults—everyone’s faith matters. The whole community is called to “declare a holy fast” (v. 15). The elderly, the children, “even infants at the breast” and newlyweds on their honeymoon: the crisis facing the community required that everyone partake in the communal fasting and repentance.

Looking at the rest of Joel, we see that Yahweh promises deliverance and renewal, a restoration of the land. Beyond that, the people are given hope of a new Day of the LORD, an era where the Spirit of God will fill and inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). The Apostle Peter cites Joel’s prophesy in Acts 2, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills and dwells the Jesus-followers.

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant, the blessings and curses and the connection between sin and the fertility of the land of Israel, those don’t apply to the new covenant in Jesus. Yet, there are certainly other relevant thoughts and questions that this passage raises for the church today. One question is this: how does our own faith affect the faith of the community? How are the health and well-being of our individual relationships with God—our individual Jesus-following—linked to the health and well-being of a congregation? In other words, when I’m not prioritizing my relationship with God, it makes sense that it would hurt me. But does it hurt others?

When I’m distant or aloof from God, it likely affects how I relate to my spouse, my broader family, and also to my church. I imagine that I’m not able to fully be the blessing that God has designed me to be, via my spiritual gifts and talents, if God is not the center of my life. I think for a time of community discernment—like what we’re trying to engage in at Washington City—it’s important to recognize the synergy between our individual spirituality and the state of our community. We need all levels of our lives to be syncing together and seeking after the Spirit.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time that Christians have used for centuries to prepare their hearts for Easter, to detox from the things that distract from our Creator, and to repent and seek God’s renewing presence. Fasting is an ancient practice and an important tool to be used, whether you are fasting from lunch, chocolate, Facebook or something else. Fasting helps us reorient our lives towards God, creating a reminder or an absence that compels us towards God. Some people don’t cut out things but add a spiritual practice for Lent: they read a Lenten devotional, commit to reading one of the gospels, they add times of prayer to their daily routine, or commit to doing a specific service.

If you want ideas or resources for fasting or spiritual practices during Lent, Nate and I are available to talk through it with you. We’re past Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to start something. Our journey towards renewal, toward community discernment, toward the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb all lay ahead.

The call to return, to draw near to God, rang out for the people of Israel and it also echoes to us today in 2018. God is still saying, “Return to me with all your heart.” It’s easy to turn God into an abstraction, an impassive deity. Yet, we see here in Joel and in many other parts of scripture—in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Jesus’ general interactions with everyone—that the Creator of the Universe lovingly calls each of us to God’s self.

Where do we find our hope during personal crisis or as a congregation in transition? We find hope in knowing God and being known intimately and deeply by God, in experiencing abundant love, mercy, and God’s purpose for our lives. Sisters and brothers, is God calling you to return, to draw near? What can you do this Lent to prepare your heart for Easter, and to get in sync with God’s Spirit that is moving in our lives, in this church, and in this world? Everyone, come to the fasting party and let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus. Turn, return to God—for God is where wholeness and completeness, steadfast love, fulfillment and blessing will be found. AMEN.

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.

IT’S COSMIC! – EPIPHANY

Isaiah 60:1-6,  Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Nate Hosler

I am not a cosmonaut nor even an average person with a solid grasp of space lore. I did, however, watch the new Star Wars two times already. Given my lack of expertise in this area, and the clear need for space knowledge in this sermon I decided to ask around. Saturday morning, like all good neighbors who don’t want to go outside when it is shockingly cold, I texted my neighbor. Since our houses have a connected crawl space and I could hear them cutting through their pipes in an attempt to remedy a frozen drain line, I could have visited them without quite going outside. Despite this option, I texted—“As my nearest space expert, other than old timey ship navigation, how common is it to be given directions by a star?” I figured that since she works for NASA (specifically she makes videos for NASA) that she would have heard of such events. Her answer, received several hours later, was very practical but didn’t quite address today’s strangely acting star. It was also much different from one theologian’s answer to this question. “The cosmic signs heralding this birth should not be surprising, given that the love born in this humble place is the love that moves the sun and the stars. It is the same love that Jesus will use later to calm the winds and the sea” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 39). Likely neither of these answers is quite what we might expect or produce.

In our text we meet star following travelers. Though Matthew calls the travelers “Magi,” we often hear of them as the three kings or wise men. Because of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, there grew a tradition of understanding these visitors as “kings.” Magi are a much different thing than kings. “Magi… astrologers…. were a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in occult arts such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.”(Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 16) Though many nativity scenes show the shepherds and the kings in the same scene there was likely not only minutes but perhaps years between the quick arriving shepherds from the nearby hills and these long distance seekers of Jesus.

From later in the text we can imagine it was about two years. Now, I know that the kings were going far and also traveling by some form non-motorized transportation, but two years seems like a long time. I thought about Google mapping directions from Tehran to Bethlehem but thought that it might get me on some FBI list that might make my travels unnecessarily complicated. I then realized that even if these folks were indeed wise, that getting directions from a star may be a feat that lends itself to wrong turns. So regardless of the point-to-point distance perhaps their path was more wiggly.

The travelers arrive and go to Jerusalem—which would makes sense as a place to find a king. In fact, they go to the present king inquiring about the birth of a new king. King Herod consults his panel of experts and they quickly tell him where the king, the messiah, is to be born. Which raises the question: Why could the scribes so quickly figure out details of the messiah’s birth but miss the coming? One commentator notes that this could be the later writer reading a rejection by Jewish leaders of Jesus back into the text. Is this irony that the leaders in Jerusalem know so much but yet miss the big event? (In False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East—published by Council of Foreign Relations which is considered by many as the leading international affairs shop—recounts how up until the beginning of “Arab Spring”, which rocked the Middle East, almost all the experts assumed that stability was going to continue.) Producing an explanation of an event after the fact is much easier than predicting it. So perhaps we should not be too hard on them.

The traveling kings who were magicians arrive with this dramatic claim. And not only was the location confirmed but the king and “all of Jerusalem” were afraid. Why was “all of Jerusalem” afraid? Wasn’t this what they were waiting for? It could be that it was the king and his court folk who were afraid. They, of course, were doing pretty well in the present arrangement and would be nervous of a change. If this is the case it would be that “all” means those who have their opinions recorded (which continues to be the standard practice—the loudest or most prominent get recorded as the “all).

One commentator notes, that “this Herod was a puppet ‘king’ of Judea at the pleasure of Rome.” (15-16). As such a king he must instill fear to ensure stability through the maintenance of fear. If this were the case, then the “all” being afraid would be because they recognize that with a threatened king it all might hit the fan. The relatively stable, if oppressive, status quo might unravel. Which is in fact what happens a few verses later with the massacre of the innocents.

The king and his panel of experts give directions and send them on their way for the last leg of their epic journey. And they find the holy family. The Magi are overwhelmed with joy. This wasn’t their king nor their deliverer but yet they experience joy. They give their slightly delayed and rather atypical baby gifts and head on home. It is not even clear if they can or do even speak with Mary and Joseph.

Epiphany part 2:

Epiphany of the Magi always occurs on the 6th of January. Today’s passages include the baptism of Jesus which is in some traditions also included in Epiphany. In the passage on the baptism of Jesus a voice speaks from heaven. This cosmic sign allows for greater linguistic articulation. It is like moving from having no words and a few gestures—Say baby Francis who not all that long ago began to smile as a gesture of happiness and recognition—to Micah preaching a sermon last week or Faith being a librarian in a library system that has more than 7 books (according to her via text yesterday) In 2012 at least there were 1,466,010 physical books (https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13123179/how-did-d-c-s-public-libraries-lose-1-5-million-books

Epiphany, whether the Magi + baptism of Jesus or just the wise folks, point to Jesus. In Ephesians 3:1-12 the process of revelation to Saul—which made him Apostle Paul—is laid out. These 12 verses are a bit of a digression into Paul’s credentials to his work of proclaiming the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ but also includes a notable shift. In both The Star to the sky watchers and The Voice at Jesus’ baptism the communication is cosmic. In Ephesians Paul is made an Apostle by cosmic revelation but then becomes an agent of proclamation. More notably for us, the church then becomes this agent of making known the “wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see[c] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.[e] 13 I pray therefore that you[f] may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known

Cosmic communication would seem to engender confidence. Certainly, signs from the heavens, whether a ball of gas acting strangely or the voice of God, would seem to do much to bolster our oft shaky faith. In the absence of such cosmic signs, however, what are we to do? Kierkegaard addresses this need for certainty—what he calls objectivity,

“The years pass, but the situation remains unchanged. One generation after another departs from the scene, new difficulties arise and are overcome, and new difficulties again arise. Each generation inherits from its predecessor the illusion that the method is quite impeccable, but the learned scholars have not yet succeeded…and so forth. All of them seem to find themselves becoming more and more objective. The infinite personal interest in the subject (which is, in the first instance, the potentiality of faith, and in the next, faith itself, as the form for an eternal happiness, and thereupon an eternal happiness itself) vanishes more and more, because the decision is postponed, and postponed as following directly upon the result of the learned inquiry. That is to say, the problem does not arise; we have become so objective so no longer have eternal happiness” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 28).

I texted Faith, I texted our neighbor—communication which was generally just being a bit silly. It then occurred to me, that this is a (non-serious and abbreviated) version of how we manage the problem of objectivity in Kierkegaard and the absence of the experience of cosmic revelation. The gathered body of Christ joins in the process of discerning the will of God and proclaiming the coming of Jesus—continues the work of listening to the Spirit together through prayer and reflection.

This is not simply an odd form of democracy where we take a vote and seek to sway the other opinion. We join in the “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before and those who gather like us on this Sunday after Epiphany. This is serious work, remember the words of Paul, … this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

A cosmic task for which we have been equipped and empowered to join with the proclamation in word and action the “news of the boundless riches in Christ.”

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

James 5:13-20; John 9:1-12

Jennifer Hosler

This is the tenth and final sermon in our sermon series on the book of James.

 Since it is Thanksgiving weekend, it would be rather appropriate to start my sermon with some gratitude. I’m thankful for many things but one which came to mind is my fantastic and caring neighbors. When we lived in Chicago, our home was in an apartment building where we only once saw the back of our neighbor across the hall. The only person I got to know in our building, in the 9 months we lived there, was a lady who got on and off the bus at the same time as me. The bus stop was 2 blocks away and it took a few months for us to start talking and a little while longer to learn that we lived in the same building. Our neighborly experience in DC is quite different.

Many of you have met our neighbors, who are often keen on talking. Our neighbors often care for us in tangible ways. Sometimes, the caring comes via the lending of an onion or vanilla extract, or in the safe-keeping of a package from our porch. Recently, one neighbor insisted that he drive me all the way to National Airport in his truck, instead of letting me walk to Metro. While it wasn’t “far” per se, we all know that 8 miles can feel like forever when it involves crossing a bridge over the Potomac. Another neighbor, when Nate was recently away in the Middle East, both had me over for dinner and sent me home with leftovers for the next day. From what I’ve read, our neighborly experiences are becoming a rare occurrence in modern U.S. life.

Researchers say these kinds of relationships are becoming less normal in our society. Robert Putnam’s (2000) book entitled, “Bowling Alone,” highlights the decay of social ties or social capital. Social capital is the term used by sociologists to refer to “the networks—together with shared norms, values and understandings—that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (OECD, n.d.). Social capital involves social reciprocity, a give-and-take that might be formal or informal, but provides power and resources to meet one’s own or the community’s needs. Putnam called his book “Bowling Alone” because he found that, while Americans were bowling more than ever, bowling had shifted from being primarily a group sport where people competed against each other in leagues (like how our church used to have its own bowling league) to bowling individually. Changes to how our society functions (in work, family structure housing, entertainment, commuting, and other aspects) have led to a decrease in social capital: people are joining fewer organizations, knowing fewer neighbors, getting together with their families and friends less.

In our sermon series on James, we’ve spoken extensively about how the ethics of Jesus are upside-down from society’s values and practices. Social status, money, dealing with conflict, and more: following Jesus involves being counter-cultural. I think today’s passage in James 5 illustrates how our approach to social capital is also transformed when we follow the Jesus-way. We are not bowling alone after Jesus, but walking together after Jesus, making our faith in God tangible and concrete. One of the main purposes of the church is to make tangible our faith in Jesus, which we share together.

Hear, Touch, and Smell

How many of you have been to an Orthodox Christian worship service? The Orthodox Church worships in ways that are very different from our service. Some Protestants like to deride them as all “smells and bells” (not an ecumenical approach, clearly). While we have theological differences, I believe the Orthodox Church does a very good job of captivating human senses and using sensory experiences to lift people up to the Divine. The shape of the building and the paintings on the ceiling draw your eyes up. Icons to gaze upon can prompt prayer and reflection. Bells are used to signal the proclamation of the Gospel message throughout the world. Incense symbolizes both the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven. When I first attended an Orthodox service, the richness of the sensory experience was very spiritually moving. 

I found myself thinking of Orthodox churches this week while studying this passage, because our passage presents early church practices that are tangible and sensory. The way that James teaches the early church, it’s an auditory faith. It’s a tactile faith. It’s a scented and oily faith. In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another.

Tangible Faith

James 5:13-20 is the conclusion of James’ letter. According to scholarship on typical Greek letters from that era, most letters would end with a wish for good health from the gods. James takes a different approach because he knows who is the source of our health, strength, and well-being. Rather than looking to the Greek gods to curry favor, James declares that—whether in trials, joy, or sickness—in all things, we look to Yahweh. What I want to stress here is that the cultural context implies that we do this together. In all things we look to God and, whether praying, singing, or asking for healing, we do it together.

Our section starts by James writing, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Suffering likely refers to the trials and social persecution that were referenced in earlier parts of this letter. Those who are facing challenges, trials, and temptation, they are urged to seek strength by praying to God.

It’s important to note that, in the era of the early church and for the specific group of Christians whom James was writing to, prayer was less likely an individual supplication and more likely a corporate time of intercession. One commentator explains, “In Diaspora Judaism, Jews were characterized by their commitment to times of community prayer (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue and temple were places Jews gathered to pray. We find that the early church was a distinct entity gathered [regularly] for prayer (Acts 1:13-14; 2:42), while at the same time they carried out the traditional times of prayer individually (Acts 10:9) and at least at the beginning attended the temple at the prescribed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1; cf. Acts 2:42, 46, ‘the prayers’)” (Wilkins, 1997, p. 944).

Because James is writing to Jewish Christians, it is highly likely that they heard this admonition to prayer as an urge for group prayer. James is saying, “If you are suffering, you should bring your suffering and experience with hardships to the community of faith.” Praying for one another, praying together, is how the church supports one another. But it involves vulnerability, saying, “I need help. I’m struggling. I am discouraged.” It requires the sisters and brothers around a person to be attentive, to refrain from judging, and to lovingly present these requests to God.

While praying to God on your own behalf when alone can still be comforting, communal prayer—having someone pray out loud for you, together—allows our faith to be felt more tangibly. Perhaps you’ve felt that during joys and concerns, which is an important (and I believe, biblical) part of our worship service. Being prayed for is a powerful experience. Beyond the tangible words that we hear that can strengthen our hearts, asking for prayer in community often also brings the tangible comfort of a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Following Jesus together makes our faith more tangible, through voice and touch. This is true for when we are struggling and is also to be true when we are rejoicing. James continues and says, “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Not only are the early Christians instructed to pray together when times are hard, they are also called to rejoice and sing when times are good.

We do call it Joys and Concerns, but sometimes people have mentioned that it’s heavy on the concern end. This might be because we feel sheepish sharing our joys when we hear that others are struggling. It may also be linked with the fact that humans are bent to look for a higher power when things are difficult, but that we’re somewhat self-focused when we’re doing well. James stresses that whether we are in trials or joy, our response should be to look to God as our hope and strength. For those who are experiencing good times, James instructs them to recognize the source and origin of all goodness—the Creator God—by singing songs of praise.

Lifting our voices together in thanksgiving, in joy, praising God, strengthens our faith. Singing together is a spiritual experience that allows us to give our voices as an offering and to be moved by the combined voices of many sisters and brothers in Jesus. By singing, we make our faith more tangible—or at least more sensory. We use our vocal cords to make our gratitude manifest, in the audible richness of tune, rhythm, and harmony.

Oily Faith

Beyond prayer and song, James also mentions oil. Oils are kind of a big deal for some people today, with multi-level marketing companies trying to sell us oil for everything that ails us and for a better, wholesome life. I don’t know about the health claims they purport…but I do know that the oil mentioned in James has a different sort of application and benefit. 

James asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). James continues, urging the sisters and brothers to confess their sins one to another, for healing and forgiveness. While confession and sin are mentioned alongside healing here, I must caution that this is not implying that all physical illness is caused by sin. In our companion scripture in John 9, we see Jesus explain to his disciples that the illness they see is not connected to the person’s character.

For some of us, anointing with oil has been a normal part of church life for as long as we can remember. For some of us, anointing is weird and we’re not really sure how to understand it. In the Church of the Brethren, anointing is one of our ordinances, together with baptism and the Love Feast (communion). We see these things as rituals, or tangible practices, that can be used as symbols to strengthen our faith or help us practice our commitment to Jesus. Of course, rituals can be warped and used in ways that cause spiritual death instead of spiritual life. A lot of things are like that – things that are good but can be abused. They are risky of becoming ends in themselves, so we need be careful that we understand their meaning and that our hearts are in the right place when we do them.

Why do we anoint? A Church of the Brethren resource on anointing describes it this way: “We anoint one another by gathering with people who are ill, hurting, struggling with decisions, or beginning a new phase of life. Our presence, together with the oil and prayers, represents the healing and comfort of Jesus. By anointing one another we trust that God hears our prayers and works for the good of the one we lift in prayer” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

Oil was used in ancient times for many different purposes. Oil was “one of the best-known ancient medicines” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 2007). In the Hebrew scriptures, it was used in rituals to dedicate priests and items used in worship, setting them apart as holy. It was also used for other leaders, like kings or prophets. There is even an anointing oil recipe in Exodus 30:22-33, with olive oil as the base, accompanied by the essential oils of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia. In the New Testament (Mark 6:13), we see Jesus’ disciples going about the Galilee countryside, visiting the sick, anointing them with oil, and bringing healing by the power of God.

The oil mentioned here by James likely would have been fragrant—and one commentary explains that people in the ancient world “were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 1746). Good odors could signal a spiritual act or invocation. However, the references in James or in the gospels don’t place any weight in the oil itself. In our passage, “What is clear is that James attributes the healing power not to the oil but to the ‘prayer of faith’ and the action of God. This removes the activity from the arena of magic and places it squarely in that of prayer and miracle. Thus, the anointing is done either because Christians believe that is how Jesus taught the disciples to pray for the sick or because it is itself a form of prayer” (Davids, 1997, p. 49).

It is helpful to be clear on what this use of oil means and what it doesn’t mean. Unfortunately, James doesn’t say that everyone anointed will be physically healed and restored. What it does say is that God will save them, deliver them. Faith and trust in God may bring physical healing in this life, but that may not be God’s plan. The healing that is guaranteed is the full healing of our souls, transforming our hearts and allowing us to be reconciled to God. Anointing oil is a way to make tangible this assurance of faith, transformation, and deliverance—especially in times when we feel alone, confused, lost, or when we need affirmation of God’s abiding presence. “Putting a touch of oil on someone’s head prayerfully assures us of God’s healing, constant presence with us as followers of Jesus” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of communal prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another. It requires vulnerability, sharing, singing, and touching.

How can we experience our faith together more tangibly, here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? Perhaps it looks like more intentional sharing that provides opportunity for communal prayer. God has not designed us to walk alone, but to walk together, being the tangible presence of God to one another. Can we be vulnerable with a few people about some needs or struggles that we are having difficulty sharing?

Perhaps our lives our going well—but we don’t often think to praise or give thanks to God for what we’ve experienced. How can you add more songs of praise to your life? How can you share your joys and thanksgiving with our community, so that we can sing praises to God with you?

Perhaps you need a tangible sign of God’s presence today. Do you need assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you need your faith strengthened? Do you need healing and wholeness? If so, I invite you to come forward and seek God’s presence today through an anointing with oil.

Anointing Blessing: Sister/Brother _____, you are being anointed with oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for healing and wholeness in accordance with God’s grace and wisdom. The love of God abides with you. Amen.

References

Davids, P.H. (1997). Anointing. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 48-50). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Church of the Brethren (n.d.). Anointing. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/discipleship/documents/ordinance-annointing.pdf

Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV archaeological study Bible: An illustrated talk Through Biblical history and culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

OECD (n.d.). Social capital. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/insights/37966934.pdf

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilkins, M.J. (1997). Prayer. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 941-948). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

THE UPSIDE-DOWN or SOWING IN PEACE

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37; Galatians 5:13-26

Jennifer Hosler

This is the sixth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/sowing-in-peace-october-29-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

For science-fiction and fantasy lovers—or people who just generally swoon over a 1980s visual aesthetic—this weekend was highly anticipated. The series “Stranger Things 2” was released on Netflix this Friday, meaning that the continuing saga of Hawkins, Indiana, is finally available to stream, or binge watch if you are so inclined. In season one, we met an endearing crew of four 12-year old boys named Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin. They love dungeons and dragons, science and radios, talking to each other with walkie-talkies, and riding their banana seat bikes through the woods on adventures. One night, Will goes missing. As the whole town searches for their friend, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas encounter a mysterious girl called Eleven, who has secret powers. She eventually reveals that Will is trapped in a parallel dimension. This parallel dimension looks like an upside-down version of our world, one that is dark and full of decay. In it lurks a creepy, faceless monster. From what I could tell by the season 2 trailer, forces from “the upside-down” are slowly invading the regular world. I haven’t started watching yet, since I’m dutifully waiting for Nate to return home, so we can watch it together. Exercising the fruit of the Spirit called self-control.

Thankfully, we don’t have an alternate reality of darkness and monsters lurking in another dimension quite like the folks in Stranger Things. However, our passage in James does describe two realities, two ethics, two wisdoms, which are like night and day. In my last sermon on James 1, when we kicked off our series, I spoke about how Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God illustrate an upside-down kingdom. In this upside-down kingdom, the poor are lifted up and the wealthy are brought low. James encourages both the wealthy and the poor to boast in God’s alternate reality. That is, the reality that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

In James 3, we are yet again confronted with an alternate reality of what is valued, what is wise, what is good. This section in James, along with our readings in Mark and Galatians, presents the upside-down wisdom of Jesus. The world says, “Strive to get as far ahead as possible, seek as much status and wealth as you can, talk about how important you are, and try to get ahead of everyone else.” In contrast, God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  

Gentleness born of Wisdom, Sowing in Peace

I think that our three scriptures today complement each other, so I’m going to unpack each of them one by one. Let’s start with the book of James. What have we seen in James so far in our sermon series? James has spoken about trials and temptations, encouraging the early church that if they need wisdom to face these trials, God is able to provide. James also discussed the need for faith to be accompanied by action, that we must not only be hearers of the word but also doers of the word. True religion does not involve slandering others, but caring for the most vulnerable.

Throughout the book of James, there is a thread focusing on dealing with conflict in the church. Social class conflict is a running theme. As I mentioned, James states that the poor are being lifted up by God, while the rich are told to boast in being brought low by God. God’s wisdom inverts what the world says. James also instructs that followers of Jesus are not to favor the rich and powerful. Partiality is not for God’s people; the poor are equally welcome in the church and the rich should not be given special status. Beyond social class, James also talks about communication. God’s followers are to be careful with their speech, since careless words can cause conflict to ignite and can poison relationships. Following the section on speech, we come to James’ discussion on wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). What is this gentleness born of wisdom? James tries to first define it by showing what it is not. It is not envious and self-seeking. James writes, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Remind me next time to call bad character devilish. The NIV actually says demonic here. The antithesis of Jesus’ wisdom is having bitter envy and selfish ambition.  James explains that they are the source of divisions and destructive conflict: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to another way: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (vv. 17-18).

I remember coming across this sowing in peace verse (verse 18) in Nigeria, and it was very salient because we were trying to build up the local church’s capacity to do peacebuilding, trying to plant seeds of peace. The NIV is a bit more poetic than the NRSV, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” At that point, I was designing a logo for the EYN Peace Programme. We asked around for indigenous cultural metaphors of peace, since the peace sign and the dove are common Western images. Rev. Toma Ragnjiya, our boss, heard from some elders that they thought that Guinea corn was a symbol of peace. It’s a staple crop, the main traditional grain in northeast Nigeria. The elders said, “Where there is Guinea corn, there is life, there is peace.”

Guinea corn looks like an unbelievably giant version of maize (what we call corn). The grain grows in the tassel, rather than as an ear, and the Guinea corn in our village was often around 15-20 feet tall (check it out on our church Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/washingtoncitycob).  Peacemaking—building healthy and strong relationships, engaging in constructive resolution of conflict—requires committed effort and gentle perseverance, like farming or gardening.

James teaches us that God’s wisdom is defined by pure intentions and honest, willingness to work through conflict. Gentleness or gentle are used twice. Gentleness is one of those words that I need a few more synonyms and antonyms for, to unpack what James is saying here. Gentleness also means sympathetic, compassionate, with kind intentions, not harsh. God’s wisdom is also defined by a “willingness to yield,” to consider others’ viewpoints and negotiate to find common ground. James ends his laundry list of goodness by saying that wisdom from above is also “full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17).  Jesus’ wisdom, the wisdom from above, is other-focused, kind and gentle, and aims to build strong, healthy, and just relationships. Earthly wisdom is self-seeking and envious; it leads to destructive relationships and disorder. Following the wisdom of God involves sowing peace; God blesses this sowing so that it leads to a harvest of righteousness.

Who is the greatest?

It’s poignant to me that James says envy and selfish ambition are the source of all disorder and wickedness. A self-centered focus, materialism, or an approach that prioritizes me (or my family) above all else: James says that these will inevitably lead to a toxic and painful mess in human relationships, communities, and societies. One could read into what James is saying and conclude that envy and selfishness are source of all sin.

Putting “me first” is a universal human tendency. A variant of that is, putting me and my family first above all other people (especially those I don’t know).  It could sound valiant: “I just want to protect my family’s interests and my children—that supersedes everything else.” But it still is self-seeking, prioritizing what affects me or the people I love over the needs or interests of others. Me first or my people first. “Me first” can lead to a literal or figurative clawing over people to compete for resources, for the top spot. In “me first” wisdom, it makes sense to talk yourself up as the greatest or the most important. But this is not the Jesus way.  

In our second scripture, found in Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has been teaching and healing and loving, in ways that have put his life at risk. Jesus predicts his death and teaches about his upcoming trials, but the disciples do not understand. They’re also afraid to ask exactly what Jesus means. They all travel back to Galilee, in secret, because Jesus knows he might be killed.

When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you all arguing about along the road?” He is met with silence. The disciples, presumably, had thought that Jesus was out of earshot. It turns out, they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest among them all. Jesus sits down and calls everyone over. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must put themselves last and be the servant of all.” Jesus then brings over a child, maybe one of the disciples’ kids or one of their hosts’ children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Weak people, small people, vulnerable people. Following Jesus requires that we stop arguing about who is the greatest, put others’ needs first, and welcome those without power.

Considering this passage, the question that came to me is this: what do we say when we think that we are out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we speak when we think we’re out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we talk or think about others? How do we talk or think about ourselves? Are we arguing that we are the greatest? What are we striving for? Our own success, or Jesus’ definition of success—that looks like humble service and radical welcome?

Love as You Would Love Yourself

Our final passage is in Galatians 5:13-26. It’s a famous passage, highlighting the fruit of the Spirit. I chose to pair it with James because the discussion about wisdom from above reminded me of spiritual fruit. The lists are somewhat similar. Paul starts out by reminding the church in Galatia that they have been set free in Christ—freed from sin! But this freedom isn’t open license to be self-serving. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (vv. 13-14). Paul continues, and it seems like, again, the human problem can be distilled down to selfish ambition and envy: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

Paul then contrasts earthly wisdom and wisdom from above, but he chooses to use the words flesh and Spirit instead of James’ motif. The flesh and the Spirit are antithetical to each other, upside-down from one another. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 19-21). Dang, Paul. This laundry list of bad is exhausting. Importantly, none of us is off the hook, since the list is long. We had a similar conversation this week about Romans 1 at Bible study.

But, thankfully, we’re not bound to this list of despair and sin; we’ve been set free. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (vv. 22-26).

In our James passage and this passage, when I read through the wisdom from above or the fruit of the Spirit, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a Spirit of peace washes over me. This is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’re living for, what God is doing. What I want to see in me, in you, in us together, as what we demonstrate to our community and world.

I am also struck by the fact that Paul here references Jesus, the ultimate commandment, the other-oriented “love your neighbor as you would love yourself” love. Poignantly, we see James and Paul are step-in-step here. The opposite of the love-your-neighbor Spirit-led life is being conceited, competing against one another, and envying one another.

Love as I would want to be loved. How do I want to be loved? Thought of kindly. Assume my intentions are good but have my weaknesses treated with grace and encouragement. Be willing to forgive me and engage me if I do something hurtful. Kind helpfulness. Laugh at my jokes. Laugh with me and find me amusing rather than lame. Speak gently with me.

How do you want to be loved? The call to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to an other-oriented gentleness, to generosity, to kindness.

I think of these 3 scriptures as meditations that can easily speak to us at the personal and interpersonal levels. And they should. How do we sow in peace in our friendships, our families, with our coworkers, in this church? But more broadly, how do we sow in peace, practice loving our neighbors through gentleness, generosity, and kindness, at other levels? How do we engage or regard (or not engage and disregard) our actual neighbors, our neighborhood, our city (whether that city is the District or Arlington or a town in Maryland)?

Where do you need to sow in peace? Where do we, as a church, need to be sowing in peace? As we discern how to live our mission after laying down BNP, James’ and Jesus’ and Paul’s calls should be the meditations that we carry with us as we discern. God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  Sisters and brothers, let us seek wisdom from above as we live this out as individuals, families, and as a congregation in our community and world. AMEN.