Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

Preacher – Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

 

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.