Living Parables

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Reading: Matthews 9:35-38

You may find it funny that the title of my meditation is “Living Parables,” but that the scripture we read does not, in fact, include a parable. I thought it was a bit strange, but that’s because, at first, I didn’t get the right sense of the Annual Conference theme. Brother Samuel Sarpiya was the Annual Conference moderator and he chose this year’s theme, Living Parables, and selected this Scripture for his opening night sermon.

This year, my Annual Conference was different – joined as I was by a tiny 5-week old baby (as far as we knew, the youngest conference attendee there). My mind during worship was not always focused… occasionally hogged by feeding a baby, comforting a baby, or just generally snuggling a cute baby. So, I re-listened to Brother Samuel’s sermon and I understand more about the conference theme. His point was not that the parables are living (though they are, as the Living Word of God). Rather, it is that we – you and I, children of God – are living parables. We are living parables. Brother Samuel had us repeat after him, “I am a parable.” Say it with me, “I am a parable.” I am a parable.

Jesus used parables to teach his disciples. Brother Samuel defined these as “heavenly stories with earthly meaning” to illustrate how God was acting in the world. In Matthew 9:35-38, we see Jesus going through all the towns and villages, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people. Jesus showed compassion to those around him. To his disciples specifically, Jesus said that the harvest was plentiful, but the workers were few, and to ask “the Lord of the harvest” to send out workers into the fields. Brother Samuel’s message is that we—you and I, sisters and brothers, our lives—are the stories meant to illustrate how God is acting in this world. We are the stories. We demonstrate the Living Word of God through our lives.

This happens as individuals, as a community, and as a denomination. One of the highlights of Annual Conference was the Church of the Brethren video report. There is always a written report, but the video reports of the past few years have illustrated the work of the church in beautiful, hope-filled ways (shout out to Wendy McFadden for her inspired creativity as producer).

This year’s video can be found on our church’s facebook page and it highlights the COB as the “not-so-big church” – a church that is small but has big ideas. Big ideas of peacebuilding in Nigeria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of disaster relief and solidarity with sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico, of caring for children during disasters through Children’s Disaster Ministries, of commitments to service, and more. This not-so-big church denomination works around the world and points to something much bigger than itself—the way of Jesus.

This also happens at the congregational level. Brother Samuel shared about the congregation that he pastors, Rockford (IL) Community Church of the Brethren. The church plant sought to build off its strengths and resources to minister to the community. They run a mobile technology and arts lab, while also teaching kids conflict resolution skills and building bridges between the community and police. Not everyone can or should have a mobile technology lab, but every church should be engaging its community. Brother Samuel said that at times, he sees churches not doing anything outside of their buildings, that the churches are just waiting or hoping for people to come in.

For 37 years, our congregation labored and ministered through the Brethren Nutrition Program, a soup kitchen ministry for people in need. We laid it down last year, realizing that the community’s needs have changed. We also had very few people from our congregation who could be involved in the daily work of that ministry—which took place during the lunch hour. We began a discernment process to think about our gifts and strengths and what God might be calling us to next. That conversation is not over.

Brother Samuel’s call for us to be Living Parables reminds me to pick up the questions: What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs? I recognize that “community” in our city and broader metro area can be a vague thing. It could be neighborhood-specific or generally applied to several million people in the “DMV.” So perhaps the best starting point is to think about our strengths and to reflect on Jesus’ word in Matthew 9. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the One in charge of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest and to reveal where the harvest is and what the crop looks like.

The “not-so-big church” lives out its calling of Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together. My prayer is that we have a holy imagination to live out our calling as Washington City Church of the Brethren. We want to be a church “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” Let us go and find our gifts and strengths and holy opportunities to live out this call. AMEN.

As the Spirit Gave Them Ability

Preacher – Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings – Acts 2:1-21

How many people watched the royal wedding yesterday? I was asleep so I missed the whole thing, but I heard about it from Julia and read about it on social media and looked up some of it on various websites. One of the things that a lot of people mentioned was the homily by the Very Reverend Michael Curry. I heard so much about it that I looked it up and read the text and watched the video. I don’t do that for a lot of sermons that aren’t preached here.
It was a good sermon. For those of you who didn’t see it or haven’t read it I recommend it to you. One of the images that Curry used was that of “contained fire.” He talked about how people who drove to the service were able to drive because of the power of contained fire, and that people like him who flew there flew because of the gift of contained fire. Fire contained, fire harnessed so that it is not roaring out of control and destroying all in its path, but fire harnessed so that its energy is directed for good. Energy used to create, and not to destroy. Energy used to build up and not to burn down. Energy used for good, whether to cook food or to power machines or to allow for the existence of the internet.

That’s an interesting image when we consider the scene in Acts chapter 2. Last week Jenn contrasted the Ascension with Easter and Pentecost, describing the latter two as “earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church.” That’s a pretty good description. Not only are there tongues of fire coming down from heaven, but people are speaking all kinds of different languages, pretty much all of the languages of the known world. The fire is probably frightening, so people who see it are screaming, and then those touched by the fire start speaking in foreign languages and presumably speaking loudly enough for others to hear them. It was such a spectacle that onlookers thought they were drunk.
That isn’t always how the Spirit has worked, though. The tongues of fire that danced down on the heads of the believers on that first Pentecost, the many languages heard by folks near and far, those great and showy events are the exception and not the norm. The Spirit’s presence doesn’t usually show up in quite that noticeable a manner.
I did a funeral last Tuesday for a work colleague’s mother. She had five surviving children, and each child was going to offer a remembrance about their mom, starting from the oldest to the youngest. The second child had expressed concern to my friend about whether or not he could do this. That’s not surprising. It’s an emotional and difficult time, and add to that the fact that a lot of people are not comfortable at all with speaking in public. My friend asked me about it and I told her to let him know that if he wanted to prepare something but wasn’t able to say it that I or someone else could share it for him.

Instead, what happened was that when the oldest child got up to speak, the second child stood with him and put his arm around him and held him as he spoke and softly encouraged him when he was having trouble. The second child did the same thing for the other children who spoke. He was just there with them, holding them, as they shared their memories and their feelings, and he went back to their seat with them and gave them a hug when they were done. And then he repeated the whole thing with the next child.
I loved that. That presence, that action, told me more about that son and more about his feelings for his family and his mom than any amount of words could have done. The Sprit’s presence was very real in that moment and in that place. The Spirit had not given that son the gift of public speaking, but had given him the gift of support and love to share with his siblings. That’s a wonderful gift to have.
I may have told this story once before, but that’s okay. When I was a pastor in Dayton, OH it was time for me to preach the community Thanksgiving service for our area minister’s association. The service was going to be at the Residence Park United Methodist Church, an African-American congregation a couple of miles away.
I didn’t do anything particularly fancy to prepare. Frankly, I pulled out an old Thanksgiving sermon that I’d preached someplace else, and edited it and reworked parts of it and hopefully improved it. Come the night of the community service, I was preaching my sermon and I made some kind of a point, and someone in the back said “Amen!” Not just a quiet “amen” but out loud and enthusiastic. I made another point, and someone else did the same thing. Without my planning and without my knowledge, this old sermon that I had punched up a bit had turned into a call-and-response sermon that had the congregation interacting with me.

I loved that feeling. I talked a while back about how the interaction that comes with a live audience helps a performance – that was in the context of NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” program. That interaction definitely helped my preaching that night. It was exciting to me – I loved it!

A couple of years later it was my turn to preach again at Residence Park. I thought back to that first sermon and remembered how much I’d enjoyed the experience, and I set out to write a call-and-response sermon for that setting. I worked hard on it and I was proud of it and I was looking forward to sharing a sermon at Residence Park once again and feeding on the energy from the interaction with the congregation once again.

Guess what – silence. No one said “amen.” No one said anything. It could have been worse – they could have said “help him, Jesus” – but I dodged that one. It just didn’t happen. That particular gift for that style of preaching was not one the Spirit had chosen to give me at that time.

The Spirit does whatever the Spirit is going to do. The fire of the Spirit can’t be directed or controlled in the same way that the fire is that the Rev. Curry talked about at the wedding. But it is sometimes a controlled fire or a harnessed fire, like at that memorial service I talked about. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real in the actions of the second child, offering his gifts of love and support silently to his brother and sisters. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real even if it wasn’t a showy, explosive, tongues of fire moment.

Likewise, although I tried to control and channel the Spirit at my second Residence Park sermon, it didn’t work. You can’t just tell the Spirit what to do. That was my mistake. The first time, the Spirit spoke to me and through me. The Spirit was in control. The second time, I tried to control the Spirit and it wasn’t happening.

Friday was National Ride Your Bike to Work day. We declared today Ride Your Bike to Church day today, and some of us rode bikes in. When I was in HS I might have given it a shot. I used to ride a lot back then and would ride pretty long distances. Now, not so much and especially not trying to come in to DC from Manassas on crowded roads.

Was riding a bike to worship today an expression of the Spirit’s presence? I think so. Sometimes riding a bike is easier that driving or walking, but not necessarily on a hot day like this. We didn’t encourage people to bike to church today because it was easier or more convenient or cheaper, even though it might be some or all of those.
We encouraged it because it’s a symbol of God’s care for creation. It’s an example of what good stewardship looks like. It’s a small statement on how we are to treat the world and of God’s vision for the world. In other words, it’s an expression of the Holy Spirit.

Not a big expression. Not a flashy one. Not a noisy one, unless your bike really has some problems with its chain and its gears. But it’s an expression nevertheless of what God calls us to as Christians. It’s the Spirit speaking through us.

One of the points of the Rev. Curry’s wedding homily yesterday is that the power of love can transform the world. He asked people to imagine what the world would look like when love is the way and he said, “No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.”
Those things are all true. If we can live out of the love that God has shown for us, live out of the love that led Jesus to the cross to die for our sins, live out of the love that the risen Jesus has given us in the gift of the Spirit, if we can live out of the love that became visible on Pentecost, we can make that world real. I should say, God can make that world real through us.
The Spirit is a tongue of fire that comes down from heaven and gives us words to speak. The Spirit is real in the babble of voices in every language heard that first Pentecost. The Spirit is real in a man with tears in his eyes standing next to his siblings at his mother’s funeral. The Spirit is real in the riding of a bicycle on a wet morning to come to church, even when something else might be more comfortable. The Spirit is real in preaching and prayer and praise and worship here in this place and at the royal wedding yesterday and at places of every size and location in between the two. The Spirit is real in each of us, and in all of us.

Let us listen to the Spirit in our lives. Let us know the gifts that the Spirit has chosen to give us. And let us live out of those gifts. 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.

BLUE, PURPLE, AND CRIMSON YARNS

Exodus 35:4-34

Monica McFadden

In my first ever art history class in college (World Art I), my wild professor, Scott Montgomery (who looked exactly like you want your art professor to look—long white Dumbledore hair and beard, barefoot but wearing a suit), introduced the class to the very beginnings of Christian art. Back when Christianity was still an underground, secret group of believers going against the cultural and religious norm in Rome, meeting in catacombs and people’s homes.

The thing is, I really wasn’t that interested in early Christian art, or most Christian art for that matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the traditional iconography, frescoes, biblical characters who all look the same, strange muscle-y baby Jesuses, Medieval and Renaissance paintings that are too easy to mix up. I was much more interested in the free-flowing forms of post-Impressionism, modern and contemporary art that was stirring things up, non-Western art. And it didn’t help that the Brethren tend to lean away from the ostentatious art traditions of other Christian groups; I was fairly critical of all the relics and dramatic, gilded altarpieces. But the thing about Scott is he’s so genuinely excited about everything he teaches that you can’t help but get excited as well.

Once, when he was lecturing about early church buildings in class, he told a story. He (along with, I believe, a group of other art scholars) was visiting the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. It’s a small, old building from 425 B.C.E.; relatively simple-looking brick from the outside, but dripping in rich, vivid Byzantine mosaics on the inside. A deep indigo covers the ceiling and walls, with swirls of olive green and gold stars, florets, and vines reaching every corner. Little concentric circles of light blue and silvery gold form snowflake-like patterns on one dome, and various images and scenes play out in arches: Christ as the Good Shepherd, stoic animals, saints and angels, all surrounded by detailed borders of jewel-toned tiles.

Now, when tours are given at the museum, the mosaics are lit with typical electric lights. But my professor’s group was made up of indignant art scholars who insisted they be allowed to see the interior of the building as it would have been viewed centuries ago, lit with just a few candles. They proved to be convincing, and the small space was soon filled with the warm light of the candles, little flames flickering back and forth and casting their glow onto the mosaic tiles.

If you look closely at old mosaics, they first appear as though they were carelessly laid, with tiles all at slightly different angles, rippling across the walls and looking rather hand-done; you’d think it would look better if they were aligned properly. But this was done very intentionally, because if you view mosaics in candlelight, the dancing light of the flames reflecting off the tiles all laid a little askew, the mosaics look as if they’re magically glittering and flickering, and every part of the image is aglow. The stars and saints and vines all pulse with life. Suddenly, my professor said, these simple materials are awash with holy light.

In the scripture text in Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to make every part of the tabernacle and bring offerings to the Lord. This tabernacle, with its finely crafted altar and oil stands and all the gold, silver, and bronze, can feel a little foreign to those with humble Brethren roots. Brethren have come a long way in terms of opinions about art. The Brethren Encyclopedia notes that “It could be said of these Brethren, as it was of the Society of Friends, that they had no time for art and no place for it in their priorities. Their understanding of humility and nonconformity placed emphasis on simplicity and plainness.”[1] One paragraph is somewhat amusing to me in summing up Brethren aesthetics: “Obviously Brethren did share to a degree in the folk culture of German-speaking farmers and artisans. Except for an occasional illustration (one art book pictures wrought-iron hinges on the door of the Blooming Grove Brethren Meetinghouse) there is little tangible evidence of Brethren artistic interest. Yet Brethren, like their neighbors, used favorite patterns and designs in quilts and coverlets, on butter molds, clocks, chests, and other household implements. Many of their meetinghouses had a good sense of proportion in their simple, utilitarian lines.”[2] “A good sense of proportion” is fairly indicative of where Brethren stood on artistic flair. It seems much of Brethren involvement in art was connected to publications and embellishment of manuscripts, documents, and books.

However, there are still a number of interesting Brethren connections to art, and over the years as reception to art grew more favorable, Brethren artists emerged. Interestingly, in 1880, Howard Pyle (who was not Brethren and went on to become a recognized American artist) visited the Pennsylvania Germans to write an article for Harper’s Magazine, and became fascinated with the Brethren and their way of life. His article, titled “A Peculiar People,” is rather wonderful and well worth a read for an outsider’s view on the Brethren in the late 19th century. Pyle carefully describes the buildings and dress in the community, and takes the readers through the ordinances of the church, including Love Feast, anointing, and baptism. He is clearly charmed by the Brethren, and made a series of etchings documenting his time and illustrating his article. One passage reads, with an accompanying image to illustrate:

“The first visit we ever made to a Dunker meeting was on a cold day in the latter part of November. The wind piped across the snow-clad hills and over the level white valleys, nipping the nose and making the cheeks feel stiff like leather. As we neared the straggling, old-fashioned-looking town we passed an old farmer of the neighborhood and his wife trudging toward the meeting-house, the long gray beard of the former tangling in the wind or wrapping itself around the neck and breast, and further on a young couple in the quaint costume of the people, picturesque figures against the white of the broad-stretching road.”[3]

This Brethren way of life looks very different from the typical Brethren way of life now, and yet there’s something in reading Pyle’s article that feels like home. The whitewashed walls, long beards, the “matronly faces stamped with humility and gentleness” as he describes—they all feel very familiar. Pyle’s etchings accurately represent the simplicity of the buildings and people, but also highlight a certain beauty it all—the pure white of the snow and whitewashed walls, light coming in through a window and onto the wood furniture of a plain bedroom, the old-fashioned houses with brick and white shutters. Sometimes, having an artist look in helps bring to light the subtle elements that make a tradition lovely.

One of the few art forms that was prevalent in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities was a style called Fraktur, which was a type of manuscript illumination used for certificates, house blessings, and other lettered objects. Pyle noted these hanging on the walls of the Sisters’ House in the Cloister:

“Around the walls were a number of curious antique-looking cards about three feet square, bearing mottoes and texts, all printed by hand, with a beauty of design and delicacy of execution that might rank among them with the lost art of vellum manuscript printing. Some of the designs were very unique, and all of them were aged, even medieval looking.”[4]

Artistic ability is clearly a wonderful gift from God, but Christian art is more than that as well—there’s a sort of magic in many people, over centuries and from all different parts of the world, creating art that is some kind of visual response or interpretation of the many stories and passages enclosed in the Bible. This is not to be confused with creating idols and worshipping images, but rather it’s this incredibly human need to take sacred words and stories that they love and create something new, imbued with the beauty they see in God’s creation surrounding them. As the Brethren Encyclopedia says of the Pennsylvania Dutch, “students of this unique culture, who continue to publish lavishly illustrated books detailing its artifacts, insist that in rejecting the fashions and frivolities of European and American society, plain people did not reject the natural world, that they loved color and design, and that they developed a symbolic art that found its vivid imagery in their pietistic hymns.”[5]

Art is an inherently human way to process truth, and when God asked the Israelites to craft the adornments for the tabernacle, the tent, the altar, the hangings, the vestments; and to bring offerings of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems,” what he asked for was the word of God as seen through the skilled craftsmanship of God’s people.

It is also a notably egalitarian call. Verse 22 says that “they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” Craft art was a skill that could be developed by men and women alike, and it’s only been much more recently, when art forms like painting and sculpture with artists’ names attached became more highly valued, that these skills were left unrecognized. But in the Kingdom of God, beauty is for all people, and gifts are given in abundance.

Whether it’s the awe-inspiring mosaics of early Christianity or the clean architecture of the humble Brethren, aesthetics and art are vital parts of experiencing life. If God gives us the ability to make beautiful things “in blue, purple, and crimson yarns,” we should seek to create as much as possible, for it gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as it lives here on Earth.

[1] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 59.

[2] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 61.

[3] Howard Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 778-9.

[4] Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” p. 783-4.

[5]  Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 60.

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

 

God told Abraham to take his son up to the mountain top. He told Abraham to take wood, and fire. He told him to kill Isaac and burn his body as an offering. This was the command of the Lord, and it’s clear that Abraham would have gone through with it.

If you google “Isaac and Abraham sacrifice” and do an image search, there’s no shortage of paintings and drawings. Renaissance art is full of paintings depicting this scene, the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to take the life of his son, only to have God intervene.

Some of this art is better than others. The best of these images focus on the drama unfolding between Abraham and his son. Isaac, laid out on the pyre. Abraham, holding the knife and gripping his son by the back of the neck. There must have been a struggle.

Our text this morning leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s not very detailed, and you can read it a lot of different ways. It’s possible to read this story and imagine Isaac as innocently confused, but obedient. His father told him to lay down on the wood, so he did. His father pulled out the knife to take his life, and Isaac accepted it. Abraham, for his part, conducted himself with simple obedience and calm. He didn’t start crying, he didn’t lose control. He didn’t shout or lay hands on Isaac. He just obeyed the command of God, and so did his son.

But I know that’s a lie. Or, at least, I hope it is. Because if that were true, if Abraham was psychologically prepared to murder his son with no displays of emotional conflict, that would make him something less than human. And Isaac – what young man, what human being accepts a violent death at the hands of a loved one without a struggle? Without horror? Without desperate cries for mercy and tears of disbelief?

There are images that present Isaac and Abraham as dutiful pawns in God’s strange chess game. In these paintings, the two of them are placid, serene, looking only to God.

I know that these images must be false. I can feel it in my bones. When I look at these peaceful depictions of this violent event, there’s no soul, no humanity. Abraham becomes a monster, and Isaac a bovine creature with no real human spark. Lost is the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom. He convinced God to spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous people. Couldn’t he be bothered to argue for the life of his own child?

And not just any child. The heir of the promise. This was the child that God had promised Abraham for decades. The miraculous boy who was born when his parents were far beyond the age of child-bearing. Isaac was the living proof of God’s faithfulness – his intention to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Isaac was the tangible substance of God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.

But more important than any of this, Isaac was Abraham’s little boy. He wasn’t just a means to an end. He was a real person, a child. And Abraham loved him.

I think of my son, George. I think of what it would mean to me if I thought God was asking me to kill my son and burn his body. Forget the promise. Forget great nations and offspring as numerous as the stars. This is my son, whom I love. I’d rather die than do to George what God told Abraham to do to Isaac.

What kind of psychopath says “yes” to a request like that? But more importantly, what kind of God would ever make such a request?

And for what? To test Abraham’s faith? To be sure that he was really committed? What kind of friend would test a relationship like that, much less the most high God, creator of the universe?

There’s a long tradition of not taking this story literally. And that’s good. Because honestly, it’s just too horrifying. Who could worship a God like that?

So this morning, I want to continue in that tradition. I want to invite us to experience this story as an allegory, as a narrative that opens up a moral dimension to us that is simply not accessible through anything less than a shocking but true story.

None of this diminishes the horror of the story. What God asks of Abraham is unfathomable. But in this ancient horror, we are also given a mirror into our own spiritual condition. We can find ourselves in the experience of Abraham, and that of Isaac. We can recognize in them our own challenges, our doubts and fears. The existential dread that stalks us.

When I heard this story, I’m forced to ask myself: What does it mean to sacrifice my Isaac? Because again, for the purposes of this allegory, Isaac is not merely a beloved child. He is the instrument of God’s promise. He represents everything that Abraham understands about who God is and how he is in relationship with God. Isaac is the most fundamentally important thing in Abraham’s life. Without Isaac, Abraham has nothing to hold onto, nothing to assure him that God really cares for him and has a plan for him.

So for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac – well, it just doesn’t compute. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. How can God ask Abraham to end the very life that demonstrates their relationship? It’s as if a husband said to his wife, “if you really love me, you’ll throw away your wedding ring and move to another city.” This request doesn’t make any sense.

But the incomprehensibility of God’s request is exactly what makes it so important. When God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, he’s essentially asking Abraham this: “Do you trust me enough to let go of everything in this world that connects us? Do you love me more than my gifts, more than my promises, more than my presence in your life?”

That’s pretty deep. Because to be honest, most of the time, I want God for his gifts. I want him for his presence and power in my life. I want him because he helps give my life meaning and purpose, a sense of perspective beyond myself.

But that’s not what God wants. The kind of relationship that God desires with you and me doesn’t hinge on reasons or benefits, outcomes or external validation. The relationship that God is seeking with you and me is one that stands beyond all incentives or proofs. It’s the relationship that Jesus demonstrated when he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has often been taken as an analogy for Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, in submission to God’s will. In this view, God is often seen as represented by Abraham – the sacrificer – while Jesus is represented by Isaac, the sacrificed. But this is a backwards view of things. During his struggle in Gethsemane, his torture by the religious and imperial authorities, and his death on the cross, Jesus found himself in the position of Abraham. Like Abraham, he was forced to abandon everything in this world that gave him assurance of God’s love. Jesus had to accept absolute risk.

On the cross, Jesus sacrificed the “Isaac” of his earthly ministry. He experienced terrible grief and failure. He experienced the absence of God, the loss of the promise. In that moment, all of his work was for nothing. It all ended on that nihilistic cross of suffering and shame.

In his Letter to a Young Activist, Thomas Merton writes about this journey into loss and unmooring, which is essential to the path of Christian discipleship. He speaks about how we often use our God-given work “to protect [ourselves] against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of [the] work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

We’ve heard a terrible story this morning. It’s a story of a father’s love for his child – his hope, his future – being overcome by his greater desire to be in relationship with God. It’s a story of cutting loss and heartbreak. It’s a story about how each one of us must move beyond assurances and guarantees if we want to experience the full depth of relationship with God.

This is a story about Abraham seeking a truer, more authentic faith. Beyond pleading and promises. Beyond rewards. Abraham gives himself to God unconditionally – even if it means the loss of everything else, including his ideas about God.

Our scripture this morning is an invitation to self-examination. What are the ways that we have turned our faith in God into a transaction, rather than full submission? Do we love the gifts God gives us more than we love God himself? What are we being called to surrender, so that we can be more fully embraced by God?

What does it mean to be like Jesus, who let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom?

GLORIFYING THE STRENGTHS GIVEN BY GOD, FOR GOD

Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Emmy Goering

I’ve just returned to D.C. after spending the last week in the Chicago area at the Brethren Volunteer Service retreat. There, I was able to get some much needed rest and was able to connect with the friends who I’d bonded with at our orientation. While we shared stories about our service experience, this sermon loomed in the back of my mind. As we were giggling and groaning, crying and commiserating, lamenting and laughing with our fellow BVS’ers, this sermon taunted me throughout the whole retreat. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be good enough? Would I have anything worth speaking to you about?

 Don’t get me wrong–I accepted this task willingly, and I am very glad to be here speaking to you today. But as you can tell, I’ve also been more than a little bit nervous about today’s sermon.

My mom says that sometimes I’m an “over-thinker”, a worry wart, a nervous Nellie–and, she jokes, that she’s worried that I get that from her. But seriously, no matter how much I want to do something, I sometimes over-think it. I used to get so caught up in the “what ifs” that I was almost frozen with fear. Luckily, the more that I step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, the easier it gets. As I shared during my first address of this congregation at the beginning of my BVS term, I have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from my hometown of McPherson, Kansas to my transplanted home here in D.C.  

But let’s get back to my recount of the retreat. Mid-week, we had a session with Dana Cassel. She introduced the idea of discerning our vocation. After conversing together in a circle about this topic, we turned to a screen that reflected the well-known “Ted” logo, signifying that we were all in for a treat. If you don’t know what Ted talks are, they are about a 15 minute speech given by anyone with an idea worth sharing.

 As long as that person has some sort of “innovative” idea, the talk can literally be about anything. The speaker who we watched was Elizabeth Gilbert, the #1 best-selling New York Times author of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” As I watched Ms. Gilbert projected on the big screen, surrounded by fellow BVS’ers, I was inspired by her story.

Her very first book was an amazingly successful bestseller. As many of you can imagine, she felt pressure to follow up with ANOTHER amazingly successful book. At the beginning of her Ted Talk, she shared the comments that she received from friends and strangers alike about her creative future. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about…at all…ever…again?”

When faced with these negative expectations, Elizabeth Gilbert remembered that she’d   heard similar gloomy comments when she’d first shared her dreams of being a writer as a teenager. Now, this was the part of Ms. Gilbert’s Ted Talk that really sparked my interest.

I related to the same gloomy comments that she’d heard as a teen. When I first shared my dream of travelling the world to serve others, some people weren’t very receptive. Most thought that my plans were just a phase; others guessed that I’d give up when things got tough. None of them specifically set out to crush my hopes and ambitions. They were just worried about me.

 For example, when I was 15 years old, I told my parents that I was going to go to BVS after high school. They’d always encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, so they were happy to hear of my plans. But when I went on to say that I also had the rest of my life planned out already, they were a bit concerned.

 I explained that there was no need to worry. I’d buy a van with my then-hypothetical  BVS best friends so we could travel the world for the rest of our days, serving others… {pause} until they reminded me that life doesn’t always work out the way that you plan. How would we support ourselves, they asked. Why, I answered, donations of food and gas money, of course. They then went on to point out that global service wouldn’t be an option if a van was our only means of transportation. Geography may not be my strong suit, but I am definitely passionate, and creative, about service! Just like the people in Gilbert’s life who questioned her ability to weather the demands of her intended career, people in my life were worried about my ability to withstand the tolls of service.

After hearing so many gloomy predictions, Gilbert began to wonder why people regarded anyone with creativity-based aspirations as doomed to fail. Gilbert questioned, why should anyone be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel driven to do?

She decided to do some digging on this tremendous burden placed upon creative people throughout history. She found something, that I believe to be, quite interesting.

She looked across time and at other societies for ways they helped people manage the emotional toll that’s often tied to creativity. Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and ancient Roman societies, people believed that creativity was a “divine attendant spirit from a distant source that came to people for some distant and unknowable reason.” Greeks called these spirits Damons. The Romans called this disembodied spirit a Genius. They believed that while someone was working creatively, a genius sat hiding in the corner waiting to give some inspiration and shape the outcome of the work. In this way, the ancient artist was protected. If their work was great, they were isolated from too much narcissism; if their work was a flop, they were isolated from the failure.

I think the idea of these genius spirits isn’t all that absurd of a conclusion. That genius, that creativity, was and is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. That being is there to guide you.

 God gave us all of these incredible gifts, and we are here to use them for God. As Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

For me, as a young Christian woman trying to find my way to serve in this world, this scripture has lifted a lot of weight off my own shoulders. However, in my desire to make a big, life-changing difference right now, to want to plan out my calling years in advance, it’s something that I am constantly needed to be reminded of. Our gifts are God’s gifts. I’m here to use God’s gifts for His Glory, but on His timeline and in His way, not mine. {pause}

I was surrounded by incredible people this last week at the BVS retreat. All of them are following their calling by using their gifts and talents given by God. Finding what these gifts are and exactly how we are to use them, however, can come a lot easier for some than others. Learning to use these gifts to glorify God can be even more of a challenge. How do we glorify this almighty Creator who gave us life and love?

 As Christians, we can look to the scripture for guidance. Psalm 95 Says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Recently, I saw the Disney movie, Moana, and it reminded me of this idea of serving the Lord on His timeline and according to His plans. The main character, Moana, is a young Polynesian princess whose island paradise is slowly deteriorating. Although Moana’s father expects her to remain on the island and lead their people as he has done, Moana believes that it is her unique calling to leave the island to fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors and save their people. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. The ocean-based animation is breathtaking, the songs are amazing, and Moana’s silly little chicken sidekick named Hei-Hei is hilarious.

While Moana isn’t a Christian movie, I did find some interesting spiritual analysis by Christian movie reviewer Kevin Ott on the website Rockin’ God’s House. Mr. Ott spoke with Mark Hett, one of Disney’s main animators on the film, about Moana’s spiritual connections. Mr. Hett is also a Christian, and he says that although Moana is based on the Oceana/Polynesian mythology of their world and their culture, the film provides a lot to discuss in regard to a call that is from outside one’s self. To quote Mr. Hett, “I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film…that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in.”

  Let’s think about that for a minute. We’re in the world but we’re not of the world. That is a major struggle for most Christians. How do we do God’s work in this world?

Much like the struggle that Moana faces when she challenges her village’s expectations for her life, we often struggle with our interpretation of what others expect of us.

 Elizabeth Gilbert faced criticism when she voiced her plans to become a writer. My choice to spend my first year out of high school in BVS rather than going straight to college was met with skepticism and misunderstanding by some.

 But just as Moana follows the call of the ocean, which is always there to support her along her journey, we must choose to follow our calling from God, who is always there to support us in our journey.

 Our path may not be normal, or easy. Our calling may not be typical, but it may not necessarily be earth-shattering, either. We may hear from naysayers who are simply concerned with our ability to withstand the challenges that we’ll face along the way. But as Christians, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. As we read in Psalm 95, we must sing for joy to the Lord; we must kneel down before the Lord our Maker.

 As we’re instructed by Romans 5, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

 At the BVS retreat this past week, I was blessed to see the work of God through my fellow BVS’ers. I challenge you to see God through others–through their work, through the passions they bring, through their service to others, even if it’s not the typical path or the easy choice. The Spirit of Christ is within each of us.  Amen.

Returns

WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN

Jeff Davidson

May 4, 2014

RETURNS

Psalm 116:1-4,12-19

Almost everyone has a memory of a gift they have either given or received that was so ugly, or so wildly inappropriate, or just so strange that they would have returned it in an instant if they possibly could.  It’s become so much of a cultural cliché that there are sit-com episodes about the clueless husband who gives his wife an iron for Valentine’s day and there are advertisements at Father’s day about what to get Dad besides yet another tie and there are parties at work dedicated to wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.

I think the most unusual – no, it was more than that.  I think the weirdest gift I ever got was when I was probably 12 or so.  It was a Christmas gift from Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred.  Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred were known for giving unusual gifts.  They were thrifty people, and when it came to gifts they truly and rightly believed that it is the thought that counts.

I remember that particular Christmas receiving two gifts from Xoa and Fred.  The first was a pair of socks.  There’s nothing wrong with that; socks can be a fine gift, although for a 12 year old boy they are kind of disappointing.  But these socks were weird.  They were orange and they were really, really thin, thin like hosiery.  They were still on the cardboard that they had been on in the store, but they looked old and smelled a little musty and I had the impression that they’d spent several years in the attic before being plucked out of some dusty, long-forgotten trunk to become my Christmas gift that year.

The second gift was a pack of gum.  Well, that’s not quite right either.  The second gift was part of a pack of gum.  It was a six pack of Beech-Nut gum, but it had been opened and there were only three sticks in it.  And those three sticks weren’t soft like new chewing gum is supposed to be.  They were really hard. And the package didn’t look like the Beech-Nut gum that was in the stores.  It looked old.  It looked like 1930’s old.  It looked like it had been something my Uncle Fred had gotten when he was 10 or so, and that after eating some of it he’d decided to put it away for 40 years or so to give to me.  Along with his new socks that he’d gotten that year.

Back then the idea of returning gifts to the store for a refund was unheard of, and even if it hadn’t been there was no way to return these gifts to anyone.  I thanked them for the gifts and kept them in my room for a few years.  I don’t know what ever happened to them, but if I ever find those socks and that gum I’m looking forward to figuring out who to re-gift them to.

These days when you get a gift you don’t like, it’s not too much of a problem.  The gift almost always includes a special return receipt, just so you can take it back to where it was bought and get the money.  I know that it’s not as busy as Black Friday, but the week after Christmas is plenty busy at the returns desk as people bring back the gifts they just received from people who love them in order to get some cash.  It’s so routine that when I bought Julia some jewelry a few months ago they asked me if I wanted a gift receipt with it or not, and when she bought a handbag for herself they just automatically gave her one without asking.

God gives each of us gifts every day.  The fact that you are here this morning means that you’ve been given the gift of life today.  Mark has shared his gift of music with us.  Don and Steve and Mary and John and Ruth and others have shared their gifts in preparing this space for worship this morning.  We’ve shared our financial gifts in the offering plates today, and those financial gifts are the result of money we’ve earned through using yet other gifts and skills and talents and abilities that God has given us.

All of that is in addition to the gifts of sunshine and mild weather we’ve had this weekend, and after the winter and spring we’ve had so far those aren’t gifts to be taken for granted.  They’re in addition to the gifts of family and friends, both near and far.  They’re in addition to the gift of a home, a gift that many do not share.  The gift of a country that for all it’s faults and all of it’s shortcomings is free of the kind of violence and fear that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or Egypt or North Korea or other places face each day.

God has given us many gifts.  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  The gifts God gives us are given out of love, and if God has given them to us then there must be a way to use them.  If God had given me the orange socks and the gum from 1932 I probably could have figured out something to do with them besides look at them and scratch my head. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, whatever they are, and in using them, return them to God.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to investments.  I’ve never had a whole lot of investments to pay attention to.  As I get older, though, I find myself taking a closer look at some of the statements that come in the mail.  I have a couple of retirement accounts from jobs I’ve had at one time or another that have some money in them and of course I’ve got social security.  When I was thirty or thirty-five I didn’t care very much.  Now that I’m fifty-five and therefore closing in on retirement age I’m reading the statements more carefully and checking out the projections of what I’d get each month depending on when I retire.  I look at how much the accounts have earned or lost.  I check out the return on the investments.

The concept of a return on investments is seen a few different places in the Bible.  The most famous example is the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.  In The Message, this passage is talking about the Kingdom of God and says,”It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, and to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”

There’s another sense In which returns matter to God.  God calls us to return our gifts through using them and sharing in offerings to God.  God also calls us to get a good return on the gifts and skills that he has trusted us with.

You may remember that back in January I flew back to Ohio for a couple of days to be with my sister as she was preparing for heart surgery.  I flew in to Cox International Airport in Vandalia.  I grew up less than five miles from that airport.  We lived on Peters Road, and you could come out of our driveway, take a right, and in five minutes be at the airport entrance.  You just took a left into the airport and drove down a long driveway to the lobby with the control tower on top.

It’s sure not that way know.  Peters Road now dead-ends before you get to the airport entrance.  My old house is still less than five miles from airport property, but it now takes about fifteen minutes to get there because you have to loop around to the other side of the airport.  The airport itself is thirty times larger than it was when I was a kid.  When I was growing up it took five minutes to walk to your gate from the ticket counter.  Now it takes ten minutes just to walk to the security checkpoint, and once you’re past that it’s at least ten or fifteen minutes more to get to your gate, and that’s if you have a close-in gate.

When I flew back into Cox airport in January it felt strange.  It didn’t feel anything like the place I’d known growing up.  But as I got into the rental car and drove through the city of Vandalia and then out into the country I got more and more excited.  The country out there still isn’t built up.  There are still farms.  I recognized houses that had been on our bus route for school.  I remembered friends and where they had lived.  I drove past cousin Ron’s, and Uncle Verlynne’s place, and then past the church I grew up in.  It felt familiar.  It felt comforting.  Even though I haven’t lived there regularly since I was in high school, it felt like I home.  I felt like I had returned home.

Do any of you ever have that feeling?  That you’re returning home, returning to a place and a time where you once felt comfortable and connected?  Maybe home is where you grew up.  Maybe home is where you live now.  Maybe home isn’t about a place but about people, people with whom you feel safe and loved and cared for.  Maybe it’s some combination of people and place depending on what’s going on in your life.

Like the old hymn says, there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.  Our relationship with God is like that of the prodigal son, who wandered far away and squandered his inheritance and wanted nothing more than to be home, whose father came to greet him when he was still far from home.  As the Psalm writer says, God has heard our prayers and our supplications.  God has listened to us, and saved us from death.  When we are with God, we are at peace.  We are in safety.  When we return to God, we have returned home.

We can return to God from the gifts and skills that God has given us.  We can use what God has given us to spread the Kingdom even farther, and give God a good return on his investment in us.  We can return to God to find warmth, and safety, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love forever.  May we always look for ways to return to God, whatever that means in our lives.  Amen.