REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

KEEP NO SILENCE

1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51

Jeff Davidson

 

Sometimes God leads us into remarkable moments of serendipity, moments of happy coincidence. Early Wednesday morning I sent Care my sermon title and the two scripture texts we just read. On Thursday, President Trump made his infamous racist and vulgar remarks about not accepting immigrants from certain countries or continents.

The reason that is serendipitous is that in our reading from John, Nathaniel says essentially the same thing as President Trump. John 1:46 – “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.”

That’s just a boring regular translation. It’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Revised Presidential Version of Nathaniel’s question is, “Can anything good come out of that s-hole Nazareth?”

The interesting thing to me about this is that the Revised Presidential Version of that verse is probably closer to what Nathaniel meant, and maybe even what he actually said. People in the Bible were real people, with real strengths and weaknesses. They were sometimes rude, sometimes kind, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet, and sometimes inappropriate, just as we all are. The dismissal in Nathaniel’s question is a dismissal not just of Jesus, but of an entire group of people, and it’s rude, it’s judgmental, it’s racist or classist in the same sense that calling someone a redneck is or making fun of people from some other city or state is, and it’s wrong.

The hopeful thing from Nathaniel’s story, and we should hope and pray the same for President Trump, is that he grew to see the error of his ways. He started to view Jesus on his own merits, and not judge Jesus because of where he came from or how he spoke or what his educational level was. He learned that good things can come from Nazareth, just as they can come from Haiti or Africa or anywhere else. He came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, as his Lord and Savior.

What got me to thinking about the scriptures that I shared this morning was a remembrance by a man named Bob Stuhlmann. I don’t know anything about Stuhlmann besides the fact that he has a blog that hasn’t been updated in a year or two. I ran across this blog entry called “Remembering Martin” from January of 2014, and it struck a chord with me. Let me share some of it with you.

Martin was working on his sermon when I entered the sacristy. I had come to meet the great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from his text.

He died a year later. His sermon that day…began, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Those words rang out for me and our generation as surely as the words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial four years before…

Martin broke his silence about the war in Vietnam that day. What silences do we keep in the face and memory of injustice, abuse, brutality?”

Some family systems harbored a code of silence. That loyalty to the family perpetuated emotional illness. I believe much of our addictive society is because we have nowhere to go to talk with some wise other about how this code of secrecy has affected us…

Our secrets are some of those crosses from which we need to get down. So look at the news, our history, your history. Sometimes silence is betrayal. What silences do you keep that prevent your painful and necessary healing? What do you and I have to look in the eye in order to fully live again, sing, and rise on wings?”

https://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/remembering-martin-january-152014/

It’s hard for me to hear that in some ways. I want to speak truth to power. I want to be prophetic. I want to rail against the principalities and the powers of this world. I do not want to keep silent against injustice and evil wherever I may believe that I find it. I want to proclaim release to the captives and good news to the poor.

But before I can do that I need to be aware of the words that I need to speak to myself. I need to know and name the places where I am broken, the places where my wounds hold me back or make me weak. I need to hold myself to the same standard that I wish to hold other people to. I need to speak to myself and let God speak to me about the pain and brokenness within me.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares the following thoughts.

A Rabbi asked Elijah, ‘When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

The Messiah is sitting among the poor, binding His wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when He will be needed. So it is with us. Since it is His task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, He must bind His own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when He will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after His own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

Because He binds His own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else. He would be ready to help. Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making His own broken body the way to health, to liberation, and new life.

Proclaiming justice, speaking truth to power, all the brave and bold things that I want to do, have their root in the interior life of prayer, confession, and self-awareness. We must listen for and look for God’s leading in our hearts, and always be working to stay ready to follow that leading when it comes to us.

God’s word came to Samuel, but Samuel didn’t recognize it. Samuel was just a boy. He was learning the trappings of faith, the exterior parts of faith, but when the word of God came to him he wasn’t prepared to act on it at first. He didn’t know what it was he was hearing. It took the wise counsel of Eli to allow Samuel to understand that it was in fact God who was speaking to him, and that it was God who was giving him a message that he needed to share.

Even then, though, Samuel was scared. He knew that God had given him a message, but he kept silence about it because he was afraid that it would hurt or anger his mentor Eli. 

And what was the message that God sent through Samuel? That Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t have. That Eli was aware of the sins and the blasphemies of his sons, and had not said anything. It’s fascinating to me that Eli was wise enough and spiritually mature enough to know that God was sharing a message with Samuel. Eli was insightful enough to know that Samuel did not want to share the message with him, and so Eli was probably smart enough to know that it was a negative message of some sort. Despite his wisdom and his insight, though, Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t. He had let his sons go on unchallenged, and had not spoken out when he should have. And Eli’s family suffered horribly because of Eli’s silence.

I am not saying that you should just speak whatever it is you believe you should speak whenever you think you should speak it. That’s why the interior work, the self-examination and self-care that Stuhlmann and Nouwen talk about is so important. Eli’s sin wasn’t just that he kept silence; it’s that he kept silence when he should have spoken. He kept silence when God had led him to speak. The Old Testament is littered with the names of so-called prophets and priests who committed exactly the opposite sin – they spoke when God had not given them anything to say.

The words that God gives us to speak are not always brave words. They aren’t always words of judgment. Sometimes they are words of invitation. In our reading from John Jesus calls Phillip to follow him. Phillip does, and then calls Nathaniel, and Nathaniel responds initially with the words we started off with from John 1:46.

 Philip invited Nathaniel to follow not on a whim, not because it was trendy to follow Jesus. Philip invited Nathaniel because Jesus had spoken to something deep inside Philip, and because Philip was self-aware enough to recognize that and brave enough to act on it.

It takes bravery to speak out as Martin Luther King, Jr. did but it also takes bravery to speak out in other ways. You don’t need to respond, but how many of you have invited someone to church? How many of you know somebody who is interested in justice, interested in peace, interested in what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the seamless garment of being pro-life, including everyone from the unborn to the poor to soldiers to all people near and far, young and old? 

I know some people like that. Have I invited them to church? Have I talked to them about what this group of people mean in my life? Have I shared with them what Jesus means to me and how Jesus’ teachings influence my life? Obviously we don’t always do that with words. The best witness to what Jesus means to you is to live as Jesus lived. But even if we live as Christ-like a life as possible, do other people know that our life is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ? How would they know that if we do not at some point tell them?

I know some people like those I described. I have not always told them. It’s hard. It takes courage. It takes faith. It takes an awareness of our interior strengths and weaknesses. It takes sensitivity to others and to the leading of God in our own lives.

It doesn’t take any bravery for me to stand here this morning and denounce President Trump’s remarks as wrong and divisive and racist. Lots of people are doing that. I run no risk by doing so. In fact, I would probably run more risk if I kept silent about those remarks.

It does take courage to look inside myself and deal honestly with what I find there. It does take courage to share my faith with others. It does take courage to speak to other people about the things that are the most important and the most deeply ingrained within me, because in doing so I risk rejection and damage to my feelings. I risk losing a relationship.

Look inside yourself and listen to what God is telling you. Keep no silence as you speak with yourself about what needs to change in your interior life, what needs to be healed, what needs to be discarded, what needs to be forgiven. Keep no silence as you speak to God in prayer about how you are being led and what you are being called to do.

When you hear what God is calling you to share, keep no silence. Rather, speak the words that God gives you to speak. Speak them certainly with your actions, but speak them also with your mouth when that is what God is calling you to do.

When you see someone else in need of aid or comfort, keep no silence. Speak the words that God has put in your heart, words of compassion and love, words of faith and forgiveness.

When you know another person is in need of right relationship with God, keep no silence. Speak to them of your faith with the way you live your life. Listen for when God leads you speak to them with words of invitation, both to this community of faith and into a deeper relationship with the risen Christ.

When you see injustice and wrong, whether on an individual or a global scale or anywhere in between, keep no silence. Speak as God leads. Be prophetic. Be bold. Be brave. And be compassionate, for you are speaking of real people with real feelings. Like Samuel, you may in some way be proclaiming God’s judgment on them.

When God leads you to speak, keep no silence. Amen.

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

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/

SEEDS, TREES, AND THE UNEXPECTED

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Jennifer Hosler

As most of you know, this congregation has been going through a visioning process. Why did we start a visioning process? We recognized that the church had gone through transition and that it was moving away from uncertainty toward wholeness, healthy relationships, and vitality. During our visioning conversations, we thought about our past, present, and future strengths: who we are now and who we want to be in the future. During this process, we’ve discerned that we want to be an “inviting church.” We want others to feel welcomed and drawn in. We also want to actively invite people to get to know who we are and who Jesus is. We want to invite people into God’s story: a story of grace, of community, of simplicity, of peace, and of love.

Last week, we held a recap session where we asked, “What’s next?” How do we move forward in our visioning? One step is crafting a tagline—a description kind of like a mission statement that can illuminate who we are as a church. Beyond a tagline, we thought the Ministry Team could assist the visioning process by preaching through the themes raised in our visioning conversations. Two weeks ago, I spoke about love and arrogance—topics important to consider when shaping the ethos and values of our community. Last week, Jeff preached about simplicity and caring for God’s creation.

Today, I’m going to lead us through a few vignettes related to inviting. They may not seem connected at first, but trust me—we’ll get there. Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God calls His followers to be a part of a big Story, God’s story. In our 1st Samuel passage, we see that being part of God’s story can sometimes be terrifying—but we also see God providing enough strength and courage to see His people through.

In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations. Finally, in our 2 Corinthians text, the apostle Paul teaches that the hope we have in the Gospel is what compels us to share the Good News with others. Having become a part of God’s Story, we invite others to join in and experience the same grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love.

Fear and the Scariness of Being Part of God’s Story

When Nate and I were working in northern Nigeria, our supervisor encouraged us to take a vacation in northern Cameroon, the border of which was only 10 to 20 miles away. A big highlight was our stay at Waza National Park, a wildlife refuge that hosted giraffes, water buffalo, lions, jackals, and elephants. One afternoon, we weren’t able to go on a safari because of the heat, so we explored the area around Waza. Waza had these big rounded mountains that looked like someone dropped half of a moon on the open savannah. Big rocky circles rose up out of the flat lands. Since the mountains looked like an interesting adventure, Nate and I set out to climb one to the top.

One particular thing to note about this mountain is that there was no specific path up: the mountain was pretty much solid rock. Rounded rock, not sheer or cliff-like, but rock nonetheless. Another important piece of the story is that I sometimes have issues with heights. I was a clumsy kid growing up and I think my body learned to tell me, in the interest of self-preservation, “you shouldn’t be here because you’re going to fall and we’re going to die.” While I grew out of the clumsiness, I can still get pretty wobbly when I’m high up.

Climbing up the mountain went well at first—until it started to get steeper and it was still just all rock. No trees to grab onto. No railings. No ropes. Just smooth, rounded rock getting steeper and steeper. I froze up, way too afraid to go further. Seeing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, Nate took my hand to give me stability and we continued our way to the top. From the top, the view of the Cameroonian savannah was spectacular. It had been scary—but it was definitely worth it.

Fear can often be a barrier. It can be a barrier to beautiful views and exciting adventures. Fear can stop people from making new friends or committing to relationships. Fear can also be a barrier to faithfulness. There are times when we may feel God’s calling on our lives and fear causes us to withdraw and play it safe in our comfort zones—missing out on extending God’s love or building God’s Kingdom.

Fear is a very common human experience. We see people wrestle with fear in scripture. Numerous characters in the Bible struggled with fear and were almost overcome by it. Fear was a barrier for Moses—Moses, of all people. Moses saw a burning bush and heard the voice of the LORD. The LORD gave him a calling, “Go down and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!” Yet Moses was afraid to fulfill the task that the LORD gave him, to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the LORD.

Another Israelite leader, Samuel, whom we’ve talked about these past few weeks, was also afraid to fulfill God’s call. Samuel had already had a significant part in God’s story. His mom had been childless and the Lord answered her prayer, allowing Samuel to be conceived. Samuel had heard God’s voice at an early age, had spoken on behalf of the Lord, and even anointed Israel’s first king. Yet after all that, he was scared to fulfill a task that the LORD had given him.

Let’s set the context of 1 Samuel 15 and 16. Israel’s first King, Saul, made a bunch of bad decisions and the LORD regretted that he chose Saul as King over the Israelites. The LORD announces to Samuel that a new king needs to be chosen to replace Saul, a king who will be devoted to the LORD. Samuel, who had been close to Saul and knew that Saul had some violent tendencies, is terrified. Samuel says, “I can’t do what you’re saying, Lord. Saul is going to find out and it will be horrible. He’ll probably kill me.” The LORD convinces Samuel that he can indeed fulfill the task. “Samuel, I’ll work with you. This is what you should say.” Samuel is instructed to go to Jesse’s house and to sacrifice an offering with them.

Samuel meets with Jesse and his sons. One by one they come and Samuel sees handsome, tall sons and thinks, “This is it! This is the new king of Israel.” But the Lord says, “No. It isn’t who you would expect.” They all pass by but none of them are chosen and Samuel asks, “Uh, Jesse, got any more sons?” Jesse does have one more son – apparently not important enough to include when you’re introducing “all of my sons.”

Jesse calls for the youngest, a shepherd named David, who arrives in from the fields, probably stinky, yet noted as handsome. He’s somewhat “ruddy” or weathered from all his time in the sun. Though David is the last one who was expected, he is anointed king over Israel. With God’s guidance, Samuel worked through his fear—and it led to a new and unexpected chapter in God’s story. David becomes the most famous of all Israel’s kings. Being a part of God’s Story can sometimes be scary and terrifying but God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see His people through.

 Faithfully Planted Seeds Grow Beyond Our Control and Expectations

Our gospel passage this morning takes a different direction than our Old Testament passage. In Mark 4, we meet Jesus by the sea. He is telling parables to his disciples and there are crowds gathered around them. Parables in Jesus’ day were commonly used by religious teachers as both illustrations, riddles, and metaphors. Jesus told stories in order to get his message across, especially to his disciples. He wanted them to think so he used parables to paint image pictures of God’s Kingdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches about how the Kingdom of God plays out in ways we wouldn’t expect, things like the last will be first, the poor will be rich, or the small will be made mighty.

In Mark 4, Jesus tells several parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his listeners that the Kingdom of God is like sown seed. A farmer sows seed on a field.  The farmer rises and goes to sleep but really doesn’t do much besides watching the grain grow. The sower sows the seed – but there is an unseen force and process in nature that causes the growth, the maturity, and brings the grain ripe for the harvest.

Jesus tells another parable, still about seeds – but a specific type of seed this time. Jesus tells his hearers that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all the seeds (at least known to them during that time), it grows into the biggest plant in the garden – so big it is almost like a tree – and all types of birds can make their nest in there.

It is pretty astounding: a tiny seed, just two millimeters big, can produce a huge, tree-like shrub. Let’s put Jesus’ parable another way, the Kingdom of God is a place where the tiniest acts of faithfulness can lead to unexpected and marvelous growth. In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Being Part of the Story Prompts Us to Bring Others In

Numerous companies know that free advertising is the best advertising. I sometimes see companies trying to gauge my opinion and encourage me to spread the word about them. On our anniversary vacation last month, Nate and I stayed at an Airbnb rental. As you may know, Airbnb is a website where people can rent out rooms or homes or other types of accommodations, booking them solely online. Guests rate hosts and hosts rate guests—and that helps everyone to know whether someone is creepy or gross.

After our vacation, I filled out a review on several aspects of our stay and, at the end, Airbnb asked me how likely I was to recommend them to my friends and family, on a scale of 1 to 10. Airbnb does this because they know an important truth: if you have had an amazing experience, you are probably going to tell someone about it. If you loved your stay or the process of booking or something else about Airbnb, you are going to recommend the company to others.

We see something similar in our 2nd Corinthians passage today. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 (and I’m paraphrasing), “Because we know who the Lord Jesus is, because we are a part of God’s story, we try to persuade others. We don’t want to make it about ourselves—it’s not about Paul being awesome. But the love of Christ is what urges us on and we’re convinced about the gospel of Jesus! The message is that God became flesh, that Jesus died and was raised that everyone might die to sin and brokenness and be raised again to new life.”

“Jesus died and was raised for everybody,” Paul says, “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but live to be a part of God’s great story” (paraphrased, 2 Cor. 5:11-15). Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope prompts us to invite other people into God’s story of grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love. This inviting should happen at multiple levels—we invite as individuals, as families, and as a congregation.

During our visioning process, we tried to define what we mean by inviting. We want to invite people to get to know us as a congregation (who we are), and we want to do this through hospitality, events, and worship. We want to invite people to learn about God’s great story, of what it means to experience community, grace, simple living, and love. We want to invite people to become part of our covenant community, a group of Jesus followers bound together by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Friends, these vignettes of scriptures give us three lessons for today. First, becoming an inviting church, becoming inviting people, will probably not be easy and it may likely be scary.  It might mean that we share more of our lives with others, make new friends, or explore new ways to serve and minister. Being a part of God’s Story can be scary and terrifying. Yet God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see us through.

Second, you might be discouraged that you don’t have a lot to give to God. You may not know how or what you can do for the church or God’s Kingdom, but God is willing and able to bless and make fruitful what you offer.  We learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Third, God has called us to be a part of His great Story. In order to be “an inviting church,” we need to reflect on how God’s Story gives us hope, joy, peace, reconciliation, rest from weariness and busyness, and provides us with community and love. Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope should prompt us to invite other people into God’s great story.  Sisters and brothers, let us be filled with God’s courage for the sometimes scary journey of becoming an inviting church. Let us remember that we serve a Living God whose Kingdom takes small seeds planted in faith and makes them into trees. Let us live into God’s great Story and work to welcome others in. AMEN.