Bless What Lord?

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8

I said in my Facebook post about today’s service that I was going to start the sermon with a grammar joke. It ended up not fitting into where I went with the sermon, but since I promised a grammar joke you’ll get a grammar joke.

A panda walks into a bar. He takes a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the bar, shells them, and eats them. Then the panda pulls out a gun, fires it in the air, and begins to walk out of the bar. The bartender says, “Hey! What was that about?” The panda says, “Look it up in a dictionary,” and heads out the door. The bartender grabs a dictionary from someplace and looks up the definition for “panda.” The definition says, “Panda – a white and black bear-like mammal which eats shoots and leaves.”

That’s the joke. It doesn’t have anything to do with the sermon. If you don’t get it you’ll just have to think for a while after the sermon.

I remember the first time I visited Washington, DC. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember wondering if we would get to see President Johnson when we toured the White House, so I couldn’t have been older than nine.

I was so amazed at the buildings. Of course the ones that caught my eye the most where the famous ones that I’d seen on television – the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. I don’t remember the Washington City church from that trip, although we probably drove by it because we always drove by the Church of the Brethren, if there was one, everyplace we vacationed.

I remember the first time I saw the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren. It was in the United Methodist building, across from the Capitol and next to the Supreme Court building. I was a freshman in high school, I think, and I was so impressed to meet Ralph Smeltzer, the director of the office. He talked to us about what it would be like to visit our representatives and our senators, and he had this big office with books and papers everywhere and I just thought how wonderful it must be to be Ralph Smeltzer and to live and work in Washington, DC and to lobby and organize on behalf of justice and peace in the Capitol and around the nation.

I think that’s what it felt like for the disciples when they visited Jerusalem with Jesus. Our reading from Mark 13 opens up with the disciples wandering around looking at the temple and the other grand buildings in the capital. “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I can almost picture Gomer Pyle looking up at skyscrapers saying, “Goll-lly!”

I don’t know how many of the disciples had been to Jerusalem before, if any. It probably was a pretty impressive place. And you know sometimes a place doesn’t have to be physically impressive or incredibly magnificent to seem pretty wonderful. Looking back at it, Ralph Smeltzer’s office probably wasn’t all that fancy. But to a high school freshman who cared about his faith and who cared about politics and cared about what his faith taught him about politics, it was one of the most amazing places in the world.

Jesus’s reaction to whichever disciple was playing Gomer Pyle is a little surprising at first. Jesus says, “All these buildings? This fancy temple? So what? Sooner or later it’ll all just be rubble. Just a big pile of rocks.”

Some of the disciples are maybe a little worried about when that’s going to happen, and so they approach Jesus privately and ask him exactly that. They are probably looking for some comfort, some reassurance from Jesus. They are probably expecting to be told not to worry, because Jesus is the Messiah and if they stick with him it’ll all be okay.

That’s sometimes what we want from Jesus, isn’t it. Sometimes we want Jesus to reassure us, to comfort us. That’s natural, and that’s one of the things Jesus does for people. One of Jesus’s titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” and we sing songs like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus being a comforter, a supporter, someone who gives us strength and who encourages us through the Holy Spirit, all of that is perfectly appropriate and perfectly Biblical.

But there is another Jesus. There is the apocalyptic Jesus.

The literal meaning of “apocalypse” is an unveiling or a revelation. Over the years the word has taken on more than just the literal meaning. “Apocalyptic” or “apocalypse” now are used to refer to something incredibly destructive, and often to predictions of the end of the earth. That’s the Jesus we’re getting here, a Jesus who is talking about the end of the world.

And that Jesus, the apocalyptic Jesus, offers the disciples no particular reassurance, at least about the timing. In fact, he doesn’t actually answer their question. He says that the disciples need to be careful that they are not led astray, that a lot of people will try to lead them astray, that they should not be alarmed when they hear about wars and rumors of wars, and that there will be a time of earthquakes and famines and wars. Trust me, that’s not reassuring.

The meditation on the back of the worship folder mentions Harold Moyer. Harold was an associate pastor here at Washington City back in the early 1950s. Seeing Harold’s name made me think about some of our history here.
Washington City was a big congregation back then, with a couple of hundred people in attendance every Sunday morning and that big pipe organ in the balcony booming out the hymns every Sunday and all the rooms filled with Sunday School classes and all the offices filled with pastors and associate pastors and intern pastors and a secretary or two.
Back in the 1950s Washington City decided to do some church planting. They planted the Good Shepherd congregation in Silver Spring, the Arlington congregation, and the Woodbridge congregation. People who were members at Washington City who lived in those communities became members of the new congregations. When I pastored at Woodbridge there were eight of the charter members left who had been members here.

Washington City provided pastors as well. In 1956 Harold Moyer became the first pastor at Woodbridge, and later spent many, many years at the Williamson Road congregation in Roanoke.

If someone had said back in the 1950s that one day the Washington City congregation would have Sundays where less than a half dozen people were here, that the congregation would find it a huge challenge to deal with the basic maintenance of the physical structure here, that it would be financially impractical to have a full time pastor let alone the multiple staff that they had, that there wouldn’t be any kind of regular Sunday School, that the organ would likely be beyond repair, I don’t know what people’s reactions might have been. That might have felt apocalyptic to them. That might have felt like the destruction of everything that they held dear.

But all those things happened. All of those things have happened in just the last ten or fifteen years. And we’re still here. We’ve come out on the other side of a lot of those things. No, we still can’t use the organ but we have people sharing other musical gifts that fit us better than a fancy pipe organ would. And I say that as someone who has been known to listen to organ music from time to time.

No, we can’t really afford a full time pastor, but we have a ministry team that functions pretty well for who we are now. We don’t have a traditional Sunday School, but we have regular gatherings to study the Bible and to share in prayer and visioning and community. We’re not a big church numerically, but we’re bigger and more stable than we had been. We had times where it seemed like it might be impossible to meet the needs of maintenance of the building, but we’ve come through much of that and in some ways the building now is in the best physical condition it’s been in for a long time.

That vision that might have felt like an apocalypse to the people of this congregation in the 1950s has become a reality where we have something special here. We have something good that is happening. We are making a difference for people. We are touching people’s lives. We are seeking and sharing justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After what might have felt like an apocalypse to people here in 1952, we have come through to a different kind of congregation. Not a better congregation than theirs was, and not a worse one, but a different one. Probably a better one for this time and place, just as the congregation they had was a better one for their time and place than ours would be.

Apocalyptic Washington City congregation became the Washington City congregation that we have now and for which I am very thankful.
Likewise the future that apocalyptic Jesus proclaims isn’t the end. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s scary, and it’s hard to picture. But in the end we’ll feel fine, because we know that a different world is coming. This world will pass away, but a new world, a new kingdom of love and peace and the rule of Christ, will take its place.

The Psalmist in our Call to Worship from Psalm 16 tells us to bless the Lord. Our inclination is to bless the Lord of comfort, the Lord that protects us from our enemies and strengthens us and heals us and gives us courage. And we should bless that Lord.

We should also bless and be thankful for the apocalyptic Lord. We should bless the Lord that warns us of hard times to come, that tells us of the destruction of earthly things that in this moment we think are important but have no eternal significance. We should bless the Lord who creates challenge and even destruction so that a new and better world can replace what we know now.

I hope we’re thankful to God not just this week, but all the time. I hope we’re thankful for all the sides, all the aspects of Jesus’s personality and ministry. I hope we can be thankful for comfort and peace, thankful for food and friends, but also thankful for apocalypse and for the world that will follow, both in our own lives and in the world at large. Amen.

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

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

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