UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

IF I PROCLAIM

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

Nathan Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

YOU ARE MISTY

James 4:13-5:6, Job 38:4-21

Nate Hosler

This is the eighth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. Due to technical difficulties, there is currently no audio for this sermon.

Writing this, I was sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Below me closer to the water on my left and right are spots that mark many significant points in Jesus ministry. The ancient village of Capernaum, a chapel marking the Primacy of Peter, and a chapel with the famous mosaic of two fishes and 5 loaves from the year 480 marking the spot where Jesus multiplied these meager foods and fed the crowds. In Capernaum there is a house that then became the site of a church in 5th century. The house is thought to be that of the mother-in-law of Peter where Jesus would stay and where the mother was healed. It was also the site of one of the earliest house churches. Maybe 50 yards away there is the remains of a Synagogue for the Byzantine period. This synagogue is built with stone imported from Jerusalem but built on an earlier foundation of local basalt stone—Some archaeologists assert that this earlier synagogue is from the time of Jesus.

To my left (to the north) 20 miles is Syria whose civil war and refugee crisis requires no introduction. Back south is the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Most of the week to this point has been hearing from an assortment of political, religious, NGO, and peacebuilding workers struggling in a situation of conflict that feels rather intractable. The significance of the land both present and past is of incomparable magnitude.

Along the way I have been reading and meditating on our passage in James.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

Narrowly, this and the following verses are about wealth. I think however, that money stands in for the assumption that we are in control or our desire to be in control. Though God (and the world with its histories and cultures) are big, you are misty—mist-like, ephemeral. This assertion is not negative, not an insult, it is simply honest. Though those of us who are at least relatively well-off may forget this, our lives are indeed contingent. Our lives are dependent. They are based in God. James addresses the one who confidently says they will do this or that. The hearers of the letter of James were likely not the well off—or the overly wealthy. So, it may not be that this or the next portion are as directly applicable to the immediate crowd. The general assertion, however, is very applicable, hence its inclusion. To those who are well confident that their plans will succeed, James asserts—you are mist—misty—mist-like in the fleeting quality of your life. Because you cannot know what will happen you should always acknowledge that even the best laid plans rest in God. The habit and practice that James exhorts is to, in all things, acknowledge that one’s life is held in God.

Your existence is in God

As I’ve been reading James I have also been thinking about a similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Given my writing location if felt particularly relevant to note this. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus teaches. Why worry about your life?—about what you will eat or drink or wear. Are not the flowers of the field more splendid than Solomon, the most extravagantly dressed of all kings?

The sign by the entrance says, “We refuse to be enemies.” The Tent of Nations (http://www.tentofnations.org/ )  is a Palestinian farm on a hill top in area C. Area C is part of the West Bank, the land of the future Palestinian State. It is also the site of many settlements, which are illegal in international law, undermining the possibility of a future state, and more like towns or cities than anything makeshift that is indicated by the term “settlement.” To get to the Tent of Nations we left our van and climb over boulders that have been place on their road a few hundred meters from their farm in order to impede access. The farm is on a hill top. Every other hill top surrounding has a massive settlement.

We met with Daoud Nasser whose family has lived there for generations. Unlike most Palestinians whose land is at risk they have a clear line of documentation of land ownership going back to the Ottoman Period in the early 1900s. Since the land is documented but still deemed very desirable they have been fighting in courts since the early 1990s. The case keeps getting passed back and forth between the Supreme Court and Military courts. They must keep fighting and filing because if they don’t they will be forced out. They can’t build any new structures and the structures they have—even the tent like structures—have demolition orders on them. Daoud Nasser, though, seems to be full of joy. He told of their struggle just to keep their family’s land. He demonstrates a trust in God and in others to continue on.

Again, your existence is in God. You are mist-like but God is steadfast.

Unsurprisingly the rich also have this problem. They also easily forget that their existence is in God.

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

James doesn’t discuss if there are righteous ways to be rich. Certainly, our congregation isn’t rich compared to much of Capitol Hill. Because of this and certain prophetic inclinations we may find it easy to speak critically—to speak “prophetically.” However, though we are not that rich we are comparatively rich in relation to much of the world. And as such may be indicted. The rich people that James addresses have built their riches on the backs of others. For white America the legacy of slavery of Africans and genocide of Indigenous communities is a clear example. But also, immigration, trade, and foreign policy often continue this pattern.

What we don’t know is if James has certain rich folks in mind or assumes that all those who are rich have earned it through injustice. It is also unclear if the “rich” are those who meet a certain income bracket (which seems unlikely) or if it is short-hand for those in power.  This call is a call to repentance. It is a call towards being rightly oriented toward God and others. The call to repentance and to acknowledging that one’s existence is based in God rather than in one’s own might or smarts or good looks or cunning is not against but for the one being challenged. Only when you care about that person or entity can you fully embrace the uncomfortable confrontation. Repenting of this is in the interest of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Let’s suppose that riches and power are somewhat interchangeable. During the past two weeks the question of power and who is criticized in what manner has been close at hand for me. For Palestinians living under Israeli occupation the restricted rights, living under military law, limited ability to move freely, and lagging infrastructure is clearly unjust. For many Israelis their existence as a small country surrounded by the much bigger and often hostile Arab world, history of the Holocaust, and repeated abuses throughout history lead to a strong emphasis on “security” at any cost. Many wars in the past decades as well as an enforced separation which does not allow interaction with Palestinians in normal life keeps these fears alive and well.

One morning on this trip we met with Defense for Children International. They explained that there are 500-700 cases of Palestinian children being convicted in Israeli military courts. Many times, the kids (usually but not always boys) are arrested from their beds at night. Regularly they are beaten on the way. Harshly interrogated. And sign confessions written in a language which they can’t read in order to get out sooner. Rarely can they see their parents or actually meet with a lawyer to know their rights. Because of this work of documentation and exposure DCI is declared an enemy and traitor of the state of Israel because it highlights these abuses. Many Christians in the US would harshly criticize me for repeating these things—claiming that the Old Testament commands me to “Bless Israel.” However, as noted earlier, criticism is not the opposite of blessing. Criticism may be part of blessing.

Even as I recount these few notes from an hour long meeting I think back and begin to feel overwhelmed. And this was only one meeting out of the whole week. It is easy to feel the mist-like character of my life when held up against the enormity of the world. The enormity of the ancient stones and places of Jesus. The enormity of Syria just down the road. The enormity of the so called Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I’m not sure that this is what James intends, but getting to the point of realizing our mistiness—our mist-like nature—is half the struggle. The second half is recognizing that our existence is in God. We are mist but our existence is sustained by the God who has mysteriously created us and called us. Our existence is in the God that has created and called us beyond ourselves.

FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD

 

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.

ROOTS

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Monica McFadden

While I was studying abroad in London this past year, I got completely hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown.” If you haven’t heard of it, the show follows the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II and her experience acclimating to her role as Queen, including the many struggles involved with politics, the royal family, her marriage, and the country as a whole. Watching it as an American, someone coming from a background where the idea of a monarchy seems so foreign, a concept that goes against the very nature of the founding of our country, was pretty fascinating. The series touches on many aspects of the monarchy that aren’t often discussed, one of the most intriguing for me being the relationship between the Sovereign, or the reigning monarch, and Parliament. The Queen and Churchill would have conversations where he would reference her duties as the Sovereign and how she was appointed by God to her position. The viewers can see the weight of this responsibility in her wide-eyed gaze.

Of course I, being extremely curious about all of this, turned to my flatmates, classmates, any native Brits I could, and asked them about their thoughts on the monarchy. I got a variety of answers, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from “no one cares about the monarchy” to “I absolutely love the royal family.” Most people in my generation in the United Kingdom seem to fall somewhere in between—they kind of see the cultural significance, but for the most part, it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives, and it feels a little outdated and pointless. However, one person I asked had a different opinion. Partly, perhaps, because he held some more traditional beliefs about these types of things, but he had a deep respect for the Queen, somewhat mirroring that of the older generation.

Basically what he said was this: the reason the Queen means so much is that she, a woman who has been raised to be an expert in her role, has seen the fluctuations throughout multiple eras of political turmoil, from the aftermath of WWII through Thatcher, and even Brexit; she’s the constant through all of it. When I asked if he believed she was appointed by God he said, after a moment of thinking, that no, he didn’t, namely because he didn’t believe in God, but that she may as well have been. Because she has a incredible wealth of knowledge, and although she has seen political waves come and go, she must remain unbiased and solid.

There was something mesmerizing about hearing it described this way. The American tradition has nothing like this, which makes the monarchy feel like living relics bearing the shiny worth of an ancient history.  The United States has somewhat of a fascination with the British monarchy and the royal family; millions of people tuned into William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I think this fascination has a lot to do with the lack of a type of sacred history in many American traditions—the thing that makes the monarchy so enchanting is its promise that it’s something bigger, connected to God, these people tap into a larger knowledge, they’ve been trained for this since birth, they’re mysterious. It can feel like a massive, sacred thing, even if, in reality, it’s mostly political and carefully crafted.

In many ways, I think our generation and our country has lost touch with the sacred. But people seem to be searching for it, grasping at experiences and traditions of other peoples to get back to some sort of root, something to reach out into the earth and connect with our past and with others.

Many people have taken to using the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe their faith. Scholars and theologians have spoken about why this concept is inadequate, and I agree with many of these arguments, but it’s understandable why people feel more comfortable with this phrase at times. Being frustrated with the church, being frustrated with God, isn’t just normal, it’s basically required for being part of the church—frustration is laced throughout the Bible, and sometimes just identifying as “spiritual” is easier, less of a commitment to a specific history that you may or may not agree with.

In this passage from Jeremiah that was read this morning, the prophet’s lament can feel quite familiar. Not because of any similarity in circumstance—I’m not exactly overwhelmed with the word of God “like a burning fire shut up in my bones” attempting to warn people about violence and destruction—but instead, it feels familiar because he’s upset with God, which is quite relatable.

My relationship with religion and with the church is largely characterized by doubt, frustration, or confusion. I spent the majority of my teenage years identifying as agnostic, something I often still relate to. But after a few years, I realized that, growing up in the church, regardless of my wavering beliefs, I still had a home and a community there; I still felt very Brethren. The sacred things I grew up with were still sacred.

There is a deep comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in my faith journey, anointing will still be there to bless me at important times, the hymns will still be there to offer words of courage and beauty, Love Feast will still be there to surround me with a strong community. These things don’t change, and that’s what the church is about. Providing roots, sacredness, a history, to a spirituality that is ever-fluctuating. It requires a community to support you and hold you accountable, to be challenged, part of something larger than just you.

Hearing my friend talk about the monarchy felt like reaching for something like this—it’s bigger than you, older than you, has seen more of the world than you, generations upon generations, and has withstood the test of time. There aren’t many histories like that in America anymore, and people are desperate to find one. Some look to the monarchy, some look to other cultures and religions, many end up with Frankenstein practices stolen from a variety of places: “I have the ohm symbol tattooed on my wrist, I’m really into crystal healing, I have a Buddha head on my shelf…” None of these practices are wrong on their own, but it becomes clear that many are missing a deeper connection, a true recognition that each of these have sacred beginnings.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in this—go to Urban Outfitters and buy yourself a sacred starter kit, if you will. Especially when we’re disillusioned with the church or with God.

Jeremiah’s lament to God eventually evolves into praising him, as he works through his frustrations. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers,” he says at the end of the passage. I may not be very good at this part, I’ll admit. I don’t work through my doubts very quickly, and often times “singing praises” can feel very foreign to me. I tend to quietly mull things over, notice the sacred begin to creep in again.

Last year at Annual Conference, a place that can be too often filled with anxiety and anger, there was a moment during worship when a video played, mostly overlaid with a pretty, anonymous piano song. In the middle of the stock music, the song transitioned into a few verses of the old hymn “It is well with my soul,” and slowly, quietly rising out of the congregation, people began to hum and sing along. It happened naturally and spontaneously, and soon the whole room was singing. We, who had spent business sessions frustrated and speaking across a chasm, were reminded of what we had in common; why we were really there together.

Sometimes, this is what sacred means. Sometimes, this is what it means to have the same roots.

Sometimes, it means rediscovering old traditions and old tales in new ways.

And so I leave you with this: a reimagining of a familiar story, something I wrote my senior year of high school, a reminder of our sacred roots together.

Beginning

The darkness, the great wind, surrounded her in the open air. Her hands were vast and set the sun, tweaking out the rays and coaxing the hydrogen into helium; her hands were delicate and stenciled in the constellations. She slowly crafted planets, small and cold, gargantuan and swirling with gases. She painted nebulas onto black velvet, the blueprints captured from her eyes.

A light breath rolled back seas, revealing a rich black earth beneath, laced with the seeping aroma of a musty rain hanging in the atmosphere as a simple vapor. Her baton flicked swirling symphonies of emerald, magenta, and gold, the deep bass notes crawling in as indigo and sienna. Fluttery mint and whispering ivory petals burst along the ground in a smattering of marimba strokes, the lowest spreading ivy up timber fortresses.

The tiny, intricate beings of the waters grew before her eyes as millennia passed. They emerged onto the land as new creatures admiring each other’s gleaming limbs. They threw out newfound feathers and bones of air and leapt onto eddies of passing wind. From an alto melody of her lips sprang legions of lithe, galloping beings.

Many of her creations fell back to the soil. New ones took their place.

She had not created anything that had the same stars fueling her being as she did. None to search the azure above for her and to sing back her arias. She tried many times to assemble these new creatures, basing them from the ones that already graced the earth. She became frustrated and sailed to neighboring galaxies. She gathered dust and particles from the dying stars and from the newest stars and with the same elements formed the wise, with skin like the earth they tread on. They spoke to her among the trees and dreamt of her in the wind. They saw everything on the earth for its origins and its future; every particle.

They took control of the flames that flowed through volcanoes and forests. They painted as she had before, preserving all her work. They taught her new things she had not predicted; stories sewn together as she had never known before. She had formed the mind for thought, but emotion came where she had not foreseen. Their veins pumped their hearts with roots, tying them to one another.

Slowly, one followed by another, roots were torn out, some with vigor and others accidentally cut away in pruning. For the first time, she saw stars go out of their eyes, the first thing in her universe that felt truly dark. They began to tend to these roots very carefully, adjusting their footing, and gave the soil sweet river water to drink. Those with too-dark eyes sometimes disrupted these delicate ecosystems but, if one opened them up, they’d find equally mangled roots threaded into their veins. If these roots were untangled and cared for, the stars crept back into their irises, softly blinking in violets and blues. 

Prayer

Please pray with me.

God, who crafted the deepest parts of the Earth and the furthest reaches of the stars,

Help us to come to you with our frustrations and anger, sifting through our everyday lives to see your sacred, holy touch.

Roots, hold us close, show us our shared histories and our shared futures together.

Amen.

Benediction

May you see God’s ancient roots in traditions old and new.

Go in peace.

FINDING THE WAY

1 Peter 2:2-10 & John 14:1-14. 

Micah Bales

I love our gospel reading this morning. I think that the reason I love it so much because I used to despise it. As a skeptical young person growing up in Kansas, this passage from John was one of the Scriptures most often used as a weapon by Bible-thumping Christians. It was a proof text, used over and over again to demonstrate that Jesus is the only way to heaven. It’s used to imply that anyone who doesn’t hold the right beliefs about Jesus is headed straight to hell.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s a powerful statement. It’s a phase that has been used so many times to bludgeon people who are seeking, skeptical, and hurting. Those who have doubts. Those who have questions. Those whose experience of the world makes it hard to believe that a loving God would arbitrarily sentence billions of people to unending torment based on something as trivial as whether those people have said a particular prayer or accepted a narrowly defined set of doctrines about Jesus.

“No one comes to the Father except through me.” From the mouths of self-righteous Christians, these words of Jesus sound like a threat. “No one comes to the Father except through me. Don’t even try it. Angry Jesus will stop you.”

For those of us gathered here in this community, we know and bear witness to the fact that this kind of bullying doesn’t represent the character of Jesus. The Jesus we know is the one who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Jesus of our experience is a man who was willing to lay aside everything, even his own life, to pour out the unlimited love of God on people who hated him.

That’s very different from the Jesus of the fundamentalists. It’s a different kind of God, one who is more concerned with mercy, transformation, and wholeness than with being right. This is the kind of God we meet in Jesus. He challenges the violence of the mighty and the self-righteousness of religious people. He shows shocking love and forgiveness to those whom the world judges as outcasts and sinners.

As we heard in our scripture reading this morning from first Peter, Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected. He was rejected, despised, and discarded by the builders. But he has become the chief cornerstone, the key that unlocks the cosmos. The greatest minds and most powerful rulers considered him to be worthless, but God has revealed him to be essential. Jesus is this “living stone… rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”

Are we to believe that Jesus has come to present us with capricious threats and ultimatums? He is the rejected cornerstone, nailed to a cross by all the best and brightest. Is he here to threaten those who don’t meet the religious tests of modern day Pharisees?

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Anyone who repeats these words as a threat is no friend of Jesus. To interpret these words as a message of condemnation makes Jesus into a Pontius Pilate rather than a liberator. It turns him into a tyrant and a torturer rather than a savior worth abandoning everything for.

Jesus brings us good news of the kingdom. Jesus brings us freedom from slavery and fear. Jesus comes so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

So how are we to understand these words of Jesus? If they’re not a threat, what does it mean when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him?

In order to understand most anything in the Bible, it’s important to zoom out a little bit. Context matters. If Jesus were saying these words while sitting on his heavenly throne, reigning in judgment – like he is depicted in Matthew 25 – that would impact their meaning. So what is the situation here, when Jesus says there’s no way to God but through him?

It turns out, these words of Jesus are part of a love song. Really! Let’s take a look at what Jesus was saying to the disciples right leading up to this.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Back in Jesus’ time, there was a proper way to go about getting married. When a man asked a woman to marry him, if she and her family agreed, they would announce the engagement. But before they actually got married, the husband-to-be had some preparation to do. In ancient Palestine, it wasn’t like today, where newly married couples are generally expected to move into their own residence. In Jesus’ day, families were much more tight-knit. The whole family lived together. So when a woman married a man, she literally joined her husband’s extended family.

In order to make room for the new couple, it was typical for the husband-to-be to go home and build an addition onto his parents’ house. Once the construction was complete, he could go back to wherever his fiancee was and marry her. The room was prepared. They had a place to live together, under the same roof with the man’s whole extended family.

So let’s hear the words of Jesus again: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus is proposing to the disciples! Now, some people might say this is kind of creepy – proposing marriage to twelve people at once. And if he was, in fact, proposing to all the people of the world – well, that would make Jesus the greatest polygamist of all time.

But once you get past the weird, “Jesus is my boyfriend” aspect of this scene, it’s actually kind of amazing. Jesus isn’t standing in judgment. He’s inviting us into an intimate relationship with him. He’s proposing that we come to live with him, as part of his Father’s household, together with the whole family of God. Jesus is singing his love song.

Have you ever played that game? You know, the one where you start flipping through the radio and try to guess in the first two seconds of a song whether it’s a pop ballad, or a praise song? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve listened to the radio lately – but have you noticed how similar praise music and love songs are? A lot of times I have to wait until I hear the words “baby baby” before I can tell the difference.

But seriously, I think this points to something important. What if our relationship with God is less like a test to be passed and more like a romance to participate in? What if following Jesus is less about having the right answers, and more about giving ourselves over to a relationship and a community bigger than ourselves?

Jesus tells the disciples that he’s leaving to go prepare a place for each of them in his Father’s house. Then he tells the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas, who we know is the skeptic of the group, objects. “We have no idea where you’re going! How are we supposed to find the way?”

And that’s when Jesus says it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Like most religious people, Thomas was being very task-oriented in his faith. He wanted a method, a map, a set of rules and steps that would get him where he was going. But in response to his demand for a roadmap, Jesus points him to relationship. “Look at me, Thomas. Look at me. I am the way. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. You don’t need to keep looking. Rest in my love.”

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” All this time you’ve been looking for a system, or a set of rituals, or a test to pass that will give you connection to God. But you’ve been missing the reality who is standing right in front of you. Look into my eyes, Thomas. You haven’t really seen me yet. If you can finally see me for who I am, you’ll know the Father.

There’s a singularity in Jesus. Like his Father, Jesus is who he is. There’s no substituting for him. There’s nothing that can replace a real relationship with him. No one comes to the Father except through a genuine relationship with Jesus. We can’t just speak the right words, or have the right beliefs. We’ve got to look into his eyes. We have to experience his love. We have to see him, really see him, if we want to see the Father.

Now, I want to do something that is maybe a little silly. You remember how I said that I often have a tough time telling the difference between love songs and worship music? Well, a good example of this is the song “Only You,” by The Platters. This song came out in 1955, and it was hugely popular. It was played on jukeboxes everywhere. I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Right now, I want to invite you to hear this song again, in a fresh way. Let’s hear it as a love song to Jesus, as a reflection of the kind of passionate, personal, intimate love that he expresses for each of us in our reading this morning.

Only you can make all this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do
And fill my heart with love for only you

Only you can make all this change in me
For it’s true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do
You’re my dream come true, my one and only you

Only you…

Amen.