I Sought the Lord

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Psalm 34:1-8

Wherever it appears in the Bible, whenever I read the phrase “I sought the Lord” my mind goes to a song from 1965.  I was too young to know the song when it was a hit, but it continued to be played on the radio a lot for several years and you’ll still hear it on any oldies station.  The song was by the Bobby Fuller Four, and it’s called “I Fought the Law.”

I’m not going to try to sing the whole song, but the part of it that I always think of is repeated several times:  “I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.” My brain automatically changes the words to “I sought the Lord and the Lord won.  I sought the Lord and the Lord won.”

Now that doesn’t make perfect sense, because “sought” is not a win-or-lose kind of a thing unless you’re playing hide and seek.  “Sought” does not imply some kind of a contest or a battle or keeping score or anything like that. “”Sought” implies, well, seeking.  Looking for something. Trying to find something.

It’s kind of an interesting word to use when we think about God, because as Christians we believe that God is always with us.  In John 14:16-17 where Jesus is saying good-bye to the disciples, he promises that he will pray for the Holy Spirit to be sent to the disciples.  Later in Acts chapter 2, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire, and Peter preaches about the Old Testament prophet Joel who proclaimed that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be given to all believers.

So we know that the Bible teaches that God, through the Holy Spirit, is always with us.  We know that in our heads. Sometimes it’s hard to feel it in our hearts, though. Sometimes our hearts are heavy and we feel as if we need to look for God, to seek God’s presence, even though our heads tell us that the Spirit is always with us, closer than our own breath.  God is with us. God’s Holy Spirit surrounds and is within us.

The other image in this Psalm that speaks to me is there in verse 8:  “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”  It’s not an issue for Ayuba yet, but sooner or later parents have to figure out how to introduce kids to different foods and how to have them eat foods that they may not necessarily like but that are necessary for good health and growth and development.

Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what the food actually is.  I watch cooking shows sometimes and they’ll work with Rocky Mountain Oysters.  There aren’t actually oysters in the Rocky Mountains. They’re just called that because if you called them bull testicles no one would buy or eat them.  Sorry, not interested. That might be the tastiest, most healthful dish ever. I might like Rocky Mountain Oysters better than I like popcorn with salt and lots of butter.  It doesn’t matter. Nope, nope, nope, nope.

I find that is true even with things that I like, or that I once liked.  When I was a kid mom would fry up some liver, and it was one of my favorite meals.  I really enjoyed it. And when I was in seminary doing my intern year in Orrville, Ohio there was a cafeteria that had liver.  I had it there and enjoyed it a lot.

Now?  Not interested.  Actually that’s not true.  I am a little interested, but my head is filled with people telling me how gross liver is and although I used to enjoy it quite a bit I can’t quite bring myself to try it again.  I tell myself that nobody can make it as well as my mom did, and that might be true. I don’t know if I’ll ever have liver again or not, but for now I am not willing to try it and see if it is good.

As a pastor you run across a lot of people who are that way with God.  They have had a bad experience with a church, or they read about a Christian leader who has said or done something that is hurtful to them and they just have no particular use for the organized church.  But still at important moments of their lives, like weddings or funerals, they want some sort of representative of God. They want a pastor or a minister of some kind to bring God’s presence into whatever the event is.  They want someone to reflect on what God might mean in their life or their marriage or the life of their loved one.

I’ve been that representative in a lot of settings.  As I think back over it, I think I may have done more weddings for people who are not a part of a church than for people who are.  Sometimes those weddings or funerals lead people into a deeper relationship with God than they had before. Sometimes they even start attending a church and developing a support system of brothers and sisters who can help them develop and use their gifts.  Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Either way, it’s an opportunity for people to taste God.  A chance for people to taste and see that God is good, that there is refuge in God, that God does not wish them ill.  It’s an opportunity that each of us have in our lives as we live and work and talk and share with so many different people from so many different places religiously, emotionally, and philosophically.

Sometimes when people taste and see that God is good, they seek more.  They seek after God in a way that they haven’t before. They find the refuge that David talks about in the Psalm.  They find protection, and strength, and safety. We each have the ability to provide that taste of God. We each have the gift of the Spirit’s presence that can speak through us to those who are seeking God.

It’s a difficult week in some ways for people who are seeking God.  We have the Unite the Right 2 rally going on here in DC today. At my workplace this past week we had a particularly difficult shooting call.  There are many other things in many other lives that I am not aware of or that I don’t have time to mention. Each of you know of difficult and hard times either in your own life or in someone else’s that could lead one to wonder where God is, and where to seek for God.

Back in 1986 Fred Rogers wrote the following:

“I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels. For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”

When we seek the Lord we can look to those who stand against evil, who demonstrate against it.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those who try to save others from evil, even at the risk of their own lives.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those that help, doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, volunteers, neighbors, and friends.

It’s not that they’re perfect people.  They’re not. In other contexts they might be people we wouldn’t particularly like or wouldn’t particularly have much use for.  It is entirely possible that there are people attending the Unite the Right rally that are in other contexts helpers that God uses.  It is entirely possible that there are counter-demonstrators at the rally that are in other contexts people we would disagree with, people we would keep outside of our circle of friends.


This is no surprise.  The Bible teaches that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Everyone, from the worst racist to the most kind and gentle person you can think of, and everyone in between.  Including us.

That’s one of the reasons it’s important for us to be among those who seek the Lord.  We need forgiveness. We need mercy. We need grace. We need the Way and the Life, just as much as the worst person you can think of.

In the song, fighting the law didn’t work out for Bobby Fuller.  He fought the law, and the law won. When we can say “I sought the Lord” it’s a different result.  When God reaches out through us to others so that they can seek, and taste, and see that God is good, it’s a different result.    “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Amen.

EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

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

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

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

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

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

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

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

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

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

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

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

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

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

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

Blow the Trumpet

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

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

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

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

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

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

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

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

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

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

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. The voice of God spoke light into the darkness. By his Word, God divided the day from the night. He created the dry land. He made the seas teem with life, and filled the earth with beauty. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

All things came into being through him. Without him, not one thing came into being. Not the trees and grass. Not the stars in the sky or the rumbling furnace beneath the earth. Not one thing came into being without the Word. This word that was with God in the beginning.

Everything we see, all that we know, the entirety of who we are – none of it exists except through him. The love, the creative power, the living presence of God’s Word is the author of all creation. “Let there be light!” said God. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. A reflection of the light of his Word.

What came into being in him was life. And this life was the light of all people. The Word of God speaks in and through the whole creation. In every solemn stone, in every living thing. In every human heart, the Word of God is here – alive and active. He’s still creating us. Growing us. Teaching us.

This is the true light, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world. The Word of God speaks within each one of us. He is our ground and our foundation. It is through him that we came to have existence at all. He knows us intimately. We are what we are, because of the Word who formed us.

The light shines in the darkness. The Word of God, this light, is no stranger to the darkness. He knew Stalin, and Hitler, and the Columbine shooters. God has seen the way hatred and fear have twisted his good creation. And again he has sent his Word to us, this time with the ministry of reconciliation. To untwist the twisted, heal the broken, and restore the earth.

God loves us because he truly knows us. He knows everyone you’ve ever hated, more intimately than they could ever know themselves. God loves the people that you hate. Of course he does. He created them. He knows them with the care and affection that a parent has for a child.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The love of God is so full. His creativity is so expansive. God understands each one of us to the very core of our being. God knows and understands the darkness we carry inside.

Though it seems terrifying, the darkness isn’t that powerful. It shudders, trembles in the presence of the light. Darkness resists – with lies, and rage, and arrogance, and violence – but it will never understand who the light truly is. The burning, searing love of the Word of God is a mystery.

The Word of God is powerful, like a two edged sword. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, God’s Word cuts for the sake of love. He is the sword that heals. He is the light that exposes and cleanses.

Yet this world, in it sickness, doesn’t want to be healed. Our thoughts and deeds of darkness don’t want to be exposed. So we have resisted the light, just like our ancestors did. We’re part of a very old story.

The light and Word of God has always been in the world, speaking to us in the creation, and in our hearts. Yet the world did not know him. We despised and rejected him. We preferred our world of darkness and confusion to the health, humility, and challenge that the Word of God demands of us. We turned away from the light.

But there is power in the name of Jesus. There is a change that comes for those of us who have made the decision to turn our lives over to the light of God. To all who receive him, he gives us power to become children of God. Living in his light, allowing his Word to speak in us and fill us, we discover a a whole new life that we never imagined possible. We are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But this is all so abstract. We can talk all day about the light. About the Word of God and what he did and is doing in the creation of the cosmos. We can talk about darkness and sin, and the power of the light to overcome death and heal the world. But it all easily starts sounding like just more mythology. Good stories we tell ourselves to order our society and treat one another decently, maybe. But nothing that could possibly topple empires and economies. Nothing that can raise the dead, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor.

God knew we needed more than a good story about light and darkness. We’ve gotten ourselves into so much trouble, he knew that we needed even more than the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. We needed to get beyond mountains, and temples, and goats’ blood, and the law. We needed a new mediator and a new covenant. We needed to see the face of God for ourselves. We needed to meet the Word face to face.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He moved into the neighborhood. We have seen his glory. We say together with the Apostles that we have seen his glory. We witness the glorious presence of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see God’s grace and truth, the loving relationship that is only possible between father and son, parent and child. Before, we could have said we did not know God, we had never seen him. But now we have no such excuse. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We learn from the Hebrew scriptures that no one can ever see God and live. Knowing this, God came to us. He took on human form – he became a human being, just like you and me. The invincible and sovereign Word of God – the one who created black holes, supernovae, and photosynthesis – became a little baby boy. Utterly helpless. Dependent. Weak.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The law was given through Moses, on top of a mountain with fire and smoke, with dreadful awe and power. But the ultimate revelation, the final word on who God really is, came through Jesus – God with us in the most real and tangible sense imaginable.

Jesus wasn’t some mythological demigod. He wasn’t a sort of blended god/man. In Jesus, God took on all our limitations. He was no different from you or me, except that he was without sin. It’s quite possible that some of us have a better grasp on mathematics than Jesus did. That’s the kind of character that God revealed in Jesus – a God so powerful, so full of love for us, that he was willing to limit himself. He became weak and poor. He suffered shame and death on a cross. Because we hated the light and chose to crucify the light rather than surrender our darkness.

It is time to stop resisting. The light has come. It is time for celebration. Jesus is here! The Messiah child is born! The Word of God, all-powerful, all-creative, all-loving, has come to live among us! Nothing can ever be the same again.

There is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” We are children of the light. We are sons and daughters of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He is our brother, our friend, our sovereign lord and teacher.

We are children of the light. In the midst of all this darkness, this light in us can never be defeated. We are children of the light. Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light. For the Lord God is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Trust him. He’s been here a long time. Before the sun ignited and the planets formed, he is here. Before the earth’s crust cooled and the seas filled with life, he is here. In the beginning was the Word. He is our past, present, and future.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus. In this little fellowship gathered together in his name. In all creatures great and small that hear his voice. When we remember that he is powerful, present, and leading us. Even in this deep winter season, the Word is alive.

TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

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

Jennifer Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

Hear, Touch, and Smell

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

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

Tangible Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oily Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE 15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST or THE WEASEL, THE MOUSE, THE GREAT LIZARD ACCORDING TO ITS KIND

The audio version may differ from the transcript of this sermon, but can be found on Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/15th-sunday-since-pentecost-september-17-2017  

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Nate Hosler

As many of you know we went camping last week. My family has gone camping most every year for more than 20 years. My mother has typically has made a scrapbook documenting these adventures. About 20 years ago she documented that my brother proclaimed that he was powered by tasty cakes and Spam (my memory might not be entirely correct on this). Around 15 years ago my mom discovered her severe headaches were caused by a gluten allergy. 10 years I married someone who likes spicy foods (and myself became so inclined). A few years ago, my one brother married a vegetarian and my other brother married someone sensitive to spicy foods. Needless to say, our camping cooking has gotten more complicated.

Our Romans passage addresses the topic of dietary restrictions of a different sort. In Jesus, we see an expanding of scope of ministry. While Jesus, at times said that he was here to preach to his people—the people of Israel—he none-the-less regularly went beyond this community in acts of healing and preaching. Though laws were set up for religious purity and to define the community these were never impermeable or meant to definitively exclude. While these laws limited certain types of interaction and eating certain types of food, there was also a significant and prominent theme of “caring for the resident alien.”

Jesus regularly transgressed established religious and ethnic borders as well as made the religious law secondary to acts of compassion and healing. (For example, with the Canaanite woman; Matthew 15, Centurion; Matthew 8). Jesus gives a final word of commissioning to his disciples instructing them to go to all nations [Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”]

Once Jesus departs after his resurrection and reappearance, the disciples wait with uncertainty but in prayer in Jerusalem. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit comes down and rests on them in the form of flame and linguistic innovation. (we’re only 15 weeks past). The multi-language display allows for preaching to Jews from all over who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. [Aside: I am not into doing dramatic productions or skits. However, while in Germany with Eastern Mennonite Missions after high school my team was asked to do a dramatic rendering of Acts 2 while it was read for an ecumenical Pentecost service. I don’t remember exactly what we did but the section which includes a long list of places initially lead to us pointing in every possible direction.]

Further along in Acts, as the disciples and Apostles are still working up to breaking beyond their religious boundaries, Peter has a vision of unclean animals lowered down in a sheet as a way to show him that he needs to go and preach to the Gentiles. Peter didn’t do this lightly—it took three times. In the vision he sees the sheet lowered and then hears (Acts 10:13 “.. a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

In this context, we read our Romans passage. Romans is written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome. It is one the earliest extended Christian theological reflections. Paul was originally Saul and a zealous persecutor of Christians. He then identified his mission as reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul did not start the church in Rome. A commentator writes,

“The fact is that we simply do not know how Christianity began in Rome and who, strictly speaking, its founding apostle were. We do know, however, that there was a large Jewish community in Rome in the first century (estimated at between 40,000-50,000).”(Dunn, 838, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). Overall population was around 1 million. (Reasoner, 851, DPL). Of the 24 people named in greetings in the last chapter, at least 14 are slaves which would have descended from Jewish captives brought to Rome following Pompey in Palestine in 62 BC. It is likely that the Christian community began among the synagogues but included Gentiles (Dunn, 839, DPL). This, along with differing assumptions on religious practice led to tensions. Hence, our passage’s pastoral nature.

Our passage begins,

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.

There was a legitimate discussion over what was ok and not ok to eat: In addition to passages in Leviticus (on the first page in Leviticus I opened at random) 11:29 “These are unclean to you among the creatures that swarm up on the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind…” and the reality that meat purchased in the market was likely sacrificed to pagan idols.

Though Paul himself is in the eat anything camp he says that forbearance and welcome should be exercised towards those who in a sincere desire to follow God do things different.

 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

God has welcomed them is in this case, however, framed by the question of abstaining or not abstaining from particular foods. There are, of course, many other things which we are more likely to argue or shun each other over these days. We seek to be a welcoming congregation. We have a sign in front of the church and many of you have it in your window or front lawn “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” This phrase is repeated in Arabic and Spanish. The Mennonite church that first made these was responding to a climate which was not welcoming.  Our welcoming, moreover, is based in a biblical, theological, and faith-rooted commitment. Because of this we easily might be attracted to this “God has welcomed them.” God has already welcomed so we are not so much initiating the welcome than enacting what God has already done. While this attractedness to this phrase is legit we must also not simply pick up and fixate on a word we like. What is the surrounding flow of the argument? Is it hermeneutically and theological sound to extrapolate this beyond the issue of purity laws and food?

The passage continues,

 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Here we begin to see that it is not that there is no judgement but that it is God’s task rather than ours.  Romans 12:17,  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;” for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 So, this makes us feel better. At least God will push the car off the road that pushed me and my bicycle off the road. God, after all, will probably be better at getting even than me anyway. If you can’t beat up the bully it is better to have the omnipotent God take care of it. However, we remember that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, that Jesus instructs to turn the other check and not have it in for our enemies because we are children of God and this nonretaliation is based on the character of a God who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike—which is of course true in meteorological terms but may feel less fabulous in terms of vengeance and injustice and unfairness (soon George will notice that things aren’t fair—probably relating to trucks).

We are not to judge. It is up to God. God is both just and merciful.

The difference of practice observed is based on conscience and conviction.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.

This is extremely interesting. Is the appropriateness of the action really based on conviction? Certainly, people can be wrongly convinced. For example, it would seem that Pharaoh and his army are very convinced that they should catch the Israelites. God doesn’t say—well they thought they were right so all is well—nope, in the text the chariots malfunction and the water rolls in and that’s all.  15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In this case the people of God, led by the prophet Miriam, attribute the destruction of the Egyptians to God.

However, in our Matthew passage there is a definitive instruction to forgive.

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Action point # 1 Vs 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

It is God’s task to judge, not ours. God is both just and merciful.

Action point #2. In addition to not judging we should “resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Though we may be free we must, in all things prioritize the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers before ourselves.

 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.

Action point #3

Vs 19  “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

We are seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the Gospel of Jesus.

VENGEANCE IS MINE

 

But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.

When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.

It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.

I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.

I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.

I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.

This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.

For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.

The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.

All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.

And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.

But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.

After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.

The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.

Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!

God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”

Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”

So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!

Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.

In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.

God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?

Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?

1 Kings 19:9-18, Matthew 14:22-33

Jeff Davidson

My original plan was to talk about this passage in light of our discernment process with the Brethren Nutrition Program. I’ve moved away from that specific focus over the course of the last couple of weeks, but my conclusion still applies to that process and to the discussion we will be having later and to the decisions that will be made in the days and weeks to come.   

In our reading from 1 Kings, God speaks to Elijah at a time when Elijah is very discouraged. Elijah himself kind of summed it all up twice in his dialogue with God. It’s clear that Elijah is discouraged. And he has good reason to be.

1 Kings 18 is the famous contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal in front of the sinful King Ahab. I won’t go into detail, but the short version is that the 450 prophets of Baal prayed to Baal for a miracle, but nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed to God for a miracle under more difficult circumstances, and the miracle occurred. Elijah called out to everyone who had seen the miracle to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them, and that’s what happened.

The part of chapter 19 that we didn’t read this morning starts with King Ahab reporting to his infamous Queen, Jezebel. Ahab tells Jezebel what happened at the contest, and Jezebel sends a message to Elijah. The message says, more or less, “May the gods strike me dead if by tomorrow you aren’t as dead as all those prophets of Baal.” So Elijah, reasonably enough, runs. God comes to him a time or two along the way, and Elijah runs for over 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to Mount Horeb, where he hides in a cave and goes to sleep. That’s where we are when our reading from 1 Kings begins.

I confess that I’m discouraged this morning. I was discouraged to hear threats of nuclear war made against North Korea if North Korea did so much as threaten the United States. There are people who will tell you that the President did not threaten nuclear war, but they are wrong. They are neither reading carefully, nor thinking carefully about what was said. I was discouraged to hear a pastor endorse those threats, and explicitly say that the United States should not be run by Biblical or Christian principles, but by the wisdom of the world. I was discouraged to hear the President say that invading Venezuela was something that he considered an option. I was discouraged by the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville. I was discouraged by the death of one of the counter-protesters. I was more discouraged to learn that death was the result of a deliberate act by one of the protesters. I was discouraged to learn of the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter crash. 

That’s before I even start to consider my own life. Not that there’s anything in particular going on in my life that discourages me, but our lives always have ups and downs. We always have moments of joy and moments of sadness, moments of hope and moments of despair. Hopefully there are more of the former than the latter, and hopefully the balance between the two in which we live each day favors joy and hope, but there’s no denying that there are things that happen personally, privately that could discourage us almost every day. And all of that is before we begin to consider the lives of our friends and families.

We know from scripture that God watches us. We know that God pays attention to what we do. We know that God watches and sees the small things, that God’s eye is on the sparrow, and that we are worth more than many sparrows. That’s in Luke 12, verses 6 and 7. We also know that God watches and sees the big things, not just big events but big things that are an accumulation of small events. Genesis 6:11 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” This is just before God calls Noah to build the ark and prepare for the flood. The earth, a big thing, is filled with violence. Each act of violence may in itself be a small thing, but a small sin upon a small sin upon a small sin ends up leading to a world filled with sin. And even in the midst of a world filled with sin, God is paying attention to the small details enough to find the one man who remains righteous.

I imagine God watching us and saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing to each other? What are you doing to my creation?” God was watching Elijah, and probably said precisely that to himself. So God comes to Elijah and asks the question, “What are you doing here?”

God asked the question a couple of times. I don’t know how he asks it. I don’t know if he says it in an exasperated tone, or an inquisitive way, or if he says it sarcastically. I don’t know where God puts the emphasis. There’s a big difference between “What are YOU doing here?” and “What are you doing HERE?” The next time you need a sermon idea, by the way, playing around with putting the emphasis on that question in different places and what it might mean for is an idea worth considering. It even makes for a three point sermon!

Elijah is directed to a place to wait for God to pass by, and he obeys. A wind comes, and an earthquake comes, and a fire comes, but God is not in those things. Then comes a sound of sheer silence, and Elijah listens, and God is in the sheer silence.

How do you listen to silence? Let’s try it for just 15 seconds or so. (wait 15 seconds) Did any of you hear silence? Me either. I heard a few different things, among them the sound of my own breathing. I have a ringing in my ears that I hear all the time unless there is something louder that drowns it out or that makes me turn my attention elsewhere. I literally never hear silence, if such a thing is even possible.

It’s possible for God, though, which means it’s possible for Elijah. Elijah hears God because he obeys God, and Elijah finds encouragement because he obeys God, and Elijah later concludes his ministry and is lifted up into heaven in a fiery chariot because he obeys God.

Sometimes the lesson that people take from this passage is to look for God in the silence, to look for the still, small voice. That’s not a bad lesson. We should look for God in small things. That doesn’t mean, though, that God doesn’t speak through big things too, or that God can’t shout. God spoke through a burning bush. God spoke through a pillar of fire. God spoke by turning over the tables in the synagogue. God speaks through big things and through small things, through loud voices and quiet voices. The first key thing is to always be listening, and the second key thing is to obey when you hear.

Our reading from Matthew is pretty straightforward as far as events go. The disciples are sailing back while Jesus stays behind to pray. The disciples don’t make much progress, because there’s a storm and the wind is against them. The next morning Jesus walks across the water to catch up with the disciples. The disciples are terrified, and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them that no, it isn’t a ghost, it’s really him. It’s really Jesus.

Does anyone here know who Warner Sallman is? Sallman was an artist from Chicago, and his paintings are among the most famous and the most popular of the 20th century. I printed out a couple of his paintings and brought them along. (note to readers: if you Google “Warner Sallman” you will see a wide variety of his paintings under “images.”) My parents gave me a small desk-sized print of the one with the boy at the ship’s wheel. Sallman isn’t famous by name, but his paintings are quite well known. Some people mock Sallman but I don’t want to do that. He painted out of devotion to and faith in God. He tried to and succeeded in bringing comfort and inspiration to millions of people. I can’t mock that. And if his blue-eyed, occasionally very white looking Jesus doesn’t match the Jesus of history who was Middle Eastern and likely much darker, well as the old song says, “The children in each different place, will see the baby Jesus’ face, like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace.” 

I mention Sallman because I think his Jesus is the Jesus that a lot of people still picture when they think of him. That probably started to change with people about my age, but it’s still a Jesus that is very common and very easy to find in homes and in churches all over. When I was growing up we had a couple of Sallman pictures of Jesus in our church basement. This Jesus does not look like a Jesus to me who gets angry, or who talks loudly, or who becomes animated, or that laughs out loud, or anything like that. This looks like a Jesus of the still, small voice. This looks like a Jesus who said, (speaking mildly) “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Maybe Jesus talked like that sometimes, but Jesus didn’t talk like that here. Jesus had to be loud here. There was a raging storm, with howling winds, and waves breaking against the boat. The disciples, some of them experienced boatmen, professional fishermen, were terrified by the storm. Jesus probably had to be more like an earthquake or something to be heard over the storm. (shouting) “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”

Peter was listening. Peter heard Jesus, but didn’t’ quite believe what he was seeing and hearing, so Peter says, “If it’s you, tell me to walk over there on the water!” And Jesus tells him to do so, and Peter does.

Everything is fine, and Peter is walking right along on the water until Peter gets distracted by the storm. Everything is fine as long as Peter trusts Jesus. Everything is fine until Peter becomes afraid. Then Peter starts to sink, and Jesus has to rescue him.

It is easy to be frightened. It is easy to be distracted. It is easy to be discouraged. It is easy to say that the answer is to trust Jesus, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, to obey Jesus. It’s easy to say that but hard to know exactly how to do it.

But we have to do it. We have to do it because it’s the foundation of everything else that we try to do in our lives. We need to confess and repent. Racism is real. It’s a historical fact, and it’s a fact today in systems, in institutions, and in face-to-face relationships. All of us have benefited in some way from the historical practice of racism. All of us participate in some way in systemic and institutional racism. I know that’s not what we’re trying to do, but it’s the reality. All of us are a part of the problem in one way or another, and it takes trust and faith in Jesus for us to take steps towards finding healing and hope and reconciliation.

 Faith Kelley posted something on Facebook last night that I am sharing with her permission. “Not even sure how to process everything today, but when George and I pray before he goes to bed I always ask God to help us love one another better tomorrow. That’s not enough but I think I’m on about a 2 year old level right now and so will have to do.”

I liked that. I think that we could do a lot worse than that. Go back to basics. What are the very basics of our faith?

Well, what are the two greatest commandments? To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s from Matthew 22:26-40. What is the reason why Jesus came to earth? That’s John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What’s one of the very first songs those of us who attended church as children probably learned? If you know it you’re welcome to sing it with me.

“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me. Yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

What’s the common thread in all of that? That’s right – love. God is Holy love. Help us love one another better tomorrow is about the best I can do too. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know specifically what that will mean. I don’t know any of those things. All that I can hope is that when God asks me what I am doing here, that my actions answer for me with the word “love.” Amen.