IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. The voice of God spoke light into the darkness. By his Word, God divided the day from the night. He created the dry land. He made the seas teem with life, and filled the earth with beauty. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

All things came into being through him. Without him, not one thing came into being. Not the trees and grass. Not the stars in the sky or the rumbling furnace beneath the earth. Not one thing came into being without the Word. This word that was with God in the beginning.

Everything we see, all that we know, the entirety of who we are – none of it exists except through him. The love, the creative power, the living presence of God’s Word is the author of all creation. “Let there be light!” said God. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. A reflection of the light of his Word.

What came into being in him was life. And this life was the light of all people. The Word of God speaks in and through the whole creation. In every solemn stone, in every living thing. In every human heart, the Word of God is here – alive and active. He’s still creating us. Growing us. Teaching us.

This is the true light, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world. The Word of God speaks within each one of us. He is our ground and our foundation. It is through him that we came to have existence at all. He knows us intimately. We are what we are, because of the Word who formed us.

The light shines in the darkness. The Word of God, this light, is no stranger to the darkness. He knew Stalin, and Hitler, and the Columbine shooters. God has seen the way hatred and fear have twisted his good creation. And again he has sent his Word to us, this time with the ministry of reconciliation. To untwist the twisted, heal the broken, and restore the earth.

God loves us because he truly knows us. He knows everyone you’ve ever hated, more intimately than they could ever know themselves. God loves the people that you hate. Of course he does. He created them. He knows them with the care and affection that a parent has for a child.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The love of God is so full. His creativity is so expansive. God understands each one of us to the very core of our being. God knows and understands the darkness we carry inside.

Though it seems terrifying, the darkness isn’t that powerful. It shudders, trembles in the presence of the light. Darkness resists – with lies, and rage, and arrogance, and violence – but it will never understand who the light truly is. The burning, searing love of the Word of God is a mystery.

The Word of God is powerful, like a two edged sword. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, God’s Word cuts for the sake of love. He is the sword that heals. He is the light that exposes and cleanses.

Yet this world, in it sickness, doesn’t want to be healed. Our thoughts and deeds of darkness don’t want to be exposed. So we have resisted the light, just like our ancestors did. We’re part of a very old story.

The light and Word of God has always been in the world, speaking to us in the creation, and in our hearts. Yet the world did not know him. We despised and rejected him. We preferred our world of darkness and confusion to the health, humility, and challenge that the Word of God demands of us. We turned away from the light.

But there is power in the name of Jesus. There is a change that comes for those of us who have made the decision to turn our lives over to the light of God. To all who receive him, he gives us power to become children of God. Living in his light, allowing his Word to speak in us and fill us, we discover a a whole new life that we never imagined possible. We are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But this is all so abstract. We can talk all day about the light. About the Word of God and what he did and is doing in the creation of the cosmos. We can talk about darkness and sin, and the power of the light to overcome death and heal the world. But it all easily starts sounding like just more mythology. Good stories we tell ourselves to order our society and treat one another decently, maybe. But nothing that could possibly topple empires and economies. Nothing that can raise the dead, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor.

God knew we needed more than a good story about light and darkness. We’ve gotten ourselves into so much trouble, he knew that we needed even more than the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. We needed to get beyond mountains, and temples, and goats’ blood, and the law. We needed a new mediator and a new covenant. We needed to see the face of God for ourselves. We needed to meet the Word face to face.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He moved into the neighborhood. We have seen his glory. We say together with the Apostles that we have seen his glory. We witness the glorious presence of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see God’s grace and truth, the loving relationship that is only possible between father and son, parent and child. Before, we could have said we did not know God, we had never seen him. But now we have no such excuse. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We learn from the Hebrew scriptures that no one can ever see God and live. Knowing this, God came to us. He took on human form – he became a human being, just like you and me. The invincible and sovereign Word of God – the one who created black holes, supernovae, and photosynthesis – became a little baby boy. Utterly helpless. Dependent. Weak.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The law was given through Moses, on top of a mountain with fire and smoke, with dreadful awe and power. But the ultimate revelation, the final word on who God really is, came through Jesus – God with us in the most real and tangible sense imaginable.

Jesus wasn’t some mythological demigod. He wasn’t a sort of blended god/man. In Jesus, God took on all our limitations. He was no different from you or me, except that he was without sin. It’s quite possible that some of us have a better grasp on mathematics than Jesus did. That’s the kind of character that God revealed in Jesus – a God so powerful, so full of love for us, that he was willing to limit himself. He became weak and poor. He suffered shame and death on a cross. Because we hated the light and chose to crucify the light rather than surrender our darkness.

It is time to stop resisting. The light has come. It is time for celebration. Jesus is here! The Messiah child is born! The Word of God, all-powerful, all-creative, all-loving, has come to live among us! Nothing can ever be the same again.

There is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” We are children of the light. We are sons and daughters of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He is our brother, our friend, our sovereign lord and teacher.

We are children of the light. In the midst of all this darkness, this light in us can never be defeated. We are children of the light. Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light. For the Lord God is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Trust him. He’s been here a long time. Before the sun ignited and the planets formed, he is here. Before the earth’s crust cooled and the seas filled with life, he is here. In the beginning was the Word. He is our past, present, and future.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus. In this little fellowship gathered together in his name. In all creatures great and small that hear his voice. When we remember that he is powerful, present, and leading us. Even in this deep winter season, the Word is alive.

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.

THE HEAVENS ARE TELLING

Psalm 19:1-4a, Genesis 3:8-15

Jeff Davidson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EATING WITH JESUS

Eating with Jesus” Sunday: Jan 19, 2014

Washington City Church of the Brethren

by Jonathan Stauffer

I am glad to be speaking with you all today. To be honest, I would not have imagined this opportunity three years ago when I was preparing for a term with Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS). At the time, I was twenty-six years old and feeling a call that God was shifting my own plans towards a different path.

My plans were to find full-time employment related to renewable energy technology, a goal that I had worked on for nearly five years after graduating from Manchester College in Indiana. During those years, I worked part-time for a small solar panel business, enrolled for one year in a graduate engineering program in Chicago, completed a wind energy technician program with a local community college, and even had a paid internship. Yet for all that activity, I found myself working three part-time jobs and still living with my parents on the farm homestead in Northwestern Illinois.

Over the same five years, I spent summers helping counsel at a couple Brethren youth camps, and learning more about the wonders found on God’s Earth. From this experience, I began learning more about environmental issues, and how some Christians were involved in addressing them.

I was eager to try one more avenue toward a career, so BVS looked like a good opportunity. By the end of orientation, I knew that I would be headed for Washington, DC to work on environmental and poverty issues with what is now known as the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness.

My work consisted of collaborating with other religious organizations on policy related to social issues, and representing our denomination’s voice on such policy. After a year and a half of volunteer service, I saw many connections between food, creation, and the Christian faith. Having found a part-time job at the Peace Tax Fund last June and managing the Brethren House in DC since October, I decided I had time to explore these connections further.

I heard about a weekend conference being offered at Duke University Divinity School in September called “Summoned Toward Wholeness”. The conference focused on how our Christian faith values can support food systems and societies that honor the true gift God’s Earth. With financial support from my hometown congregation in Polo and the Arlington CoB, I was able to attend this conference.

The events on Friday were primarily centered on theological reflection, but also were filled with inspiring songs and stories. Saturday was the day that we were bused out to meet at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, about a half hour west of Durham, and see their community garden.

Overall, the conference was for me both a grounding and uplifting experience. It was a rare opportunity to connect current social issues with spiritual insight and physical actions.

So what did I learn from this conference? I have three points that I hope will reflect a portion of the insights I gained.

Point 1: Awareness of creation and our place within it leads to gratitude of the Creator.

The first plenary speaker on Friday was Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar and author of Scripture, Culture, & Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Her presentation focused on themes written in the scriptures of ancient Israel about a people who had a strong appreciation for the land and its well-being because of their faith in a gracious Creator.

She explained that ancient Jewish culture understood the life of humanity as inseparable to the land. In Genesis 2, the literal Hebrew words are ‘adam’ was formed ‘adamah’. The same parallel could be made when translated into English as human beings were formed from humus, a component of fertile soil.

Judaism also understood land as the physical symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. From Exodus through Deuteronomy, the Hebrews went from being landless slaves in Egypt to a nation that had become mostly small-scale farmers. Living in an arid region, the ecosystem was delicate and required careful observation and wisdom from the farmer to manage properly.

Later on, the Babylonian exile occurred and was a forceful separation from the land. This physical separation was seen as part of their separation from God because of Israel’s sin. And with prophets such as Jeremiah and Nehemiah, there was a promise of the covenant being restored with returning to the land of Israel. Indeed out of their faith and personal experiences, the ancient Israelites had developed a strong ethic of honoring the land.

But, what about our culture? Do we have this sense of connection today?

Exercise: Raise your hand if you had grandparents or great uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Keep them raised if you had parents or aunts & uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Finally, how many of you grew up on a farm or have siblings who are farmers? Or how many of you have a garden?

This simple exercise is a small glimpse into acknowledging a major shift of our connection with the land in the USA. I am not claiming that we all should become farmers, but rather that we should know more about our farmers and the actions that it takes to produce our food.

I think Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, best states why these connections are important in the book Making Peace with the Land. He writes that contemporary society is experiencing a “practical separation of people from the land,” which he calls Ecological Amnesia. It is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history, a shift that has occurred within two generations, which impacts the understanding of our physical surroundings.

This phenomenon also affects the relationships to God our Creator and each other. Wirzba goes on to say that problems worsen when people don’t have the knowledge to manage their everyday resources in the way that God intended.

I find it ironic that we have a tremendous amount of information about our world literally at our fingertips today, but find fewer ways to relate to it. How can we make informed decisions about our food when we know less about where it comes from? And, how would we know when we needed to react to changes on the earth and our food systems?

Fortunately, acts of gratitude can help us counter our ignorance of the earth by acknowledging that all creation is a divine gift. In Wirzba’s closing presentation at the conference, he states that “Gratitude is the response to a gift and how we value the Giver.” He asked the group to reflect on the following question: When are you able or not able to be grateful? (Pause for audience to think about.) For me, it is when I’m rushing between various events or not content with my present circumstances. When I am missing out on what God is doing or what God values.

It is important then that we make times and rhythms for gratitude, such as on Thanksgiving Day, but we also need them throughout the year. The Sabbath is one practice were people have ceased for a period of time to enjoy what they have been given. Going on hikes can help us appreciate nature and relax. Such practices in awareness provide gratitude which restore our relationships to God, the land, and each other.

The second point I learned from the conference is that the Christian faith holds a unique perspective on gratitude and our connection to the material world.

Jesus used object lessons from nature to frame the visions of God’s Kingdom. The parable of the sower uses the Jewish cultural knowledge of soil conditions to describe the individual’s heart as it receives the Word of God. It says nothing of the amount of care that the farmer or gardener places on the crop. Instead, Jesus is saying subtly through the parable that when there is a heart open to “the word of the kingdom,” it can nurture and transform life much like fertile soil.

The Gospels share that Jesus cared about people’s physical needs, either before or in addition to attending to their spiritual needs. When Jesus fed the crowd of over four thousand people, he did it out of the concern for the well-being of each person who was in attendance, and made an abundance out of what simple items had been offered by those present.

Because of these examples and many others found in Jesus’ ministry, we as Christ followers can’t ignore the import relationship between our physical being and our souls. Norman Wirzba, in the book Making Peace with the Land, refers to the “Socratic Urge” as the tendency to separate body and soul because our material limitations don’t match up to our spiritual aspirations. Yet, Wirzba claims that this philosophy denies the understanding of Christ’s incarnation as God dwelling among us a human being, and is adverse to the “hope in the resurrection of the body” that the Gospels declare. Ultimately, it denies the inherent goodness of God’s Earth and the reconciliation that God desires within all of creation.

One of the conference workshops I attended described another example Jesus gave us in relation to food. Will Sampson, Executive Director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, led a discussion which explored the sacred act of the Eucharist, or communion. He stated that the Eucharist is central to the incarnation of Jesus.

The elements of any meal when brought together create a stronger meaning than the separate parts. Think of the moments when family or friends are gathered around a table, and how memorable they can be.

Jesus used the communion meal not only as an opportunity for sharing gratitude for his friends. Jesus used the meal to turn despair into hope for the future. We as his disciples now understand this meal was created for a beloved community around a story of remembrance, for a life given so that we may live as whole people.

The Eucharist meal also provides Christians with a unique perspective to our current food systems and the local food movement.

Our current agricultural system is mostly done on an industrial scale. This system stresses one specialized planting per plot, and pushes on to farmers the cost of fossil-fuel derived inputs without regard for natural ecology, or human dignity for the labor of farmworkers.

The result of this system is that less people need to farm due to increased yields per acre, but less accountability occurs in the quality of the food. Our separation from farmers and the land promotes a growing ignorance which hurts our stewardship of the Earth, straining the relationship with our Creator and each other. But it doesn’t need to continue this way.

Through awareness of our food sources, we see more of the relationships that God intended within creation. And like communion, we receive greater value through these relationships which motivates gratitude.

The third point I want to share is that with awareness and gratitude for our food, the church can effectively extend the table of Christ to our communities.

Indeed, the conference encouraged church involvement in the local food movement. As hunger and malnutrition hinders the well-being each human, the church needs to be concerned about supporting nutritious food for all people.

In October, Federal budget cuts were made that affect around 40 million Americans who receive benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With less funding, food pantries are strained and creative ideas to address the local need are needed more than ever. Community Gardens on church-owned property are one example. The Church of the Brethren’s own Going to the Garden Initiative has allowed several congregations to start or expand such projects.

Another example is a program that addresses the economic gap some individuals have to access healthy, local food. I have had the privilege to volunteer with such a program through the DC Fresh Stop event at the Mosaic Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. This program provides a sliding payment scale for a share of produce to make it more affordable for low-income individuals. The program also provides education on the preparation and nutritional value of the produce as well as opportunities for consumers to meet with one of the local farmers.

Finally by extending the table through creative food programs, the church can also create stories of transcendence, transformation, interdependence for all people.

In Fred Bahnson’s workshop highlighting his book Soil and Sacrament, I learned about his conversation with Zach, a fair trade coffee roaster in Washington State. Zach had in a past life been a heroin addict and meth cooker, among other rough experiences. But when he became a Christian he needed to do something that would support himself, and The Underground Coffee Project was the appropriate job for his previous skills. An amazing outcome of Zach’s story is that through his physical work of roasting coffee, he found a metaphor for the internal transformation that his work had on his whole being. In his words, “It’s like when the heat of the Holy Spirit comes upon you… It cracks you open and makes you better.”

Likewise our own unique interactions with food and the land can be symbols of the God’s grace. I am finding this to be true as I continue down the path that God is leading me following BVS.

In closing, I give you this invitation. Let us all be grateful for the Creator who provides through the blessings of creation. From such an awareness is where gratitude forms, and out of that gratitude may we extend the table with the transforming grace of Jesus to others. Amen.

  • Jonathan Stauffer