You Who Listen

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Do you ever get into a conversation with somebody and after a little while your mind starts to wander? That happens to me more than I like, and after a time I find that I don’t quite know what’s going on in the conversation anymore. Either the other person will ask me a question and I have no idea what they’ve been talking about or something will click and I realize that I haven’t really been listening to the other person. I’ve heard them maybe, in the sense that I’m aware that they’ve been talking, but I haven’t really been listening.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. A dictionary definition for hearing is “to perceive or apprehend by the ear.” Hearing means that your ear has picked up a sound that has been made somewhere. Listening is “to hear something with thoughtful attention; to give consideration.” If you’re talking to me and I’ve tuned out, then I’m hearing you. The sound waves are still going in my ear and striking my eardrum. I’m just not listening. I’m not paying thoughtful attention to you. Julia says this happens more often for me than it should.

The Bible recognizes this difference. Revelation 3:22 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Those of you who can hear, who can apprehend sound, listen – pay attention – to what the Spirit is saying. Jesus draws the distinction himself a few times. For instance in Mark 4:23 Jesus says, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” There’s a difference between hearing and listening.

I think our Gospel reading from Luke today is one that a lot of people hear, but that not a lot listen to. I get it. Jesus is asking us to do hard things in this passage. That’s not a surprise. Jesus asks us to do hard things lots of places. I think this one, though, is one where a lot of us struggle.

One of the other readings for today is the end of the story of Joseph from Genesis chapter 45. You probably remember the whole story – Joseph is his father’s favorite, and to symbolize that favor Joseph received a beautiful coat from his father. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and threw him into a pit, and intended to kill him. Later instead of being killed Joseph was sold into slavery.

It’s a long and fascinating story, but eventually Joseph ends up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. There’s a famine and Joseph’s brothers, who tried to kill him, end up in front of Joseph begging for food.

Joseph reveals who he is, forgives them, and he tells them to bring his father to Egypt as well and he will see that they are taken care of until the famine is over.

I think that’s one of the best examples of loving your enemy that I know. There are a couple of things that make it powerful to me. First is that in this case, Joseph’s enemies were his family members. I guess you could think that would make it easier to love them because he knew them and was connected to them by blood. I think that would have made it harder to love, harder to forgive. There’s a sense of betrayal there that you don’t get with someone who isn’t part of your family.

It’s also powerful because Joseph actually has the means to do harm to his brothers. He could really take his revenge if he wanted to. I’ve been hurt by people who I’ll never see again. Forgiving them doesn’t make a lot of difference to them one way or another; it’s more something that I need to do to be at peace with myself. But would I be able to forgive them if I could hurt them as they hurt me? Could I let it go if I had the ability to cause the same levels of worry, of stress, of fear, that they caused for me? I think so, I hope so, but to be honest I don’t know because I’m not in that position. The people who I might consider my enemies aren’t kneeling before me in fear of their lives and hoping I will allow them food to survive.

This whole passage is hard because it’s hard to know how to apply it sometimes. It’s easy for me to say that I should love my enemies but it’s hard to know how to do that in every situation. What about turning the other cheek?

That one is interesting. Matthew records it a little differently than Luke does. In Matthew 5:39b, Jesus says “If anyone wants to strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That’s a difference that matters.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Wink talks about how in Jesus’ day Jews only used the left hand for unclean tasks. It was tough to grow up a left handed Jewish kid. Most people are right handed naturally, and Jews would have been especially careful to use the right hand. Even gesturing with the left hand was wrong.

So if I am right handed and I am going to strike you on your right cheek that means I’m going to backhand slap you. If I were to hit the left I could make an open-hand slap or I could use a fist, but to strike the right cheek almost requires a backhanded slap.

Let me quote Wink himself from his book “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.”

The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you…wants to sue you…forces you to go one mile…”). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.

So Jesus isn’t saying, “Be a doormat.” Jesus is saying, “Assert your equality. Declare your humanity.” Gandhi said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out of this as well.

Samuel Lloyd was one of the Deans of the National Cathedral. In a sermon he said of this, “Sounds like impractical idealism, doesn’t it—just caving in to evil. But in fact, Jesus is acting as a savvy community organizer advising followers who are having to contend constantly with the oppressive Roman rulers. When you have no power you have to find ways

to stand your ground and maintain your dignity. So over-respond, Jesus is saying, and show your oppressor for who he or she is. Let them overplay their hand, and you will be the one who walks away with his dignity. Civil rights leaders knew that when they sat down at segregated lunch counters.”

Jesus is speaking to the poor and the downtrodden, to slaves and Jews and women and prostitutes and children. It’s different for us, though. We aren’t particularly downtrodden. We may not be rich, but we’re not living in poverty either, at least I hope not. We’re not among the rulers of the world or even of this nation, but some of us work for them. There are times when some of us are in the power position in a relationship, and other times that we’re in the position of weakness in another.

The lesson, I think, remains whatever our position is. What does it mean to love my enemies? At least in part, it means that I treat them as my equal. It means that I treat them as humans, as people, not as dogs or animals or something or someone lower than I am by some measure.

The power of Joseph’s story isn’t just that he forgives his brothers. People who have been wronged in a relationship are the people in the power position. Joseph was the one with the power – not just the politicalpower, which he surely had as well, but Joseph was the one with the moral power. Joseph was the one who had been beaten and stripped and given to slavers.

And despite having the power position both physically and morally, Joseph treats his brothers as equals. He hugs them. He kisses them. He tells them to bring their father. He reunites the family. He recognizes their feelings and their guilt and he shows how God used it to bless them and so many other people. And how does the passage end? “And after that his brothers talked with him.” After all of that they gather and they talk once again, as they haven’t been able to talk for many, many years.

Part of treating people as human is taking them seriously. Part of treating people as equals is to listen to them, to try to understand their view, to take them seriously. I struggle with that sometimes, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do. I know, I know, that “You who listen” that opened our Gospel reading wasn’t a command. But if we listen to Jesus, not just hear him but listen to him, then we have to take him seriously. We have to internalize what it is he’s telling us in the verses that follow.

And what he’s telling us is to love our enemies. To do good to those that persecute us. To insist on our own humanity, but to also grant humanity and equality to those we disagree with, those who have power over us, and to those over whom we have power.

I hope all of us try to be among those who listen, both to God, to our friends, and to our enemies. Amen.

Seraphs (each with 6 wings), Fishes (so many)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8(9-13), 1 Corinthians 15;1-6, Luke 5:1-11

Isaiah, when facing God’s majesty, said “I am not worthy”

An angel came and touched his lips with a coal to purify him and take away his guilt.

Paul, when considering his call as an apostle, said “I am unworthy because I persecuted God’s people.”

It is through God’s grace that he was given this ministry.

Peter, when Jesus instructed one more cast of the net after a long night of empty net—which resulted in so many fishes that the nets just about broke, said “Go away from me for I am sinful.”

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

This was not simply a subjective lack of self-esteem or timidity or fabricated humility. It is not someone on stage saying they are “humbled” at the point of great success or an award. It is not my overwhelming introversion when I arrive at an event that the only reason I am attending is to network for my job.

Paul was called to proclaim Jesus after he had hunted down and thrown people who followed Jesus into prison. Paul, who was formerly Saul, oversaw the stoning of the first martyr of the church. He then took up the attack of the Jesus followers with terrifying zeal. In Acts 8 we read, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria… Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison…[and in the next chapter]… Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9).

So when the Apostle Paul (the one formerly known as Saul) says that “I am unworthy “to be a proclaimer of Jesus except through the grace of God he means it literally. He isn’t just saying this because it the correct and humble thing to say. The transformation and renewal are profound. But it is not just so that he can have a comforted conscience—he is given serious work to do. In fact, he says that he does it more intensely than everyone else. Which is hard not to hear as bragging (which may be why I don’t think in the earlier section he is being falsely humble).

The prophet Isaiah, when faced with the dazzling and terrifying presence of God initially shrinks in fear. The scene is dramatic:

“Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”

While this might just sound kind of cool to us—I mean the “pivots on the thresholds” shaking basically sounds like Jake and I am a War in The Chapel studio or an evening at the Black Cat. While I don’t know Isaiah’s music of choice, he certainly was well aware of the danger of seeing God face to face. There was a precedent of this being an experience unlike others.

Facing God was not a normal Tuesday meeting. For example, though Moses interacted with God more than most he was also afraid to see God—”And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” This is THE Moses. The God spoke through a burning bush to him Moses. The lead the people out of Egypt Moses. This Moses hid his face. When Moses receives the 10 commandments, receiving them from God…he glowed. We read in Exodus 34 “29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.” Even the residue of facing God struck fear.

And Peter. We know Peter as the first to speak—not shy and timid. Peter eventually received the “keys” to the kingdom from which the tradition of succession of the Pope was built and was a disciple—a star—a least a significant character of the story of Jesus. Before Peter was “Peter the theologically glamorous,” he is the Peter we have today. Peter was a fisher. Though it seems he owned the means of his production and labor—the boats and nets—he was one whose work was manual and stinky. Likely not the most prominent. Peter was young. Peter lived under occupation. Peter was not, it would have been guessed, a soon to be leader. Not only this but on this particular day Peter had been up all night unsuccessfully trying to catch fish. This was his profession and not only was it likely a source of professional pride, but it was a matter of survival. Peter and his colleagues in fishing had ended the excursion without fish.

In this context Jesus, the newish popular teacher asked to borrow a boat to use as a pulpit. At the conclusion of what was a teaching that didn’t manage to get recorded, Jesus instructs them to cast out once more and lower their nets for fish. The result is fish, so many fish. It is at this point that Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Three people. Three cases of recognizing unworthiness. When faced with the presence of the divine they rightly recoiled but were brought near by the mercy of God.

But there is more.

They are given work.

Jesus says to Peter the fisher of fish, you will be catch people. Does Peter know what this means? When I thought about it, it seemed less clear. I grew up with the song, “I will make you fishers of men…” The interpretation that we assumed was Jesus was calling them to be evangelists or preachers who would tell about Jesus and this would lead people to salvation. When I read this passage, however, I wondered what exactly Peter thought this meant when he left everything to follow Jesus. The analogy is actually not all that clear. Peter caught fish to sell them so that people could kill them and eat them. He wasn’t saving fish, he was destroying them. The fish weren’t drowning in the water in need of saving but thriving where they were supposed to be. Clearly the metaphor is limited. As we will see through the Gospels and Acts that it takes

several years for the Peter and the other disciples to get clear on exactly what this calling was calling them to. Peter was called and given work.

Isaiah is given the undesirable work to proclaim destruction.

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”

But within the destruction there remains hope for the future. The holy seed is its stump.

And Paul (formerly Saul) goes from a well educated (and probably successful leader) to a transient self-supporting (he made tents), ship wrecked, and oft-imprisoned preacher. Which, admittedly, sounds like a bad deal.

It is such bold action, however, after seeing God, that that both leads to faith and is a result of faith. For as we read in James, belief without action is dead. And in Hebrews 11 it is the faith shown by the “cloud of witnesses” that is the result of the grace of God and a sign of this. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…. (Hebrews 11)

It is to such faith and to such work that we are called. To proclaim with Paul the reconciling grace of God. To proclaim with Isaiah that even amidst destruction there is hope. And with Peter that Jesus has come near.

En Route

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21

When I tell people that I work at a 911 center they often ask what the hardest part of the job is. They wonder about high-stress calls where people have been shot, or barricade situations, or perhaps childbirth or CPR calls. All of those things can be stressful, but there is one stressor that remains kind of constant through all high priority calls. That constant is the waiting.

When you’re on the phone with someone who’s been shot, or someone who’s been injured in a car accident, or someone who can’t breathe or someone who’s giving birth, obviously those situations are stressful in and of themselves. But adding to that is the stress of waiting for someone to arrive. Whether it’s the police department or fire and rescue services, as a call taker you know that nothing’s going to get a whole lot better until someone gets there. No one’s going to be treated, or rescued, or whatever until help arrives on scene.

Each call has a timer on it that shows four things. The first one is when the call was entered. When did I as a call taker verify the location of the emergency, decide what type of emergency it is, type up what was going on, and hit “enter” so that the call would go to a dispatcher.

The second step is the time the call was dispatched. If I enter a call and send it to a dispatcher at 8:00, the time of dispatch shows when the dispatcher notified a unit about the call and told them to respond. For high priority calls like the ones I mentioned, it’s usually just a few minutes. For a more routine call like a noise complaint or a parking violation, it can be up to 30 minutes or an hour.

The third time shows when the dispatched unit marks en route, or on the way. This is almost always within a short time of being dispatched. It can be up to about five minutes if we’re dispatching firefighters or EMS workers who are asleep at 3:00 in the morning, but it’s rarely as long as that.

Finally, the fourth time is when the responding units mark on scene at the site of the emergency. This can vary a lot, based on how far the units have to come, what the traffic is like, what the weather is like, and other variables.

For me, it’s that “en route” part that can be stressful because all you can really do is wait. There are some calls, like calls about a burglar in the house or someone who’s been shot or stabbed, where we don’t want to disconnect with the caller. We try to gather additional information about what’s going on, get a description of what the suspect looks like or where he or she went, what the weapon looks like and where it is, things like that. On some medical calls like a childbirth call, we give delivery instructions and then care instructions after delivery, or some emergency instructions if the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s throat. We monitor what’s happening until rescue units are on scene.

What makes that time stressful is sometimes the situation itself; other times it’s the person you’re on the phone with who is frightened or worried or angry. People keep asking “When will the ambulance get here? When will the police get here?” and I keep saying “They’re on the way. They’re coming as quickly as they can. They’ll be there as soon as possible.” I say those things with an eye on that third timer – the one that tells me when units marked en route, how long it’s been that the caller and I have been waiting. It is so hard when you know someone is hurting or frightened or in danger, and units are still en route.

The story of Nehemiah is kind of a cool story. Nehemiah was an official in Persia. He heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem, and got permission to travel there to rebuild the temple. He begins seeing that the defensive walls around Jerusalem are rebuilt, and he declares a time of Jubilee in the midst of poverty and famine. This means that he required all debts and mortgages to be forgiven so that the poor could use their money to purchase food.

Then Nehemiah assembles the Jewish people and has Ezra read to them the law book of Moses, the Torah. The people confess their past sins, remember how God has helped them, and rededicate themselves to God’s worship and God’s service.

What strikes me here is how the reading of God’s word brings sadness to the people. They realize how far they are from God’s will. They recognize how far they’ve fallen, and they regret it bitterly.

But Ezra tells them to be joyful! The presence of God’s word symbolizes an end to their failures and their darkness and their ignorance. The proclamation of God’s word is a time for rejoicing! A time for celebration! A time to share with the poor! God’s word is a reason to be happy, not sad. God’s word is a reason to rejoice. God’s word is a reason

to think of and take care of the poor, of those who are not able to prepare for themselves.

In the New Testament, Jesus says starting in verse 18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then in verse 21 he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What is it that has been fulfilled? There are still captives – not just prisoners in jails, but people held captive. People enslaved. People trafficked and bartered.

We still have blind people – not just people who are physically limited in their sight, but people who are blinded by greed. People blinded by anger. People blinded by racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry. People blinded by nationalism. People who are blinded to the reality of the joy of life in Christ.

The oppressed are still with us. Oppression is sometimes political, in places like North Korea or China or Cuba. Oppression is sometimes economic as folks are oppressed by crushing debt and predatory interest.

There’s overlap between oppression and blindness and captivity depending on how we want to define them, but we can be sure that whatever it is that has been fulfilled, it hasn’t ended these things.

But Jesus didn’t proclaim the end to these things, to captivity and oppression and blindness. Jesus proclaimed that the end of those things was coming. Jesus proclaimed that the end was on the way. Jesus proclaimed that the end was en route.

The whole idea of the Kingdom of God existing within the midst of the fallen kingdom of the world is hard to grasp. Being citizens of both kingdoms is really challenging. Christians at different times have resolved the tension between the demands of the two kingdoms by withdrawing as much as possible from the kingdom of the world and living as fully within God’s kingdom as possible. That’s their way to be “in the world but not of the world.” Rod Dreher’s book from last year The Benedict Option tries to work at this idea, recommending that Christians consider living in intentional communities such as the Bruderhof.

There’s something to all of that, but the response to the proclamation of God’s word can’t be retreat – at least, not a permanent retreat – from the world. Hearing the word of God from Ezra at the Water Gate, how were the

people of God supposed to respond? By going out to find the poor. By meeting their needs. By having a party – one that everyone could attend and from which everyone would benefit!

That’s the same call that we face as Christians today. Jesus has proclaimed that captives are to be released, and that the blind will recover their sight, and that freedom is coming for the oppressed. “Are to be” released; “will recover” their sight; “is coming” for the oppressed. These things are en route. These things are on the way.

They have happened to some extent, but not to a full extent. The proclamation of the coming reality has been made – the units have been dispatched and they have marked en route. We are among those units of the kingdom that are already here, that have marked on scene. We are the ones to start working for that release, that recovery, and that freedom. We are the ones who are to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to declare and live out the Jubilee. To claim and live out of the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Kingdom is here, but some of its members and some of its results are still en route. The Kingdom has been proclaimed. Our

response isn’t just to wait for units to arrive. Our response is to celebrate and to act. Amen.

Let Your Face Shine [On Us]

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

In Isaiah we hear of the arrival of God’s saving action in the world. It is of a light coming to those who have been in darkness. There is great rejoicing from a people that have been multiplied. There are two similes used. One that is almost familiar and one that (I assume) isn’t:

they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

Jenn grows things. We harvest them. I really like going to our tiny garden and picking a bright orange habanero or variegated fish pepper to put directly into whatever I’m cooking. I like picking bay leaves from our little bay leaf shrub and then drying them for use later (they can’t be used fresh). I may even rejoice in this. This is, however, rejoicing-lite. While the appreciation is deep—linked to the wonder that the ground can produce the smoky fire of the pepper and the pungent sage and lavender for lemonade, appreciation that God creates and sustains creation in this way, joy that what we call a habanero or scotch bonnet Jenn and I first learned of as atarko with our church family in rural Nigeria on the border of Cameroon near the bottom edge of the Sahel semi-arid band south of the Sahara desert—that I rejoice in all of this is not the same as the rejoicing at the harvest of people who rely on the harvest for not only their livelihoods but also their very survival. Such rejoicing is deep. Tied closely to the desperate desire that comes with living close to the edge of survival.

They “rejoice as at the harvest” and “as people exult at dividing plunder.” This great relief of victory and joy at gathering of provision is heightened, is amplified because of the oppression that has been endured. It is a shaking free:

4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken ….

It is also the end of the battle. The reminders of this battle—the tramping boots and blood soaked clothing—these will be burned. This is the joy of the coming of the savior, the great light. The objective need for saving is recognized, felt deep in the bones.

Luke sets the birth of Jesus within the political context. While it appears that Luke is trying to make the case that Jesus is not a political threat—at least not a conventional political and

military threat to the conventional powers—the radically challenging nature of baby Jesus’s arrival continues to challenge us.

Luke orients Jesus’s arrival within a political context. This registration was not benign nor appreciated. (Craddock and Boring) It was an assertion of power and control by an occupying force. Mary and Joseph were caught up in it. Even while in late pregnancy they made the trip south to his hometown. This was certainly inconvenient and likely uncomfortable (perhaps she liked the challenge—Jenn for example climbed Table Mountain at 7 months pregnant and kayaked on the Anacostia for two hours the day she went into labor)

Perhaps it was the bumping of riding on a donkey or walking that got the labor happening, for once to Bethlehem the baby arrived. It is stated simply.

6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In any retelling—whether literary, movie, or by a campfire—significant events are compacted or not even referenced. The choice of what to minimize or eliminate is a specific choice or may be a result of particular interests or biases of the teller. In this case, a feminist commentator might note that a male writer would be expected not to focus much on the heroic feat of a woman. To deliver a child is not like having an Amazon package delivered (a house near us has a little cardboard sign by the front door. “Please drop any packages over the fence” with a little arrow pointing to a wooden fence a few feet to the left).

However, since the important thing is that Jesus gets here it is of some note that this is mentioned at all. A commentator notes 1/3 of the unique material in Luke focuses on women. And the full Luke account of the birth has a much stronger emphasis on the particular roles of women in this event—for example in the manner of the announcements of the birth and songs before the birth (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). Additionally, the Gospel of Mark starts with Jesus as an adult, Matthew only mentions “had been borne” in relation to Mary and Joseph not having sex until after Jesus had been borne–highlighting the divine conception, and John has no traditional narrative but rather a soaring theological reflection on Jesus’ participation in the creation of the world and then arrival into the world to be with the created ones.

Additionally, while the divine nature of the conception is noted earlier, it is not focused on. There were many such stories of divine arrival in that era. What is notable is that the Messiah, the savior, is born at all. (Craddock and Boring). No descending from heaven ready to go. The great light that is announced by Isaiah enters the world and sees the dimly lit stable for the first time. In some fantastic way, the Word which was from the beginning and who was present at

the creation of the world and through whom the world with its sources of light was created—as proclaimed in the opening of the Gospel of John—somehow, this awaited great light, who was the creator of light, descends the dark and crushing birth canal of Mary and sees light for the first time. This is the great mystery. The mystery of Emmanuel—God with us. This is the great light that has been awaited this is what will cause rejoicing as at the harvest.

This is the victory of God. The victory of God shows up with a young family forced to leave their home and who are given no place to stay.

6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And not only does the victory of God show up in the unexpected manner of a displaced person but the first announcement is to the shepherds—a class looked down on, distrusted, and also unexpected. No high-end PR firms. No world-renowned poet or preacher. The shepherds are the first evangelists, the first announcers of the coming hope and light. The Messiah, the awaited savior.

. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Isaiah had said: 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

For the grace of God has appeared (Titus)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. (Isaiah)

The sermon title–“Let your face shine” has some linguistic flexibility. If you include the parenthetical “(on us)” it may be that we are beseeching God to let the light of God radiate on to us. And if we were mimicking the language of the Psalms this is a plea for God’s blessings. It could also be an exhortation—almost an ethical-spiritual exhortation about how we should live. You now have experienced the light of Christ let your face shine! The one who created the light then entered into the light. This same light shone when the angels proclaimed to the shepherds that the great awaited light was now shining in the face of a baby in Bethlehem. This is the same light that we are invited to shine. Let your face shine!

Where the Joy Meets the Vipers

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas?  Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day?  Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers?  How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?

What?  Oh yes, the vipers.  I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers.  Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble.  The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.

We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy.  Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.”  All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.

Who, however, rejoices at vipers?  People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things.  I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference.  The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork.  I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.

On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.

I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers.  There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.

The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him.  It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to?  Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.

I find that a little scary.  In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper.  Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9:  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared.  They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers.  They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is.  So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”

Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way.  (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say?  His preaching was getting through to the people.  Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?”  And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?

Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives?  Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?

Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit.  No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.

Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices.  He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.”  Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.

In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”

That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it?  You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice.  But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.

Vipers represent evil.  I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap.  I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do.  Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often.  Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. We are vipers.  Where is the joy in John’s response?

The joy is that we can do it.

Yay Trees!

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

This week, we celebrated Ayuba turning six months old. We’re often asked how parenthood is treating us. My response has always been, “Delightful and exhausting.” It’s getting a little less exhausting and always more delightful, especially as we see his curiosity grow and interests develop. We’ve been trying diligently to develop Ayuba’s sense of delight and wonder at the world around him, especially for the natural world. Child development research teaches that parents should regularly narrate their daily lives to their babies, facilitating language development as well as curiosity and knowledge. As we take our family walks each day, we talk about flowers, shrubs, weather, and trees.

Ayuba was born in late spring, when the leaves on the trees were lush and full, giving us shade from the sweltering DC heat. We’ve noticed him look up and stare on our family walks, especially at some of the tallest trees in our neighborhood. When Autumn arrived, we pointed out the shimmering red maple leaves lining the walk to his daycare and the yellow gingko leaves carpeting the ground on our block. On Friday, we stopped so he could touch the sweet gum tree leaves that persistently remain on their branches—some of them yellow and some of them steadfastly green.

When Autumn began, I spoke to Ayuba about how the leaves were falling off the trees. I said, “The trees look like they are dying. They are losing all their leaves. It feels sad, but the trees and plants are only sleeping. Winter comes and there is beauty even when everything seems dead, like when it snows. Thankfully, Winter is followed by Spring, when the trees and all the plants all wake up, everything begins to grow, and there is so much beauty and new life.” I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes. While I’m one of those people who very much loves winter, my favorite time of year is spring.

Trees symbolize what God is doing

My sermon title and our theme for the first Sunday in Advent is “Yay trees!” This came out of an email thread where I listed a few images from different Advent scriptures. Jacob—not looking at the contexts per se—went with them to create themes for each Sunday that could work with our overall Advent 2018 theme, “Let Your Face Shine.” “Yay trees!” represents some of the Advent joy that the Worship Planning Team thought should characterize our preparation for Christmas.

Trees tell us the seasons. In our northern hemisphere, the differences between seasons is starkly seen on trees. Yet even tropical trees vary by the season, in terms of fruit or flowers, depending on the rains or temperature. Two of today’s scripture passages utilize tree imagery to symbolize what God is doing in the world. In each of them, if you want to see what’s going on in the grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation, look at the trees.

A Sobering Fig Tree

In our Luke passage, Jesus gets pretty dark. He foretells a time of trial and tribulation for his disciples, for the Jewish people, and for Jerusalem. It’s a tricky text to interpret. Commentators historically apply it to both an application in Jesus’ day (Roman destruction of Jerusalem, persecution of the early church) and to a future eschatological event, something of the last days (or eschaton, which is the Greek word for the final event). We see cosmic signs, distress among nations, confusion, roaring of the seas and waves, people in a panic: it’s a time characterized by national or global anxiety. Jesus explains that such a time will characterize the Son of Man’s return.

He says to his disciples, “when you see these signs, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near!” In other words, don’t be afraid—stand tall and trust that God is both with you and will lead to through the tribulation to the final redemption. Jesus instructs the disciples to use the fig tree as an example. Just as we can see that leaves on a tree indicate that summer is here, so we too can look around at signs to see the Kingdom of God at hand. Though there may be anxiety and global turmoil, Jesus’ followers are to stop and recognize that God oversees the final outcome.

Jesus ends our passage by warning his disciples to “stay alert!” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus calls us to “Stay alert!” What aspects of this holiday season, as celebrated within US culture, can cause our hearts to be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and worries? Are there practices in our holiday festivities that make us forget that the Kingdom of God is at hand? How can we celebrate the holidays while also using Advent as a time to “stay alert” to God’s Kingdom at work in the world?

God’s Branch

Our passage in Jeremiah also mentions a tree. If you haven’t read Jeremiah (and, I admit, I haven’t read the whole book for a while—which makes me want to re-read its entirety), the Prophet has a rough time. Things are not going well for the people of Judah, so Jeremiah needs to use all sorts of strange object lessons to send a message: Yahweh will judge Judah, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and take the people into exile. This is a rather weighty burden for a messenger to bear.

Yet Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. There are oracles of judgment offset by glimpses of hope. Chapter 30-33 are hope-filled chapters. In chapter 31, Yahweh promises a New Covenant. In 33, we see a vision of restoration and return from exile. The LORD will not abandon his people but will raise up a righteous Branch out of the tree of King David. The Branch image is the agent of God’s deliverance, God’s renewal, and God’s hope.

While there were some good kings and some kind of okay ones, David’s heirs had basically trashed the kingship and helped lead the people astray with idolatry and injustice. Since the people of Judah broke their part of God’s covenant with that idolatry and injustice, Yahweh took away the covenant’s protection. The Babylonians then came and destroyed everything. The people of Judah and even the last King were taken into bondage. Our passage’s context is one of profound loss.

Yet Jeremiah speaks of a promised leader who will not lead God’s people astray but will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. These words together (justice and righteousness) are codewords for harmony, social justice, and devotion to God. In that day, Jeremiah says, the city and the country will be renewed. It won’t be about the people’s righteousness (or their failure to do what is right), but the city will be defined by God’s righteous reign among them. The place in the last days will be called, “Adonai Tsidkeinu,” or The LORD is our righteousness.

Through the New Testament’s revelation, we interpret the Branch to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jeremiah speaks of the Branch as a message of hope in the face of hopelessness. Against all odds, all grief, all devastation, there is God’s promise of renewal, transformation, and resurrection.

All the music and movies tell us that Christmas time is “supposed to be cheery.” Culturally, that happiness expectation runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Yet for many, this season is marked by heavy hearts, mourning loss, dealing with grief, or burdened down by conflict or broken relationships. For many people, Christmas is not an easy time.

The Advent message here is that—amid great pain, sorrow, and unbelievable brokenness—God promises to bring future restoration. Where the NRSV says, “The LORD is our righteousness,” the Message translation paraphrases it, their motto will be, “GOD has set things right for us.” The hope of Advent is not plastering on a smile or pretending to be cheery. Rather, the hope of Advent involves trusting in the God who promises to set things right for us, the God who comes and enters into our broken world to shine the Light of God on our brokenness. Jesus, Immanuel: God with us.

Remember the Fig Tree and the Branch

Today we have two tree images. One is a fig tree sprouting leaves, a sign that our world of injustice and horror will one day have God’s dramatic intervention. This image tells us to be prepared and to use Advent as a time for centering, being on our guard for the distractions that make us forget God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, justice, and peace. The second tree is the image of a branch sprouting out of a tree thought to be dead. It’s an image with hope that God renews the broken, exiled, and devasted, giving a future of new life and restoration.

One tree is sobering and a call to action, the other reminds us that God brings life and hope out of that which appears dead. Each tree has a message for Advent that needs to be told; we might need to hear one message this year and the other message in the next. Perhaps we must hold them both in tension throughout all the weeks leading up to Christmas. Which Advent message do you need to hear today?

Sisters and brothers, remember both the fig tree and the branch. Find that balance between keeping alert and finding solace in God’s hope. Be on your guard for too much feasting or drinking or gifting, that you don’t

lose sight of God’s Kingdom and your role in it. Find solace in God’s hope, in the face of brokenness and loss, trusting that sorrow is not the end, and that God is at work—renewing both this world and you. AMEN.

Ecumenism and Interfaith

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture Readings: Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6; Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21

Mini-Sermon 1: What does it mean to live together as the body of Christ?
(Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6)

Ice cream comes in many flavors. My favorites include lavender honey, caramel pecan praline, cookies and cream, and a wonderful one called Double Dunker (mocha ice cream with cookie dough and cookies and cream combined). While I chose the Church of the Brethren to be my faith home as a young adult, I’ve always loved ice cream – something that apparently is almost as core to the Brethren identity as peacemaking. (Why don’t we combine them? Peace through ice cream?)

Like ice cream flavors, churches also come in flavors. I chose the Church of the Brethren “flavor.” I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Later, as an elementary school kid, I was dedicated in a Baptist Church. I’m the only non-baby child dedication that I’ve heard of. After we moved to Ontario, I chose to be re-baptized at a church that was a different type of Baptist than where I was dedicated. It was here at this 2nd Baptist church that I had my first taste of Ecumenism, though I didn’t know the word yet. Apparently, the churches in my town had once been in conflict. The Baptists, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals – you wouldn’t have found them together, cooperating or worshiping. However, by the time I was in high school, the churches had finally gotten over themselves and whatever divided them to cooperate in two joint worship services a year and some shared youth events.

While we found ways to demonstrate unity, it didn’t mean that we all agreed with each other. For instance, a friend of mine told me that she would pray for me to speak in tongues so that I could receive the Holy Spirit. I was like, “um, you don’t think I have the Holy Spirit even though I already follow Jesus?” She doubled back and referred to it as an extra blessing of the Holy Spirit… but I know her church sometimes taught that if you didn’t speak in tongues, you might not have the Holy Spirit. Theology could still divide us, even though I worshiped with their youth group sometimes.

Also, when I was in high school, I would sometimes hear another friend’s mom (a Baptist friend) make sarcastic remarks about the Pentecostal youth pastor, who was a woman. The church that I attended and where I was baptized did not allow women to be pastors.

Clearly, there are things that divide Christians from one another. Robes. Bells. Incense. Women in ministry. Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer persons in the ministry of the church. Patterns of organization and hierarchy. Beliefs about the ways the Holy Spirit works (what gifts exist today and who can get them). Beliefs about ways to practice communion (or perhaps not to practice such an outward form, if you’re Quaker). Beliefs about what happens during communion. Do the bread and cup become Jesus’ actual body and blood, like changing in matter and substance? Is Jesus present with it, even if it’s not his actual blood and body? Is it just a way to remember Jesus’ death? Or is it some altogether other mystical experience with Jesus? We differ on what communion means and as to who can even legitimately partake in communion. As my own rebaptism story indicates, we diverge in terms of what baptism means, who can be baptized, and when.

And yet, as we see with our scripture in Ephesians, even if we have different beliefs and practices about baptism, there is just one baptism. Even if we think our baptism is the most biblical, all of us are being baptized into Jesus. Brother Paul the Apostle writes, there is one baptism, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one hope of our calling, one God of all—who is above all and through all and in all. We are all connected—beyond the ways that we differ—through our faith Jesus.

For 5 years, I had the privilege and joy to be an author on a paper that was finally approved by Annual Conference this summer, A Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st CenturyA Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century. The paper describes church unity like bodies of water:

The Church of the Brethren, along with the other groups in the Brethren movement, traces its beginning to baptisms in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. The Eder connects to a series of other rivers (the Fulda and Weser), and the water eventually flows into the North Sea, before joining the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the Eder River is connected to other bodies of water, the Church of the Brethren is part of the worldwide body of Christ. As we hold fast to our identity and calling in Christ, the Spirit of God calls us into partnership with brothers and sisters who have also received living water’ in Jesus (John 4:10). The Greek word oikoumene, which means the “whole inhabited earth,” is a reminder that we are connected by faith in ways that are far greater than our differences. It is from this word that we get the term “ecumenical.” Our ecumenical interests and activities connect us to one another and to God as tributaries and rivers connect to the ocean) (Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, 2018).

I think that this river imagery is more poetic than my ice cream flavor analogy. It highlights connectedness and the life-giving nature of water, rather than just speaking to different flavors. Yet it also speaks to differences – rivers have different speeds and geographic features that make each distinct. They each have their own ecosystems, allow diverse creatures to flourish.

Our psalm passage also uses moisture imagery for unity, but in the form of oily beards and mountain dew. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! When God’s people are unified, it’s something holy and pleasing to God—just as ancient anointing oil on the high priest was holy and pleasing. The 2nd image needs a bit more context. According to one writer, the land of Israel has a dry season for several months. During this time without rain, dew becomes very important to the ecosystem. The dew from Mount Hermon trickles down during the dry season to nourish the earth—sustaining crops and making the land fruitful even without rain (Tverberg, n.d.). Unity is holy, pleasing, nourishing, and it bears fruit—leading to abundant life.

The Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century paper shares a lot of scripture, history, and recommendations for congregations, districts, and the denomination on engaging with other Christians. The first recommendation for individuals and churches is this: “Every member of the Church of the Brethren is challenged to take seriously the meaning of Jesus’ prayer that all his followers be one (John 17:20-24).” (Annual Conference, 2018, p. 16). This is the only time in Scripture that Jesus prays, not only for the disciples, but for all who would believe in him in the future. Jesus prays for us and all Christians worldwide, that we might be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. As such, weighty question stands for all Christians: what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? We may not typically think of it as an urgent question, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ prayer heightens the responsibility that we all must take the call for unity seriously. How should this shape our ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with other flavors of Christians? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative? What were they like?

What do you think are the benefits of Christian unity?

What are the challenges of Christian unity?

What are some gifts that other denominations or Christian traditions might bring to the body of Christ?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Mini-Sermon 2: What does it mean to be Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world?
(Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21)

Our passage in Luke serves as a bridge passage, tying these two topics together. The section begins with an emphasis on humility—come to Jesus as little children, ready to learn and love on the journey with Jesus. Then, we see an interaction between Jesus and his disciples around who can legitimately call themselves Jesus followers. The disciples say, “Master! Someone is going around and casting out demons in your name.” Jesus replies saying, “Well, if they’re not hurting anyone and they’re not going against you, they’re actually for you.” Early ecumenism before the church was even a thing.

Then the story continues. Jesus is preparing for the final days of his ministry, so he gets ready and sets out toward Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith where the temple stood. Some messengers go ahead of Jesus, likely to get hospitality set up as he traveled through. But the village of Samaritans are not willing to show hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, especially since his end goal is Jerusalem. The Samaritan religion had gone a different direction than Judaism and one of the main areas of contention was where to worship God. The Samaritans said Mount Gerizim, while the Jews said Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In our text, the Samaritans probably find it offensive to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to support what they perceive as false beliefs.

The disciples are not happy about this. They take offense and get worked up. In their view, such hostility should be met with hostility. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus looks at them and, while we don’t have the actual words recorded, scripture says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I’d like to know what Jesus said. Even though not showing hospitality was a big offense in their culture, and even though the Samaritans are rejecting Jesus, Jesus doesn’t repay them with violence or hostility. He just goes on his way to another village and teaches his followers to overlook this lack of hospitality.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t gloss over religious difference; he doesn’t pretend that Samaritans and Jews believe the same thing. Yet Jesus also doesn’t get bent out of shape when people reject what he believes. These are helpful principles for us today as we think about being Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world.

When the committee first began its work on the Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century, we couldn’t help but talk about both ecumenical relationships and interfaith relationships. There had been precedent before and we knew that the Church of the Brethren needed clear guidance on both types of engagement. People use the term “interfaith” in very different ways, so we placed our definition in our paper’s glossary just to be clear. For the Church of the Brethren (according to the paper), interfaith means: “Partnerships, communication, or gatherings that bring people of differing faiths or understandings together for a common goal or purpose.”

We also knew we had to be quite clear about what we meant by interfaith and what we did not mean by interfaith. We knew that some Brethren would hear interfaith and think that we meant syncretism or relativism. What we advocated for instead was “a religious pluralism approach—which calls for peaceful coexistence and understanding, not a religious combining” (Annual Conference, 2018, p.10). We wrote in the paper, “Pluralism allows us to understand others while maintaining our specific belief in Jesus as reconciler and redeemer, while keeping the New Testament as our creed. Specifying the purpose of various [interfaith] interactions (building understanding, doing interfaith community service, or evangelism) can allow us to build trust, maintain our witness, and extend love and understanding in a world rife with hatred and division” (p. 10).

In interfaith events that I’ve been at, we don’t pretend that everyone believes the same thing. That honesty, when combined with authenticity, humility, and love, allows us to learn from one another to promote understanding and cooperation. I think that it can engage the most people in interfaith peacemaking because it does not require leaving your faith behind. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others would not want to participate if it meant signing onto a universal religion. For me as a follower of Jesus, I can engage in interfaith and still believe that God’s truth is most fully expressed in Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Staying true to my faith does not mean that I am mocking or denigrating another religion. In fact, I can learn about them, learn from them, and maybe even be strengthened in my own faith in Jesus because of what I learn.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” God’s children are called to make peace. As Paul writes in Romans, we are to love sincerely. Cling to what is good. As far as it possibly depends on us, to live at peace with everyone. AMEN.

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with people of other religions? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative?

What do you think are the benefits of interfaith engagement?

What are the challenges of interfaith engagement?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?
Two recommendations from the paper are here:

Congregations are encouraged to offer opportunities (classes, workshops, special
services) for members to understand neighbors. One goal of these opportunities is to encourage dialogue and understanding about how the Church of the Brethren is part of the larger body of Christ. This understanding will build awareness of who we are as Brethren and how we are connected to other sisters and brothers in Christ. It will also identify points of connection and divergence between Christianity and other world religions.

Congregations are encouraged to communicate with local religious groups and to participate in community opportunities for worship and service, such as pulpit exchanges, intentional dialogue series, community worship services, and other gatherings designed to bring a community together. CROP Walks, workcamps, food pantries, and other local Christian and interfaith initiatives are examples of service that focuses on human needs and values that are common to major faith traditions.

I invite you to read the document further and to consider—as we discern moving forward in new ministries—how we can take seriously Jesus’ call to be one with other Christians and to live out our calling as Jesus’ peacemakers.