Sow Thusly

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:10

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

My dad is also a pastor. He is a pastor like we are pastors at Washington City—that is, he works another job that pays him not primarily in heavenly rewards, but in earthly rewards—the kind that can pay the electric bill or are accepted at the grocery store in exchange for food and other provisions. In addition to being a “free minister,” he is a carpenter. From early on I would work with him, both at home and on the job site. Since he is rather small, and I grew rather quickly, I was taller than him by about age 13. Now carpentry is both highly skilled and very precise but also quite physically demanding. When certain physically demanding “opportunities” arose, my dad had a line with a little smile (perhaps a chuckle?). He would say, “It’ll be a good experience.” Hoisting old steel scaffolding up to a second level—that is be good experience. Unloading this or loading that—a good experience. This is essentially how James begins this letter.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Testing which produces endurance is the spiritual equivalent to my dad’s so-called good experiences.

Unlike some books of the Bible there isn’t much known about the context of James. Most is conjecture based on hints in the text. For example, the naming of “James” could be referring back to a James and written in the tradition of this James or could written to one of the 6 James’ mentioned in the Bible or even an unmentioned James. Because of the content of the letter and prominence of the person, James the brother of Jesus seems reasonable. However, scholars who focus on this sort of thing don’t agree. Also, there are some reasons why this might not match up literally. What seems like a good possibility is that a later writer took the sayings and sermons of this James the brother of Jesus and composed them into the writing we have. This would allow for the thematic focus of this James but take into account other characteristics (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 548). This would also fit well with the suggestion is that this book is a “paraenesis, a genre of ancient moral literature characterized by various collections of moral sayings and essays, loosely held together by common themes and linking catchwords but without literary rhyme, theological reason or specific social location…with the primary exhortation to live a virtuous life”(DLNTD, 551). A later writer may have gathered the sayings and sermons of James.

In this task of determining the context, the most obvious may be the constructing a general picture of the community to whom the situation addressed. When the text begins with the exhortation to joy in the face of trials we begin to imagine the context. A context in which the first thing in mind is an exhortation towards the benefits gained through suffering.

Themes that emerge are not pandering to the wealthy and having faith matched by good works. At the beginning of chapter 3 we read “not many of you should become teachers.” James then goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to “tame your tongue.” In this context the orators were highly esteemed. As with esteemed skills or professions, many people want to be like them. What we see and see lauded easily becomes what we want to be. Our habits of imagination and desire are shaped through this contact.

In this context, one in which wisdom is demonstrated through rhetoric, James warns of the risk to the one who speaks. Driving home from the annual Dunker Church Service on Antietam Battle Field, Monica and I discussed her hesitancy to preach. She noted not being an authority enough to stand up and speak with the authority of a preacher. Words are difficult and dangerous–Especially when they aim to showoff our wisdom.

While James doesn’t say that nobody should stand up and teach, he does warn of the gravity of this task. Additionally, he states that demonstrated wisdom through acts done in gentleness show wisdom. He writes, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The Bible in the pew, New Revised Standard Version, reads “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In my Bible the “for” has a footnote stating that this can be “by.” Which is much different. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for by those who make peace.
The New International Version seems a little clearer. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

Those who sow seeds or even plant seedlings will tell you that it feels like a bit of a gamble. One places a dead looking roundish bit of a former plant into the ground and wait for the green shoot. Even once the shoot breaks the surface of the ground any number of things, mysterious or obvious, may bring an end to the plant—and at any point in its life. Plucking it from the ground because it was mistaken for a weed—obvious. Or like our tomatoes this year—a lot of green plant but almost no actual fruit, for no clear reason.

Though it may feel like a gamble it is actually not that. A gamble is chance. Planting takes skill knowledge, patience, good observation—in short, one can become better at growing plants. It still is not fully controlled or predictable, but it isn’t just luck. Seeds of squash, as well as seeds of peace, are sown with both skill and hope.

Sow thusly and you will raise such and such a harvest. Sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. Sowing thusly is a demonstration of the “wisdom from above” which is “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This is how we are to so.

All this leads to a harvest of righteousness—which sounds good. If I were to say to Ayuba, “when you grow up we hope you work for righteousness”—what would you imagine this including? Likely something more personal—perhaps a piety plus self-control plus honesty. And if your thoughts turn public it would be something—more like not being a con artist or drug dealer.

Now I typically don’t reference the Greek in a sermon. This is largely because my Greek isn’t all that good but also because reading a definition of a word without the language skill to assess the nuance of translation is of questionable value. Just because a word could mean a wide range of things, doesn’t mean that the author intended everyone one of these in every instance of use. Just because Ayuba thinks his papa told a corny joke doesn’t mean both that the joke was goofy and had something to do with the vegetable eaten from a cob.

However, the word translated as righteousness can also be translated as justice.
Whereas one translation reads: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” commentators Craddock and Boring translate—“And the fruit of justice is sown in peace among those who make peace” (The People’s Commentary, 719).

For most of us, the word justice brings up a much different vision than the word righteousness. Monica and I and other denominational colleagues have had extensive discussions about whether her new position within the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy should be framed as racial justice or righteousness. This discussion in part comes back to this question of translation in the New Testament but also about what each implies in our present English about personal morality or discipleship and affecting change in the systems, powers, and principalities of racism that are so deeply embedded in our society and church.

Rev. Aundreia Alexander, of the National Council of Churches, preaching at the International Day of Prayer for Peace service we held here on Friday, “Justice comes from the disruption of false peace” Justice may unsettle, but it makes right. Without this disruption, justice is not possible.

Anabaptists, of which Church of the Brethren is a part, have historically focused on this separateness from “the world.” This separateness was from their observing the way that the “the world” operated—which was often simply other Christians who they felt weren’t taking their faith seriously—but also passages like this, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Brethren called this “non-conformity.” This is what Jared McKenna, at National Youth Conference, was referencing when he coined the term “dunkerpunk.” We have a tradition of non-conformity—of being a “peculiar people.”

Though this can easily become legalistic or self-righteous (Jerry why do you have a fashionable mustache?) but what it aims at is justice and righteousness. A following Jesus such that our lives push against the norms and values that prevail. Systems of racism, militarism, and materialism as Rev Dr Martin Luther King reminds us.

Sow thusly, sow with gentleness, in peace, resist the devil, purify your hearts. Sow thusly with hope and skill, awaiting the harvest of righteousness and justice.

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”