Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Preacher: Micah Bales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

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

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

Trinity Sunday—We have had enough of sermons from pulpits

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: John 3:1-17; Romans 8:12-17

“We have had enough of sermons from pulpits.” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits. This rings in my ears.

Weeks ago, the Great March of Return was mounted to nonviolently protest unjust treatment in Gaza. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade, surrounded by an electric fence, with limited means for survival for 10 years.

On Monday May 14th, 2018 60 Palestinians—were killed by snipers during a nonviolent action.

On Tuesday May 15th, Churches for Middle East Peace gathered next to the White House for a vigil to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the Catastrophe as it is called by Palestinians driven from their land.

On Wednesday May 16th, I was asked, as a member of the board for Churches for Middle East Peace to facilitate the Q & A section of a talk by Naim Ateek—known as the founder of Palestinian Liberation theology. In his new book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict, he notes that the theology that was taught to his people by Western Christian missionaries couldn’t bear the weight of the displacement of 1948 and the Occupation of Palestine. He writes, “When the catastrophe struck, our Christian community was not ready for it. People’s faith was not always resilient enough to withstand the tragic impact. Some of our people lost their faith…They felt that the spirituality they were taught by the missionaries was one of resignation and acceptance of their fate as the will of God” (Ateek, 3).

This theologian, Naim Ateek is “big stuff” in theological circles. I do not typically say things like “I was honored to do this…,” I’m either to pompous or too informal but, as a theological ethicist, this was pretty great.

Also, on the panel was Tarek. Tarek, a Palestinian activist formerly with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine, gave an impassioned plea for action. He said, “We have had enough of sermons from pulpits!” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits…

My task this morning is to preach a sermon from a pulpit. Not only that but this is Trinity Sunday. To many of us the theology of the Trinity is probably about as esoteric as it can get.

While a sermon may be “just” words, it also can be a tool for justice. The work of the sermon and the preacher draws us to God and to neighbor and should draw us into the street. Not only this, but our church sits in a particular location and has a particular calling, a particular gift—a responsibility. We are taking up geographic space on Capitol Hill.

Taking up space is not neutral nor necessarily positive, however. This land also had original inhabitants on it—the Piscataway Nation. Who were also displaced through violence. But while it is not neutral in terms of innocent or without harm, it is also the possibility to participation of the work of justice.

It was my job to read the text this week. To read the text prayerfully and with care so that this morning I can do the audacious act of proclamation. Though we may gain from historical figurations and formulations about the doctrine of the Trinity, the work this morning is to read the texts. But not just to read the texts—to read them in light of the world. To read them for a “theology of the street” as Tarek admonished.

If you were to read this text with a highlighter for notating appearances of the persons that make up the Trinity you would see:

Vs. 13 “if by the Spirit.
Vs. 14 “led by the Spirit of God…are children of God.” –you get two there.
Vs. 15. “Abba! Father!” and “very Spirit”
Vs. 16 “heirs of God” and then…”with Christ.”

So, there you have it. That is why this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday. All three persons of the Trinity show up in the same passage. We also see the way that the persons of the Trinity interact with our lives. Listen again to the text,

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Now tell me—how do we relate to the Trinity? It’s like a knot! The pieces and our relationship are so interwoven that an effort to detangle, delineate, separate into categories or otherwise make it neatly comprehensible is a risky endeavor. The social relationship of the Trinity makes these relationships and processes and formation of our lives to that of God’s life possible. This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why there can really be no difference between theology of the street and of the pulpit—if both are done as they should be. They are one—but we have often tried to stay in safety. By we, I mean Christians who should have been on the street.

The passage focuses on being led by the Spirit and being children and heirs of God. Which is splendid! My parents got some inheritance money from an uncle and they were able to visit the Canadian Rockies—a long-time dream of my mother, and they were able to take all of their children and spouses. If this is being an heir, then being an heir to God—now that must be quite spectacular. Being led by the Spirit we are heirs to God. Which puts us as co-heirs with Christ—also fabulous sounding. Co-heir, co-anything with Christ sounds like being a buddy with God incarnate (Jesus did say to his disciples, I now call you friends).

So the Spirit leads which results in a relationship of child-ness to God and in some way adjacent to Christ.

This all sounds dandy. The passage concludes 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him…. if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Our tendency, which is quite natural, is to focus on the first and last of these.

We are heirs to God! We get God-stuff!

We will be glorified with Jesus! We are going to be famous like Jesus!

We like the sound of being co-heirs and co-glorified but we often skip the co-suffering. And if we admit there will be suffering we likely are thinking of something like discomfort-lite rather than anything parallel to Jesus.

Another place in scripture where the phrase “children of God” is noted is in Matthew 5:9. In this we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And in the example of Jesus we know that peacemaking is not conflict covering or avoiding or minimizing. If we look at the world, in Gaza (with blockade, hunger, protests, and sniper deaths), in Houston (with school shooting), in Nigeria—we know that peacemaking requires justice and sacrifice and risk and compassion and courage.

Omar Harami, Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and struggler for justice described peacemaking for me in this way:

“The city of Jerusalem is the city that gave witness to our faith- the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Lord, we are also in a way the city of Jerusalem as we continue to testify to the miraculous resurrection.

Peace is a beautiful word, even the worst tyrants talk about peace and claim they desire it, but their peace is not the peace of our lord.

Like every dish, the right ingredients and the proper way of making it will determine the success in making it to tasty meal.

We as Christians believe that Justice is the main ingredient to make peace, peace without restorative justice is simply impossible. Our faith mandates us to be justice seekers to make peace possible. The world is in need for justice, on many levels, human rights, economic justice, environmental justice etc… be justice seekers please.

Peace is not the final goal in our faith, its actually reconciliation… peace is only the path between justice and reconciliation. Please don’t be peacemakers, be demanders of restorative justice who work towards true reconciliation.
Philippians 4:7 -And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We are called into the very life of God led through the Spirit into co-suffering and co-glory with Christ. We are called into the very life of God in the streets.

IF I PROCLAIM

Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

Nathan Hosler

Directly before our passage is Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Though there is freedom to eat, this freedom is qualified by the higher priority of the spiritual well-being of others. Jenn preached on this last week. In this the Apostle considers food sacrificed to idols. Paul asserts that though Christians are not constrained in what they can eat should always have the spiritual well-being of others in mind and as the highest priority. Though you are free in relation to God, you must be constrained in relation to your sisters and brothers who may be spiritually upended by your action.

A commentator writes, “Those who truly know God and are known by him will employ their freedom and knowledge for the sake of building up others in their faith, even when this entails denying one’s own legitimate rights as a believer (Hafemann, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 166).”  In light of this we turn to chapter 9. Though this may feel like a digression it is part of the same (though somewhat expanded argument). The chapter opens— “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?”

Paul provides an example of this freedom in his giving something up for the sake of others. Paul forgoes legitimate payment for preaching.  In this he demonstrates the absolute priority he gives to others and for his calling in a ministry of proclaiming the Gospel.

He asks rhetorically in verse 18 “What then is my reward?” “Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” We often think of rights in relation to commands to act justly towards the poor and immigrant. This is why our denomination participates with the National Farm Worker Ministry (www.nfwm.org). For example, Proverbs 29:7 “The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.” Or Deuteronomy 24:14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” In this Paul is referring to rights of a worker that are parallel to his work in ministry. As a worker in a vineyard or field has a right to the material resources needed for survival so to does the Apostle who engages in the work of ministry.

Paul argues that those who labor expect to gain sustenance from it. One does not pay for one’s own service in the military, nor keep a vineyard without eating the fruit. He quotes and then interprets figuratively the command that oxen should be allowed to eat while they work as an example of God’s concern for the human worker (sorry oxen). He makes a strong argument that he has the full and legitimate right to make a living from his preaching and then says—despite this right to pay, I have decided not to use this right. He goes even stronger, asserting, “Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

While we could deduce much from this on the topic of labor, Paul’s main point is as a demonstration and illustration about freedom. Though he is free and entitled to being supported for his work of ministry, he has, for the sake of the community, offered this service free of charge. Furthermore, he asserts, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (9:19). This sounds very heroic and high-minded, however, he asserted a few verses earlier that “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! (9:16)”

9:17: “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission”.  If done on his own he would be rewarded but since he is compelled—he is “entrusted with a commission” he is simply fulfilling what is required. There is a reward—of sorts—he is able to make the proclamation without charging. This seems like a strange reward but indicates that his greatest concern is for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. He says, (9:19) For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

Paul’s top aim is proclaiming the gospel. This focus is mirrored in Mark. In 1:38 we hear Jesus answer, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” The proclamation of the message is Jesus’ task. This is not only preaching in the form of saying words. Clearly this proclaiming is connected to the healing and in other passages to feeding and setting free. In Luke 4:18-19 at the beginning of his ministry Jesus defines his ministry by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, he reads

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Absolute focus on the calling of God. Absolute focus on proclaiming the Good News. All else conforms to this. Of course, this does not mean that our callings are the same as the Apostle’s or a pastor’s or missionary’s or something else that sounds like what we expect the extra-called to sound like, but this calling is definite and not to be taken lightly or as a side hobby.

I’ve heard analysts, and even a peacemaker or so, make an assertion that goes something like—a strongly held spiritual conviction puts one, almost necessarily, in the intolerant and dangerous camp. I don’t doubt that this can be the case but living radical peacemaking in the face of the violence of the world is not for the half-way committed. To live simply. To conform one’s life to spiritual disciplines in the face of infinite pulls on our attention. To live hopefully in face of repeat catastrophes is not for the half-way present and half-way committed. This call requires sharp focus. It requires a thoroughgoing commitment as well as the inner life and community to sustain it.

Proclamation of the Gospel—in all its facets and in all parts of our lives—is the #1 priority

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof intentional communities in Nazi Germany, writes,

“Today we must emphasize it once more: our capacity for work is sure to become exhausted and mechanical—our strength will be sapped at the core—if no deepening is given to the inner life. As soon as inner stillness and quiet are lost, the holy springs of the inner world that bring life-giving water to our spiritual life are bound to fail at the very source (Eberhard Arnold, Innerland: A Guide into the heart of the Gospel, 2).

Isaiah 40:28-31 “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Thirdly, Proclamation requires flexibility

These verses show the Apostle as surprisingly flexible about some major theological and ethical controversies. Jenn discussed this last week in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He asserts “I have become all things to all people,” In context it reads,

9:20-23 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” 

In this congregation we more regularly preach and talk about being with people, in solidarity, or challenging injustice as part of joining the struggle for peace, justice, or inclusion of the excluded. We are perhaps more prone to assert with the theologian challenging oppression that:

“Through the praxis of solidarity, we not only apprehend and are moved by the suffering of the other, we confront and address its oppressive cause and shoulder the other’s suffering.… (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 94).”

Though this solidarity is not excluded here, it is also not quite the same as Paul’s becoming “all things to all people,” This seems like it could be deceptive. A kind of trickery to blend and make an argument. However, when we keep it in the context we see that Paul is forgoing certain freedoms so as to not cause offense or distract unnecessarily.

Here is my one, perhaps obligatory, football reference on the Sunday which also includes the Super Bowl…If you know Jess or have been around here on any of the same Sundays you will likely have noticed that she is a Patriot’s fan. She is a fan in a way that is beyond my comprehension. During the Christmas eve service while she was up front reading scripture, I happen to notice that she was wearing Patriot’s shoes. So, the Apostle not creating a barrier is like me not wearing an Eagles jersey this morning or perhaps even joining her.. (I was going to say that, of course, Paul’s is dealing with things of religious significance…but then I realized that for many, this game, may be of that degree of seriousness).

In these passages we see proclamation as first priority, proclamation needing Spirit power, and proclamation requiring flexibility. In this we place others above ourselves, testifying to the reconciling work of Christ.

THE 15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST or THE WEASEL, THE MOUSE, THE GREAT LIZARD ACCORDING TO ITS KIND

The audio version may differ from the transcript of this sermon, but can be found on Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/15th-sunday-since-pentecost-september-17-2017  

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Nate Hosler

As many of you know we went camping last week. My family has gone camping most every year for more than 20 years. My mother has typically has made a scrapbook documenting these adventures. About 20 years ago she documented that my brother proclaimed that he was powered by tasty cakes and Spam (my memory might not be entirely correct on this). Around 15 years ago my mom discovered her severe headaches were caused by a gluten allergy. 10 years I married someone who likes spicy foods (and myself became so inclined). A few years ago, my one brother married a vegetarian and my other brother married someone sensitive to spicy foods. Needless to say, our camping cooking has gotten more complicated.

Our Romans passage addresses the topic of dietary restrictions of a different sort. In Jesus, we see an expanding of scope of ministry. While Jesus, at times said that he was here to preach to his people—the people of Israel—he none-the-less regularly went beyond this community in acts of healing and preaching. Though laws were set up for religious purity and to define the community these were never impermeable or meant to definitively exclude. While these laws limited certain types of interaction and eating certain types of food, there was also a significant and prominent theme of “caring for the resident alien.”

Jesus regularly transgressed established religious and ethnic borders as well as made the religious law secondary to acts of compassion and healing. (For example, with the Canaanite woman; Matthew 15, Centurion; Matthew 8). Jesus gives a final word of commissioning to his disciples instructing them to go to all nations [Matthew 28:18-20 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.”]

Once Jesus departs after his resurrection and reappearance, the disciples wait with uncertainty but in prayer in Jerusalem. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit comes down and rests on them in the form of flame and linguistic innovation. (we’re only 15 weeks past). The multi-language display allows for preaching to Jews from all over who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. [Aside: I am not into doing dramatic productions or skits. However, while in Germany with Eastern Mennonite Missions after high school my team was asked to do a dramatic rendering of Acts 2 while it was read for an ecumenical Pentecost service. I don’t remember exactly what we did but the section which includes a long list of places initially lead to us pointing in every possible direction.]

Further along in Acts, as the disciples and Apostles are still working up to breaking beyond their religious boundaries, Peter has a vision of unclean animals lowered down in a sheet as a way to show him that he needs to go and preach to the Gentiles. Peter didn’t do this lightly—it took three times. In the vision he sees the sheet lowered and then hears (Acts 10:13 “.. a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

In this context, we read our Romans passage. Romans is written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome. It is one the earliest extended Christian theological reflections. Paul was originally Saul and a zealous persecutor of Christians. He then identified his mission as reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul did not start the church in Rome. A commentator writes,

“The fact is that we simply do not know how Christianity began in Rome and who, strictly speaking, its founding apostle were. We do know, however, that there was a large Jewish community in Rome in the first century (estimated at between 40,000-50,000).”(Dunn, 838, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). Overall population was around 1 million. (Reasoner, 851, DPL). Of the 24 people named in greetings in the last chapter, at least 14 are slaves which would have descended from Jewish captives brought to Rome following Pompey in Palestine in 62 BC. It is likely that the Christian community began among the synagogues but included Gentiles (Dunn, 839, DPL). This, along with differing assumptions on religious practice led to tensions. Hence, our passage’s pastoral nature.

Our passage begins,

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.

There was a legitimate discussion over what was ok and not ok to eat: In addition to passages in Leviticus (on the first page in Leviticus I opened at random) 11:29 “These are unclean to you among the creatures that swarm up on the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind…” and the reality that meat purchased in the market was likely sacrificed to pagan idols.

Though Paul himself is in the eat anything camp he says that forbearance and welcome should be exercised towards those who in a sincere desire to follow God do things different.

 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

God has welcomed them is in this case, however, framed by the question of abstaining or not abstaining from particular foods. There are, of course, many other things which we are more likely to argue or shun each other over these days. We seek to be a welcoming congregation. We have a sign in front of the church and many of you have it in your window or front lawn “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” This phrase is repeated in Arabic and Spanish. The Mennonite church that first made these was responding to a climate which was not welcoming.  Our welcoming, moreover, is based in a biblical, theological, and faith-rooted commitment. Because of this we easily might be attracted to this “God has welcomed them.” God has already welcomed so we are not so much initiating the welcome than enacting what God has already done. While this attractedness to this phrase is legit we must also not simply pick up and fixate on a word we like. What is the surrounding flow of the argument? Is it hermeneutically and theological sound to extrapolate this beyond the issue of purity laws and food?

The passage continues,

 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Here we begin to see that it is not that there is no judgement but that it is God’s task rather than ours.  Romans 12:17,  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;” for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 So, this makes us feel better. At least God will push the car off the road that pushed me and my bicycle off the road. God, after all, will probably be better at getting even than me anyway. If you can’t beat up the bully it is better to have the omnipotent God take care of it. However, we remember that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, that Jesus instructs to turn the other check and not have it in for our enemies because we are children of God and this nonretaliation is based on the character of a God who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike—which is of course true in meteorological terms but may feel less fabulous in terms of vengeance and injustice and unfairness (soon George will notice that things aren’t fair—probably relating to trucks).

We are not to judge. It is up to God. God is both just and merciful.

The difference of practice observed is based on conscience and conviction.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.

This is extremely interesting. Is the appropriateness of the action really based on conviction? Certainly, people can be wrongly convinced. For example, it would seem that Pharaoh and his army are very convinced that they should catch the Israelites. God doesn’t say—well they thought they were right so all is well—nope, in the text the chariots malfunction and the water rolls in and that’s all.  15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In this case the people of God, led by the prophet Miriam, attribute the destruction of the Egyptians to God.

However, in our Matthew passage there is a definitive instruction to forgive.

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Action point # 1 Vs 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

It is God’s task to judge, not ours. God is both just and merciful.

Action point #2. In addition to not judging we should “resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Though we may be free we must, in all things prioritize the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers before ourselves.

 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.

Action point #3

Vs 19  “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

We are seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the Gospel of Jesus.

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.

LISTENING DIFFERENTLY

Galatians 3:23-29

Christy Crouse

Good Morning! My name is Christy Crouse and I’m a rising senior at Truman State University in Missouri and I have been interning with the Office of Public Witness here the past four weeks, and have definitely been interested in its work for quite some time now. If some of you were here two weeks ago, Pastor Jeff gave a great explanation of the lectionary and how it can be used as a guide to those preaching each Sunday. As I read through the lectionary passages for this week, one in particular stood out to me as both closely-related to issues we have been tackling in the office here and relevant to current societal trends and in our lives now. That scripture was Galatians 3:23-29.

To better digest this specific passage, I believe an overview of the structure of the chapter could be of use. Paul the Apostle is writing this letter, or Epistle, to the early Christian communities in Galatia. It’s structured a lot like other letters in the New Testament that begin with a formal greeting then move into the body of the text. Here the body begins with a reprimand from Paul for the Galatians’ emphasis on the Jewish law. Following this is an exhortation for the Galatians to remember and reintegrate the message of the gospel into their lives, that faith in Jesus Christ is the new way. Here I will read it once more, from the English Standard Version, with a bit of added commentary:

[23] Now before faith came (faith, being the Christ who revolutionized the interpretation of the law), we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Christ as the true way of justification and salvation). [25] But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God (all, every jew, every gentile), through faith. [27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave(1) nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (unity through a common faith, through love, kindness, and all that Christ represents). [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

This, to me, is a hopeful passage. Paul is giving us a message of unity, of community, to grasp on to and as one who takes the Brethren’s emphasis on togetherness very seriously, this is exciting. Last Sunday, Jenn helped us see what this unity in Christ looks like, looking to work with one another, valuing the gifts of all as necessary and equal.

But I can’t help but analyze this text in the wider context of division in the community that Paul is speaking to.

He is addressing a division between those who believe the law remains the disciplinarian and that those not following it are in the wrong, and those who are led by faith, believing that the law does not teach a living, saving knowledge. This divide caused problems: discrimination, exclusion, feelings of superiority, on both sides.

In the wake of one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history, and in the context of the issues we’ve been working on in the office here, the division Paul is addressing ties to recent events more than ever.

It ties to one of the main topics I’ve had the chance to work on here: Statelessness in the Dominican Republic. This issue came out of a court decision that caused many Dominican citizens of Haitian decent to lose their nationality, their rights to citizenship, and with that, their ability to continue school past the 8th grade, get officially married, and receive formal employment, among other things. The island of Hispañola has a divided history, including an imbedded anti-Haitian sentiment that still exists today.

It ties to another issue the office has tackled: the violence and need of our brothers and sisters in Nigeria. Again, division on religious lines between Muslims and Christians, land disputes causing division between farmers and herders, division between a distrusting citizenry and a corrupt government.

Paul’s message especially ties to divisions that hit even closer to home. In American society we see division, political, racial, economic. Even in single groups, we find division.

Right now our denomination is feeling the division of our congregations surrounding political and social issues like the inclusion and participation of LGBTQ+ persons, aspects of church structure like how our peace witness will manifest itself, and even environmental issues like climate change.

So…Wow. Cities of Galatia, I’d say we get you. We understand the feeling of betrayal you got when your Christian brother did not follow a law that you thought was crucial. We understand the feeling of confusion you got when your understanding of faith was different then that of your neighbor.

And, just like you Galatia, we are able to listen. Like them, we can listen and apply Jesus’ teachings, the teaching of prophets, preachers, ordinary people around us and, yes, we can even listen and learn from those with whom we feel a divide. In fact, as Christians, I feel we are called to do so. And I have hope. We are already doing this. And we can do it more.
I see our office following that call, by hearing our brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and striving to help them work alongside one another through advocacy for change, prayer for healing, and practical services to help secure documentation and mitigate the divisive situation.

We are following the call in Nigeria, where we are planning an interfaith peace conference! For me, this is the definition of fighting division by training peacemakers, by having dialogue between Muslims and Christians, between those who have significant differences from one another.

When we take the time to listen. Truly listen, to those with whom we sense a divide, a beautiful transformation can occur and a new understanding can be had.

Joshua Brockway, Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren, wrote about his experience discovering this calling after a particularly divisive Annual Conference. He reflects, “In the years since that conference I have found myself … listening differently when I remind myself of our shared commitment to Jesus.”

He talks mostly about the political divide he felt between progressives and conservatives in the church. He goes on to reflect on how he has listened and learned from both of these groups. He writes: “Progressives have taught me that the church witnesses to the ways of God in the world, and we are to act in ways that build up the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

Conservatives have reminded me that this building of the Kingdom of God is not my own doing but something God is doing in and around me.

Progressives have taught me to value the experiences of others. In listening to the testimony of others I learn to see more fully the ways God is at work around and in us.

Conservatives have reminded me that deception is a real part of our fallen nature, and that in listening to others I must also test the spirit in which a testimony is given,” and after enumerating several more, he continues:

“I need my brothers and sisters to help me see when I am following Jesus and when I have strayed. And when I disagree with my community of faith, my first task is not to chastise others and set the record straight but is to ask if I am working from my desire to please God or if I simply desire to be right. More often than not, I am afraid I want to be right.” His honest reflection really spoke to me and I think that may be because I am not used to hearing such a message.

Well, until recently. I was surprised this week when a viral video showed up on my Facebook newsfeed with an ex-CIA agent telling the one most impactful lesson she learned in her 10 years of clandestine work in the middle east and beyond. Her overall lesson was this: “Everybody believes they are the good guy”, but what really struck me was that her solution to many of the conflicts that have raged around her– is listening.
She speaks of a briefing with a known militant in the Middle East where he expressed great anger at a certain policy, especially in light the future his children.
She says if you ask any American soldier, she or he will also site their own children, or future generation, as the reason they are fighting. She continues, “As long as your enemy is a sub-human psychopath that is going to attack you no matter what you do . . . this will never end.” We must humanize one another, listen to each other’s stories, and seek to understand one another’s situation.

I was surprised again, this past Thursday night in Harrisonburg, while attending a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting; I heard a very similar message. But this time, it was a city councilmember, who was also running for Congress. He said: Citizens, we are scared; of guns, of people with guns, of those we do not understand. But this fear leaves room for courage. Courage to be in conversation with those with whom we fear, many times due to lack of understanding. He said WE gave him courage to speak to his constituents, his fellow candidates, those who he disagreed with and who disagreed with him. We can listen. Things can be better.

From my perspective, when we do it our own way, there is Jew and Greek, there is Slave and free, male and female, citizen and stateless, farmer and herder, Muslim and Christian, progressive and conservative . . .

But, when we listen to Paul, and study the life of Jesus, we can have faith that through loving one another, pushing though discomfort to interact with and listen to those with whom we differ, we can create a stronger community, able to withstand and transform the conflict that may come.

Just like our society today, the society in central and southern Turkey where these Galatians resided, was filled with pressures- worshipping this God or that God, following these laws or not- each wanting others to act in a certain way, and exacerbating the divide between them. But we do not have to give into those pressures, rather we can listen, listen differently, to Paul and to one another. For as one scholar put it, “God who created all things and all people, God who in Jesus Christ came into this world to redeem all people, is the God who has chosen to love the whole human family. Truly, in and because of Christ Jesus, we are all beloved “children of God”; we are all chosen to be “one in Christ Jesus.”

Amen.

KING JESUS AND THE DEEDS OF POWER

 Luke 19:28-40

Jennifer Hosler

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about—and therefore framing the context for how we follow him.

The Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. Second, the Triumphal Entry points us to Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. For followers of Jesus, calling Jesus “King” turns the world’s understanding of allegiance and citizenship upside down, causing us to question our relationship to the society that we live in. Really, what the Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

Jesus and the Deeds of Power

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are some surprising parallels (but definitely also contrasts) between Harry’s story and Jesus’, in how they understand their identity and purpose in relation to their deeds of power. For Jesus, there is a miraculous conception and a virgin birth; we see angels, shepherds, Magi, and an angry murderous King out to kill an infant. Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is.

In fact, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that when he starts his ministry, they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?” But then the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has spread around. The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks those around him to bring the man over. Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus heals the man, and the man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree.

As Jesus walks by, he looks up, calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down from the tree but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich and his wealth is ill-gotten gain. As a chief tax collector, he’s been taking money on behalf of the enemy and likely was also forcing his fellow Jews to give him money beyond their taxes. Zacchaeus was involved in oppression and economic injustice—and was even doing it to his own people.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. You could say that Jesus transforms two blind people—the physically blind man and the spiritually blind man, Zacchaeus—enabling them to see by the power of God. These were two deeds of power that would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved with materialistic greed. Both men are described as “saved.”  Jesus’ deeds of power are not just something having to do with individual beliefs or spiritual healing: salvation that comes through Jesus is spiritual, and also social, economic, and physical.

Donkey-riding, coat-throwing, palm-waving king making

Beyond reminding us about Jesus’ deeds of power, the Triumphal Entry also, especially, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. To understand why it was provocative, it’s helpful to get an overview of the sociohistorical context. Pilgrims are journeying from all over the land and making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Like all of what was called Judea, the area is occupied by the Roman Empire. Whenever there were Jewish feast days, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, would come to Jerusalem from his outpost at Caesarea and bring with him extra military reinforcements.

So while Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward the city, Roman soldiers are also piling into the city, just “in case national fervor and religious fanaticism threaten the Roman peace” (Craddock, p. 223). The Jewish people, after all, had a history of uprisings and rebellions against their previous Greek and current Roman occupiers. In Jesus’ day, there were nationalist movements—zealots—who wanted to kick out Roman rule once and for all.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” This seems really strange to us, but this donkey request actually fits into a “common procedure of a ruler (or a rabbi) procuring transportation, using the royal right of impressment,” or the act of borrowing something for a specific purpose for an important person (Losie, p. 859). It also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air. Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.” Why exactly were the Pharisees nervous? What exactly does the donkey-riding and coat-throwing and palm-waving mean?

The processional entry had cultural significance for people in Jesus’ day. Roman and Jewish history each had a background of emperors or rebel military leaders entering cities in triumph. After they’d completed victories in battle, they’d come into the city on horseback, together with their soldiers.

With this history in mind, the Triumphal Entry procession would have been seen as subversive, as a challenge to the existing rule and authority of Rome—potentially as one of those scenarios that Pontius Pilate was in town to subdue. If someone’s followers are declaring them to be King and all the signs and symbols point to kingship, thoughts of a coup or a revolt are inevitable. And yet at the same time, Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. He’s not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but offering his message of God’s Kingdom for people to either accept or reject.

The cloaks on the road also serve as important symbols – harkening back to another King-making time in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 9, a man named Jehu is anointed King of Israel by a prophet under Elisha’s orders. When Jehu’s followers hear about the anointing, they enthusiastically proclaim him King, blow trumpets, and spread their cloaks down before him.

While there are parallels, Jesus’ story actually differs from Jehu’s. After Jehu is celebrated as King, Jehu and his followers go and kill the existing king and wipe out his whole family line. Jesus doesn’t head into the city to slaughter the existing ruler; instead, Jesus himself is the one who is sentenced to death and dies, without a fight, after coming in peace to heal the sick and save the lost.

While it’s called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, Jesus’ triumph actually comes after the procession. The victory involves nonviolence and self-sacrifice. While Jesus’ followers declare him King on the way into Jerusalem, they don’t fully understand that it is only after Jesus is willing to die—and dies a real physical death—that God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life in victory.

Salvation and Allegiance

I said at the beginning that the Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. This shows us what he was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Good News that Jesus preached was sight for the blind, repentance for the rich, freedom from the captive, healing for the sick. The salvation that Jesus brought affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The gospel that we celebrate in Holy Week is one that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

I also said that the Triumphal Entry does a second thing: it points us to Jesus’ role as King, and I said it was a provocative notion in both his day and our own. In Jesus’ day, Jesus being King meant that his followers stood apart of the allegiances, protections, and statuses in their society. The early church was loyal to Jesus, instead of Caesar, and by saying that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar is Lord, they were persecuted and marginalized. For followers of Jesus today, calling Jesus Lord or King should turn our understanding allegiance, citizenship, privilege, and status upside down, causing us to question our relationship and roles to the society that we live in.

As followers of Jesus, we commit to proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, to enacting the deeds of power that transform souls and wallets and bodies and relationships. We commit to proclaiming Jesus as King over our lives and circumstances—even when some leading rulers and authorities might say, “You’d better settle down. We don’t want any trouble. We don’t want to hear your talk about justice or mercy or peace.” Yet we are called to boldly and loudly proclaim how Jesus’ deeds of power can transform our hearts and relationships and economy and society.

We don’t know what lies ahead for our country: uncertainty, hatred, unrest, bigotry, and violence. But standing here on Palm Sunday, we know we have a humble, peaceful servant king whose gospel transforms us spiritually, politically, socially, and economically, and as we’ll see this week, this King walked through injustice, beatings, and death, that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice in this world.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.