IF I PROCLAIM

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

Nathan Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU’RE MY FAVORITE or BLAND NEUTRALITY

James 2:1-13, Luke 6:20-26

Nate Hosler

This is the third sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/youre-my-favorite-or-bland-neutrality-october-8-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Jenn rightly noted that Martin Luther, the Reformer, disliked James. His big thing was faith and the grace of God. James was an “epistle of straw.” He felt that James obviously contradicting other parts of the Bible. Protestants are the heirs of the Reformation. Church of the Brethren, a part of the Anabaptists (what some have called the left wing of the reformation) however, were really into (that is the technical theological term) James. So, not only did I think it was a good idea for us to focus on James as a congregation but it was also a good ecumenical joke to study James on the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

Our passages today was one of those that was likely irritating. Directly before our passage James says real religion leads to a bridling of the tongue, being untainted by the world and caring for widow and orphan—the most at risk. Micah, our beloved Quaker preacher, called these tangible acts of compassion. James very forthrightly challenges acts of favoritism, particularly how the church folk greeted and welcomed others into their gathering. Particularly he challenges differentiating between those who are visually wealthy and those who are not.

One note on reading: the question of welcome is one closely connected to privilege. How we understand welcome and how we welcome is largely connected to our privilege and power (or lack thereof). Last time I preached on this text (in 2015) I focused on Syrian refugees. This debate revolves around who, how, and where one is allowed to travel and what they need to prove. Much of this runs through and is formed by our imaginations being formed by (and forming) entertainment (a classic American movie villain used to be a Russian and now is typically a Middle Eastern Muslim terrorist—or at least one part of this). The question of privilege and power in welcome also shows up in dominant language—travel and you expect someone to speak English. This is also very pertinent for us since tomorrow is marked as Columbus Day [ See my reflection on this here: http://blog.brethren.org/2017/reflections-on-land-and-columbus-day/ ]. The dominant often determine welcome or set the terms for it.

Katie Cannon observes this in what she terms “dominant ethics.” She writes:  

“Dominant ethics also assumes that a moral agent is to a considerable degree free and self-directing. Each person possesses self-determining power. For instance, one is free to choose whether or not she/he wants to suffer and make sacrifices as a principle of action or as a voluntary vocational pledge of crossbearing. In dominant ethics a person is free to make suffering a desirable moral norm. This is not so for Blacks. For the masses of Black people, suffering is the normal state of affairs. Mental anguish, physical abuses, and straitened circumstances. Due to the extraneous forces and entrenched bulwark of white supremacy and male superiority which pervade this society, Blacks and whites, women and men are forced to live with very different ranges of freedom. As long as the white-male experience continues to be established as the ethical norm, Black women, Black men and others will suffer unequivocal oppression” (Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics, (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 2-3).

This extends beyond ethical reflection to theological as well institutional access.

I note this on privilege and power in welcome because it very clearly affects how we read this particular passage. Presumably such friendliness could be profitable. Though there is little external data about the recipients of this writing from the text one notices that the community is likely primarily marginal laborers in a divided society. Partiality to the wealthy is then a matter of survival. (R.W.Wall, “Letter of James,” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments), 548-549.

We read, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 

Some Christians say just believe these: 1, 2, 3, and you are set. James complicates this. While we still are in need of the grace of God our actions are quite relevant.

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”[c] have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Making distinctions is a fundamental undermining of one’s faith.

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

The beatitudes that are often quoted are the Matthew version—“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. While this is challenging it is also kind of nice. It is hard to judge such a spiritual state. Luke 6 has a bit more discomforting punch (at least to the well off). To my earlier point of reading location and privilege—I first wrote that Luke 6 is discomforting and didn’t include the qualification.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled….
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[
d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Here things get real. Of course, it is hard to know what being blessed is when one is poor or hungry or hated. This does not feel particularly blessed. But I, of course, don’t really know what it means to be hungry, poor, or hated. When I’ve been hungry I always have the relatively near prospect of food. Though not wealthy or free to buy anything I happen to want I am certainly not poor—not really hated. So, when I read this it is critical that I read it with a broader body of people. Reading as a group and trying to teach a loving the enemies passage changed when in the vicinity of Boko Haram and other targeted violence. Though we didn’t have Bible studies there this is also one of the losses for this congregation of not having the Brethren Nutrition Program soup kitchen.

The first challenge to this favoritism is solidly theological. Is it possible for you to be one with Jesus if you demonstrate favoritism? The second is much more practical.

 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

The first argument is that favoritism goes against a basic and central teaching of Jesus—it goes against what Jesus put at the very basis of the entirety of the law. The second line of argument is much more practical—why do you give preference to the very people that hurt you and offend your God.

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Partiality is a definitive breaking of the commandment that Jesus listed as the most important.

 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

(NIV)  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom

Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.

 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Brethren Nutrition Program closed last week. We, as a congregation are in a time of discernment in which we aim to determine what is next. If there is an active next or a sabbath next. It closed in large part because the neighborhood changed. So, if there are many fewer people who were coming in need of food and housing prices are way up, what does it mean for us as a church to minister to and in our community? There are other considerations, that it might be a good political move to get the more powerful and rich folks to hang out with us. This seems to have been a core problem with the recipients of the letter of James. They were inclined to preference and give deference to those with wealth or power as a survival strategy. James doesn’t say that they should mistreat the wealthy. He just says don’t give partiality to them over others.

Today we will celebrate the Love Feast. Love Feast is a time where we eat and participate in the suffering and modeled service of Jesus. We will eat the broken body and shed blood. Remembering that Jesus has called us to take up our cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian who resisted tyranny—wrote in the Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

CIRCLES OF LIGHT

John 9:1-41, Ephesians 5:8-14

Jeff Davidson

When I started working on this sermon I ran across this reflection from Dr. Rachael Keefe on her blog “Write Out of Left Field.” (https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/) She’s writing in part about our gospel reading from John, and she says, “As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman (who is not in our scripture reading today) and the man born blind, especially.”

That might strike home for you. Maybe you’ve been excluded sometimes because of the kinds of things that Keefe mentions. It happens a lot when we’re younger. As a fat kid, I definitely knew what it felt like to be excluded, to be out of the circle sometimes.

Perhaps you or I have excluded somebody at some time because of those kinds of issues. Perhaps it hasn’t been those issues but other issues that have led us to leave others on the outside of our circles. Whatever the issue is, it doesn’t feel good to the person on the outside, and it affects them down the road.

There are a lot of things that strike me in the story of the man born blind, but one of them is how many times he is pushed outside the circle, how many times he is pushed into the darkness by the people around him. Not physical darkness, of course, but emotional darkness, spiritual darkness. It is amazing how many times in this passage that people draw a circle that excludes the man born blind for one reason or another.

First the disciples draw the circle of exclusion. “Who sinned that this guy is blind?” His condition has to be the result of sin. Not sin in the generic, original sin sense – in that sense anything bad is a result of sin. No, they mean a specific sin committed by a specific person. He’s blind not just because of the same reason we all have faults and frailties; he’s blind because of something that may have been in his control.

Next it’s his neighbors. “Is that the blind guy? Nah, couldn’t be.” And when the blind man, or I should say the formerly blind man, insists that it is too, him, the neighbors don’t buy it. They leave him on the outside once again.

Then it’s the Pharisees putting him on the outside. It says that the Jews decided that it wasn’t the same guy, even though he insisted he was. They didn’t believe he was the man born blind that everyone knew. They’d walked by him a hundred times, maybe a thousand, so you would think they would have recognized him, but they either didn’t recognize him or they didn’t believe their own eyes. (I think there is a good sermon waiting to be preached on that fact.) So the Pharisees call the man’s parents, and they say “Yes, it’s our son” and “No, we have no idea how this happened.”

So the Pharisees call the man back again, and they go through the whole thing again, and you know what? They still don’t believe him. The man pushes back, but the Pharisees keep him out. The word the scripture uses is “reviled” as they said, “We are Moses’ disciples, but you are his disciple.” 

The man who has been healed is persistent, and he is not willing to be silenced, until finally the Pharisees just give up arguing and drive him out physically. Now the man is not just on the outside looking in emotionally or spiritually, he’s literally, physically being excluded.

The man meets Jesus again, and believing that it is Jesus who healed him he worships Jesus, and Jesus accepts his worship. Jesus lets him into the circle. And in a final twist, some of the Pharisees overhear all of this and Jesus excludes them because of their sin and their unwillingness to believe.

I find that dynamic of inclusion and exclusion running through this reading fascinating, and I know I haven’t done it justice with this little summary. It’s worth a lot more thought and reflection.

Back on February 17, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in New York magazine. (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-white-house-mole.html) I’ve read Sullivan for a long time, and I don’t always agree with him but I always find him interesting and thought-provoking. This piece resonated with me because as I read Facebook and comment threads on newspaper articles I see a lot of people who are angry at their opponents. I see a lot of liberal or progressive folks referring to Pres. Trump’s supporters as racists or morons. I see a lot of conservative folks referring to their ideological foes as libtards. I saw a lot of gloating over Pres. Trump’s victory, and I have seen a lot of gloating over the failure of the Republicans to pass healthcare reform this past week. 

Here’s what Sullivan wrote in a portion of a column after Pres. Trump’s aide Stephen Miller had made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows earlier in the week. For those of you who may not know him, Stephen Miller is a senior advisor to Pres. Trump. He is very conservative, but grew up in the very liberal Santa Monica, CA and went to Duke University, where he was among a minority of conservative students.

Sullivan writes, “I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.

Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think Ingraham and Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a champagne party to welcome Reagan’s cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better — and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish (well, I won’t use the word Sullivan does.) But I didn’t. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality — especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maher’s show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing “In Trump We Trust.” In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke — their living, breathing, raving antibody.”

You don’t have to know Stephen Miller or Ann Coulter or any of the other folks Sullivan mentions to know what that part of the column is about. It’s about people who are excluded, people who are put down, people who are mocked or demonized or treated badly for their political views and the reaction that kind of treatment can lead to. There are liberal political equivalents of those folks. It’s the same dynamic that you see in the radicalization of some very small group of Muslims who have lived in the United States for years, even decades. They feel demonized, mocked, excluded, attacked, and they react by fighting back. That’s why General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, tells people not to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

People have probably excluded us from their circles at one time or another in our lives. We may or may not have been acutely aware of it at the time. We may have forgotten it by now, or the pain may still linger and be real. We have probably excluded others in our circles in the same way. Sometimes the exclusion is intentional and sometimes we’re not aware of it at all. How have we been wounded or scarred? How have we hurt and wounded and scarred others?

There is a little poem by Edwin Markham that has been repeated so often it is a cliché to some, but it is still good. ““He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him In!” 

As we work through Lent and approach Easter, it’s a good time to think of what kind of circles we are drawing. Are we drawing circles that include others, or circles that leave others out? Are we even aware of the circles we are drawing? Are we trying to include others but missing the mark somehow?

Now in all of this I’ve talked a lot about circles, but I haven’t talked much about light. In our gospel story there are two obvious movements from darkness to light. The first is literal, as the blind man begins the story in the darkness of blindness and ends it able to see and live in the light. The second is spiritual, as the blind man begins the story in spiritual darkness, and ends the story walking in the light spiritually as well as physically, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus.

We are all at different points along that spectrum at different times. There are times when we are in darkness, lost in our sin, not feeling God’s presence, not open to or aware of God’s light. There are other times when God’s presence and joy is so real that we feel we are surrounded by light.

There is, however, a specific way in which circles of light play a role in our scripture readings. That’s in our reading from Ephesians. It’s a short passage, so let me read it again. Ephesians 5:8-14. “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

I was struck by the phrase, “everything that becomes visible is light.” One of the commentaries I read said that people of Paul’s time believed that ordinary objects gave off their own light. Maybe not a lot of light, but at least a little. I couldn’t confirm whether that’s true or not. But we do know that some objects give off light. Candles. Light bulbs. 

You can’t see the light from the candles up here real well, but if you were to walk up to the communion table and look down on them you would see that they radiate their light out in a circle. When you get home if you light a candle in the dark you’ll see that. The light forms a circle around the flame, unless there’s wind or something.

The same thing is true for light bulbs, at least traditional light bulbs with a filament in the middle. When they are lit up, the light goes all around in a circle. That’s why we use light shades, to direct the light to places where it may be more helpful.

As a Christian, you give off light. Not just the radiant glow of motherhood, like Faith (an expectant mother in our congregation) but light. Spiritual light. God’s light radiates out from you in a circle, just like from a candle or a light bulb. When we think about including people, it involves getting close enough to them that they can be in our light. It involves being aware enough of them that we can place ourselves, live our lives, in a way that puts them in our circle of light, as opposed to leaving them outside the circle. It’s almost like Markham’s poem, except that we don’t just draw a circle to take others in. We live a life that takes others in. We live a life that radiates light, the light of Jesus Christ.  We shine that light on the lost and the lonely. We turn that light on ourselves sometimes, and examine the dark places within us and bring light there to help cleanse us of our sin. Christ, living through us, becomes the light of the world.

This week and throughout Lent, think about the circles that you draw. Think about the light that you give off. Invite others into the circle of your light, and move closer to God so that the light shines more brightly through you. Amen.

SEEDS, TREES, AND THE UNEXPECTED

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Jennifer Hosler

As most of you know, this congregation has been going through a visioning process. Why did we start a visioning process? We recognized that the church had gone through transition and that it was moving away from uncertainty toward wholeness, healthy relationships, and vitality. During our visioning conversations, we thought about our past, present, and future strengths: who we are now and who we want to be in the future. During this process, we’ve discerned that we want to be an “inviting church.” We want others to feel welcomed and drawn in. We also want to actively invite people to get to know who we are and who Jesus is. We want to invite people into God’s story: a story of grace, of community, of simplicity, of peace, and of love.

Last week, we held a recap session where we asked, “What’s next?” How do we move forward in our visioning? One step is crafting a tagline—a description kind of like a mission statement that can illuminate who we are as a church. Beyond a tagline, we thought the Ministry Team could assist the visioning process by preaching through the themes raised in our visioning conversations. Two weeks ago, I spoke about love and arrogance—topics important to consider when shaping the ethos and values of our community. Last week, Jeff preached about simplicity and caring for God’s creation.

Today, I’m going to lead us through a few vignettes related to inviting. They may not seem connected at first, but trust me—we’ll get there. Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God calls His followers to be a part of a big Story, God’s story. In our 1st Samuel passage, we see that being part of God’s story can sometimes be terrifying—but we also see God providing enough strength and courage to see His people through.

In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations. Finally, in our 2 Corinthians text, the apostle Paul teaches that the hope we have in the Gospel is what compels us to share the Good News with others. Having become a part of God’s Story, we invite others to join in and experience the same grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love.

Fear and the Scariness of Being Part of God’s Story

When Nate and I were working in northern Nigeria, our supervisor encouraged us to take a vacation in northern Cameroon, the border of which was only 10 to 20 miles away. A big highlight was our stay at Waza National Park, a wildlife refuge that hosted giraffes, water buffalo, lions, jackals, and elephants. One afternoon, we weren’t able to go on a safari because of the heat, so we explored the area around Waza. Waza had these big rounded mountains that looked like someone dropped half of a moon on the open savannah. Big rocky circles rose up out of the flat lands. Since the mountains looked like an interesting adventure, Nate and I set out to climb one to the top.

One particular thing to note about this mountain is that there was no specific path up: the mountain was pretty much solid rock. Rounded rock, not sheer or cliff-like, but rock nonetheless. Another important piece of the story is that I sometimes have issues with heights. I was a clumsy kid growing up and I think my body learned to tell me, in the interest of self-preservation, “you shouldn’t be here because you’re going to fall and we’re going to die.” While I grew out of the clumsiness, I can still get pretty wobbly when I’m high up.

Climbing up the mountain went well at first—until it started to get steeper and it was still just all rock. No trees to grab onto. No railings. No ropes. Just smooth, rounded rock getting steeper and steeper. I froze up, way too afraid to go further. Seeing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, Nate took my hand to give me stability and we continued our way to the top. From the top, the view of the Cameroonian savannah was spectacular. It had been scary—but it was definitely worth it.

Fear can often be a barrier. It can be a barrier to beautiful views and exciting adventures. Fear can stop people from making new friends or committing to relationships. Fear can also be a barrier to faithfulness. There are times when we may feel God’s calling on our lives and fear causes us to withdraw and play it safe in our comfort zones—missing out on extending God’s love or building God’s Kingdom.

Fear is a very common human experience. We see people wrestle with fear in scripture. Numerous characters in the Bible struggled with fear and were almost overcome by it. Fear was a barrier for Moses—Moses, of all people. Moses saw a burning bush and heard the voice of the LORD. The LORD gave him a calling, “Go down and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!” Yet Moses was afraid to fulfill the task that the LORD gave him, to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the LORD.

Another Israelite leader, Samuel, whom we’ve talked about these past few weeks, was also afraid to fulfill God’s call. Samuel had already had a significant part in God’s story. His mom had been childless and the Lord answered her prayer, allowing Samuel to be conceived. Samuel had heard God’s voice at an early age, had spoken on behalf of the Lord, and even anointed Israel’s first king. Yet after all that, he was scared to fulfill a task that the LORD had given him.

Let’s set the context of 1 Samuel 15 and 16. Israel’s first King, Saul, made a bunch of bad decisions and the LORD regretted that he chose Saul as King over the Israelites. The LORD announces to Samuel that a new king needs to be chosen to replace Saul, a king who will be devoted to the LORD. Samuel, who had been close to Saul and knew that Saul had some violent tendencies, is terrified. Samuel says, “I can’t do what you’re saying, Lord. Saul is going to find out and it will be horrible. He’ll probably kill me.” The LORD convinces Samuel that he can indeed fulfill the task. “Samuel, I’ll work with you. This is what you should say.” Samuel is instructed to go to Jesse’s house and to sacrifice an offering with them.

Samuel meets with Jesse and his sons. One by one they come and Samuel sees handsome, tall sons and thinks, “This is it! This is the new king of Israel.” But the Lord says, “No. It isn’t who you would expect.” They all pass by but none of them are chosen and Samuel asks, “Uh, Jesse, got any more sons?” Jesse does have one more son – apparently not important enough to include when you’re introducing “all of my sons.”

Jesse calls for the youngest, a shepherd named David, who arrives in from the fields, probably stinky, yet noted as handsome. He’s somewhat “ruddy” or weathered from all his time in the sun. Though David is the last one who was expected, he is anointed king over Israel. With God’s guidance, Samuel worked through his fear—and it led to a new and unexpected chapter in God’s story. David becomes the most famous of all Israel’s kings. Being a part of God’s Story can sometimes be scary and terrifying but God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see His people through.

 Faithfully Planted Seeds Grow Beyond Our Control and Expectations

Our gospel passage this morning takes a different direction than our Old Testament passage. In Mark 4, we meet Jesus by the sea. He is telling parables to his disciples and there are crowds gathered around them. Parables in Jesus’ day were commonly used by religious teachers as both illustrations, riddles, and metaphors. Jesus told stories in order to get his message across, especially to his disciples. He wanted them to think so he used parables to paint image pictures of God’s Kingdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches about how the Kingdom of God plays out in ways we wouldn’t expect, things like the last will be first, the poor will be rich, or the small will be made mighty.

In Mark 4, Jesus tells several parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his listeners that the Kingdom of God is like sown seed. A farmer sows seed on a field.  The farmer rises and goes to sleep but really doesn’t do much besides watching the grain grow. The sower sows the seed – but there is an unseen force and process in nature that causes the growth, the maturity, and brings the grain ripe for the harvest.

Jesus tells another parable, still about seeds – but a specific type of seed this time. Jesus tells his hearers that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all the seeds (at least known to them during that time), it grows into the biggest plant in the garden – so big it is almost like a tree – and all types of birds can make their nest in there.

It is pretty astounding: a tiny seed, just two millimeters big, can produce a huge, tree-like shrub. Let’s put Jesus’ parable another way, the Kingdom of God is a place where the tiniest acts of faithfulness can lead to unexpected and marvelous growth. In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Being Part of the Story Prompts Us to Bring Others In

Numerous companies know that free advertising is the best advertising. I sometimes see companies trying to gauge my opinion and encourage me to spread the word about them. On our anniversary vacation last month, Nate and I stayed at an Airbnb rental. As you may know, Airbnb is a website where people can rent out rooms or homes or other types of accommodations, booking them solely online. Guests rate hosts and hosts rate guests—and that helps everyone to know whether someone is creepy or gross.

After our vacation, I filled out a review on several aspects of our stay and, at the end, Airbnb asked me how likely I was to recommend them to my friends and family, on a scale of 1 to 10. Airbnb does this because they know an important truth: if you have had an amazing experience, you are probably going to tell someone about it. If you loved your stay or the process of booking or something else about Airbnb, you are going to recommend the company to others.

We see something similar in our 2nd Corinthians passage today. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 (and I’m paraphrasing), “Because we know who the Lord Jesus is, because we are a part of God’s story, we try to persuade others. We don’t want to make it about ourselves—it’s not about Paul being awesome. But the love of Christ is what urges us on and we’re convinced about the gospel of Jesus! The message is that God became flesh, that Jesus died and was raised that everyone might die to sin and brokenness and be raised again to new life.”

“Jesus died and was raised for everybody,” Paul says, “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but live to be a part of God’s great story” (paraphrased, 2 Cor. 5:11-15). Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope prompts us to invite other people into God’s story of grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love. This inviting should happen at multiple levels—we invite as individuals, as families, and as a congregation.

During our visioning process, we tried to define what we mean by inviting. We want to invite people to get to know us as a congregation (who we are), and we want to do this through hospitality, events, and worship. We want to invite people to learn about God’s great story, of what it means to experience community, grace, simple living, and love. We want to invite people to become part of our covenant community, a group of Jesus followers bound together by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Friends, these vignettes of scriptures give us three lessons for today. First, becoming an inviting church, becoming inviting people, will probably not be easy and it may likely be scary.  It might mean that we share more of our lives with others, make new friends, or explore new ways to serve and minister. Being a part of God’s Story can be scary and terrifying. Yet God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see us through.

Second, you might be discouraged that you don’t have a lot to give to God. You may not know how or what you can do for the church or God’s Kingdom, but God is willing and able to bless and make fruitful what you offer.  We learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Third, God has called us to be a part of His great Story. In order to be “an inviting church,” we need to reflect on how God’s Story gives us hope, joy, peace, reconciliation, rest from weariness and busyness, and provides us with community and love. Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope should prompt us to invite other people into God’s great story.  Sisters and brothers, let us be filled with God’s courage for the sometimes scary journey of becoming an inviting church. Let us remember that we serve a Living God whose Kingdom takes small seeds planted in faith and makes them into trees. Let us live into God’s great Story and work to welcome others in. AMEN.