Oddities of the Holy Spirit

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

At times, I am reminded that following Jesus is a bit strange. I’m trained in scientific methods as a community psychologist and I’m working to develop specific hypotheses for my dissertation. My research will be descriptive – describing what exists in the world – but it will also seek to answer a question with new data, empirical evidence.

I’ve followed Jesus for many years now – I was baptized in the spring of 2000—and so I’m used to talking about supernatural events of the Spirit, like miracles, or the Spirit’s leading. Yet, sometimes, it hits me with how odd it is, from an empirical and from a nonspiritual point of view. For instance, the general the notion of God, but especially the Holy Spirit acting, moving, nudging, and revealing, as we see in today’s texts. It is odd, if you are not religious, to hear someone say, “This might seem out of nowhere, but I felt this strong thought or voice remind me of a person, or give me a strong idea, or compel me to pray or talk or reach out to someone.” Yet, despite the lack of empirical support for how the Spirit moves, I’m convinced that these “oddities of the Holy Spirit” are still at work today. Our faith is not just a moral philosophy but is empowered and led by a Spirit beyond ourselves. We see this in scripture and we experience in life together as the body of Jesus.

Oddities of the Holy Spirit

Our passage in Acts 16 highlights some of these Holy Spirit oddities. We see that Paul and crew were traveling around preaching about Jesus but hit some Holy Spirit roadblocks in their journeys. Acts 16, verses 6-8 say, they “traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.” There is no indication what this “not allowing” was. Did logistics just not come together? Was someone sick? Did they encounter hostile communities or authorities on the way? Or was it in times of prayer that they kept hearing a big “no”? Whatever the case, there were Holy Spirit roadblocks.

Then, in verse 9, Paul has a dream. The author of Acts, Luke, describes it this way: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Luke explains, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (NIV). Paul must have woken up from his dream and said, “Good morning! Um, I don’t know how your night last night was, but I had a dream about a Macedonian guy saying that he needed our help. So… I guess we should go to Macedonia?” So, they went to Macedonia, a place which was not just the next town over. Paul and crew get in a boat, leave Troas, and embark on the Mediterranean. They sailed straight to Samothrace (which was fun to see in the text, because of the statue of the goddess Nike, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that is at the Louvre). After Samothrace, Paul and colleagues continue on to Neapolis, then to Philippi, which was a Roman colony and the major city in that part of Macedonia.

Typically, Paul and his team would head to the local synagogue, but since there was not one, they went down to the river where they knew Jews or God-fearing gentiles might pray. They began talking with some women who had gathered, one of whom was a woman named Lydia, who is described as a dealer in purple cloth. Commentators say that her name may indicate she had a slave background, but that if she had been, she was now a freed person of means (with a household and a house). Lydia is said to be “a worshipper of God,” which is another way of saying a gentile drawn to Judaism. Primed and open to the teachings of Yahweh already, Lydia hears the message and receives it.

The gospel spreads beyond her to her household and everyone is baptized. She invites Paul and the team to her home. It requires some persuasion (she’s a single woman, maybe a widow, definitely a Gentile), but she ends up convincing Paul and crew to accept her hospitality. They stay with her and use her home as a base for their preaching in Philippi (until they leave after being thrown in jail, but that’s another story).

According to the text, Lydia is the first recorded convert in Macedonia, in the city of Philippi. The church in Philippi later becomes very important to Paul’s ministry of sharing the gospel; one of the main purposes of the Letter to the Philippians is to thank the congregation for its faithful support of Paul’s ministry (through funds, resources, and people).

Acts 16 is a story of closed doors, a weird dream, walking in faith (or rather, sailing in faith), of opportunities ripe for the harvest, crossing social boundaries to receive hospitality, the gospel spreading, ministry being supported—and all this in ways that Paul and his partners probably could not have imagined when they were in Troas at the beginning of the passage. Things weren’t working. Through the oddities of the Holy Spirit, a new opportunity opened. They followed the opportunity and it bore fruit beyond what they could have imagined.

Paul listened for the oddities of the Holy Spirit and acted decisively, walking in faith, though it could have seemed pretty ludicrous or absurd to other people. “You crossed the sea because you had a dream…?” The oddities of the Holy Spirit still happen today. Sometimes the Spirit speaks in a still small voice, sometimes in an emerging thought, sometimes in a dream (I guess!), or sometimes in an opportunity so obvious that we need to walk through the door, or have a conversation, or invite someone to our home, or any other number of things. I’m not stating an exhaustive list. We see in Scripture that the Holy Spirit nudges or reveals opportunities for ministry in ways that could be seen as odd or absurd.

Are we listening for the Holy Spirit? Are our holy senses working? Are we making the space to invite the Spirit’s nudges, pssts, or loud gongs to get our attention? Are we open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Are we open to the far-fetched call for a person to join our ministry? Are we open to the weird outreach plan that crossed our minds? Are we open to following the oddities of the Spirit, and then walking (or sailing) in faith to see how God might lead?

Peace I Leave with You, My Peace I Give You

Our 2nd passage flashes backward to Jesus’ ministry, the night before his crucifixion. Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, trying to prepare them for his death, resurrection, and ascension, giving them what they need to know (even if they won’t remember until later) and praying for them. Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

If we love God and follow the way of Jesus, God will make a home with us. There’s kind of a strange, saccharine phrasing here, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” Though it sounds trite or cutesy translated into English, I think there is profound meaning when we unpack it.

Homes are where we find solace and rest, homes are where we are nourished, where we feed ourselves, and where we are the most relaxed and most authentic. Jesus promises that God will make a home with us: give us rest and solace, nourish us, feed us, and enable us to be our most authentic and true selves. When I am closely walking with Jesus, this is exactly what I feel: at home with God. When I become distant from God, when I drift from the way of Jesus, the rest, the solace, the nourishment, and the authenticity start to drift away too.

Jesus continues, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus teaches that the promised Holy Spirit—remember, Pentecost has not yet happened—will teach, remind, and cover the disciples with peace. Since Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, the peace he is referring to is the concept of shalom, which is wholeness, completeness, right relationships. With the Holy Spirit, the wholeness and completeness that God intends can be made manifest amongst these ragtag followers of Jesus. The disciples were about to be very afraid and deal with great loss. Jesus says, “do not be afraid. I am sending you what you need. My peace I give you, I leave with you.”

These are words that I needed to hear in my life both personally—as I’m dealing with numerous relational transitions or loss—and in terms of my role in this community. I’ve served as a leader here in times of great scarcity, then moved to what seemed like times of relative abundance and growth, and now back to what seems like a fallow period with scarcity—and, if I’m being honest, also some loss. I feel loss in the departure of core members who moved away. I feel loss in the disappearances of other seemingly somewhat committed persons. I feel loss, and I’m sad, and I’m probably afraid.

But Jesus says, I am giving you what you need. Really, while celebrating Pentecost is in 2 weeks, we are already in the era of the Holy Spirit—WE’VE BEEN GIVEN WHAT WE NEED. (I wrote that in all caps, because I need to hear it for myself.) Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, sometimes things really kind of suck. Yes, there is pain and loss. But you know what, Jesus did not leave us alone. Jesus did not leave us alone. The Advocate

(someone who pleads on our behalf!) is with us. God makes a home with us. The peace and wholeness and presence of God is with us, through the pain, through the loss, through the times that really suck.

Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Act on the Nudges and Do Not Be Afraid

I find it very intriguing that these passages came up this week, after some Holy Spirit nudges had occurred. While I certainly preach for the whole body, I often find that the biblical interpretation and the preaching I do is exactly for me, is somehow what I need right now. I’ve been trying to pay attention to these holy nudges, holy opportunities, both in terms of my personal life and my ministry with Washington City Church of the Brethren. Instead of just grieving some personal relationships ending or changing (but believe me, I’m still grieving), I’ve been saying yes to new opportunities for friendship. It’s hard to make new friends, but I’m trying to follow up with a text or a playdate or a walk, or whatever. I don’t think Jesus just wants me to sit around feeling sorry for myself, but to take opportunities placed around me, like new acquaintances or new neighbors.

In terms of the church, I think I had a holy nudge this week and I’ll tell you the story: I typically read books while nursing Ayuba to sleep but, for some reason, I started browsing facebook. Which is also strange, because I’ve been avoiding facebook for a while, only periodically getting the app back on a device and catching up with folks or posting on the church page or reading my birthday greetings. While there, I saw some news about a Church of the Brethren acquaintance, who had recently graduated with a degree.

All of a sudden, this small thought came across: maybe she can come to Washington City. It sounds crazy, but her degree and training could really fit with some of our interests in outreach and arts here at Washington City. After Ayuba fell asleep, I sat in silence—and got the sense that, to be faithful, I should act on this crazy thought and send her a message. So I did. I’m not sure what will come of it, if anything—but I want to be open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Nate and I got here. That’s how Jacob got here. A random conversation, an invitation, and walking in faith after the way of Jesus.

Are we open to hearing the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Personally and as a congregation, are we listening to holy nudges or paying attention to opportunities for new connections, new relationships, new ministry? While things are painful and we’re feeling loss, we are not alone. WE ARE NOT ALONE! We have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose oddities still occur today. We have the peace of Jesus, and God has made a home with us. AMEN.

Benediction, from Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:16-21: I pray that out of God’s glorious riches God may strengthen us with power through the Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, 21 to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Recognizing God

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scriptures: John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-20

One of the classic adventure books that I remember reading as a kid “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle. It might have been in the Reader’s Digest abridged books. My mom and dad subscribed to those for many years, and it let me read books as a boy that I wouldn’t have been able to understand or follow if they’d been in their full original versions.

To get us all on the same page, Robin Hood is a British noble who has been cheated of his lands and become an outlaw. Great Britain’s King Richard is fighting overseas, and the throne has been entrusted to the care of the greedy and unscrupulous Prince John. Richard has been captured and is being held for ransom, and the people have been taxed for the ransom, but John does not intend to pay the ransom. Instead he is going to allow Richard to be killed and claim the throne for himself. Robin Hood and his merry men oppose John and support Richard.

Through a long and convoluted series of happenings, King Richard returns to England and is disguised as a priest. He and his entourage are

taken prisoner in Sherwood Forest by Robin and his men, as they do not see through his disguise and realize that he is the King.

The best movie version of this is from 1938 with Errol Flynn and Claude Rains. It’s on Turner Classic Movies all the time. One of the emotional high points of both the book and the movie are when King Richard chooses to reveal himself to Robin Hood and his band, and stands up and throws back his hood to show his face. Everyone immediately recognizes the King, and they all kneel before him, and they all bow their heads. It gave me goose bumps when I was a kid, and it still does whenever I watch the movie.

That mistaken identity thing, or just not recognizing someone, is a very common theme in books and movies and TV shows. Mark Twain used it in “The Prince and the Pauper.” A similar theme shows up in the 1983 Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places.” I don’t know how far back in history this plot device goes, but it’s still in use today and probably will be as long as books and plays are written.

Both of our scripture readings this morning hinge on someone not recognizing God. I guess in our Gospel reading it’s more specifically about not recognizing Jesus.

The disciples are out fishing, and although many of them are professionals they don’t catch any fish. This random guy on the beach tells

them to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. They do, and all of a sudden they have more fish than they can haul in. Then, and only then, does one of them recognize Jesus.

You sometimes wonder if the reality of the resurrection hadn’t quite sunk in for the disciples. Maybe they were a long way from the shore. Maybe they really couldn’t see Jesus well enough to realize that was him. They’d been traveling the countryside with him and observed him from far away and from close up for three years, and they’d already seen him risen a couple of times after the crucifixion and the resurrection, but let’s say that they couldn’t see him well enough to recognize him.

They sure could hear him, though. They could hear him shouting instructions, because they followed the instructions. They took up their nets from one side of the boat and cast them out on the other side. Even if they couldn’t see Jesus well enough to recognize him, you would think that if they heard him well enough to follow instructions that they would have heard him well enough to know who he was.

But they didn’t. At least not until they got their miracle and all those fish showed up in the nets. Not just a bunch of fish, not just a large quantity of fish, not just a mess of fish, but one hundred and fifty three fish precisely. Large ones. Once they had their miracle, once they had their one hundred and fifty three fish, they recognized Jesus.

That reminds me of the old joke about the guy who falls off a cliff. As he’s falling down and down and down he grabs hold of a little branch hanging out of the side of the cliff. He’s holding on for dear life, but the cliff is too sheer for him to climb up, it’s too far for him to let go and drop down, his grip is starting to slip on the leaves of the branch, and the branch itself is starting to pull out of the side of his cliff.

The guy shouts out a prayer. “God,” he says, “God, I’ve never believed in you. But I need you now more than I ever have. Can you hear me God? Are you up there God? Is anyone up there? If you’re up there God, please save me. Please rescue me.”

And a voice comes from the heavens – “I have heard your prayers, my child. Trust me, and release your hold on the branch, and I will catch you and keep you safe.”

The guy pauses a minute, and then he shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Sometimes we’re like John and Peter and the rest of the disciples. We don’t recognize God in the ordinary and the routine and the boring stuff of life. We don’t recognize God unless and until God does some big, miraculous, fancy thing. It’s a challenge to see God in the regular old life that we lead from day to day.

When I come home from work Julia usually asks me if anything interesting happened, and I usually say no. Most of the time there isn’t a fatal accident, or a childbirth, or a shooting, or whatever. Most of the time nothing terribly exciting happens, at least nothing terribly exciting to me because I’ve gotten used to it.

But I don’t need for some exciting thing to happen to recognize God. I don’t need to wait for a successful childbirth delivery, or someone whose life is saved by timely CPR instructions, to see God. I don’t need to wait for us to save a suicidal person threatening to jump off a bridge or shoot themselves to see God. If I’m paying attention, it’s just as big a miracle that nothing happened. It’s just as big a miracle that everyone was safe. There are a million and a half people in Fairfax County. God is just as present on the days that nothing happens as he is on the days that we have the big spectacular stuff. I just don’t notice. I just don’t recognize God.

In our reading from Acts, God gets missed twice, at least. First, it’s Saul – the guy that we know better as the apostle Paul. There is a bright light, Saul falls to the ground, he can’t see anything, and he hears a voice asking “Why do you persecute me?” I want to give Saul credit in that he seems to recognize that this might be God when he says, “Who are you, Lord?” It’s not clear if he means Lord in the sense of a superior, like lords

and ladies, or my lord and master, or the lord of the manor, it’s not clear if he means Lord in that sense or in the sense of God.

But whether he recognized all of this as being from God or not, he didn’t recognize it as Jesus, at least not immediately. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus because until the big haul of fish it was just routine old life as usual. I think Saul didn’t recognize Jesus until Jesus identifies himself because he perceived what had happened – his fall, his blindness, as bad things.

That happens to us too. We often think that God cannot be found in the hard or difficult things that happen in our lives. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat with people going through painful times and they’ve said, “Why me? I can’t believe that God is doing this to me. Why me?”

People write books about those questions and don’t ever resolve them. I’m going to try to say what I think very briefly. “Why me” is a fair question. The other side of that is “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I suffer as other people suffer sometimes? That doesn’t mean I like it or I want it, but I’m not a better person than anyone else. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all are worthy of death.

Yet another side of that is “Why her? Why him?” Again, “why me” is a fair question, but it’s a question that lots and lots and lots of people who go through hard things can ask. We had a meal last night with friends and the

husband was talking about his daughter that was born with Spina Bifida. Why her? She was a baby. She hadn’t hurt anyone. Why me? Well, why her? On almost any rational scale, it should probably be me instead of her.

There are folks who believe that God causes bad things to happen in order to test our faith and bring us some sort of spiritual growth. I don’t necessarily believe that, but I recognize that there is scriptural support for that idea and there is a large body of theology that teaches that. I’m not saying that I know those people are wrong because I don’t know everything about God’s will and God’s intent.

One of the ways that I think about it, though, is that everyone makes choices and choices have consequences. We have the gift of free will. I have undoubtedly made bad choices along the way, and I have suffered some consequences for them. I also have made choices that other people have probably suffered consequences for, and I am probably suffering consequences of some sort for choices other people have made. I don’t think that God necessarily caused those choices or those consequences. I do think that God can help something good come out of them. I do think that God can help us find meaning in them. I do think that God can use the bad choices I’ve made and the bad choices other people have made and the negative consequences that come from all of those things and use them to help me, to help others, and to help the world.

Saul doesn’t recognize God at first because he perceives that something bad has happened to him. Later he does recognize God, and good things come. Saul’s life of rebellion against Jesus, of persecution of Christians even unto death, lead in the end to good and positive things in his life and in the lives of others he ministers to and with.

And it’s Saul’s past life that at first trips up the third person who fails to recognize God – Ananias. Ananias seems to recognize that it’s God talking to him. I mean, the first words out of his mouth after God says his name are, “Here I am, Lord.” That’s a good start!

But then when he gets his instructions Ananias isn’t so sure. “Lord, I’ve heard of this guy Saul. And what I’ve heard… uh, well, uh… it isn’t good. Lord, he kills Christians. And he has authority from the chief priests to imprison us.” To give him full credit, God says again what he wants, Ananias obeys him, and Ananias lays his hands on Saul, and Saul’s sight is restored.

We judge people based on their backgrounds, or their histories, or their reputations. That can keep us from seeing God in them and with them. That was one of the things that was so troubling about political leaders referring to gang members, mostly MS-13, as animals.

No one actually defends MS-13 or what they do. It’s a terrible organization, just as all similar gangs are. Bloods, Crips, 18th Street, and

many, many more that don’t get nearly as much publicity do terrible heinous, and yes, animalistic things. I have to watch footage of gang activity from time to time. I have to listen to tapes and calls and it’s not pleasant at all.

But although they do terrible things, although they do animalistic, evil things, in the end they are not animals (except in the scientific, biological sense like all of us are.) They are human beings, created in the image of God. They are people for whom Christ died. They are not unlike Saul, who persecuted and tortured and killed Christians in terrible ways, but who God used to share the gospel with a significant portion of the known world of that day.

It doesn’t have to be something as awful as criminal gangs. For some, it’s politics or religion. I read an excellent, excellent article on Buzzfeed last week about Katie McHugh and her journey into and out of white nationalism. David French wrote a good piece in National Review about the shootings at the synagogue in Poway, California called “Dealing With the Shock of an Evangelical Terrorist.” There are folks that will look at McHugh and at the Poway shooter and because of their histories will not grant them humanity, will not recognize that they are children of God.

It happens when people look at President Trump, and Secretary Clinton, at Senator Sanders, at Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, at Sen. Cruz, at any

number of people regardless of their politics. People make judgements about evangelical Christians and progressive Christians and Muslims and atheists. We look at someone and make a judgment about their humanity and their worth based on their religion or their politics or any number of other things.

And that’s wrong. That is not recognizing that they are people for whom Christ died. That is not recognizing the ways in which God can use them, despite actions and views that we think may be wrong. That is not recognizing the voice of the Spirit in whatever form it may come.

Throughout the Bible God speaks through sinners and terrible people. God even speaks through animals, like Balaam’s donkey. Figure out who your least favorite political or religious leader is, and remind yourself that if God can speak through someone who killed Christians, if God can speak through a donkey, God can speak through that person too. That doesn’t mean that God IS speaking through that person, but we have to be open to the reality that God COULD speak through that person.

As we leave here I pray that we can be open to see the world around us as God’s creation. I pray that we can see the people around us, whether it’s around us in our own lives or around us in newspapers and on television and the internet, as real people. I pray that we can see and recognize God moving

comprehension in and through people who are also beyond our understanding and comprehension. I pray that however he comes, we recognize God. Amen.

Getting Voice

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 2:1-11

On Monday Garba and I were taken around the Dutse Uku area of the city of Jos in Middle Belt region of Nigeria. Dutse Uku means “3 Stones” in Hausa. Jos is approximately a 4 hour drive northeast from the centrally located capital of Abuja, a city, like DC which was built solely as a capital. Jos has been the site of repeated violent crises since 2001. Though these crises would typically be relatively short lived, while Jenn and I worked in Nigeria, Jos experienced an extended period which meant we were unable to pass through for most of our two years. Jos was the center of one of several reoccurring conflicts that had political, economic, and power as well as ethnic and religious facets. Dutse Uku, 3 Stones neighborhood in this city, was at the center of these. My hosts said that the crises either start there or somewhere else but always end up in Dutse Uku.

Before entering this area, we needed to talk with a military checkpoint. They said since we hadn’t gotten a permit ahead of time (even though we were walking with residents of the area) we needed to talk to the military commander for the area. After waiting for maybe 20 minutes he arrived. He said that since we didn’t have the permit, he needed to hear from both the Muslim and Christian leaders that they agreed that we could enter and that we would walk with both Christians and Muslims so that people wouldn’t think we were favoring one side. We then visited the district head of the area in his home to also inform and ask permission.

We then began to walk. This house was owned by a Muslim and destroyed in October 2018. This dry, deep, washed out river bed was the dividing line where conflicts often start. Here was a house destroyed in 2008, 2010, 2018—the government has only collected data but never brought assistance. This street was mixed religiously and has two Christian and two Muslim homes destroyed. Here is a building never rebuilt from 2010 standing next to one recently burnt. (Since the buildings’ walls are cinder blocks, they usually remain standing but are unusable due to heat damage). Later we saw entire blocks that were uninhabited, and all the buildings destroyed, and then the remains of the Mosque of the Imam that we are walking with. After some time, we returned to the military checkpoint to get our vehicle. The one soldier said, when you go, remember not just to tell about the bad things—there are many good things about Nigeria.

My work is peacebuilding—which implies there is a lack of peace and all that makes for peace, such as, justice. And policy advocacy—which implies that things are not the way they should be. So, my focus tends toward that which is not as it should be. However, this was a good word from the soldier. Incidentally it was similar to Jacob’s comment that helped frame our Advent themes—we may often focus on the negative or the difficult call of Jesus but there is also joy and beauty and God’s provision.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle is to sustain the joy of a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. This is an extravagant act that marks the coming of the Kingdom of God. The “on the third” day invokes the resurrection of Christ marking the experience of God’s power (Craddock and Boring). In the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the young man Alyosha, prays in despair at the death of his mentor Father Zosima, drifting in and out of sleep hearing the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle of turning the water to wine at a wedding feast, responds, “Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness…’He who loves men loves their gladness, too.’ ….’There’s no living without joy,” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 338). This wedding was taking place under an occupation by a foreign power—the Romans. The wedding was either poorly planned or the people were poor enough to run out of a critical beverage for such a celebration. Immediately after this Jesus

drives the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple for their economic exploitation of the worshipers. The joy, and Jesus’ acting to sustain the celebration take place in the presence of struggle.

While traveling I was reading James Cone’s recently published memoir. Cone was widely considered the Father of Black Liberation Theology. Cone powerfully describes how he began to find his voice as a young theologian in the 60s. Having written his Ph.D. in theology which, at the time, focused almost exclusively on white European theologians, he was filled with anger that the white church and white theologians of America maintained and supported white supremacy through silence.

He writes “When I turned away from white theology and back to scripture and black religious experience, the connection between Black Power and the gospel of Jesus became crystal clear. Both were concerned about the liberation of the oppressed” (Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, 15).

“…White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist” (Cone, 18).

He wanted to “wake up black people and let them know that the day of the white Christ was over. A new Black Messiah was in town.” This was because his theology was not just about the oppression but was also a celebration of blackness. It wasn’t only anger but also joy. He writes, “Black liberation theology came out of black culture and religion, and it celebrated a new freedom to talk about God and Jesus in a jazz mode, a blues style, and with the sound of spirituals…” (Cone, 64).

Cone finds his voice, which is both angry at injustice but also a celebration. In Cana of Galilee Jesus starts to get his voice. The first miracle of the Gospel of John is to keep party going, to protect a poor family from the humiliation of inadequate wine. Jesus will have many harsh words throughout his ministry. Jesus will also challenge and rebuke—there was and remains much in our world and in our lives that needs such a challenge—but Jesus, a poor Middle Eastern Jew, the incarnate one, this Jesus also celebrates and affirms.

We will read the passage again followed by silence and then a time to reflect on what we have heard.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

[***James Cone notes that his black liberation theology, which was a theology that took blackness and its cultural beauty as a source for theological reflection, was different from white theologies that were also affirming of culture. This mode of theology in Germany contributed to the Holocaust and in America contributed to the genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. For Cone, however, wrote from the “underside of American history” (Cone, 58). “I was thinking about God from the bottom and not from the top, from the experience of the powerlessness of black oppressed and not from that of the powerful white oppressor. God’s power is found in human weakness, the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors” Cone, 10).]

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69

“The flesh is useless.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is what the en-fleshed Word of God says to us. “The flesh is useless.”

At first glance, it’s hard for me to make sense of this. After all, Jesus is the Word become flesh. Jesus is the one through whom we know just how much God loves this world of flesh and bone. By Jesus’ presence, we know that God embraces the whole creation – humans, plants, animals – so much that he is willing to become part of us.

Jesus says that the flesh is useless – but clearly God loves this created world very much! Earlier in John’s Gospel, it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. He’s also a human being, just like any of us. He was born. He grew from a tiny baby to a full-grown man. He had friends and enemies. He experienced joy and suffering. In his life on earth, Jesus didn’t know everything all from the start. He learned and grew, just like we do. (If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.)

Jesus is fully human, even as he is fully divine. That’s a basic statement of faith that we receive from the early church, but it’s still so profound that I have a tough time wrapping my head around it. Jesus is man and God. He is spirit and flesh. He is life itself, and yet he experienced death.

In our passage from John this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that “the flesh is useless.” And yet at the same time, what is his command to the disciples? What does he tell them is the way to encounter the Spirit? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus says that this is the true manna from heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is the way to life.

So, clearly Jesus’ flesh is not useless. On the contrary, his flesh and blood are the key that opens up everything, that makes the Spirit’s work in the world possible. So why does Jesus say that the flesh is useless, when his flesh and blood are clearly so useful?

It seems like Jesus is talking about two distinct things: there’s the kind of flesh that is useless, and then there’s his flesh which brings life and connection to the Spirit of God.

And this makes sense. Because, though I’ve been saying this whole time that Jesus is a man just like us, he’s also a little different. He’s different, because he came into this world with an open heart. All the rest of us, when we’re born into this world, are immediately sucked into the confusion and brokenness of our society. From the very beginning, we’re baptized into the patterns of alienation that define fallen human society. We are children of Adam and Eve, children of the fall, children of the serpent who has deceived us.

Jesus’ life is different, because he has always been a child of God. He was never a child of the fall, a child of the serpent. Jesus never rejected his Father’s love. He never gave into fear and hatred. Jesus is God’s answer to the fall. He is the good flesh that God created in the beginning. In Jesus, the created order is redeemed. The Spirit is present and moves unimpeded. The curse of the fall is broken. The fissure between earth and heaven is healed.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca. It’s a dystopian movie about a near future in which everyone who can afford it genetically modifies their children to be smarter, stronger, healthier. Of course, not everyone is super excited about this, and some decide to have children the old fashioned way. So there’s a scene where a doctor is convincing some parents to have their child produced through genetic enhancement. He tells the couple, “your child will still be you, only the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result.”

Now this is a dystopian movie, so I admit that the comparison is rather strange, but I think that Jesus is kind of like this. He’s still us. He’s a real human being, with all our hopes, fears, and limitations. But he’s the best of us. He’s what we look like when we have been enhanced by God’s love – freed from the crippling disease of sin, that has plagued our human family for so long.

When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” he’s not saying that the creation is bad. He’s saying that the creation is broken and needs to be healed. Jesus is pointing to the fact that the body is meaningless when cut off from the spirit.

This past week, a good family friend died. His name was Dan Patterson, and he was like an adoptive uncle to me. I remember how he encouraged my love of reading, buying my brother and me the best books throughout our childhood. I remember traveling as a family with him to New York City. I remember his love of Opera and theater. I remember his fierce cynicism about our fallen human nature and his passionate critique of injustice wherever he saw it.

And now, he’s gone. That is to say, all that’s left is flesh. A dead body. The breath is gone, and all that’s left is a corpse. And when I think about all that we’ve lost, I want to say with Jesus, “the flesh is useless!” Without the spirit, the life, the presence of my friend Dan, what’s left? “It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I want my friend back.

The message of Jesus to us this morning, is that real life is only possible when we are filled with the breath and spirit of God. The spirit, the breath, gives life. I can’t just be a body. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be filled with the breath of God, the spirit. I can’t just go through the motions. Without the presence and love of the spirit, all that exists is death and decay. I’m just a corpse, breaking down.

This is what Paul was talking about in our reading this morning from Ephesians. He tells us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” If we’re going to be more than just a corpse, we have to be clothed by the Spirit.

King Solomon understood this, too. For everything that he did wrong, God gave Solomon wisdom to understand what a vital and amazing thing was the presence of God in the midst of Israel. When the Spirit of God descended on the Temple, it says that God filled the sanctuary like a cloud. The power of his presence was so intense that the priests couldn’t even stand to minister there. The power was so heavy, all they could do was bow in awe and worship. “For the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The house of the Lord. The dwelling place of God on earth. Solomon understood how crazy this entire concept was. How could the creator of the entire cosmos, a being who is deeper and wider than anything the human mind can comprehend – how could God come to dwell in a house made with human hands? Solomon was bowed down in awe and astonishment together with the priests, and he said, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The Temple in Israel was an important teaching tool for God. Like the desert tabernacle before it, it was a place where the flesh of this world could be touched and redeemed. A place where the Spirit breathed and gave life. In the old covenant, this was the place where the effects of the fall were overcome. Reconciliation between people and God was possible where the Spirit breathed into flesh.

In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, we no longer need a building to serve as God’s dwelling place. The church itself – the people of God gathered here, and in hundreds of thousands of other places this morning – is the temple of God. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the most high. Our lungs are filled by his Spirit. The spirit gives life. Together we feed on the body and blood of Jesus, and our own flesh is transformed.

Without the spirit, we’re just a corpse. We’re no good for anything but burial. But we don’t have to worry about that, because the Spirit is present here with us, ready to breathe into our lives. This temple, this gathering of Jesus followers, is ready to be filled by the glory of the Lord.

Are we ready to be filled? Are we ready to truly come alive? Are we ready to become the redeemed flesh and blood of Jesus in the world? Are we ready to become children of God, together with Jesus?

I would like to invite us into a time of open worship, in which we wait on the Spirit of God to come and fill us, inspire us, guide us into greater truth and faithfulness. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Breathe life into this body that longs to live in you.

Be Wise(ish)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

The stories we tell are usually more action/adventure than “wisdom.” Christian Peacemaker Team’s Art Gish, with bushy white brethren beard and red CPT hat standing arms wide in front a tank in an attempt stop the destruction of a vegetable market in the city of Hebron, West Bank, Palestine. The radical witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers who have houses of hospitality and live communally. Dietrich Bonhoeffer a resisting pastor killed by Nazis. Brethren Volunteer Service. Seagoing cowboys. Jacob quitting his job and moving to DC after I gave him a surprise call one afternoon 4 years ago. We tell these because they embody deep commitment and courageous steps to follow the way of Jesus.

These have their own Spirit leading, reasoning, purpose, and call but—they hardly fit the conventional picture of wisdom. As part of a graduation gift this spring, my parents gave me a cute little stone owl lawn ornament. As my mother gave it to me she commented on wisdom…connecting completing studies with increase of wisdom. My immediate response was that I’m not sure that doing the program was wise. She asked if I wished I hadn’t done it and I said…well, that’s not really the case. While I’m not sure that it was wise in terms of impact on our family, church work, stress level, and general well-being I felt- and still feel—that it was what I should have done to faithfully follow God’s call to working for a church that is better equipped for Jesus’ way of peacemaking. Wisdom is a tricky notion. For the Apostle Paul, Christ crucified is the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God unsettles.

Writing on the Gospels, a scholar notes the wide view of wisdom in the Bible., “Wisdom can mean simply the practical skills and qualities which humans can acquire in order to live successfully, or wisdom can refer to God’s knowledge and creative power which transcend human scrutiny. (F.W. Burnett, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 874).

The Bible includes Wisdom Literature: Proverbs, some Psalms, Ecclesiastes and other examples sprinkled throughout. In our Proverbs passage, Wisdom is personified as a woman inviting us to learn.

Wisdom has built her house,
   she has hewn her seven pillars…
4 “You that are simple, turn in here!”
   To those without sense she says,
5 “Come, eat of my bread
   and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6 Lay aside immaturity, and live,
   and walk in the way of insight.”

Later on, we read
A wise child makes a glad father,
   but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.
2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
   but righteousness delivers from death.
3 The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry,
   but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
4 A slack hand causes poverty,
   but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

These are generally true, but we can all think of ways that these wouldn’t play out. For example—A wise child makes the father glad—unless the father is evil and wants the child to do something dangerous or nefarious.

Or—the Lord does not let the righteous go hungry—except there are many cases where righteous people go hungry, in fact, there are probably righteous people every place of widespread hunger —one very immediate example is the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria or say Venezuela or Haiti or…

These do not prove that the scriptures are wrong. The style and intent are different. However, it still is the case that “wisdom” is not a category or framing that I am quick to overtly reference. But this may also be because there are many points in the Bible that appear to directly counter conventional wisdom. For example, 1 Corinthians upends and drastically reworks conventional wisdom, Paul writes—almost taunts,

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1:20)
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. (1:21)

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”  (3:19)

Additionally, many of Jesus’ teachings feel distinctly not wise—or at least not the level-headed and pragmatic we associate with wisdom.

Jesus said–

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

Jesus said –“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

Jesus said—”Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Luke 18:22

Wisdom would seem to say, live carefully. Jesus seems to say, live with abandon. Not abandon for self-pleasure and fulfillment or apathy but abandon in the power and the leading of the Spirit. The life Jesus calls us to is not of calculating self-preservation. Not calculating self-interest of nationalism or our own group’s domination.

The Ephesians passage begins to link wisdom with the radical way of Christ through the Spirit.
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do not live as unwise but as wise. The time is short, the day is evil. The situation is extreme so there can be no wasting time. Consume Christ. Be filled with the Spirit. Live in gratitude to God.
Be wise—(ish)….or rather be wise in a peculiar way. Be wise in the way that God calls us to be wise. For this wisdom of surpasses.

Let’s return for a moment to my earlier examples of the action or adventure stories we tell. We tell them because they radically embody the calling of Jesus. They are not, however, “heroes,”—courageous perhaps. They are part of communities that, together, follow the Spirit’s leading. Art Gish, for example, was part of the Church of the Brethren. A community that has gathered together to read the scriptures and prayerful follow the Spirit’s leading in both mundane and surprising ways. Art was part of Christian Peacemaker Teams ( http://www.cpt.org ). CPT is an organization that has been building relationships in communities around the world for years. CPT has an organizational structure and support from people around the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was formed by his time with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem from within the rich spiritual life of the African American church in the US which has lived courageously and creatively in the face of deep injustice. (Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance http://www.baylorpress.com/Book/16/398/Bonhoeffer’s_Black_Jesus.html )

Do not live as unwise but as wise. The time is short, the day is evil. The situation is extreme so there can be no wasting time. Consume Christ. Be filled with the Spirit. Live in gratitude to God.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. 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?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN

Trinity Sunday—We have had enough of sermons from pulpits

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: John 3:1-17; Romans 8:12-17

“We have had enough of sermons from pulpits.” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits. This rings in my ears.

Weeks ago, the Great March of Return was mounted to nonviolently protest unjust treatment in Gaza. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade, surrounded by an electric fence, with limited means for survival for 10 years.

On Monday May 14th, 2018 60 Palestinians—were killed by snipers during a nonviolent action.

On Tuesday May 15th, Churches for Middle East Peace gathered next to the White House for a vigil to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the Catastrophe as it is called by Palestinians driven from their land.

On Wednesday May 16th, I was asked, as a member of the board for Churches for Middle East Peace to facilitate the Q & A section of a talk by Naim Ateek—known as the founder of Palestinian Liberation theology. In his new book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict, he notes that the theology that was taught to his people by Western Christian missionaries couldn’t bear the weight of the displacement of 1948 and the Occupation of Palestine. He writes, “When the catastrophe struck, our Christian community was not ready for it. People’s faith was not always resilient enough to withstand the tragic impact. Some of our people lost their faith…They felt that the spirituality they were taught by the missionaries was one of resignation and acceptance of their fate as the will of God” (Ateek, 3).

This theologian, Naim Ateek is “big stuff” in theological circles. I do not typically say things like “I was honored to do this…,” I’m either to pompous or too informal but, as a theological ethicist, this was pretty great.

Also, on the panel was Tarek. Tarek, a Palestinian activist formerly with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine, gave an impassioned plea for action. He said, “We have had enough of sermons from pulpits!” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits…

My task this morning is to preach a sermon from a pulpit. Not only that but this is Trinity Sunday. To many of us the theology of the Trinity is probably about as esoteric as it can get.

While a sermon may be “just” words, it also can be a tool for justice. The work of the sermon and the preacher draws us to God and to neighbor and should draw us into the street. Not only this, but our church sits in a particular location and has a particular calling, a particular gift—a responsibility. We are taking up geographic space on Capitol Hill.

Taking up space is not neutral nor necessarily positive, however. This land also had original inhabitants on it—the Piscataway Nation. Who were also displaced through violence. But while it is not neutral in terms of innocent or without harm, it is also the possibility to participation of the work of justice.

It was my job to read the text this week. To read the text prayerfully and with care so that this morning I can do the audacious act of proclamation. Though we may gain from historical figurations and formulations about the doctrine of the Trinity, the work this morning is to read the texts. But not just to read the texts—to read them in light of the world. To read them for a “theology of the street” as Tarek admonished.

If you were to read this text with a highlighter for notating appearances of the persons that make up the Trinity you would see:

Vs. 13 “if by the Spirit.
Vs. 14 “led by the Spirit of God…are children of God.” –you get two there.
Vs. 15. “Abba! Father!” and “very Spirit”
Vs. 16 “heirs of God” and then…”with Christ.”

So, there you have it. That is why this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday. All three persons of the Trinity show up in the same passage. We also see the way that the persons of the Trinity interact with our lives. Listen again to the text,

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Now tell me—how do we relate to the Trinity? It’s like a knot! The pieces and our relationship are so interwoven that an effort to detangle, delineate, separate into categories or otherwise make it neatly comprehensible is a risky endeavor. The social relationship of the Trinity makes these relationships and processes and formation of our lives to that of God’s life possible. This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why there can really be no difference between theology of the street and of the pulpit—if both are done as they should be. They are one—but we have often tried to stay in safety. By we, I mean Christians who should have been on the street.

The passage focuses on being led by the Spirit and being children and heirs of God. Which is splendid! My parents got some inheritance money from an uncle and they were able to visit the Canadian Rockies—a long-time dream of my mother, and they were able to take all of their children and spouses. If this is being an heir, then being an heir to God—now that must be quite spectacular. Being led by the Spirit we are heirs to God. Which puts us as co-heirs with Christ—also fabulous sounding. Co-heir, co-anything with Christ sounds like being a buddy with God incarnate (Jesus did say to his disciples, I now call you friends).

So the Spirit leads which results in a relationship of child-ness to God and in some way adjacent to Christ.

This all sounds dandy. The passage concludes 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him…. if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Our tendency, which is quite natural, is to focus on the first and last of these.

We are heirs to God! We get God-stuff!

We will be glorified with Jesus! We are going to be famous like Jesus!

We like the sound of being co-heirs and co-glorified but we often skip the co-suffering. And if we admit there will be suffering we likely are thinking of something like discomfort-lite rather than anything parallel to Jesus.

Another place in scripture where the phrase “children of God” is noted is in Matthew 5:9. In this we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And in the example of Jesus we know that peacemaking is not conflict covering or avoiding or minimizing. If we look at the world, in Gaza (with blockade, hunger, protests, and sniper deaths), in Houston (with school shooting), in Nigeria—we know that peacemaking requires justice and sacrifice and risk and compassion and courage.

Omar Harami, Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and struggler for justice described peacemaking for me in this way:

“The city of Jerusalem is the city that gave witness to our faith- the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Lord, we are also in a way the city of Jerusalem as we continue to testify to the miraculous resurrection.

Peace is a beautiful word, even the worst tyrants talk about peace and claim they desire it, but their peace is not the peace of our lord.

Like every dish, the right ingredients and the proper way of making it will determine the success in making it to tasty meal.

We as Christians believe that Justice is the main ingredient to make peace, peace without restorative justice is simply impossible. Our faith mandates us to be justice seekers to make peace possible. The world is in need for justice, on many levels, human rights, economic justice, environmental justice etc… be justice seekers please.

Peace is not the final goal in our faith, its actually reconciliation… peace is only the path between justice and reconciliation. Please don’t be peacemakers, be demanders of restorative justice who work towards true reconciliation.
Philippians 4:7 -And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We are called into the very life of God led through the Spirit into co-suffering and co-glory with Christ. We are called into the very life of God in the streets.