COME TO THE LIGHT

Numbers 21:4-9   Ephesians 2:1-10   John 3:14-21

Jeff Davidson

The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.

A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”

The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”

The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”

The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”

Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?

One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.

Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers. 

But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed. 

So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see. 

In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.

There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.

Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.

But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.

It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.

But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.

Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?

Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.

UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

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.

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/

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

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

Jennifer Hosler

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

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

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

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean for us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

RISK HOPE

Hebrews 10:19-25

Jeff Davidson

Ming, one of our cats, and I have a ritual. When I get up I go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, take a shower, and get dressed. When I come out of the bathroom to get dressed, Ming lays down in the middle of the floor, between me and my dresser, and exposes his tummy. I tell him that he’s a good boy and that he has a fine tummy, and I lean down and give him a tummy rub. Every day.

I don’t remember when this started. Ming has always been a friendly cat, and when we brought him home from the rescue group he’d been with he adapted pretty quickly, but I just don’t remember when the ritual started. Whenever it began, though, there was for Ming an element of risk and an element of hope.

Cats don’t typically expose their most vulnerable parts. Cats don’t just routinely roll over and say “Here’s my belly. Do with it what you will.” I’m sure Ming knew me well enough by then to be reasonably sure that I wouldn’t kick him, at least not on purpose, but he didn’t know for sure. The first time he did it, whenever it was, there was an element of risk that I might hurt him or take advantage of him in some way.

There was also an element of hope. Ming wanted his tummy rubbed. The first time he laid down and exposed his belly, his hope was that I would rub it. I might have kicked him, I might have ignored him, our other cat might have jumped him – there were some possible negatives. But Ming’s hope that I would rub his belly outweighed the risks involved. (Ming’s a big boy.  His belly outweighs a lot of things.)

There were risk and hope involved for me as well. Not as much risk as for Ming, but there was risk nevertheless. When they play cats, like to grab whatever they’re playing with by their front paws and scratch it with their back paws. This is what they do with birds and things that they catch in the wild. I was running the risk that Ming would grab me and scratch my arm to pieces. He’s done that before in other contexts. It was a real risk.

But I hoped that I would get to rub his tummy, that he would purr really loud, that we would have a nice bonding moment, and that it would be a nice way to start the day. And for both Ming and I, our risks paid off and our hopes came true. And now we repeat the ritual every day.

“Risk Hope” was this year’s Annual Conference theme. We don’t always think about risk and hope going together, but they do. Think back to the Exodus, the children of God leaving behind their slavery in Egypt. The armies of Egypt are behind them. The Red Sea is in front of them. The Israelites are trapped. And God tells Moses to stretch out his hand, and the sea will be parted.

Now there’s not a lot of risk here for Moses. If he stretches out his hand and nothing happens, they’re no worse off than they were before. So he stretches out his hand – and the sea parts! Exodus 14 verses 21 and 22: Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”

Now there wasn’t a lot of risk for Moses, but how about that first Israelite who stepped onto the newly dry land? That man or woman was risking hope. They were hoping that this wasn’t an optical illusion of some kind. They were hoping that the water would stay parted, that the land would stay dry. They were hoping that God wouldn’t change his mind.

To have this hope is one thing. To act on that hope, to risk that the hope is real and well-founded, is another. I don’t know how long it took, but eventually someone risked their hope, someone acted and stepped out into the parted sea. Eventually someone else did, and then another and then another, until finally all were safe on the other shore.

Hebrews 10 verse 23 says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Hold fast to our confession of hope. Do we do that? Do we risk our hope? Do we live in such a way that we must truly rely on our hope in God? Or is our hope, our faith, something that maybe informs our lives or our politics or something, but doesn’t really require risk on our part?

At Annual Conference we heard from the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, the Church of the Brethren in Haiti, the Church of the Brethren in Spain, the Church of the Brethren in Brazil, and other international guests. As I listened to them I was struck once again by the very real risk that hope requires in many of these settings. In parts of the world where Brethren and other Christians literally risk their lives and their livelihoods, or risk the mockery and disapproval of a very secular society, what do I risk here in the United States?

This is something that I come back to a lot, and I don’t know that I have a lot of answers. I don’t mean to give a hard time to American Christians and I don’t mean to sound judgmental; I’m sure we all risk a variety of things in a variety of ways. I find myself wondering if I really risk hope in God, if I really risk acting on my faith in Jesus in all the ways and places that I could. I say I’m wondering but I’m not really wondering – I know that I don’t. I guess what I’m wondering is where and how am I called to risk? Where and how am I called to act on my faith, to believe that God will sustain me, to trust that Jesus really is my savior in this world and in the next? I don’t always know the answers, so I keep asking myself the question.

I don’t always know the answers, but I know what the Bible says. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Let us as a congregation and as a denomination sing together, pray together, worship together, talk together, discern together, and risk hope together. Amen.