Come to the Waters (embracing bounty)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9, Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

In the book of Exodus, the once inarticulate Moses faces the Pharaoh backed by the power of God first appearing to him in a burning bush in the desert. As the Hebrew people head into the wilderness, they are followed by the Egyptian army which is driven by the recognition that their emancipated slaves are not coming back—that the subjugated people who had done their work were perhaps too easily set free. Up against the Red Sea and certain destruction, Moses led them through the sea. The cloud of the presence of God veiled them while a great wind was sent to divide the waters.

The Apostle Paul picks this up and reads it Christologically—that is, through Christ. In this passing through the waters of the sea, the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians are saved. The Apostle reads the water as a baptism. A passing through Christ’s death into life. For in Romans we read, Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)). They were saved by passing through these waters.

Come to the water.

Paul writes “all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

Not only was the water of the sea a baptism but the rock in the desert out of which a sustaining water flowed was Christ. The Christ which appeared centuries later but whom the Gospel of John asserts was present and participating in the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the waters—this is the one whom Paul proclaims as the fount of water in the desert—in the time of need this one is the living water. Come to the waters.

The prophet Isaiah exhorts,

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This sounds like a great deal. It isn’t even buy one get one 50% off. This is like a free fancy think tank reception where you not only get hear an interesting talk about policy but get nice food while on a BVS budget. However, my dad, who is a very practical fellow, used to say some variation that “nothing is free.” Which is, of course, true. Someone picks up the cost because they care about something or have an interest in you caring about it.

In Luke we read, At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

There is a persistent notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people—at least when we observe others. So, when something bad happens we assume that they did something bad and if something bad happens to us or our friends we ask—why me? Certainly, the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate must have sinned. Certainly, those on whom the tower fell must have really ticked off God.

Jesus, however, disconnects a negative occurrence from that of punishment. Those who suffered in this way are no worse than you! However, he also seems to reattach it. Those who died in these tragedies were not being punished for their particularly heinous crimes. Rather, all deserve a harsh retribution and it is only by a particular grace and mercy that we make it through. He seems to imply all of us should die in a tower collapse but don’t by God’s mercy—this is a type of comforting. It also feels like it could be ominous and threatening. The intent is rather to get us to focus. Because of the gravity of our action or inaction and intentions we should take this seriously. Though God is radically graceful we must not be presumptuous.

A commentator writes, “Luke does not destroy severity by infusing grace, nor does he destroy grace by infusing severity. As a theologian he knows that any mixing of severity and grace or any attempt to average them will result in neither severity or grace” (Craddock, Luke¸167). It is not that grace and mercy balances out justice or punishment in some sort of neutral middle—like white and black paint make grey or green and red make a muddy brown. Rather, they both exist.

The passage continues with a parable of a fruit tree—a fig fruit tree.

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Here the issue of fruit is ventured. A fig tree, not unlike our own likely dead fig tree, does not produce. The only reason it exists is to produce fruit for its owner. The owner is persuaded to have patience when it doesn’t produce as anticipated. This picture of divine patience follows the teaching which presents both grace and punishment, mercy and justice. The Apostle exhorts, “We must not put Christ to the test.”

He continues “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful… [you will not] be tested beyond your strength.

Come to the water! This water is free (for you). For God it is a costly gift. A gift that requires patience and as we will discover in Holy Week a great sacrifice. The water of life is not free so that we can muddy it and abuse it—note here the parallels between both the gifts of physical waterways that we humans often damage or destroy and the spiritual water of life that we muddy through distractedness and injustice. The season of Lent invites us to focus. The movement towards Easter and the pain of Holy Week beckons us towards abiding with God, the source of life. The imminent death of Jesus will provide the greatest challenge to the false theology that the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate or those 18 who died in the collapsing tower were worse than us.

The water of life is given to us in abundance. While it isn’t earned, it requires much of us. This is part of Kameron Carter’s critique of white theology in Race: a Theological Account. It says we can do theology separately from the realities of the world in which towers collapse and kill people because those supposed to be responsible cared more for their money or power than the people. This is artist Ai Wei Wei’s documentation of the collapsed school buildings in China which thousands of school children died.

Our enjoying the abundant water of life is not somehow separate from the racism that allows communities of color in this country to be poisoned by their water which is polluted by others. The question that the crucified Holy One of God will bring is not “what did the suffering ones do to deserve this?” but what did those with any power do or neglect to do that caused their suffering?

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Come to the waters! Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down!

Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down! You may no longer live for yourself. The water of life that rushes from the Christ in the desert

revives you to be a conduit of life and justice and mercy. The God of mercy is the source, but you have the privilege participate in this good work. Come to the waters!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Come to the waters! Come drink from the abundant water of life.

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.

Getting Voice

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 2:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

As a child my family always had a Christmas celebration with extended family. My grandparents would have meal at their home. This included, as one might expect, a meal and gifts. It also included riotous beat-up golf cart and mini-bike riding through their meadow and a Christmas reenactment. The kids were the stars of the show. While we did this as young children, what I remember most is the later years. While this marked the Christmas story—if we are honest—it probably was also a little irreverent (a later rendition may have had me wearing sheep ears and biting people with my younger (but old enough to be bearded) brother playing baby Jesus. Our costumes came from a collection of dress-up cloths that my mom had gathered. It included a gold and burgundy glossy velvety robe—perhaps a bath-robe? This, of course, was the garb of a wise one—a Magi. Today, Epiphany, we mark the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.

There is a theological point—that is a point that asserts a truth about reality as it relates to God. Theologians have historically asserted all truth is theological. There are not neat and separate spheres as if the world were divided by academic disciplines. Geographers have their rocks, botanists their botanicals, mathematicians have their numbers….but how do arborists count their trees or why is it that we happen to live on this particular rock? This is why in Psalm 19 the heavens and trees join in the praise of God—

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. The Gospels are not simply a dispassionate recounting of the so called “facts” but are an argument via story that the baby named Jesus is the appearance of the all-powerful God in not only human form but baby human form. The helpless baby is the long-expected savior. The one who sees the dim stable light for the first time was the creator of that very light.

Just before what we read, chapter 1 of Matthew ends with an understated record of the birth of Jesus. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that though the baby isn’t his, he should carry on the marrying Mary as planned. The final 2 verses read. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” The next line is—

“In the time of Herod…”. There isn’t any other indication of time passing but we gather by later events that it may have been 2 years after the birth.

A commentator writes, “ ‘ In the time of King Herod’ may seem like a return to reality. Apocalyptic time, creation time, the time of Jesus’ conception—given the way we assume the world works—may seem unreal. But apocalyptic time intersects with everyday time, the time of Herod, creating a political crisis. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 37).

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Wise men, or Magi, arrive from the east. These mysteriously named ones arrive by a mysterious means of navigation. They could be magicians (as the name refers to in other texts) or astrologers. The later Christian Christmas tradition that they were “kings” (We three kings…) may arise from Isaiah 60:3—

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Hare, Matthew, 13).

The Magi are an affirmation of Jesus. Again, like the shepherds, this is unexpected. The shepherds were looked down on, lacked refinement that would be expected for such a task as receiving and then pronouncing the news of divine intervention and arrival. The Maggi are foreigners, almost certainly from a different religion and not from the local religious establishment experts that should have known. God’s people who had been waiting for the coming Messiah missed it—at least in part.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the 4th century, writes, “And now the Magi come and worship Him wrapped in swaddling clothes; after a life devoted to the mystic rites of vain philosophy they bow the knee before the Babe laid in His cradle. Thus the Magi stoop to reverence the infirmities of Infancy; its cries are saluted by the heavenly joy of angels the Spirit Who inspired the prophet , the heralding Angel, the light of the new star, all minister around Him” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

While he felt it necessary to take a swipe at their “vain philosophy” it is of note that they were just about the only people who picked up on the arrival of this king. Not only this but they seem to have traveled for 2 years and only were working from a mysterious cosmic sign. Sure, they went to Jerusalem on the false but reasonable assumption that a new king would be born in the capital city but that is pretty close (just under 10 kilometers though presently more difficult because of the checkpoints and separation barrier…). The shepherds got not one angel but a heavenly host singing and only had to walk into town. Both a hometown advantage and angelic booster.

The multiple (maybe 3 because of the three gifts?) seekers of the king of the Jews show and up and ask where this new king is. The asking causes a stir—a stir of fear and not joy.

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

The seekers of Jesus with a little extra guidance then set off again.

“…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Though no longer a newborn and no longer sleeping in a feed trough, this child and this family, we can safely imagine, remained unassuming. While these searchers were looking for a king no one else had recognized this reality. It is all still rather normal seeming. The gravity of the presence of this child was easy to miss.

“The inward reality is widely different from the outward appearance; the eye sees one thing, the soul another. A virgin bear; her child is of God. An Infant wails; angels are heard in praise. There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshiped. The glory of His Majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

The purpose of this text is affirmation via mysterious travelers that the baby is the awaited Messiah—the awaited saving one. Magi don’t just show up, give gifts, and worship anyone. They give gifts worthy of the coming king. Though the main life events of Jesus will happen decades later, this unusual Epiphany marks this child as the expected Messiah. Much doesn’t match the expectations of God’s people so many miss him. Even his eventual disciples, those who witnessed in person, even these often miss the way Jesus is the arrival of the kingdom of God—And that this was a different type of kingdom.

Both the unexpected child showed up in an unexpected way—or rather, to most, was too expected. He was just born. In obscurity. With no accruements of power. Both the child was unexpected but also the first proclaimers were unexpected. This is both an observation from the narrative texts but also is a broader theological statement. God often speaks through the unexpected. This means that we may both be the unexpected proclaimers and that we must watch and listen for God speaking in unexpected places.

I almost started to say that God likely shows up in the person or place we don’t expect. So, if your theological and political orientation are such it is no surprise that God may speak through X ______. And if your theological and political orientation is such then God may speak through Y___. This isn’t quite correct. For certainly it is the case that some people are more formed to hear God more clearly than others—for example Jesus clearly affirmed those who were humble before God. The challenge is that we usually assume that we are the ones that hear correctly. We should recognize that we may not be the best hearers. It is not a general rule that God is tricky in always choosing the surprising speaker or messenger—however, the shepherds were

unexpected, the Magi were unexpected, a baby was unexpected, a donkey speaking was unexpected—we, if we happen to proclaim a word from God are probably unexpected, and we need to watch for the unexpected heralds of a mighty word from God.

The Magi were so confident in their ability that they traveled a long way. And they were correct. From the vantage point of the expected hearers of God this was unexpected. For them it was on point.

The lectionary passage stops with the heroic success of the wise men. They succeed and worship and are filled with great joy. There is, however, an ominous and terrible part 2. The fearful Herod, a king holding tenuous power on behalf of an occupying force, shows interest in a new king—when this happens we can’t expect something good. This king asking, apparently innocently and out of curiosity for the “exact time” hints at ill intent. Verse seven reads “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He masks potential motives by saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

We think that Jesus may have been 2 years old at this point because based on the Magi’s response to the appearing of the star, Herod, the fearful tyrant king kills all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. Hauerwas writes of this, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Hauerwas, 41).

This is a downer. From “overwhelming joy” at seeing the Christ child to overwhelming grief of the parents of occupied Bethlehem. Children lost at the hands of a leader they didn’t choose who was afraid of a baby that was barely walking, much less overthrowing regimes. This, however, is the nature of the world. Joy next to sorrow. Pain next to healing. Hope next to despair. It is not that these need to be “held in tension” or in balance or that one redeems the other or cancels the other out. In the Matthew narrative, the Christ child comes as God’s definitive action in a world where kings can force parents to travel while pregnant and kill babies. God’s saving action—God coming near to heal humanity happens because humanity needs healing, needs justice, needs peace. The presence of real evil in the context of overwhelming joy forces us to focus—focus! We must watch for the coming King. We must proclaim the unexpected word that the Creator has come near to heal, has taken the lowliness of humanity. That we can be reconciled, and that God has broken down the separating wall between us (Ephesians 1-2).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Small Money and Biscuit

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit

We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.

Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.

The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…

15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.

We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…

The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.

A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.

Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…

We see Jesus in the temple.

Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”

After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.

Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark. [1] It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.

Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.

Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.

Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.

Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.

Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.

Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?

A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?

Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?

As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.

Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.

Blessed

Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scripture Readings: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 10:46-52

We often speak about or at least read our scriptures in light of the injustices and pain of the world. We often seek to embrace Jesus’ hard words of discipleship.

This Sunday’s lectionary texts seemed to gather around the theme of blessing. So I thought I’d go with it—hence the title, “Blessed.”

A few hours after finishing and getting back to some house projects and family time I learned about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. So, to finish the day I helped draft a statement for the Church of the Brethren’s General Secretary. The statement reads:

“We mourn and lament the loss of lives taken Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, we recognize that this violence affects not only this congregation but sows fear in Jewish communities across the country. As the Church of the Brethren, which has committed to following Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, let us commit ourselves to bring healing and working for a world in which God’s shalom is ever more evident for all people.”

On waking this morning, I struggled to know what to do with sermon that seemed inappropriately themed. “Blessed” seemed the wrong direction. However, I decided to go with it. But with these caveats that were always implicit anyways—God’s blessing was never a wish list or design your own utopia. It was also never something to be received or flaunted over others. What we receive is never for us alone. Everyone has something to offer to others. At least for those of us who are American or white or Christian (at least in America) or male, the things we often count as blessings may very well be things we or our ancestors gained through suppression of others.

With those qualifiers I’ll begin with Mark. Mark’s writing tends to be sparse, perhaps austere. It may be the Hemingway of the Gospels. Certainly not Annie Dillard’s rich and poetic description in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [A randomly opened page to a randomly picked Hemingway book (The Sun Also Rises) produced, “When I woke in the morning I went to the window and looked out.” In Dillard this exercise produced: “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.].

Our passage in Mark begins. “They came to Jericho.” (Definitely more Hemingway). The next sentence, “As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…” Somewhat inexplicably the detail of location, without commentary or description is included. This could be incidental. Simply a notation. In verse 32 he notes that Jesus and his disciples were going up to Jerusalem. This is two story units before the healing which we read. In our passage, beginning in verse 46, it notes that “they came to Jericho. After verse 52 they came to Jerusalem.

Next story unit they are in Bethany. The following, “approaching Jerusalem.”
For Jesus and the disciples with other companions talking and walking between Jerusalem and Jericho—this would easily take a full day. So, the whole was at a minimum a two day round trip. The only thing that gets reported is this, what seems to be chance encounter with Bartimaeus. At least in this Gospel, the only thing that made the cut was this afterthought of an action. What happened walking to Jericho? in Jericho? and then returning? Did Jesus get to Jericho and say “oh no I forgot my wallet, let’s go back for it”? Was Jesus telling jokes? Was he teaching but being repetitive, so it wasn’t necessary to record? Perhaps it was recorded but got edited out? Trying to figure out the consciousness of the writer is not my work nor is determining the rationale.

However, the geographic notes mark time. They mark time and emphasize that it is the highlights that get documented. This is even more so the case for Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.

Bartimaeus son of Timaeus (his friends called him Bart) was blind. Because he was blind he was a beggar in order to survive. We don’t know how long he was blind nor how long he was sitting by the side of the road begging. It is safe to assume it was more than a few hours. Quite possibly it was for years. So, what is for Mark the highlight of two or more days of ministry is Bart’s highlight of a lifetime. Bart recognized the power of Jesus, called out, sprang up, was healed, and followed Jesus.

From this I make two observations:

God provides. Jesus’ healing is a provision, a blessing, to Bartimaeus

And secondly, while there are many provisions and blessings throughout our days that we often take for granted or don’t think about, the appearance of highlights that are likely to be recorded is more irregular. This is both for the hours and days of ministry and teaching that Jesus did before and after healing Bart—the time marked by the walk to and from Jericho. But also Bartimaeus’s waiting by the side of the road.

So, #1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss or uninterrupted noteworthy ministry.

I think I posted to Facebook twice this week. The first was from our ART! Night here at church. This included several pictures: George (the toddler) without his shirt painting an old table top sitting on the floor. Jacob painting with his fingers. The surrealist leaning works in which Tori clipped phrases from an old commentary on Joshua and fastened them to a background to create strange new texts. The other was of a smiling Ayuba, Scruff (our cat), and I all sitting on a chair together.

If I were to tell you about my work week, I could mention providing the welcome at a reception for a Churches for Middle East Peace event along with representatives of the National and World Council of Churches or having coffee with an academic from the UK or making new connections at an invitation only event the Council on Foreign Relations. These are all true and sound very positive. You could say they were a form of blessing. However, my telling of this wouldn’t reveal the fact that for much of the week I felt emotionally terrible and at times overwhelmed. That going to meetings and interacting took a great deal of resolve most of the time. I assume that actual depression is much worse but I have had bouts of this struggle for years. My highlights reel looks much different than the week as a whole did.

In Mark we see the highpoints and notable. As in the Gospel of John we recognize with the writer that, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them had been written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would have been written.” (John 21:25). However, it is clear there are many gaps in what is recorded. A risk of the highpoints is in part the criticism of Facebook. Posts on Facebook create a narrative arc—One not necessarily in line with actual life. From the outside this gives the appearance that is not nearly as mundane.

#1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. (And when we don’t feel great we don’t need to feel like we are failing—as is my tendency)

Our second text is from Job. The basic outline of Job is: Job is righteous and well-off. Satan suggests that Job is righteous because God has provided so much for him materially. These things are then taken from Job in a series of tragedies. Job’s friends arrive and say “look, obviously you’ve sinned and are being punished.” This is the false theology that there is a direct correlation between wealth and God’s blessing. Job says I’ve done nothing wrong…which is kind of correct. God then responds in a swirling and beautiful reminder of God’s place in relation to creation and Job’s place within it.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?…..
“Look at Behemoth,
which I made just as I made you;
it eats grass like an ox.
16 Its strength is in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly.
17 It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like bars of iron.
19 “It is the first of the great acts of God—
only its Maker can approach it with the sword.

Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

12 The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning
This is also about blessing but complicates it. Blessing is from God but not in the ways that we may assume.

God provides but this doesn’t entail uninterrupted bliss nor is it directly and necessarily connected to our merit. God is the source of life. God has set the foundations of the world. God has created the Behemoth.

And then we turn to Hebrews which describes Christ’s work as a priest.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Christ is an advocate on our behalf. Christ intercedes.

God provides. This provision is consistent, but we should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. Through this, perhaps particularly during the interruptions, Christ continues to intercede for us.

Sow Thusly

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:10

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

My dad is also a pastor. He is a pastor like we are pastors at Washington City—that is, he works another job that pays him not primarily in heavenly rewards, but in earthly rewards—the kind that can pay the electric bill or are accepted at the grocery store in exchange for food and other provisions. In addition to being a “free minister,” he is a carpenter. From early on I would work with him, both at home and on the job site. Since he is rather small, and I grew rather quickly, I was taller than him by about age 13. Now carpentry is both highly skilled and very precise but also quite physically demanding. When certain physically demanding “opportunities” arose, my dad had a line with a little smile (perhaps a chuckle?). He would say, “It’ll be a good experience.” Hoisting old steel scaffolding up to a second level—that is be good experience. Unloading this or loading that—a good experience. This is essentially how James begins this letter.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Testing which produces endurance is the spiritual equivalent to my dad’s so-called good experiences.

Unlike some books of the Bible there isn’t much known about the context of James. Most is conjecture based on hints in the text. For example, the naming of “James” could be referring back to a James and written in the tradition of this James or could written to one of the 6 James’ mentioned in the Bible or even an unmentioned James. Because of the content of the letter and prominence of the person, James the brother of Jesus seems reasonable. However, scholars who focus on this sort of thing don’t agree. Also, there are some reasons why this might not match up literally. What seems like a good possibility is that a later writer took the sayings and sermons of this James the brother of Jesus and composed them into the writing we have. This would allow for the thematic focus of this James but take into account other characteristics (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 548). This would also fit well with the suggestion is that this book is a “paraenesis, a genre of ancient moral literature characterized by various collections of moral sayings and essays, loosely held together by common themes and linking catchwords but without literary rhyme, theological reason or specific social location…with the primary exhortation to live a virtuous life”(DLNTD, 551). A later writer may have gathered the sayings and sermons of James.

In this task of determining the context, the most obvious may be the constructing a general picture of the community to whom the situation addressed. When the text begins with the exhortation to joy in the face of trials we begin to imagine the context. A context in which the first thing in mind is an exhortation towards the benefits gained through suffering.

Themes that emerge are not pandering to the wealthy and having faith matched by good works. At the beginning of chapter 3 we read “not many of you should become teachers.” James then goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to “tame your tongue.” In this context the orators were highly esteemed. As with esteemed skills or professions, many people want to be like them. What we see and see lauded easily becomes what we want to be. Our habits of imagination and desire are shaped through this contact.

In this context, one in which wisdom is demonstrated through rhetoric, James warns of the risk to the one who speaks. Driving home from the annual Dunker Church Service on Antietam Battle Field, Monica and I discussed her hesitancy to preach. She noted not being an authority enough to stand up and speak with the authority of a preacher. Words are difficult and dangerous–Especially when they aim to showoff our wisdom.

While James doesn’t say that nobody should stand up and teach, he does warn of the gravity of this task. Additionally, he states that demonstrated wisdom through acts done in gentleness show wisdom. He writes, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The Bible in the pew, New Revised Standard Version, reads “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In my Bible the “for” has a footnote stating that this can be “by.” Which is much different. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for by those who make peace.
The New International Version seems a little clearer. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

Those who sow seeds or even plant seedlings will tell you that it feels like a bit of a gamble. One places a dead looking roundish bit of a former plant into the ground and wait for the green shoot. Even once the shoot breaks the surface of the ground any number of things, mysterious or obvious, may bring an end to the plant—and at any point in its life. Plucking it from the ground because it was mistaken for a weed—obvious. Or like our tomatoes this year—a lot of green plant but almost no actual fruit, for no clear reason.

Though it may feel like a gamble it is actually not that. A gamble is chance. Planting takes skill knowledge, patience, good observation—in short, one can become better at growing plants. It still is not fully controlled or predictable, but it isn’t just luck. Seeds of squash, as well as seeds of peace, are sown with both skill and hope.

Sow thusly and you will raise such and such a harvest. Sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. Sowing thusly is a demonstration of the “wisdom from above” which is “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This is how we are to so.

All this leads to a harvest of righteousness—which sounds good. If I were to say to Ayuba, “when you grow up we hope you work for righteousness”—what would you imagine this including? Likely something more personal—perhaps a piety plus self-control plus honesty. And if your thoughts turn public it would be something—more like not being a con artist or drug dealer.

Now I typically don’t reference the Greek in a sermon. This is largely because my Greek isn’t all that good but also because reading a definition of a word without the language skill to assess the nuance of translation is of questionable value. Just because a word could mean a wide range of things, doesn’t mean that the author intended everyone one of these in every instance of use. Just because Ayuba thinks his papa told a corny joke doesn’t mean both that the joke was goofy and had something to do with the vegetable eaten from a cob.

However, the word translated as righteousness can also be translated as justice.
Whereas one translation reads: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” commentators Craddock and Boring translate—“And the fruit of justice is sown in peace among those who make peace” (The People’s Commentary, 719).

For most of us, the word justice brings up a much different vision than the word righteousness. Monica and I and other denominational colleagues have had extensive discussions about whether her new position within the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy should be framed as racial justice or righteousness. This discussion in part comes back to this question of translation in the New Testament but also about what each implies in our present English about personal morality or discipleship and affecting change in the systems, powers, and principalities of racism that are so deeply embedded in our society and church.

Rev. Aundreia Alexander, of the National Council of Churches, preaching at the International Day of Prayer for Peace service we held here on Friday, “Justice comes from the disruption of false peace” Justice may unsettle, but it makes right. Without this disruption, justice is not possible.

Anabaptists, of which Church of the Brethren is a part, have historically focused on this separateness from “the world.” This separateness was from their observing the way that the “the world” operated—which was often simply other Christians who they felt weren’t taking their faith seriously—but also passages like this, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Brethren called this “non-conformity.” This is what Jared McKenna, at National Youth Conference, was referencing when he coined the term “dunkerpunk.” We have a tradition of non-conformity—of being a “peculiar people.”

Though this can easily become legalistic or self-righteous (Jerry why do you have a fashionable mustache?) but what it aims at is justice and righteousness. A following Jesus such that our lives push against the norms and values that prevail. Systems of racism, militarism, and materialism as Rev Dr Martin Luther King reminds us.

Sow thusly, sow with gentleness, in peace, resist the devil, purify your hearts. Sow thusly with hope and skill, awaiting the harvest of righteousness and justice.