Reflections by Members of the Congregation

James 4:1-12, Colossians 3:12-17

This is the seventh sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/reflections-november-5-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Will Morris
This passage has particular resonance with me because it speaks to an on-going, interior
argument of sorts that constantly goes through my head, where I try to reconcile the Christian humility discussed in the passage with my life here in our power and material obsessed society. The writer speaks of submission to God and opposing ‘friendship with the world.’ I take ‘friendship with the world’ to mean adopting values where we prioritize our own security and comfort over others’ well being, where we justify our own excess on the meritocratic grounds that we earned and deserve all that we have, and further, though we might not admit it to ourselves in these terms, that one’s worth is determined by the wealth we display and positions of power that we hold. We are called instead to submit with humility, to God and one another, to temper our individual ambitions and build the kind of community that raises up “the spirit made to dwell in us.”

The question I often wrestle with is how to submit when I spend so much of my time
trying to figure out how to get ahead in my career and improve my family’s economic position. After all, is it wrong for us to want to get out of debt now, avoid being a burden on others when we’re old enough to retire, and have enough when the time comes to give our hypothetical children as much opportunity as possible? Is it wrong to have a lifestyle that supports flying across two continents regularly to visit family? I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I am wary of how I can use those questions to justify unhealthy ambition in my career. I feel like the world around me is telling me that I should be “killing it” all the time, that it’s up or out, that I should be full of pride (or walk with ‘swagger’ as the company emails put it) and that my number one purpose is satisfying my client – even when my client’s goals conflict with my own core values. Having friendship with the world is being successful in the sense of the wealth I
accrue for myself and my firm’s partners. It’s hard to submit to God and seek humility when I’m looking for approval from the people and institutions around me in that context.

The thing is, I can sense how self-destructive it is to get caught up in all of that even as it
occurs. It’s impossible to find personal satisfaction in those things, and it’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with others when I view them as my competition and rivals. I want to draw near to God and build meaningful relationships with those around me, and to an extent I’m able to when I stop worrying about my performance metrics and stop angling for position. I’m constantly re-learning that our society is structured to reward the proud and gain from conflict, which goes against the Jesus way.

Turning from the world isn’t easy though – the passage even says “let your laughter be
turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” in verse 9 before the promise that God will exalt you. I know ultimately there is greater joy in closeness to God and neighbor that can only be realized through submission to him. I’ll keep trying to figure it all out day-to-day, but being humble with others, recognizing that we’re all beloved of God and equally in need of his grace, is a good first step.

Jennifer Hosler

Full on Zombie Mode (the war within you)

Being in a PhD program, my intellectual oomph gets maxed out with school, so I don’t have the mental energy to read literature. After a very think-y type day, what I like to do is watch something entertaining. One of the shows I’ve watched involves zombies, but not in the gory horror movie sense. In one show, there’s a main character who just happens to be both a medical examiner and a zombie.

Her job as a medical examiner gives her access to the ethically-sourced brains that she needs to remain like a normal person, and not go staggering around, gasping for brains from peoples’ skulls. The morgue brains give her visions as a side effect, which are helpful in solving crimes with a police detective. A mix of a zombie, comedy, and crime show.  One catch is, if her life is threatened (as can happen solving crimes), her eyes turn red and she enters what she calls “full on zombie mode.” An inner zombie rage comes out. It is difficult to manage, because her red eyes and enormous strength will give away her secret that she’s actually undead.

James writes about a war within us, with forces and cravings that lead us to do rather despicable things. While none of us go into full-on zombie mode, there are times when our impulses lead us to do things that we are not proud of. Seething with anger or frustration, our inner animal can be ready to verbally abuse, ridicule, put down or put someone in “their place” with our sarcasm and biting “wit.” Or maybe we don’t wield words, but we wield guilt, using it as an emotional tool to achieve the ends that we seek.

James says that this war within ourselves even leads us to murder. But none of us have gone that far… or have we, if James is referencing Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus says, you think murder is wrong, but hating someone in your heart will equally make you susceptible to judgement.

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just really crave to hurt them? Physical pain isn’t usually what I’m tempted to partake in, but to verbally wound someone, to hurt them deeply, to say the words that seem so perfectly suited to shut that person down and put them in “their place.”

Last week, I spoke about the fruit of the Spirit and the gentleness and pure-hearted mercy that characterizes wisdom from above. The fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James describes – these all seem to build on one another, in ways that complement each other. Gentleness, it seems, is linked to self-control. Peace—working through conflict in a constructive way—is linked to these too, as well as love and kindness. While these fruit, this wisdom from above, are what we are aiming for as Christians, we must be realistic and even blunt in acknowledging that sometimes, we just want to tear someone’s head off and eat their brains.

In the zombie show, there are moments when the main character is in “full-on zombie mode,” in the heat of the moment responding to some type of life-threatening situation, that she seems so close to continuing down the zombie path to attacking and eating her friends. In her zombie rage, somehow her human remnant needs to find a way to take back control and live out her human morals of not eating living people. Somehow, a spark of humanity awakens her back to the way she truly wants to live. Her human-self triumphs over her zombie-self.  

There are times when I’ve been in arguments or frustrated situations where I am thisclose to tearing someone apart, or saying something that I might regret for a long-time, maybe even forever. And this small, creeping thought, whispers that I’m entering a danger zone. This momentary Spirit-whisper provides an opening to resist, to I remember what I am, or to remember whose I am – a child of God, redeemed and reconciled, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

This moment allows me to pivot and turn back from the relationship-damaging brink. The Hebrew word for repentance means literally “to turn.”  In that whisper, there’s a softness, a turning or pivoting, which allows me to submit to the wisdom of Jesus. It’s a wisdom that steps away, cools down, recognizes wrong, apologizes, reframes, and tries again at a better way.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (vv. 7-8).

What is the war that happens within you? Is it responding wrongly in anger and verbally beating someone to a pulp? Is it a temptation to actually use physical force? Maybe your war is different. The monster raging can involve many things. Maybe it involves sexual fantasies about someone who is not your partner, getting too close with someone who is not your partner, watching pornography, crossing proper boundaries on social media or in person that constitute sexual harassment, maybe it is lifting things from the office, or cheating figures in your finances. Or some other monster. There are monsters that lurk within us, sisters and brothers, and temptation is real. What is yours?

In the midst of temptation, there will always be a moment where – if we can hear it – the Spirit whispers for us to resist, to turn back, and gives us an opening (maybe momentary) to choose a way that better reflects the wisdom of Jesus. James says that if you take this moment and remember whose you are, God will draw near to you and bring you out of that temptation. If you’ve already gone there before, you don’t have to keep falling into the same trap. Repentance and confession are just as real as temptation; God is gracious. God is jealous for you (in the good way), that is, God earnestly seeks you. God wants you to live in the wisdom of Jesus as a redeemed and forgiven child of God.

Jerry O’Donnell

Everyone could use a healthy dose of humility. Some people could probably use a few.

Do any of you have a friend or know someone who always “wins” or always has the highest score in whatever they do? Well this was me as a kid, as I, believe it or not, struggled with humility.

I’m chalking it up more to immaturity, though, not so much a desire to disobey God. Finishing first and winning was everything to me, and in the unlikely event I fell short—I’m kidding, it happened a lot—I refused to accept it. As a preschooler or even into my early elementary years, I would get physically upset when I didn’t win. Probably worse was how I reacted when I did win.

I didn’t care about sportsmanship at all. I had no compassion for whom I may have just defeated or how they might have been feeling. All I cared about was how good winning made me feel and how I must have looked to others around me. Again, as a little guy obsessed with winning games, sporting events, academic competitions, what have you, my drive was not to displease God and exalt myself, but I was clearly seeking the ways of the world.

Our passage in James talks about how being a friend of the world, choosing worldly desires, makes us an enemy of God. James goes on to say God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I don’t know if I first received this lesson in humility in James or whether it was Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

What I do know is that as I matured, I began to understand the importance of humility—both how one appears to others and also how one feels about oneself. I could feel the change within me as I cared more about the people I interacted with in areas of competition. No matter what the end result was, I felt a sense of joy because of the fellowship/companionship with all. In the same way, other people have affirmed this change, as it has been outward as well. Now many people will say things to me like, you’re such a good sport, or wow, you don’t care who gets credit? To which I reply, hah! Look how good I am at not caring who wins! Just kidding.

It’s a daily challenge, as humility continues to be undervalued in a world of exploitation of so many for the gain of so few. I will continue to do my part in my life in this church, in my place of work, and in my circles of family and friends to promote teamwork, and doing things together to make sure everyone is loved and respected. I hope you will join me in drawing near to God in this endeavor so God will draw near to us.

Carolyn “Care” Nestman

Have any of you ever done something that you felt God specifically told you not to do? I have! When I was 17 I dated my high school’s “golden boy”. You know the guy. The one who gets straight A’s and is the drum major of the marching band, but is still super cool. We actually had a teacher say that she wished her daughters would have dated my high school boyfriend. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, when we started dating, I felt God telling me that this was a terrible idea. It got to the point where I had a prophetic dream about how I should not be with this person, but I refused to listen. I was 17, I obviously knew better than God. To make an EXTREMELY long story short, in the 4 years that we dated we managed to plan a wedding, and I lost myself. The happy peppy person that stands before you didn’t exist when I was in this dysfunctional and controlling relationship. During this time I had also stopped going to church and spending time in the word.

After I broke up with him, I felt like this huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer bogged down by my disobedience, I had this joy that I didn’t realize was missing. I spent more time in church, and eventually started doing my daily devotionals again. And I’ve been much better at listening to the voice of God as the Spirit continues to direct my path.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t completely over, and I’m not magically fixed now that I’m spending time with God again. 5 years later, I’m still healing. I was visiting the city where he lives, this past weekend, and I realized that I am still REALLY ANGRY. But even in this, there is something so utterly comforting knowing that I can turn to God in my anger, and say “I made a huge mistake, and I need help to fix the brokenness.” And as I draw nearer to God, I can feel and see the Holy Spirit continue to work in my life and continually wraps me life in her joy and love.

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.

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

 

God told Abraham to take his son up to the mountain top. He told Abraham to take wood, and fire. He told him to kill Isaac and burn his body as an offering. This was the command of the Lord, and it’s clear that Abraham would have gone through with it.

If you google “Isaac and Abraham sacrifice” and do an image search, there’s no shortage of paintings and drawings. Renaissance art is full of paintings depicting this scene, the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to take the life of his son, only to have God intervene.

Some of this art is better than others. The best of these images focus on the drama unfolding between Abraham and his son. Isaac, laid out on the pyre. Abraham, holding the knife and gripping his son by the back of the neck. There must have been a struggle.

Our text this morning leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s not very detailed, and you can read it a lot of different ways. It’s possible to read this story and imagine Isaac as innocently confused, but obedient. His father told him to lay down on the wood, so he did. His father pulled out the knife to take his life, and Isaac accepted it. Abraham, for his part, conducted himself with simple obedience and calm. He didn’t start crying, he didn’t lose control. He didn’t shout or lay hands on Isaac. He just obeyed the command of God, and so did his son.

But I know that’s a lie. Or, at least, I hope it is. Because if that were true, if Abraham was psychologically prepared to murder his son with no displays of emotional conflict, that would make him something less than human. And Isaac – what young man, what human being accepts a violent death at the hands of a loved one without a struggle? Without horror? Without desperate cries for mercy and tears of disbelief?

There are images that present Isaac and Abraham as dutiful pawns in God’s strange chess game. In these paintings, the two of them are placid, serene, looking only to God.

I know that these images must be false. I can feel it in my bones. When I look at these peaceful depictions of this violent event, there’s no soul, no humanity. Abraham becomes a monster, and Isaac a bovine creature with no real human spark. Lost is the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom. He convinced God to spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous people. Couldn’t he be bothered to argue for the life of his own child?

And not just any child. The heir of the promise. This was the child that God had promised Abraham for decades. The miraculous boy who was born when his parents were far beyond the age of child-bearing. Isaac was the living proof of God’s faithfulness – his intention to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Isaac was the tangible substance of God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.

But more important than any of this, Isaac was Abraham’s little boy. He wasn’t just a means to an end. He was a real person, a child. And Abraham loved him.

I think of my son, George. I think of what it would mean to me if I thought God was asking me to kill my son and burn his body. Forget the promise. Forget great nations and offspring as numerous as the stars. This is my son, whom I love. I’d rather die than do to George what God told Abraham to do to Isaac.

What kind of psychopath says “yes” to a request like that? But more importantly, what kind of God would ever make such a request?

And for what? To test Abraham’s faith? To be sure that he was really committed? What kind of friend would test a relationship like that, much less the most high God, creator of the universe?

There’s a long tradition of not taking this story literally. And that’s good. Because honestly, it’s just too horrifying. Who could worship a God like that?

So this morning, I want to continue in that tradition. I want to invite us to experience this story as an allegory, as a narrative that opens up a moral dimension to us that is simply not accessible through anything less than a shocking but true story.

None of this diminishes the horror of the story. What God asks of Abraham is unfathomable. But in this ancient horror, we are also given a mirror into our own spiritual condition. We can find ourselves in the experience of Abraham, and that of Isaac. We can recognize in them our own challenges, our doubts and fears. The existential dread that stalks us.

When I heard this story, I’m forced to ask myself: What does it mean to sacrifice my Isaac? Because again, for the purposes of this allegory, Isaac is not merely a beloved child. He is the instrument of God’s promise. He represents everything that Abraham understands about who God is and how he is in relationship with God. Isaac is the most fundamentally important thing in Abraham’s life. Without Isaac, Abraham has nothing to hold onto, nothing to assure him that God really cares for him and has a plan for him.

So for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac – well, it just doesn’t compute. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. How can God ask Abraham to end the very life that demonstrates their relationship? It’s as if a husband said to his wife, “if you really love me, you’ll throw away your wedding ring and move to another city.” This request doesn’t make any sense.

But the incomprehensibility of God’s request is exactly what makes it so important. When God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, he’s essentially asking Abraham this: “Do you trust me enough to let go of everything in this world that connects us? Do you love me more than my gifts, more than my promises, more than my presence in your life?”

That’s pretty deep. Because to be honest, most of the time, I want God for his gifts. I want him for his presence and power in my life. I want him because he helps give my life meaning and purpose, a sense of perspective beyond myself.

But that’s not what God wants. The kind of relationship that God desires with you and me doesn’t hinge on reasons or benefits, outcomes or external validation. The relationship that God is seeking with you and me is one that stands beyond all incentives or proofs. It’s the relationship that Jesus demonstrated when he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has often been taken as an analogy for Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, in submission to God’s will. In this view, God is often seen as represented by Abraham – the sacrificer – while Jesus is represented by Isaac, the sacrificed. But this is a backwards view of things. During his struggle in Gethsemane, his torture by the religious and imperial authorities, and his death on the cross, Jesus found himself in the position of Abraham. Like Abraham, he was forced to abandon everything in this world that gave him assurance of God’s love. Jesus had to accept absolute risk.

On the cross, Jesus sacrificed the “Isaac” of his earthly ministry. He experienced terrible grief and failure. He experienced the absence of God, the loss of the promise. In that moment, all of his work was for nothing. It all ended on that nihilistic cross of suffering and shame.

In his Letter to a Young Activist, Thomas Merton writes about this journey into loss and unmooring, which is essential to the path of Christian discipleship. He speaks about how we often use our God-given work “to protect [ourselves] against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of [the] work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

We’ve heard a terrible story this morning. It’s a story of a father’s love for his child – his hope, his future – being overcome by his greater desire to be in relationship with God. It’s a story of cutting loss and heartbreak. It’s a story about how each one of us must move beyond assurances and guarantees if we want to experience the full depth of relationship with God.

This is a story about Abraham seeking a truer, more authentic faith. Beyond pleading and promises. Beyond rewards. Abraham gives himself to God unconditionally – even if it means the loss of everything else, including his ideas about God.

Our scripture this morning is an invitation to self-examination. What are the ways that we have turned our faith in God into a transaction, rather than full submission? Do we love the gifts God gives us more than we love God himself? What are we being called to surrender, so that we can be more fully embraced by God?

What does it mean to be like Jesus, who let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom?

ROOTS

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Monica McFadden

While I was studying abroad in London this past year, I got completely hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown.” If you haven’t heard of it, the show follows the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II and her experience acclimating to her role as Queen, including the many struggles involved with politics, the royal family, her marriage, and the country as a whole. Watching it as an American, someone coming from a background where the idea of a monarchy seems so foreign, a concept that goes against the very nature of the founding of our country, was pretty fascinating. The series touches on many aspects of the monarchy that aren’t often discussed, one of the most intriguing for me being the relationship between the Sovereign, or the reigning monarch, and Parliament. The Queen and Churchill would have conversations where he would reference her duties as the Sovereign and how she was appointed by God to her position. The viewers can see the weight of this responsibility in her wide-eyed gaze.

Of course I, being extremely curious about all of this, turned to my flatmates, classmates, any native Brits I could, and asked them about their thoughts on the monarchy. I got a variety of answers, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from “no one cares about the monarchy” to “I absolutely love the royal family.” Most people in my generation in the United Kingdom seem to fall somewhere in between—they kind of see the cultural significance, but for the most part, it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives, and it feels a little outdated and pointless. However, one person I asked had a different opinion. Partly, perhaps, because he held some more traditional beliefs about these types of things, but he had a deep respect for the Queen, somewhat mirroring that of the older generation.

Basically what he said was this: the reason the Queen means so much is that she, a woman who has been raised to be an expert in her role, has seen the fluctuations throughout multiple eras of political turmoil, from the aftermath of WWII through Thatcher, and even Brexit; she’s the constant through all of it. When I asked if he believed she was appointed by God he said, after a moment of thinking, that no, he didn’t, namely because he didn’t believe in God, but that she may as well have been. Because she has a incredible wealth of knowledge, and although she has seen political waves come and go, she must remain unbiased and solid.

There was something mesmerizing about hearing it described this way. The American tradition has nothing like this, which makes the monarchy feel like living relics bearing the shiny worth of an ancient history.  The United States has somewhat of a fascination with the British monarchy and the royal family; millions of people tuned into William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I think this fascination has a lot to do with the lack of a type of sacred history in many American traditions—the thing that makes the monarchy so enchanting is its promise that it’s something bigger, connected to God, these people tap into a larger knowledge, they’ve been trained for this since birth, they’re mysterious. It can feel like a massive, sacred thing, even if, in reality, it’s mostly political and carefully crafted.

In many ways, I think our generation and our country has lost touch with the sacred. But people seem to be searching for it, grasping at experiences and traditions of other peoples to get back to some sort of root, something to reach out into the earth and connect with our past and with others.

Many people have taken to using the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe their faith. Scholars and theologians have spoken about why this concept is inadequate, and I agree with many of these arguments, but it’s understandable why people feel more comfortable with this phrase at times. Being frustrated with the church, being frustrated with God, isn’t just normal, it’s basically required for being part of the church—frustration is laced throughout the Bible, and sometimes just identifying as “spiritual” is easier, less of a commitment to a specific history that you may or may not agree with.

In this passage from Jeremiah that was read this morning, the prophet’s lament can feel quite familiar. Not because of any similarity in circumstance—I’m not exactly overwhelmed with the word of God “like a burning fire shut up in my bones” attempting to warn people about violence and destruction—but instead, it feels familiar because he’s upset with God, which is quite relatable.

My relationship with religion and with the church is largely characterized by doubt, frustration, or confusion. I spent the majority of my teenage years identifying as agnostic, something I often still relate to. But after a few years, I realized that, growing up in the church, regardless of my wavering beliefs, I still had a home and a community there; I still felt very Brethren. The sacred things I grew up with were still sacred.

There is a deep comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in my faith journey, anointing will still be there to bless me at important times, the hymns will still be there to offer words of courage and beauty, Love Feast will still be there to surround me with a strong community. These things don’t change, and that’s what the church is about. Providing roots, sacredness, a history, to a spirituality that is ever-fluctuating. It requires a community to support you and hold you accountable, to be challenged, part of something larger than just you.

Hearing my friend talk about the monarchy felt like reaching for something like this—it’s bigger than you, older than you, has seen more of the world than you, generations upon generations, and has withstood the test of time. There aren’t many histories like that in America anymore, and people are desperate to find one. Some look to the monarchy, some look to other cultures and religions, many end up with Frankenstein practices stolen from a variety of places: “I have the ohm symbol tattooed on my wrist, I’m really into crystal healing, I have a Buddha head on my shelf…” None of these practices are wrong on their own, but it becomes clear that many are missing a deeper connection, a true recognition that each of these have sacred beginnings.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in this—go to Urban Outfitters and buy yourself a sacred starter kit, if you will. Especially when we’re disillusioned with the church or with God.

Jeremiah’s lament to God eventually evolves into praising him, as he works through his frustrations. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers,” he says at the end of the passage. I may not be very good at this part, I’ll admit. I don’t work through my doubts very quickly, and often times “singing praises” can feel very foreign to me. I tend to quietly mull things over, notice the sacred begin to creep in again.

Last year at Annual Conference, a place that can be too often filled with anxiety and anger, there was a moment during worship when a video played, mostly overlaid with a pretty, anonymous piano song. In the middle of the stock music, the song transitioned into a few verses of the old hymn “It is well with my soul,” and slowly, quietly rising out of the congregation, people began to hum and sing along. It happened naturally and spontaneously, and soon the whole room was singing. We, who had spent business sessions frustrated and speaking across a chasm, were reminded of what we had in common; why we were really there together.

Sometimes, this is what sacred means. Sometimes, this is what it means to have the same roots.

Sometimes, it means rediscovering old traditions and old tales in new ways.

And so I leave you with this: a reimagining of a familiar story, something I wrote my senior year of high school, a reminder of our sacred roots together.

Beginning

The darkness, the great wind, surrounded her in the open air. Her hands were vast and set the sun, tweaking out the rays and coaxing the hydrogen into helium; her hands were delicate and stenciled in the constellations. She slowly crafted planets, small and cold, gargantuan and swirling with gases. She painted nebulas onto black velvet, the blueprints captured from her eyes.

A light breath rolled back seas, revealing a rich black earth beneath, laced with the seeping aroma of a musty rain hanging in the atmosphere as a simple vapor. Her baton flicked swirling symphonies of emerald, magenta, and gold, the deep bass notes crawling in as indigo and sienna. Fluttery mint and whispering ivory petals burst along the ground in a smattering of marimba strokes, the lowest spreading ivy up timber fortresses.

The tiny, intricate beings of the waters grew before her eyes as millennia passed. They emerged onto the land as new creatures admiring each other’s gleaming limbs. They threw out newfound feathers and bones of air and leapt onto eddies of passing wind. From an alto melody of her lips sprang legions of lithe, galloping beings.

Many of her creations fell back to the soil. New ones took their place.

She had not created anything that had the same stars fueling her being as she did. None to search the azure above for her and to sing back her arias. She tried many times to assemble these new creatures, basing them from the ones that already graced the earth. She became frustrated and sailed to neighboring galaxies. She gathered dust and particles from the dying stars and from the newest stars and with the same elements formed the wise, with skin like the earth they tread on. They spoke to her among the trees and dreamt of her in the wind. They saw everything on the earth for its origins and its future; every particle.

They took control of the flames that flowed through volcanoes and forests. They painted as she had before, preserving all her work. They taught her new things she had not predicted; stories sewn together as she had never known before. She had formed the mind for thought, but emotion came where she had not foreseen. Their veins pumped their hearts with roots, tying them to one another.

Slowly, one followed by another, roots were torn out, some with vigor and others accidentally cut away in pruning. For the first time, she saw stars go out of their eyes, the first thing in her universe that felt truly dark. They began to tend to these roots very carefully, adjusting their footing, and gave the soil sweet river water to drink. Those with too-dark eyes sometimes disrupted these delicate ecosystems but, if one opened them up, they’d find equally mangled roots threaded into their veins. If these roots were untangled and cared for, the stars crept back into their irises, softly blinking in violets and blues. 

Prayer

Please pray with me.

God, who crafted the deepest parts of the Earth and the furthest reaches of the stars,

Help us to come to you with our frustrations and anger, sifting through our everyday lives to see your sacred, holy touch.

Roots, hold us close, show us our shared histories and our shared futures together.

Amen.

Benediction

May you see God’s ancient roots in traditions old and new.

Go in peace.

YEARNING FOR SUNDAY

John 20:1-18, Romans 6:1-14

Jenn Hosler

A Saturday Vignette

At the end of the meal, one of us stepped out. Judas was often heading in and out, so I assumed it was something with his duties as the keeper of the common purse. We didn’t think anything of it, I guess, but I wondered a little what would be so important that he needed to leave our Passover meal.

Our Teacher spoke to us after the meal, teachings that were both difficult and confusing. It seemed like something might happen but we didn’t know what. We women stayed behind to clean and then rest for the night, while the brothers went with teacher Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. We were woken in the middle of the night with news that the teacher was arrested. Brother Judas had arrived with the chief priests and the temple police. They were armed with clubs and swords, as if our teacher was a rebellion leader. Brother Peter started to fight as soon as they went to grab the teacher, madly swinging a sword and hitting a servant in the ear. The teacher stopped that, right away, and healed the servant’s ear. Then he went willingly: the temple leaders took our teacher, bound him, and arrested him.

Brother Judas—someone we’ve walked with, shared meals with, and learned from the teacher with—he has betrayed us and betrayed the Teacher. And for what? Now he is dead, he took his life after he was sick with his guilt. Maybe he didn’t mean for it to go that far. I don’t know what he intended. I can’t believe that he is dead too. Brother Judas.

Brother Peter’s wife told us that Peter and John had followed the Teacher to the high priest’s family home. Peter almost wasn’t let inside and when he was, people kept asking him, “Are you one of this Jesus’ followers?” “Aren’t you from Galilee? You’re with him, too?” and “Weren’t you in the garden last night?” And brother Peter was scared. Scared what they would do to him and his family. So, he said, “No. I don’t even know the man.”

The chief priests interrogated the Teacher and had him beaten. They asked if the Teacher was the Messiah or the Son of God, and he wouldn’t give them a straight answer. The answers he gave were enough, though, that the chief priests said it was blasphemy and beat him further. Then the temple leaders and priests dragged the Teacher off to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The chief priests told Pilate that the charge was blasphemy and that the Teacher was claiming to be king. The Romans wouldn’t deal with Jewish theological problems, normally, but claiming to be king—encroaching onto Caesar’s territory, threatening the occupation—that… will get you onto their radar and onto a cross. Pilate seemed skeptical but the chief priests started inciting the crowds to free Barabbas, the militant, instead. Pilate was keen to keep things from getting out of control, so he gave in and sentenced Jesus to death. What was one Jewish insurrectionist for a would-be Jewish King? Not much different, in his view.

They beat the Teacher. Flogged him with a whip. Pushed him around. Kicked him, tripped him. Twisted acacia branches into a thorny crown and jammed it on his head. Put a purple robe on him to mock him—King of the Jews. Then he went to his death. Not just any death. The Romans seem to be fond of the cruelest deaths. They think it will scare us into complacency about their rule. Obey the Romans, rejoice in your Roman Peace, and you won’t get nailed to a tree.

The Teacher, by now, had been beaten a few times and hadn’t eaten; he was in rough shape. The soldiers chose a person from the crowd to carry the crossbar that his arms would be tied to. And they walked outside the city.

By this time, a lot of us had gathered—me, Mary and Martha, Joanna, the Teacher’s mother Mary, and other women. Brother John was with us but the other 11 had scattered. We couldn’t believe that it had come to this. Hadn’t we just marched behind the Teacher on the way into Jerusalem? Instead of shouting hosanna, we wailed a lament and cried. We beat our chests like we would at a funeral.

The Teacher arrived at the spot, Golgotha, the place of the skull, and before we knew it, some screams, and there he was, raised up above us on the cross. Still so close but unbelievably far. And we waited. People in the crowds laughed and spit, mocked and cursed. The sign that Pilate had made, with the Teacher’s crime, said “King of the Jews.” Hours went by, mostly in silence. The teacher’s body was so exhausted. It was hard for him to breathe—you need to keep holding yourself up, lifting yourself up to take a breath. Teacher Jesus asked brother John to come closer with his mother, and I was with them. The Teacher asked brother John to take mother Mary as his mother. We knew it must be close. Teacher Jesus said that he was thirsty, and someone brought forward some sour wine. Then, the Teacher breathed out and cried out and he died.

It was only yesterday, barely more than a day. It all feels like a dream. A really horrible, painful nightmare. I just want to wake up and be in Galilee, be on a hillside, be listening to the Teacher, to see the Teacher heal a sick man, care for a child, break bread with us. But I need to realize that he is dead. Jesus of Nazareth—our teacher, our rabbi—is dead.

Brother Peter’s wife said that yesterday, her husband seemed like he was in a trance. Hopeless. Stunned. Ashamed. Unable to eat. I think the brothers will be gathering tomorrow, the eleven close ones, to talk about what happened, where we go from here. Several of us women went with brother Joseph to the tomb on Friday right before the Sabbath started, to see where it was. We are going in the morning to make it more of a proper burial. It will be hard. Normally preparing a body brings some closure. Anointing it, giving one last effort of love and beauty. I don’t think I can have closure with something like this, I don’t know what to think. The power of God was walking among us and now, where is it? Is God gone from among us? What was the point of all that goodness, all that healing, all that love and mercy, if we are only left with pain?

Reflection on the Saturday Vignette

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t spend much time on Friday or Saturday in Holy Week. Our Love Feast is on Maundy Thursday. We commemorate the meal that Jesus had with his disciples. While the twelve are mentioned, there likely were other disciples in the room, potentially some of the women who came from Galilee to support and learn from Jesus. Perhaps they were reclining at another table or eating in the food preparation area, as women in many countries often eat in the kitchen and not at the table.

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically have Good Friday services (though I often go to an Episcopal one) and don’t have Holy Saturday vigils. We move from Thursday to Sunday.

In college, Nate and I went to a church that encouraged us to linger on the emotions of Saturday. What would the disciples have felt? As I prepared for this sermon, I read all of the gospel passages where Jesus was crucified. I was struck by Luke’s description of the women disciples who followed behind Jesus on the way to the cross, beating their breasts and wailing. In every gospel passage, the women are there at the cross. And so, I tried to picture what it would have been like for one of those female disciples, Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalene (who, by the way, was not a sex worker; the woman described as being so in the gospels is never named as Mary Magdalene; somehow popular culture has called her a prostitute, but there is no biblical evidence for that. The main story of Mary Magdalene—what she should be famous for—is that she is at present at the cross and at the tomb in every gospel. Every gospel explicitly mentions her at the tomb. And as we see in our scripture, she is the first one to truly hear the Good News.

I think it is useful to spend time thinking about those Saturday feelings, those early Sunday morning feelings: how would I have felt waking up to say goodbye to my leader, my teacher, the One whom we thought was the Messiah, the One who had raised Lazarus and others from the dead? Now he was dead. How would I feel bringing the spices and oils to that tomb?

Hopeless. Destroyed. Despairing. And as I sat in these emotions, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this resignation and hopelessness and confusion what we are facing every day? When we hear of a family member taking his life, unable to find hope and healing. When our families are fighting and bitter. When we hear news of more cancer. When we are confronted with of massive bombs and endless wars. The darkness and hopelessness of death weighed down on the disciples of Jesus that Saturday—and they weigh down on us too.

A Sunday Vignette

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, I walked to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. I dropped my jar of perfume. I ran back the way I came and went to where brother Peter and brother John were staying. I told them, “They took the Teacher from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and John looked at each other and ran. I ran after them, back to the tomb. Out of breath, I stood back. Then it hit me again. He’s dead. He’s gone. His body’s even gone. The brothers looked at the grave linens and left, bewildered. I just broke down and cried. I made my way over and knelt down, crying and praying without words—and I looked inside the tomb. There were two people sitting there in white clothing and one spoke to me, “Lady, why are you crying?”

There’s always some ignorant person that you need to answer to when in your deepest distress. I looked up at them. “My Teacher was buried here and someone took him. I don’t know where he’s been moved to.” At that moment, I saw another person nearby, standing close. As I was wiping my eyes, I said, “Sir, if you took the body, can you please tell me where it is? I just want to dress it and care for it.”

The man replied, “Mary.” And it was him. Jesus. “My Teacher?” I stood up and walked over to him. It was the Teacher. Alive. Breathing. He told me to go and spread the news. He was alive. So, I went to the brothers and sisters and told them, “I saw the Teacher. He is alive.”

Reflection on the Sunday Vignette

The resurrection is unexpected, startling, confusing, and difficult to even recognize. It doesn’t make sense, it is so far out of the schema of expectation. The resurrection is an impossible thought—until Jesus calls Mary by her name in the early morning light of that resurrection Sunday. The gospel, the good news, is bewildering and confusing and sometimes so difficult to see in our world. But Jesus calls our names and makes clear to us what we should be seeing: that the power of God is bigger than the grave, that the miracle of the empty tomb and the resurrected body will someday spread to all the areas of our lives and of this world. All creation waits and groans for this to be revealed. When we can’t utter words, when we are trapped in hopelessness, the Spirit of God cries out on our behalf.

We are looking toward the day–yearning for the day—when that Sunday morning resurrection dawn will break through the darkness and touch our whole world, when the power of the Messiah’s resurrection will transform our hearts and our relationships and our lives and our bodies.

During our suffering and the world’s suffering, we walk with a crucified Lord who knows what it is to suffer, suffers with us, and promises us that the breaking dawn will come. No more death, no more sickness, no more war and violence, and hate. Jesus calls each of us by name for us to join him in the Sunday morning light, in newness of life now, and in hope for the glorious redemption that is to come. AMEN.

Benediction Prayer

Jesus, call us by our names and let us recognize your face. Share with us your resurrection, hope, freedom from sin. We yearn to experience the fullness of that Sunday morning, in our hearts, in our our bodies, in this whole world. AMEN.

CIRCLES OF LIGHT

John 9:1-41, Ephesians 5:8-14

Jeff Davidson

When I started working on this sermon I ran across this reflection from Dr. Rachael Keefe on her blog “Write Out of Left Field.” (https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/) She’s writing in part about our gospel reading from John, and she says, “As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman (who is not in our scripture reading today) and the man born blind, especially.”

That might strike home for you. Maybe you’ve been excluded sometimes because of the kinds of things that Keefe mentions. It happens a lot when we’re younger. As a fat kid, I definitely knew what it felt like to be excluded, to be out of the circle sometimes.

Perhaps you or I have excluded somebody at some time because of those kinds of issues. Perhaps it hasn’t been those issues but other issues that have led us to leave others on the outside of our circles. Whatever the issue is, it doesn’t feel good to the person on the outside, and it affects them down the road.

There are a lot of things that strike me in the story of the man born blind, but one of them is how many times he is pushed outside the circle, how many times he is pushed into the darkness by the people around him. Not physical darkness, of course, but emotional darkness, spiritual darkness. It is amazing how many times in this passage that people draw a circle that excludes the man born blind for one reason or another.

First the disciples draw the circle of exclusion. “Who sinned that this guy is blind?” His condition has to be the result of sin. Not sin in the generic, original sin sense – in that sense anything bad is a result of sin. No, they mean a specific sin committed by a specific person. He’s blind not just because of the same reason we all have faults and frailties; he’s blind because of something that may have been in his control.

Next it’s his neighbors. “Is that the blind guy? Nah, couldn’t be.” And when the blind man, or I should say the formerly blind man, insists that it is too, him, the neighbors don’t buy it. They leave him on the outside once again.

Then it’s the Pharisees putting him on the outside. It says that the Jews decided that it wasn’t the same guy, even though he insisted he was. They didn’t believe he was the man born blind that everyone knew. They’d walked by him a hundred times, maybe a thousand, so you would think they would have recognized him, but they either didn’t recognize him or they didn’t believe their own eyes. (I think there is a good sermon waiting to be preached on that fact.) So the Pharisees call the man’s parents, and they say “Yes, it’s our son” and “No, we have no idea how this happened.”

So the Pharisees call the man back again, and they go through the whole thing again, and you know what? They still don’t believe him. The man pushes back, but the Pharisees keep him out. The word the scripture uses is “reviled” as they said, “We are Moses’ disciples, but you are his disciple.” 

The man who has been healed is persistent, and he is not willing to be silenced, until finally the Pharisees just give up arguing and drive him out physically. Now the man is not just on the outside looking in emotionally or spiritually, he’s literally, physically being excluded.

The man meets Jesus again, and believing that it is Jesus who healed him he worships Jesus, and Jesus accepts his worship. Jesus lets him into the circle. And in a final twist, some of the Pharisees overhear all of this and Jesus excludes them because of their sin and their unwillingness to believe.

I find that dynamic of inclusion and exclusion running through this reading fascinating, and I know I haven’t done it justice with this little summary. It’s worth a lot more thought and reflection.

Back on February 17, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece in New York magazine. (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-white-house-mole.html) I’ve read Sullivan for a long time, and I don’t always agree with him but I always find him interesting and thought-provoking. This piece resonated with me because as I read Facebook and comment threads on newspaper articles I see a lot of people who are angry at their opponents. I see a lot of liberal or progressive folks referring to Pres. Trump’s supporters as racists or morons. I see a lot of conservative folks referring to their ideological foes as libtards. I saw a lot of gloating over Pres. Trump’s victory, and I have seen a lot of gloating over the failure of the Republicans to pass healthcare reform this past week. 

Here’s what Sullivan wrote in a portion of a column after Pres. Trump’s aide Stephen Miller had made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows earlier in the week. For those of you who may not know him, Stephen Miller is a senior advisor to Pres. Trump. He is very conservative, but grew up in the very liberal Santa Monica, CA and went to Duke University, where he was among a minority of conservative students.

Sullivan writes, “I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.

Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think Ingraham and Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a champagne party to welcome Reagan’s cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better — and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish (well, I won’t use the word Sullivan does.) But I didn’t. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality — especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maher’s show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing “In Trump We Trust.” In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke — their living, breathing, raving antibody.”

You don’t have to know Stephen Miller or Ann Coulter or any of the other folks Sullivan mentions to know what that part of the column is about. It’s about people who are excluded, people who are put down, people who are mocked or demonized or treated badly for their political views and the reaction that kind of treatment can lead to. There are liberal political equivalents of those folks. It’s the same dynamic that you see in the radicalization of some very small group of Muslims who have lived in the United States for years, even decades. They feel demonized, mocked, excluded, attacked, and they react by fighting back. That’s why General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, tells people not to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

People have probably excluded us from their circles at one time or another in our lives. We may or may not have been acutely aware of it at the time. We may have forgotten it by now, or the pain may still linger and be real. We have probably excluded others in our circles in the same way. Sometimes the exclusion is intentional and sometimes we’re not aware of it at all. How have we been wounded or scarred? How have we hurt and wounded and scarred others?

There is a little poem by Edwin Markham that has been repeated so often it is a cliché to some, but it is still good. ““He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him In!” 

As we work through Lent and approach Easter, it’s a good time to think of what kind of circles we are drawing. Are we drawing circles that include others, or circles that leave others out? Are we even aware of the circles we are drawing? Are we trying to include others but missing the mark somehow?

Now in all of this I’ve talked a lot about circles, but I haven’t talked much about light. In our gospel story there are two obvious movements from darkness to light. The first is literal, as the blind man begins the story in the darkness of blindness and ends it able to see and live in the light. The second is spiritual, as the blind man begins the story in spiritual darkness, and ends the story walking in the light spiritually as well as physically, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus.

We are all at different points along that spectrum at different times. There are times when we are in darkness, lost in our sin, not feeling God’s presence, not open to or aware of God’s light. There are other times when God’s presence and joy is so real that we feel we are surrounded by light.

There is, however, a specific way in which circles of light play a role in our scripture readings. That’s in our reading from Ephesians. It’s a short passage, so let me read it again. Ephesians 5:8-14. “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

I was struck by the phrase, “everything that becomes visible is light.” One of the commentaries I read said that people of Paul’s time believed that ordinary objects gave off their own light. Maybe not a lot of light, but at least a little. I couldn’t confirm whether that’s true or not. But we do know that some objects give off light. Candles. Light bulbs. 

You can’t see the light from the candles up here real well, but if you were to walk up to the communion table and look down on them you would see that they radiate their light out in a circle. When you get home if you light a candle in the dark you’ll see that. The light forms a circle around the flame, unless there’s wind or something.

The same thing is true for light bulbs, at least traditional light bulbs with a filament in the middle. When they are lit up, the light goes all around in a circle. That’s why we use light shades, to direct the light to places where it may be more helpful.

As a Christian, you give off light. Not just the radiant glow of motherhood, like Faith (an expectant mother in our congregation) but light. Spiritual light. God’s light radiates out from you in a circle, just like from a candle or a light bulb. When we think about including people, it involves getting close enough to them that they can be in our light. It involves being aware enough of them that we can place ourselves, live our lives, in a way that puts them in our circle of light, as opposed to leaving them outside the circle. It’s almost like Markham’s poem, except that we don’t just draw a circle to take others in. We live a life that takes others in. We live a life that radiates light, the light of Jesus Christ.  We shine that light on the lost and the lonely. We turn that light on ourselves sometimes, and examine the dark places within us and bring light there to help cleanse us of our sin. Christ, living through us, becomes the light of the world.

This week and throughout Lent, think about the circles that you draw. Think about the light that you give off. Invite others into the circle of your light, and move closer to God so that the light shines more brightly through you. Amen.

GLORIFYING THE STRENGTHS GIVEN BY GOD, FOR GOD

Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Emmy Goering

I’ve just returned to D.C. after spending the last week in the Chicago area at the Brethren Volunteer Service retreat. There, I was able to get some much needed rest and was able to connect with the friends who I’d bonded with at our orientation. While we shared stories about our service experience, this sermon loomed in the back of my mind. As we were giggling and groaning, crying and commiserating, lamenting and laughing with our fellow BVS’ers, this sermon taunted me throughout the whole retreat. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be good enough? Would I have anything worth speaking to you about?

 Don’t get me wrong–I accepted this task willingly, and I am very glad to be here speaking to you today. But as you can tell, I’ve also been more than a little bit nervous about today’s sermon.

My mom says that sometimes I’m an “over-thinker”, a worry wart, a nervous Nellie–and, she jokes, that she’s worried that I get that from her. But seriously, no matter how much I want to do something, I sometimes over-think it. I used to get so caught up in the “what ifs” that I was almost frozen with fear. Luckily, the more that I step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, the easier it gets. As I shared during my first address of this congregation at the beginning of my BVS term, I have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from my hometown of McPherson, Kansas to my transplanted home here in D.C.  

But let’s get back to my recount of the retreat. Mid-week, we had a session with Dana Cassel. She introduced the idea of discerning our vocation. After conversing together in a circle about this topic, we turned to a screen that reflected the well-known “Ted” logo, signifying that we were all in for a treat. If you don’t know what Ted talks are, they are about a 15 minute speech given by anyone with an idea worth sharing.

 As long as that person has some sort of “innovative” idea, the talk can literally be about anything. The speaker who we watched was Elizabeth Gilbert, the #1 best-selling New York Times author of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” As I watched Ms. Gilbert projected on the big screen, surrounded by fellow BVS’ers, I was inspired by her story.

Her very first book was an amazingly successful bestseller. As many of you can imagine, she felt pressure to follow up with ANOTHER amazingly successful book. At the beginning of her Ted Talk, she shared the comments that she received from friends and strangers alike about her creative future. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about…at all…ever…again?”

When faced with these negative expectations, Elizabeth Gilbert remembered that she’d   heard similar gloomy comments when she’d first shared her dreams of being a writer as a teenager. Now, this was the part of Ms. Gilbert’s Ted Talk that really sparked my interest.

I related to the same gloomy comments that she’d heard as a teen. When I first shared my dream of travelling the world to serve others, some people weren’t very receptive. Most thought that my plans were just a phase; others guessed that I’d give up when things got tough. None of them specifically set out to crush my hopes and ambitions. They were just worried about me.

 For example, when I was 15 years old, I told my parents that I was going to go to BVS after high school. They’d always encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, so they were happy to hear of my plans. But when I went on to say that I also had the rest of my life planned out already, they were a bit concerned.

 I explained that there was no need to worry. I’d buy a van with my then-hypothetical  BVS best friends so we could travel the world for the rest of our days, serving others… {pause} until they reminded me that life doesn’t always work out the way that you plan. How would we support ourselves, they asked. Why, I answered, donations of food and gas money, of course. They then went on to point out that global service wouldn’t be an option if a van was our only means of transportation. Geography may not be my strong suit, but I am definitely passionate, and creative, about service! Just like the people in Gilbert’s life who questioned her ability to weather the demands of her intended career, people in my life were worried about my ability to withstand the tolls of service.

After hearing so many gloomy predictions, Gilbert began to wonder why people regarded anyone with creativity-based aspirations as doomed to fail. Gilbert questioned, why should anyone be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel driven to do?

She decided to do some digging on this tremendous burden placed upon creative people throughout history. She found something, that I believe to be, quite interesting.

She looked across time and at other societies for ways they helped people manage the emotional toll that’s often tied to creativity. Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and ancient Roman societies, people believed that creativity was a “divine attendant spirit from a distant source that came to people for some distant and unknowable reason.” Greeks called these spirits Damons. The Romans called this disembodied spirit a Genius. They believed that while someone was working creatively, a genius sat hiding in the corner waiting to give some inspiration and shape the outcome of the work. In this way, the ancient artist was protected. If their work was great, they were isolated from too much narcissism; if their work was a flop, they were isolated from the failure.

I think the idea of these genius spirits isn’t all that absurd of a conclusion. That genius, that creativity, was and is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. That being is there to guide you.

 God gave us all of these incredible gifts, and we are here to use them for God. As Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

For me, as a young Christian woman trying to find my way to serve in this world, this scripture has lifted a lot of weight off my own shoulders. However, in my desire to make a big, life-changing difference right now, to want to plan out my calling years in advance, it’s something that I am constantly needed to be reminded of. Our gifts are God’s gifts. I’m here to use God’s gifts for His Glory, but on His timeline and in His way, not mine. {pause}

I was surrounded by incredible people this last week at the BVS retreat. All of them are following their calling by using their gifts and talents given by God. Finding what these gifts are and exactly how we are to use them, however, can come a lot easier for some than others. Learning to use these gifts to glorify God can be even more of a challenge. How do we glorify this almighty Creator who gave us life and love?

 As Christians, we can look to the scripture for guidance. Psalm 95 Says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Recently, I saw the Disney movie, Moana, and it reminded me of this idea of serving the Lord on His timeline and according to His plans. The main character, Moana, is a young Polynesian princess whose island paradise is slowly deteriorating. Although Moana’s father expects her to remain on the island and lead their people as he has done, Moana believes that it is her unique calling to leave the island to fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors and save their people. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. The ocean-based animation is breathtaking, the songs are amazing, and Moana’s silly little chicken sidekick named Hei-Hei is hilarious.

While Moana isn’t a Christian movie, I did find some interesting spiritual analysis by Christian movie reviewer Kevin Ott on the website Rockin’ God’s House. Mr. Ott spoke with Mark Hett, one of Disney’s main animators on the film, about Moana’s spiritual connections. Mr. Hett is also a Christian, and he says that although Moana is based on the Oceana/Polynesian mythology of their world and their culture, the film provides a lot to discuss in regard to a call that is from outside one’s self. To quote Mr. Hett, “I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film…that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in.”

  Let’s think about that for a minute. We’re in the world but we’re not of the world. That is a major struggle for most Christians. How do we do God’s work in this world?

Much like the struggle that Moana faces when she challenges her village’s expectations for her life, we often struggle with our interpretation of what others expect of us.

 Elizabeth Gilbert faced criticism when she voiced her plans to become a writer. My choice to spend my first year out of high school in BVS rather than going straight to college was met with skepticism and misunderstanding by some.

 But just as Moana follows the call of the ocean, which is always there to support her along her journey, we must choose to follow our calling from God, who is always there to support us in our journey.

 Our path may not be normal, or easy. Our calling may not be typical, but it may not necessarily be earth-shattering, either. We may hear from naysayers who are simply concerned with our ability to withstand the challenges that we’ll face along the way. But as Christians, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. As we read in Psalm 95, we must sing for joy to the Lord; we must kneel down before the Lord our Maker.

 As we’re instructed by Romans 5, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

 At the BVS retreat this past week, I was blessed to see the work of God through my fellow BVS’ers. I challenge you to see God through others–through their work, through the passions they bring, through their service to others, even if it’s not the typical path or the easy choice. The Spirit of Christ is within each of us.  Amen.