En Route

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21

When I tell people that I work at a 911 center they often ask what the hardest part of the job is. They wonder about high-stress calls where people have been shot, or barricade situations, or perhaps childbirth or CPR calls. All of those things can be stressful, but there is one stressor that remains kind of constant through all high priority calls. That constant is the waiting.

When you’re on the phone with someone who’s been shot, or someone who’s been injured in a car accident, or someone who can’t breathe or someone who’s giving birth, obviously those situations are stressful in and of themselves. But adding to that is the stress of waiting for someone to arrive. Whether it’s the police department or fire and rescue services, as a call taker you know that nothing’s going to get a whole lot better until someone gets there. No one’s going to be treated, or rescued, or whatever until help arrives on scene.

Each call has a timer on it that shows four things. The first one is when the call was entered. When did I as a call taker verify the location of the emergency, decide what type of emergency it is, type up what was going on, and hit “enter” so that the call would go to a dispatcher.

The second step is the time the call was dispatched. If I enter a call and send it to a dispatcher at 8:00, the time of dispatch shows when the dispatcher notified a unit about the call and told them to respond. For high priority calls like the ones I mentioned, it’s usually just a few minutes. For a more routine call like a noise complaint or a parking violation, it can be up to 30 minutes or an hour.

The third time shows when the dispatched unit marks en route, or on the way. This is almost always within a short time of being dispatched. It can be up to about five minutes if we’re dispatching firefighters or EMS workers who are asleep at 3:00 in the morning, but it’s rarely as long as that.

Finally, the fourth time is when the responding units mark on scene at the site of the emergency. This can vary a lot, based on how far the units have to come, what the traffic is like, what the weather is like, and other variables.

For me, it’s that “en route” part that can be stressful because all you can really do is wait. There are some calls, like calls about a burglar in the house or someone who’s been shot or stabbed, where we don’t want to disconnect with the caller. We try to gather additional information about what’s going on, get a description of what the suspect looks like or where he or she went, what the weapon looks like and where it is, things like that. On some medical calls like a childbirth call, we give delivery instructions and then care instructions after delivery, or some emergency instructions if the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s throat. We monitor what’s happening until rescue units are on scene.

What makes that time stressful is sometimes the situation itself; other times it’s the person you’re on the phone with who is frightened or worried or angry. People keep asking “When will the ambulance get here? When will the police get here?” and I keep saying “They’re on the way. They’re coming as quickly as they can. They’ll be there as soon as possible.” I say those things with an eye on that third timer – the one that tells me when units marked en route, how long it’s been that the caller and I have been waiting. It is so hard when you know someone is hurting or frightened or in danger, and units are still en route.

The story of Nehemiah is kind of a cool story. Nehemiah was an official in Persia. He heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem, and got permission to travel there to rebuild the temple. He begins seeing that the defensive walls around Jerusalem are rebuilt, and he declares a time of Jubilee in the midst of poverty and famine. This means that he required all debts and mortgages to be forgiven so that the poor could use their money to purchase food.

Then Nehemiah assembles the Jewish people and has Ezra read to them the law book of Moses, the Torah. The people confess their past sins, remember how God has helped them, and rededicate themselves to God’s worship and God’s service.

What strikes me here is how the reading of God’s word brings sadness to the people. They realize how far they are from God’s will. They recognize how far they’ve fallen, and they regret it bitterly.

But Ezra tells them to be joyful! The presence of God’s word symbolizes an end to their failures and their darkness and their ignorance. The proclamation of God’s word is a time for rejoicing! A time for celebration! A time to share with the poor! God’s word is a reason to be happy, not sad. God’s word is a reason to rejoice. God’s word is a reason

to think of and take care of the poor, of those who are not able to prepare for themselves.

In the New Testament, Jesus says starting in verse 18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then in verse 21 he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What is it that has been fulfilled? There are still captives – not just prisoners in jails, but people held captive. People enslaved. People trafficked and bartered.

We still have blind people – not just people who are physically limited in their sight, but people who are blinded by greed. People blinded by anger. People blinded by racism and sexism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry. People blinded by nationalism. People who are blinded to the reality of the joy of life in Christ.

The oppressed are still with us. Oppression is sometimes political, in places like North Korea or China or Cuba. Oppression is sometimes economic as folks are oppressed by crushing debt and predatory interest.

There’s overlap between oppression and blindness and captivity depending on how we want to define them, but we can be sure that whatever it is that has been fulfilled, it hasn’t ended these things.

But Jesus didn’t proclaim the end to these things, to captivity and oppression and blindness. Jesus proclaimed that the end of those things was coming. Jesus proclaimed that the end was on the way. Jesus proclaimed that the end was en route.

The whole idea of the Kingdom of God existing within the midst of the fallen kingdom of the world is hard to grasp. Being citizens of both kingdoms is really challenging. Christians at different times have resolved the tension between the demands of the two kingdoms by withdrawing as much as possible from the kingdom of the world and living as fully within God’s kingdom as possible. That’s their way to be “in the world but not of the world.” Rod Dreher’s book from last year The Benedict Option tries to work at this idea, recommending that Christians consider living in intentional communities such as the Bruderhof.

There’s something to all of that, but the response to the proclamation of God’s word can’t be retreat – at least, not a permanent retreat – from the world. Hearing the word of God from Ezra at the Water Gate, how were the

people of God supposed to respond? By going out to find the poor. By meeting their needs. By having a party – one that everyone could attend and from which everyone would benefit!

That’s the same call that we face as Christians today. Jesus has proclaimed that captives are to be released, and that the blind will recover their sight, and that freedom is coming for the oppressed. “Are to be” released; “will recover” their sight; “is coming” for the oppressed. These things are en route. These things are on the way.

They have happened to some extent, but not to a full extent. The proclamation of the coming reality has been made – the units have been dispatched and they have marked en route. We are among those units of the kingdom that are already here, that have marked on scene. We are the ones to start working for that release, that recovery, and that freedom. We are the ones who are to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to declare and live out the Jubilee. To claim and live out of the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Kingdom is here, but some of its members and some of its results are still en route. The Kingdom has been proclaimed. Our

response isn’t just to wait for units to arrive. Our response is to celebrate and to act. Amen.

Getting Voice

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 2:1-11

On Monday Garba and I were taken around the Dutse Uku area of the city of Jos in Middle Belt region of Nigeria. Dutse Uku means “3 Stones” in Hausa. Jos is approximately a 4 hour drive northeast from the centrally located capital of Abuja, a city, like DC which was built solely as a capital. Jos has been the site of repeated violent crises since 2001. Though these crises would typically be relatively short lived, while Jenn and I worked in Nigeria, Jos experienced an extended period which meant we were unable to pass through for most of our two years. Jos was the center of one of several reoccurring conflicts that had political, economic, and power as well as ethnic and religious facets. Dutse Uku, 3 Stones neighborhood in this city, was at the center of these. My hosts said that the crises either start there or somewhere else but always end up in Dutse Uku.

Before entering this area, we needed to talk with a military checkpoint. They said since we hadn’t gotten a permit ahead of time (even though we were walking with residents of the area) we needed to talk to the military commander for the area. After waiting for maybe 20 minutes he arrived. He said that since we didn’t have the permit, he needed to hear from both the Muslim and Christian leaders that they agreed that we could enter and that we would walk with both Christians and Muslims so that people wouldn’t think we were favoring one side. We then visited the district head of the area in his home to also inform and ask permission.

We then began to walk. This house was owned by a Muslim and destroyed in October 2018. This dry, deep, washed out river bed was the dividing line where conflicts often start. Here was a house destroyed in 2008, 2010, 2018—the government has only collected data but never brought assistance. This street was mixed religiously and has two Christian and two Muslim homes destroyed. Here is a building never rebuilt from 2010 standing next to one recently burnt. (Since the buildings’ walls are cinder blocks, they usually remain standing but are unusable due to heat damage). Later we saw entire blocks that were uninhabited, and all the buildings destroyed, and then the remains of the Mosque of the Imam that we are walking with. After some time, we returned to the military checkpoint to get our vehicle. The one soldier said, when you go, remember not just to tell about the bad things—there are many good things about Nigeria.

My work is peacebuilding—which implies there is a lack of peace and all that makes for peace, such as, justice. And policy advocacy—which implies that things are not the way they should be. So, my focus tends toward that which is not as it should be. However, this was a good word from the soldier. Incidentally it was similar to Jacob’s comment that helped frame our Advent themes—we may often focus on the negative or the difficult call of Jesus but there is also joy and beauty and God’s provision.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle is to sustain the joy of a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. This is an extravagant act that marks the coming of the Kingdom of God. The “on the third” day invokes the resurrection of Christ marking the experience of God’s power (Craddock and Boring). In the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the young man Alyosha, prays in despair at the death of his mentor Father Zosima, drifting in and out of sleep hearing the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle of turning the water to wine at a wedding feast, responds, “Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness…’He who loves men loves their gladness, too.’ ….’There’s no living without joy,” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 338). This wedding was taking place under an occupation by a foreign power—the Romans. The wedding was either poorly planned or the people were poor enough to run out of a critical beverage for such a celebration. Immediately after this Jesus

drives the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple for their economic exploitation of the worshipers. The joy, and Jesus’ acting to sustain the celebration take place in the presence of struggle.

While traveling I was reading James Cone’s recently published memoir. Cone was widely considered the Father of Black Liberation Theology. Cone powerfully describes how he began to find his voice as a young theologian in the 60s. Having written his Ph.D. in theology which, at the time, focused almost exclusively on white European theologians, he was filled with anger that the white church and white theologians of America maintained and supported white supremacy through silence.

He writes “When I turned away from white theology and back to scripture and black religious experience, the connection between Black Power and the gospel of Jesus became crystal clear. Both were concerned about the liberation of the oppressed” (Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, 15).

“…White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist” (Cone, 18).

He wanted to “wake up black people and let them know that the day of the white Christ was over. A new Black Messiah was in town.” This was because his theology was not just about the oppression but was also a celebration of blackness. It wasn’t only anger but also joy. He writes, “Black liberation theology came out of black culture and religion, and it celebrated a new freedom to talk about God and Jesus in a jazz mode, a blues style, and with the sound of spirituals…” (Cone, 64).

Cone finds his voice, which is both angry at injustice but also a celebration. In Cana of Galilee Jesus starts to get his voice. The first miracle of the Gospel of John is to keep party going, to protect a poor family from the humiliation of inadequate wine. Jesus will have many harsh words throughout his ministry. Jesus will also challenge and rebuke—there was and remains much in our world and in our lives that needs such a challenge—but Jesus, a poor Middle Eastern Jew, the incarnate one, this Jesus also celebrates and affirms.

We will read the passage again followed by silence and then a time to reflect on what we have heard.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

[***James Cone notes that his black liberation theology, which was a theology that took blackness and its cultural beauty as a source for theological reflection, was different from white theologies that were also affirming of culture. This mode of theology in Germany contributed to the Holocaust and in America contributed to the genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. For Cone, however, wrote from the “underside of American history” (Cone, 58). “I was thinking about God from the bottom and not from the top, from the experience of the powerlessness of black oppressed and not from that of the powerful white oppressor. God’s power is found in human weakness, the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors” Cone, 10).]

Epiphany

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

As a child my family always had a Christmas celebration with extended family. My grandparents would have meal at their home. This included, as one might expect, a meal and gifts. It also included riotous beat-up golf cart and mini-bike riding through their meadow and a Christmas reenactment. The kids were the stars of the show. While we did this as young children, what I remember most is the later years. While this marked the Christmas story—if we are honest—it probably was also a little irreverent (a later rendition may have had me wearing sheep ears and biting people with my younger (but old enough to be bearded) brother playing baby Jesus. Our costumes came from a collection of dress-up cloths that my mom had gathered. It included a gold and burgundy glossy velvety robe—perhaps a bath-robe? This, of course, was the garb of a wise one—a Magi. Today, Epiphany, we mark the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.

There is a theological point—that is a point that asserts a truth about reality as it relates to God. Theologians have historically asserted all truth is theological. There are not neat and separate spheres as if the world were divided by academic disciplines. Geographers have their rocks, botanists their botanicals, mathematicians have their numbers….but how do arborists count their trees or why is it that we happen to live on this particular rock? This is why in Psalm 19 the heavens and trees join in the praise of God—

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. The Gospels are not simply a dispassionate recounting of the so called “facts” but are an argument via story that the baby named Jesus is the appearance of the all-powerful God in not only human form but baby human form. The helpless baby is the long-expected savior. The one who sees the dim stable light for the first time was the creator of that very light.

Just before what we read, chapter 1 of Matthew ends with an understated record of the birth of Jesus. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that though the baby isn’t his, he should carry on the marrying Mary as planned. The final 2 verses read. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” The next line is—

“In the time of Herod…”. There isn’t any other indication of time passing but we gather by later events that it may have been 2 years after the birth.

A commentator writes, “ ‘ In the time of King Herod’ may seem like a return to reality. Apocalyptic time, creation time, the time of Jesus’ conception—given the way we assume the world works—may seem unreal. But apocalyptic time intersects with everyday time, the time of Herod, creating a political crisis. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 37).

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Wise men, or Magi, arrive from the east. These mysteriously named ones arrive by a mysterious means of navigation. They could be magicians (as the name refers to in other texts) or astrologers. The later Christian Christmas tradition that they were “kings” (We three kings…) may arise from Isaiah 60:3—

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Hare, Matthew, 13).

The Magi are an affirmation of Jesus. Again, like the shepherds, this is unexpected. The shepherds were looked down on, lacked refinement that would be expected for such a task as receiving and then pronouncing the news of divine intervention and arrival. The Maggi are foreigners, almost certainly from a different religion and not from the local religious establishment experts that should have known. God’s people who had been waiting for the coming Messiah missed it—at least in part.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the 4th century, writes, “And now the Magi come and worship Him wrapped in swaddling clothes; after a life devoted to the mystic rites of vain philosophy they bow the knee before the Babe laid in His cradle. Thus the Magi stoop to reverence the infirmities of Infancy; its cries are saluted by the heavenly joy of angels the Spirit Who inspired the prophet , the heralding Angel, the light of the new star, all minister around Him” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

While he felt it necessary to take a swipe at their “vain philosophy” it is of note that they were just about the only people who picked up on the arrival of this king. Not only this but they seem to have traveled for 2 years and only were working from a mysterious cosmic sign. Sure, they went to Jerusalem on the false but reasonable assumption that a new king would be born in the capital city but that is pretty close (just under 10 kilometers though presently more difficult because of the checkpoints and separation barrier…). The shepherds got not one angel but a heavenly host singing and only had to walk into town. Both a hometown advantage and angelic booster.

The multiple (maybe 3 because of the three gifts?) seekers of the king of the Jews show and up and ask where this new king is. The asking causes a stir—a stir of fear and not joy.

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

The seekers of Jesus with a little extra guidance then set off again.

“…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Though no longer a newborn and no longer sleeping in a feed trough, this child and this family, we can safely imagine, remained unassuming. While these searchers were looking for a king no one else had recognized this reality. It is all still rather normal seeming. The gravity of the presence of this child was easy to miss.

“The inward reality is widely different from the outward appearance; the eye sees one thing, the soul another. A virgin bear; her child is of God. An Infant wails; angels are heard in praise. There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshiped. The glory of His Majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

The purpose of this text is affirmation via mysterious travelers that the baby is the awaited Messiah—the awaited saving one. Magi don’t just show up, give gifts, and worship anyone. They give gifts worthy of the coming king. Though the main life events of Jesus will happen decades later, this unusual Epiphany marks this child as the expected Messiah. Much doesn’t match the expectations of God’s people so many miss him. Even his eventual disciples, those who witnessed in person, even these often miss the way Jesus is the arrival of the kingdom of God—And that this was a different type of kingdom.

Both the unexpected child showed up in an unexpected way—or rather, to most, was too expected. He was just born. In obscurity. With no accruements of power. Both the child was unexpected but also the first proclaimers were unexpected. This is both an observation from the narrative texts but also is a broader theological statement. God often speaks through the unexpected. This means that we may both be the unexpected proclaimers and that we must watch and listen for God speaking in unexpected places.

I almost started to say that God likely shows up in the person or place we don’t expect. So, if your theological and political orientation are such it is no surprise that God may speak through X ______. And if your theological and political orientation is such then God may speak through Y___. This isn’t quite correct. For certainly it is the case that some people are more formed to hear God more clearly than others—for example Jesus clearly affirmed those who were humble before God. The challenge is that we usually assume that we are the ones that hear correctly. We should recognize that we may not be the best hearers. It is not a general rule that God is tricky in always choosing the surprising speaker or messenger—however, the shepherds were

unexpected, the Magi were unexpected, a baby was unexpected, a donkey speaking was unexpected—we, if we happen to proclaim a word from God are probably unexpected, and we need to watch for the unexpected heralds of a mighty word from God.

The Magi were so confident in their ability that they traveled a long way. And they were correct. From the vantage point of the expected hearers of God this was unexpected. For them it was on point.

The lectionary passage stops with the heroic success of the wise men. They succeed and worship and are filled with great joy. There is, however, an ominous and terrible part 2. The fearful Herod, a king holding tenuous power on behalf of an occupying force, shows interest in a new king—when this happens we can’t expect something good. This king asking, apparently innocently and out of curiosity for the “exact time” hints at ill intent. Verse seven reads “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He masks potential motives by saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

We think that Jesus may have been 2 years old at this point because based on the Magi’s response to the appearing of the star, Herod, the fearful tyrant king kills all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. Hauerwas writes of this, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Hauerwas, 41).

This is a downer. From “overwhelming joy” at seeing the Christ child to overwhelming grief of the parents of occupied Bethlehem. Children lost at the hands of a leader they didn’t choose who was afraid of a baby that was barely walking, much less overthrowing regimes. This, however, is the nature of the world. Joy next to sorrow. Pain next to healing. Hope next to despair. It is not that these need to be “held in tension” or in balance or that one redeems the other or cancels the other out. In the Matthew narrative, the Christ child comes as God’s definitive action in a world where kings can force parents to travel while pregnant and kill babies. God’s saving action—God coming near to heal humanity happens because humanity needs healing, needs justice, needs peace. The presence of real evil in the context of overwhelming joy forces us to focus—focus! We must watch for the coming King. We must proclaim the unexpected word that the Creator has come near to heal, has taken the lowliness of humanity. That we can be reconciled, and that God has broken down the separating wall between us (Ephesians 1-2).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Where the Joy Meets the Vipers

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas?  Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day?  Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers?  How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?

What?  Oh yes, the vipers.  I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers.  Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble.  The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.

We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy.  Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.”  All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.

Who, however, rejoices at vipers?  People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things.  I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference.  The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork.  I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.

On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.

I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers.  There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.

The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him.  It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to?  Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.

I find that a little scary.  In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper.  Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9:  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared.  They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers.  They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is.  So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”

Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way.  (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say?  His preaching was getting through to the people.  Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?”  And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?

Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives?  Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?

Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit.  No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.

Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices.  He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.”  Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.

In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”

That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it?  You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice.  But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.

Vipers represent evil.  I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap.  I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do.  Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often.  Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. We are vipers.  Where is the joy in John’s response?

The joy is that we can do it.

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace this morning. We need the peace that comes from Jesus. We need the light of the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead – Jesus, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Ruler of the kings of the earth. Presidents and prime ministers. Generals and department chairs. Princes and popes. Jesus is sovereign over all of them. God has given him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He is king of kings and lord of lords. Can I get an ‘amen’?

It can be hard to tell, though, can’t it? It’s hard to blame us if we have a tough time believing that Jesus is master and commander of the world we live in. I mean, look at it! Wars and threats of violence. The rising tide of climate change – drought and smoke and hurricanes. Refugees by the millions. We live in a world where grinding poverty is the norm, while those at the top wallow in luxury and self-deception.

Something is wrong. Where are you, king Jesus? Where is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead? Where is the sovereign power that God has promised us for so long, the throne that will crush the might of the Beast and establish a society of peace and justice? I don’t see it. Do you?

How much longer are we supposed to wait?

That’s what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus’ first disciples, who followed him from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. They knew their teacher was the future king of Israel. The messiah. He was going to be large and in charge, just you wait and see!

We’re still waiting. Just like Peter, James, John, and all the others, we modern-day disciples of Jesus are hungry to see “all peoples, nations, and languages [serving him.]” We long for the “everlasting dominion that shall not pass away,” the age of wholeness, healing, and truth that God’s messiah promises us.

We’ve been waiting a long time. For most of the two thousand years since the resurrection, the posture of the church has been one of expectant waiting. Living in the tension of “now, but not yet” – with an emphasis on the “not yet.” Grappling with the reality that things still aren’t the way they’re supposed to be – the way that God created us to live.
Despite the reality of the resurrection, everywhere we look, we find our world still in a fallen state. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground. When will Jesus come to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found?

Joy to the world! That’s what we want to see. “Joy to world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”

That’s the joy we seek. We saw it in the light of the resurrection. We saw it in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve seen it again, and again, throughout successive movements of the Holy Spirit throughout history. Jesus keeps coming. Keeps teaching. Keeps reigning in our hearts, minds, spirits, and lives as communities. He is risen!

So why hasn’t he come to reign? I mean openly, outwardly, permanently? Why hasn’t Jesus conquered the world, banished sin and suffering forever? Why hasn’t God finally put an end to humanity’s madness and destroyed those who are destroying the earth? When will Jesus come to rule, not just in our hearts, not just in our personal lives, but in our life as a civilization? When will it finally be that every knee will bend, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord? When will we be changed, transformed once and for all?

That’s the promise, after all. That’s the end game. The Day of the Lord.

The prophets have been telling us about this day for thousands of years. The day when God will have the final victory. The earth will be restored. Justice will be done, and he will wipe away every tear. To use the imagery of the prophet Daniel, the court will sit in judgement and the books will be opened.

When will Jesus’ court finally be in session? When will he come to judge the nations and save us from ourselves? When will Jesus reign as king?

In our gospel reading this morning, John tells us about Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Palestine. Pilate is not a king, but he is a powerful man. He is the civil authority, appointed by the emperor to oversee the occupation of Judea. His job is to administer justice – to mete out rewards and punishments – in the kingdom of Caesar.

It says in our text that Pilate “entered his headquarters again” to talk with Jesus. “Again,” because he had just been outside talking with the Jewish religious authorities. Pilate suggests that the Jews should try Jesus according to Jewish law. But the priests ask Pilate to try the case, because only Rome is allowed to execute people.

That’s always been one of the major marks of sovereignty: A monopoly on violence. As imperial sovereign in the region, Rome reserves certain rights to itself. Especially the right to kill.

So Pilate re-enters his headquarters to conduct a cross-examination. Who is this Jesus? Is he a revolutionary, someone worthy of being broken on a Roman cross? Or is he just some local heretic, a danger to the priestly establishment perhaps, but no threat to Rome?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Now something that I find interesting here is that according to John’s gospel the Jewish authorities don’t accuse Jesus of claiming to be king. But Pilate wants to know. For Pilate, probably the only crime worth his time and attention is insurrection. So is Jesus an insurrectionist? Does he challenge the lordship of Caesar? Is he a king?

Something I love about Jesus is that he never answers questions directly if they’re asked in bad faith. So when Pilate asks him whether he’s a king, Jesus replies in this way: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Jesus has come to testify to the A and the Z, the beginning and the end. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Everyone who hears the word of God – and does it – is his mother, sister, and brother. Jesus has been given an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away, because the truth will never pass away. When we hear the truth and obey it, Jesus becomes our king.

And that’s great. But it’s also a little bit vague, isn’t it? Pilate obviously thinks so. His response to Jesus’ words: “What is truth?”

What is truth? It’s a fair question. Because it’s hard to tell sometimes. The rulers of this world all have their own version of ‘truth.’ There’s the truth of the marketplace, the truth of Wall Street. There’s the truth of endless technological progress and innovation, the truth of Silicon Valley. There’s the truth of might-makes-right, the truth of the Pentagon. There are so many truths, and so many powers vying for our allegiance. These kingdoms of money and violence and progress are so seductive, because they have demonstrated their power again and again. We know the pleasure they can provide and the terror they can inflict.

But what is the truth Jesus speaks of? What kind of kingdom is this? What does it mean to listen to his voice amidst the roar of empires?

The reign of Jesus is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, ever could experience within the intellectual and emotional confines of human empire. Jesus tries to explain this to Pilate. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

My kingdom is not from here. Not from this world.

Well, what world is it then? What is this world where truth is alive and Jesus is king? When will we see this world outside our windows, in the workplace, and in our public policy? When will the kingdom finally come, as we have been promised throughout scripture, with visible power and glory? “One like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

We’ve been waiting for so long.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace. We need this truth. We need the reality of his resurrection in our own bodies. We need his love – for ourselves, and to share with the broken world around us.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world – this present social order, economic system, and spiritual state that we’re in. His kingdom can’t be held back or denied by all the lies that this world calls “truth.” It can’t be snuffed out by the darkness of evil, cowardice, and indifference. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We need this light. We need the presence “of him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That’s our calling. That’s our destiny. That’s our kingdom, even in the midst of all this grief and loss. To be freed from all the weights and confusions that hold us back from love.

We are called into a new social reality as his followers, disciples who belong to the truth and listen to his voice. We are, each and every one of us, called to be priests serving the God and father of our Lord Jesus. Belonging to the truth, we listen to his voice.

We’ve been waiting for so long.

The kingdom of God is coming, and it’s here. It’s like a mustard seed, growing before our eyes. Growing right back up even when the evil of this world takes a lawnmower to it. The darkness cannot overcome it. It cannot overcome us. It cannot defeat us as we hear the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice.

In spite of our weariness and doubt and waiting, we say with the early church:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Bless What Lord?

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8

I said in my Facebook post about today’s service that I was going to start the sermon with a grammar joke. It ended up not fitting into where I went with the sermon, but since I promised a grammar joke you’ll get a grammar joke.

A panda walks into a bar. He takes a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the bar, shells them, and eats them. Then the panda pulls out a gun, fires it in the air, and begins to walk out of the bar. The bartender says, “Hey! What was that about?” The panda says, “Look it up in a dictionary,” and heads out the door. The bartender grabs a dictionary from someplace and looks up the definition for “panda.” The definition says, “Panda – a white and black bear-like mammal which eats shoots and leaves.”

That’s the joke. It doesn’t have anything to do with the sermon. If you don’t get it you’ll just have to think for a while after the sermon.

I remember the first time I visited Washington, DC. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember wondering if we would get to see President Johnson when we toured the White House, so I couldn’t have been older than nine.

I was so amazed at the buildings. Of course the ones that caught my eye the most where the famous ones that I’d seen on television – the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. I don’t remember the Washington City church from that trip, although we probably drove by it because we always drove by the Church of the Brethren, if there was one, everyplace we vacationed.

I remember the first time I saw the Washington Office of the Church of the Brethren. It was in the United Methodist building, across from the Capitol and next to the Supreme Court building. I was a freshman in high school, I think, and I was so impressed to meet Ralph Smeltzer, the director of the office. He talked to us about what it would be like to visit our representatives and our senators, and he had this big office with books and papers everywhere and I just thought how wonderful it must be to be Ralph Smeltzer and to live and work in Washington, DC and to lobby and organize on behalf of justice and peace in the Capitol and around the nation.

I think that’s what it felt like for the disciples when they visited Jerusalem with Jesus. Our reading from Mark 13 opens up with the disciples wandering around looking at the temple and the other grand buildings in the capital. “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” I can almost picture Gomer Pyle looking up at skyscrapers saying, “Goll-lly!”

I don’t know how many of the disciples had been to Jerusalem before, if any. It probably was a pretty impressive place. And you know sometimes a place doesn’t have to be physically impressive or incredibly magnificent to seem pretty wonderful. Looking back at it, Ralph Smeltzer’s office probably wasn’t all that fancy. But to a high school freshman who cared about his faith and who cared about politics and cared about what his faith taught him about politics, it was one of the most amazing places in the world.

Jesus’s reaction to whichever disciple was playing Gomer Pyle is a little surprising at first. Jesus says, “All these buildings? This fancy temple? So what? Sooner or later it’ll all just be rubble. Just a big pile of rocks.”

Some of the disciples are maybe a little worried about when that’s going to happen, and so they approach Jesus privately and ask him exactly that. They are probably looking for some comfort, some reassurance from Jesus. They are probably expecting to be told not to worry, because Jesus is the Messiah and if they stick with him it’ll all be okay.

That’s sometimes what we want from Jesus, isn’t it. Sometimes we want Jesus to reassure us, to comfort us. That’s natural, and that’s one of the things Jesus does for people. One of Jesus’s titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” and we sing songs like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus being a comforter, a supporter, someone who gives us strength and who encourages us through the Holy Spirit, all of that is perfectly appropriate and perfectly Biblical.

But there is another Jesus. There is the apocalyptic Jesus.

The literal meaning of “apocalypse” is an unveiling or a revelation. Over the years the word has taken on more than just the literal meaning. “Apocalyptic” or “apocalypse” now are used to refer to something incredibly destructive, and often to predictions of the end of the earth. That’s the Jesus we’re getting here, a Jesus who is talking about the end of the world.

And that Jesus, the apocalyptic Jesus, offers the disciples no particular reassurance, at least about the timing. In fact, he doesn’t actually answer their question. He says that the disciples need to be careful that they are not led astray, that a lot of people will try to lead them astray, that they should not be alarmed when they hear about wars and rumors of wars, and that there will be a time of earthquakes and famines and wars. Trust me, that’s not reassuring.

The meditation on the back of the worship folder mentions Harold Moyer. Harold was an associate pastor here at Washington City back in the early 1950s. Seeing Harold’s name made me think about some of our history here.
Washington City was a big congregation back then, with a couple of hundred people in attendance every Sunday morning and that big pipe organ in the balcony booming out the hymns every Sunday and all the rooms filled with Sunday School classes and all the offices filled with pastors and associate pastors and intern pastors and a secretary or two.
Back in the 1950s Washington City decided to do some church planting. They planted the Good Shepherd congregation in Silver Spring, the Arlington congregation, and the Woodbridge congregation. People who were members at Washington City who lived in those communities became members of the new congregations. When I pastored at Woodbridge there were eight of the charter members left who had been members here.

Washington City provided pastors as well. In 1956 Harold Moyer became the first pastor at Woodbridge, and later spent many, many years at the Williamson Road congregation in Roanoke.

If someone had said back in the 1950s that one day the Washington City congregation would have Sundays where less than a half dozen people were here, that the congregation would find it a huge challenge to deal with the basic maintenance of the physical structure here, that it would be financially impractical to have a full time pastor let alone the multiple staff that they had, that there wouldn’t be any kind of regular Sunday School, that the organ would likely be beyond repair, I don’t know what people’s reactions might have been. That might have felt apocalyptic to them. That might have felt like the destruction of everything that they held dear.

But all those things happened. All of those things have happened in just the last ten or fifteen years. And we’re still here. We’ve come out on the other side of a lot of those things. No, we still can’t use the organ but we have people sharing other musical gifts that fit us better than a fancy pipe organ would. And I say that as someone who has been known to listen to organ music from time to time.

No, we can’t really afford a full time pastor, but we have a ministry team that functions pretty well for who we are now. We don’t have a traditional Sunday School, but we have regular gatherings to study the Bible and to share in prayer and visioning and community. We’re not a big church numerically, but we’re bigger and more stable than we had been. We had times where it seemed like it might be impossible to meet the needs of maintenance of the building, but we’ve come through much of that and in some ways the building now is in the best physical condition it’s been in for a long time.

That vision that might have felt like an apocalypse to the people of this congregation in the 1950s has become a reality where we have something special here. We have something good that is happening. We are making a difference for people. We are touching people’s lives. We are seeking and sharing justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After what might have felt like an apocalypse to people here in 1952, we have come through to a different kind of congregation. Not a better congregation than theirs was, and not a worse one, but a different one. Probably a better one for this time and place, just as the congregation they had was a better one for their time and place than ours would be.

Apocalyptic Washington City congregation became the Washington City congregation that we have now and for which I am very thankful.
Likewise the future that apocalyptic Jesus proclaims isn’t the end. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s scary, and it’s hard to picture. But in the end we’ll feel fine, because we know that a different world is coming. This world will pass away, but a new world, a new kingdom of love and peace and the rule of Christ, will take its place.

The Psalmist in our Call to Worship from Psalm 16 tells us to bless the Lord. Our inclination is to bless the Lord of comfort, the Lord that protects us from our enemies and strengthens us and heals us and gives us courage. And we should bless that Lord.

We should also bless and be thankful for the apocalyptic Lord. We should bless the Lord that warns us of hard times to come, that tells us of the destruction of earthly things that in this moment we think are important but have no eternal significance. We should bless the Lord who creates challenge and even destruction so that a new and better world can replace what we know now.

I hope we’re thankful to God not just this week, but all the time. I hope we’re thankful for all the sides, all the aspects of Jesus’s personality and ministry. I hope we can be thankful for comfort and peace, thankful for food and friends, but also thankful for apocalypse and for the world that will follow, both in our own lives and in the world at large. Amen.

Small Money and Biscuit

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit

We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.

Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.

The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…

15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.

We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…

The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.

A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.

Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…

We see Jesus in the temple.

Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”

After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.

Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark. [1] It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.

Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.

Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.

Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.

Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.

Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.

Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?

A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?

Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?

As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.

Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.