NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

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

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

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

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

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

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

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

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

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

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

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

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

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

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

Blow the Trumpet

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

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

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

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

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

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

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

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

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

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

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Matthew 16:13-20

Jennifer Hosler

A leader stands up and says, “They are taking over. They are ruining our country. They are overrunning our cities. They are plotting, they are seeking to undermine our values and our prosperity. Those people must be stopped, must be controlled, must be contained, so that we can be safe, so that we can continue to prosper, so that we can succeed.” They. Those people.

You could assume that the leader standing up is a present-day leader but our Exodus passage demonstrates that this is a thousand-year old problem. The leader is an ancient one: Pharaoh. Thousands of year ago, it was the Israelites, the Jews, who were “they” and “those people.” Today, people are still fearfully chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We’ve seen that people of today are once again Jews but also Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender folk, and many more.

The Bible is always relevant; but, there are times when the relevance seems to smack you in the face. Our Exodus reading is one of those passages: it seems to be speaking exactly for our present day. Granted, I don’t typically run into midwives or Pharaohs. The setting is different, but the truths that we can extrapolate are pertinent, poignant, and applicable. There are two lessons I want to focus on today: 1) ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants; and 2) women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

I recently read a three-part graphic novel written by Congressman John Lewis, called “March!” March illustrates the Civil Rights Movement through the life of John Lewis, starting from his elementary school years in rural Alabama, where he lived on a farm and “preached to the chickens.” Book One shows young John proclaiming the Beatitudes to his hens, which were in his care and he loved dearly. It describes how John Lewis’s uncle took him up to Buffalo, New York, one summer, and young John glimpsed a desegregated neighborhood for the first time. Coming home, John became dissatisfied with how the black communities didn’t have paved roads and with how black children like himself had poorer conditions for their school buses, buildings, and textbooks, compared with the white students.

As John grew up, he saw Brown v. the Board of Education mandate school desegregation, the murder of Emmitt Till, and he saw the boycott that initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Later, at seminary in Nashville, John encountered the teaching of Jim Lawson, who explained how nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can be used to make “good trouble,” to highlight injustice and to bring attention to hatred and evil. Today, when tweeting about the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis often uses the hashtag #goodtrouble. Our passage in Exodus highlights some “good trouble.” There is much the church can learn from John Lewis and two Israelite midwives.

The other week, Nate preached about Joseph’s reunion with his family in Egypt, where–after a being sold into slavery and preyed upon by powerful people—Joseph eventually rose to the top of Egyptian power, the 2nd person only to Pharaoh. Joseph and his family found a safe place to reside during a famine and these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob get settled into Egypt’s land. Our story picks up after the Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers have died. As was prophesied to Abraham, the Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied (though they’re not yet quite as uncountable as grains of the sand). They’re prospering, the years pass and a new king comes to power.

For this new King, “Joseph meant nothing.” Instead of seeing the valuable assets that the Israelites could be within the Egyptian community, the king gets afraid. He thinks that the Israelites are a threat that need to be dealt with. He’s concerned about the allegiance of the “other” if war breaks out. One, commentator, Freitheim (1991), notes multiple instances of irony in the text and points out that, before the king gets all worked up about “those people,” they weren’t yet named as a people group, but as a clan or extended family. The king is trying to be “shrewd” but he ends up attributing more power to the Israelites than before. Little does he know that this paranoia, this “othering,” and this prejudice will eventually be his downfall.

The king proceeds to enslave the Israelites, forcing them to build cities to store grain. The Egyptians are ruthless and the writing in this passage emphasizes the forced labor several times, using a poetic or chiastic structure in the Hebrew:

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

they made them serve with rigor” (Freitheim, 1991, p. 30).

Despite their enslavement and brutal treatment, the Israelites—like oppressed people throughout history—still find ways to be resilient, through the blessing of God. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…” Eventually, the king of Egypt devises another plan, since enslavement wasn’t working.

One notable omission in our text is the name of the king; he has no name. The tyrant is not the star of the story and is not worth naming, even with all the riches and power at his disposal. Poignantly, two Israelite midwives are named: Shiphrah and Puah. They are women. Slave women. We learn later that they are slave women without children. And they are the named heroes (or should I say, she-roes) of this story. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

The king of Egypt calls them to him and says, “You here, when you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” These midwives are ordinary folks who do the important—but typically undervalued—job of ushering life into the world. Despite their low status and their lack of power in the ancient world, even in their own community, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king’s orders. Scripture says that they fear God, which means that they have faith and trust that Yahweh is the author and giver of life. Shiphrah and Puah care more about protecting the lives of the vulnerable than about obeying the most powerful person in the land.

Jewish baby boys then keep getting born—and living. Pharaoh follows up with Shiphrah and Puah, summoning them to his presence to account for their “wrongdoing”: “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” These Hebrew women do not cower in his presence; instead, they use the opportunity to lift the humanity, dignity, and strength of their people, whom the Egyptians view as beneath them. Hebrew women aren’t below the Egyptians; in fact, they’re stronger. Shiphrah and Puah answer Pharaoh—they flat out lie for the Kingdom of God—and say, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

God then blesses the midwives for this courage, for their defiant and cheeky words, and for disobeying the ruler in charge of their country. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation;

While it is important to recognize the ordinariness of the midwives, I also need to raise attention to the fact that they are women. Women doing God’s work. Women getting into “good trouble.” Women metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives. Thank you, Shiphrah and Puah.

Our passage doesn’t end with them. It continues and there are more women getting into “good trouble.” One commentator points that, in total, five different women are present and doing different forms of creative disobedience or resisting the power of oppression (Freitheim, 1991). In v. 22, we read that when Pharaoh can’t get the midwives to perform infanticide, he makes a country-wide pronouncement that all the Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. We don’t hear what happens overall; our narrator zeroes in to one family. We meet a Levite family who give birth to a son.

The mom hides her baby boy for three months, but a baby is a hard thing to hide in general, but especially when you are enslaved. She rebels by not doing exactly what Pharaoh says—the baby goes in the water, but not in the brutal way he intends. Baby is placed in a papyrus basket and into the water, among the reeds. Older sister watches to see what happens.

Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who sees the funny basket, gets her servants to retrieve it, and finds a crying baby. While her own dad has ordered these babies to be killed, the daughter sees the baby for what it is—a tiny human—and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Older sister steps up out of the reeds and says, “Oh hey! Should I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and older sister gets her mother, who then takes her child back alive and gets paid to keep nursing. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopts the baby and calls him Moses.

Everything that these women are doing here are in defiance of the man in charge. And the text is very clear that it is a good thing, all this disobeying orders and preserving life. Once again, women are metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives.

These women are crucial agents in the work of God. While we obviously have a church with a woman pastor, we still need to teach and preach and proclaim loudly that women can do bold, outrageous things for God and God still says, “Well done.” Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

What does it mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? To recap, we see in scripture and in history that brutal, selfish, hate-inspiring leaders always exist. We also see that God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up to violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God uses people like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and people like John Lewis, who, with his fellow student organizers of that era, integrated lunch counters, took freedom rides, and marched.

In scripture and in history, ordinary people have stood up to be used by God to nonviolently counter hatred and violence. Don’t let someone tell you nonviolent protest is not biblical or Christian: nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a biblical argument, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Jer 38:1-6; Dan 3) and in the New Testament (Mt 5:38-48; Rom 12:14-21). Civil disobedience is definitely a tool that Christians, women and men, can use to stare down hatred and prejudice and to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.

During the Civil Rights Movement and during the recent Charlottesville incident, some Christians have criticized the involvement of clergy in nonviolent protest. One of the most famous rebuttals of this criticism is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to white pastors who criticized Dr. King’s involvement in protests and sit-ins. Since it is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it should be obvious that Dr. King got locked up for said protests and sit-ins.

Dr. King (1963) wrote, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 

When asked this week if people should just try to ignore white supremacist marchers, Congressman Lewis answered, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something… You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion” (Jones, 2017).

After reading several articles about John Lewis and his witness to nonviolence (see March, 3 books; On Being, 2017), I would summarize that he believes that what we need more nonviolence, more people trained in how to love their enemies, how to stand up for the vulnerable, and how to be immovable in the face of verbal hate and even the threat of violence. We need more “good trouble,” more people being willing to link arms, to look white supremacists in the eye, and to remind everyone that both the oppressors and the oppressed are human and made in the image of God. God uses ordinary, creative people (women and men) to thwart the work of tyrants—and white supremacists.

Doing God’s work—protecting and loving and reconciling people—happens at both the most mundane and the most extraordinary levels. The midwives happened to be well-placed to stand up to violence. Are we well-placed, to stand up in ways big or small, as librarians, accountants, press secretaries, managers, students, researchers, IT specialists, coders, security workers, administrators, policy advocates, and more?  Are we well-placed as individuals, but are we also well-placed as a body together, as a congregation? We are entering a discernment phase for our church, as we are laying down BNP and learning more about ourselves and what is next. I challenge us to consider how we are—or can be—well-placed to equip a movement of nonviolence and to stand for God’s values of love and justice, in a spot where the nation’s eyes happen to be? We are front and center in Washington, DC.

Sisters and brothers, God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up against violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God can use you, God can use me. God can use us as a church here on Capitol Hill—front and center with a big old building, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. AMEN. 

 

References

Freitheim, T.E. (1991). Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Jones, A. (2017, August 24). Is ‘mass nonviolent action’ needed to fight white supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mass-nonviolent-action-needed-fight-white-supremacists-654799

King, Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

*Note: while I have read and cited this work before, I re-read the Letter this week because it was cited by Lamar Gibson, of On Earth Peace, in a blog post on the negative feedback they received about racial justice work and the events in Charlottesville: http://faithful-steward.tumblr.com/

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March: Book One. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

On Being (2107, January 26). Love in Action. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action-jan2017/

WAS IT GOD: CHARLOTTESVILLE VS. EGYPT

 

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Matthew 15:10-28

Nate Hosler

Though the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and counter protest—which included many clergy, including some Brethren pastors—happened over a week ago it remains on our minds. In part, this is because of the responses, lack of responses, and responses to responses that have happened this week. While Jenn and I were visiting her family in Toronto this week I attempted to stay focused on the visit but also needed to determine with colleagues what we should do. Do we simply issue a new statement every time there is racialized violence? (This doesn’t even account for issues like heightened tensions with North Korea). While some statement is appropriate and necessary and the ongoing effort to act rightly in the face of such situations is critical, it is also a time to dig deeper theologically. We must read our scriptures together as a community seeking the leading of the Spirit. This might not generate a quick answer but is crucial for us as a community gathered to worship God and serve our neighbors. I am going to focus on the Matthew and Genesis passages today. Within these there are essentially three different stories which appear to be not obviously related.

Recap to why Joseph is second to the king of Egypt: Abraham and Sara are promised a child even though they are old—the idea is that they will be a great nation. They, at around 100, have a child, Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah (remember the “watering the camels”) produce Jacob and Esau. After exemplary trickery himself, Jacob works 7 years to marry Rachel and is tricked by her father and given her older sister (by “tricked by her father” I mean that since the bride is veiled he switched out the sisters and Jacob only found out in the morning). Works another 7 years and marries Rachel (a strategy certain to create a “complex state of affairs”). Most siblings get into rivalries over foot races or maybe dessert portions but in this case, it was a sort of competition in child bearing and sex. In chapter 30, for example, a son of Leah (the older sister) found mandrakes in the field. On his return, Rachel, the younger sister, asked for them. Leah says, is it not enough that you took my husband but now you want my mandrakes? I’ll give them to you if I can sleep with Jacob tonight. She then says to him “I have bought you with mandrakes”). Of all the children produced by this competitive sex, Joseph, a child of Rachel (the one that Jacob wanted to marry in the first place) is the favorite. Our passage starts with Joseph meeting his brothers in their quest for food during a famine and his being a high up in the government of Egypt.

Joseph’s theological interpretation is that his ending up in command of Egypt is so that he can store up enough food to save both Egypt and his family and that this was God’s doing. The longer and more painful version is that as a young fellow Joseph lacked tact and was a favorite of his father because he was the son of the wife (Rachel) that his father loved most. He lacked tact in that he shared freely of his dream that he would rule over his brothers. This, either lack of tact or straight up arrogance (ah, younger brothers) contributed to enough animosity for his brothers to want to kill him but then settle for selling him into slavery (ah, big brothers).

This passage makes sense as part of the narrative but Joseph’s comment that it was God’s doing that he was sent to Egypt so he could save his family likely sparks the question: If God acted in history in this manner, that is that, God directly engages and changes things or makes them turn out in a certain way, then why didn’t God do something that was less painful for the entire family or just stop the famine? One might also ask this of much of the narrative up to this point—God wants to create a nation but surely there is a less “colorful” and seemingly risky way to do it. This is, however, not the question that is being posed or answered in this text. This text, as a commentator writes, is the “Primary resolution of the entire Joseph narrative” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 343). Joseph’s dreams pointed to this. The Biblical narrative shows an intricate interplay between God’s action and human action.

Joseph says, all this bad stuff was God for the good purpose of saving you from famine.

On Wednesday in Toronto I met up with a colleague. We were discussing what happened Charlottesville and generally the rise of the visibility of white supremacy groups and she noted that perhaps one good result of this notably bad trend is that what was present all along but not as visible has become visible. It’s not as though this is springing from nowhere or wasn’t already present, it is just that the environment is such that such groups feel freer to act in public. Now of course this freedom is damaging, painful, destructive, dividing….it is sinful, it is not a “neutral expression of political preferences,” it is not okay, it is not Christian, and it is not “just part of a political spectrum.” (I am emphasizing how much this is not fine because I realize the question “was it God” is risky and may imply an acceptance where there is in fact none).

Joseph essentially says the string of bad things that happen to him were from God—being sold into slavery by his family, being wrongfully accused and jailed by his master, and being forgotten and left for an additional several years by an employee of the king whom he helped—Joseph says that God planned for him to make it to Egypt for the purpose of saving his family. While I will not assert that we should read Charlottesville theologically in this manner and that we should attribute the events to God (a key theological principle being-don’t blame God for human’s mess), I believe that we can say that we can read this theologically and say that the more explicit and public exposure of white supremacy may help the church and society to see and more definitively commit to working for racial justice.

Was it God? I recognize that my statement is less definitive than Joseph but then again, I’m not that Bible. We do know that we are called to work against racism and for the wellbeing (read shalom) of all. We do know and trust that God continues to work and is present with us. So, the question “was it God?” is not the most pressing nor particularly appropriate. What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. The church had better step up. “The church” is not out there-it is us.

What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. Charlottesville is not Egypt but God is still calling and empowering us to act in the present urgent moment. Was it God? is not the question—but God is present.

In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus makes a comment that feels very –pragmatic and modern? He says these ritual ways of doing things are not what matters but what comes from our mouths matters. What we produce matters because it is an indication of our hearts.

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We can just repeat this several times without commentary and we’re set.

In the text, the next thing is Jesus responding to a woman in a way that creates some discomfort. Jesus seems to try to ignore the woman in need because of who she is. He then uses a dismissive slur.  While we see Jesus as welcoming, healing, and feeding all, this doesn’t fit. So, then we wonder, is Jesus still fully recognizing the implications of his teaching about “cleanness” or is he doing it simply to test his disciples and/or the woman. This sounds a bit speculative and may be unnecessary but certainly feels relevant. The end point is that Jesus ends up accepting and healing someone from out his religious/ethnic/political group. While the end is good I would still like to think that Jesus was simply testing his disciples to see if they got his teaching on ritual cleanness. That Jesus intentionally went through a region where he would come into contact with this “other” group and that he had already interacted with a non-Jewish Centurion in Matt 8:5-13 would lend weight to this “Jesus was just testing them” interpretation.

 Not only does Jesus heal outside his group but the woman who was supposed to lack proper theological insight has the vision to see Jesus for who he is. Notably, the spiritual insight is not limited to Jesus—who is literally the revelation of God. The revelation of the healing and boundary transgressing power of God might just show up anywhere. As much as I am sure you were hoping that this insight was limited to preachers or pastor-folk, we all must watch, wait, and listen.

Jesus demonstrates transgressing a barrier that was established to protect him. The question is not “was it God?” in Charlottesville. The question is how do we as a church respond? Better yet, how do we as Washington City Church of the Brethren at meeting at 337 N. Carolina Ave, SE Washington, DC respond? How do we or do we not define ourselves by what we say or do not say?

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We follow Jesus in transgressing boundaries to engage in acts of healing.