THE UPSIDE-DOWN or SOWING IN PEACE

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37; Galatians 5:13-26

Jennifer Hosler

This is the sixth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/sowing-in-peace-october-29-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

For science-fiction and fantasy lovers—or people who just generally swoon over a 1980s visual aesthetic—this weekend was highly anticipated. The series “Stranger Things 2” was released on Netflix this Friday, meaning that the continuing saga of Hawkins, Indiana, is finally available to stream, or binge watch if you are so inclined. In season one, we met an endearing crew of four 12-year old boys named Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin. They love dungeons and dragons, science and radios, talking to each other with walkie-talkies, and riding their banana seat bikes through the woods on adventures. One night, Will goes missing. As the whole town searches for their friend, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas encounter a mysterious girl called Eleven, who has secret powers. She eventually reveals that Will is trapped in a parallel dimension. This parallel dimension looks like an upside-down version of our world, one that is dark and full of decay. In it lurks a creepy, faceless monster. From what I could tell by the season 2 trailer, forces from “the upside-down” are slowly invading the regular world. I haven’t started watching yet, since I’m dutifully waiting for Nate to return home, so we can watch it together. Exercising the fruit of the Spirit called self-control.

Thankfully, we don’t have an alternate reality of darkness and monsters lurking in another dimension quite like the folks in Stranger Things. However, our passage in James does describe two realities, two ethics, two wisdoms, which are like night and day. In my last sermon on James 1, when we kicked off our series, I spoke about how Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God illustrate an upside-down kingdom. In this upside-down kingdom, the poor are lifted up and the wealthy are brought low. James encourages both the wealthy and the poor to boast in God’s alternate reality. That is, the reality that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

In James 3, we are yet again confronted with an alternate reality of what is valued, what is wise, what is good. This section in James, along with our readings in Mark and Galatians, presents the upside-down wisdom of Jesus. The world says, “Strive to get as far ahead as possible, seek as much status and wealth as you can, talk about how important you are, and try to get ahead of everyone else.” In contrast, God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  

Gentleness born of Wisdom, Sowing in Peace

I think that our three scriptures today complement each other, so I’m going to unpack each of them one by one. Let’s start with the book of James. What have we seen in James so far in our sermon series? James has spoken about trials and temptations, encouraging the early church that if they need wisdom to face these trials, God is able to provide. James also discussed the need for faith to be accompanied by action, that we must not only be hearers of the word but also doers of the word. True religion does not involve slandering others, but caring for the most vulnerable.

Throughout the book of James, there is a thread focusing on dealing with conflict in the church. Social class conflict is a running theme. As I mentioned, James states that the poor are being lifted up by God, while the rich are told to boast in being brought low by God. God’s wisdom inverts what the world says. James also instructs that followers of Jesus are not to favor the rich and powerful. Partiality is not for God’s people; the poor are equally welcome in the church and the rich should not be given special status. Beyond social class, James also talks about communication. God’s followers are to be careful with their speech, since careless words can cause conflict to ignite and can poison relationships. Following the section on speech, we come to James’ discussion on wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). What is this gentleness born of wisdom? James tries to first define it by showing what it is not. It is not envious and self-seeking. James writes, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Remind me next time to call bad character devilish. The NIV actually says demonic here. The antithesis of Jesus’ wisdom is having bitter envy and selfish ambition.  James explains that they are the source of divisions and destructive conflict: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to another way: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (vv. 17-18).

I remember coming across this sowing in peace verse (verse 18) in Nigeria, and it was very salient because we were trying to build up the local church’s capacity to do peacebuilding, trying to plant seeds of peace. The NIV is a bit more poetic than the NRSV, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” At that point, I was designing a logo for the EYN Peace Programme. We asked around for indigenous cultural metaphors of peace, since the peace sign and the dove are common Western images. Rev. Toma Ragnjiya, our boss, heard from some elders that they thought that Guinea corn was a symbol of peace. It’s a staple crop, the main traditional grain in northeast Nigeria. The elders said, “Where there is Guinea corn, there is life, there is peace.”

Guinea corn looks like an unbelievably giant version of maize (what we call corn). The grain grows in the tassel, rather than as an ear, and the Guinea corn in our village was often around 15-20 feet tall (check it out on our church Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/washingtoncitycob).  Peacemaking—building healthy and strong relationships, engaging in constructive resolution of conflict—requires committed effort and gentle perseverance, like farming or gardening.

James teaches us that God’s wisdom is defined by pure intentions and honest, willingness to work through conflict. Gentleness or gentle are used twice. Gentleness is one of those words that I need a few more synonyms and antonyms for, to unpack what James is saying here. Gentleness also means sympathetic, compassionate, with kind intentions, not harsh. God’s wisdom is also defined by a “willingness to yield,” to consider others’ viewpoints and negotiate to find common ground. James ends his laundry list of goodness by saying that wisdom from above is also “full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17).  Jesus’ wisdom, the wisdom from above, is other-focused, kind and gentle, and aims to build strong, healthy, and just relationships. Earthly wisdom is self-seeking and envious; it leads to destructive relationships and disorder. Following the wisdom of God involves sowing peace; God blesses this sowing so that it leads to a harvest of righteousness.

Who is the greatest?

It’s poignant to me that James says envy and selfish ambition are the source of all disorder and wickedness. A self-centered focus, materialism, or an approach that prioritizes me (or my family) above all else: James says that these will inevitably lead to a toxic and painful mess in human relationships, communities, and societies. One could read into what James is saying and conclude that envy and selfishness are source of all sin.

Putting “me first” is a universal human tendency. A variant of that is, putting me and my family first above all other people (especially those I don’t know).  It could sound valiant: “I just want to protect my family’s interests and my children—that supersedes everything else.” But it still is self-seeking, prioritizing what affects me or the people I love over the needs or interests of others. Me first or my people first. “Me first” can lead to a literal or figurative clawing over people to compete for resources, for the top spot. In “me first” wisdom, it makes sense to talk yourself up as the greatest or the most important. But this is not the Jesus way.  

In our second scripture, found in Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has been teaching and healing and loving, in ways that have put his life at risk. Jesus predicts his death and teaches about his upcoming trials, but the disciples do not understand. They’re also afraid to ask exactly what Jesus means. They all travel back to Galilee, in secret, because Jesus knows he might be killed.

When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you all arguing about along the road?” He is met with silence. The disciples, presumably, had thought that Jesus was out of earshot. It turns out, they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest among them all. Jesus sits down and calls everyone over. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must put themselves last and be the servant of all.” Jesus then brings over a child, maybe one of the disciples’ kids or one of their hosts’ children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Weak people, small people, vulnerable people. Following Jesus requires that we stop arguing about who is the greatest, put others’ needs first, and welcome those without power.

Considering this passage, the question that came to me is this: what do we say when we think that we are out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we speak when we think we’re out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we talk or think about others? How do we talk or think about ourselves? Are we arguing that we are the greatest? What are we striving for? Our own success, or Jesus’ definition of success—that looks like humble service and radical welcome?

Love as You Would Love Yourself

Our final passage is in Galatians 5:13-26. It’s a famous passage, highlighting the fruit of the Spirit. I chose to pair it with James because the discussion about wisdom from above reminded me of spiritual fruit. The lists are somewhat similar. Paul starts out by reminding the church in Galatia that they have been set free in Christ—freed from sin! But this freedom isn’t open license to be self-serving. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (vv. 13-14). Paul continues, and it seems like, again, the human problem can be distilled down to selfish ambition and envy: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

Paul then contrasts earthly wisdom and wisdom from above, but he chooses to use the words flesh and Spirit instead of James’ motif. The flesh and the Spirit are antithetical to each other, upside-down from one another. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 19-21). Dang, Paul. This laundry list of bad is exhausting. Importantly, none of us is off the hook, since the list is long. We had a similar conversation this week about Romans 1 at Bible study.

But, thankfully, we’re not bound to this list of despair and sin; we’ve been set free. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (vv. 22-26).

In our James passage and this passage, when I read through the wisdom from above or the fruit of the Spirit, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a Spirit of peace washes over me. This is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’re living for, what God is doing. What I want to see in me, in you, in us together, as what we demonstrate to our community and world.

I am also struck by the fact that Paul here references Jesus, the ultimate commandment, the other-oriented “love your neighbor as you would love yourself” love. Poignantly, we see James and Paul are step-in-step here. The opposite of the love-your-neighbor Spirit-led life is being conceited, competing against one another, and envying one another.

Love as I would want to be loved. How do I want to be loved? Thought of kindly. Assume my intentions are good but have my weaknesses treated with grace and encouragement. Be willing to forgive me and engage me if I do something hurtful. Kind helpfulness. Laugh at my jokes. Laugh with me and find me amusing rather than lame. Speak gently with me.

How do you want to be loved? The call to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to an other-oriented gentleness, to generosity, to kindness.

I think of these 3 scriptures as meditations that can easily speak to us at the personal and interpersonal levels. And they should. How do we sow in peace in our friendships, our families, with our coworkers, in this church? But more broadly, how do we sow in peace, practice loving our neighbors through gentleness, generosity, and kindness, at other levels? How do we engage or regard (or not engage and disregard) our actual neighbors, our neighborhood, our city (whether that city is the District or Arlington or a town in Maryland)?

Where do you need to sow in peace? Where do we, as a church, need to be sowing in peace? As we discern how to live our mission after laying down BNP, James’ and Jesus’ and Paul’s calls should be the meditations that we carry with us as we discern. God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  Sisters and brothers, let us seek wisdom from above as we live this out as individuals, families, and as a congregation in our community and world. AMEN.

YOU’RE MY FAVORITE or BLAND NEUTRALITY

James 2:1-13, Luke 6:20-26

Nate Hosler

This is the third sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/youre-my-favorite-or-bland-neutrality-october-8-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Jenn rightly noted that Martin Luther, the Reformer, disliked James. His big thing was faith and the grace of God. James was an “epistle of straw.” He felt that James obviously contradicting other parts of the Bible. Protestants are the heirs of the Reformation. Church of the Brethren, a part of the Anabaptists (what some have called the left wing of the reformation) however, were really into (that is the technical theological term) James. So, not only did I think it was a good idea for us to focus on James as a congregation but it was also a good ecumenical joke to study James on the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

Our passages today was one of those that was likely irritating. Directly before our passage James says real religion leads to a bridling of the tongue, being untainted by the world and caring for widow and orphan—the most at risk. Micah, our beloved Quaker preacher, called these tangible acts of compassion. James very forthrightly challenges acts of favoritism, particularly how the church folk greeted and welcomed others into their gathering. Particularly he challenges differentiating between those who are visually wealthy and those who are not.

One note on reading: the question of welcome is one closely connected to privilege. How we understand welcome and how we welcome is largely connected to our privilege and power (or lack thereof). Last time I preached on this text (in 2015) I focused on Syrian refugees. This debate revolves around who, how, and where one is allowed to travel and what they need to prove. Much of this runs through and is formed by our imaginations being formed by (and forming) entertainment (a classic American movie villain used to be a Russian and now is typically a Middle Eastern Muslim terrorist—or at least one part of this). The question of privilege and power in welcome also shows up in dominant language—travel and you expect someone to speak English. This is also very pertinent for us since tomorrow is marked as Columbus Day [ See my reflection on this here: http://blog.brethren.org/2017/reflections-on-land-and-columbus-day/ ]. The dominant often determine welcome or set the terms for it.

Katie Cannon observes this in what she terms “dominant ethics.” She writes:  

“Dominant ethics also assumes that a moral agent is to a considerable degree free and self-directing. Each person possesses self-determining power. For instance, one is free to choose whether or not she/he wants to suffer and make sacrifices as a principle of action or as a voluntary vocational pledge of crossbearing. In dominant ethics a person is free to make suffering a desirable moral norm. This is not so for Blacks. For the masses of Black people, suffering is the normal state of affairs. Mental anguish, physical abuses, and straitened circumstances. Due to the extraneous forces and entrenched bulwark of white supremacy and male superiority which pervade this society, Blacks and whites, women and men are forced to live with very different ranges of freedom. As long as the white-male experience continues to be established as the ethical norm, Black women, Black men and others will suffer unequivocal oppression” (Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics, (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 2-3).

This extends beyond ethical reflection to theological as well institutional access.

I note this on privilege and power in welcome because it very clearly affects how we read this particular passage. Presumably such friendliness could be profitable. Though there is little external data about the recipients of this writing from the text one notices that the community is likely primarily marginal laborers in a divided society. Partiality to the wealthy is then a matter of survival. (R.W.Wall, “Letter of James,” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments), 548-549.

We read, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 

Some Christians say just believe these: 1, 2, 3, and you are set. James complicates this. While we still are in need of the grace of God our actions are quite relevant.

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”[c] have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Making distinctions is a fundamental undermining of one’s faith.

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

The beatitudes that are often quoted are the Matthew version—“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. While this is challenging it is also kind of nice. It is hard to judge such a spiritual state. Luke 6 has a bit more discomforting punch (at least to the well off). To my earlier point of reading location and privilege—I first wrote that Luke 6 is discomforting and didn’t include the qualification.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled….
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[
d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Here things get real. Of course, it is hard to know what being blessed is when one is poor or hungry or hated. This does not feel particularly blessed. But I, of course, don’t really know what it means to be hungry, poor, or hated. When I’ve been hungry I always have the relatively near prospect of food. Though not wealthy or free to buy anything I happen to want I am certainly not poor—not really hated. So, when I read this it is critical that I read it with a broader body of people. Reading as a group and trying to teach a loving the enemies passage changed when in the vicinity of Boko Haram and other targeted violence. Though we didn’t have Bible studies there this is also one of the losses for this congregation of not having the Brethren Nutrition Program soup kitchen.

The first challenge to this favoritism is solidly theological. Is it possible for you to be one with Jesus if you demonstrate favoritism? The second is much more practical.

 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

The first argument is that favoritism goes against a basic and central teaching of Jesus—it goes against what Jesus put at the very basis of the entirety of the law. The second line of argument is much more practical—why do you give preference to the very people that hurt you and offend your God.

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Partiality is a definitive breaking of the commandment that Jesus listed as the most important.

 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

(NIV)  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom

Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.

 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Brethren Nutrition Program closed last week. We, as a congregation are in a time of discernment in which we aim to determine what is next. If there is an active next or a sabbath next. It closed in large part because the neighborhood changed. So, if there are many fewer people who were coming in need of food and housing prices are way up, what does it mean for us as a church to minister to and in our community? There are other considerations, that it might be a good political move to get the more powerful and rich folks to hang out with us. This seems to have been a core problem with the recipients of the letter of James. They were inclined to preference and give deference to those with wealth or power as a survival strategy. James doesn’t say that they should mistreat the wealthy. He just says don’t give partiality to them over others.

Today we will celebrate the Love Feast. Love Feast is a time where we eat and participate in the suffering and modeled service of Jesus. We will eat the broken body and shed blood. Remembering that Jesus has called us to take up our cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian who resisted tyranny—wrote in the Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

ADULTING AFTER JESUS (OF JAMES, JACOB, TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS)

James 1:1-18, Psalm 46, Mark 9:20-27

Jenn Hosler

This is the first sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio of this sermon here: soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/james-jacob-temptations-and-trials-september-24-2017 . *Note* The audio differs from the text. 

Yesterday, I was working on my sermon right up until I had to leave for French class. I realized, at 1:20 when I needed to leave, that I hadn’t eaten anything. I hadn’t even thought about food. Now, I didn’t have any time to sit down and eat the leftovers that were sitting in our fridge (which I wasn’t avoiding, I just didn’t think about). I hastily slathered together a PB&J and threw it in my bag, hopped on my bike, and rode away, eating in the 5 minutes I had before class.

Remembering to eat. Thinking ahead about cooking before supper time. Those are parts of adulting that I seem to struggle with. Adulting, if you don’t know, is a 21st century term for grown up responsibilities. Adulting. Thankfully, I have a partner who loves to cook and is usually quite hungry well before the meal, so we eat, despite my poor adulting skill in this area.

Adulting is hard. When you are not a kid, you need to pay your own bills, figure out transportation, make sure you get places on time, and you are the one responsible for keeping pets and kids alive if you have them. You can’t really opt out of adulting for long and even doing so for a short time has consequences. Dirty dishes must be cleaned some time; binge watching a season of a tv show could feel like a digital hangover at work the next day.

Yet there are good things about adulting. Adulting has rewards! Choice and autonomy, such as getting to paint my walls yellow and my stairs green. We also get the fulfillment of mastering skills and accomplishments, producing things like meals for friends, writing songs, or planning events. Shortly after we moved to DC, I bought a bunch of camping supplies that we needed and put them all in a single tote. Rather than scrambling to find what we need, I knew I could just pull out my camping tote. Camping competently feels like happy adulting. It feels kind of awesome; I understand it might be strange if you don’t find organizing gratifying.

Why James?

Today we start our sermon series on the book of James. I think that one way to describe James could be that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. Adulting after Jesus is following Jesus in a way that seeks maturity, or growing up in Christ Jesus. James has been referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It both talks about wisdom and is understood to be a form of wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. James’ emphasis on virtues and right action, particularly under times of pressure, is similar to Greco-Roman wisdom literature, but its flavor is more Jewish (Wall, 1997).

James is also understood by some to be like midrash, a Jewish tradition where texts are used to interpret other texts; James appears to engage both the Hebrew scriptures (which would have been his and his audience’s bible) and Jesus’ sayings on the Sermon on the Mount (Wall, 1997).

Why study James together for 10 weeks? Logistically, James was easily broken up into 10 parts. We also happened to have 10 weeks from the date we wanted to start a sermon series until Advent. So that tells us why 10 – but why James? In the same way that the early Brethren loved the Sermon on the Mount for being both profound and practical, the early Brethren also appreciated the praxis (faith that involved action) found in books like James (Bowman, 1995). M.M. Eshelman said that “the Brethren preached the ‘necessity of doing, as well as the necessity of saying’” (Bowman, 1995, p. 77).

Like the early Brethren, at Washington City COB, we prioritize the words of Jesus found in the gospels, and use other NT writings and the Hebrew scriptures to build up our faith journey following Jesus. Our last sermon series was on the Sermon on the Mount, so this time, we thought to prioritize one of the letters to the early church.

Studying large passages of scripture, or whole books of the Bible in a cohesive way, can build up our community, and also increase our biblical literacy. We can build up our knowledge of the historical and literary context, something that really helps our interpretation. Since I am first in the series, I’m going to spend a few more minutes on the literary and historical context of James before I get back to James’ practical guide to adulting after Jesus.

Context and Background to James

So, to recap James is understood to be both wisdom literature, a form of midrash, and a letter. Some people throughout church history have maligned James as not being very Jesus-y and not very theological. One commentator says that James is “among the most neglected books in the New Testament” (Wall, 1997, p. 545).  Martin Luther, the reformer in the 1500s, really did not like James because Luther was all worked up about grace and works. James emphasizes that faith needs to be put into practice; you can’t just say you believe this and that about God—you need to live it. Luther was like, believe! Believe! Believe! So he couldn’t appreciate James very much.

Before Luther’s time, another person in the middle ages changed how English speakers understood the letter of James. Though your bible says James, the book we are studying should be called Jacob. The Greek says Iakubus. Jacob also makes much more sense, since Jacob was a common Jewish name, not James.

How did it happen that the name Jacob became, as one writer puts it, “so Gentilized”? “In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations, the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version but since 1797 called the King James Bible” (Wilson, 2017). Ask people who speak other languages what this book is called in their language and it will sound more like Jacob than James. During our series, we’ll keep calling it James for simplicity’s sake.

When we think about Jacob/James, we should remember that the audience is Jewish Christians. “To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” we read. In that era, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire. Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah often still worshipped in a regular Jewish synagogue, until the tension got to be too much. Some Jewish leaders, particularly those under the Sadducees, persecuted Jewish followers of Jesus. This was sometimes violent. However, the persecution most likely during James’ letter was “low-level persecution such as social rejection and economic boycotts” (Davids, 1994, p. 1357). Until part-way through the 4th Century, Christians were sometimes persecuted by Jews, but were largely persecuted by Romans. Jews were also persecuted and oppressed by Romans. After Christianity became the state religion in the 300s, Christians persecuted Jews for centuries.  

Church history and a good portion of scholars think that the author James is Jesus’ brother James (known as James the Just). This James is referenced in the book of Acts. He was the church leader in Jerusalem and he had some big disagreements with the apostle Paul on circumcision and how “Jewish” new believers who were Gentiles needed to become. (For more on that, read the book of Acts 15 and 21).

Because of early oral tradition on who James was and what his teachings were, church leaders in the 200 and 300s continued to affirm that the letter of James was a book that should be part of the church’s scriptures. Thus, it is one of the 66 books in our bible and we are studying it today.

Trials, Temptations, and Perseverance

I said earlier that one way to describe James is that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. It has instruction to follow Jesus in a way that seeks maturity and growing up in Christ. James’ readers are having a tough go, being socially excluded and economically marginalized. They’re living in a place where societal values laud the powerful, the strong, and those with material wealth or social prestige. The readers know that Jesus taught his followers different values.

Recognizing the struggle, James writes, “Sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials and challenges (since I know that you are), consider it pure joy. Why? Because it makes you stronger in Jesus—the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance have its full effect—keep on moving forward. The spiritual adulting and persevering through the low times, the difficult times, this will bear fruit. Then you will be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

James continues, “If any of you need wisdom in how to get through your struggle, ask God—who gives generously to all without finding fault—and it will be given to you.” Following Jesus, adulting after Jesus, isn’t easy. When we don’t want to adult after Jesus, when we feel like living out the Jesus way is exactly not what we want to do, James says that God is ready. Ask and you will receive (this echoes Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount; Mt 7:7-11).

What stands out for me here is that, when we ask for help, our generous Creator will not find fault, but will provide the wisdom and strength that we need. God’s not going to chide you for struggling! James says, “Ask and God will say, I’ve got you.”

“Ask in faith and never doubt,” James continues. Never doubting—I don’t think that this means never question our faith, but that when we do question, we should look to God in a way that says, like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” When following Jesus gets hard, it is so easy to question, “Why am I really doing this? Why am I trying to not prioritize status or money? Or why am I choosing to engage a person that I’d rather just be angry at? Or, why exactly am I committed to a rag-tag group of Jesus followers called Washington City Church of the Brethren? Lord knows, that the world’s wisdom says none of these are worth doing.” Yep, Lord knows. But we’re following another type of wisdom. Ask in faith, “Lord, I want to believe, help my unbelief.”

Sisters and brothers, we all face challenges in following Jesus’ way, when we’re tired and weary of choosing kindness, mercy, forgiveness, service, and love. We are called to keep going—and to trust that God can use the difficulty to make us more like Jesus.

There will be times when we don’t want to be adulting after Jesus, when it is easier to choose a path that is bitter or greedy or prideful or spiteful. But James says that these challenges are opportunities—good things—and that overcoming them makes us stronger followers of Jesus. When it comes to adulting after Jesus, the struggle is real. Yet, we are not alone and God is ready to give generously to us during our struggle, if we ask. What are you struggling with? Ask and God will generously give you wisdom, without judging you.

An Upside-Down Kingdom

One of the books that I’ve wanted to read for a while, that I’ve heard about since I joined Anabaptist circles, is The Upside-Down Kingdom. And that was even before I met the author, Don Kraybill. I want to read it because the title’s metaphor is quite perfect; Jesus’ values turn our world upside-down. The Sermon on the Mount makes that very clear and so does our passage in James.

James says this audacious thing, “Let the believers who are lowly, or in humble circumstances, or—let’s just say it—who are poor, be the ones who boast. Why? Because God is raising them up! The poor are in the high position.” This upside-down value sounds similar to Jesus saying, “the first will be last, the last will be first.” James continues and says, “The rich among you should boast too, because they are being brought low!” The NIV paints it strongly, “the rich should take pride in their humiliation!” Humiliation isn’t normally what one takes pride in.

I think James is saying, that the community of Jesus followers need to proclaim their upside-down values! There are rich Christians and poor Christians (we’ll hear more about the dynamics between them in later chapters). Both rich and poor Christians need to be boasting that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

James continues with words about temptation. The temptation isn’t specified. What could it be? Temptation to stop persevering in the faith? Temptation to give up on the way of Jesus, which exalts the poor over the rich? It’s not clear. But what James tries to make clear, in a way that contrasts the positively-framed trials that we need to persevere through, is that temptation is our own doing. Temptation involves conscious steps in a direction contrary to what God has designed for our well-being. James cautions the early Christians, “the beloved,” not to be deceived. We oversee our own integrity. If we open ourselves up to corruption (in money, in relationships, or anything else), we can’t blame God. God doesn’t tempt; as James said earlier, when we are struggling and weary in doing right, when we need wisdom, God is graciously ready to provide abundantly—without judging us! 

Adulting after Jesus

Sisters and brothers, adulting after Jesus is hard. Persevering in love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and simplicity—these are things that our culture says we should not do. Being concerned with personal integrity is also not highly valued right now. But at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we are following the upside-down way of Jesus.

Whether you are exploring Jesus for the first time or you’ve already committed to Jesus, you might be getting the sense that the struggle is too real and you’re wondering whether you should walk away from this Jesus thing. Sisters and brothers, God is ready to give wisdom, strength, and the courage to persevere; God gives generously, without finding fault, if we ask. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Let’s keep on adulting after Jesus. AMEN.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you

 

References

Bowman, C.F. (1995). Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davids, P.H. (1994). James. G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. ).  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wall, R.W. (1997). James, letter of. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (pp. ). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, M. (2017, April 27). James or Jacob in the Bible? Biblical Archaeology. Retrieved from

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-versions-and-translations/james-or-jacob-in-the-bible/

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED

Matthew 18:15-20    Romans 13:8-14

Jeff Davidson

We don’t like Matthew 18, at least not all the time. One of the reasons we don’t like it is that it’s about conflict in the church, and most of us don’t like dealing with conflict. If I have a problem with you, it’s easier to cut you off. It’s easier to say something passive/aggressive on Facebook. It’s easier to unfriend you. It’s easier to tell people what a jerk they are. It’s easier to say, “Oh well, it must really just be my issue. It must be my fault.” It’s also easier to just ignore the problem, whatever it is. It’s easier to pretend it’s not there, that it doesn’t bother me, that it doesn’t matter. 

If I have a problem with you, it can be hard to talk to you about it. None of us like uncomfortable conversations – that’s why they’re uncomfortable. It can be even harder to involve a couple of other people in the conversation. They might not agree with me. They might think you are right. They might think I need to change my ways.

It’s hard to have those conversations, but it’s important too. It keeps us from cheap grace. What is cheap grace? It’s a term coined by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…

“Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Many of you may have heard of Robert W. Lee IV. He’s the four-greats grandnephew of General Robert E. Lee. On MTV’s Video Music Awards last month, he said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. It is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.” 

Let me read part of a reflection Lee wrote for today at onscripture.com. “I never fully understood Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term cheap grace until these past weeks. You see I bear the name Robert Lee, and I am a descendant of the Confederate General who led the army against this nation for state’s rights to own slaves. I had the opportunity to speak up and speak out after recent riots surrounding the preservation of a memorial to General Lee in Charlottesville, VA. On August 27, 2017, I appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with the mother of the late Heather Healey, a young woman who was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. The hate I have received has been surreal and pernicious. The threats I have received inconceivable. But it all reminded me that Christians are easily tempted by cheap grace.

“I’m positive Jesus would have called out the message boards and angry tweets if they were around when Matthew 18 was occurring. Jesus is clear how to handle disputes, disagreements, and anger in the church. But it seems to me many of our parishioners and clergy glance over this reality for the sake of ‘righteous’ zeal.

“It concerns me that I was told my appearance on the Video Music Awards and speaking up that black lives matter was enough for Christians to come unhinged and want to confront me. Some Christians have become so blind to hate that they have forgotten the importance of Matthew 18 conversations.

“Not to brag, but I’ve been told I sold my soul, that I am not to be celebrated, and that there is a place in hell that belongs to me. Does that sound like how Christ envisioned confronting conflict and discord amidst followers of the Way? Ultimately we’re all in this together. No wonder people say Christianity just isn’t worth it anymore. The discord of our infighting has drowned out the sweet sound of grace…

“I am convinced that the heart of the gospel falls nearer to love and reconciliation than it does to statements, hate messages, and Confederate monuments. So why does it seem that the loudest Christians on the block are issuing statements, conferring hate, and seeking the safety of idolatrous monuments?

“…We don’t have to live this way. In my own mainline tradition, I want to scream that if we don’t speak up now we will lose everything we hold dear. Because Matthew 18 leaves us with great hope… ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

“It’s my prayer that the loudest voice in the room will become the voice of sanity. That the voice is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect. This way of thinking shifts the focus of our faith from internal to external, from institutional to missional. To borrow from Dr. King, none of us know what will happen to us, but we’ve been to the mountaintop and seen what’s around the bend… It is costly grace that will lead us home, into the very heart of God in which we all dwell together.”  http://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate

What I hear the Rev. Lee saying when he talks about understanding cheap grace is that a lot of people have been willing to write him off without talking to him, without understanding him. A lot of people have cut him loose without sitting down with him and listening to him and seeking God’s presence and will with him. Likewise, a lot of people who agree with him may be making decisions about others without listening to them, without hearing their stories, without praying and reflecting with them. He says he hopes that the voice of sanity “is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect.”  

The Rev. Lee had a difficult conversation with the people in his congregation after his remarks on the Video Music Awards. He ended up resigning his pastorate. That’s an example of the cost of discipleship.

Was God with Robert Lee as he considered making the remarks he did on the Video Music Awards? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say that God was with Lee, since I tend to agree with most of those remarks. It’s just as easy to say that God was not with those who have been critical of him. And it’s just as easy for people who disagree with me to answer each of those questions the opposite way from what I did.

Our reading from Matthew calls us to invest time in relationships, time in people, and time in conversations before declaring a conflict over too quickly, whether by forgiving and offering cheap grace without repentance or by cutting someone off without trying to work through things. It challenges us to be accountable to one another. It invites us to listen to each other. It calls us to pray with each other and to recognize that God is with us, with those we agree with and even with those we disagree with.

The14th Amendment of the US Constitution deals with due process. It says that “no State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”  Basically that’s the idea that certain things can’t happen to you without at least some minimal showing of need or necessity or legality. An attorney would find that a horrible summary, and how much process is actually due varies from situation to situation.

Anyway, there is a sense in which our reading from Matthew is a kind of a due process clause for life together in the church. Conflict and disagreement are a reality of all of our lives, and life within the body of Christ is no different. Denominations split, congregations split, congregations leave denominations – recently some congregations of the Michigan District of the Church of the Brethren voted to form a new district and withdraw themselves from the Michigan district. Whether that ends up happening or not we will have to wait and see.

Matthew talks about what kind of process we need to go through before we say, “You’re outta here.” Talking it over with the person, seeking the counsel of church leaders to work toward resolution, prayer and seeking God’s will – all of those things have to happen when we work towards resolving conflict with others, whether that resolution comes in the form of agreement, agreement to disagree, or saying, “You know what? We really can’t be in relationship any more.”

But there’s something else that’s due. Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Owe no one anything except to love one another. Truly loving someone means taking the time and making the effort to communicate, to reach out, to view the other person as worthy of effort. True love means working towards resolution before breaking things off.

Just as due process is messy in the real world of law, working through conflict is messy in our own lives. It was difficult for the Rev. Robert Lee, just as I am sure it was difficult for many of the folks in his congregation. It is difficult to sit down with people that we disagree with, people who we think are misinterpreting God’s will, and treat them with love and respect. It is difficult to listen to them and see if we can learn from them, and to allow them to learn from us. But it is what we are called to do. It is a part of the costly grace of discipleship. And Jesus promises that as we work through that process, he will be with us. Amen.

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.

Sheep, Pennies, and People of Disrepute

Sheep, Pennies, and People of Disrepute

Jennifer Hosler

            Some of you might know that there exists a satirical newspaper called The Onion.  Like all satire, it uses irony, sarcasm, and twists on current events to shed light on everyday absurdities, politicians’ shortcomings, or to make us think about human situations that we take for granted.  Sometimes they miss the mark, but quite few times the Onion has provided chuckles and eye-opening ironical insight.  One article caught my eye this week with the headline, “Christ Reluctantly Enters Area Man”.  Curious and surprised (it is a secular newspaper), I clicked and read.

OLATHE, KS—Despite numerous reservations and misgivings He harbored about the 33-year-old mortgage broker, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Our Holy Savior, reportedly entered the heart of Derek Moehr on Wednesday, reluctantly illuminating the local man with His divine grace. 

            Christ… said that He was hesitant to fill Moehr’s soul with the Word of God, but conceded that, as the Heavenly Redeemer of Mankind, He ultimately felt He had no choice but to allow His holy spirit to dwell inside the Wells Fargo employee.

            “It usually brings me great joy to share my love and forgiveness with all God’s children, but when Derek sought the holy power of my redemption, I have to admit that I really wanted no part of it,” said Christ, explaining His unease over building a spiritual communion with a man He described as “all in all, pretty annoying.” “I would have been perfectly happy with never cleansing Derek of his sins and transgressions, but, unfortunately, when a believer reaches out to me with faith in their hearts, I kind of have to reach back, even if it’s Derek.”

            “But I just want to make it clear this was not my idea,” the Messiah added. “The last thing I want is to be this guy’s personal savior.”

            Christ further stated that He is hoping to avoid providing Moehr with daily spiritual nourishment and guidance, saying that He hoped instead to simply point the man in the right direction and “let him figure it out from there.”

…“Touching someone’s life is one thing, but then having to reveal myself to them daily as the Living Savior, serve as their personal shepherd, and perpetually lead them on the path of righteousness—that’s really a lot to ask, especially if it’s some smug, stuck-up guy like Derek,” Christ said. (2013, The Onion)

This piece of satire is both somewhat amusing and mildly unsettling. It’s amusing because it clearly sounds like something that Jesus would never say or do.  It’s unsettling because it is something that Jesus wouldn’t say or do… but sometimes we wish he would.

Some of us might feel that, if we were Jesus, we really would want to exclude grace from some people—the annoying, the inconsiderate, the arrogant, the doofus, the awkward, the smelly, the overdramatic, the insecure, the know-it-all, the bossy, the liar, the cheater.

On the flip side, some of us might feel that we are that person that God is somewhat ambivalent about, that maybe God is or would be reluctant to enter our lives, to extend us his grace, to give us his love.

In contrast to The Onion piece, we see through the life of Jesus and through his teachings, in stories like our parables today, that God places extraordinary value on every single human being—the annoying or obnoxious, the loose liver or the corrupt tax man.  We see two lessons in Jesus’ stories about sheep and coins: that God values and extends grace to all people and that God persistently and proactively seeks out all of us, even the people of disrepute.

Jesus and the Pharisees and Scribes

We enter the scene in Luke chapter 15.  It is sometime during the middle of Jesus’ ministry: he has already been healing the sick, performing miracles, and teaching crowds of people.  Luke writes (as put by The Message paraphrase), “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased.  They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends’” (Lk 15:13, Msg). Who are these Pharisees and scribes and why exactly do they get so worked up about Jesus eating meals with people?

Today, when we hear Pharisees and scribes, we say, “Hypocrites!” We think, “Bad!” But as we read, we need to understand that while Jesus calls them out quite a few times, there is no negative connotation to them during Jesus’ day.  These folks are your more-religious-than-average people; thought of as good and godly people.  To put it in our modern context, they are the Sunday School teachers and active church members of their day. These “good and godly people” think that Jesus is clearly spending too much time and getting way to close with the wrong people.

Commentators help unpack the 1st Century context what it meant to eat with people.  “‘Eating with’ is the summary term for accepting into fellowship, standing for all aspects of associating with others as equal members of the community of faith” (Boring & Craddock, 2009, p. 404).  In the 1st Century, eating together is saying that you think someone is good and respectable—because you wouldn’t eat with someone who wasn’t. If someone is a sinner, you would run away to not muddy your own self.

In the context, tax collectors are considered traitors to the Jewish people (they were fellow Jews working for the Roman Empire and often taking their own cut in addition to taxes) and sinners are, well, sinners. Thus, the good religious folks are appalled because “Jesus not only does not reject sinners; he does more than merely tolerate or condescendingly accept them. They are guests at his table, where the note of joyous celebration permeates the whole” (Boring & Craddock, 2009, p. 238; italics added).  It is in this context that the religious people say, “What is he doing?” and Jesus sees it as a good time to tell some stories about sheep and coins.

Sheep

Before living in Nigeria, I didn’t have much experience with barnyard animals or livestock.  In Nigeria, they were everywhere and most of our friends and colleagues had sheep or chickens or goats as parts of their livelihoods. In addition to farming to meet their yearly food needs, our Nigerian sisters and brothers bred livestock to sell at market.  During dry seasons, the goats would roam freely through the village—since they would only be eating leftover grasses and not neighbors’ crops.

Sometimes, our friends would be searching and going around for a specific goat that hadn’t shown up at home to eat for a while.  I remember one friend going around, asking neighbors if they had seen a certain goat with these markings.  For him and others, having goats was not just a sentimental cute past-time. It was an important form of savings and investment.  Goats were valuable and losing a goat would cause hardship and impact financial plans. Our friend actually paid for a new laptop by selling off some goats that he bred and raised.  Goats and other animals are understood there to have value.

Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd herding sheep who also understands the value of his livestock.  The shepherd has 100 sheep.  When one sheep is missing, the shepherd is so concerned about its wellbeing that he leaves the 99 others in a field and scours the land.

One is so valuable on its own to this shepherd that he is willing to leave his other sheep unattended (at risk of losing them) in order to find it.  Jesus uses this hyperbole for a reason.  Who would leave the 99 sheep unattended, for one single sheep?

From this parable, I see Jesus teaching that every individual is valuable to God.  Jesus isn’t begrudgingly coming into the life of someone he thinks is a loser; Jesus is valuing each person as beloved and precious in the eyes of God.

Poignantly, the shepherd rejoices and calls his friends and neighbors to celebrate, with the expectation that they too would see the joy and value at such an important creature reunited with him.  This is the opposite of what the Pharisees and scribes are doing.  They don’t see the value in these “tax collectors and sinners” coming to God.  They just see people that they’d rather not be seen with.

Jesus steps away from the story and says to their self-righteous faces, “Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue” (Lk 15:7, Msg). What exactly does he mean here?  “Ninety-nine people in no need of rescue” is not 99 people who love God and are perfect.  It isn’t that some people bring more joy to God than others.  Throughout Jesus’ teachings and the gospel of Luke, “there are none who are absolutely righteous; all have sinned, all need to repent” (p. 239).  Jesus is saying that the self-righteous—those who think they don’t need to repent—don’t bring God joy.  Rather, God delights when a person turns toward Him in need of his healing and hope.  God rejoices at every sincere person who acknowledges they aren’t perfect and need God’s grace—even if he or she is a person of disrepute or seen by society as somewhat sketchy.

Through Jesus’ sheep story, we see that God values all people and joyfully extends his grace to all who come to him.

We learn about God’s grace from the sheep story and learn about God’s persistence through the story of the lady with the coins.

Pennies

Speaking of coins, I dropped a penny in a bathroom on Friday.  I did not immediately pick it up.  When I did, it was not because of the value of the penny but just because I was here at church and didn’t want to leave something on the floor for someone else to pick up.  The penny, to me, was pretty much worthless.  In Canada, the government has realized the worthless burden of pennies, which cost more to make than their monetary value is worth.  As such, it stopped producing them.  No more pennies in Canada because they aren’t worth picking up when you drop them.

If something was of great value and lost (say I lost a paycheck or some imaginary wad of cash that I had laying around), I would search high and low and all over the house for it. I would be persistent, much like the lady in Jesus’ second parable.

Jesus says, “‘Imagine a lady has ten coins and loses one.  Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it?  And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time [some]one… turns to God’” (Lk. 15:8-10, Msg).

This lady has 10 coins, each worth about a day’s wages.  While the coin isn’t worth a fortune, it also isn’t worth a penny either.  From the description of her house, the lady is not well-off and is probably a peasant. This coin is clearly important so she searches high and low and doesn’t rest until she finds it.

Jesus’ second parable again emphasizes that that which is being sought is valuable.  God is not apathetic or hesitant about sharing His grace and love.  Unlike the Onion story, Jesus doesn’t grit his teeth.  Through the parable of the coin, Jesus is implying that God actively pursues people to share in the joyful table of God’s family.  Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, who would rather let the tax collectors and sinners wander off into oblivion and desolation, Jesus persistently and proactively seeks out the people of disrepute and works to share his love and grace with them.

Hearing and Responding

So Jesus tells these stories about sheep and small coins.  We see truths from them that God values and extends grace to all people and that God persistently and proactively seeks out all of us, even people of disrepute.  So what does that mean for us?

I don’t think there is one answer.  Parables are not meant to completely spell things out, to tie truths and applications up into packages with neat little bows.  One commentator says that “Jesus’ parables did not deliver prepackaged meaning but challenged the hearer to respond.  Parables are often open-ended narrative metaphors that generate new meaning in new situations.  While a parable cannot mean simply anything (it is not a Rorschach ink blot), it ‘teases the mind into active thought’ in such a way that the hearer himself or herself must actively participate in deciding what the parable means, i.e. how the hearer should respond to it” (Boring & Craddock, p. 121).

How do you hear Jesus today and how will you respond?  Perhaps you fit in with the Pharisee hearers. At times your heart is hard and you think that some people just really don’t belong—and they’d have to change a lot before God showed any grace to them (or you showed grace to them).  You see people around who make you wrinkle your nose in distaste or tut-tut-tut about their sinful habits.

Sister, brother—those around you are loved by God. Open your eyes to the innate value in all people, well-respected or not.  Dear one, they (as you) are loved by God, loved as they are, and persistently pursued by Him.

Maybe you fit in with the other hearers—the tax collectors and sinners.  Maybe you feel judged by religious folk or think of yourself as pretty unworthy of God’s grace.

Sister, brother—you are loved by God and valuable to Him. Dear one, regardless of what you’ve done or where you’ve come from (figurarively or literally), God is persistently seeking you out to come to His table of love, and grace, and joy.

May God give us the grace that he is so eager to extend, that we might grow in love for one another and in the knowledge that we and others are loved by Him. AMEN.