REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

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

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

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

 

YOU’RE MY FAVORITE or BLAND NEUTRALITY

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

Nate Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Matthew 16:13-20

Jennifer Hosler

A leader stands up and says, “They are taking over. They are ruining our country. They are overrunning our cities. They are plotting, they are seeking to undermine our values and our prosperity. Those people must be stopped, must be controlled, must be contained, so that we can be safe, so that we can continue to prosper, so that we can succeed.” They. Those people.

You could assume that the leader standing up is a present-day leader but our Exodus passage demonstrates that this is a thousand-year old problem. The leader is an ancient one: Pharaoh. Thousands of year ago, it was the Israelites, the Jews, who were “they” and “those people.” Today, people are still fearfully chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We’ve seen that people of today are once again Jews but also Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender folk, and many more.

The Bible is always relevant; but, there are times when the relevance seems to smack you in the face. Our Exodus reading is one of those passages: it seems to be speaking exactly for our present day. Granted, I don’t typically run into midwives or Pharaohs. The setting is different, but the truths that we can extrapolate are pertinent, poignant, and applicable. There are two lessons I want to focus on today: 1) ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants; and 2) women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

I recently read a three-part graphic novel written by Congressman John Lewis, called “March!” March illustrates the Civil Rights Movement through the life of John Lewis, starting from his elementary school years in rural Alabama, where he lived on a farm and “preached to the chickens.” Book One shows young John proclaiming the Beatitudes to his hens, which were in his care and he loved dearly. It describes how John Lewis’s uncle took him up to Buffalo, New York, one summer, and young John glimpsed a desegregated neighborhood for the first time. Coming home, John became dissatisfied with how the black communities didn’t have paved roads and with how black children like himself had poorer conditions for their school buses, buildings, and textbooks, compared with the white students.

As John grew up, he saw Brown v. the Board of Education mandate school desegregation, the murder of Emmitt Till, and he saw the boycott that initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Later, at seminary in Nashville, John encountered the teaching of Jim Lawson, who explained how nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can be used to make “good trouble,” to highlight injustice and to bring attention to hatred and evil. Today, when tweeting about the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis often uses the hashtag #goodtrouble. Our passage in Exodus highlights some “good trouble.” There is much the church can learn from John Lewis and two Israelite midwives.

The other week, Nate preached about Joseph’s reunion with his family in Egypt, where–after a being sold into slavery and preyed upon by powerful people—Joseph eventually rose to the top of Egyptian power, the 2nd person only to Pharaoh. Joseph and his family found a safe place to reside during a famine and these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob get settled into Egypt’s land. Our story picks up after the Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers have died. As was prophesied to Abraham, the Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied (though they’re not yet quite as uncountable as grains of the sand). They’re prospering, the years pass and a new king comes to power.

For this new King, “Joseph meant nothing.” Instead of seeing the valuable assets that the Israelites could be within the Egyptian community, the king gets afraid. He thinks that the Israelites are a threat that need to be dealt with. He’s concerned about the allegiance of the “other” if war breaks out. One, commentator, Freitheim (1991), notes multiple instances of irony in the text and points out that, before the king gets all worked up about “those people,” they weren’t yet named as a people group, but as a clan or extended family. The king is trying to be “shrewd” but he ends up attributing more power to the Israelites than before. Little does he know that this paranoia, this “othering,” and this prejudice will eventually be his downfall.

The king proceeds to enslave the Israelites, forcing them to build cities to store grain. The Egyptians are ruthless and the writing in this passage emphasizes the forced labor several times, using a poetic or chiastic structure in the Hebrew:

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

they made them serve with rigor” (Freitheim, 1991, p. 30).

Despite their enslavement and brutal treatment, the Israelites—like oppressed people throughout history—still find ways to be resilient, through the blessing of God. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…” Eventually, the king of Egypt devises another plan, since enslavement wasn’t working.

One notable omission in our text is the name of the king; he has no name. The tyrant is not the star of the story and is not worth naming, even with all the riches and power at his disposal. Poignantly, two Israelite midwives are named: Shiphrah and Puah. They are women. Slave women. We learn later that they are slave women without children. And they are the named heroes (or should I say, she-roes) of this story. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

The king of Egypt calls them to him and says, “You here, when you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” These midwives are ordinary folks who do the important—but typically undervalued—job of ushering life into the world. Despite their low status and their lack of power in the ancient world, even in their own community, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king’s orders. Scripture says that they fear God, which means that they have faith and trust that Yahweh is the author and giver of life. Shiphrah and Puah care more about protecting the lives of the vulnerable than about obeying the most powerful person in the land.

Jewish baby boys then keep getting born—and living. Pharaoh follows up with Shiphrah and Puah, summoning them to his presence to account for their “wrongdoing”: “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” These Hebrew women do not cower in his presence; instead, they use the opportunity to lift the humanity, dignity, and strength of their people, whom the Egyptians view as beneath them. Hebrew women aren’t below the Egyptians; in fact, they’re stronger. Shiphrah and Puah answer Pharaoh—they flat out lie for the Kingdom of God—and say, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

God then blesses the midwives for this courage, for their defiant and cheeky words, and for disobeying the ruler in charge of their country. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation;

While it is important to recognize the ordinariness of the midwives, I also need to raise attention to the fact that they are women. Women doing God’s work. Women getting into “good trouble.” Women metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives. Thank you, Shiphrah and Puah.

Our passage doesn’t end with them. It continues and there are more women getting into “good trouble.” One commentator points that, in total, five different women are present and doing different forms of creative disobedience or resisting the power of oppression (Freitheim, 1991). In v. 22, we read that when Pharaoh can’t get the midwives to perform infanticide, he makes a country-wide pronouncement that all the Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. We don’t hear what happens overall; our narrator zeroes in to one family. We meet a Levite family who give birth to a son.

The mom hides her baby boy for three months, but a baby is a hard thing to hide in general, but especially when you are enslaved. She rebels by not doing exactly what Pharaoh says—the baby goes in the water, but not in the brutal way he intends. Baby is placed in a papyrus basket and into the water, among the reeds. Older sister watches to see what happens.

Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who sees the funny basket, gets her servants to retrieve it, and finds a crying baby. While her own dad has ordered these babies to be killed, the daughter sees the baby for what it is—a tiny human—and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Older sister steps up out of the reeds and says, “Oh hey! Should I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and older sister gets her mother, who then takes her child back alive and gets paid to keep nursing. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopts the baby and calls him Moses.

Everything that these women are doing here are in defiance of the man in charge. And the text is very clear that it is a good thing, all this disobeying orders and preserving life. Once again, women are metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives.

These women are crucial agents in the work of God. While we obviously have a church with a woman pastor, we still need to teach and preach and proclaim loudly that women can do bold, outrageous things for God and God still says, “Well done.” Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

What does it mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? To recap, we see in scripture and in history that brutal, selfish, hate-inspiring leaders always exist. We also see that God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up to violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God uses people like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and people like John Lewis, who, with his fellow student organizers of that era, integrated lunch counters, took freedom rides, and marched.

In scripture and in history, ordinary people have stood up to be used by God to nonviolently counter hatred and violence. Don’t let someone tell you nonviolent protest is not biblical or Christian: nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a biblical argument, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Jer 38:1-6; Dan 3) and in the New Testament (Mt 5:38-48; Rom 12:14-21). Civil disobedience is definitely a tool that Christians, women and men, can use to stare down hatred and prejudice and to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.

During the Civil Rights Movement and during the recent Charlottesville incident, some Christians have criticized the involvement of clergy in nonviolent protest. One of the most famous rebuttals of this criticism is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to white pastors who criticized Dr. King’s involvement in protests and sit-ins. Since it is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it should be obvious that Dr. King got locked up for said protests and sit-ins.

Dr. King (1963) wrote, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 

When asked this week if people should just try to ignore white supremacist marchers, Congressman Lewis answered, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something… You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion” (Jones, 2017).

After reading several articles about John Lewis and his witness to nonviolence (see March, 3 books; On Being, 2017), I would summarize that he believes that what we need more nonviolence, more people trained in how to love their enemies, how to stand up for the vulnerable, and how to be immovable in the face of verbal hate and even the threat of violence. We need more “good trouble,” more people being willing to link arms, to look white supremacists in the eye, and to remind everyone that both the oppressors and the oppressed are human and made in the image of God. God uses ordinary, creative people (women and men) to thwart the work of tyrants—and white supremacists.

Doing God’s work—protecting and loving and reconciling people—happens at both the most mundane and the most extraordinary levels. The midwives happened to be well-placed to stand up to violence. Are we well-placed, to stand up in ways big or small, as librarians, accountants, press secretaries, managers, students, researchers, IT specialists, coders, security workers, administrators, policy advocates, and more?  Are we well-placed as individuals, but are we also well-placed as a body together, as a congregation? We are entering a discernment phase for our church, as we are laying down BNP and learning more about ourselves and what is next. I challenge us to consider how we are—or can be—well-placed to equip a movement of nonviolence and to stand for God’s values of love and justice, in a spot where the nation’s eyes happen to be? We are front and center in Washington, DC.

Sisters and brothers, God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up against violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God can use you, God can use me. God can use us as a church here on Capitol Hill—front and center with a big old building, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. AMEN. 

 

References

Freitheim, T.E. (1991). Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Jones, A. (2017, August 24). Is ‘mass nonviolent action’ needed to fight white supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mass-nonviolent-action-needed-fight-white-supremacists-654799

King, Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

*Note: while I have read and cited this work before, I re-read the Letter this week because it was cited by Lamar Gibson, of On Earth Peace, in a blog post on the negative feedback they received about racial justice work and the events in Charlottesville: http://faithful-steward.tumblr.com/

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March: Book One. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

On Being (2107, January 26). Love in Action. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action-jan2017/

THERE WILL BE NO TOMAHAWK MISSILES IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11

Micah Bales

Our gospel reading this morning is about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, just days before he would be arrested and executed.

Jesus is riding on a donkey, and the people are all around him. There were massive crowds in town for Passover, and Jesus’ arrival in the city is perfectly time to cause a stir. The thousands of pilgrims are waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The crowd was hopeful that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that the king of Israel would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. As Jesus enters this city, this is a royal procession. He is the Messiah, coming king of Israel! The crowds welcome him, waving palm branches and laying them down on the ground before Jesus.

It wasn’t an accident that the crowds were waving palm branches. I know most of us grew up seeing palm branches as part of Palm Sunday, but Jesus didn’t invent palms as a religious symbol. In fact, palm branches were a very potent political symbol throughout the ancient world. Think about the wreaths and garlands that ancient athletes and rulers would wear. Think of the laurels of Olympic champions. The palm was a similar symbol for the ancients. The palm was a symbol of victory.

It was also a sign of resistance. The palm branch was a major symbol in the Macabeean revolt (167-160 BC) that freed Israel from the rule of the Seleucid Greeks. Waving palm branches was a symbol of power, resistance, and Messianic expectations. It was a big middle finger to Rome. It expressed the hope that this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one who would finally throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor. Would Jesus finally establish the long-awaited Jewish kingdom in the mold of King David? That was the burning hope and desire of thousands of Jews that day.

Our other reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This passage provides us a deeper understanding of what Jesus is going through during his entry into Jerusalem. Paul talks about how Jesus rejected the way of power and domination. He writes about how Jesus was willing to be humbled and take on the form of a slave to serve others. Because of this humility and self-emptying, God highly exalts Jesus. He went as low as you can go, and God lifted him up. The one who suffered and died was given the name that is above every name. Absolute power, joy, triumph.

With Paul’s words as background, I want to take us back to the Passover crowds in Jerusalem. Hear their cheers. Feel the hope they have for Jesus. The desire to see Israel become a great nation again. To have a king, a military ruler who can end the Roman oppression and bring justice to the land. That’s what the crowds are expecting from Jesus.

But God never desired his people to have a king like the nations. God has always wanted to lead his people himself. For generations, the Hebrews wandered with God in the wilderness. He lived in a tent – no temple built by human hands could contain him. He was a mobile God. A mysterious God. A God who dwelt among his people and guided them directly.

It was only after Israel got a king that God “settled down.” It was only during the time of Solomon that God moved from the tent to the temple. And it was never clear that God was entirely willing to make that move. The God who says, “I AM what I AM,” will not be contained, immobilized, and idolized.

Before Israel had a king, the people got their marching orders directly from God. They listened to God together – when they were still in the desert, it says that Moses would speak to God at the Tent of Meeting, and everyone else in the camp would stand at the entrance to their tents and look on as Moses spoke with God. He spoke with God like one speaks to a friend.

When Israel became a monarchy, there was no more speaking among friends. Instead, one man would call the shots, according to his own judgments. One man would be exalted above all the others, and Jewish society would begin to take on the pyramid shape of the social order that God had liberated them from in Egypt.

When Israel instituted a kingship, the prophet Samuel warned them: “OK, you can do this. But this new king you’re asking for, he’s going to take your daughters for his harem and servants. He’s going to take your sons for military service, and get them killed in foreign wars. He’s going to demand huge taxes and tributes to feed his royal court. By the time this is all over, you’re going to wish you’d never asked for a king. This isn’t what I want. It’s definitely not God wants. But if you insist on going this way, he’s not going to stop you.”

Despite his warnings, Israel decided to anoint a king anyway. This was really depressing for Samuel, who know what this decision represented. But God told Samuel, “Don’t make this personal. This isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, Samuel. They’re rejecting me.”

To have a king is to reject God.

But when the people of Israel looked at Jesus, a king is what they wanted to see. They saw a military leader. They saw a strong man. They dreamed of a new King David, someone who would fit into this kingship model that so displeases God. They all knew the story. They knew that kingship was, at best, a compromise solution. And yet it was the best outcome they could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus isn’t a messiah at all, according to the Davidic model. If anything, he’s an anti-messiah. Rather than doing the killing, he’s going to be the one getting killed. Rather than doing the humiliating and torturing, he’s going to be the one being humiliated and tortured. Instead of being in a position of strength, he’ll be in a position of weakness. He’s not going to be the master, he’s going to be the slave – the slave of all.

Things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. We’re still looking for a king. A military messiah. A strongman who can shout orders, sit on top of the pyramid, and bring order to a hierarchical, unequal society. What was true for the Jews is true for all of us: even in our dreams of liberation, we sow the seeds of tyranny and oppression.

We were reminded of this reality last week, when the president ordered missile strikes on another country. This was a revealing moment – not in what the president did, but in how our country reacted. We all know that American presidents wield almost godlike destructive power without any apparent checks and balances. They can drop high explosives on another country without most of us even considering it an act of war.

We know this. We know that America is the most powerful empire in human history. It’s not surprising that the president can throw his weight around and attack weaker nations with impunity. What is remarkable, is the way the American elites view this kind of violent action. As Donald Trump rained millions of dollars in high explosives on Syria, the news media and virtually the entire US political establishment praised his actions as “presidential.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle who had long been pushing for military strikes in Syria cheered the president for dropping the bombs. News outlets that are normally critical of the president lined up to endorse this new war. The New York Times praised Trump for “following his instinct.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that, with this attack on Syria, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed poetic about the beauty of Tomahawk missiles. He quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Those crowds waving palm branches 2,000 years ago – they were guided by the beauty of their weapons. The Romans with their legions were most definitely guided by the beauty of their weapons. By the beauty of their weapons, they nailed the prince of peace to a cross. By the beauty of their weapons, they embraced the kingship of Caesar and rejected the living presence of God. By the beauty of our weapons, America is embracing the broad way of death. By the beauty of our weapons, we will inherit the legacy of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.

The kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world. As followers of Jesus, we know this. Yet it’s so hard to break away from the mentality of death that grips our society. God has called us to be his people in this world. But just like the ancient Israelites, we’d rather have a king. A winner. A champion who will deliver us from suffering, even if it means forcing others to endure it.

I’ll be honest, I’m more comfortable with the way of Caesar than with the way of Jesus. Most of the time when I’m looking for salvation, I don’t want someone who’s going to be humbled. I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be put to death.

When I’m picking my leader, I want someone who’s going to triumph. I want someone who’s going to defeat my enemies. I want someone who’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new political order based on coercion and violence. Because that’s the only way I really know how to deal with human beings.

“But from the beginning it was not so.” That’s not the way God wants to deal with us. The God we serve is not a violent God – though we have often imagined him to be so. Our God is a creative intelligence. He wants to build and grow and cause life to flourish, not to break down and destroy.

The way of kingship is built on aggression, coercion, violence, and threats. It’s built on the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It’s founded on the beauty of our weapons and the arrogance of our intellect.

But God’s intention is for us to live together as one family, with one Father and Mother. God calls us to become humble servants to one another, to put the interests of others beyond our own. God calls us to lower ourselves, so that we all might be lifted up. Not by the beauty of our weapons, but by the life of the Spirit.

True greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like triumph in the eyes of the world. It doesn’t look like being a billionaire. It doesn’t look like launching Tomahawk missiles on distant lands whose refugees you have denied hospitality. It doesn’t look like becoming popular with politicians and having the corporate news media singing your praises.

Greatness in the kingdom of God looks like being willing to receive suffering out of love for others. It’s being willing to lay down your own prerogatives so that others can get what they need. The kingdom of God doesn’t always feel like joy and light. Sometimes, it can seem like darkness.

We’re in the midst of that darkness this morning, together with Jesus. We’re with him as he marches into Jerusalem, marching into this city that will put him to death in the most terrible way. We also know that, because of his humility and yieldedness to the Spirit, God will exalt Jesus and give him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Jesus has the victory. It’s not a victory that the world understands. It’s a victory that comes through compassion, service, and emptiness before God. We can share in this victory. When we reject the pyramid scheme of Empire and embrace Jesus’ upside down kingdom, we experience the triumph of the resurrection.

In the midst of all the darkness this morning, I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate the victory of Jesus. Even though the world misunderstands him. Even as our nation’s leaders insist that they want a King David rather than a King Jesus. Even as Jesus marches into this city that will be his judge, jury, torturer, and executioner. Jesus is victorious.

We can participate in this victory. We can embrace his humble way of self-emptying. We can be set free by his fearless love, without regard for the consequences. Despite this world’s bombs, lies, and terror, we can be God’s bold, peaceful, and triumphant people.

YOUR LOVE FOR ME

John 17:20-26

Jeff Davidson

When I started doing pulpit supply here at Washington City back around 2002 or 2003 I used to listen to WAMU on the way in and on the way out. Back then on the way in it was Stained Glass Bluegrass, an excellent show full of bluegrass gospel music. On the way home, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, a show that among other things often features bluegrass and old-time country music.

On Mother’s Day both shows would obviously feature songs about mothers. I looked up the Stained Glass Bluegrass playlist for Mother’s Day. Some of the songs were “My Mother’s Prayers,” “I Heard My Momma Weeping.” “Mother Prays Loud in her Sleep,” We’d Always Ask Mama to Pray,” “Beautiful Altar of Prayer,” “Mama Prayed,” “If I Could Hear My Momma Pray Again,” “Mama’s Prayers,” “Mama’s Letter to Jesus,” “Mother Taught Me How To Pray,” “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” and many more. Do you notice a theme there?

The image of the mother praying for her child is a common one. For some mothers it is certainly a true image; it would be true of my mother and both of my grandmothers. For other people, perhaps it doesn’t ring true. Perhaps that’s not how you experienced your mother. Whether it’s true in any specific family or not, the image, especially in country or bluegrass music of a generation or two back, is so common as to be almost a stereotype.

That’s not so surprising, is it? I don’t know if any of you are bluegrass kinds of people, but those of you who are mothers or fathers, you pray for your children, don’t you? Sure. And those of us who are not parents pray for our nieces and nephews. We pray for the missing girls in Chibok, we pray for children in disasters, we pray in a lot of different ways for children whether we are mothers or fathers or not. And if we grew up in the church, chances are that our mothers prayed for us.

Have any of you ever listened to someone praying for you? Maybe your mother, maybe your father, maybe someone else. Maybe it was a setting like this one, where the pastor prayed for you along with a number of other people or situations. Maybe it was as a part of a commissioning service or an anointing service. Maybe it was your mother, or a close friend, in an intimate setting of some kind.

There can be a lot of feelings tied up in listening to someone pray for you. When it’s been me, I have had a sense of being deeply cared for and deeply loved. There’s been a sense of feeling humbled, humbled that someone else would take the time to pray for me, that someone else would care enough about me to lift me up to God and say words on my behalf that express their feelings and their concern. There are times that there is vulnerability in letting someone pray for you. I may ask you to pray that I lose weight. But when you start to pray, it’s up to you what you pray for. I don’t have control over what you say or what you pray for.

When someone prays for you, whether it’s your mother or someone else, it’s an interesting experience. It’s something that opens up the possibilities for a lot of different feelings.

Mary Hinkle Shore, a pastor from North Carolina, brought up the question of what it is like to listen to someone pray for you that I mentioned earlier, and also pointed out something that it would be easy to miss about our gospel reading. Let’s set the stage. This is Jesus’s last night with the disciples. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when Jesus prays he goes to Gethsemane and the disciples are a little ways away and they fall asleep. Here in John the prayer is a little different. In John 16 Jesus is talking to the disciples, explaining what is about to happen, and then at the beginning of chapter 17 he begins to pray aloud. Right there in front of the disciples. The disciples are there, and they are listening.

We could read this passage as a call to evangelism. After all, Jesus talks in his prayer about “those who will believe in me through (the disciples’) word.” In the Bible the disciples often serve as our representatives, so Jesus is talking about the people that we reach out to, the people we share the gospel with. Jesus is talking about people that we will touch and share with in any number of ways, people who need a right relationship with Christ and with their neighbors.

Jesus also talks about a desire that all who believe “may be one,” to be a part of one body. A lot of people over the years have thought that refers to ecumenical relationships, relationships between different denominations and different traditions within the Christian faith. That’s one of the things that the Office of Public Witness works with, our ecumenical relationships and our ecumenical responses to issues in the world. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if all of Christianity could speak with one voice and truly be part of one body. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could all find our truest identities within the body of Christ and let all of the other differences go.

But Shore notes that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. You see, Jesus isn’t talking to the disciples. The disciples are hearing him, but they are not who he is talking to. And Jesus isn’t talking to us. We’re reading about it a couple of thousand years later. Jesus is talking to God. Jesus is praying, praying for the disciples and praying for us. And it is our privilege to be able to listen in.

It’s not a surprise that someone like our mothers, or our fathers, or other friends or family members might pray for us. It is kind of a surprise at first, before we think about it, that Jesus prays for us.

That’s not a new feeling. In Psalm 8 verses 3 and 4 it says, speaking of God, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, the Bible records the surprise and amazement of the Psalmist that God thinks about humans at all.

It’s not just surprising that Jesus prays for us, that God and Jesus talk about us. Something else that is surprising is what it is they pray for. That we may reach people with God’s love, yes, and that all who believe may be one, yes, but there’s more. And it’s that “more” that I find most surprising. Here’s verse 26 again, with Jesus speaking in prayer to God about the disciples: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That’s the part that is the most powerful for me.

Jesus prays that the same love God has for him would be in us. That’s a powerful love. That’s a love that let Jesus do miracles. That’s a love that helped Jesus feed thousands with some loaves and some fishes. That’s a love that empowered Jesus to raise people from the dead. That’s a love that raised Jesus himself from the dead. And that’s the love that Jesus prays that God will put into us.

I said that there is a vulnerability, a giving up of control when you listen to someone else pray for you. That’s true. But there is also the possibility of power. The very real possibility of the power of love.

I am empowered when I know that other people are praying for me. I am empowered because I know that I am not alone. I am empowered because I know that there are other people who care.

I am also empowered when I know that my mom or my dad are praying for me. I am empowered because I know that in my family I have been fortunate to be raised in a tradition of faith, in a place surrounded by love, and in a context where people believe in me and want only the best for me.

And I am empowered when I know that Jesus is praying for me. I am empowered because I know that Jesus’s prayers are answered, and that Jesus wants me to have within me the same love with the same power that he had within him.

There is an old hymn that says there is power in the blood. That’s true. As I heard on Stained Glass Bluegrass many times there is power in a mother’s prayer. And that’s true. Finally, there is power in God’s love; God’s love made real in the life of Jesus, and that same love made real in our lives here and now. Let us pray for others as others have prayed for us, and let us live out of that power and out of that love. Amen.

 

 

COSMIC POWERS?

Ephesians 6:10-20

Nate Hosler

Precisely a week ago we were on a plane returning from a week in Disney World with Jenn’s family. They had traveled south to Florida from a not nearly as hot Canada to celebrate our nephew’s 10th birthday. In addition to a keen enthusiasm for sugar and bright song filled environs, Disney World also featured many space themed rides and activities. There was a decided interest in the cosmic—things beyond what we can see. We rode the classic Space Mountain—a roller coaster traveling like roller coasters do but in a building and in the dark. There were small star lights and sci-fi inflected lights to indicate take off, speed, and space travel. There was also Star Tours which was apparently based to some degree off Star Wars—it’s hard for me to really know since I, and I recognize this will probably be offensive to some of you, don’t know the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Tours with a combination of 3-D glasses, a shaking and lurching enclosed car, and a screen made us feel as though we were hurtling through space at interstellar speeds. Having experienced this week—which was a great deal different than my family’s camping trip earlier in the summer—I should have been well prepared to take on preaching a passage that includes cosmic powers.

The passage begins with two commands to action. “Be strong in the Lord” and “Put on the whole, or full, armor of God. And then continues by asserting that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The armor is put on to defend against the “wiles of the devil” and then the struggle is against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this “present darkness.”

There are two primary ways that biblical scholars understand these cosmic powers which oppose us and against which we struggle. Some see the powers and Satan as spiritual beings that function autonomously. They do stuff. Tempt Jesus for example. Another stream of thought sees the principalities and cosmic powers as nonmaterial evil forces. In the world of my work with the Office of Public Witness we talk of “systems” or systemic this or that. Perhaps systemic racism or militarism. In this the systems are nonmaterial powers which shape the world. In these discussions the systemic issue is often some sort of evil. A particular stream of scholarship connects the writers “principalities and powers” to this sort of systemic evil. The Apostle Paul living under the occupation of Roman Empire with the cosmology of that era likely had some of both of these in mind.

While this could be an interesting subject I am not going to get into this more deeply. One commentator writing on several passages in Paul’s letters that refer to similar language of principalities and powers or some other variation of this notes that these powers are not the “normative” part of the passages. While the existence of the cosmic powers shapes our response there are two things more normative—more central—namely God whom we worship and our spiritual “weapons” such as the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. While the cosmic powers matter, our lives are oriented toward God and determined by the work of God and the presence of God.

The armor—

“13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[b] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Put on the “whole armor of God.” This language of armor is metaphorical and as such there are limits to how much we should extrapolate or read into this. When we read this we think of the armor going on a body. I remember one of my Sunday School teachers getting dressed up in ice hockey equipment to illustrate a particular point about this passage.

It’s interesting that one of the pieces of the battle gear is foot gear to proclaim the Gospel of Peace. The imagery of battle gear and a gospel—that is, good news of peace—is somewhat unexpected, perhaps confusing.  It is also a different construction than the other pieces of armor. Whereas righteousness is a breastplate and salvation is a helmet there is no named footwear. In this case it is associated with the function which is the proclamation of the Gospel of Peace. The “Gospel of Peace” is a specific phrase not often used. There are certainly many ways in which “the Gospel” is the Gospel defined by peace but this phrase is a little unusual. Earlier in Ephesians we read that “Christ is our peace” and that through him the “wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles is broken down. So calling the Gospel that brings peace and reconciliation between God and people and between people makes sense to be called the Gospel of Peace.

But as I continued to think about this phrase—while preparing supper or while sitting in the back garden doing reading for school I felt less certain about precisely what this meant, particularly the shoes and readiness. Generally it felt clear as part of the passage but thinking more closely felt like it wasn’t clarifying. So when I came inside from school studying to switch to sermon studying and to continue writing I started reading several different translations.

So the New Revised Standard Version (which is what your pew Bible is) reads–                                                                  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” NRSV

While the New International Version reads:                                                                                                                         “and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” NIV

And the New Living Translation:                                                                                                                                           “For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.”

In all there is the idea of shoes, preparation (which is not specified), and the Gospel of Peace—with “gospel” the Greek word euanggeliou kept as a proper name translated as “gospel” or defined as “good news.” The big variations are if the “gospel of peace” is said to be the “shoe”—which would mimic the linguistic construction of the other piece of God’s armor (salvation is a helmet, faith is a shield)—or if there is some other preparation or preparedness that is worn as a shoe for the task of proclaiming the gospel of peace or the good news of peace.

There are two things which we need to define. The “Gospel of Peace” and why shoes? Two other passages give a hint at this. In 2 Corinthians 5—Ambassadors of reconciliation—an ambassador has a going as part of the role. And this reconciliation with God and people through Christ is a simple definition of the Gospel of Peace.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;[b] even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,[c] we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[d] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

And then a second passage where go-ing is part of the ongoing ministry left by Jesus.

Matthew 28:16-20  16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[

So I am going to define the “Gospel of Peace” not as peace in broad general sense but as the peace defined in Jesus. That is that through Christ we have peace with God and with one another.  And that a central vocation of the follower of Jesus is to go proclaiming this Gospel. This going is integral to the proclamation—hence the image of the shoes.

But what does it mean to put on readiness or preparedness or “whatever will make you ready”? We all know that different shoes make us ready for different things. I have been in meetings with my work here in advocacy in which women colleagues have come prepared with two sets of shoes. One pair is for “looking professional” or taller (and thus because of outmoded social conventions) more authoritative and one pair for walking between meetings. Most days when I run I wear a particular pair of shoes made for running—but running on the street. Yesterday we went trail running, those shoes are also made for running but with heavy tread and tougher soles to protect against sharp rocks and not slip.  Similarly readiness and preparedness to proclaim the Gospel of Peace will vary by person and situation.

We discover this through prayer and being alert. The passage continues.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[c] 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

So while Disney may rightly have fascination with all things cosmic our lives are not determined by the Cosmic Powers but by the presence of God. There are times, perhaps often, when we see the powers, cosmic or otherwise, and we feel that surely evil will prevail. We experience violence and evil in our streets, internationally, internally, in our or our friend’s homes and we just might despair. We are in a struggle. We are in a struggle but this struggle is not with the military equipment that this country is so enamored with but with the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, of righteousness and faith. We are in a struggle but this struggle is not to vanquish our enemies, crush the competition, get ahead. Our struggle is to put on the shoes of readiness to preach the gospel of peace. We are called to go into the fray but not with the weapons of the world. My friends let us go—let us go into the struggle following the Jesus who did not turn back in the storm, who did not turn back in fear. Let us go forward praying in the Spirit—clad in the whole armor of God.