UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

James 5:13-20; John 9:1-12

Jennifer Hosler

This is the tenth and final sermon in our sermon series on the book of James.

 Since it is Thanksgiving weekend, it would be rather appropriate to start my sermon with some gratitude. I’m thankful for many things but one which came to mind is my fantastic and caring neighbors. When we lived in Chicago, our home was in an apartment building where we only once saw the back of our neighbor across the hall. The only person I got to know in our building, in the 9 months we lived there, was a lady who got on and off the bus at the same time as me. The bus stop was 2 blocks away and it took a few months for us to start talking and a little while longer to learn that we lived in the same building. Our neighborly experience in DC is quite different.

Many of you have met our neighbors, who are often keen on talking. Our neighbors often care for us in tangible ways. Sometimes, the caring comes via the lending of an onion or vanilla extract, or in the safe-keeping of a package from our porch. Recently, one neighbor insisted that he drive me all the way to National Airport in his truck, instead of letting me walk to Metro. While it wasn’t “far” per se, we all know that 8 miles can feel like forever when it involves crossing a bridge over the Potomac. Another neighbor, when Nate was recently away in the Middle East, both had me over for dinner and sent me home with leftovers for the next day. From what I’ve read, our neighborly experiences are becoming a rare occurrence in modern U.S. life.

Researchers say these kinds of relationships are becoming less normal in our society. Robert Putnam’s (2000) book entitled, “Bowling Alone,” highlights the decay of social ties or social capital. Social capital is the term used by sociologists to refer to “the networks—together with shared norms, values and understandings—that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (OECD, n.d.). Social capital involves social reciprocity, a give-and-take that might be formal or informal, but provides power and resources to meet one’s own or the community’s needs. Putnam called his book “Bowling Alone” because he found that, while Americans were bowling more than ever, bowling had shifted from being primarily a group sport where people competed against each other in leagues (like how our church used to have its own bowling league) to bowling individually. Changes to how our society functions (in work, family structure housing, entertainment, commuting, and other aspects) have led to a decrease in social capital: people are joining fewer organizations, knowing fewer neighbors, getting together with their families and friends less.

In our sermon series on James, we’ve spoken extensively about how the ethics of Jesus are upside-down from society’s values and practices. Social status, money, dealing with conflict, and more: following Jesus involves being counter-cultural. I think today’s passage in James 5 illustrates how our approach to social capital is also transformed when we follow the Jesus-way. We are not bowling alone after Jesus, but walking together after Jesus, making our faith in God tangible and concrete. One of the main purposes of the church is to make tangible our faith in Jesus, which we share together.

Hear, Touch, and Smell

How many of you have been to an Orthodox Christian worship service? The Orthodox Church worships in ways that are very different from our service. Some Protestants like to deride them as all “smells and bells” (not an ecumenical approach, clearly). While we have theological differences, I believe the Orthodox Church does a very good job of captivating human senses and using sensory experiences to lift people up to the Divine. The shape of the building and the paintings on the ceiling draw your eyes up. Icons to gaze upon can prompt prayer and reflection. Bells are used to signal the proclamation of the Gospel message throughout the world. Incense symbolizes both the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven. When I first attended an Orthodox service, the richness of the sensory experience was very spiritually moving. 

I found myself thinking of Orthodox churches this week while studying this passage, because our passage presents early church practices that are tangible and sensory. The way that James teaches the early church, it’s an auditory faith. It’s a tactile faith. It’s a scented and oily faith. In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another.

Tangible Faith

James 5:13-20 is the conclusion of James’ letter. According to scholarship on typical Greek letters from that era, most letters would end with a wish for good health from the gods. James takes a different approach because he knows who is the source of our health, strength, and well-being. Rather than looking to the Greek gods to curry favor, James declares that—whether in trials, joy, or sickness—in all things, we look to Yahweh. What I want to stress here is that the cultural context implies that we do this together. In all things we look to God and, whether praying, singing, or asking for healing, we do it together.

Our section starts by James writing, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Suffering likely refers to the trials and social persecution that were referenced in earlier parts of this letter. Those who are facing challenges, trials, and temptation, they are urged to seek strength by praying to God.

It’s important to note that, in the era of the early church and for the specific group of Christians whom James was writing to, prayer was less likely an individual supplication and more likely a corporate time of intercession. One commentator explains, “In Diaspora Judaism, Jews were characterized by their commitment to times of community prayer (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue and temple were places Jews gathered to pray. We find that the early church was a distinct entity gathered [regularly] for prayer (Acts 1:13-14; 2:42), while at the same time they carried out the traditional times of prayer individually (Acts 10:9) and at least at the beginning attended the temple at the prescribed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1; cf. Acts 2:42, 46, ‘the prayers’)” (Wilkins, 1997, p. 944).

Because James is writing to Jewish Christians, it is highly likely that they heard this admonition to prayer as an urge for group prayer. James is saying, “If you are suffering, you should bring your suffering and experience with hardships to the community of faith.” Praying for one another, praying together, is how the church supports one another. But it involves vulnerability, saying, “I need help. I’m struggling. I am discouraged.” It requires the sisters and brothers around a person to be attentive, to refrain from judging, and to lovingly present these requests to God.

While praying to God on your own behalf when alone can still be comforting, communal prayer—having someone pray out loud for you, together—allows our faith to be felt more tangibly. Perhaps you’ve felt that during joys and concerns, which is an important (and I believe, biblical) part of our worship service. Being prayed for is a powerful experience. Beyond the tangible words that we hear that can strengthen our hearts, asking for prayer in community often also brings the tangible comfort of a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Following Jesus together makes our faith more tangible, through voice and touch. This is true for when we are struggling and is also to be true when we are rejoicing. James continues and says, “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Not only are the early Christians instructed to pray together when times are hard, they are also called to rejoice and sing when times are good.

We do call it Joys and Concerns, but sometimes people have mentioned that it’s heavy on the concern end. This might be because we feel sheepish sharing our joys when we hear that others are struggling. It may also be linked with the fact that humans are bent to look for a higher power when things are difficult, but that we’re somewhat self-focused when we’re doing well. James stresses that whether we are in trials or joy, our response should be to look to God as our hope and strength. For those who are experiencing good times, James instructs them to recognize the source and origin of all goodness—the Creator God—by singing songs of praise.

Lifting our voices together in thanksgiving, in joy, praising God, strengthens our faith. Singing together is a spiritual experience that allows us to give our voices as an offering and to be moved by the combined voices of many sisters and brothers in Jesus. By singing, we make our faith more tangible—or at least more sensory. We use our vocal cords to make our gratitude manifest, in the audible richness of tune, rhythm, and harmony.

Oily Faith

Beyond prayer and song, James also mentions oil. Oils are kind of a big deal for some people today, with multi-level marketing companies trying to sell us oil for everything that ails us and for a better, wholesome life. I don’t know about the health claims they purport…but I do know that the oil mentioned in James has a different sort of application and benefit. 

James asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). James continues, urging the sisters and brothers to confess their sins one to another, for healing and forgiveness. While confession and sin are mentioned alongside healing here, I must caution that this is not implying that all physical illness is caused by sin. In our companion scripture in John 9, we see Jesus explain to his disciples that the illness they see is not connected to the person’s character.

For some of us, anointing with oil has been a normal part of church life for as long as we can remember. For some of us, anointing is weird and we’re not really sure how to understand it. In the Church of the Brethren, anointing is one of our ordinances, together with baptism and the Love Feast (communion). We see these things as rituals, or tangible practices, that can be used as symbols to strengthen our faith or help us practice our commitment to Jesus. Of course, rituals can be warped and used in ways that cause spiritual death instead of spiritual life. A lot of things are like that – things that are good but can be abused. They are risky of becoming ends in themselves, so we need be careful that we understand their meaning and that our hearts are in the right place when we do them.

Why do we anoint? A Church of the Brethren resource on anointing describes it this way: “We anoint one another by gathering with people who are ill, hurting, struggling with decisions, or beginning a new phase of life. Our presence, together with the oil and prayers, represents the healing and comfort of Jesus. By anointing one another we trust that God hears our prayers and works for the good of the one we lift in prayer” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

Oil was used in ancient times for many different purposes. Oil was “one of the best-known ancient medicines” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 2007). In the Hebrew scriptures, it was used in rituals to dedicate priests and items used in worship, setting them apart as holy. It was also used for other leaders, like kings or prophets. There is even an anointing oil recipe in Exodus 30:22-33, with olive oil as the base, accompanied by the essential oils of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia. In the New Testament (Mark 6:13), we see Jesus’ disciples going about the Galilee countryside, visiting the sick, anointing them with oil, and bringing healing by the power of God.

The oil mentioned here by James likely would have been fragrant—and one commentary explains that people in the ancient world “were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 1746). Good odors could signal a spiritual act or invocation. However, the references in James or in the gospels don’t place any weight in the oil itself. In our passage, “What is clear is that James attributes the healing power not to the oil but to the ‘prayer of faith’ and the action of God. This removes the activity from the arena of magic and places it squarely in that of prayer and miracle. Thus, the anointing is done either because Christians believe that is how Jesus taught the disciples to pray for the sick or because it is itself a form of prayer” (Davids, 1997, p. 49).

It is helpful to be clear on what this use of oil means and what it doesn’t mean. Unfortunately, James doesn’t say that everyone anointed will be physically healed and restored. What it does say is that God will save them, deliver them. Faith and trust in God may bring physical healing in this life, but that may not be God’s plan. The healing that is guaranteed is the full healing of our souls, transforming our hearts and allowing us to be reconciled to God. Anointing oil is a way to make tangible this assurance of faith, transformation, and deliverance—especially in times when we feel alone, confused, lost, or when we need affirmation of God’s abiding presence. “Putting a touch of oil on someone’s head prayerfully assures us of God’s healing, constant presence with us as followers of Jesus” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of communal prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another. It requires vulnerability, sharing, singing, and touching.

How can we experience our faith together more tangibly, here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? Perhaps it looks like more intentional sharing that provides opportunity for communal prayer. God has not designed us to walk alone, but to walk together, being the tangible presence of God to one another. Can we be vulnerable with a few people about some needs or struggles that we are having difficulty sharing?

Perhaps our lives our going well—but we don’t often think to praise or give thanks to God for what we’ve experienced. How can you add more songs of praise to your life? How can you share your joys and thanksgiving with our community, so that we can sing praises to God with you?

Perhaps you need a tangible sign of God’s presence today. Do you need assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you need your faith strengthened? Do you need healing and wholeness? If so, I invite you to come forward and seek God’s presence today through an anointing with oil.

Anointing Blessing: Sister/Brother _____, you are being anointed with oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for healing and wholeness in accordance with God’s grace and wisdom. The love of God abides with you. Amen.

References

Davids, P.H. (1997). Anointing. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 48-50). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Church of the Brethren (n.d.). Anointing. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/discipleship/documents/ordinance-annointing.pdf

Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV archaeological study Bible: An illustrated talk Through Biblical history and culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

OECD (n.d.). Social capital. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/insights/37966934.pdf

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilkins, M.J. (1997). Prayer. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 941-948). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

THEY ALSO SERVE

James 5:7-12

Jeff Davidson

This is the ninth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/they-also-serve-november-19-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

If you are a fan of English literature then you may have already recognized from the title that I am going to talk about John Milton. Milton was an English poet and politician. He’s best known for writing “Paradise Lost.” Milton began going blind around 1651, and was completely blind by 1654. Being a poet, one of the ways Milton processed his experience of blindness was by writing about it. The date of his Sonnet XIX is not certain, but it is after he began losing his sight and it is his way of working through his blindness and his feelings about it.

I’m not going to try to explain the whole poem because then it gets to be too much like a college lecture, but I will read the poem and I will say that in the third line it talks about “one talent that is death to hide.” There, Milton is referring to the parable of the talents, where the third servant buried and hid his talent instead of investing it and was punished for it by the returning master. Here’s Milton’s Sonnet XIX.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I’ve never felt like Milton in terms of being physically blind. I have felt like him, though, in terms of feeling useless. I’ve felt like I had no gift to share, no wisdom to offer, no support to give. I’ve felt like I was without worth, without value, without benefit in a given situation. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. We’ve felt helpless. We’ve felt hopeless.

Milton deals with these feelings first by owning them. He confesses his doubt about whether or not he has anything to offer, and wonders why – like the man in the parable who buried his talent – he has been cast into darkness. There is a sense of the “Why me?” about Milton’s words that we often ask when we are faced with hardship or suffering of some kind.

James recognizes this feeling. That’s why he writes to be patient. As Jenn said back when we started this series, James is writing to Christians who are being persecuted. Not persecuted in the sense of mass crucifixions or the slaughter of innocent people or anything like that, but more the kind of persecution that involves economic boycotts or social disapproval and ostracism. 

When we recognize that’s the kind of persecution we’re talking about here, and when we remember that in the verses that come just before today’s reading James has called out the rich and wealthy as oppressors of the poor, then the call to patience makes more sense.  As Susan Eastman has written:

This context is important, because without such warnings addressed to the “haves,” exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression. Imagine, for example, telling the refugees in Darfur to be patient while they are being slaughtered. Or recall Martin Luther King’s response to the clergy of Birmingham, who counseled more patience on the part of Black people fighting segregation. It matters a great deal who counsels “patience,” in what context, and to what end. James first pronounces God’s judgment on greed and exploitation, before he encourages those who are suffering, with the promise that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).     (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11)

In times of pain or worry it’s easy for people to turn on each other or be harsh with one another. It’s easy for people to withdraw from one another. It doesn’t have to be persecution – it can be any kind of crisis, any kind of trauma, any kind of difficult life change. James warns us about this, too. This is a part of patience – not just waiting out whatever the persecution or difficulty is that we are facing, but doing so while staying in touch with our brothers and sisters in faith. Verse 9 of our reading says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” 

That part about the Judge standing at the doors reminds me of the admonition to ask yourself what you would do if you knew that Jesus was watching. Would you visit that website if Jesus was watching over your shoulder? Would you laugh at that joke or turn your back or make that Facebook comment if Jesus was with you? I admit that I don’t always pass that test, and I need to work on it. We all do. We all need to work at treating people in general more kindly, and treating people who are a part of our faith community more kindly. We need to remember not to grumble against one another, because Jesus is standing at the doors where he can hear.

James gives a couple of examples himself of the kind of patience that he is talking about. He mentions farmers, who have to be patient. It’s not like you plant the crops on Monday and harvest on Friday. There is a lot of waiting in farming. 

But the waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing. Even in a small garden, there is watering and weeding. There are pests to be dealt with, whether birds or bugs or squirrels. When we had a garden years ago we got only two tomatoes out of all the tomato plants we put in. We weren’t sure what was happening to the tomatoes that we would see when they were little and green and would disappear by the time they were big and red, until we saw a squirrel running up the driveway with a tomato in his mouth. I had not known until then that squirrels would eat tomatoes.

A small garden is a lot of work, let alone the kind of work that is involved in a farm. Even in the midst of all that work, though, the farmer has to be patient. The farmer has to wait until the time is right to harvest the crops.

James also talks about the prophets. This would have spoken deeply to the Jewish Christians who were the original audience for this letter. Time after time after time in the Bible you will see someone referring to the Jewish people and their struggles or to the prophets and their faithfulness or to the prophets and their judgment of the Jewish people in the name of God. These Jewish Christians would have grown up knowing the stories of the prophets, and the ways in which they were persecuted, and the ways in which their prophecies may not have come true during their lifetimes. The prophets had to be patient. The prophets had to trust in God. The prophets had to have faith that their prophecies would be borne out, if not in their lifetime then in the fullness of time.

At first, verse 12 doesn’t seem to fit in with what has come before. It feels like we move very suddenly from a discussion of patience and farmers and prophets into swearing oaths. But it’s not that sudden a transition if we remember the overall theme of persecution.

As Brethren, we have traditionally taken this verse fairly literally. Ideally we will not swear oaths in court. I was a witness in a court hearing once, and when I was asked if I swore to tell the truth, I replied that I affirm. That’s been the approach of the Brethren since their founding. Not just Brethren, of course, but other faith traditions as well.

But this verse has to mean more than that to make any sense in this particular context. In general, when we swear an oath we are talking to God. We may be talking to the court or the government or the House Intelligence Committee at the same time, but we are talking to God. An oath is a fancy way of saying, “May God punish me somehow if I don’t tell the truth.” So when we do that, we’re talking to the court, but we’re also talking to God. We’re telling God that we expect God to take some sort of action if we don’t do whatever it is we are sworn to do.

George Stulac suggests that here, James is talking about swearing an oath not for God to punish, but for God to save. He writes that facing persecution:

(These Christians) would be tempted to strike bargains with God, swearing to do one thing or another if only God would deliver them from their persecutors. Religious people have tried this kind of bargaining all through the centuries. Animists who live in fear of their gods are driven to make such promises. The unconverted young Martin Luther made his famous promise to become a monk when a bolt of lightning terrified him in 1505. James has been saying, “Be patient in your suffering. Remember the Lord is coming. Remember the example of the prophets. Remember the perseverance of Job. Remember the Lord’s full compassion and mercy.” Now he says, “Above all, don’t fall into swearing, as if you could manipulate God by your oaths. Instead, speak honestly and directly, and rely on God in prayer.”

 https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Jas/Do-Not-Swear

Now, that part of the passage seems to fit for me. It’s not just about refusing to swear oaths in court, although that’s part of it. It’s not just about promising that God will take some action or other, although that’s part of it too. It’s also about being faithful and trusting God by not trying to bargain with God. It’s about being patient in the midst of suffering and persecution.

John Milton lived for another twenty-odd years after his blindness. He wrote many political and religious works. He went into hiding when his particular political group, the Republicans, fell out of favor and the monarchy returned to Britain. He married twice more. Even after his blindness, Milton had a life more full, more eventful, more influential than many other people.

That is because despite his blindness, he was willing to be patient. He was willing to stand and wait. Wait for what?

G. Campbell Morgan provides an answer. “Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort. Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given.” 

Through his blindness, Milton learned how to stand and wait. When it is time to act, may we act. And when it is time to wait, may we be numbered among those who also stand and wait – waiting for God’s command, and preparing to act on it in faith. Amen.

ADULTING AFTER JESUS (OF JAMES, JACOB, TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS)

James 1:1-18, Psalm 46, Mark 9:20-27

Jenn Hosler

This is the first sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio of this sermon here: soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/james-jacob-temptations-and-trials-september-24-2017 . *Note* The audio differs from the text. 

Yesterday, I was working on my sermon right up until I had to leave for French class. I realized, at 1:20 when I needed to leave, that I hadn’t eaten anything. I hadn’t even thought about food. Now, I didn’t have any time to sit down and eat the leftovers that were sitting in our fridge (which I wasn’t avoiding, I just didn’t think about). I hastily slathered together a PB&J and threw it in my bag, hopped on my bike, and rode away, eating in the 5 minutes I had before class.

Remembering to eat. Thinking ahead about cooking before supper time. Those are parts of adulting that I seem to struggle with. Adulting, if you don’t know, is a 21st century term for grown up responsibilities. Adulting. Thankfully, I have a partner who loves to cook and is usually quite hungry well before the meal, so we eat, despite my poor adulting skill in this area.

Adulting is hard. When you are not a kid, you need to pay your own bills, figure out transportation, make sure you get places on time, and you are the one responsible for keeping pets and kids alive if you have them. You can’t really opt out of adulting for long and even doing so for a short time has consequences. Dirty dishes must be cleaned some time; binge watching a season of a tv show could feel like a digital hangover at work the next day.

Yet there are good things about adulting. Adulting has rewards! Choice and autonomy, such as getting to paint my walls yellow and my stairs green. We also get the fulfillment of mastering skills and accomplishments, producing things like meals for friends, writing songs, or planning events. Shortly after we moved to DC, I bought a bunch of camping supplies that we needed and put them all in a single tote. Rather than scrambling to find what we need, I knew I could just pull out my camping tote. Camping competently feels like happy adulting. It feels kind of awesome; I understand it might be strange if you don’t find organizing gratifying.

Why James?

Today we start our sermon series on the book of James. I think that one way to describe James could be that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. Adulting after Jesus is following Jesus in a way that seeks maturity, or growing up in Christ Jesus. James has been referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It both talks about wisdom and is understood to be a form of wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. James’ emphasis on virtues and right action, particularly under times of pressure, is similar to Greco-Roman wisdom literature, but its flavor is more Jewish (Wall, 1997).

James is also understood by some to be like midrash, a Jewish tradition where texts are used to interpret other texts; James appears to engage both the Hebrew scriptures (which would have been his and his audience’s bible) and Jesus’ sayings on the Sermon on the Mount (Wall, 1997).

Why study James together for 10 weeks? Logistically, James was easily broken up into 10 parts. We also happened to have 10 weeks from the date we wanted to start a sermon series until Advent. So that tells us why 10 – but why James? In the same way that the early Brethren loved the Sermon on the Mount for being both profound and practical, the early Brethren also appreciated the praxis (faith that involved action) found in books like James (Bowman, 1995). M.M. Eshelman said that “the Brethren preached the ‘necessity of doing, as well as the necessity of saying’” (Bowman, 1995, p. 77).

Like the early Brethren, at Washington City COB, we prioritize the words of Jesus found in the gospels, and use other NT writings and the Hebrew scriptures to build up our faith journey following Jesus. Our last sermon series was on the Sermon on the Mount, so this time, we thought to prioritize one of the letters to the early church.

Studying large passages of scripture, or whole books of the Bible in a cohesive way, can build up our community, and also increase our biblical literacy. We can build up our knowledge of the historical and literary context, something that really helps our interpretation. Since I am first in the series, I’m going to spend a few more minutes on the literary and historical context of James before I get back to James’ practical guide to adulting after Jesus.

Context and Background to James

So, to recap James is understood to be both wisdom literature, a form of midrash, and a letter. Some people throughout church history have maligned James as not being very Jesus-y and not very theological. One commentator says that James is “among the most neglected books in the New Testament” (Wall, 1997, p. 545).  Martin Luther, the reformer in the 1500s, really did not like James because Luther was all worked up about grace and works. James emphasizes that faith needs to be put into practice; you can’t just say you believe this and that about God—you need to live it. Luther was like, believe! Believe! Believe! So he couldn’t appreciate James very much.

Before Luther’s time, another person in the middle ages changed how English speakers understood the letter of James. Though your bible says James, the book we are studying should be called Jacob. The Greek says Iakubus. Jacob also makes much more sense, since Jacob was a common Jewish name, not James.

How did it happen that the name Jacob became, as one writer puts it, “so Gentilized”? “In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations, the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version but since 1797 called the King James Bible” (Wilson, 2017). Ask people who speak other languages what this book is called in their language and it will sound more like Jacob than James. During our series, we’ll keep calling it James for simplicity’s sake.

When we think about Jacob/James, we should remember that the audience is Jewish Christians. “To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” we read. In that era, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire. Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah often still worshipped in a regular Jewish synagogue, until the tension got to be too much. Some Jewish leaders, particularly those under the Sadducees, persecuted Jewish followers of Jesus. This was sometimes violent. However, the persecution most likely during James’ letter was “low-level persecution such as social rejection and economic boycotts” (Davids, 1994, p. 1357). Until part-way through the 4th Century, Christians were sometimes persecuted by Jews, but were largely persecuted by Romans. Jews were also persecuted and oppressed by Romans. After Christianity became the state religion in the 300s, Christians persecuted Jews for centuries.  

Church history and a good portion of scholars think that the author James is Jesus’ brother James (known as James the Just). This James is referenced in the book of Acts. He was the church leader in Jerusalem and he had some big disagreements with the apostle Paul on circumcision and how “Jewish” new believers who were Gentiles needed to become. (For more on that, read the book of Acts 15 and 21).

Because of early oral tradition on who James was and what his teachings were, church leaders in the 200 and 300s continued to affirm that the letter of James was a book that should be part of the church’s scriptures. Thus, it is one of the 66 books in our bible and we are studying it today.

Trials, Temptations, and Perseverance

I said earlier that one way to describe James is that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. It has instruction to follow Jesus in a way that seeks maturity and growing up in Christ. James’ readers are having a tough go, being socially excluded and economically marginalized. They’re living in a place where societal values laud the powerful, the strong, and those with material wealth or social prestige. The readers know that Jesus taught his followers different values.

Recognizing the struggle, James writes, “Sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials and challenges (since I know that you are), consider it pure joy. Why? Because it makes you stronger in Jesus—the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance have its full effect—keep on moving forward. The spiritual adulting and persevering through the low times, the difficult times, this will bear fruit. Then you will be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

James continues, “If any of you need wisdom in how to get through your struggle, ask God—who gives generously to all without finding fault—and it will be given to you.” Following Jesus, adulting after Jesus, isn’t easy. When we don’t want to adult after Jesus, when we feel like living out the Jesus way is exactly not what we want to do, James says that God is ready. Ask and you will receive (this echoes Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount; Mt 7:7-11).

What stands out for me here is that, when we ask for help, our generous Creator will not find fault, but will provide the wisdom and strength that we need. God’s not going to chide you for struggling! James says, “Ask and God will say, I’ve got you.”

“Ask in faith and never doubt,” James continues. Never doubting—I don’t think that this means never question our faith, but that when we do question, we should look to God in a way that says, like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” When following Jesus gets hard, it is so easy to question, “Why am I really doing this? Why am I trying to not prioritize status or money? Or why am I choosing to engage a person that I’d rather just be angry at? Or, why exactly am I committed to a rag-tag group of Jesus followers called Washington City Church of the Brethren? Lord knows, that the world’s wisdom says none of these are worth doing.” Yep, Lord knows. But we’re following another type of wisdom. Ask in faith, “Lord, I want to believe, help my unbelief.”

Sisters and brothers, we all face challenges in following Jesus’ way, when we’re tired and weary of choosing kindness, mercy, forgiveness, service, and love. We are called to keep going—and to trust that God can use the difficulty to make us more like Jesus.

There will be times when we don’t want to be adulting after Jesus, when it is easier to choose a path that is bitter or greedy or prideful or spiteful. But James says that these challenges are opportunities—good things—and that overcoming them makes us stronger followers of Jesus. When it comes to adulting after Jesus, the struggle is real. Yet, we are not alone and God is ready to give generously to us during our struggle, if we ask. What are you struggling with? Ask and God will generously give you wisdom, without judging you.

An Upside-Down Kingdom

One of the books that I’ve wanted to read for a while, that I’ve heard about since I joined Anabaptist circles, is The Upside-Down Kingdom. And that was even before I met the author, Don Kraybill. I want to read it because the title’s metaphor is quite perfect; Jesus’ values turn our world upside-down. The Sermon on the Mount makes that very clear and so does our passage in James.

James says this audacious thing, “Let the believers who are lowly, or in humble circumstances, or—let’s just say it—who are poor, be the ones who boast. Why? Because God is raising them up! The poor are in the high position.” This upside-down value sounds similar to Jesus saying, “the first will be last, the last will be first.” James continues and says, “The rich among you should boast too, because they are being brought low!” The NIV paints it strongly, “the rich should take pride in their humiliation!” Humiliation isn’t normally what one takes pride in.

I think James is saying, that the community of Jesus followers need to proclaim their upside-down values! There are rich Christians and poor Christians (we’ll hear more about the dynamics between them in later chapters). Both rich and poor Christians need to be boasting that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

James continues with words about temptation. The temptation isn’t specified. What could it be? Temptation to stop persevering in the faith? Temptation to give up on the way of Jesus, which exalts the poor over the rich? It’s not clear. But what James tries to make clear, in a way that contrasts the positively-framed trials that we need to persevere through, is that temptation is our own doing. Temptation involves conscious steps in a direction contrary to what God has designed for our well-being. James cautions the early Christians, “the beloved,” not to be deceived. We oversee our own integrity. If we open ourselves up to corruption (in money, in relationships, or anything else), we can’t blame God. God doesn’t tempt; as James said earlier, when we are struggling and weary in doing right, when we need wisdom, God is graciously ready to provide abundantly—without judging us! 

Adulting after Jesus

Sisters and brothers, adulting after Jesus is hard. Persevering in love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and simplicity—these are things that our culture says we should not do. Being concerned with personal integrity is also not highly valued right now. But at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we are following the upside-down way of Jesus.

Whether you are exploring Jesus for the first time or you’ve already committed to Jesus, you might be getting the sense that the struggle is too real and you’re wondering whether you should walk away from this Jesus thing. Sisters and brothers, God is ready to give wisdom, strength, and the courage to persevere; God gives generously, without finding fault, if we ask. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Let’s keep on adulting after Jesus. AMEN.

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.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you

 

References

Bowman, C.F. (1995). Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davids, P.H. (1994). James. G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. ).  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wall, R.W. (1997). James, letter of. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (pp. ). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, M. (2017, April 27). James or Jacob in the Bible? Biblical Archaeology. Retrieved from

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-versions-and-translations/james-or-jacob-in-the-bible/