KEEP NO SILENCE

1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51

Jeff Davidson

 

Sometimes God leads us into remarkable moments of serendipity, moments of happy coincidence. Early Wednesday morning I sent Care my sermon title and the two scripture texts we just read. On Thursday, President Trump made his infamous racist and vulgar remarks about not accepting immigrants from certain countries or continents.

The reason that is serendipitous is that in our reading from John, Nathaniel says essentially the same thing as President Trump. John 1:46 – “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.”

That’s just a boring regular translation. It’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Revised Presidential Version of Nathaniel’s question is, “Can anything good come out of that s-hole Nazareth?”

The interesting thing to me about this is that the Revised Presidential Version of that verse is probably closer to what Nathaniel meant, and maybe even what he actually said. People in the Bible were real people, with real strengths and weaknesses. They were sometimes rude, sometimes kind, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet, and sometimes inappropriate, just as we all are. The dismissal in Nathaniel’s question is a dismissal not just of Jesus, but of an entire group of people, and it’s rude, it’s judgmental, it’s racist or classist in the same sense that calling someone a redneck is or making fun of people from some other city or state is, and it’s wrong.

The hopeful thing from Nathaniel’s story, and we should hope and pray the same for President Trump, is that he grew to see the error of his ways. He started to view Jesus on his own merits, and not judge Jesus because of where he came from or how he spoke or what his educational level was. He learned that good things can come from Nazareth, just as they can come from Haiti or Africa or anywhere else. He came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, as his Lord and Savior.

What got me to thinking about the scriptures that I shared this morning was a remembrance by a man named Bob Stuhlmann. I don’t know anything about Stuhlmann besides the fact that he has a blog that hasn’t been updated in a year or two. I ran across this blog entry called “Remembering Martin” from January of 2014, and it struck a chord with me. Let me share some of it with you.

Martin was working on his sermon when I entered the sacristy. I had come to meet the great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from his text.

He died a year later. His sermon that day…began, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Those words rang out for me and our generation as surely as the words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial four years before…

Martin broke his silence about the war in Vietnam that day. What silences do we keep in the face and memory of injustice, abuse, brutality?”

Some family systems harbored a code of silence. That loyalty to the family perpetuated emotional illness. I believe much of our addictive society is because we have nowhere to go to talk with some wise other about how this code of secrecy has affected us…

Our secrets are some of those crosses from which we need to get down. So look at the news, our history, your history. Sometimes silence is betrayal. What silences do you keep that prevent your painful and necessary healing? What do you and I have to look in the eye in order to fully live again, sing, and rise on wings?”

https://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/remembering-martin-january-152014/

It’s hard for me to hear that in some ways. I want to speak truth to power. I want to be prophetic. I want to rail against the principalities and the powers of this world. I do not want to keep silent against injustice and evil wherever I may believe that I find it. I want to proclaim release to the captives and good news to the poor.

But before I can do that I need to be aware of the words that I need to speak to myself. I need to know and name the places where I am broken, the places where my wounds hold me back or make me weak. I need to hold myself to the same standard that I wish to hold other people to. I need to speak to myself and let God speak to me about the pain and brokenness within me.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares the following thoughts.

A Rabbi asked Elijah, ‘When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

The Messiah is sitting among the poor, binding His wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when He will be needed. So it is with us. Since it is His task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, He must bind His own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when He will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after His own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

Because He binds His own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else. He would be ready to help. Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making His own broken body the way to health, to liberation, and new life.

Proclaiming justice, speaking truth to power, all the brave and bold things that I want to do, have their root in the interior life of prayer, confession, and self-awareness. We must listen for and look for God’s leading in our hearts, and always be working to stay ready to follow that leading when it comes to us.

God’s word came to Samuel, but Samuel didn’t recognize it. Samuel was just a boy. He was learning the trappings of faith, the exterior parts of faith, but when the word of God came to him he wasn’t prepared to act on it at first. He didn’t know what it was he was hearing. It took the wise counsel of Eli to allow Samuel to understand that it was in fact God who was speaking to him, and that it was God who was giving him a message that he needed to share.

Even then, though, Samuel was scared. He knew that God had given him a message, but he kept silence about it because he was afraid that it would hurt or anger his mentor Eli. 

And what was the message that God sent through Samuel? That Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t have. That Eli was aware of the sins and the blasphemies of his sons, and had not said anything. It’s fascinating to me that Eli was wise enough and spiritually mature enough to know that God was sharing a message with Samuel. Eli was insightful enough to know that Samuel did not want to share the message with him, and so Eli was probably smart enough to know that it was a negative message of some sort. Despite his wisdom and his insight, though, Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t. He had let his sons go on unchallenged, and had not spoken out when he should have. And Eli’s family suffered horribly because of Eli’s silence.

I am not saying that you should just speak whatever it is you believe you should speak whenever you think you should speak it. That’s why the interior work, the self-examination and self-care that Stuhlmann and Nouwen talk about is so important. Eli’s sin wasn’t just that he kept silence; it’s that he kept silence when he should have spoken. He kept silence when God had led him to speak. The Old Testament is littered with the names of so-called prophets and priests who committed exactly the opposite sin – they spoke when God had not given them anything to say.

The words that God gives us to speak are not always brave words. They aren’t always words of judgment. Sometimes they are words of invitation. In our reading from John Jesus calls Phillip to follow him. Phillip does, and then calls Nathaniel, and Nathaniel responds initially with the words we started off with from John 1:46.

 Philip invited Nathaniel to follow not on a whim, not because it was trendy to follow Jesus. Philip invited Nathaniel because Jesus had spoken to something deep inside Philip, and because Philip was self-aware enough to recognize that and brave enough to act on it.

It takes bravery to speak out as Martin Luther King, Jr. did but it also takes bravery to speak out in other ways. You don’t need to respond, but how many of you have invited someone to church? How many of you know somebody who is interested in justice, interested in peace, interested in what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the seamless garment of being pro-life, including everyone from the unborn to the poor to soldiers to all people near and far, young and old? 

I know some people like that. Have I invited them to church? Have I talked to them about what this group of people mean in my life? Have I shared with them what Jesus means to me and how Jesus’ teachings influence my life? Obviously we don’t always do that with words. The best witness to what Jesus means to you is to live as Jesus lived. But even if we live as Christ-like a life as possible, do other people know that our life is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ? How would they know that if we do not at some point tell them?

I know some people like those I described. I have not always told them. It’s hard. It takes courage. It takes faith. It takes an awareness of our interior strengths and weaknesses. It takes sensitivity to others and to the leading of God in our own lives.

It doesn’t take any bravery for me to stand here this morning and denounce President Trump’s remarks as wrong and divisive and racist. Lots of people are doing that. I run no risk by doing so. In fact, I would probably run more risk if I kept silent about those remarks.

It does take courage to look inside myself and deal honestly with what I find there. It does take courage to share my faith with others. It does take courage to speak to other people about the things that are the most important and the most deeply ingrained within me, because in doing so I risk rejection and damage to my feelings. I risk losing a relationship.

Look inside yourself and listen to what God is telling you. Keep no silence as you speak with yourself about what needs to change in your interior life, what needs to be healed, what needs to be discarded, what needs to be forgiven. Keep no silence as you speak to God in prayer about how you are being led and what you are being called to do.

When you hear what God is calling you to share, keep no silence. Rather, speak the words that God gives you to speak. Speak them certainly with your actions, but speak them also with your mouth when that is what God is calling you to do.

When you see someone else in need of aid or comfort, keep no silence. Speak the words that God has put in your heart, words of compassion and love, words of faith and forgiveness.

When you know another person is in need of right relationship with God, keep no silence. Speak to them of your faith with the way you live your life. Listen for when God leads you speak to them with words of invitation, both to this community of faith and into a deeper relationship with the risen Christ.

When you see injustice and wrong, whether on an individual or a global scale or anywhere in between, keep no silence. Speak as God leads. Be prophetic. Be bold. Be brave. And be compassionate, for you are speaking of real people with real feelings. Like Samuel, you may in some way be proclaiming God’s judgment on them.

When God leads you to speak, keep no silence. Amen.

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED

Matthew 18:15-20    Romans 13:8-14

Jeff Davidson

We don’t like Matthew 18, at least not all the time. One of the reasons we don’t like it is that it’s about conflict in the church, and most of us don’t like dealing with conflict. If I have a problem with you, it’s easier to cut you off. It’s easier to say something passive/aggressive on Facebook. It’s easier to unfriend you. It’s easier to tell people what a jerk they are. It’s easier to say, “Oh well, it must really just be my issue. It must be my fault.” It’s also easier to just ignore the problem, whatever it is. It’s easier to pretend it’s not there, that it doesn’t bother me, that it doesn’t matter. 

If I have a problem with you, it can be hard to talk to you about it. None of us like uncomfortable conversations – that’s why they’re uncomfortable. It can be even harder to involve a couple of other people in the conversation. They might not agree with me. They might think you are right. They might think I need to change my ways.

It’s hard to have those conversations, but it’s important too. It keeps us from cheap grace. What is cheap grace? It’s a term coined by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…

“Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Many of you may have heard of Robert W. Lee IV. He’s the four-greats grandnephew of General Robert E. Lee. On MTV’s Video Music Awards last month, he said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. It is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.” 

Let me read part of a reflection Lee wrote for today at onscripture.com. “I never fully understood Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term cheap grace until these past weeks. You see I bear the name Robert Lee, and I am a descendant of the Confederate General who led the army against this nation for state’s rights to own slaves. I had the opportunity to speak up and speak out after recent riots surrounding the preservation of a memorial to General Lee in Charlottesville, VA. On August 27, 2017, I appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with the mother of the late Heather Healey, a young woman who was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. The hate I have received has been surreal and pernicious. The threats I have received inconceivable. But it all reminded me that Christians are easily tempted by cheap grace.

“I’m positive Jesus would have called out the message boards and angry tweets if they were around when Matthew 18 was occurring. Jesus is clear how to handle disputes, disagreements, and anger in the church. But it seems to me many of our parishioners and clergy glance over this reality for the sake of ‘righteous’ zeal.

“It concerns me that I was told my appearance on the Video Music Awards and speaking up that black lives matter was enough for Christians to come unhinged and want to confront me. Some Christians have become so blind to hate that they have forgotten the importance of Matthew 18 conversations.

“Not to brag, but I’ve been told I sold my soul, that I am not to be celebrated, and that there is a place in hell that belongs to me. Does that sound like how Christ envisioned confronting conflict and discord amidst followers of the Way? Ultimately we’re all in this together. No wonder people say Christianity just isn’t worth it anymore. The discord of our infighting has drowned out the sweet sound of grace…

“I am convinced that the heart of the gospel falls nearer to love and reconciliation than it does to statements, hate messages, and Confederate monuments. So why does it seem that the loudest Christians on the block are issuing statements, conferring hate, and seeking the safety of idolatrous monuments?

“…We don’t have to live this way. In my own mainline tradition, I want to scream that if we don’t speak up now we will lose everything we hold dear. Because Matthew 18 leaves us with great hope… ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

“It’s my prayer that the loudest voice in the room will become the voice of sanity. That the voice is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect. This way of thinking shifts the focus of our faith from internal to external, from institutional to missional. To borrow from Dr. King, none of us know what will happen to us, but we’ve been to the mountaintop and seen what’s around the bend… It is costly grace that will lead us home, into the very heart of God in which we all dwell together.”  http://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate

What I hear the Rev. Lee saying when he talks about understanding cheap grace is that a lot of people have been willing to write him off without talking to him, without understanding him. A lot of people have cut him loose without sitting down with him and listening to him and seeking God’s presence and will with him. Likewise, a lot of people who agree with him may be making decisions about others without listening to them, without hearing their stories, without praying and reflecting with them. He says he hopes that the voice of sanity “is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect.”  

The Rev. Lee had a difficult conversation with the people in his congregation after his remarks on the Video Music Awards. He ended up resigning his pastorate. That’s an example of the cost of discipleship.

Was God with Robert Lee as he considered making the remarks he did on the Video Music Awards? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say that God was with Lee, since I tend to agree with most of those remarks. It’s just as easy to say that God was not with those who have been critical of him. And it’s just as easy for people who disagree with me to answer each of those questions the opposite way from what I did.

Our reading from Matthew calls us to invest time in relationships, time in people, and time in conversations before declaring a conflict over too quickly, whether by forgiving and offering cheap grace without repentance or by cutting someone off without trying to work through things. It challenges us to be accountable to one another. It invites us to listen to each other. It calls us to pray with each other and to recognize that God is with us, with those we agree with and even with those we disagree with.

The14th Amendment of the US Constitution deals with due process. It says that “no State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”  Basically that’s the idea that certain things can’t happen to you without at least some minimal showing of need or necessity or legality. An attorney would find that a horrible summary, and how much process is actually due varies from situation to situation.

Anyway, there is a sense in which our reading from Matthew is a kind of a due process clause for life together in the church. Conflict and disagreement are a reality of all of our lives, and life within the body of Christ is no different. Denominations split, congregations split, congregations leave denominations – recently some congregations of the Michigan District of the Church of the Brethren voted to form a new district and withdraw themselves from the Michigan district. Whether that ends up happening or not we will have to wait and see.

Matthew talks about what kind of process we need to go through before we say, “You’re outta here.” Talking it over with the person, seeking the counsel of church leaders to work toward resolution, prayer and seeking God’s will – all of those things have to happen when we work towards resolving conflict with others, whether that resolution comes in the form of agreement, agreement to disagree, or saying, “You know what? We really can’t be in relationship any more.”

But there’s something else that’s due. Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Owe no one anything except to love one another. Truly loving someone means taking the time and making the effort to communicate, to reach out, to view the other person as worthy of effort. True love means working towards resolution before breaking things off.

Just as due process is messy in the real world of law, working through conflict is messy in our own lives. It was difficult for the Rev. Robert Lee, just as I am sure it was difficult for many of the folks in his congregation. It is difficult to sit down with people that we disagree with, people who we think are misinterpreting God’s will, and treat them with love and respect. It is difficult to listen to them and see if we can learn from them, and to allow them to learn from us. But it is what we are called to do. It is a part of the costly grace of discipleship. And Jesus promises that as we work through that process, he will be with us. Amen.

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/

WAS IT GOD: CHARLOTTESVILLE VS. EGYPT

 

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Matthew 15:10-28

Nate Hosler

Though the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and counter protest—which included many clergy, including some Brethren pastors—happened over a week ago it remains on our minds. In part, this is because of the responses, lack of responses, and responses to responses that have happened this week. While Jenn and I were visiting her family in Toronto this week I attempted to stay focused on the visit but also needed to determine with colleagues what we should do. Do we simply issue a new statement every time there is racialized violence? (This doesn’t even account for issues like heightened tensions with North Korea). While some statement is appropriate and necessary and the ongoing effort to act rightly in the face of such situations is critical, it is also a time to dig deeper theologically. We must read our scriptures together as a community seeking the leading of the Spirit. This might not generate a quick answer but is crucial for us as a community gathered to worship God and serve our neighbors. I am going to focus on the Matthew and Genesis passages today. Within these there are essentially three different stories which appear to be not obviously related.

Recap to why Joseph is second to the king of Egypt: Abraham and Sara are promised a child even though they are old—the idea is that they will be a great nation. They, at around 100, have a child, Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah (remember the “watering the camels”) produce Jacob and Esau. After exemplary trickery himself, Jacob works 7 years to marry Rachel and is tricked by her father and given her older sister (by “tricked by her father” I mean that since the bride is veiled he switched out the sisters and Jacob only found out in the morning). Works another 7 years and marries Rachel (a strategy certain to create a “complex state of affairs”). Most siblings get into rivalries over foot races or maybe dessert portions but in this case, it was a sort of competition in child bearing and sex. In chapter 30, for example, a son of Leah (the older sister) found mandrakes in the field. On his return, Rachel, the younger sister, asked for them. Leah says, is it not enough that you took my husband but now you want my mandrakes? I’ll give them to you if I can sleep with Jacob tonight. She then says to him “I have bought you with mandrakes”). Of all the children produced by this competitive sex, Joseph, a child of Rachel (the one that Jacob wanted to marry in the first place) is the favorite. Our passage starts with Joseph meeting his brothers in their quest for food during a famine and his being a high up in the government of Egypt.

Joseph’s theological interpretation is that his ending up in command of Egypt is so that he can store up enough food to save both Egypt and his family and that this was God’s doing. The longer and more painful version is that as a young fellow Joseph lacked tact and was a favorite of his father because he was the son of the wife (Rachel) that his father loved most. He lacked tact in that he shared freely of his dream that he would rule over his brothers. This, either lack of tact or straight up arrogance (ah, younger brothers) contributed to enough animosity for his brothers to want to kill him but then settle for selling him into slavery (ah, big brothers).

This passage makes sense as part of the narrative but Joseph’s comment that it was God’s doing that he was sent to Egypt so he could save his family likely sparks the question: If God acted in history in this manner, that is that, God directly engages and changes things or makes them turn out in a certain way, then why didn’t God do something that was less painful for the entire family or just stop the famine? One might also ask this of much of the narrative up to this point—God wants to create a nation but surely there is a less “colorful” and seemingly risky way to do it. This is, however, not the question that is being posed or answered in this text. This text, as a commentator writes, is the “Primary resolution of the entire Joseph narrative” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 343). Joseph’s dreams pointed to this. The Biblical narrative shows an intricate interplay between God’s action and human action.

Joseph says, all this bad stuff was God for the good purpose of saving you from famine.

On Wednesday in Toronto I met up with a colleague. We were discussing what happened Charlottesville and generally the rise of the visibility of white supremacy groups and she noted that perhaps one good result of this notably bad trend is that what was present all along but not as visible has become visible. It’s not as though this is springing from nowhere or wasn’t already present, it is just that the environment is such that such groups feel freer to act in public. Now of course this freedom is damaging, painful, destructive, dividing….it is sinful, it is not a “neutral expression of political preferences,” it is not okay, it is not Christian, and it is not “just part of a political spectrum.” (I am emphasizing how much this is not fine because I realize the question “was it God” is risky and may imply an acceptance where there is in fact none).

Joseph essentially says the string of bad things that happen to him were from God—being sold into slavery by his family, being wrongfully accused and jailed by his master, and being forgotten and left for an additional several years by an employee of the king whom he helped—Joseph says that God planned for him to make it to Egypt for the purpose of saving his family. While I will not assert that we should read Charlottesville theologically in this manner and that we should attribute the events to God (a key theological principle being-don’t blame God for human’s mess), I believe that we can say that we can read this theologically and say that the more explicit and public exposure of white supremacy may help the church and society to see and more definitively commit to working for racial justice.

Was it God? I recognize that my statement is less definitive than Joseph but then again, I’m not that Bible. We do know that we are called to work against racism and for the wellbeing (read shalom) of all. We do know and trust that God continues to work and is present with us. So, the question “was it God?” is not the most pressing nor particularly appropriate. What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. The church had better step up. “The church” is not out there-it is us.

What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. Charlottesville is not Egypt but God is still calling and empowering us to act in the present urgent moment. Was it God? is not the question—but God is present.

In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus makes a comment that feels very –pragmatic and modern? He says these ritual ways of doing things are not what matters but what comes from our mouths matters. What we produce matters because it is an indication of our hearts.

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We can just repeat this several times without commentary and we’re set.

In the text, the next thing is Jesus responding to a woman in a way that creates some discomfort. Jesus seems to try to ignore the woman in need because of who she is. He then uses a dismissive slur.  While we see Jesus as welcoming, healing, and feeding all, this doesn’t fit. So, then we wonder, is Jesus still fully recognizing the implications of his teaching about “cleanness” or is he doing it simply to test his disciples and/or the woman. This sounds a bit speculative and may be unnecessary but certainly feels relevant. The end point is that Jesus ends up accepting and healing someone from out his religious/ethnic/political group. While the end is good I would still like to think that Jesus was simply testing his disciples to see if they got his teaching on ritual cleanness. That Jesus intentionally went through a region where he would come into contact with this “other” group and that he had already interacted with a non-Jewish Centurion in Matt 8:5-13 would lend weight to this “Jesus was just testing them” interpretation.

 Not only does Jesus heal outside his group but the woman who was supposed to lack proper theological insight has the vision to see Jesus for who he is. Notably, the spiritual insight is not limited to Jesus—who is literally the revelation of God. The revelation of the healing and boundary transgressing power of God might just show up anywhere. As much as I am sure you were hoping that this insight was limited to preachers or pastor-folk, we all must watch, wait, and listen.

Jesus demonstrates transgressing a barrier that was established to protect him. The question is not “was it God?” in Charlottesville. The question is how do we as a church respond? Better yet, how do we as Washington City Church of the Brethren at meeting at 337 N. Carolina Ave, SE Washington, DC respond? How do we or do we not define ourselves by what we say or do not say?

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We follow Jesus in transgressing boundaries to engage in acts of healing.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?

1 Kings 19:9-18, Matthew 14:22-33

Jeff Davidson

My original plan was to talk about this passage in light of our discernment process with the Brethren Nutrition Program. I’ve moved away from that specific focus over the course of the last couple of weeks, but my conclusion still applies to that process and to the discussion we will be having later and to the decisions that will be made in the days and weeks to come.   

In our reading from 1 Kings, God speaks to Elijah at a time when Elijah is very discouraged. Elijah himself kind of summed it all up twice in his dialogue with God. It’s clear that Elijah is discouraged. And he has good reason to be.

1 Kings 18 is the famous contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal in front of the sinful King Ahab. I won’t go into detail, but the short version is that the 450 prophets of Baal prayed to Baal for a miracle, but nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed to God for a miracle under more difficult circumstances, and the miracle occurred. Elijah called out to everyone who had seen the miracle to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them, and that’s what happened.

The part of chapter 19 that we didn’t read this morning starts with King Ahab reporting to his infamous Queen, Jezebel. Ahab tells Jezebel what happened at the contest, and Jezebel sends a message to Elijah. The message says, more or less, “May the gods strike me dead if by tomorrow you aren’t as dead as all those prophets of Baal.” So Elijah, reasonably enough, runs. God comes to him a time or two along the way, and Elijah runs for over 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to Mount Horeb, where he hides in a cave and goes to sleep. That’s where we are when our reading from 1 Kings begins.

I confess that I’m discouraged this morning. I was discouraged to hear threats of nuclear war made against North Korea if North Korea did so much as threaten the United States. There are people who will tell you that the President did not threaten nuclear war, but they are wrong. They are neither reading carefully, nor thinking carefully about what was said. I was discouraged to hear a pastor endorse those threats, and explicitly say that the United States should not be run by Biblical or Christian principles, but by the wisdom of the world. I was discouraged to hear the President say that invading Venezuela was something that he considered an option. I was discouraged by the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville. I was discouraged by the death of one of the counter-protesters. I was more discouraged to learn that death was the result of a deliberate act by one of the protesters. I was discouraged to learn of the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter crash. 

That’s before I even start to consider my own life. Not that there’s anything in particular going on in my life that discourages me, but our lives always have ups and downs. We always have moments of joy and moments of sadness, moments of hope and moments of despair. Hopefully there are more of the former than the latter, and hopefully the balance between the two in which we live each day favors joy and hope, but there’s no denying that there are things that happen personally, privately that could discourage us almost every day. And all of that is before we begin to consider the lives of our friends and families.

We know from scripture that God watches us. We know that God pays attention to what we do. We know that God watches and sees the small things, that God’s eye is on the sparrow, and that we are worth more than many sparrows. That’s in Luke 12, verses 6 and 7. We also know that God watches and sees the big things, not just big events but big things that are an accumulation of small events. Genesis 6:11 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” This is just before God calls Noah to build the ark and prepare for the flood. The earth, a big thing, is filled with violence. Each act of violence may in itself be a small thing, but a small sin upon a small sin upon a small sin ends up leading to a world filled with sin. And even in the midst of a world filled with sin, God is paying attention to the small details enough to find the one man who remains righteous.

I imagine God watching us and saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing to each other? What are you doing to my creation?” God was watching Elijah, and probably said precisely that to himself. So God comes to Elijah and asks the question, “What are you doing here?”

God asked the question a couple of times. I don’t know how he asks it. I don’t know if he says it in an exasperated tone, or an inquisitive way, or if he says it sarcastically. I don’t know where God puts the emphasis. There’s a big difference between “What are YOU doing here?” and “What are you doing HERE?” The next time you need a sermon idea, by the way, playing around with putting the emphasis on that question in different places and what it might mean for is an idea worth considering. It even makes for a three point sermon!

Elijah is directed to a place to wait for God to pass by, and he obeys. A wind comes, and an earthquake comes, and a fire comes, but God is not in those things. Then comes a sound of sheer silence, and Elijah listens, and God is in the sheer silence.

How do you listen to silence? Let’s try it for just 15 seconds or so. (wait 15 seconds) Did any of you hear silence? Me either. I heard a few different things, among them the sound of my own breathing. I have a ringing in my ears that I hear all the time unless there is something louder that drowns it out or that makes me turn my attention elsewhere. I literally never hear silence, if such a thing is even possible.

It’s possible for God, though, which means it’s possible for Elijah. Elijah hears God because he obeys God, and Elijah finds encouragement because he obeys God, and Elijah later concludes his ministry and is lifted up into heaven in a fiery chariot because he obeys God.

Sometimes the lesson that people take from this passage is to look for God in the silence, to look for the still, small voice. That’s not a bad lesson. We should look for God in small things. That doesn’t mean, though, that God doesn’t speak through big things too, or that God can’t shout. God spoke through a burning bush. God spoke through a pillar of fire. God spoke by turning over the tables in the synagogue. God speaks through big things and through small things, through loud voices and quiet voices. The first key thing is to always be listening, and the second key thing is to obey when you hear.

Our reading from Matthew is pretty straightforward as far as events go. The disciples are sailing back while Jesus stays behind to pray. The disciples don’t make much progress, because there’s a storm and the wind is against them. The next morning Jesus walks across the water to catch up with the disciples. The disciples are terrified, and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus reassures them that no, it isn’t a ghost, it’s really him. It’s really Jesus.

Does anyone here know who Warner Sallman is? Sallman was an artist from Chicago, and his paintings are among the most famous and the most popular of the 20th century. I printed out a couple of his paintings and brought them along. (note to readers: if you Google “Warner Sallman” you will see a wide variety of his paintings under “images.”) My parents gave me a small desk-sized print of the one with the boy at the ship’s wheel. Sallman isn’t famous by name, but his paintings are quite well known. Some people mock Sallman but I don’t want to do that. He painted out of devotion to and faith in God. He tried to and succeeded in bringing comfort and inspiration to millions of people. I can’t mock that. And if his blue-eyed, occasionally very white looking Jesus doesn’t match the Jesus of history who was Middle Eastern and likely much darker, well as the old song says, “The children in each different place, will see the baby Jesus’ face, like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace.” 

I mention Sallman because I think his Jesus is the Jesus that a lot of people still picture when they think of him. That probably started to change with people about my age, but it’s still a Jesus that is very common and very easy to find in homes and in churches all over. When I was growing up we had a couple of Sallman pictures of Jesus in our church basement. This Jesus does not look like a Jesus to me who gets angry, or who talks loudly, or who becomes animated, or that laughs out loud, or anything like that. This looks like a Jesus of the still, small voice. This looks like a Jesus who said, (speaking mildly) “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Maybe Jesus talked like that sometimes, but Jesus didn’t talk like that here. Jesus had to be loud here. There was a raging storm, with howling winds, and waves breaking against the boat. The disciples, some of them experienced boatmen, professional fishermen, were terrified by the storm. Jesus probably had to be more like an earthquake or something to be heard over the storm. (shouting) “Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!”

Peter was listening. Peter heard Jesus, but didn’t’ quite believe what he was seeing and hearing, so Peter says, “If it’s you, tell me to walk over there on the water!” And Jesus tells him to do so, and Peter does.

Everything is fine, and Peter is walking right along on the water until Peter gets distracted by the storm. Everything is fine as long as Peter trusts Jesus. Everything is fine until Peter becomes afraid. Then Peter starts to sink, and Jesus has to rescue him.

It is easy to be frightened. It is easy to be distracted. It is easy to be discouraged. It is easy to say that the answer is to trust Jesus, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, to obey Jesus. It’s easy to say that but hard to know exactly how to do it.

But we have to do it. We have to do it because it’s the foundation of everything else that we try to do in our lives. We need to confess and repent. Racism is real. It’s a historical fact, and it’s a fact today in systems, in institutions, and in face-to-face relationships. All of us have benefited in some way from the historical practice of racism. All of us participate in some way in systemic and institutional racism. I know that’s not what we’re trying to do, but it’s the reality. All of us are a part of the problem in one way or another, and it takes trust and faith in Jesus for us to take steps towards finding healing and hope and reconciliation.

 Faith Kelley posted something on Facebook last night that I am sharing with her permission. “Not even sure how to process everything today, but when George and I pray before he goes to bed I always ask God to help us love one another better tomorrow. That’s not enough but I think I’m on about a 2 year old level right now and so will have to do.”

I liked that. I think that we could do a lot worse than that. Go back to basics. What are the very basics of our faith?

Well, what are the two greatest commandments? To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s from Matthew 22:26-40. What is the reason why Jesus came to earth? That’s John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What’s one of the very first songs those of us who attended church as children probably learned? If you know it you’re welcome to sing it with me.

“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me. Yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

What’s the common thread in all of that? That’s right – love. God is Holy love. Help us love one another better tomorrow is about the best I can do too. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know specifically what that will mean. I don’t know any of those things. All that I can hope is that when God asks me what I am doing here, that my actions answer for me with the word “love.” Amen.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Luke 24:13-35, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Nathan Hosler

Earth Day Sunday was last week. Though I wasn’t here (I’m going off the word on the street) I heard that while mentioned and in some manner included in the prayer time it was not a main theme. In the end, the point is to focus on caring for creation so timing is really not particularly essential. Better late than never.

At Christian Citizenship Seminars (CCS), this past week we focused on Native American rights focusing particularly on food security. This history of displacement and violence and broken treaties and degraded land is significant—and ongoing. Again, better late than never to focus on this and seek to listen and address this. [CCS is a youth program of the Church of the Brethren organized by Youth and Young Adult Ministries and my office—the Office of Public Witness].

The land on which this church is built is the land of the Piscataway people. Though I’ve wanted to look this up for a while. I only now just did after spending a week discussing and hearing about the experience of Indigenous peoples of this continent. I guess, at least, its better late than never.

These are related to the land (and the people of the land). For example, on the edge of the Navajo reservation sits the Lybrook Community Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Kim and Jim Therrien are the directors and they, along with Kendra Pinto, a young Navajo protector of the land, spoke at the Christian Citizenship Seminars the past week. They told of the devastation to land by the oil and gas companies and the disregard and abandonment of the Diné people in the “checkerboard” eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico. The land and the people who know the land—whose histories and beliefs and stories of creation relate to this land—cannot be separated.

Of course, at some point it might just be too late and then it is never. So, better late than never does not eliminate urgency it simply provides a way forward in the face of much harm. For example, Cherokee attorney Joel West Williams, of the Native American Rights Fund, who also spoke at CCS told me on the taxi ride to the session that there are only around 100 Cherokee individuals who speak the language fluently and around 5 or 6 for whom Cherokee is their first language. At some point, it might be too late but for now there is at least some time. Some time to hear the call to repentance, action, and right believing.

The road to Emmaus is a narrative of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Though word had gotten out, these disciples remained perplexed. The narrative is of an encounter and of the disciples’ inexplicable inability to recognize Jesus. This unrecognition in the narrative highlights the need for God’s revelation (Craddock, Luke, 285). Jesus walks and teaches them and in retrospect they note that their hearts burned. Jesus walks and teaches them, explaining the scripture. It is not until he breaks bread that they recognize him—that he is revealed.

Now this is a telling of the revelation of the resurrected Christ to Jesus followers—and as such drawing a general lesson is a bit risky. There is significance of the sharing of the bread—as a reminder of the last supper, as the eventual practice of communion, as the simple practical act of hospitality and sharing in the basic needs of life—just the significance of this bread beckons to be extrapolated. I remember breaking bread (in the form of individually wrapped pound cakes dipped in green bean stew) with a Somali refugee in Chicago as he broke Ramadan fast in the middle of our English lesson, or Elmira the grandmother aged homeless women I’d meet in the same city and who would give the college students pizza that people gave her while sitting along the street asking for food, or breaking fry bread with a Navajo man whose ancestors were displaced by my ancestors. Hospitality and breaking bread in the face of displacement is a sign of the presence of God. It can be a revelation.

Now these breakings of bread may be too far a stretch from the Emmaus road but it does catch my imagination. Jesus is brought up out of the grave as a revelation of the power of God which then is gradually revealed to the disciples. While such revelation may be hard to spot, and in some way, is finished (since we aren’t still adding to the scriptural text), God continues to revel Godself. The revelation of the power of God continues through the work of the Spirit and the work of the community in scripture, prayer, and worship while we continue on the road of following Jesus in the work of Jesus and listening to others.

As we all know, the church has not always gotten its teaching or actions right. Because of this, care is needed in teaching, reading scripture, and discerning action. One such troubling teaching that has far reaching consequences is the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Specifically, in America there was an appropriation of the Exodus story by the European settlers. They were the Israelites escaping the slavery of England (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, to the Promised Land of the “New World,” and seizing the land from the people they found there as an act of the will of God. This misreading then continued to animate the imagination of Europeans who pushed further westward and continued to seize land through direct violence, pressure, or through manipulations of the law in their favor.

Such activity found a basis in official church teaching. The World Council of Churches in a 2012 statement notes, “For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.” (WCC, Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, Feb 17, 2012).

Creation Justice Ministries’ Earth Day Resource this year asserts that, “Because the Doctrine of Discovery is based on principles that originated with the church, the church has a special responsibility to dismantle this unjust paradigm.” (http://www.creationjustice.org/uploads/2/5/4/6/25465131/indigenous.pdf?key=63038771, 4). Now while the Church of the Brethren has never officially ascribed to this doctrine we have still benefited from the stolen lands. Most of the early Brethren were farmers and we continue to live on the land. We are not free from responsibility.

While I was in New York with the high schoolers Jenn suggested that the CCS topic of Native American rights and food security and Earth Day might be good topics for the sermon. I had already begun to look that the lectionary passages for the week. Though passages did not seem particularly related to either caring for creation or the rights of Native Americans, I began to see that there were several points of connection. For one, the 1 Peter passage made an intricate argument connecting belief and action. A commentator confirmed this observation writing, “1 Peter is not alone in the NT in accenting the truth that a believer’s ‘whole life’ is a journey to heaven in the footsteps of Jesus. Yet its testimony stands as a serious caution against three popular misconceptions: that salvation is merely something that happened to Christian believers in the past, that their only responsibility now is to wait passively for the second coming and that ‘going to heaven’ is something that begins when they die” (J.R.Michaels, “1 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 922).

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. “If you invoke” in the NRSV is translated “If you call out for help” in the Message.

In the New International Version, it reads, Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

 Exile—displacement—references the Israelites displacement from their promised land. There was a covenant by God to Abraham stating that he would be the father of a great nation. This people eventually formed into a nation but were then enslaved but then led to freedom through the power of God. They then wandered for years (40) and then went into the land that was promised. In their entering, they displaced peoples and then were themselves displaced by violence and invasion. Though this narrative introduces many questions—such as “who was in the “promised land” before the Israelites?” and “What did the original peoples think about Israel’s conviction that they should enter the land?—it also is part of what “exile” references.

18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Being brought from “futile ways.” The assumption of superiority and dehumanization, exploitation, and genocide of peoples surely must count as futile. Jesus saves us from these. Though one might object and say that Peter is talking for religious practices. Because of the blood of Christ, which is pictured here as in the role of the sacrificial lamb which is part of the religious practices of the Hebrew people. Elsewhere Jesus is pictured as a priest as well as the lamb. Jesus saves us from futile ways. Jesus can yet save us from practices that continue the legacy that continues environmental racism (such as in Standing Rock which protests by a white community moved construction to sacred lands and near the water of the original peoples or in New Mexico where safety measures on oil and gas companies are enforced in white communities but not on the Diné (Navajo) reservation) and the inability to acknowledge whose land this was.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Obedience to the truth results in souls that have been made pure. When we realize that the Church has not only been complicit in injustice, but as with the Doctrine of Discovery, has generated teaching that spurred on the conquest and dehumanization of peoples, we should seek to repent and change our ways. The Church, thank God, has also been part of the creation of beauty, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of civil rights. So, my urging us to mine our theological and biblical resources while also interrogating them and the church’s practice is not a self-loathing or a nagging self-righteousness but a continued seeking to live in the love and will of God.

Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, argues that both the oppressed and the oppressor communities suffer from historical trauma of genocide, forced displacement, policies and practices (such as board schools) which tried to destroy culture, and dehumanization. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/. Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian and professor, asserts that the Christian imagination has been distorted.

Jennings writes, “Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making this claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to capture sight of a loss, almost imperceptible, yet articulated powerfully in the remaining slender testimonies of Native American peoples and other aboriginal peoples. This loss points out not only to deep psychic cuts and gashes in the social imaginary of western peoples, but also to an abiding mutilation of a Christian vision of creation and our own creatureliness. I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 293).

As we seek to follow the risen Christ as a community, we as the disciples along the Emmaus road, will experience the revelation of our Lord in what are at times unexpected ways and places. As we open ourselves to hear histories and stories of the indigenous communities of this land we must both mourn the past and our complicity but more importantly we must listen and seek to end this mistreatment and injustice in the present.

Strange Fruit

Amos 8; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Jennifer Hosler (sermon adapted from Brethren Press curriculum written by the author, 2015)

Next Saturday, our city and country will celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). It’s been more than 100 years in the making—first lobbied for by African-American veterans of the Civil War—and was officially established by an act of Congress in 2003. The media have been given advance previews of the museum and the New York Times put it this way: the museum “is here at last. And it uplifts and upsets” (Cotter, 2016). As it should. After all, the African-American story is one of resilience and strength amidst enslavement, adversity, violence, and discrimination.

While the top floor of the museum has several thematic exhibits that you can visit in any order, the main storytelling pathway begins by taking an elevator to the bottom of the building. The story starts subterranean, which is fitting for a people whose origins in this country began in the bowels of slave ships. The gallery moves upward through the Civil War, through reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, to Jim Crow and segregation, to Civil Rights, and beyond, to our present day where our country still struggles with ensuring that Black Lives Matter.

While thousands have been eagerly looking forward to this museum’s opening, I’m sure there have been some criticisms. I’m certain there are people who argue, “We really just need to move on and not remember things like slavery or lynching” or ask, “haven’t we moved beyond this?” Some do not want to look deeply, or even superficially, into this country’s history and how it has been shaped by injustice and oppression.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be different from the world (Rom 12:1-2) and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. One part of that involves remembering and acknowledging injustice.

In our passage today in the book of Amos, we see that the LORD is concerned with injustice and that God cannot tolerate His followers ignoring injustice. In Amos’ day, the people of Israel had forgotten that Yahweh called them to love their neighbors and to conduct their lives in ways that were honest and just. The people of Israel were overlooking the oppression in their communities and doing harm to their neighbors. Because of that, God denounced them through the prophet Amos.

Like the people of Israel were tasked with doing justice, followers of Jesus today are also called to work for justice. In order to do so, we must remember and recognize injustice, both past and present. If we are serious about living out the biblical call for justice, active remembering is the first step. American Christians must remember the sins of our forbearers and work to acknowledge and address those of our present society.

Strange Fruit

Fruit is a food enjoyed by most. It’s fairly inoffensive, as far as foods go (Although I know some people who just cannot stand bananas). Fruit is ordinary and yet also beautiful: for hundreds of years, artists have painted still-lifes of apples, oranges, grapes and more. Though fruit can carry the connotation of sin (think Adam and Eve in the garden), it would be absurd to say that melons or mangos strike terror in the average person’s heart. Yet fruit and horror, fruit and menace, are linked in Amos 8, with the prophet’s vision of summer fruit.

It’s not the only instance I know of where the image of fruit is alarming. There is a song, written in the 1930s, that uses fruit as an illustration of our society’s sins. Written by Abel Meeropol and made famous through the voice of Billie Holiday, the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” take listeners to the segregated American South. There, idyllic pastoral, countryside scenes are the setting of violence: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Strange fruit hangs from the poplar trees—not agricultural bounty, but the bodies of lynched black men. Fruit, a usually benign or beautiful symbol, takes on a meaning of horrific violence and tragedy.

In the Old Testament, fruit is typically a symbol of blessing. It symbolizes bounty, abundant harvest, and God’s provision. Quite often, Old Testament passages use fruit to indicate the blessings associated with God’s covenant to Israel. Yet the vision of fruit at the start of Amos 8 is not this type of fruit. The image, instead of blessing, becomes one of menace.

For seven chapters, the prophet Amos has been giving the message of the LORD, denouncing the people of Israel for their oppression of the poor. They had claimed to be religious but were overtly oppressing the poor and marginalized. The word of the LORD comes through Amos: repent, work for justice, or else face judgment.

In chapter seven, the LORD shows Amos an image of locusts devouring the land. Amos pleads for Israel to be spared, since it is “so small.” Yahweh relents. Next, Yahweh gives Amos a vision of fire consuming the land of Israel. Again, Amos pleads on the peoples’ behalf and the LORD does not send the fire. The third vision is one of a plumb line, a construction measuring device that assesses whether building angles are straight. The LORD declares that Israel does not measure up and will face judgment.

Amos’s fourth vision, in chapter 8, is of a basket of summer fruit. “This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ and I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then Yahweh’s message rings out: ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by'” (v. 2b). There is a wordplay here that does not translate into the English version. The word for “summer fruit” sounds very similar to “end” in Hebrew. This summer fruit signals the end of Yahweh’s blessing and protection upon Israel. Since the people have broken their covenant with Yahweh, He will no longer “pass them by” or refrain from addressing their sins.

The next few verses are disturbing and signal the catastrophe that lies ahead for the people. Without Yahweh’s protection from the attacks of other nations, their worship will be replaced by the sounds of wailing—and bodies will litter the streets. The weight of injustice has become too much for those in heaven and those on earth to bear: “Be silent!” says the LORD.

Covenant Blessings and Curses

Biblical and historical context help us make sense of this difficult passage. The people of Israel had agreed to become the people of Yahweh. In the wilderness of Sinai, when Moses gave them the Covenant and the Law, Israelites heard clearly what they were getting into. Like other treaties and agreements in the Ancient Near East, Yahweh’s covenant with Israel included both blessings and curses (see Deut. 27-28). The LORD promised to make the clans of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into a great nation if they worshipped Him alone and followed His commands. These commands stipulated a specific ethic, with practices for everyday life.

In the Law given by Moses, stipulations about worship rituals and economic business practices are side-by-side. Yahweh made it very clear idolatry and injustice both constituted a breaking of the covenant between the LORD and Israel—and the people agreed to uphold Yahweh’s values and teach future generations to do so. The LORD wanted the Israelites to worship Him with their whole lives. Loving the LORD with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5) involved practicing justice; religious rituals were supposed to go hand-in-hand with caring for the marginalized.

By entering into a covenant with Yahweh, the people of Israel agreed to face judgment if they broke their part of the covenant. But later on, they just hoped that God wouldn’t see their wrong doing as long as they still did all the right religious things. But God does see.

Israel’s injustice angers Yahweh—who has been revealed as the God of the oppressed, the God of the weak and powerless—and so the prophet Amos becomes a mouthpiece for a roaring lion, intent on taking down those who oppress the poor. The Israelites’ failure to do justice meant that they would no longer get the blessing part of the covenant; they would face the curses that they had agreed upon.

The LORD calls out those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (8:4). The Israelites are going through the motions of religion but God knows what they are really thinking: “When will we get done with this religious stuff so that I can get back to my real life, making money to live the prosperous life I dream of?” (v. 5). Not only are their hearts in the wrong place, they are going out of their way to defraud and steal, giving inaccurate weights and cooking their balance books. An accusation from Amos 2 appears again in chapter 8, that people are “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” promoting slavery and forced labor on account of tiny debts.

Verses 7 and 8 say that the LORD has had enough of their unrepentant, cheating, and oppressing fake religion. He would overlook them no longer. “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds,” the LORD says (v. 7). Though it might have seemed like the cheaters and schemers were getting away with their evil deeds, the Day of the LORD would bring reckoning and mourning.

Memory and the Church

In Amos, we see that the LORD is concerned with injustice. God will not allow His people to ignore injustice, to sit idly by, and certainly not to benefit from oppression. So God rebukes and judges His people for taking part in this unjust and oppressive economy. Flash forward several thousand years to our day. What does Amos’ message mean for Christians, for us in the United States, as we consider our country’s legacy of injustice toward numerous people groups, but especially toward African-Americans?

I think, first, it means that we cannot run away from remembering. There are some things that our culture works hard to remember. We just marked September 11th – at the gym, I saw a commercial playing that implored viewers to “Never Forget.” The US doesn’t want to forget it. Another historical incident that we are urged not to forget is the Holocaust; by remembering, we hope that people will never again dehumanize and murder millions because of their ethnicity or religion. We try to remind ourselves of the absurdity of Nazi Aryan supremacy. And yet, for as many horrors and atrocities as have occurred against millions of African-Americans, there has been very little movement by the white majority to remember.

A museum like NMAAHC is groundbreaking because it brings black excellence and black dignity and black resilience to the forefront of the National Mall. It is also groundbreaking, because it provides a way for our culture to work on it’s remembering, to recognizing the injustices inflicted on millions of Americans because of the blackness of their skin.

Many European-Americans (as in white Americans) are hesitant to confront the realities and pains of discrimination and prejudice in both the north and south. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable to consider whether your family owned slaves or whether your town lynched black people. Many people don’t want to look at the history of their communities, north or south, where African-Americans were discriminated against in housing or schools or restaurants. If we’re really honest, most of the injustice against African-Americans has been perpetrated by people claiming to be Christians. More specifically, by white people claiming to be Christians.

Regardless of whether I or my direct ancestors have taken part in this oppression, it would be safe to say that every US white person has benefited from white privilege at least some way.

I believe that if the prophet Amos wrote to American Christians, he would call us to repent and mourn.  He would call us to recognize the stories of millions of Americans whose pain has seldom been acknowledged, he’d call us to recognize the slaves whose sweat and toil and blood built this country.

I see the words of Amos calling us to play close attention to what has gone before: to learn more about slavery, about lynching, about Jim Crow, about housing discrimination in the north. If we have been made right with God through Christ and are working toward a beloved community, as Dr. King called it, part of building that reconciled and beloved community involves knowing one another’s stories—including the terrible ones that make us feel ashamed. At the same time, we need to learn about people not only as victims but as persons with immeasurable strength and courage to persevere in this land. That is the African-American story that the church in the United States must familiarize herself with, in order to work towards justice.

Beyond the historical memory, we must hear that the message of Amos is to open our eyes around us, to see and challenge present injustice. We can’t do that without listening to and acknowledging the stories of our African-American sisters and brothers. As individuals and a congregation, how can we listen to these voices? How can we use our privilege or resources in order to amplify voices in society that are not being heard? How can we advocate for just practices in housing or in education or in health policy, in our city or this country? How can we labor for a more just future?

There are many parts of scripture that make it quite clear: God desires more than church attendance, pious prayers, or rituals. One of Amos’ colleagues, the prophet Micah, asked, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Sisters and brothers, we are called to remember and recognize past injustice, to challenge present injustice, and to work for a just future. Let us do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, and remember rightly. Amen.

References                                                                                                                                          Cotter, H. (2016, Sept 22). Review: The Smithsonian African American Museum is here at last. And it uplifts and upsets. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/arts/design/smithsonian-african-american-museum-review.html?_r=0