REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

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.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Luke 24:13-35, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Nathan Hosler

Earth Day Sunday was last week. Though I wasn’t here (I’m going off the word on the street) I heard that while mentioned and in some manner included in the prayer time it was not a main theme. In the end, the point is to focus on caring for creation so timing is really not particularly essential. Better late than never.

At Christian Citizenship Seminars (CCS), this past week we focused on Native American rights focusing particularly on food security. This history of displacement and violence and broken treaties and degraded land is significant—and ongoing. Again, better late than never to focus on this and seek to listen and address this. [CCS is a youth program of the Church of the Brethren organized by Youth and Young Adult Ministries and my office—the Office of Public Witness].

The land on which this church is built is the land of the Piscataway people. Though I’ve wanted to look this up for a while. I only now just did after spending a week discussing and hearing about the experience of Indigenous peoples of this continent. I guess, at least, its better late than never.

These are related to the land (and the people of the land). For example, on the edge of the Navajo reservation sits the Lybrook Community Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Kim and Jim Therrien are the directors and they, along with Kendra Pinto, a young Navajo protector of the land, spoke at the Christian Citizenship Seminars the past week. They told of the devastation to land by the oil and gas companies and the disregard and abandonment of the Diné people in the “checkerboard” eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico. The land and the people who know the land—whose histories and beliefs and stories of creation relate to this land—cannot be separated.

Of course, at some point it might just be too late and then it is never. So, better late than never does not eliminate urgency it simply provides a way forward in the face of much harm. For example, Cherokee attorney Joel West Williams, of the Native American Rights Fund, who also spoke at CCS told me on the taxi ride to the session that there are only around 100 Cherokee individuals who speak the language fluently and around 5 or 6 for whom Cherokee is their first language. At some point, it might be too late but for now there is at least some time. Some time to hear the call to repentance, action, and right believing.

The road to Emmaus is a narrative of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Though word had gotten out, these disciples remained perplexed. The narrative is of an encounter and of the disciples’ inexplicable inability to recognize Jesus. This unrecognition in the narrative highlights the need for God’s revelation (Craddock, Luke, 285). Jesus walks and teaches them and in retrospect they note that their hearts burned. Jesus walks and teaches them, explaining the scripture. It is not until he breaks bread that they recognize him—that he is revealed.

Now this is a telling of the revelation of the resurrected Christ to Jesus followers—and as such drawing a general lesson is a bit risky. There is significance of the sharing of the bread—as a reminder of the last supper, as the eventual practice of communion, as the simple practical act of hospitality and sharing in the basic needs of life—just the significance of this bread beckons to be extrapolated. I remember breaking bread (in the form of individually wrapped pound cakes dipped in green bean stew) with a Somali refugee in Chicago as he broke Ramadan fast in the middle of our English lesson, or Elmira the grandmother aged homeless women I’d meet in the same city and who would give the college students pizza that people gave her while sitting along the street asking for food, or breaking fry bread with a Navajo man whose ancestors were displaced by my ancestors. Hospitality and breaking bread in the face of displacement is a sign of the presence of God. It can be a revelation.

Now these breakings of bread may be too far a stretch from the Emmaus road but it does catch my imagination. Jesus is brought up out of the grave as a revelation of the power of God which then is gradually revealed to the disciples. While such revelation may be hard to spot, and in some way, is finished (since we aren’t still adding to the scriptural text), God continues to revel Godself. The revelation of the power of God continues through the work of the Spirit and the work of the community in scripture, prayer, and worship while we continue on the road of following Jesus in the work of Jesus and listening to others.

As we all know, the church has not always gotten its teaching or actions right. Because of this, care is needed in teaching, reading scripture, and discerning action. One such troubling teaching that has far reaching consequences is the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Specifically, in America there was an appropriation of the Exodus story by the European settlers. They were the Israelites escaping the slavery of England (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, to the Promised Land of the “New World,” and seizing the land from the people they found there as an act of the will of God. This misreading then continued to animate the imagination of Europeans who pushed further westward and continued to seize land through direct violence, pressure, or through manipulations of the law in their favor.

Such activity found a basis in official church teaching. The World Council of Churches in a 2012 statement notes, “For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.” (WCC, Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, Feb 17, 2012).

Creation Justice Ministries’ Earth Day Resource this year asserts that, “Because the Doctrine of Discovery is based on principles that originated with the church, the church has a special responsibility to dismantle this unjust paradigm.” (http://www.creationjustice.org/uploads/2/5/4/6/25465131/indigenous.pdf?key=63038771, 4). Now while the Church of the Brethren has never officially ascribed to this doctrine we have still benefited from the stolen lands. Most of the early Brethren were farmers and we continue to live on the land. We are not free from responsibility.

While I was in New York with the high schoolers Jenn suggested that the CCS topic of Native American rights and food security and Earth Day might be good topics for the sermon. I had already begun to look that the lectionary passages for the week. Though passages did not seem particularly related to either caring for creation or the rights of Native Americans, I began to see that there were several points of connection. For one, the 1 Peter passage made an intricate argument connecting belief and action. A commentator confirmed this observation writing, “1 Peter is not alone in the NT in accenting the truth that a believer’s ‘whole life’ is a journey to heaven in the footsteps of Jesus. Yet its testimony stands as a serious caution against three popular misconceptions: that salvation is merely something that happened to Christian believers in the past, that their only responsibility now is to wait passively for the second coming and that ‘going to heaven’ is something that begins when they die” (J.R.Michaels, “1 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 922).

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. “If you invoke” in the NRSV is translated “If you call out for help” in the Message.

In the New International Version, it reads, Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

 Exile—displacement—references the Israelites displacement from their promised land. There was a covenant by God to Abraham stating that he would be the father of a great nation. This people eventually formed into a nation but were then enslaved but then led to freedom through the power of God. They then wandered for years (40) and then went into the land that was promised. In their entering, they displaced peoples and then were themselves displaced by violence and invasion. Though this narrative introduces many questions—such as “who was in the “promised land” before the Israelites?” and “What did the original peoples think about Israel’s conviction that they should enter the land?—it also is part of what “exile” references.

18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Being brought from “futile ways.” The assumption of superiority and dehumanization, exploitation, and genocide of peoples surely must count as futile. Jesus saves us from these. Though one might object and say that Peter is talking for religious practices. Because of the blood of Christ, which is pictured here as in the role of the sacrificial lamb which is part of the religious practices of the Hebrew people. Elsewhere Jesus is pictured as a priest as well as the lamb. Jesus saves us from futile ways. Jesus can yet save us from practices that continue the legacy that continues environmental racism (such as in Standing Rock which protests by a white community moved construction to sacred lands and near the water of the original peoples or in New Mexico where safety measures on oil and gas companies are enforced in white communities but not on the Diné (Navajo) reservation) and the inability to acknowledge whose land this was.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Obedience to the truth results in souls that have been made pure. When we realize that the Church has not only been complicit in injustice, but as with the Doctrine of Discovery, has generated teaching that spurred on the conquest and dehumanization of peoples, we should seek to repent and change our ways. The Church, thank God, has also been part of the creation of beauty, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of civil rights. So, my urging us to mine our theological and biblical resources while also interrogating them and the church’s practice is not a self-loathing or a nagging self-righteousness but a continued seeking to live in the love and will of God.

Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, argues that both the oppressed and the oppressor communities suffer from historical trauma of genocide, forced displacement, policies and practices (such as board schools) which tried to destroy culture, and dehumanization. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/. Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian and professor, asserts that the Christian imagination has been distorted.

Jennings writes, “Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making this claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to capture sight of a loss, almost imperceptible, yet articulated powerfully in the remaining slender testimonies of Native American peoples and other aboriginal peoples. This loss points out not only to deep psychic cuts and gashes in the social imaginary of western peoples, but also to an abiding mutilation of a Christian vision of creation and our own creatureliness. I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 293).

As we seek to follow the risen Christ as a community, we as the disciples along the Emmaus road, will experience the revelation of our Lord in what are at times unexpected ways and places. As we open ourselves to hear histories and stories of the indigenous communities of this land we must both mourn the past and our complicity but more importantly we must listen and seek to end this mistreatment and injustice in the present.

DO NOT BE DISMAL (PIETY POINTS)

Matthew 6:1-18

Nate Hosler

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;”

A dialogue last week:

Nate—I should buy a stole (clergy sash).

Jenn—Why?

Nate—For when I pray in front of people (at a vigil or protest).

A standard approach to scripture is that Jesus said ____ but what he really meant was ______. Jesus said love your enemy but what he really meant was… Jesus said if you want to enter the Kingdom sell everything and give to the poor but what he really meant was… Admittedly this seems to be a classic example of this—Jesus said don’t pray in public but what it really meant is don’t pray in public unless you very intentionally are making a spectacle of it so as to increase your power and persuasion in a public debate in which you are trying to change a public policy or highlight an injustice. Jesus said don’t pray with great show in public but what he really meant was….So, while I obviously think public witness can be appropriate we should not be too quick to assume that it is always appropriate or all manners are appropriate. Really, if we take this passage seriously we must allow that it may not be appropriate. Just because a church has a particular Office of Public Witness (of which I happen to be the director) does not necessarily  make it A-Ok.

Rather than dive into a presentation of organizing strategy in the steam of King and Gandhi and civil society mobilization—however useful that would be—I will consider this particular passage, which is the third installment of a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and see where that leads us.

In the first sermon of the series, Jenn got us ready for the whole sermon on The Mount and suggested that the beatitudes (The Blessed are’s…) as the churches constitution. Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted, is more a description of the kingdom of God than a set of instructions. Jeff continued on with a string of “You’ve heard it said’s…). Jeff observed that learning to live by the difficult commands is similar to running an ultramarathon. Not only do you need to start at a short distance before going super long, but along the way, while super tired, you just need to take one more step.

Last week our verses challenged our bad stuff—don’t murder-don’t speak badly-don’t be angry. This week we get challenged on our good stuff. Pray rightly. Fast rightly. Do acts of justice rightly.

Essentially, don’t do these things publicly for “piety points” pray like you mean it but don’t make a show. On giving, don’t even let you left hand know what your right hand is doing—secret to the point of absurdity—since our left and right hands are connected in the middle by a brain.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

When we read this again we see that it is slightly more complicated than just “be secretive” or “don’t show off.” The doing this publicly or privately seems to be directly related to reward. If public, you are rewarded by the public. If privately you will be rewarded by God.

However, public actions leading to rewards only happen if you are doing it in a place where such an action is rewarded. Sometimes such prayer would be mocked. At other times acts of justice or righteousness leads to attack. Thinking back to the beginning of the Sermon we read, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”

 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Now of course those who disagree with the particular public forms of praying will likely call the others hypocrites. When I was in high school there was the yearly prayer around the flagpole. The point, I believe, to encourage others to seek God. In retrospect, I imagine this also had layers of God and country theology that I now would find concerning. These days most public praying I do is of a different sort aimed at challenging a particular public policy or demonstrating solidarity with other religions. This passage challenges both of these to consider how one’s self is acting hypocritically and has implications between me and God.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

One commentator notes that this points to the practice of trying to impress the deity with elaborate rhetoric (Boring and Craddock).

This challenge to wordiness is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”

Of course, wordiness is rather relative—compared to the Quaker waiting worship we got a taste of earlier, typical Brethren prayer is wordy but compared to the Episcopal liturgy it is rather simple. But compared to monastic orders that take vows of silence even Quakers just can’t be quiet.

Fortunately, we are provided with an example (which of course does not readily solve this question). The prayer Jesus models essentially functions like a YouTube video of instruction. You can Youtube nearly everything—Jenn recently both brushed up on a certain type of statistical analysis as well as learned how to fix our blinds via YouTube (she may have said that her fixing the blinds rather than just throwing them away and buying new ones was an act of political resistance). I started typing “how to…” into YouTube. The first entry was…any guesses? How to make slime (which may or may not have been useful preparing for the potluck after church). Not far down the list was the slightly less useful how to tie a tie and then bake a cake.

So, after a few instructions like don’t be wordy or be like a hypocrite standing in front of others to receive praise while praying we get a demo prayer.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial.
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I would like to go back to Jeff’s illustration of the ultramarathon from last week. He rightly noted that in training and completion the runner of such a race must persist in pushing forward—making small progress toward what may seem like an unattainable distance (at 4 hours into a race one starts to get tired so how do you think about another 8 hours?) You can’t think about it like that but in smaller more manageable bits. So, I affirm Jeff’s illustration but while musing on this (appropriately while running hills on Wednesday morning) I noted one risk. At least some of us—perhaps it is a particularly American or privileged person’s risk—the risk of this illustration is that we have a tendency to assume that if we just put our minds and backs into it we can succeed. This over-confidence (arrogance?), while it may lead us to push to succeed, also may push us to hurt our families by overcommitting or blame the victim or the unsuccessful or be devastated when things don’t work out the way we want. At the finish line of my first big race there was a woman with a full leg brace. She had apparently run through what I presume was at least a little pain to finish a 70 mile trail race. At the end she collapsed. She had fractured her femur. A recent issue of Trail Runner Magazine tells of a guy who in his first in his first 100 mile race had a 1 hour lead. Now this is a long race and not 100 meter dash, so leads are not usually merely fractions of seconds but a 1 hour lead is still huge. Not only was he in the lead but was on track to set the course record. However, at mile 990 he took a wrong turn. Coming out within view of an aid station but needed to back track and ended up not even having a top ten finish much less a record win.

This section not only challenges our motives in giving and piety but the example prayer makes abundantly clear that we not only need God but must acknowledge this in prayer. It is both audacious—“Our? Father?, the Creator, the divine—as well as pointing to our utter dependence. It asks boldly for sustenance but only for bread and only daily—enough to survive. Rescue us! Forgive us! Save us from a time of trial!  It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.

This week revealed this need for reliance. A child of this congregation found that his cancer treatment hasn’t worked. A spouse’s possibility of returning to this country was put in jeopardy because of policy that targets the Middle East and Muslims. Work was overwhelming. A body kept being sick. And the unopened emails in my inbox passed 15,000.

It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.

After the prayer, Jesus returns to the formula. The prayer teaches reliance on God. Maybe he imagines the disciples thinking—ah! We have a spiritual practice that demonstrates reliance—fasting. (which would make sense). But…the old tendency remains to make too much of this for the sake of being seen and making much of this enacted dependence by looking the part—in this case, dismal.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This week I felt dismal. This week many people experienced deep difficulties. As we go out this week may this prayer that we were taught to pray remind us to turn to God in reliance. While I find the illustration of the long race helpful for the challenging teachings of chapter 5, we are reminded that it is not always enough to take one more step. It is not always enough to take just one more step—we must turn to God.

WE’RE ALL IN THE WILDERNESS NOW. WHAT COMES NEXT?

 Psalm 40:1-12 & John 1:29-42

Micah Bales

 

The wilderness beyond the Jordan river is where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years after their escape from Egypt. In this same wilderness, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God.

The wilderness is a place free of human habitation and interference. It’s far away from the noise, busyness, and worries of everyday life. It’s a space in which the cultivated concerns of civilization – wealth, power, politics, and honor – fall away.

When human beings venture out into these wild places, we’re stripped down. We’re left with the more basic questions of life. We enter into a realm of raw survival and sense experience. We ask ourselves: “What will I eat and drink? What lies ahead, beyond that ridge? How will I defend myself against wild animals?” Life becomes very real, very challenging, and very simple.

You might think that this journey into a life of such basic thoughts of food, shelter, and warmth would be a brute existence. After a few days in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were transformed into thoughtless animals, concerned only with the next meal. And that is indeed one possible outcome of the wilderness journey. Yet paradoxically, throughout the history of God’s people, we’ve repeatedly seen the opposite. The Holy Spirit draws us out into the desert to experience the most transcendent, majestic, and holy things in the midst of the struggle to survive.

For us here who live in the heart of civilization, our highly cultivated lives have become a distraction. The machinery of civilization, the mighty works of human beings, are enough to consume all of our attention. Presidents and pontiffs, roads and sewer systems, rent to pay and jobs to get done. Our lives are very busy, very full of important matters that demand our attention. There’s very little room for the holy silence of the desert. Little attention for the howling animals of the forest. Our eyes have become so fixated on the glowing screen that we’re incapable of perceiving the burning bush.

We like think that we’re in control. That’s what life in civilization is all about. We’ve come to believe that we can direct the flow of history. That we are the authors of the story, rather than minor characters carried along by the plot written by Another. With all our science and industry, we can fly to the moon, shape the human genome, and finally, just maybe, brew the perfect cup of coffee. The dream and driving myth of civilization is that we can fix the world. We can make everything work correctly. We just have to put our minds to it.

The wilderness isn’t interested in what we put our minds to. It doesn’t really care about how smart we are, or how hard we work. The wilderness is a place of waiting. It’s a place to listen. It’s a parallel dimension in which human beings are still utterly dependent on the forces of nature. When we’re in the wilderness, we belong to this world – not vice versa. We become desert creatures.

John the Baptist was a desert creature. He was a man drawn into the wilderness by God. He was emptied out by it. He was a young man, an ambitious man – full of drive, dreams, and passion. God called him into a wilderness life, into a journey that stripped away every ambition but one: To preach the message.

The message that God gave John wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t the basis for a mass organization that could throw out the Romans, purify the Temple, or even reform the Pharisee’s brand of Judaism. John’s message was a wilderness message, a message that was fundamentally incomprehensible to those who still lived in civilization. John’s message wasn’t about the power of good people to change the world. It wasn’t about incremental progress through human effort. John’s message was simply and solely about the power of God to intervene in history and establish his direct rule.

John’s message was simple, but no one understood it – probably not even his own disciples. Everyone expected God to come out of the wilderness and enter into the history of civilization. To become a civilized God. For almost everyone, the hope of Messiah was that God would establish a great king on the throne, in the line of David. To establish a political dynasty that was like all the other kingdoms of the earth – but better.

But John knew that God couldn’t be domesticated. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the wilderness. He can’t be contained in temple, a government, or a throne. Despite all our efforts to create a place for God in the midst of our civilization, God was never interested in that. The God of John the Baptist didn’t come to reside in cities and high towers. Instead, he brought his people out of the bondage of civilization and into the wilderness. With the coming of the Messiah, God would go a step further. He would bring the wilderness into the midst of the city.

When Jesus came out to the edge of the wilderness, John and his disciples were baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptizers were practicing the ancient Jewish purification rite of mikveh – a ritual washing with water for purification. For John’s people, immersion in water signified repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s reign.

But even as they prepared themselves in this way, John was always clear: This outward cleansing with water was just a shadow of what the Messiah would bring. John baptized with water, but Jesus was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John baptized for preparation and repentance. Jesus would bring about the healing and transformation of the whole cosmos.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what John said when he took his first look at Jesus down by the banks of the Jordan. The Holy Spirit had come down and rested on Jesus, and in that instant John knew that his ministry was complete. His own eyes had seen the promised savior.

John’s ministry was never about himself. He was always focused beyond himself, on the Messiah. There were lots of people who wanted to make John the Messiah, but John was crystal clear from the very beginning. He was just a messenger. When the people pressed him to identify himself – maybe he was the reappearance of Elijah? – John identified himself with the words of Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. That’s who John was. That’s who we are. That’s our job, too.

Have any of you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? The new one, not the 1970s version. It’s an amazing show. I won’t go into all the details right now, but for those of you who have seen it, there’s a phrase that is repeated over and over through the four seasons of the show: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Well, it’s happening again. We’re being called again into this wilderness journey. We are being invited to become desert creatures. Like John, we are called to become voices in the wilderness, crying out and making straight the way of the Lord.

The people of God have been called into the wilderness many times. We were called out into the Sinai when Moses led us out of Egypt. We went out to see the wild man John the Baptist, out beyond the Jordan. We returned again to the wilderness, when the church became the official religion of the Empire and it seemed like the only authentic faith was to be found in the desert. As the followers of the risen and living Jesus, we return to the wilderness again and again as he calls us.

Moving out into the wilderness is always a challenge. It pushes us out of our comfort zone spiritually, psychologically, and physically. The wilderness journey is one of loss and grief. We’re forced to let go of the life we thought we knew, the world we believed existed. We must face the reality of our own complicity with evil – and what it will cost us to turn towards the light.

And as if all of that weren’t enough – as if it weren’t sufficiently challenging to embrace our grief, face our shadow, and suffer the loss of comfort and stability – we’re asked to do more. Like John, we are challenged to acknowledge, freely and immediately, that we are not the Messiah. We are not the Messiah. We are not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s one savior, and he’s not us.

Of course, you knew that, right? So did I – intellectually. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I act as if everything depended on me. I’ve spent most of my life under the delusion that my life could drive history. Both popular culture and religion have encouraged this in me. “Make a difference! Let your life speak! Be the change you wish to see! You are somebody!”

I’ve been told my whole life that I have personal responsibility for the way that history turns out. Since I was a little boy, it’s been implied that I’m supposed to be the hero of the story, the person driving the plot to a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m not that person, if I’m not the protagonist of history, then I’ve basically failed as a human being.

So for me, it’s a revolutionary thing to truly understand and accept that I have found the Messiah. Because if I’ve found him, he’s not me. If I’ve found the ultimate Protagonist of history, that means that I’m out of a job. I’m stripped of the illusion that my life, my effort, my intelligence, my faith, is the most important thing I can offer humanity and the universe. When I find the Messiah, I learn that the most important thing I can do is to be human, love boldly, and accept the reality that I flow in history – I don’t direct it.

This has always been hard for me. It’s even harder now that I see history flowing in such a dark direction. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether maybe these days we’re living are actually an alternate timeline – and maybe I could fix it by going back in time and changing some tiny thing. There we go again – control!

It’s hard to let go of control when the stream we’re caught up in seems so odious, so opposite to that moral arc that we’ve been taught history is bending towards. It’s hard to embrace a savior who is not us, when we want more than anything to take matters into our own hands and influence the course of history. It’s hard to admit that we’re so small, so weak, so marginal to the flow of events in our generation.

But maybe this turn of events in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental state of our country is the only thing that could have woken us up. Maybe we needed this to hit rock bottom, to realize that trying to be in control of history is just too painful. More than ever before in living memory, our country really needs a savior. And it sure as heck isn’t me.

So what do we do in times like these? When our culture seems so dark, and it’s clearer than ever that we can’t solve the many injustices and pathologies of our nation? What is our role to play as friends of Jesus?

Our reading from Psalm 40 gives us a good example to live by. It says, “I waited patiently upon the LORD, he stooped to me and heard my cry.” There are two pieces here, right? The psalmist “waited patiently upon the Lord” – repentance – and God “stooped to me and heard my cry” – redemption.

This is the pattern we see in John’s life and ministry, too. John and his followers waited patiently upon the Lord. They waited out in the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan. They waited patiently as the thick darkness of Roman occupation suffocated their nation. They waited patiently while the collaborators – military and civil authorities – got rich off of the exploitation of their people. They waited patiently in poverty and humility, knowing that they were not the Messiah, but that God would send one. They waited patiently upon the Lord.

Our minds resist the way of John, the way of the wilderness. They insist that we need to fight, that we have a responsibility to overcome the darkness and restore justice to our community. This temptation is seductive, because it’s partially true. We do have a responsibility to work for justice in our society. We do have a role to play in the struggle to birth the reign of God into the world. John and his followers weren’t irrelevant to the affairs of the world. There’s a reason John was murdered by Herod. In a broken world, obedience to God always challenges the status quo. John was a desert creature, and the world could not comprehend him. And that’s why he had to die.

We are called to be desert creatures in the midst of this city. We are followers of Jesus. That means we stand in the prophetic heritage of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful heritage, one that brings down Empires and changes the course of history. But if we’re to stay sane, healthy, and centered in the Spirit – if we’re to overcome the world just like Jesus did – we have to stay grounded in that wilderness mindset. We have to remember who we belong to. And who the Lord of history is.

The power of the Holy Spirit that is at work in us has the power to change the world. We have a responsibility to be faithful in the struggle, to make ourselves proactively available for God’s work in the world. But we can’t make it happen. The Author of history will be its perfecter. We are called to be friends of Jesus, who lend a hand as we’re led by him.

A SERMON IN FOUR SCRIPTURES

Exodus 32:7-14    Psalm 51:1-10     1 Timothy 1:12-17    Luke 15:1-10

Jeff Davidson

If you look up a dictionary definition for “preach,” you will find that one of the definitions is “to give religious or moral instruction, particularly in a tedious manner.” One popular form of preaching is “expository preaching.” According to Wikipedia, this is a form of preaching that details the meaning of a particular text or passage of scripture. It explains what the Bible means by what it says. That makes sense; the Bible is not always clear about what it means, and when the meaning is clear how to apply that meaning sometimes is not.

There are a lot of different ways to divide up preachers and preaching. I googled “styles of preaching” and found all different kinds of ways to categorize, define, and classify preachers and sermons.

The bottom line for all of us as preachers is that the Bible has a message for us today, here and now. That message may be applied differently by different people in different settings, but the basic message is the same. Sometimes it takes a lot of study and thought to figure out what the message might be. Sometimes there are many messages and the challenge is to figure out which one to preach on. Sometimes the message is right there in the Scripture, and in that case the preacher’s job is to get out of the way.

I’ve talked before about the lectionary, a list of four suggested readings for each Sunday and other special days like Christmas, Lent, and the like. When I read the four lectionary readings for today, I realized that they almost exactly made a sermon just as they were. Now, I just need to see how well I can get out of the way. With just a few additions from me, this is a sermon in four scriptures.

(Exodus 32:7-14)  The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'”

The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'”

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

The Lord changed his mind. Moses interceded, and God changed his mind. Surely if God can change his mind about the Israelites, God can forgive me. (Psalm 51:1-10) “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen.

It’s not just me to whom God has shown grace. It was Paul too. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)  “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

It’s not just me. It’s my friends. It’s my neighbors. It’s my family. It’s you. (Luke 15:1-10)  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Confession. Repentance. Mercy. Grace. The message of scripture is clear today. It needs nothing more from me or from you except to live out of it, and to extend the same mercy to others as God extends to us. Amen.

Root-Bound

Root-Bound

Jennifer Hosler

            Very rarely do we hear news stories about genuine repentance.  We often hear PR statements, statements regretting the fallout of actions, words that express regret for the pain caused – but often not apology and claim to wrong action. We might hear “I’m sorry that my words offended you”.  We probably don’t hear, “I was wrong.  My words were stupid.  I am sorry.”

It is difficult to accept blame.  We often want to shift and put the blame outside of ourselves or onto the other person’s reading of our actions or words.  Claiming our wrong actions, repenting to God and to each other, intentionally renewing relationships: these are the uncomfortable tasks of reconciliation. While our society is not keen on doing this deep work of reconciliation, we, as followers of Jesus, are called to make right with each other on a regular basis.  Our two passages today involve repentance and confession – one in the Old Testament book from the prophet Joel and the other being a parable from Jesus.

As a congregation, as we move out of a place of crisis, as we have signs of hope moving forward, we need to focus on what a healthy community looks like.  Many have been working hard (in ways seen and unseen) so that this congregation survives. Now that we are crossing into a more stable place, how do we think about our church’s health and well-being going forward? We do not just want to survive. We want this church to thrive.

Looking at our scriptures today, there are several truths about congregational well-being that we can learn and practice.  We see from the prophet Joel that the well-being of the Israelite community required repentance and faithfulness.  In the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, Jesus taught his disciples that a humble, contrite heart was essential for faithfulness in God’s eyes.  If we seek a healthy church, we must aim to make repentance regular in our lives and in our congregation. The well-being of our congregation requires our regular repentance.

You probably haven’t heard many sermons from the book of Joel—or even other of the Minor Prophets (like Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). These Minor Prophets are not “minor” because they are unimportant but because they are significantly shorter than Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

At times it can be difficult to learn from or preach from the Old Testament.  The context sometimes feels so far removed from our own.  It was a different system (sacrifices, Mosaic Law), spread over hundreds of years, and focused on a single people group’s special relationship with God (the Israelites).  There is so much disconnect because the church today is not a people group or a country and also because we live in faith under a “new covenant” through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Things look different and are different.  Yet, we can still learn from the Old Testament and each Old Testament book (there are 39 in all) is important for our faith.  They were Jesus’ Scriptures and are our Scriptures too, even if we do call the New Testament “our creed” and interpret the Old in light of the New.

We come to the book of Joel and need to find out a few things.  Who was Joel? What type of genre is this book? What is the context of our passage within the book as a whole? Answers to these questions are important so that we can understand Joel’s words in their proper context and also learn how we might find applications relevant to today.

“The End is Near!” We’ve all seen someone proclaiming the end of the world.  It may have been a person on a street corner or a billboard or on an RV a couple years ago. Sometimes, people proclaim the end of the world… and the world around them thinks they are crazy.

In the Old Testament, quite a few people went around saying, “The End is Near”, although it was often more like, “The end as you know it is near”.  Joel was one such person, a prophet.

Biblical prophets had two roles: forth-telling and fore-telling. Forth-telling is the act of calling out sin and injustice.  The biblical prophets are filled with verses that rail against cheating the poor, doing religious rituals while not caring for those in need, and for worshipping things rather than God. God gave prophets a word of judgment and a call to repentance.   The foretelling that happened was when God gave the people of Israel an ultimatum: repent or you will face the the day of the LORD—the consequences of your actions.

The Israelites had a covenant with the LORD, with YHWH.  The LORD gave them the land of Israel and promised to bless them if they followed him. If they abandoned YHWH, if they oppressed the widow, the orphan, the stranger, then the LORD would remove his protection.  The land would not be fruitful and the nation of Israel would be at risk for attack from its larger neighbors.

For some reason, we see in scripture that the LORD had a special relationship with Israel.  There are many things that I do not understand about why God chose to make a covenant with Israel in this way.  The New Testament indicates that natural disasters and personal calamity (Jn 9: 1-7; Mt. 5:45; Lk 13:2-5) are not connected with faithfulness. Yet, in the Old Testament, for the specific nation of Israel, it worked in this way. Their faithfulness was tied to the country’s well-being, safety, protection, and the fertility of the land. This is what Scripture tells us.

With this specific context to Israel, we come to the prophet Joel. Prior to our text, Joel has begun foretelling judgment.  Israel has not repented. The people are not in right relationship with each other or God. Many prophets—including Joel—have called for the people to repent, to focus their hearts back on YHWH, to consider their actions and their worship, and renew their faith in both word and deed. Joel speaks of a coming plague of locusts that will devastate the land. The bountiful blessing of YHWH will be lacking from the community because they do not repent.

As with other prophetic passages, the message of judgment from YHWH is interspersed with messages of hope, of renewal, of deliverance and salvation if repentance occurs.  Future messages and present messages flip back and forth. Old Testament prophecy does not have a linear presentation.   In today’s Joel passage, future healing, renewal, and well-being are promised.

The land of Israel is once again prosperous.  There are autumn rains, sent by the LORD.  No longer will insects plague the land.  There are no droughts.  The community has its needs met and is overflowing with food.  The images used here—grain, oil, wine—these are the epitome of blessing and well-being in the Ancient Near East.

It is in repentance that the people have moved out of the destructiveness caused by their sins and towards a community that is healthy, a community marked by well-being. For the Israelites, the well-being of their community depended on repentance and their faithfulness to YHWH.

The prophet’s message to Israel has a lesson to the church today.  The well-being of congregations—the well-being of our community of faith—also requires repentance.  When I was considering this passage, considering how meaning translates from the Old Testament Israelite-nation context to the modern context of the church, an image from my garden came to mind.

If you recall this past Easter, we had many beautiful Easter lilies and azaleas decorating the church.  Following Easter, these flowers were distributed for planting. I planted an azalea in our still-new and barren yard.  I had recently learned to love azaleas and was eager to see the plant take root and grow, and eventually flower next spring as all azaleas do. The plant looked healthy and I saw new growth.

At some point though, the plant began to look ill.  Some of the leaves began to turn brown and there were spots on some of the green leaves.  No matter if it was given enough water or given some extra attention of mulch, the plant’s health continued to deteriorate.  Finally, the azalea died.

One day, I started to pull it up and found that it came out quite easily.  To my surprise, the plant had not rooted into its new location.  It was exactly in the same “pot shape” that it had been when I planted it. While I had heard of plants being “root-bound” before, I didn’t know of the full implications.

A plant care website describes it this way: “As plants grown in containers mature [whether they containers by the grower or ones you put them in], their developing roots eventually will run out of space.  When this happens, the plant becomes ‘root-bound’. The roots will try to escape out any drain holes in the pots. In some cases, they will try to slip out of the soil and over the lip of the pot. And, in nearly every situation, the roots will begin to grow in overlapping circles that follow the inner walls of the container.

As roots take over the interior space of the container, little room is left for soil to hold water, which may lead to root death. Allowing root-bound plants to continue to grow in this fashion will not only stunt the plant’s growth, but also it can bring about the plant’s overall demise” (Fiskars, 2013).

I mentioned what happened to my father-in-law and he told me that it is good to use a knife to slice into sections of the root ball.  “Don’t be afraid of killing the plant”, he said, “Cutting it is important.” Slicing into the root-ball allows the roots to become unbound from their choking pattern and to turn their roots outward, into the ground.

As humans, we regularly make mistakes.  We at times say the wrong things, hurt peoples’ feelings, deal with others in a pushy or bossy way, or simply do not care when we should be showing a person kindness.  As followers of Jesus, we are lead by the Spirit and are being transformed by grace.  But we still make these mistakes.  As a community of faith, as a congregation, we are a group of people bound together—imperfect and with occasional blunders.

If we are not careful, the human mistakes we make in our relationships and interactions with each other can bog us down.  When we start dealing with each other in ways that are not healthy and they continue unchecked, the roots of our mistakes can slowly encircle the community.  You might not notice it at first.  It could look healthy from the outside.  And yet, they might be slowly choking out the life and love of the congregation.

As a congregation, as individual followers of Jesus, we regularly need to take a metaphorical knife and slice into our spiritual root-balls. By this, I mean repentance: meditating and praying about our lives, being open with God: confessing the things that we have done and the things that we have left undone.

If we want our community to be healthy, if we want to promote well-being in our congregation and in our own spiritual lives, we need to regularly turn our eyes inward.  If we make a mistake and act in a way that is mean or bitter, etc., we are called to repent, to take the courage to apologize, admit, and make things right. Life in the Spirit, life together as a community of faith, requires repentance so that we might have soft hearts with one another, serve together, and engage one another in loving ways.

Jesus regularly called his listeners to Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.  One of our scriptures today is a parable taught by Jesus about repentance and pride.  The Pharisee was doing all the right religious things and serving in all the right ways.  Yet he came to God in arrogance,  “I’m so glad I’m not like that person.”

The tax collector recognized his failures.  He didn’t make excuses or blame others.  He didn’t say, “I’m sorry that you were offended, God, by my actions.”  The tax collector claimed his wrongdoings: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Confounding the 1st Century image of righteousness, Jesus explained that the humble, repentant heart of the tax collector was the faithful heart in God’s eyes.

Later in the New Testament, the Apostle John wrote to his sisters and brothers about the importance of recognizing our sin and repenting, confessing. “…if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 Jn 1:7-10).  1st John has heavy, powerful words for the church.

Thinking about repentance might be daunting and uncomfortable.  But we do not stand alone, trying to be our best selves with our own moral power.  In our Joel passage, we see God’s holy power foretold by the prophet.  First promised in Joel’s prophecy, the Holy Spirit now dwells in the lives of all who are in Jesus. This resurrecting power is what prompts and empowers us to do the difficult task of claiming our failures.  The Holy Spirit moves, works, prods, pokes, and empowers our transformation toward holiness and love.  Yet our initiative is also crucial and it makes a holy synergy.

Repentance often starts when we stop and take moments in silence, when we find a quiet place intentionally before God.  It is there that our hearts are open and we can hear the Spirit’s prodding.  It is in the stillness that we hear the call to talk less, to love more; to be gentle, not rude. It is in the stillness that we recognize our wrong, that we claim it, and confess it.

Sisters and brothers, as we continue on this journey together as a congregation, as the Washington City Church of the Brethren, let us commit to confessing our sins—to God and, at times, to one another.  The well-being of our congregation requires our regular repentance. Let us be intentional, each of us, to find time to be still, that we might hear the Spirit’s voice, that we might feel the prodding, and slowly cut out the roots that could threaten to choke us.  Sisters and brothers, let us confess our sins, for He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.