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.

BLUE, PURPLE, AND CRIMSON YARNS

Exodus 35:4-34

Monica McFadden

In my first ever art history class in college (World Art I), my wild professor, Scott Montgomery (who looked exactly like you want your art professor to look—long white Dumbledore hair and beard, barefoot but wearing a suit), introduced the class to the very beginnings of Christian art. Back when Christianity was still an underground, secret group of believers going against the cultural and religious norm in Rome, meeting in catacombs and people’s homes.

The thing is, I really wasn’t that interested in early Christian art, or most Christian art for that matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the traditional iconography, frescoes, biblical characters who all look the same, strange muscle-y baby Jesuses, Medieval and Renaissance paintings that are too easy to mix up. I was much more interested in the free-flowing forms of post-Impressionism, modern and contemporary art that was stirring things up, non-Western art. And it didn’t help that the Brethren tend to lean away from the ostentatious art traditions of other Christian groups; I was fairly critical of all the relics and dramatic, gilded altarpieces. But the thing about Scott is he’s so genuinely excited about everything he teaches that you can’t help but get excited as well.

Once, when he was lecturing about early church buildings in class, he told a story. He (along with, I believe, a group of other art scholars) was visiting the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. It’s a small, old building from 425 B.C.E.; relatively simple-looking brick from the outside, but dripping in rich, vivid Byzantine mosaics on the inside. A deep indigo covers the ceiling and walls, with swirls of olive green and gold stars, florets, and vines reaching every corner. Little concentric circles of light blue and silvery gold form snowflake-like patterns on one dome, and various images and scenes play out in arches: Christ as the Good Shepherd, stoic animals, saints and angels, all surrounded by detailed borders of jewel-toned tiles.

Now, when tours are given at the museum, the mosaics are lit with typical electric lights. But my professor’s group was made up of indignant art scholars who insisted they be allowed to see the interior of the building as it would have been viewed centuries ago, lit with just a few candles. They proved to be convincing, and the small space was soon filled with the warm light of the candles, little flames flickering back and forth and casting their glow onto the mosaic tiles.

If you look closely at old mosaics, they first appear as though they were carelessly laid, with tiles all at slightly different angles, rippling across the walls and looking rather hand-done; you’d think it would look better if they were aligned properly. But this was done very intentionally, because if you view mosaics in candlelight, the dancing light of the flames reflecting off the tiles all laid a little askew, the mosaics look as if they’re magically glittering and flickering, and every part of the image is aglow. The stars and saints and vines all pulse with life. Suddenly, my professor said, these simple materials are awash with holy light.

In the scripture text in Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to make every part of the tabernacle and bring offerings to the Lord. This tabernacle, with its finely crafted altar and oil stands and all the gold, silver, and bronze, can feel a little foreign to those with humble Brethren roots. Brethren have come a long way in terms of opinions about art. The Brethren Encyclopedia notes that “It could be said of these Brethren, as it was of the Society of Friends, that they had no time for art and no place for it in their priorities. Their understanding of humility and nonconformity placed emphasis on simplicity and plainness.”[1] One paragraph is somewhat amusing to me in summing up Brethren aesthetics: “Obviously Brethren did share to a degree in the folk culture of German-speaking farmers and artisans. Except for an occasional illustration (one art book pictures wrought-iron hinges on the door of the Blooming Grove Brethren Meetinghouse) there is little tangible evidence of Brethren artistic interest. Yet Brethren, like their neighbors, used favorite patterns and designs in quilts and coverlets, on butter molds, clocks, chests, and other household implements. Many of their meetinghouses had a good sense of proportion in their simple, utilitarian lines.”[2] “A good sense of proportion” is fairly indicative of where Brethren stood on artistic flair. It seems much of Brethren involvement in art was connected to publications and embellishment of manuscripts, documents, and books.

However, there are still a number of interesting Brethren connections to art, and over the years as reception to art grew more favorable, Brethren artists emerged. Interestingly, in 1880, Howard Pyle (who was not Brethren and went on to become a recognized American artist) visited the Pennsylvania Germans to write an article for Harper’s Magazine, and became fascinated with the Brethren and their way of life. His article, titled “A Peculiar People,” is rather wonderful and well worth a read for an outsider’s view on the Brethren in the late 19th century. Pyle carefully describes the buildings and dress in the community, and takes the readers through the ordinances of the church, including Love Feast, anointing, and baptism. He is clearly charmed by the Brethren, and made a series of etchings documenting his time and illustrating his article. One passage reads, with an accompanying image to illustrate:

“The first visit we ever made to a Dunker meeting was on a cold day in the latter part of November. The wind piped across the snow-clad hills and over the level white valleys, nipping the nose and making the cheeks feel stiff like leather. As we neared the straggling, old-fashioned-looking town we passed an old farmer of the neighborhood and his wife trudging toward the meeting-house, the long gray beard of the former tangling in the wind or wrapping itself around the neck and breast, and further on a young couple in the quaint costume of the people, picturesque figures against the white of the broad-stretching road.”[3]

This Brethren way of life looks very different from the typical Brethren way of life now, and yet there’s something in reading Pyle’s article that feels like home. The whitewashed walls, long beards, the “matronly faces stamped with humility and gentleness” as he describes—they all feel very familiar. Pyle’s etchings accurately represent the simplicity of the buildings and people, but also highlight a certain beauty it all—the pure white of the snow and whitewashed walls, light coming in through a window and onto the wood furniture of a plain bedroom, the old-fashioned houses with brick and white shutters. Sometimes, having an artist look in helps bring to light the subtle elements that make a tradition lovely.

One of the few art forms that was prevalent in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities was a style called Fraktur, which was a type of manuscript illumination used for certificates, house blessings, and other lettered objects. Pyle noted these hanging on the walls of the Sisters’ House in the Cloister:

“Around the walls were a number of curious antique-looking cards about three feet square, bearing mottoes and texts, all printed by hand, with a beauty of design and delicacy of execution that might rank among them with the lost art of vellum manuscript printing. Some of the designs were very unique, and all of them were aged, even medieval looking.”[4]

Artistic ability is clearly a wonderful gift from God, but Christian art is more than that as well—there’s a sort of magic in many people, over centuries and from all different parts of the world, creating art that is some kind of visual response or interpretation of the many stories and passages enclosed in the Bible. This is not to be confused with creating idols and worshipping images, but rather it’s this incredibly human need to take sacred words and stories that they love and create something new, imbued with the beauty they see in God’s creation surrounding them. As the Brethren Encyclopedia says of the Pennsylvania Dutch, “students of this unique culture, who continue to publish lavishly illustrated books detailing its artifacts, insist that in rejecting the fashions and frivolities of European and American society, plain people did not reject the natural world, that they loved color and design, and that they developed a symbolic art that found its vivid imagery in their pietistic hymns.”[5]

Art is an inherently human way to process truth, and when God asked the Israelites to craft the adornments for the tabernacle, the tent, the altar, the hangings, the vestments; and to bring offerings of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems,” what he asked for was the word of God as seen through the skilled craftsmanship of God’s people.

It is also a notably egalitarian call. Verse 22 says that “they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” Craft art was a skill that could be developed by men and women alike, and it’s only been much more recently, when art forms like painting and sculpture with artists’ names attached became more highly valued, that these skills were left unrecognized. But in the Kingdom of God, beauty is for all people, and gifts are given in abundance.

Whether it’s the awe-inspiring mosaics of early Christianity or the clean architecture of the humble Brethren, aesthetics and art are vital parts of experiencing life. If God gives us the ability to make beautiful things “in blue, purple, and crimson yarns,” we should seek to create as much as possible, for it gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as it lives here on Earth.

[1] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 59.

[2] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 61.

[3] Howard Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 778-9.

[4] Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” p. 783-4.

[5]  Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 60.

Fancy Food

Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17,

Nate Hosler

[Think of the style of the “Tall Man” and the “Middle Man” children’s books]

There is a man named Bill Cox. Bill Cox—in addition to being well versed in the Brethren and assorted Anabaptist genealogies of Lancaster Pennsylvania and in addition to being quite conversant in the various styles of prayer coverings of the same region—in addition to all this Bill Cox made glorious cinnamon rolls. Bill Cox was a baker and Bill Cox had compassion—we were high schoolers going to non-mandatory school on Sunday morning (commonly called Sunday School) and Bill Cox made us glorious cinnamon rolls. If you were being cynical in a very unjustified way you could have claimed, Bill Cox was bribing us—or buying votes (since the class nominated and voted in the teachers). Of course, these votes didn’t mean much since wasn’t really anything in it for him expect more work. More baking—which was his job and not simply a fun hobby. And more preparation of a lesson. Bill Cox could have used his power of the glorious cinnamon roll to gain followers. Bill Cox was not that sort of guy. Bill Cox had compassion and Bill Cox had glorious cinnamon rolls which proved it.

Jesus is tempted. He is tempted by a Bible quoting Devil. He is tempted to misuse his power to make a scene, to gain power, and to provide food for reasons other than compassion. In the face of great pressure and dire circumstances Jesus stood firm.

He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and then was tempted.

It says he was led into the desert to be tempted.

And then after 40 days the actual tempting began.

Commentators note that these temptations parallel those experienced by Israel while wondering in the wilderness (Hare, Matthew, 24). 40 days in the wilderness echoes 40 years in the wilderness. Not only are the literary similarities with forty but the location and the type of testing. The temptation to create bread in the desert closely resembles the provision of manna—heaven bread—for the people exiled and wondering in the wilderness. Jesus’ response to this suggestion—“one cannot live by bread alone”—closely resembles the description of this in Deuteronomy 8:3. This is in the middle of an extended teaching by Moses. After leading the Israelites from Egypt and then around in the wilderness for 40 years Moses is told that he is not able to enter the land with them. He then recounts God’s commandments and teaches concerning the years in the desert.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Though we are now in Lent and more likely to be thinking about spiritual practices which prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. This passage is read on the first Sunday of lent which includes, traditionally, 40 days of fasting. However, the going into the desert is more likely related to being a parallel experience to Israel’s 40 years in the desert than to particular spiritual practices. (Twelftree, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 825). Though through the history of Christianity people went to the desert for reasons of spiritual purification.

Laura Swan in The Forgotten Desert Mothers writes, “Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity—simplicity grounded in the possession of little—and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to the deepening of this relationship…The desert ascetics’ relationships were non-possessive: They cared for others while leaving them free…Desert spirituality was expressed in compassion…was nonconformist: Ammas passed on their living example. ” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, 21-22).

Simplicity, not being focused on possessions, non-conformity—Other than the desert part this sounds pretty much like traditional Brethren. Though I don’t do much on Facebook I happened to see an article posted by Dana Cassel from a website called “The Daily Bonnet.” The website seems to be dedicated to spoof articles, a bit like the Onion, but based on Mennonite culture. This particular article essentially makes a joke of my observation that the description of the ascetics sounds like claimed Brethren ideals. The article was called “Reverse Lent.”

On Ash Wednesday, Mennonites across the world cease their regular practice of abstaining from anything pleasurable and instead take up a wide variety of unhealthy habits. Local woman Patricia Voth, 65, of the small Mennonite town of Dallas, Oregon, has been practicing Reverse Lent for almost fifty years.

“The rest of the year we’re told to dress modestly, never to smile or laugh, not to dance or drink and so on,” explained Voth, “but for these 40 days of Reverse Lent we can finally let loose a little. This year for Reverse Lent, I’m going to start smoking a hookah.”

Reverse Lent is part of a long-standing Anabaptist tradition of doing the opposite of whatever the Catholic Church does, and this includes breaking all the rules in the days before Easter.

Mennonites are also encouraged to get tattoos and body piercings during these forty days, provided that they get them reversed or removed as soon as the lenten period is over.

“‘Reverse Lent’ is the favourite time of year for most Mennonites,” explained Voth. “For those who aren’t already participating, I strongly encourage you to join us in this sacred time.”

There is already talk of expanding Reverse Lent to last 100, 200, or maybe even 365 days sometime in the future.

http://dailybonnet.com/reverse-lent-begins-today-devout-mennonites/

While there is not full correspondence between Jesus’ testing and our Lent it has provided rich material for reflection.

Point #1 Lent is a time where we intentionally focus toward God—this has often taken the form of abstaining from something or perhaps engaging in a new spiritual practice.

The first temptation of Jesus—very appropriately after such fasting—is food.It is suggested that he make himself something to eat—fancy food (fancy because it would have been made from stone by a miracle—and not because bread is particularly fancy).

It might be merely incidental that the first temptation was food or it may simply be the logical thing since one would be hungry in such an ordeal. (Of course, as we are all quite aware one doesn’t even need to be hungry to be tempted by food. For many of us many occasions of eating are not particularly tied to being hungry—and what we eat often exceeds what we need to address this hunger and survive, which is why this is so relevant for Lent and as a spiritual practice). Additionally, to be tempted by food literarily points back to the first instance in the Bible of temptation. In the 3rd chapter of our Bible we read of the one who tempts coming to the first people and tempting with food. (Which is notably more notable than Jesus’ bread—fruit which is exotic and can induce wisdom!)

Whereas sin is to have arrived via one person and food; redemption was brought by one person who was also tested by the lure of food.

Romans 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

Sin came through one person and redemption also comes through one person—Jesus. Through the sin of Adam all are affected. Because all are touched by one negative event all are also touched by Jesus.

It has also been rightly noted that though this passage often shows up in Lent in the lectionary because of thinking about fasting and overcoming temptation. Though this makes sense it feels rather hard to fully see ourselves in this story. Jesus is whisked here and there by the Devil in person who suggests ruling nations, stunts with God functioning as a safety net, and a sort of divine catering service. Most of my challenges are much more mundane. (When I fall it is usually while trail running with no one to see and I just hit the ground. When I’m hungry I just am hungry or I find something to eat.) This is the sort of stuff that Jesus teaches about a few chapters later and we just preached a sermon series on. Being angry and speaking harshly, not being perfect like God, worrying about tomorrow, thinking too much about this or not enough about that.

Point #2 In Jesus’ temptation and the surrounding scriptures we see an intentional rejection of forms of power and seeking fame that are not in line with the way of God—the Kingdom of God. In this we not only begin to learn what sort of king Jesus will become but start to see the redemption he will bring.

There is an interesting relationship between doing things as spiritual practices which impose a restriction and needing to live in that restriction. When Jesus is led into the desert and fasts, this is in some way chosen and an act for spiritual focus or reflection. There have been throughout history communities who have either fled to and hid in the desert or who have been driven there. I visited a Navajo community in New Mexico in the fall. While this was actually their traditional area they are now quite isolated and there are many other tribes surrounding them. Desert, or isolation generally, can both be imposed as oppression or taken on as an intentional practice. Think of the desert mothers (and more commonly referred to desert fathers) I mentioned briefly earlier.

The same also with food. While some people fast as a spiritual practice many have an imposed lack of food because of war, environmental destruction, particular economic or trade structures, and any number of other travesties. The taking on of fasting then becomes a spiritual practice in part because it reminds us of those who lack food while also reminding us of our dependence on God. Somewhere in scripture it even links fasting with having more food to be able to give to others.

The temptation of Jesus is not solely, however, with getting him in the right frame of mind. His turning away was an act of not gaining followers or power through improper means. Jesus could buy loyalty with bread. Jesus could demonstrate his relationship to God by a public stunt which he forces God’s hand to save him from a gruesome death from jumping. Jesus could gain power over nations by worshipping the wrong thing.

It is interesting that Jesus seems to do variations of these acts later in his ministry. He feeds many in a miraculous way. He declares himself king by riding into the city on a donkey, and demonstrates radical trust in God throughout (though never by jumping off tall building). Lent is a time to examine and clarify purposes. However, a call to introspection might not be entirely on point. If we feed people for wrong reasons is it better to stop or to purify our reasons?

CALLED TO BE DUNKER PUNKS

Jenn Hosler

Romans 12; Matthew 5: 38-6:4; 6:19-34

What is punk? The dictionary definition of punk focuses on two aspects: the music and the clothing. Punk is, according to google definitions, “a loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” If a person is a punk, the dictionary says, she or he is defined as “an admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterized by colored spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zippers.” I found it interesting that the dictionary left out something that was a crucial part of punk identity for me and many others. Google’s dictionary definition fails to mention the values of punk—anti-corporate, anti-establishment, anti-materialism. Punk was and is about not conforming to specific expectations or values that society promotes.

In my junior year of high school, I began hanging out with a group of punks, a few of whom were the anarchist variety and some of whom were Pentecostal hippie punks. I had had my worldview shattered during a trip to Kenya when I was 16, seeing firsthand the extreme inequality in our world—meeting people who didn’t have adequate housing or clean water to drink.  I yearned for something that flipped our materialist culture on its head, that focused on justice and equality and compassion instead of selfish individualism and consumerism. I found it in Jesus and punk.

Punk can make people uncomfortable because the clothing, the music, and the attitudes appear subversive. Which they are. This brings us to the question, if we’re talking about Dunker Punks today, are we talking about being subversive in the church? Quite simply, yes. At the 2014 National Youth Conference of the Church of the Brethren, speaker Jarrod McKenna defined Dunker Punks as “members of a rebellious countercultural tradition that radically commit their lives to living God’s Calvary-shaped love in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father.”

Jesus was consistently subversive—which is defined as “seeking to subvert an established system or institution” (Google definitions). He turned the values and expectations of his day upside down. Jesus defied what the Pharisees thought a religious person should do or whom they should love and associate with.  Jesus refused the zealots’ ideals of taking up the sword to usher in an earthly kingdom with violence.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed an alternative and subversive ethic—one that was difficult for people to hear in his day and is still difficult today. He taught that hating someone was akin to murder, that lust was not unlike adultery, that evil acts should be countered with love and nonretaliation, that acts of faith should not lead public accolade but should be done in secret, that the things we treasure indicate what our hearts value, that worry and anxiety are fruitless, and that judging others will result in our own selves being judged. Love and forgiveness and reconciliation, trust and generosity and freedom from anxiety about material wealth, prioritizing people and looking to the Creator: these are the values that Jesus sets up to guide our lives. Values that still, today, ring true as contrary to our culture’s values and mores.

Sometimes we hear messages that overtly or subtly tell us that our worth and our personhood is defined by our occupations (and therefore how much we earn), by what we buy, what we wear, what type of house or apartment we live in, and where it is. Our culture—which includes the media and the various messages we see, hear, and read—tells us that we have value when we wear the right clothes or have the perfect Instagram photo. We hear messages that encourage us to hate the stranger, kick out the immigrant or refugee, and refuse to bear anyone else’s financial or spiritual burden—unless they are our own family or they resemble us in one way or another.  We also hear messages that promote building our own material comfort at all costs and voices that demand we take “an eye for an eye” whenever we are hurt or injured.

Jesus said on the hilltop in his sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In Romans 12:2, which we read earlier, the apostle Paul taught the early church to question the values of their Roman society.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We are called to discern together about the world’s values and activities to ensure that our lives and actions reflect the ethic of Jesus, the ethic of neighbor love and enemy love and radical generosity and community and faith.

Radical music, radical hairstyles, and radical values. It makes sense, looking back, that I was drawn to the Church of the Brethren. I was interested in service and justice and simple living (I wasn’t quite convinced about peacemaking at first), so I was incredibly intrigued by this Christian tradition that valued these things. I joined the Church of the Brethren because I loved the Brethren ideals of community, service, simple living, and peace.

Community over the individual, service over self-satisfaction, simple living instead of a materialistic rat race, peacemaking and reconciliation instead of bitterness and revenge: the values that this church stands for are indeed radical and turn the values of our culture upside down on their heads. Jesus calls us to follow Him and His Kingdom is an upside-down Kingdom, as brother Don Kraybill aptly wrote years ago.

How do we think about forming a more radical, more loving community here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? How do we demonstrate radical love—for strangers, for “scary” others, for neighbors and enemies? How do we frame our individual and family priorities—our 5 or 10 year plans, where we live, what we do, how we spend our money and energy—in radical ways that build up Jesus’ Kingdom of love and peace, in ways that illuminate a little outpost of that Kingdom here in Washington, DC?

Jesus instructed His disciples that anyone who wanted to follow Him needed to daily reaffirm his or her commitment to the way of Jesus (Luke 9:23-25). The challenge to youth at NYC stands as a challenge for all Brethren—and all Christians. Are we willing to abandon the world’s values of wealth, power, and prestige in shaping our lives? Are we willing to commit ourselves to living out Jesus’ message of love, nonconformity, and radical discipleship, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father? AMEN.

THE HEAVENS ARE TELLING

Psalm 19:1-4a, Genesis 3:8-15

Jeff Davidson

The skies reveal God’s glory. Do you believe that? A lot of people do. A lot of people look at the sky, at the beautiful sunset with oranges and purples across the sky, they look at the bright stars and moon at night, they consider how all the planets revolve on their axes and go around the sun without running into each other, a lot of people look at the skies and are moved to an awareness of God. Maybe it’s a rational, scientific consideration of the planets and their compositions and the like, or maybe it’s an emotional response to the beauty and wonder of the creation. Either way, it’s the heavens proclaiming God’s glory.

When I was a kid I would sometimes notice the flowers in our garden. They would always grow in a direction that got them the most sun possible. Since our houseplants did the same thing, Mom would turn them from time to time so they would grow straight and not crooked, so that each side would get an equal amount of sun.

When you walk through a woods you’ll see some small trees and plants on the floor of the woods growing up at angles. That’s because there’s only a limited amount of sun coming through the canopy of the trees. The plants on the bottom have to grow whichever way they can to expose themselves to the maximum amount of sun.

We’re kind of the same way as the plants sometimes. Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every (person) which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Sometimes we try to fill that vacuum with different things, but once we start trying to fill it with God the rest of our lives are an effort to move closer to God, an effort to grow and develop and live the way God calls us to. Sometimes our faith journey will bend us in one direction or another, but it always keeps us moving towards God. Just as the plants have a sun-shaped vacuum that they try to fill, so do we try to fill our God-shaped vacuum.

Let me tell you something about whales, particularly the North Pacific Humpbacked Whale. When it comes time for mating season, all the males sing a mating song. The interesting thing about that is that there are several mating songs for this particular whale, and all the males all sing the same song at the same time. From time to time the song changes. Led Zeppelin – the song remains the same. North Pacific Humpback Whales – the song changes. And when the song changes, they all switch to the same song. All the whales, all over their world, all singing the same song.

It sounds a little like the Holy Spirit, doesn’t it? We’re all bound together across the miles by the love of God and the bond of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us how to sing and the Spirit leads us in praising God and serving God. We don’t always listen as well as the whales, but the Spirit is there – leading us, teaching us, keeping us together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Something from the heavens proclaimed God’s glory to me a while back. It was a gray day – we’ve had a lot of those lately, haven’t we – and I was walking into the Manassas Mall, and there was a songbird of some kind sitting on the roof of the mall over the entrance singing and singing and singing. The sound was so clear, so bright, so musical, so beautiful.

This bird’s song cut through the gray of the day, it cut through the traffic sounds, it cut through the kind of fog we all walk around in sometimes. This bird’s song cut through all of that and reminded me of what it’s like to live as a Christian. Standing up wherever you are, and singing the song of God. Living your life with joy. Doing what God made you to do, and doing it with all your heart. That bird expressed more of the joy and the truth of Christian living than many of us might feel in a week.

Historically the Church of the Brethren has emphasized the importance of living simply. It doesn’t get much simpler than nature, does it? In the beginning of the world, at the creation in Genesis, it was pretty simple. There was God, nature, man, and woman. That’s it. That’s the list.

What happens when sin enters the world? What happens when God is disobeyed? All of a sudden it isn’t so simple. All of a sudden the man and the woman are aware of their nakedness, and they’re ashamed. All of a sudden there is a complication. At the creation, it was as simple as it could possibly be. It was never that simple again, as Adam and Eve have to move, as Adam has to start to work, as Eve has to bear children, and it goes on and on and on from there, more and more and more complicated, farther and farther from the simplicity which was God’s intent at the beginning of the world.

Last week Jenn talked about Elkanah and his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had higher status than Hannah within the Hebrew community because she had children and Hannah did not. After much praying and a blessing from the priest Eli, Hannah has a boy, whom she names Samuel, and who she turns over to Eli to be raised for the priesthood.

As Jenn mentioned last week, Samuel became an important Israelite leader. He was the last of the Hebrew judges and the first of the major Hebrew prophets. Jenn said that Samuel anointed the great King David, but that wasn’t the first king that Samuel anointed. The first king was Saul.

Before Saul, the Israelites were led by the judges – heroes, leaders, wise men and women who were used by God to get the Israelites through difficult times. The Israelites didn’t have a king – God was their king. The relationship between the Hebrew people and God was just about as simple as it could have been after the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, it was God speaking directly to Adam and Eve. Now, thousands of years later, there is still only one more step added – God speaks to the judges, who speak to the people.

That’s not good enough for the Hebrew people, though. They want to have a king, just like all the other countries around them. Jenn talked about status last week and how God turns our expectations of status upside down. The Israelites hadn’t learned that yet – they thought it would be cool to have a king like all the other countries.

Samuel tries to warn them. You can read it in 1 Samuel chapter 8 starting at verse 4: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But (it) displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only–you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

“So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

“Samuel said to the people, ‘Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.’ So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.”

Let me boil that down to it’s essence. Samuel told the people, “Having a king isn’t going to be as simple as you think.” The people said, “We don’t care.”

The Church of the Brethren has thought that simplicity was important from the very beginning. That’s because they looked to the New Testament as their rule of faith and practice, and Jesus lived a simple life. The early believers lived simple lives. They didn’t let things get in the way of what God wanted them to do.

But simplicity in the Bible starts even before the early church. It starts even before Jesus comes to earth. It starts before our Psalm about the heavens telling the glory of God. Simplicity in the Bible starts before the Israelites mess it all up with a king, even before Adam and Eve commit that first sin. It starts at the very beginning – with God, nature, and people.

And believe it or not, there isn’t all that much more today. There’s still God – who has been made known on Earth in Jesus Christ and who still dwells with us through the Holy Spirit. There is nature. There is us. And then, there’s everything else.

Don’t let the “everything else” get in the way. We have a responsibility as Christians to keep it simple, to provide and maintain places where nature can flourish. We have a responsibility to let nature speak not just to us, but to people who may never have had the chance to see it, to children yet unborn for whom the development and sprawl that we see now will be a given, for whom “nature” may be Seward Square park across the street, and for whom “the country” is hours and hours and hours away. We have a responsibility to develop wisely if we must develop, and to preserve God’s creation where we can.

The heavens are telling the glory of God. As we make decisions about what we buy and how we drive and the ways we live, let us be aware of the ways the heavens can speak to us and to others. Let’s be aware of the responsibility that God has given us as stewards of the earth to make sure that the heavens can continue to speak. Let us look to live simple lives and encourage simplicity where we can. And when nature and the heavens speak simple to us of the glory and the truth of God, let us listen. Amen.

Barns, Birds, and Urban Homesteading

Barns, Birds, and Urban Homesteading – August 4, 2013

Jennifer Hosler

          When we consider the denominational tagline of the Church of the Brethren, “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully. Simply. Together”, we see that “simple living” is, apparently, an important part of who we are.  But since we moved away from plain dress, it has been difficult to know what it means to live simply. What does simple mean if zippers and ties are involved?  Can one be simple while wearing green and white polka dots and yellow tights?

Scripture provides principles that teach us how to think about God, the world, possessions, money, and how we relate to them.  Biblical understandings of success often do not mirror the values that our North American society teaches. In many ways, biblical teachings on money and possessions are subversive—they undermine turning the expectations and values of our day.  It could seem a little unsettling to want to be subversive yet Jesus Himself consistently was so.  He defied what the Pharisees thought a religious person should do; he refused the zealots’ ideals of taking up the sword to usher in an earthly kingdom.  In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul taught the early church to question the values of their Roman society.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We are called as the church—as the body of Jesus followers—to discern together about the world’s values and activities to ensure that our lives and actions reflect our primary identity as Jesus followers.

What does it mean to be followers of Jesus and also earn incomes, buy goods, own possessions, buy houses, and save for retirement? The teachings of Jesus in today’s passage give us values and frameworks to begin thinking about this.  Three illustrations will frame our discussion on money and material possessions: a parable about barns, a reminder about birds, and an anecdote about urban homesteading.  These images—barns, birds, and urban homesteading—provide us with guidance on wealth, possessions, simplicity, and the Kingdom of God.

Barns

I love driving through the countryside and seeing the fertile land, beautiful farm animals, and barns in varying states of upkeep and decay.  Many times barns look well-used—not falling down but certainly not spotless.  Much like an old church building, big barns are laborious and costly to maintain. Driving to Pennsylvania or Canada, we often see the outcome of costly maintenance and the decline of small holder farming: barns that look like skeletons, see through and holey, barns which appear to be wooden avalanches, a jumble of weather-worn wood and roofing materials. Barns visually illustrate that farming involves investment. In order to adequately store your crops, animals, and equipment, barns need to be built.

In Jesus’ parable in Luke 12, a rich man decides that he needs to build a barn. The scene in vs. 13 starts with Jesus, the disciples, and the crowds around them.  In v. 13, a person in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene in the family inheritance.  I assume that Jesus declines to get involved because a lot more was going on.  Instead of wading into the man’s situation, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach.  He says, “Who am I to get involved in this?” and then declares to the crowds, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15). Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable to teach about abundance and possessions.

A certain man was rich and his land produced abundantly. The man thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” (v. 17, NIV).  The answer comes to him easily, “‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire.  Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ Just then God show[s] up and says, ‘Fool! Tonight you die.  And your barnful of goods—who gets [them]?’” (vv. 16-19, the Msg). Jesus sums up the moral of the story, saying, “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v. 21, NIV).

Why does Jesus call this man a fool? One commentator says that the rich man, “is in fact a model of cultural success” in his era (Boring & Craddock, p. 228). This man would probably be commendable in our culture. Your business is doing well, you have a lot of money; store up what you have and make way for more money.  Invest so that you can get all you can! Yet Jesus does indeed call the Rich Man a fool and we must figure out God’s wisdom in this situation.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God.  In all of the gospels, Jesus talks about the use of money.  Luke’s gospel “has a particular focus on the right use of wealth.  Several of the parables unique to him discuss this theme” (Snodgrass, 1992, p. 600). This parable of the rich fool is only found in Luke.

It is helpful to understand that the term fool does not mean stupid.  Jesus is using the word fool as it used in the Old Testament: a fool is someone who misses the point, who doesn’t understand truth or what is good in life, and someone who fails to acknowledge God.  The rich man in this parable is a fool for several reasons.  First, the rich man does not recognize God as the source and owner of his resources.  Second, in all his considerations of what to do, the rich man is only focused on himself. Third, he seems to think that a good life is defined by one’s amount of wealth.

The man assumed that he needed to stock up for the life ahead of him.  Little did he know, he was going to die that very evening.  The underlying value that Jesus teaches here is that all we have is a gift from God—and we should acknowledge it with thanks and a willingness to share.  When we understand all we have comes from God, we ask ourselves about how it can be used for God’s purposes, to build up the Kingdom of God.  God’s desire is that we think not only of ourselves but about the needs of others. While Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly (the point of parables is to make you think about the deeper meanings), the rich fool should have thought, “I have much more than I can fit in my barns and much more than I need.  How can I honor God with what I have received?  Who is in need right now?  How can my abundance meet someone else’s scarcity?”

Jesus told his disciples in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life and life to the fullest.”  Having this full life involves radically redefining our values from those of our culture, particularly when it comes to material possessions. When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed from clinging to them.  When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed to put more energy and resources into the things that do define a good life—loving God and loving our neighbors.

From the parable of the rich fool, we learn that the wise recognize God’s ownership of our resources, the wise think about the needs of others while assessing their resources, and the wise define the good life by the amount of love they give and receive.

          Birds

While we learn about the role of possessions in our lives by considering Jesus’ parable about barns, we also have much to learn from Jesus’ teaching on birds.

Yesterday, the Youth Peace Travel Team, Nate and I went to the National Zoo.  There is joy in watching and observing animals.  Animals delight us for their beauty and also, in some ways, for their sense of peacefulness.  Anxiety is not an affliction of wild animals.  They eat the food that exists in their environment, they utilize caves or holes or brush to sleep in.  Animals do not spend time anxiously wondering how they will be provided for.  Somehow, in their hardwired instincts, they trust that food chains and environmental factors will all work out.  They don’t have a scarcity mindset where they squirrel away as much food as they can get.  Except for, of course, squirrels (But they don’t count because they end up forgetting where they put most of their food).

In the second part of our gospel passage, Jesus teaches his disciples with an illustration about birds. Jesus says, “Don’t worry about money—or your life, what you will eat, your body, or what you will wear.  God made the ravens and cares for them.  They don’t worry and store up food.  They trust that God will feed them.  Aren’t you more valuable than birds?”  Jesus continues, mentioning that the earth—from animals to flowers—demonstrates God’s hand of care.  “If we see God caring for the earth, don’t you think that God will care for you? Stop worrying.  Seek God first and things will order themselves. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If we acknowledge that all we have comes from God, if we give freely to others and trust that God will continue to provide for our needs, then we are not burdened with anxiety.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for the future in some way.  Rather, it means that our financial decisions are influenced by our actual needs (versus our wants) and the needs of others. We trust that, if we follow God in caring for our sisters and brothers, God will also use them to provide for us if we would also have a need.

Jesus’ lessons on barns and birds provide truths which guide us on path to simple living.  Simple living, or simplicity, can be understood as attitudes of the heart and actions in our lives. God as source. Generosity and sharing of abundance. Trust. Freedom from anxiety. A good life defined by love.  These ideas frame Jesus’ message to his followers about wealth and material possessions.  These thoughts form the basis of how we, today in 2013, can start thinking about how to live… peacefully, simply, together.

Urban Homesteading

So how do we start thinking about what this looks like practically?  My answer to that lies in urban homesteading.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the United States Department of Agriculture, or the USDA (1999, WGBH).  Lincoln called it “the people’s department” for good reason: “90 percent of Americans at the time were farmers” (1999, WGBH).  Today, less than 2% of Americans farm for a living (USDA, 2011).  Over the past century, the US population has shifted from rural to urban settings.  Farming has also changed over time. It went from something everyone did, to something very few people did.  Gardens were in everyone’s backyard and then in almost no one’s backyard.

In the 1970s, with cities decaying, people struggling to make ends meet, empty lots blighting city neighborhoods, and poor access to healthy foods, people began to rethink what farming looked like. At the time, farms were big, involved machinery, and were commercial enterprises.  Slowly, community gardens began to spring up on empty lots in cities.  People started to tear up parts or all of their lawns so that they could grow food right in their backyards (or front yards).  Farming no longer needed to look like acres and tractors.  Farming was reimagined: it could happen in small spaces and could allow all sorts of homes to explore sustainability, growing their own food, adding to the local food chain, and tending the earth.

People were detached from the land and—valuing what farming had to offer—reinterpreted what farming could look like.  The urban homestead was born.

At times, we as Brethren have thought that simple living involves plain dress and we’ve written off the values as something outdated that no one does anymore. Yet we see in Scripture that Jesus calls us to live simply and share our wealth abundantly.  Let us therefore re-imagine, let us make an “urban homestead” version of simple living, finding creative ways to counter our culture’s materialism and share freely.  This, sisters and brothers, takes work.  One theologian, Richard Foster, suggests that “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject.  The reason is simple: this discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent lifestyle” (Foster, 1999, p. 184). We are called to the difficult task of trying to spend less and give more, to talk about money and greed in a society that glorifies excess and conspicuous consumption.

May we work together, wrestle together, talk together, about what it means to live our lives today as followers of Jesus in a culture that says we should get all we can.  Let us not be like the rich fool, who misses the point.  Let we give thanks to God, from our blessings flow.  Let us prioritize the needs of others alongside our own.  Let us share freely in love and in all that God has given us.