(Embodying Hope) A baby, a girl, a body

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:36-38, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 1 Timothy 4:12

You probably recognize our texts in Isaiah and Luke as scriptures we read in Advent, but they are also from a church feast day held on March 25th, called the Feast of the Annunciation. Hands up if you typically celebrate the Annunciation, or if you’ve ever celebrated it. I didn’t think there would be many—or even any. In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically mark the Annunciation, though I’d like to change this, at least for our congregation. The Annunciation is the announcement from Gabriel to Mary that Jesus would be born.

I stumbled upon the Annunciation passages in the Lectionary and thought they would complement our Lenten theme, the start of April (which is Earth Month), and Tori’s report about Christian Peacemaking Teams. Within today’s passages, there is a broader theme about embodying hope, about God bringing hope through those whom society says cannot contribute, through people whom we would not expect, in ways that rulers and leaders would not imagine.

Our passage in Isaiah shows someone with the opportunity to ask God for a sign. If I was in trouble and the Creator of the Universe says, “Ask me for a sign that everything is going to be okay,” I hope I would actually ask for something. Whether it would be good or smart or witty or pious is another story. I think I would at least ask for something.

In our Isaiah text, the people of Judah are facing calamity. The Lord gives King Ahaz the opportunity to ask for something cosmic to signal God’s deliverance. It’s implied here that God will rescue them, if Ahaz is just willing to ask. The Lord says, “Ask me for a sign—let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” In other words, God is saying, “Ask for something as metaphysically unfathomable as the place where souls go, or as cosmic as the sky or the place where God dwells. I can help you through this coming calamity, but all you need to do is ask. For something.” Yet Ahaz says, “No, no, no. I’m okay. I don’t want to test God.” Ahaz is trying to look pious, but really doesn’t want God’s involvement – probably because it would mean he’d need to change how he lived or worshiped. Rather than trusting God, he’s putting his hope in some wheeling and dealing with another ruler (the King of Assyria). Lots of money, big armies—that’s a bit more comforting than a God you can’t see.

Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is not what God wanted. Isaiah sends this message, “You’re trying to act religious here? Do you realize you’re playing holier than Thou with the Capital T Thou. You don’t want to ask for a cosmic, transcendental sign? Well, God is going to give you one anyways, something cosmic and miraculous: a baby, born to a young woman. The baby will be the sign that God is with Us and he will be named that—Immanuel.”

The baby is a sign that God is trying to work against all their wayward, idolatrous intentions, and is trying to bring about hope. God ends up delivering Ahaz and Judah from the nations who threaten the country, but also ends up promising judgment on Ahaz and the people for their ongoing idolatry and injustice. The baby is a sign of hope—but the presence of hope does not mean the people can just sit idly by. God still requires that people reckon with their failures and their consequences, God still requires that people transform their lives to work for the healing of relationships and the healing of our whole created world.

Babies bring hope. When there is ecological devastation, when species are threatened or endangered, the birth and growth of offspring are signs that the situation is turning around. I follow a few different Smithsonian Instagram accounts and I’ve seen recent postings of baby cheetahs or baby pandas born and growing—making a future of these vulnerable species a little less bleak, thanks to countless hours and dollars of research and ecosystem conservation. The furry little ones born give hope—and their cuteness often prompts people to donate and, I hope, to act in ways that guarantee their future.

My son is 10 months old. As my husband and I were preparing to have a child, we discussed what it means to bring life into the world when injustice and violence seem to be growing, when governments are chaotic and not caring for the common good. Theologically, we believe in a solidified outcome—that God will redeem and restore all things. Thus, we can bring new life into this world knowing that the Divine hope and reconciliation will overcome the chaos. Our baby is sign that we believe God is making all things new (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The presence of life brings hope—and gives us the vision we need to do what God calls us to do. When we want children to live in a world of God’s wholeness, it can help us focus on our tasks and calling: To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption.

Our passage in Luke is the Annunciation passage itself. And in it we hear that God is acting in a way we’ve never seen. Not in a whirlwind, not in a burning bush, not in a pillar of fire or a cloud. God is acting through a young woman and a baby. Again, of all the cosmic ways to give a sign, of all the possibilities to manifest and deliver salvation, the LORD does not choose the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Of all the cosmic possibilities for a noncorporeal cosmic ruler to be manifested, God chooses to enter a womb. The womb of a young, unmarried woman—a girl, many would call her—who bravely says yes to God. God chooses to enter our journey of cells multiplying and organs growing, with arms and legs wiggling and kicking, squishing a bladder, kicking a rib. God chooses to enter our world with a tiny, helpless body. Hope is found in a baby, a brave girl, in a body. Hope is found in bodies.

The story of the gospel is that hope is found in babies, in girls, in bodies. God’s hope is not ephemeral but tangible. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message). God works through babies, through girls, through bodies, through people.

God works through people the world does not expect and that the world thinks little of. We read 1 Timothy 4:12 this morning, “Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” God works through youth who sue the government to try to address climate change. God works through students who organize a strike around the globe, who use their bodies not in class to make a statement: the health of our planet is serious, and we need to act.

God acts through bodies. God acts through bread shared together, cups of tea drank, through relationships and accompaniment. God embodied hope through Jesus. Jesus has tasked us to embody hope in this world. To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption. Hope is in the baby born, the brave girl, the youth striking, the tea shared. We see hope in Jesus Immanuel: God is with us. AMEN.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

 

Luke 24:13-35, 1 Peter 1:17-23

Nathan Hosler

Earth Day Sunday was last week. Though I wasn’t here (I’m going off the word on the street) I heard that while mentioned and in some manner included in the prayer time it was not a main theme. In the end, the point is to focus on caring for creation so timing is really not particularly essential. Better late than never.

At Christian Citizenship Seminars (CCS), this past week we focused on Native American rights focusing particularly on food security. This history of displacement and violence and broken treaties and degraded land is significant—and ongoing. Again, better late than never to focus on this and seek to listen and address this. [CCS is a youth program of the Church of the Brethren organized by Youth and Young Adult Ministries and my office—the Office of Public Witness].

The land on which this church is built is the land of the Piscataway people. Though I’ve wanted to look this up for a while. I only now just did after spending a week discussing and hearing about the experience of Indigenous peoples of this continent. I guess, at least, its better late than never.

These are related to the land (and the people of the land). For example, on the edge of the Navajo reservation sits the Lybrook Community Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Kim and Jim Therrien are the directors and they, along with Kendra Pinto, a young Navajo protector of the land, spoke at the Christian Citizenship Seminars the past week. They told of the devastation to land by the oil and gas companies and the disregard and abandonment of the Diné people in the “checkerboard” eastern side of the reservation in New Mexico. The land and the people who know the land—whose histories and beliefs and stories of creation relate to this land—cannot be separated.

Of course, at some point it might just be too late and then it is never. So, better late than never does not eliminate urgency it simply provides a way forward in the face of much harm. For example, Cherokee attorney Joel West Williams, of the Native American Rights Fund, who also spoke at CCS told me on the taxi ride to the session that there are only around 100 Cherokee individuals who speak the language fluently and around 5 or 6 for whom Cherokee is their first language. At some point, it might be too late but for now there is at least some time. Some time to hear the call to repentance, action, and right believing.

The road to Emmaus is a narrative of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Though word had gotten out, these disciples remained perplexed. The narrative is of an encounter and of the disciples’ inexplicable inability to recognize Jesus. This unrecognition in the narrative highlights the need for God’s revelation (Craddock, Luke, 285). Jesus walks and teaches them and in retrospect they note that their hearts burned. Jesus walks and teaches them, explaining the scripture. It is not until he breaks bread that they recognize him—that he is revealed.

Now this is a telling of the revelation of the resurrected Christ to Jesus followers—and as such drawing a general lesson is a bit risky. There is significance of the sharing of the bread—as a reminder of the last supper, as the eventual practice of communion, as the simple practical act of hospitality and sharing in the basic needs of life—just the significance of this bread beckons to be extrapolated. I remember breaking bread (in the form of individually wrapped pound cakes dipped in green bean stew) with a Somali refugee in Chicago as he broke Ramadan fast in the middle of our English lesson, or Elmira the grandmother aged homeless women I’d meet in the same city and who would give the college students pizza that people gave her while sitting along the street asking for food, or breaking fry bread with a Navajo man whose ancestors were displaced by my ancestors. Hospitality and breaking bread in the face of displacement is a sign of the presence of God. It can be a revelation.

Now these breakings of bread may be too far a stretch from the Emmaus road but it does catch my imagination. Jesus is brought up out of the grave as a revelation of the power of God which then is gradually revealed to the disciples. While such revelation may be hard to spot, and in some way, is finished (since we aren’t still adding to the scriptural text), God continues to revel Godself. The revelation of the power of God continues through the work of the Spirit and the work of the community in scripture, prayer, and worship while we continue on the road of following Jesus in the work of Jesus and listening to others.

As we all know, the church has not always gotten its teaching or actions right. Because of this, care is needed in teaching, reading scripture, and discerning action. One such troubling teaching that has far reaching consequences is the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Specifically, in America there was an appropriation of the Exodus story by the European settlers. They were the Israelites escaping the slavery of England (Egypt), crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, to the Promised Land of the “New World,” and seizing the land from the people they found there as an act of the will of God. This misreading then continued to animate the imagination of Europeans who pushed further westward and continued to seize land through direct violence, pressure, or through manipulations of the law in their favor.

Such activity found a basis in official church teaching. The World Council of Churches in a 2012 statement notes, “For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.” (WCC, Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, Feb 17, 2012).

Creation Justice Ministries’ Earth Day Resource this year asserts that, “Because the Doctrine of Discovery is based on principles that originated with the church, the church has a special responsibility to dismantle this unjust paradigm.” (http://www.creationjustice.org/uploads/2/5/4/6/25465131/indigenous.pdf?key=63038771, 4). Now while the Church of the Brethren has never officially ascribed to this doctrine we have still benefited from the stolen lands. Most of the early Brethren were farmers and we continue to live on the land. We are not free from responsibility.

While I was in New York with the high schoolers Jenn suggested that the CCS topic of Native American rights and food security and Earth Day might be good topics for the sermon. I had already begun to look that the lectionary passages for the week. Though passages did not seem particularly related to either caring for creation or the rights of Native Americans, I began to see that there were several points of connection. For one, the 1 Peter passage made an intricate argument connecting belief and action. A commentator confirmed this observation writing, “1 Peter is not alone in the NT in accenting the truth that a believer’s ‘whole life’ is a journey to heaven in the footsteps of Jesus. Yet its testimony stands as a serious caution against three popular misconceptions: that salvation is merely something that happened to Christian believers in the past, that their only responsibility now is to wait passively for the second coming and that ‘going to heaven’ is something that begins when they die” (J.R.Michaels, “1 Peter,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 922).

1 Peter 1:17-23

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. “If you invoke” in the NRSV is translated “If you call out for help” in the Message.

In the New International Version, it reads, Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”

 Exile—displacement—references the Israelites displacement from their promised land. There was a covenant by God to Abraham stating that he would be the father of a great nation. This people eventually formed into a nation but were then enslaved but then led to freedom through the power of God. They then wandered for years (40) and then went into the land that was promised. In their entering, they displaced peoples and then were themselves displaced by violence and invasion. Though this narrative introduces many questions—such as “who was in the “promised land” before the Israelites?” and “What did the original peoples think about Israel’s conviction that they should enter the land?—it also is part of what “exile” references.

18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. Being brought from “futile ways.” The assumption of superiority and dehumanization, exploitation, and genocide of peoples surely must count as futile. Jesus saves us from these. Though one might object and say that Peter is talking for religious practices. Because of the blood of Christ, which is pictured here as in the role of the sacrificial lamb which is part of the religious practices of the Hebrew people. Elsewhere Jesus is pictured as a priest as well as the lamb. Jesus saves us from futile ways. Jesus can yet save us from practices that continue the legacy that continues environmental racism (such as in Standing Rock which protests by a white community moved construction to sacred lands and near the water of the original peoples or in New Mexico where safety measures on oil and gas companies are enforced in white communities but not on the Diné (Navajo) reservation) and the inability to acknowledge whose land this was.

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

Obedience to the truth results in souls that have been made pure. When we realize that the Church has not only been complicit in injustice, but as with the Doctrine of Discovery, has generated teaching that spurred on the conquest and dehumanization of peoples, we should seek to repent and change our ways. The Church, thank God, has also been part of the creation of beauty, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of civil rights. So, my urging us to mine our theological and biblical resources while also interrogating them and the church’s practice is not a self-loathing or a nagging self-righteousness but a continued seeking to live in the love and will of God.

Mark Charles, a Navajo theologian and activist, argues that both the oppressed and the oppressor communities suffer from historical trauma of genocide, forced displacement, policies and practices (such as board schools) which tried to destroy culture, and dehumanization. http://wirelesshogan.blogspot.com/. Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian and professor, asserts that the Christian imagination has been distorted.

Jennings writes, “Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making this claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to capture sight of a loss, almost imperceptible, yet articulated powerfully in the remaining slender testimonies of Native American peoples and other aboriginal peoples. This loss points out not only to deep psychic cuts and gashes in the social imaginary of western peoples, but also to an abiding mutilation of a Christian vision of creation and our own creatureliness. I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 293).

As we seek to follow the risen Christ as a community, we as the disciples along the Emmaus road, will experience the revelation of our Lord in what are at times unexpected ways and places. As we open ourselves to hear histories and stories of the indigenous communities of this land we must both mourn the past and our complicity but more importantly we must listen and seek to end this mistreatment and injustice in the present.

YEARNING FOR SUNDAY

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

Jenn Hosler

A Saturday Vignette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection on the Saturday Vignette

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

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

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

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

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

A Sunday Vignette

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

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

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

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

Reflection on the Sunday Vignette

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

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

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

Benediction Prayer

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

Learning from Francis

Learning from Francis (Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8) – Jennifer Hosler

Who is the Greatest? First Reading: Skit on Mark 9:30-37 (paraphrase)

[narrated, with 4 actors] Jesus is walking along a road with his disciples, traveling through the region of Galilee. Jesus has been doing ministry for a while and he knows what is going to happen soon. Some religious leaders don’t like how Jesus is teaching about God, healing people, and showing love to the types of people that no one really likes. Jesus has been teaching that God really cares about showing love and mercy to everyone. This has made some people mad, so Jesus knows that he is going to get in trouble soon – big trouble – but he is not going to fight back with violence.

Since Jesus’ disciples are the people who follow him and look to him as a teacher, Jesus needs to tell them what is going to happen soon. So while they’re walking, he turns to them and says, “The Son of Man (meaning Jesus) is going to be killed but after three days he will rise again from the dead.”

After Jesus says this, the disciples nod – but they don’t really understand and are too embarrassed to ask. As they keep walking, the disciples nudge one another and ask, “Do you know what Jesus is talking about? I don’t know what Jesus is talking about.” Then they do more walking. Walking, walking. The disciples start walking a bit slower than Jesus, kind of lagging behind. It’s kind of obvious by their hand motions that they’re arguing with each other.

Eventually, Jesus and the disciples get to their destination and enter the house where they are staying in Capernaum. Once they get inside, Jesus asks, “So, what were you arguing about on the road?” The disciples look at one another and they have guilty looks on their faces. They look everywhere but at Jesus and no one says anything because they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest disciple.

Jesus sits down and says, “Anyone who wants to be first, who wants to be the number 1 disciple, should be the last person—the person who serves everyone.” Jesus calls a little child over and says, “Anyone who welcomes little children welcomes me, welcomes God, the One who sent me.”   [end]

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8

Learning from Francis

I love how Jesus simply asks his disciples, “So guys, what were you arguing about on the road?” Jesus has just talked about the sacrifice of love that he would soon make. The text says that they don’t understand when Jesus was talks about sacrifice and service. When they start arguing on the road, we see that they really don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Somehow, even though they are literally walking with Jesus, the disciples are still struggling with pride and envy and self-importance.

Tomorrow, as we said earlier, is Peace Day, or the International Day of Prayer for Peace. As you heard in the announcements, we will mark the day by a prayer service at 7 PM tomorrow. While we are preparing to pray for peace, our city has been preparing for a special visitor. Pope Francis, the leader of a billion Catholics in the world, is making his first ever trip to the US. And he’s coming to our city first. That’s pretty cool, though I know some people might complain about the traffic.

A lot of people, Catholic or not Catholic, are excited and interested. Yesterday, Ebenezer United Methodist Church had a community day. I attended part of it and I was talking with one of their members. She said, “Someone asked me, ‘Why are you so excited about Pope Francis? You’re not Catholic.’” She told him, “Because I’m a human being!”

Pope Francis has enthralled many people, but not just because he is a powerful religious leader or the head of a country (a tiny one – but the Vatican is still a country). Not for those reasons alone—but because he is all of those things and at the same time, he welcomes the sick, cares for the poor, does ordinary things like pay his own bills, washes the feet of prisoners, and speaks out strongly about the gaps between the rich and poor, the powerless and the powerful.

Pope Francis captivates people because he’s a powerful religious leader who is also humbly and honestly, trying to live out the love and peace that Jesus taught. Francis does this on a small scale – giving dignity and love to individuals he meets – and on a large scale, helping to heal the relationship between United States and Cuba.

People often let power and authority go to their heads, much like the disciples wanted to. “Hey, I’m the greatest. So you’ll have to listen to me and you’ll need to do things for me.” But Francis seems to understand how to be a wise leader. Our James passage says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13).

A few verses later, James asks rhetorically, “What is causing all the conflict and fighting among you? It’s your selfish desires—putting yourself first” (4:1). The root cause of conflict, James is saying, is selfishness. Can all conflict boil down to selfishness, in some way or another? When individuals or groups or countries care more about their needs and feelings than they do about the needs of others.

There are two types of wisdom, James says: one “wisdom” tells us we should always do what is best for us, to meet our own wants and ambitions. The other wisdom, God’s wisdom, is “first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17). “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (NIV, v. 18). Francis gets a lot of attention because he is trying to live out God’s pure and peaceful wisdom, even though most cultural forces in our world tell us that we need to prioritize our own wants, we need to lift ourselves up or our group up above others.

Making Peace between Churches

Raise your hand if you’ve attended a Catholic mass before. As you all probably realize quite well, especially those of you who’ve been to Catholic masses, this is not a Roman Catholic Church. Christianity has a spectrum of denominations: some are referred to as “high church,” with hierarchies and specific rituals to abide by, while others are referred to as “low church,” meaning that there is very little hierarchy and formal ceremony. In the Church of the Brethren, we’re a low church. Traditionally, we have called ministers from within the congregation and not given them formal titles. We’ve called each other brother and sister, rather than Father or your eminence. While sometimes the orders of our services are similar between Brethren congregations, but it’s because of culture or style rather than theological necessity.

When the Church of the Brethren began in 1708 in Germany, it was a time when Christians were persecuting each other and forcing those with different beliefs to flee or face imprisonment or death. Depending on the flavor of your local ruler’s faith, you could be safe or you could be harassed. The early Brethren – people who baptized adults and preached nonviolence and read the Bible together in the homes – were considered weird by other Christians. They fled to Holland as refugees and eventually to the United States, where William Penn founded Pennsylvania, a colony defined by religious freedom. The Brethren became committed to nonviolence at the beginning because they saw how much fighting had destroyed lives and communities in Europe.

For hundreds of years, different denominations of Christians didn’t get along well. Some found the others’ beliefs uncomfortable or laughable; some didn’t recognize others as Christians at all. But that changed over the past 75 years or so: Christians have come a long way in bridging these differences, including between high churches and low churches, between Catholics and Protestants and Anabaptists.

In 1950, the National Council of Churches was formed between Orthodox and Protestant Christians. It was an organization that helped Christians from different denominations learn about the others’ beliefs and also work together for social justice, including on civil rights.

From 1962 to 1965, the Catholic Church held the 2nd Vatican Council, a series of theological debates and discussions between Catholics that led to dramatic changes in the ways that Catholics related to other Christians and other faiths. Vatican II encouraged Catholics to build relationships with non-Catholic Christians: to pray together, study the Bible together, and work together with other Christians. These gatherings, part of an ecumenical movement, built relationships and created peace between many churches and individual Christians.

Recently, I became friends with another graduate student who commutes from DC to Baltimore. She’s from Spain and she’s Catholic. We didn’t talk about our faith at first but apparently, there were some hints and she suspected I might be a Christian. So she asked me outright, “Are you a Christian?” (I was talking about my interest in interfaith dialogue, so talking about faith wasn’t completely out of the blue) Later, my new friend said that the way she asked was intentional. She explained, “If I ask you if you’re Catholic and you’re not, the conversation might end there. If I ask more broadly, are you Christian? I’m more likely to find something that we have in common and the conversations can continue.”

Peace is built on relationships and by finding common ground. With the ecumenical movement, Christians recognized that we all were trying to follow Jesus, even if that looked somewhat different on a Sunday morning or when we dunked or sprinkled people into the faith. Christians started realizing that it wasn’t biblical to think about themselves as the greatest denomination or to look down on other denominations as less important.

Looking Backward to Press Forward

There are a lot of ways that this world and our lives aren’t peaceful. If you read the news, you probably see that there’s a lot of work to do. This can honestly be quite discouraging. Syria has been destroyed by four years of violence. Millions of people have been displaced, have fled, are fleeing – and they’re not receiving the welcome and relief that they need as refugees in need.

At home, some people are still talking about Muslims as if just the act of being Muslim is crime. This week, we saw a creative and intelligent boy get handcuffed and arrested for making a homemade clock and bringing it to school to show a teacher. Suspicion arose mainly because he is Muslim.

At times, it appears that there are insurmountable odds to making peace. In times of discouragement like this, we can often only find the courage to work for peace by looking back at how far we have come. So how far have we come? Just looking from the start of the Brethren to now – we’ve come a long way in relationships between Christians.

The ecumenical movements of the 20th Century built peace: they studied what the Bible said about peace, they applied it to their context, and took tangible steps to get to know others who were different from them.   Because of their work, we can now have fellowship with people who were once “those people,” those Catholics, those Presbyterians, or those Methodists. Now, we can call them sisters and brothers; we can work with each other and learn from each other about how to increase the love and peace of Jesus in the world.

I believe that God can use us to transform other situations as well: James’ truth is like a proverb but also like a promise: peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. We may not know when the harvest time is, but God is calling us to faithfully plant seeds of peace in our relationships, in our neighborhood, our city, our country, and this world.

Make me an Instrument of Your Peace

While I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis this week, Pope Francis hasn’t been the only Francis on my mind. Francis was not the Pope’s original first name: it was Jorge. After being called as Pope, he named himself after a much older Francis, Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis was a 12th century priest who focused on caring for the poor, who is known for praising God for creation. Saint Francis wrote a prayer that really aligns with our scripture texts today – turning away from selfish ambition and self-promotion, turning outward to care for others. Peacemaking is complicated and difficult – but it is built by adding together a bunch of simple acts, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Turn to the prayer found on page 733 in the blue Hymnal. I invite you to read over it silently for a few moments.

  1. What words or phrases stand out to you?
  2. Think about an area of your life: your friendships, your family or romantic relationships, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your country, or even the world, where peace is missing.
  3. Where is God calling you to be an instrument of peace, to live out God’s wisdom of love? [sharing as people feel led]
  4. What actions of Pope Francis speak to your life and your context? What words of Saint Francis call you to be an instrument of peace? Let’s close by praying the prayer of Saint Francis together:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light,

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. AMEN.