We need resurrection

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Luke 24:1-12, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

We need a resurrection.

We need a resurrection.

I first thought this phrase while in church last Sunday, feeling beleaguered and discouraged in this very sanctuary.

We need a resurrection.

The next day on Monday, the 5th Anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok and burning of the 900-year-old glorious Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the death of the mother of a colleague my age—these had me groaning or whispering, “we need a resurrection.” And not in a triumphant way or in a “I know I’m going to use this in a sermon” sort of way that might make me somehow more pious or spiritual or less prone to despair.

We need a resurrection.

But then on Tuesday there was that bright red cardinal in the tree. In the low dawn light of the street it’s red popped just a bit more than usual. First on the tree and then on to the long dead sunflower skeleton still standing in our yard lashed to the neighbor’s fence. The same bird as the day before (I presume) gathering seeds from the small seed heads that have long lost their radiant yellow petals.

At the end Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem last Sunday, amid cries of hosanna and the waving of palm branches, Jesus responded to his critics. He said if these people had not cried out, the stones would have shouted. The bright petals and blossoms of spring feel like a resurrection but these old bodies left from last year, having passed through winter, lacked a resurrection.

The stones will cry out! The creation surges forth eager to cry out in praise for the creator. The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was present at creation and participated as the agent of this creation. The creation which was declared good and remains good even against the continued abuse by humanity. This very creation which surges as a river or lies in the still water of the marshy river edges. The rivers which, if cared for (or at times even just left alone), can be healed and contribute to healing. It is the creation in the stones which are worn smooth or remain jagged these stones and this river will cry out—will shout out, raising their voice in praise of the one who brought them into being and brings healing through the reconciling word.

If the people had not cried out, “hosanna,” Jesus says, if these people of Jerusalem had not cried out waving their branches in praise and celebration then the seemingly inert stones would have raised their stony voices. For even these stones know the one who redeems.

Creation cries out. It is both a groan of waiting for the coming savior, the need for resurrection, and a glorious shout of praise. It is not valuable simply because commercial value can be extracted from it. It is not of value simply because it can be molded or cut or diverted into something more “practical” or something for humans to consume. All of creation cries out on its own.

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Isaiah 55

We, along with creation—as part of creation—we cry out. Last Sunday we cried out “Hosanna!” with the coming of Jesus—a triumphant donkey riding One of Peace. This week we cried out—“we need a resurrection.” The desperate cry of despair at the crucifixion makes even the groan, we need a resurrection, seem too hopeful.

This morning after days of sorrow and the knowledge that on the third day the death is real—this morning the women who followed Jesus, and who will become the first apostles, went to the tomb to care for the corpse of their hope. The pierced hands through which powerful healing flowed—stilled, and the mouth from which words of peace and repentance proclaimed—silenced. The back which bent to lift and wash feet laid flat without power. This is what they knew. Death had dealt a crushing blow. The women, whose hope seems to have died, knew this.

They needed a resurrection.

We need a resurrection.

Who will bring new life? Who will resuscitate hope lost?

Do you have that power? Do I have the wherewithal to bring hope, much-less life? This task is far beyond us.

In the book of Job, God challenges Job, highlighting his limitations in relation to God. The Lord asks,

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home?”

We have such little power—we need a resurrection.

As it turns out—we have a resurrection.

Which you already knew.

We have a resurrection!

And which I knew earlier this week when all I could mutter was the need for a resurrection. I knew it but didn’t quite feel it—somehow it felt distant or elusive.

The women at the grave—those for whom embodied hope had literally died—the women at the grave were confronted with a startling announcement. Jesus is alive! Christ is risen! [congregation]—“He is risen indeed!

The power that had created all and had blown the breath of life into humanity, this same power acted in the Crucified One and brought life and in the process conquered the grave.

Christ is risen! [congregation]—“He is risen indeed!

At least this is eventually how this mysterious disappearance and announcement of Easter morning come to be understood. At first it is just startling, perhaps confusing, too good to be true. But then the pieces start coming together. It is noted that with a little prodding the women remember that Jesus had in fact talked about being raised but that they had not understood him at the time. Not only do the disciples begin to understand this shocking event in light of Jesus’ own teaching but they begin to see how this relates to their scriptures—the first part of our Bible. They also begin to think through the implications and read it theologically.

While our own thinking is certainly not as definitive as the writers of the New Testament we join in this task. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian theologian writes, “The prophetic imperative directs that the Church should dare to analyze and interpret events theologically” (Ateek, Justice and only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, 152)

The resurrection of Christ, according to Apostle Paul, is not simply a flourish or add-on snappy ending. He writes,

“17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died[e] in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Death is conquered. Futility is conquered. We are called to live in light of this. We are filled with the same Spirit and as such is not simply us trying slog on through. The memory and reality of this animate us. It is not simply an inspirational poster on the classroom wall but the very shape of the universe. All creation calls for proclaiming, in calling out in great joy—the power of death has been overcome!

(Embodying Hope) A baby, a girl, a body

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:36-38, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 1 Timothy 4:12

You probably recognize our texts in Isaiah and Luke as scriptures we read in Advent, but they are also from a church feast day held on March 25th, called the Feast of the Annunciation. Hands up if you typically celebrate the Annunciation, or if you’ve ever celebrated it. I didn’t think there would be many—or even any. In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically mark the Annunciation, though I’d like to change this, at least for our congregation. The Annunciation is the announcement from Gabriel to Mary that Jesus would be born.

I stumbled upon the Annunciation passages in the Lectionary and thought they would complement our Lenten theme, the start of April (which is Earth Month), and Tori’s report about Christian Peacemaking Teams. Within today’s passages, there is a broader theme about embodying hope, about God bringing hope through those whom society says cannot contribute, through people whom we would not expect, in ways that rulers and leaders would not imagine.

Our passage in Isaiah shows someone with the opportunity to ask God for a sign. If I was in trouble and the Creator of the Universe says, “Ask me for a sign that everything is going to be okay,” I hope I would actually ask for something. Whether it would be good or smart or witty or pious is another story. I think I would at least ask for something.

In our Isaiah text, the people of Judah are facing calamity. The Lord gives King Ahaz the opportunity to ask for something cosmic to signal God’s deliverance. It’s implied here that God will rescue them, if Ahaz is just willing to ask. The Lord says, “Ask me for a sign—let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” In other words, God is saying, “Ask for something as metaphysically unfathomable as the place where souls go, or as cosmic as the sky or the place where God dwells. I can help you through this coming calamity, but all you need to do is ask. For something.” Yet Ahaz says, “No, no, no. I’m okay. I don’t want to test God.” Ahaz is trying to look pious, but really doesn’t want God’s involvement – probably because it would mean he’d need to change how he lived or worshiped. Rather than trusting God, he’s putting his hope in some wheeling and dealing with another ruler (the King of Assyria). Lots of money, big armies—that’s a bit more comforting than a God you can’t see.

Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is not what God wanted. Isaiah sends this message, “You’re trying to act religious here? Do you realize you’re playing holier than Thou with the Capital T Thou. You don’t want to ask for a cosmic, transcendental sign? Well, God is going to give you one anyways, something cosmic and miraculous: a baby, born to a young woman. The baby will be the sign that God is with Us and he will be named that—Immanuel.”

The baby is a sign that God is trying to work against all their wayward, idolatrous intentions, and is trying to bring about hope. God ends up delivering Ahaz and Judah from the nations who threaten the country, but also ends up promising judgment on Ahaz and the people for their ongoing idolatry and injustice. The baby is a sign of hope—but the presence of hope does not mean the people can just sit idly by. God still requires that people reckon with their failures and their consequences, God still requires that people transform their lives to work for the healing of relationships and the healing of our whole created world.

Babies bring hope. When there is ecological devastation, when species are threatened or endangered, the birth and growth of offspring are signs that the situation is turning around. I follow a few different Smithsonian Instagram accounts and I’ve seen recent postings of baby cheetahs or baby pandas born and growing—making a future of these vulnerable species a little less bleak, thanks to countless hours and dollars of research and ecosystem conservation. The furry little ones born give hope—and their cuteness often prompts people to donate and, I hope, to act in ways that guarantee their future.

My son is 10 months old. As my husband and I were preparing to have a child, we discussed what it means to bring life into the world when injustice and violence seem to be growing, when governments are chaotic and not caring for the common good. Theologically, we believe in a solidified outcome—that God will redeem and restore all things. Thus, we can bring new life into this world knowing that the Divine hope and reconciliation will overcome the chaos. Our baby is sign that we believe God is making all things new (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The presence of life brings hope—and gives us the vision we need to do what God calls us to do. When we want children to live in a world of God’s wholeness, it can help us focus on our tasks and calling: To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption.

Our passage in Luke is the Annunciation passage itself. And in it we hear that God is acting in a way we’ve never seen. Not in a whirlwind, not in a burning bush, not in a pillar of fire or a cloud. God is acting through a young woman and a baby. Again, of all the cosmic ways to give a sign, of all the possibilities to manifest and deliver salvation, the LORD does not choose the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Of all the cosmic possibilities for a noncorporeal cosmic ruler to be manifested, God chooses to enter a womb. The womb of a young, unmarried woman—a girl, many would call her—who bravely says yes to God. God chooses to enter our journey of cells multiplying and organs growing, with arms and legs wiggling and kicking, squishing a bladder, kicking a rib. God chooses to enter our world with a tiny, helpless body. Hope is found in a baby, a brave girl, in a body. Hope is found in bodies.

The story of the gospel is that hope is found in babies, in girls, in bodies. God’s hope is not ephemeral but tangible. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message). God works through babies, through girls, through bodies, through people.

God works through people the world does not expect and that the world thinks little of. We read 1 Timothy 4:12 this morning, “Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” God works through youth who sue the government to try to address climate change. God works through students who organize a strike around the globe, who use their bodies not in class to make a statement: the health of our planet is serious, and we need to act.

God acts through bodies. God acts through bread shared together, cups of tea drank, through relationships and accompaniment. God embodied hope through Jesus. Jesus has tasked us to embody hope in this world. To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption. Hope is in the baby born, the brave girl, the youth striking, the tea shared. We see hope in Jesus Immanuel: God is with us. AMEN.

Come to the Waters (embracing bounty)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9, Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

In the book of Exodus, the once inarticulate Moses faces the Pharaoh backed by the power of God first appearing to him in a burning bush in the desert. As the Hebrew people head into the wilderness, they are followed by the Egyptian army which is driven by the recognition that their emancipated slaves are not coming back—that the subjugated people who had done their work were perhaps too easily set free. Up against the Red Sea and certain destruction, Moses led them through the sea. The cloud of the presence of God veiled them while a great wind was sent to divide the waters.

The Apostle Paul picks this up and reads it Christologically—that is, through Christ. In this passing through the waters of the sea, the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians are saved. The Apostle reads the water as a baptism. A passing through Christ’s death into life. For in Romans we read, Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)). They were saved by passing through these waters.

Come to the water.

Paul writes “all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

Not only was the water of the sea a baptism but the rock in the desert out of which a sustaining water flowed was Christ. The Christ which appeared centuries later but whom the Gospel of John asserts was present and participating in the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the waters—this is the one whom Paul proclaims as the fount of water in the desert—in the time of need this one is the living water. Come to the waters.

The prophet Isaiah exhorts,

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This sounds like a great deal. It isn’t even buy one get one 50% off. This is like a free fancy think tank reception where you not only get hear an interesting talk about policy but get nice food while on a BVS budget. However, my dad, who is a very practical fellow, used to say some variation that “nothing is free.” Which is, of course, true. Someone picks up the cost because they care about something or have an interest in you caring about it.

In Luke we read, At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

There is a persistent notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people—at least when we observe others. So, when something bad happens we assume that they did something bad and if something bad happens to us or our friends we ask—why me? Certainly, the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate must have sinned. Certainly, those on whom the tower fell must have really ticked off God.

Jesus, however, disconnects a negative occurrence from that of punishment. Those who suffered in this way are no worse than you! However, he also seems to reattach it. Those who died in these tragedies were not being punished for their particularly heinous crimes. Rather, all deserve a harsh retribution and it is only by a particular grace and mercy that we make it through. He seems to imply all of us should die in a tower collapse but don’t by God’s mercy—this is a type of comforting. It also feels like it could be ominous and threatening. The intent is rather to get us to focus. Because of the gravity of our action or inaction and intentions we should take this seriously. Though God is radically graceful we must not be presumptuous.

A commentator writes, “Luke does not destroy severity by infusing grace, nor does he destroy grace by infusing severity. As a theologian he knows that any mixing of severity and grace or any attempt to average them will result in neither severity or grace” (Craddock, Luke¸167). It is not that grace and mercy balances out justice or punishment in some sort of neutral middle—like white and black paint make grey or green and red make a muddy brown. Rather, they both exist.

The passage continues with a parable of a fruit tree—a fig fruit tree.

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Here the issue of fruit is ventured. A fig tree, not unlike our own likely dead fig tree, does not produce. The only reason it exists is to produce fruit for its owner. The owner is persuaded to have patience when it doesn’t produce as anticipated. This picture of divine patience follows the teaching which presents both grace and punishment, mercy and justice. The Apostle exhorts, “We must not put Christ to the test.”

He continues “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful… [you will not] be tested beyond your strength.

Come to the water! This water is free (for you). For God it is a costly gift. A gift that requires patience and as we will discover in Holy Week a great sacrifice. The water of life is not free so that we can muddy it and abuse it—note here the parallels between both the gifts of physical waterways that we humans often damage or destroy and the spiritual water of life that we muddy through distractedness and injustice. The season of Lent invites us to focus. The movement towards Easter and the pain of Holy Week beckons us towards abiding with God, the source of life. The imminent death of Jesus will provide the greatest challenge to the false theology that the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate or those 18 who died in the collapsing tower were worse than us.

The water of life is given to us in abundance. While it isn’t earned, it requires much of us. This is part of Kameron Carter’s critique of white theology in Race: a Theological Account. It says we can do theology separately from the realities of the world in which towers collapse and kill people because those supposed to be responsible cared more for their money or power than the people. This is artist Ai Wei Wei’s documentation of the collapsed school buildings in China which thousands of school children died.

Our enjoying the abundant water of life is not somehow separate from the racism that allows communities of color in this country to be poisoned by their water which is polluted by others. The question that the crucified Holy One of God will bring is not “what did the suffering ones do to deserve this?” but what did those with any power do or neglect to do that caused their suffering?

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Come to the waters! Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down!

Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down! You may no longer live for yourself. The water of life that rushes from the Christ in the desert

revives you to be a conduit of life and justice and mercy. The God of mercy is the source, but you have the privilege participate in this good work. Come to the waters!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Come to the waters! Come drink from the abundant water of life.

Seraphs (each with 6 wings), Fishes (so many)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8(9-13), 1 Corinthians 15;1-6, Luke 5:1-11

Isaiah, when facing God’s majesty, said “I am not worthy”

An angel came and touched his lips with a coal to purify him and take away his guilt.

Paul, when considering his call as an apostle, said “I am unworthy because I persecuted God’s people.”

It is through God’s grace that he was given this ministry.

Peter, when Jesus instructed one more cast of the net after a long night of empty net—which resulted in so many fishes that the nets just about broke, said “Go away from me for I am sinful.”

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

This was not simply a subjective lack of self-esteem or timidity or fabricated humility. It is not someone on stage saying they are “humbled” at the point of great success or an award. It is not my overwhelming introversion when I arrive at an event that the only reason I am attending is to network for my job.

Paul was called to proclaim Jesus after he had hunted down and thrown people who followed Jesus into prison. Paul, who was formerly Saul, oversaw the stoning of the first martyr of the church. He then took up the attack of the Jesus followers with terrifying zeal. In Acts 8 we read, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria… Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison…[and in the next chapter]… Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9).

So when the Apostle Paul (the one formerly known as Saul) says that “I am unworthy “to be a proclaimer of Jesus except through the grace of God he means it literally. He isn’t just saying this because it the correct and humble thing to say. The transformation and renewal are profound. But it is not just so that he can have a comforted conscience—he is given serious work to do. In fact, he says that he does it more intensely than everyone else. Which is hard not to hear as bragging (which may be why I don’t think in the earlier section he is being falsely humble).

The prophet Isaiah, when faced with the dazzling and terrifying presence of God initially shrinks in fear. The scene is dramatic:

“Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”

While this might just sound kind of cool to us—I mean the “pivots on the thresholds” shaking basically sounds like Jake and I am a War in The Chapel studio or an evening at the Black Cat. While I don’t know Isaiah’s music of choice, he certainly was well aware of the danger of seeing God face to face. There was a precedent of this being an experience unlike others.

Facing God was not a normal Tuesday meeting. For example, though Moses interacted with God more than most he was also afraid to see God—”And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” This is THE Moses. The God spoke through a burning bush to him Moses. The lead the people out of Egypt Moses. This Moses hid his face. When Moses receives the 10 commandments, receiving them from God…he glowed. We read in Exodus 34 “29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.” Even the residue of facing God struck fear.

And Peter. We know Peter as the first to speak—not shy and timid. Peter eventually received the “keys” to the kingdom from which the tradition of succession of the Pope was built and was a disciple—a star—a least a significant character of the story of Jesus. Before Peter was “Peter the theologically glamorous,” he is the Peter we have today. Peter was a fisher. Though it seems he owned the means of his production and labor—the boats and nets—he was one whose work was manual and stinky. Likely not the most prominent. Peter was young. Peter lived under occupation. Peter was not, it would have been guessed, a soon to be leader. Not only this but on this particular day Peter had been up all night unsuccessfully trying to catch fish. This was his profession and not only was it likely a source of professional pride, but it was a matter of survival. Peter and his colleagues in fishing had ended the excursion without fish.

In this context Jesus, the newish popular teacher asked to borrow a boat to use as a pulpit. At the conclusion of what was a teaching that didn’t manage to get recorded, Jesus instructs them to cast out once more and lower their nets for fish. The result is fish, so many fish. It is at this point that Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Three people. Three cases of recognizing unworthiness. When faced with the presence of the divine they rightly recoiled but were brought near by the mercy of God.

But there is more.

They are given work.

Jesus says to Peter the fisher of fish, you will be catch people. Does Peter know what this means? When I thought about it, it seemed less clear. I grew up with the song, “I will make you fishers of men…” The interpretation that we assumed was Jesus was calling them to be evangelists or preachers who would tell about Jesus and this would lead people to salvation. When I read this passage, however, I wondered what exactly Peter thought this meant when he left everything to follow Jesus. The analogy is actually not all that clear. Peter caught fish to sell them so that people could kill them and eat them. He wasn’t saving fish, he was destroying them. The fish weren’t drowning in the water in need of saving but thriving where they were supposed to be. Clearly the metaphor is limited. As we will see through the Gospels and Acts that it takes

several years for the Peter and the other disciples to get clear on exactly what this calling was calling them to. Peter was called and given work.

Isaiah is given the undesirable work to proclaim destruction.

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”

But within the destruction there remains hope for the future. The holy seed is its stump.

And Paul (formerly Saul) goes from a well educated (and probably successful leader) to a transient self-supporting (he made tents), ship wrecked, and oft-imprisoned preacher. Which, admittedly, sounds like a bad deal.

It is such bold action, however, after seeing God, that that both leads to faith and is a result of faith. For as we read in James, belief without action is dead. And in Hebrews 11 it is the faith shown by the “cloud of witnesses” that is the result of the grace of God and a sign of this. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…. (Hebrews 11)

It is to such faith and to such work that we are called. To proclaim with Paul the reconciling grace of God. To proclaim with Isaiah that even amidst destruction there is hope. And with Peter that Jesus has come near.

God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

“The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble. Those who know your name will put their trust in you, for you never forsake those who seek you, O Lord.”

We give thanks this morning, that we worship a God who cares for his children. A God who stands up for the weak, the poor, the oppressed.

We give thanks, because we need this liberating God of the oppressed. We know that we live in a country that is full of oppression. We can no longer close our eyes to the violence being done to black and brown lives every day in our streets. Nor can we ignore the outrageous violence, torture, and cruelty being done to our brothers and sisters at the border. Men, women, and children locked in cages. Parents shackled to walls. Children stolen from their parents in the middle of the night as a form of punishment. Punishment for seeking asylum. Punishment for fleeing poverty and violence in their native lands.

We give thanks this morning to the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows what it is to suffer. Who knows what it means to lose a child. Our God is no stranger to violence, torture, and state-sanctioned oppression.

So we give God praise this morning, for the way he cares for us. He loves those whom the world hates. And he sees what is being done to his children.

We are thankful this morning, because we know that the God we worship is not a weakling. Our God is not a God of sentimentality. He is a God of action. His love is powerful, able to change time and circumstances. He proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He liberates the oppressed. He is able to do these things, because he created us and called us “good”, and he is determined that the world will be made good once again. Through his love and power, God has promised to bind up our wounds and heal this broken earth.

“The Lord is known by his acts of justice.” That’s who God is. It is true to say “God is love.” It is equally true to say, “God is justice.” It is in this knowledge that the psalmist cries out, “Rise up, O Lord, let not the ungodly have the upper hand; let them be judged before you. Put fear upon them, O Lord; let the ungodly know they are but mortal.”

Let not the ungodly have the upper hand, O Lord. Let them be judged before you. Let them know they are but mortal.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. Our God does not stand idly by while cruelty and sadism reign. God judges the wicked. The avenger of blood will remember the children locked in cages. He will remember the infants ripped from their mothers’ breasts. God will remember the government officials who implement obscene border policies and then lie to the world about why these injustices are happening. God will not forget those who grow rich off the prison industrial complex that has spread like a cancer across this land – even to the border.

“The wicked shall be given over to the grave, and also all the peoples that forget God. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.”

What does it mean for us to be the people of God in the midst of this wicked and violent generation? For those of us with the privilege of citizenship, what does it mean to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are oppressed for their lack of legal status? For those of us who are white, how does God call us to submit ourselves to our black and brown sisters and brothers in Christ who are bearing the weight of entrenched racism and state violence? What does it mean for us to be made in the image of the God who stands with the outsider, the foreigner, the poor?

Our God is not a weakling. He hears the cry of the oppressed. He calls us into action, to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice. God’s love changes things – it comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. The light of Christ is a balm to those who are suffering for righteousness, but it is a burning flame to those who hate God and neighbor.

Our scripture readings this morning encourage us to hear and act on God’s call to justice and reconciliation. They remind us that we aren’t in this struggle alone. God’s love is powerful, and we are called to become agents and ambassadors of this love in the world.

This means we don’t have to be afraid. As hard as it may be to believe, despite all the horror that we see around us, God is ultimately in control of this world he created. And his justice will not sleep forever.

This is something that Jesus’ disciples learned during a nighttime voyage across the sea of Galilee.

Jesus and a little fleet of fishing boats were moving across the water, when a huge windstorm came out of nowhere and the disciples’ sailboat was being swamped. It looked like the ship might go down.

Meanwhile, Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So here are the disciples, running around and struggling to keep the boat above the waves, and Jesus is somehow sleeping through the whole thing! Finally, the disciples wake him up. I imagine them shouting over this freight train of a storm, “Wake up, Jesus! How can you sleep through this chaos? We’re all gonna drown and you’re taking a nap!?”

And it says that Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind. “Peace! Be still!” The storm stopped immediately, and there was dead calm. After the noise and tumult of the storm, the silence must have been deafening – and probably a little creepy. It says that the disciples were filled with “great awe” and said to one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In times of darkness and fear, we’re all like the disciples. We cry out to God for help. We’re upset, because God seems to be asleep in the back of the boat while all hell is breaking loose. We need help, and we need it now. Families are being ripped apart. People are dying. Where are you, God?

I don’t know what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do when he woke up. Maybe they thought he would lend a hand in bailing out water from the boat. They surely didn’t expect that he could speak a word and silence the storm. The disciples were frustrated that Jesus was sleeping through the storm, but they couldn’t foresee what Jesus would do to deliver them.

Like most of us, the disciples didn’t really believe in miracles. They had seen Jesus heal people and change lives in unexpected ways, but still they couldn’t wrap their heads around a God who intervenes in history, making the impossible possible. Despite everything Jesus had shown them, they weren’t expecting a miracle. They were relying on their own strength to ride out the storm and keep their little sailboat afloat. And the ship was going down.

Until it wasn’t. Jesus woke up. He rebuked the wind, and the storm stopped immediately.

Whoa.

In some ways, Jesus’ act of deliverance must have been even more terrifying than the storm he delivered them from. The disciples all thought they wanted to see Jesus display his power. They wanted to see their big, bad messiah in action. Preferably in battle. But when Jesus actually does perform a miracle, the disciples are often confused or even terrified.

You know, we all want to see a miracle. But we want a certain kind of miracle. We want miracles that we can contain and control, miracles that we can understand on our own terms. We want miracles that make things go our way, that fulfill our wishes for how the world ought to be.

Real miracles aren’t like that. True miracles challenge what we know about the world, ourselves, and God. When God’s power and deliverance shows up, it breaks down our whole sense of order and control. The presence of God humbles us, because it’s not something we ever could have anticipated.

So, when we cry out for justice, we have to ask ourselves: Are we truly ready for God to act? Are we prepared for something totally unexpected? Do we really believe that God can rebuke the wind and silence the storm? Do we have faith that, despite all appearances, there is a life and power at work behind the scenes – a boundless love that can deliver us from evil and transform our society?

Do we believe that God will judge the world? All the things being done in darkness will be brought to light. Everything done in secret will be revealed. God will judge the wicked and lift up the oppressed. Are we ready for the power of God to break us down so that we can be remade in Christ’s image?

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation! This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! God is not asleep as some suppose. He is here to judge the world – to bind up the wounds of the broken and stay the hand of tyrants. As the apostle John writes, The son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil. We share in this ministry with him.

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. God will judge those who put children in cages. God will destroy the works of the devil. The spirit of Jesus will restore our world. He will reunite families, heal the sick, and abolish borders. The Holy Spirit is alive and moving in this place. The light of Jesus shines to convict us of our sin – all the ways we have turned away from God – and gives us power to turn our lives back towards God.

Will we accept this invitation? Will we become followers of Jesus in both word and deed? Will we embrace the miracle that disrupts our lives, allowing the love and justice of God to take full control?

I would like to invite you to join me in a time of open worship. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Come, living Jesus. Move in our midst. Work on our hearts. Show us how to be your children, living in your truth, mercy, and righteousness.

The Sabbath is Made for People

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

When I first moved to DC, and Faith and I started thinking about doing ministry here, I did a lot of reflection on the spiritual condition of our city. Over the course of my first few years here, I became convinced that busyness, over-work, and high stress were some of our most important challenges. I hoped that Faith and I could minister to those who are overwhelmed by the intensity of life in our city, the many demands that are put on us by our work. This stress and busyness has the potential to choke out the seed of God in our lives.

I’m sad to say that, in the time I’ve lived here, this city has probably changed me more than I’ve impacted it. Over the last nine years, Faith and I have had two children. We’ve been employed at increasingly demanding and time-intensive jobs. At this point, I wouldn’t say that our level of busyness and stress is much different from most other people in our life stage and social class.

That’s not great. I know that my life isn’t exactly the way God intends it to be. I know that my busyness and burden often distract me and pull me away from the life of presence and freedom that Jesus invites me into. I know that I need to be called back to wholeness, right relationship with my family, friends, work, and God.

So I was really grateful to see that our passages for this morning focus on sabbath, both its foundations in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching on it in the New. I’m thankful, because I need to hear the wisdom of the sabbath. I need to be invited into the rest and peace of God. Maybe this speaks to your condition, too.

The sabbath is about as ancient a concept as you can get. God celebrated the first sabbath on the seventh day of creation. After creating the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, men and women, God rested for a day from all his labors. Following this model of good work followed by true rest, God taught his people, Israel, to observe a sabbath day of their own. This special, holy day each week would be a period of rest.

The sabbath wasn’t just a reduction of work. It wasn’t like what a lot of us Christians experience today, where maybe we take a few hours off to go to church, maybe go out to lunch with friends, and then get right back into the productivity and busyness of our lives. For God’s people in the Old Testament, and for Jews today, God’s sabbath was a cessation of all work.

Why would God command us to refrain from all work for a whole day every week? It’s easy to imagine God as some kind of random rule-maker in the sky, handing out weird instructions that we’re supposed to follow, because, you know, God. But the sabbath is not random or capricious. As we read together in  the Torah, we find that the origin of a religious sabbath comes about in a very specific context. That context tells us a lot about what the sabbath can mean for our lives as children of the God of Abraham and followers of Jesus.

So what was the situation when God instituted the sabbath? It came as part of the law that God set out immediately after liberating the Hebrews from slavery, four hundred years of forced labor in the land of Egypt. The sabbath is a mark of freedom, of health, of social harmony and economic justice. The sabbath is for all people – even the male and female slaves, even the animals!, have a right to a total cessation of work on the sabbath.

The sabbath is a call to humility. To remember, as it says in our reading from Deuteronomy, that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The sabbath has the power to bring justice because it puts all human effort into perspective. Our lives are but a breath. God doesn’t need our help any more than a parent needs assistance from a young child. God’s effort is decisive; human effort can be, at best, a token expression of our love for the Father. (Paul expresses this thought in his second letter to the Corinthians, “this extraordinary power [of the gospel] belongs to God and does not come from us.”) By honoring the sabbath, we honor the God who through his power created the universe – and then rested.

We could all benefit from honoring the sabbath today. We need rest. We’re tired, and we work too much. We need space to breathe. To worship God, setting aside all our temporal preoccupations. To remember who we are, and whose we are. We need the sabbath to teach us how to love again. Love ourselves. Love God. Love neighbor.

Our whole culture is feeling the loss of the sabbath. We’re noticing the impact of a society that no longer reserves even one day of rest each week. Sunday shopping comes at a price. Our weekends are crowded with activity. Many employers expect us to be on and available, 24/7. There’s very little space to listen.

The sabbath acts as a check on our human tendency to over-extend ourselves. It sets a hard limit on our time, energy, and planning. It’s an opportunity to yield ourselves to reality and our own limitations, rather than being forced to do so by sheer exhaustion and burnout.

The Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day had 99 problems, but keeping the sabbath wasn’t one of them. They kept it religiously. The Pharisees were sort of the good “churchgoing” Ned Flanders of the ancient world. They were scrupulous in their observance of the law of Moses. Among the hundreds of other regulations that they followed, they were almost ridiculously careful not to do anything resembling labor between sundown on Friday and dusk on Saturday.

And yet, for all their piety, the Pharisees were missing the point. They embraced the sabbath, and all the law of Moses, but they had forgotten that they were liberated slaves. They had become the authority in their society, and the interpretation and enforcement of the Torah became a powerful lever for them to exercise that authority. The law often loomed larger than the God who established it. Just as the priestly Sadducees loved the Temple more than they loved the uncontrollable God of the Tent, the Pharisees loved the letter more than the Spirit.

Jesus saw this. He was harder on the Pharisees than on anyone else. Because they knew so much about the kingdom of heaven. They knew so much about God. And yet their attitudes prevented them from experiencing the real life, power, and purpose of God’s reign. Not only that: In their zeal to convert others to their misguided focus on rules and ritual, they blocked the door for others to enter into the kingdom of God.

God made the sabbath for people. God’s creation exists to bless us; it allows us to experience wholeness and holiness. The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath.

Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities on this point. He was busy moving throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and gathering his disciples. Jesus was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and the Pharisees were curious to see what this new teacher was all about. They hoped he would be one of them. A lot of his teachings sounded familiar to the Pharisees. Jesus definitely wasn’t siding with the priestly elite in Jerusalem. Maybe they could form an alliance.

But when the Pharisees actually met Jesus, what they found disturbed them. Rather than a teacher who was first and foremost concerned with observing every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law, they saw that Jesus tolerated his disciples breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone knew that Jews weren’t supposed to do anything resembling work on the sabbath – that included food preparation. Yet Jesus didn’t say a word when he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples started plucking and eating grain.

The Pharisees saw this and they got really upset. They appealed to Jesus to reign in his followers. “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Check your boys, Jesus; they’re running wild.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees in a very particular way. He didn’t agree with them. In fact, he flat out contradicted the Pharisees. But he didn’t do so by denying the importance of the sabbath. He didn’t reject the law of Moses and God’s commandments in scripture. Instead, he reframed the conversation in terms of the broader story of God’s people. It’s not enough to simply say, “the Bible says this,” or “the Bible says that.” The Bible says a lot of things. What truly matters is what God is saying, and how God is revealing himself throughout the scriptures – and in our very lives.

So Jesus responds, not with a rejection of scriptural authority, but with an expansion of it. “Haven’t you ever heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

When David and his crew was hungry, they ate the food that was available. The daily bread that God offered them. In that moment, God’s power to bless and provide for David overrode the static, non-contextual rules laid down in the laws of Moses. In general, only the priests were supposed to eat the consecrated bread in the Temple. But in that particular time and place, that holy bread was God’s way of caring for David and his men – providing them with rest, comfort, and sustenance.

Jesus sums it up this way: “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

The sabbath is made for people. The law was written for us. The word of God is not a harsh rule laid upon us as a burden; it is the caring hand of God guiding us, providing us with what we need. It is a gift of God, to be received in context – in particular time and circumstances, according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

People like the Pharisees – both back then and today – have a tough time wrapping their heads around this. For so many of us, the purpose of religion is to provide a clear and unambiguous set of rules to live by. Do this; don’t do that. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle! Follow the rules and you will be safe. Follow the rules, and God will love you.

But God does love you. God does love you. He gives us the law precisely because he loves us. God doesn’t give the law as a set of terms and conditions we must follow to receive his love. Love comes first. Love is the first motion. Love is the ground and source of the law. And love must reign over the law if we are to receive it as God intended.

The law is made for people, not people for the law.

But most religious people just can’t understand this. Especially religious people with power. And have no doubt about it, that’s what all this is about. Our rules and regulations are about power. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we use the law to shape the society that we live in. We create a set of expectations that must be followed. Those who step out of line are subject to peer pressure, ridicule, shame – and even violence. To challenge the rules that govern our culture is a dangerous act.

It’s not too long into Jesus’ ministry before he performs such an act – one so dangerous, so threatening to the Pharisee’s cultural and religious system, that they have no choice but to respond. One way or another. They can join Jesus or they can reject him; but they can’t assimilate him. They can’t pretend that Jesus is a good old Pharisee who they can integrate into their social order. Jesus won’t play ball.

This moment of revelation happens not out in the field, but in the heart of the Pharisee’s social and religious life – the synagogue. Jesus comes to the house of prayer on the sabbath. Jesus is an emerging local celebrity at this point, so maybe they invited him to lead worship and interpret scripture for them. Or maybe he just showed up for prayer. Whatever the reason, Jesus came to this particular synagogue on the sabbath, and the religious leaders knew he was coming. They were watching to see what he would do.

Because there was this guy in the synagogue that everyone knew. A man with a withered hand. People had heard that Jesus frequently healed the sick, and they wanted to know: Would Jesus break the Pharisees’ sabbath prohibitions to heal this man?

The people in the synagogue were watching Jesus. And he was watching them back. They wanted to see whether he would heal on the sabbath. Jesus wanted to know whether their hearts were so lost to the love of God that they would condemn compassion.

Jesus calls the man with the withered hand forward, up to the front of the synagogue where Jesus was seated.

Silence. Jesus looks at the people of the synagogue. The best and brightest in the town. The religious leaders. Everyone who is anyone.

Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Silence. Nobody moves. They just watch Jesus. Will he do it? Will he break the rules? Will he defy the authority of the teachers of the law? In the synagogue?

And it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” How could these folks be so sensitive to the commandments of God in the past and so completely miss the motion of God’s spirit in the present? How could the Pharisees know so much about God, yet fail to recognize God in their own lives? What did it mean that God’s people were living in a temple of scripture and yet failed to receive the sacrament of compassion?

The sabbath was made for people. Hungry people. Thirsty people. People with withered up hands, who because of their physical deformity were excluded from full participation in religious life. The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

In this moment, Jesus resolves to live into the full meaning of the sabbath. He demonstrates what the sabbath looks like in flesh and bone and sinew. He heals the man standing before him, re-enacting God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He frees this man from physical bondage, and invites everyone present in the synagogue to be freed from the spiritual bondage of rules-lawyering religion without pity, without mercy, without love.

“Stretch out your hand.”

I want you to stretch out your hands with me. Stretch out your hands, and remember everything that God has done for you.

Stretch out your hands, and remember how he has brought you up out of slavery. Slavery to materialism. To selfishness. To addiction. To death.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.

The sabbath of God is within us. And we so desperately need it. We can’t live without the sabbath, without God’s rest, abundance, and liberation.

The sabbath is life. The sabbath is rest and freedom from slavery. The sabbath is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, and one which we must accept if we are to experience the peace and blessing of God’s kingdom.

What does it mean for you to embrace the sabbath in your life? What needs to change? How does your heart need to open, your mind be renewed, your habits shift?

Stretch out your hands. Let us promise together that we will be a people of sabbath in this city. Let our lives open up a space sabbath rest, sabbath grace, and sabbath justice. Because the sabbath was made for people.