Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Living Parables

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Reading: Matthews 9:35-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOOD AND PLEASANT

Preacher — Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings — Psalm 133, John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

How many of you watched the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last Sunday night?  I didn’t see it live, but I have seen a lot of the clips on YouTube and the whole show is on NBC.com and I’m planning to watch it there.  A lot of critics said that Jesus Christ Superstar was the best of the live musicals that NBC has produced in the last five years or so, and based on what I’ve seen I agree.

I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why.  It’s not because of the star.  Yes, John Legend is a popular singer, but some of the earlier live shows have had popular singers like Carrie Underwood or bigger stars like Christopher Walken or Matthew Broderick.  Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic show, but so was The Sound of Music, and Peter PanHairspray was a Broadway hit not long ago, and A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies of all time, and they weren’t nearly as good.

I think the reason is that Jesus Christ Superstar is the first of the NBC live theatrical productions to be produced in a theater and in front of a live audience.  The others were all live, but they were on a sound stage, like a regular TV show, and there was no audience to laugh or cheer or boo or cry.

Superstar had an audience, and that’s a big thing.  Actors learn how to play to their audience, how to coax a response.  The audience provides feedback that they actors respond to.  The audience provides energy that the actors feed off of.  For an actor, the audience can be a colleague almost as much as their fellow actors on stage with them.  Other people being there make a huge difference in the energy and in the life of a performance.  Hold on to that thought for a few minutes.

I have many friends who don’t go to church very often, or who don’t even go at all.  It’s not necessarily about whether they are Christians or not, but a number of them have expressed a similar thought to me.  A lot of my friends who don’t go to church say that they believe that they can worship God just as well when they are out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of nature.  They say they can worship God just as well when they are alone in the midst of silence in their home or apartment.  They say that they can worship God on the golf course, and you know what?  Maybe they can.  A golf course is a beautiful place.  There are trees and hills and manicured grasses.  It’s often quiet, with only birdsong to accompany you.

I do wonder sometimes how many people are worshiping God when they’re out on the golf course, or when they’re alone in their apartment, or when they’re camping or hiking amidst the beauty of creation.  I’m not there, I can’t judge, and if they tell me they’re worshiping God then I have no reason not to believe them.  Now hold on to that thought for a moment as well.

The theme of our scripture readings today is obvious.  All of them deal with community.  All of them deal with believers in relationship with other believers.  Our Psalm, which we used as our Call to Worship, starts out “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  The passage from Acts is specifically about how the early Christians were so close that they shared all of their goods, all of their income, and each received from the common purse as they needed.  A lot of people believe that the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by Karl Marx.  It definitely wasn’t Marx – that phrase had been around for a long time before he was born.  The idea behind the phrase is exactly how the early church lived.  It’s not Marxism – it’s Christianity.

1 John 1:3 talks about what it is that will make John’s joy complete: the fellowship of believers along with God and Jesus.  1 John is believed to be written by the John the Evangelist, who is also believed to have written the Gospel of John.

And in the Gospel of John we read the story of doubting Thomas.  In doing research for this sermon I ran across an idea that was new to me.  It was on a blog called “Left Behind and Loving It” and the blogger is a Greek scholar named D. Mark Davis.  Let me just say before I go on that I didn’t study Greek in seminary.  Davis talks about the use of the aorist tense and the imperfect tense in the original Greek, and each of those tenses imply different meanings for words when they are used..  I don’t have much of a gift for languages, and so I can’t evaluate the pros and cons of what Davis suggests, but I think it’s interesting and worth thinking about.

We’re all familiar with the good ole doubting Thomas, who wasn’t there for some reason when Jesus appeared to the disciples and so didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them.  His words are famous:  “”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  And later on, when Thomas did happen to be with the other disciples, Jesus did appear and Thomas did believe.

Verse 24 says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  Davis says that the choice of words in the original language suggests something different than we usually think it does.  We usually think that verse 24 says that Thomas wasn’t there for a moment.  Maybe he had stepped out to get food.  Maybe he had gone to visit someone.  Maybe he was taking a nap.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there at that particular moment.

Let me quote what Davis suggests as an alternate reading.

Just to be clear, Mary had already told the disciples “I have seen the  Lord” but they are overjoyed when they see the hands and side.  In this story, the disciples say “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas cannot accept it until he, too, sees the hands and side.  To me, the point of this story is not that Thomas is the disbelieving holdout because he needs to see evidence before he believes.  I think there is more to Thomas’ “doubt” than a lack of evidence.

…John may be saying that Thomas was no longer with them when Jesus came the first time, as if he had given up on following Christ with them after the crucifixion.  Likewise, if they had only said to Thomas, “While you were out getting bagels one day, Jesus came,” the aorist tense would suffice.  But, the imperfect (tense)… implies ongoing past action.  Perhaps they were trying over and over to convince Thomas to return.  Finally, Thomas threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll come back, but unless I see and touch, etc., I won’t believe it.”  I guess I’m seeing the possibility that this was an extended conversation about Thomas’ participation in the community, and not just that Thomas happened to miss out on the first visit.   (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/)

I don’t know about you, but that’s a much different way than I have thought about Thomas before.  Because he had cut himself off from the community, he was not able, at first, to see Jesus.  Because Thomas was not part of the body, he was not able to truly and fully believe.

I truly don’t doubt the sincerity of people who tell me that they can worship God just as well on their own as they can in church.  But I think they are cutting themselves off from the full blessings of the body of Christ.  They are cutting themselves off from support.  They are cutting themselves off from care.  They are cutting themselves off from accountability.

They are cutting themselves off from a community of friendships based on their faith, based on the thing that is truly the most essential thing in any Christian’s life.  We have friends because of our jobs or our schools or our geographic communities or our ethnic communities or any number of other things.  None of those are a replacement for friendships that are grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ.  None of those are a replacement for friends who are a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Those folks are also cutting themselves off from the energy that you get when you experience something with other people.  I could sing hymns and songs on my own if I wanted to.  But I hardly ever want to.  Why?  Because it’s more fun to me to sing them with someone else.  It’s more fun for me to be part of a group that is singing, whether it’s a choir or here in church or in a play or whatever.

Which do you think would be more exciting – to watch Jesus Christ Superstar alone at home on your television or to watch it in person with hundreds of other people?  For most folks, not everyone, but for the vast majority it would be more exciting to watch it live and in person.  It would be better to draw energy from the crowd around you and reflect that energy up to the performers on stage and let them bathe their performances in that energy than to watch it alone at home.

And even if you were at home alone watching, or watching clips on a computer like I was, that energy comes through the screen.  The difference in energy between a live performance with an audience and a live performance without one is something that you can feel when you watch it at home.

The Spirit’s presence in each of our lives as individuals is magnified when we gather as a group.  Our worship of God is magnified as well, because there are more ways we can worship and more ways we can minister to and with one another than when we are by ourselves in the woods or in our apartment or in our car.  This is the church.  This is the body of Christ in the world today.  When we cut ourselves off from the church, as Thomas may have, we cut ourselves off from God’s presence in so many ways.  It doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from God’s presence completely; we all have an individual relationship with Christ.  But we limit the possibilities to experience that presence in all of its fullness.  We minimize the opportunities to learn, to grow, to be encouraged, to be held accountable, to minister, and to be ministered to.

Almost every time I begin a worship service during the Welcome and Announcements I say that I am glad to see you here this morning.  That’s true.  I am glad to see you here this morning.  I’m glad because you’re here, and I’m glad because the fact that I can see you means that I’m here as well.  I am glad to be a part of the body of Christ in this place.  I am glad to be able to worship, and sing, and pray, and minister with each of you.  With the Psalmist, I find that it is good and it is pleasant when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity.  I hope that you do too, and that you will invite others to learn and share and grow and minister with us in the days to come.  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.

IF I PROCLAIM

Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

Nathan Hosler

Directly before our passage is Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Though there is freedom to eat, this freedom is qualified by the higher priority of the spiritual well-being of others. Jenn preached on this last week. In this the Apostle considers food sacrificed to idols. Paul asserts that though Christians are not constrained in what they can eat should always have the spiritual well-being of others in mind and as the highest priority. Though you are free in relation to God, you must be constrained in relation to your sisters and brothers who may be spiritually upended by your action.

A commentator writes, “Those who truly know God and are known by him will employ their freedom and knowledge for the sake of building up others in their faith, even when this entails denying one’s own legitimate rights as a believer (Hafemann, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 166).”  In light of this we turn to chapter 9. Though this may feel like a digression it is part of the same (though somewhat expanded argument). The chapter opens— “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?”

Paul provides an example of this freedom in his giving something up for the sake of others. Paul forgoes legitimate payment for preaching.  In this he demonstrates the absolute priority he gives to others and for his calling in a ministry of proclaiming the Gospel.

He asks rhetorically in verse 18 “What then is my reward?” “Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” We often think of rights in relation to commands to act justly towards the poor and immigrant. This is why our denomination participates with the National Farm Worker Ministry (www.nfwm.org). For example, Proverbs 29:7 “The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.” Or Deuteronomy 24:14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” In this Paul is referring to rights of a worker that are parallel to his work in ministry. As a worker in a vineyard or field has a right to the material resources needed for survival so to does the Apostle who engages in the work of ministry.

Paul argues that those who labor expect to gain sustenance from it. One does not pay for one’s own service in the military, nor keep a vineyard without eating the fruit. He quotes and then interprets figuratively the command that oxen should be allowed to eat while they work as an example of God’s concern for the human worker (sorry oxen). He makes a strong argument that he has the full and legitimate right to make a living from his preaching and then says—despite this right to pay, I have decided not to use this right. He goes even stronger, asserting, “Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

While we could deduce much from this on the topic of labor, Paul’s main point is as a demonstration and illustration about freedom. Though he is free and entitled to being supported for his work of ministry, he has, for the sake of the community, offered this service free of charge. Furthermore, he asserts, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (9:19). This sounds very heroic and high-minded, however, he asserted a few verses earlier that “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! (9:16)”

9:17: “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission”.  If done on his own he would be rewarded but since he is compelled—he is “entrusted with a commission” he is simply fulfilling what is required. There is a reward—of sorts—he is able to make the proclamation without charging. This seems like a strange reward but indicates that his greatest concern is for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. He says, (9:19) For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

Paul’s top aim is proclaiming the gospel. This focus is mirrored in Mark. In 1:38 we hear Jesus answer, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” The proclamation of the message is Jesus’ task. This is not only preaching in the form of saying words. Clearly this proclaiming is connected to the healing and in other passages to feeding and setting free. In Luke 4:18-19 at the beginning of his ministry Jesus defines his ministry by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, he reads

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Absolute focus on the calling of God. Absolute focus on proclaiming the Good News. All else conforms to this. Of course, this does not mean that our callings are the same as the Apostle’s or a pastor’s or missionary’s or something else that sounds like what we expect the extra-called to sound like, but this calling is definite and not to be taken lightly or as a side hobby.

I’ve heard analysts, and even a peacemaker or so, make an assertion that goes something like—a strongly held spiritual conviction puts one, almost necessarily, in the intolerant and dangerous camp. I don’t doubt that this can be the case but living radical peacemaking in the face of the violence of the world is not for the half-way committed. To live simply. To conform one’s life to spiritual disciplines in the face of infinite pulls on our attention. To live hopefully in face of repeat catastrophes is not for the half-way present and half-way committed. This call requires sharp focus. It requires a thoroughgoing commitment as well as the inner life and community to sustain it.

Proclamation of the Gospel—in all its facets and in all parts of our lives—is the #1 priority

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof intentional communities in Nazi Germany, writes,

“Today we must emphasize it once more: our capacity for work is sure to become exhausted and mechanical—our strength will be sapped at the core—if no deepening is given to the inner life. As soon as inner stillness and quiet are lost, the holy springs of the inner world that bring life-giving water to our spiritual life are bound to fail at the very source (Eberhard Arnold, Innerland: A Guide into the heart of the Gospel, 2).

Isaiah 40:28-31 “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Thirdly, Proclamation requires flexibility

These verses show the Apostle as surprisingly flexible about some major theological and ethical controversies. Jenn discussed this last week in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He asserts “I have become all things to all people,” In context it reads,

9:20-23 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” 

In this congregation we more regularly preach and talk about being with people, in solidarity, or challenging injustice as part of joining the struggle for peace, justice, or inclusion of the excluded. We are perhaps more prone to assert with the theologian challenging oppression that:

“Through the praxis of solidarity, we not only apprehend and are moved by the suffering of the other, we confront and address its oppressive cause and shoulder the other’s suffering.… (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 94).”

Though this solidarity is not excluded here, it is also not quite the same as Paul’s becoming “all things to all people,” This seems like it could be deceptive. A kind of trickery to blend and make an argument. However, when we keep it in the context we see that Paul is forgoing certain freedoms so as to not cause offense or distract unnecessarily.

Here is my one, perhaps obligatory, football reference on the Sunday which also includes the Super Bowl…If you know Jess or have been around here on any of the same Sundays you will likely have noticed that she is a Patriot’s fan. She is a fan in a way that is beyond my comprehension. During the Christmas eve service while she was up front reading scripture, I happen to notice that she was wearing Patriot’s shoes. So, the Apostle not creating a barrier is like me not wearing an Eagles jersey this morning or perhaps even joining her.. (I was going to say that, of course, Paul’s is dealing with things of religious significance…but then I realized that for many, this game, may be of that degree of seriousness).

In these passages we see proclamation as first priority, proclamation needing Spirit power, and proclamation requiring flexibility. In this we place others above ourselves, testifying to the reconciling work of Christ.

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.

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae