UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

IF I PROCLAIM

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

Nathan Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD

 

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Matthew 16:13-20

Jennifer Hosler

A leader stands up and says, “They are taking over. They are ruining our country. They are overrunning our cities. They are plotting, they are seeking to undermine our values and our prosperity. Those people must be stopped, must be controlled, must be contained, so that we can be safe, so that we can continue to prosper, so that we can succeed.” They. Those people.

You could assume that the leader standing up is a present-day leader but our Exodus passage demonstrates that this is a thousand-year old problem. The leader is an ancient one: Pharaoh. Thousands of year ago, it was the Israelites, the Jews, who were “they” and “those people.” Today, people are still fearfully chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We’ve seen that people of today are once again Jews but also Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender folk, and many more.

The Bible is always relevant; but, there are times when the relevance seems to smack you in the face. Our Exodus reading is one of those passages: it seems to be speaking exactly for our present day. Granted, I don’t typically run into midwives or Pharaohs. The setting is different, but the truths that we can extrapolate are pertinent, poignant, and applicable. There are two lessons I want to focus on today: 1) ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants; and 2) women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

I recently read a three-part graphic novel written by Congressman John Lewis, called “March!” March illustrates the Civil Rights Movement through the life of John Lewis, starting from his elementary school years in rural Alabama, where he lived on a farm and “preached to the chickens.” Book One shows young John proclaiming the Beatitudes to his hens, which were in his care and he loved dearly. It describes how John Lewis’s uncle took him up to Buffalo, New York, one summer, and young John glimpsed a desegregated neighborhood for the first time. Coming home, John became dissatisfied with how the black communities didn’t have paved roads and with how black children like himself had poorer conditions for their school buses, buildings, and textbooks, compared with the white students.

As John grew up, he saw Brown v. the Board of Education mandate school desegregation, the murder of Emmitt Till, and he saw the boycott that initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Later, at seminary in Nashville, John encountered the teaching of Jim Lawson, who explained how nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can be used to make “good trouble,” to highlight injustice and to bring attention to hatred and evil. Today, when tweeting about the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis often uses the hashtag #goodtrouble. Our passage in Exodus highlights some “good trouble.” There is much the church can learn from John Lewis and two Israelite midwives.

The other week, Nate preached about Joseph’s reunion with his family in Egypt, where–after a being sold into slavery and preyed upon by powerful people—Joseph eventually rose to the top of Egyptian power, the 2nd person only to Pharaoh. Joseph and his family found a safe place to reside during a famine and these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob get settled into Egypt’s land. Our story picks up after the Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers have died. As was prophesied to Abraham, the Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied (though they’re not yet quite as uncountable as grains of the sand). They’re prospering, the years pass and a new king comes to power.

For this new King, “Joseph meant nothing.” Instead of seeing the valuable assets that the Israelites could be within the Egyptian community, the king gets afraid. He thinks that the Israelites are a threat that need to be dealt with. He’s concerned about the allegiance of the “other” if war breaks out. One, commentator, Freitheim (1991), notes multiple instances of irony in the text and points out that, before the king gets all worked up about “those people,” they weren’t yet named as a people group, but as a clan or extended family. The king is trying to be “shrewd” but he ends up attributing more power to the Israelites than before. Little does he know that this paranoia, this “othering,” and this prejudice will eventually be his downfall.

The king proceeds to enslave the Israelites, forcing them to build cities to store grain. The Egyptians are ruthless and the writing in this passage emphasizes the forced labor several times, using a poetic or chiastic structure in the Hebrew:

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

they made them serve with rigor” (Freitheim, 1991, p. 30).

Despite their enslavement and brutal treatment, the Israelites—like oppressed people throughout history—still find ways to be resilient, through the blessing of God. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…” Eventually, the king of Egypt devises another plan, since enslavement wasn’t working.

One notable omission in our text is the name of the king; he has no name. The tyrant is not the star of the story and is not worth naming, even with all the riches and power at his disposal. Poignantly, two Israelite midwives are named: Shiphrah and Puah. They are women. Slave women. We learn later that they are slave women without children. And they are the named heroes (or should I say, she-roes) of this story. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

The king of Egypt calls them to him and says, “You here, when you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” These midwives are ordinary folks who do the important—but typically undervalued—job of ushering life into the world. Despite their low status and their lack of power in the ancient world, even in their own community, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king’s orders. Scripture says that they fear God, which means that they have faith and trust that Yahweh is the author and giver of life. Shiphrah and Puah care more about protecting the lives of the vulnerable than about obeying the most powerful person in the land.

Jewish baby boys then keep getting born—and living. Pharaoh follows up with Shiphrah and Puah, summoning them to his presence to account for their “wrongdoing”: “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” These Hebrew women do not cower in his presence; instead, they use the opportunity to lift the humanity, dignity, and strength of their people, whom the Egyptians view as beneath them. Hebrew women aren’t below the Egyptians; in fact, they’re stronger. Shiphrah and Puah answer Pharaoh—they flat out lie for the Kingdom of God—and say, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

God then blesses the midwives for this courage, for their defiant and cheeky words, and for disobeying the ruler in charge of their country. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation;

While it is important to recognize the ordinariness of the midwives, I also need to raise attention to the fact that they are women. Women doing God’s work. Women getting into “good trouble.” Women metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives. Thank you, Shiphrah and Puah.

Our passage doesn’t end with them. It continues and there are more women getting into “good trouble.” One commentator points that, in total, five different women are present and doing different forms of creative disobedience or resisting the power of oppression (Freitheim, 1991). In v. 22, we read that when Pharaoh can’t get the midwives to perform infanticide, he makes a country-wide pronouncement that all the Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. We don’t hear what happens overall; our narrator zeroes in to one family. We meet a Levite family who give birth to a son.

The mom hides her baby boy for three months, but a baby is a hard thing to hide in general, but especially when you are enslaved. She rebels by not doing exactly what Pharaoh says—the baby goes in the water, but not in the brutal way he intends. Baby is placed in a papyrus basket and into the water, among the reeds. Older sister watches to see what happens.

Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who sees the funny basket, gets her servants to retrieve it, and finds a crying baby. While her own dad has ordered these babies to be killed, the daughter sees the baby for what it is—a tiny human—and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Older sister steps up out of the reeds and says, “Oh hey! Should I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and older sister gets her mother, who then takes her child back alive and gets paid to keep nursing. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopts the baby and calls him Moses.

Everything that these women are doing here are in defiance of the man in charge. And the text is very clear that it is a good thing, all this disobeying orders and preserving life. Once again, women are metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives.

These women are crucial agents in the work of God. While we obviously have a church with a woman pastor, we still need to teach and preach and proclaim loudly that women can do bold, outrageous things for God and God still says, “Well done.” Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

What does it mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? To recap, we see in scripture and in history that brutal, selfish, hate-inspiring leaders always exist. We also see that God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up to violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God uses people like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and people like John Lewis, who, with his fellow student organizers of that era, integrated lunch counters, took freedom rides, and marched.

In scripture and in history, ordinary people have stood up to be used by God to nonviolently counter hatred and violence. Don’t let someone tell you nonviolent protest is not biblical or Christian: nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a biblical argument, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Jer 38:1-6; Dan 3) and in the New Testament (Mt 5:38-48; Rom 12:14-21). Civil disobedience is definitely a tool that Christians, women and men, can use to stare down hatred and prejudice and to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.

During the Civil Rights Movement and during the recent Charlottesville incident, some Christians have criticized the involvement of clergy in nonviolent protest. One of the most famous rebuttals of this criticism is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to white pastors who criticized Dr. King’s involvement in protests and sit-ins. Since it is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it should be obvious that Dr. King got locked up for said protests and sit-ins.

Dr. King (1963) wrote, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 

When asked this week if people should just try to ignore white supremacist marchers, Congressman Lewis answered, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something… You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion” (Jones, 2017).

After reading several articles about John Lewis and his witness to nonviolence (see March, 3 books; On Being, 2017), I would summarize that he believes that what we need more nonviolence, more people trained in how to love their enemies, how to stand up for the vulnerable, and how to be immovable in the face of verbal hate and even the threat of violence. We need more “good trouble,” more people being willing to link arms, to look white supremacists in the eye, and to remind everyone that both the oppressors and the oppressed are human and made in the image of God. God uses ordinary, creative people (women and men) to thwart the work of tyrants—and white supremacists.

Doing God’s work—protecting and loving and reconciling people—happens at both the most mundane and the most extraordinary levels. The midwives happened to be well-placed to stand up to violence. Are we well-placed, to stand up in ways big or small, as librarians, accountants, press secretaries, managers, students, researchers, IT specialists, coders, security workers, administrators, policy advocates, and more?  Are we well-placed as individuals, but are we also well-placed as a body together, as a congregation? We are entering a discernment phase for our church, as we are laying down BNP and learning more about ourselves and what is next. I challenge us to consider how we are—or can be—well-placed to equip a movement of nonviolence and to stand for God’s values of love and justice, in a spot where the nation’s eyes happen to be? We are front and center in Washington, DC.

Sisters and brothers, God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up against violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God can use you, God can use me. God can use us as a church here on Capitol Hill—front and center with a big old building, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. AMEN. 

 

References

Freitheim, T.E. (1991). Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Jones, A. (2017, August 24). Is ‘mass nonviolent action’ needed to fight white supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mass-nonviolent-action-needed-fight-white-supremacists-654799

King, Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

*Note: while I have read and cited this work before, I re-read the Letter this week because it was cited by Lamar Gibson, of On Earth Peace, in a blog post on the negative feedback they received about racial justice work and the events in Charlottesville: http://faithful-steward.tumblr.com/

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March: Book One. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

On Being (2107, January 26). Love in Action. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action-jan2017/

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.

THE HARVEST IS PLENTIFUL

This morning, I want to tell you a story about Stephen Grellet. Stephen Grellet was a French-born Quaker minister, one of the best-known Quakers of the early 1800s. He traveled extensively and preached to thousands.

One day, as he was in prayer, he felt that God was calling him to take a long journey into the American backwoods, to preach to the woodcutters. Wood cutting was an isolated profession, like working on an offshore oil rig today. And Grellet heard God’s voice speaking to him, “Go back there and preach to those lonely men.” Filled with compassion and a sense of the Spirit’s guidance, Grellet left his family to visit the backwoods.

Grellet felt drawn to a specific spot in this backcountry. It was a place he had visited before, and he felt certain that God was calling him there again. He felt a flood of peace and assurance when he arrived at the woodcutter camp. But as he looked around, he soon realized that the camp was totally devoid of human presence. It had been abandoned days ago. The woodcutters had moved into the forest and might not be back for weeks.

Grellet considered that, perhaps he was mistaken. Maybe he was at the wrong location. But a voice within him said, “no, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.” He prayed silently, asking God for guidance. The response was: “Give your message. It is not yours, but mine.”

In this abandoned encampment, there was one large wooden hut that stood out. Grellet stepped inside and made his way to the back of the structure. He turned around facing the entrance and began to preach. He preached as if the place were packed with hundreds of people. He spoke about how the love of God is the greatest thing in the world. He spoke about how sin builds a wall between human beings and God, but that this wall is thrown down in Jesus Christ. He spoke about how the love of God triumphs over all.

After preaching his message, Grellet was exhausted. He drank some water from a nearby stream, ate a bit of bread he carried in his pocket, and then began the long journey back home. He never saw any woodcutters. Yet he felt peace in his spirit. He felt certain that he had been faithful in what God had given him to do.

Years later and a continent away, Stephen Grellet is crossing London Bridge, wearing his distinctive Quaker outfit and broad-brimmed hat. All of a sudden, someone grabs him by the arm and says, “There you are! I’ve found you at last!”

Grellet is surprised, and probably a little nervous to have this gruff stranger grabbing him and making accusations. “I think you must have the wrong person, friend.”

“Absolutely not!” said the stranger. “I’ve been looking for you across the globe, and I’m not mistaken. You’re the man from the woods!”

It turns out that Stephen Grellet wasn’t entirely alone that day when he visited the woodcutters’ encampment.

The man standing before him tells him about how he returned to the empty encampment, looking for a tool he had left behind. As he was retrieving it, he heard Grellet’s voice booming from the wooden hut at the center of the camp. As Grellet spoke, the lone woodcutter watched through the cracks in the walls. And he found that the gospel message shone through the cracks in his heart.

By the time Stephen Grellet left the camp, this man’s life had been changed forever. After hearing Grellet’s message, he felt miserable, convicted of the sin that was separating him from the love of God. But eventually he got a hold of a Bible and began discovering the way of Jesus.

At first, the other woodcutters made fun of him, but the man’s faith was infectious. “It’s share and share alike in the forest,” said the former woodcutter standing in front of Grellet on London Bridge. “I told the men all about the gospel, just like you. I gave them no peace till everyone was brought home to God. Three of them went out to preach to other districts. At least a thousand have been brought home to the good shepherd by that sermon of yours which you preached to nobody.”

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to teach, heal, and preach the good news of the kingdom of God throughout the villages of Israel. As he prepares them for their journey, he says “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Who are the laborers, and what is the harvest?

Jesus and his little community of disciples were very small. They lived on the margins of society. Yet the crowds flocked to them, eager to hear the good news of the kingdom. Like a mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs, or a little bit of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, God used these handful of disciples to have an astonishing impact on the world.

God’s story is one of continuing surprise. It’s a story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, who were in their eighties and still childless. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, but here they were, still without children at an age where child bearing wasn’t just a long shot – it was physically impossible!

But God had promised it. Multiple times. God insisted that not only would Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars, but that he would make a covenant with Abraham’s son through Sarah. Sarah, who realistically hasn’t been able to bear children for several decades at this point.

One day, Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre, around Hebron. He’s sitting there at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He’s probably about ready to take a nap. But then, he looks up and sees three men standing before him.

Now, for those of us reading today, it’s a little ambiguous who these men are, exactly. But as the text goes on, it seems that two of these men are angels, and the third is the Lord himself. Whatever the specifics, Abraham seems to know who has come to visit him. He immediately bows down to the ground and asks the men to accept his hospitality. They agree, and Abraham rushes back into the tent to tell Sarah to make pancakes and cook up a goat for their guests.

A little while later, the visitors are sitting under a tree, eating their food. They ask Abraham, “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” When Abraham says that she’s in the tent, one of the men says: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Now it isn’t proper in ancient near-eastern culture for Sarah to hang outside with the men, but she was very interested in this conversation. So she is hiding just behind the entrance to the tent, listening to everything that was happening. And when Sarah hears the visitor say that she will soon have a son, she laughs to herself.

And the LORD says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Count on it. It’s going to happen just like I said. When I return, Sarah will have a son.”

Now I guess at this point, the jig is up and Sarah comes out of the tent. She says, “I didn’t laugh!” But the visitor says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

This is one of my favorite lines of Scripture. What a weird story! And it feels so true to me, about how God is. God knows us, God understands us, even when we’d prefer he didn’t. And God accepts us, even when we can’t quite believe him. Sarah sees the whole situation as ridiculous, and she’s right. It doesn’t make any sense. But God responds by insisting, “I will make something amazing out of this ridiculous situation. And you will know that I did it, precisely because it is impossible.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I think back to Stephen Grellet, with his apparently pointless sermon to an empty wooden hut out in the backwoods. I remember the twelve disciples – a band of misfits, living on the margins – the last people you’d expect to change the world. I think of Abraham and Sarah, people who should have been great-grandparents but who instead are expecting an infant child.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. When I’ve read these words of Jesus before, I always thought that Jesus was complaining about the lack of laborers. But what if the shortage of laborers isn’t a bug in God’s program? What if it’s an intentional feature?

Throughout God’s story, he has always used the most unlikely people in the most ridiculous ways. He chose a barren couple to be the parents of many nations. He picked a wimpy kid to be the king of Israel. He selected a family from the backwoods of Galilee to give birth to the Messiah. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And maybe that’s the way God likes it!

I think of Gideon’s army, which God whittled down to just 300 men. In the eyes of common sense, they had no chance at all. But through God’s power, they were able to defeat the enemy.

I think of Stephen Grellet, who listened to God, even when it was ridiculous. By preaching to an empty room, he turned a thousand lives to God.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. What does it mean for us, as a tiny congregation amidst the great city, to be faithful? How can we endure in the unlikely – even ridiculous – work that God is calling us to? What does it mean to claim the hope of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and the disciples, Stephen Grellet and the man whose life he changed forever? What does it mean to be the few laborers, steadfast even when we can’t perceive the harvest?

As God said to the prophet Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; human beings look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Holy Spirit, speak to our hearts. Show us how to be faithful to your guidance, your mission, your love – even when we can’t help but laugh.