TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

James 5:13-20; John 9:1-12

Jennifer Hosler

This is the tenth and final sermon in our sermon series on the book of James.

 Since it is Thanksgiving weekend, it would be rather appropriate to start my sermon with some gratitude. I’m thankful for many things but one which came to mind is my fantastic and caring neighbors. When we lived in Chicago, our home was in an apartment building where we only once saw the back of our neighbor across the hall. The only person I got to know in our building, in the 9 months we lived there, was a lady who got on and off the bus at the same time as me. The bus stop was 2 blocks away and it took a few months for us to start talking and a little while longer to learn that we lived in the same building. Our neighborly experience in DC is quite different.

Many of you have met our neighbors, who are often keen on talking. Our neighbors often care for us in tangible ways. Sometimes, the caring comes via the lending of an onion or vanilla extract, or in the safe-keeping of a package from our porch. Recently, one neighbor insisted that he drive me all the way to National Airport in his truck, instead of letting me walk to Metro. While it wasn’t “far” per se, we all know that 8 miles can feel like forever when it involves crossing a bridge over the Potomac. Another neighbor, when Nate was recently away in the Middle East, both had me over for dinner and sent me home with leftovers for the next day. From what I’ve read, our neighborly experiences are becoming a rare occurrence in modern U.S. life.

Researchers say these kinds of relationships are becoming less normal in our society. Robert Putnam’s (2000) book entitled, “Bowling Alone,” highlights the decay of social ties or social capital. Social capital is the term used by sociologists to refer to “the networks—together with shared norms, values and understandings—that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (OECD, n.d.). Social capital involves social reciprocity, a give-and-take that might be formal or informal, but provides power and resources to meet one’s own or the community’s needs. Putnam called his book “Bowling Alone” because he found that, while Americans were bowling more than ever, bowling had shifted from being primarily a group sport where people competed against each other in leagues (like how our church used to have its own bowling league) to bowling individually. Changes to how our society functions (in work, family structure housing, entertainment, commuting, and other aspects) have led to a decrease in social capital: people are joining fewer organizations, knowing fewer neighbors, getting together with their families and friends less.

In our sermon series on James, we’ve spoken extensively about how the ethics of Jesus are upside-down from society’s values and practices. Social status, money, dealing with conflict, and more: following Jesus involves being counter-cultural. I think today’s passage in James 5 illustrates how our approach to social capital is also transformed when we follow the Jesus-way. We are not bowling alone after Jesus, but walking together after Jesus, making our faith in God tangible and concrete. One of the main purposes of the church is to make tangible our faith in Jesus, which we share together.

Hear, Touch, and Smell

How many of you have been to an Orthodox Christian worship service? The Orthodox Church worships in ways that are very different from our service. Some Protestants like to deride them as all “smells and bells” (not an ecumenical approach, clearly). While we have theological differences, I believe the Orthodox Church does a very good job of captivating human senses and using sensory experiences to lift people up to the Divine. The shape of the building and the paintings on the ceiling draw your eyes up. Icons to gaze upon can prompt prayer and reflection. Bells are used to signal the proclamation of the Gospel message throughout the world. Incense symbolizes both the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven. When I first attended an Orthodox service, the richness of the sensory experience was very spiritually moving. 

I found myself thinking of Orthodox churches this week while studying this passage, because our passage presents early church practices that are tangible and sensory. The way that James teaches the early church, it’s an auditory faith. It’s a tactile faith. It’s a scented and oily faith. In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another.

Tangible Faith

James 5:13-20 is the conclusion of James’ letter. According to scholarship on typical Greek letters from that era, most letters would end with a wish for good health from the gods. James takes a different approach because he knows who is the source of our health, strength, and well-being. Rather than looking to the Greek gods to curry favor, James declares that—whether in trials, joy, or sickness—in all things, we look to Yahweh. What I want to stress here is that the cultural context implies that we do this together. In all things we look to God and, whether praying, singing, or asking for healing, we do it together.

Our section starts by James writing, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Suffering likely refers to the trials and social persecution that were referenced in earlier parts of this letter. Those who are facing challenges, trials, and temptation, they are urged to seek strength by praying to God.

It’s important to note that, in the era of the early church and for the specific group of Christians whom James was writing to, prayer was less likely an individual supplication and more likely a corporate time of intercession. One commentator explains, “In Diaspora Judaism, Jews were characterized by their commitment to times of community prayer (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue and temple were places Jews gathered to pray. We find that the early church was a distinct entity gathered [regularly] for prayer (Acts 1:13-14; 2:42), while at the same time they carried out the traditional times of prayer individually (Acts 10:9) and at least at the beginning attended the temple at the prescribed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1; cf. Acts 2:42, 46, ‘the prayers’)” (Wilkins, 1997, p. 944).

Because James is writing to Jewish Christians, it is highly likely that they heard this admonition to prayer as an urge for group prayer. James is saying, “If you are suffering, you should bring your suffering and experience with hardships to the community of faith.” Praying for one another, praying together, is how the church supports one another. But it involves vulnerability, saying, “I need help. I’m struggling. I am discouraged.” It requires the sisters and brothers around a person to be attentive, to refrain from judging, and to lovingly present these requests to God.

While praying to God on your own behalf when alone can still be comforting, communal prayer—having someone pray out loud for you, together—allows our faith to be felt more tangibly. Perhaps you’ve felt that during joys and concerns, which is an important (and I believe, biblical) part of our worship service. Being prayed for is a powerful experience. Beyond the tangible words that we hear that can strengthen our hearts, asking for prayer in community often also brings the tangible comfort of a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Following Jesus together makes our faith more tangible, through voice and touch. This is true for when we are struggling and is also to be true when we are rejoicing. James continues and says, “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Not only are the early Christians instructed to pray together when times are hard, they are also called to rejoice and sing when times are good.

We do call it Joys and Concerns, but sometimes people have mentioned that it’s heavy on the concern end. This might be because we feel sheepish sharing our joys when we hear that others are struggling. It may also be linked with the fact that humans are bent to look for a higher power when things are difficult, but that we’re somewhat self-focused when we’re doing well. James stresses that whether we are in trials or joy, our response should be to look to God as our hope and strength. For those who are experiencing good times, James instructs them to recognize the source and origin of all goodness—the Creator God—by singing songs of praise.

Lifting our voices together in thanksgiving, in joy, praising God, strengthens our faith. Singing together is a spiritual experience that allows us to give our voices as an offering and to be moved by the combined voices of many sisters and brothers in Jesus. By singing, we make our faith more tangible—or at least more sensory. We use our vocal cords to make our gratitude manifest, in the audible richness of tune, rhythm, and harmony.

Oily Faith

Beyond prayer and song, James also mentions oil. Oils are kind of a big deal for some people today, with multi-level marketing companies trying to sell us oil for everything that ails us and for a better, wholesome life. I don’t know about the health claims they purport…but I do know that the oil mentioned in James has a different sort of application and benefit. 

James asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). James continues, urging the sisters and brothers to confess their sins one to another, for healing and forgiveness. While confession and sin are mentioned alongside healing here, I must caution that this is not implying that all physical illness is caused by sin. In our companion scripture in John 9, we see Jesus explain to his disciples that the illness they see is not connected to the person’s character.

For some of us, anointing with oil has been a normal part of church life for as long as we can remember. For some of us, anointing is weird and we’re not really sure how to understand it. In the Church of the Brethren, anointing is one of our ordinances, together with baptism and the Love Feast (communion). We see these things as rituals, or tangible practices, that can be used as symbols to strengthen our faith or help us practice our commitment to Jesus. Of course, rituals can be warped and used in ways that cause spiritual death instead of spiritual life. A lot of things are like that – things that are good but can be abused. They are risky of becoming ends in themselves, so we need be careful that we understand their meaning and that our hearts are in the right place when we do them.

Why do we anoint? A Church of the Brethren resource on anointing describes it this way: “We anoint one another by gathering with people who are ill, hurting, struggling with decisions, or beginning a new phase of life. Our presence, together with the oil and prayers, represents the healing and comfort of Jesus. By anointing one another we trust that God hears our prayers and works for the good of the one we lift in prayer” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

Oil was used in ancient times for many different purposes. Oil was “one of the best-known ancient medicines” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 2007). In the Hebrew scriptures, it was used in rituals to dedicate priests and items used in worship, setting them apart as holy. It was also used for other leaders, like kings or prophets. There is even an anointing oil recipe in Exodus 30:22-33, with olive oil as the base, accompanied by the essential oils of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia. In the New Testament (Mark 6:13), we see Jesus’ disciples going about the Galilee countryside, visiting the sick, anointing them with oil, and bringing healing by the power of God.

The oil mentioned here by James likely would have been fragrant—and one commentary explains that people in the ancient world “were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 1746). Good odors could signal a spiritual act or invocation. However, the references in James or in the gospels don’t place any weight in the oil itself. In our passage, “What is clear is that James attributes the healing power not to the oil but to the ‘prayer of faith’ and the action of God. This removes the activity from the arena of magic and places it squarely in that of prayer and miracle. Thus, the anointing is done either because Christians believe that is how Jesus taught the disciples to pray for the sick or because it is itself a form of prayer” (Davids, 1997, p. 49).

It is helpful to be clear on what this use of oil means and what it doesn’t mean. Unfortunately, James doesn’t say that everyone anointed will be physically healed and restored. What it does say is that God will save them, deliver them. Faith and trust in God may bring physical healing in this life, but that may not be God’s plan. The healing that is guaranteed is the full healing of our souls, transforming our hearts and allowing us to be reconciled to God. Anointing oil is a way to make tangible this assurance of faith, transformation, and deliverance—especially in times when we feel alone, confused, lost, or when we need affirmation of God’s abiding presence. “Putting a touch of oil on someone’s head prayerfully assures us of God’s healing, constant presence with us as followers of Jesus” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of communal prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another. It requires vulnerability, sharing, singing, and touching.

How can we experience our faith together more tangibly, here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? Perhaps it looks like more intentional sharing that provides opportunity for communal prayer. God has not designed us to walk alone, but to walk together, being the tangible presence of God to one another. Can we be vulnerable with a few people about some needs or struggles that we are having difficulty sharing?

Perhaps our lives our going well—but we don’t often think to praise or give thanks to God for what we’ve experienced. How can you add more songs of praise to your life? How can you share your joys and thanksgiving with our community, so that we can sing praises to God with you?

Perhaps you need a tangible sign of God’s presence today. Do you need assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you need your faith strengthened? Do you need healing and wholeness? If so, I invite you to come forward and seek God’s presence today through an anointing with oil.

Anointing Blessing: Sister/Brother _____, you are being anointed with oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for healing and wholeness in accordance with God’s grace and wisdom. The love of God abides with you. Amen.

References

Davids, P.H. (1997). Anointing. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 48-50). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Church of the Brethren (n.d.). Anointing. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/discipleship/documents/ordinance-annointing.pdf

Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV archaeological study Bible: An illustrated talk Through Biblical history and culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

OECD (n.d.). Social capital. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/insights/37966934.pdf

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilkins, M.J. (1997). Prayer. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 941-948). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

DO NOT BE DISMAL (PIETY POINTS)

Matthew 6:1-18

Nate Hosler

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;”

A dialogue last week:

Nate—I should buy a stole (clergy sash).

Jenn—Why?

Nate—For when I pray in front of people (at a vigil or protest).

A standard approach to scripture is that Jesus said ____ but what he really meant was ______. Jesus said love your enemy but what he really meant was… Jesus said if you want to enter the Kingdom sell everything and give to the poor but what he really meant was… Admittedly this seems to be a classic example of this—Jesus said don’t pray in public but what it really meant is don’t pray in public unless you very intentionally are making a spectacle of it so as to increase your power and persuasion in a public debate in which you are trying to change a public policy or highlight an injustice. Jesus said don’t pray with great show in public but what he really meant was….So, while I obviously think public witness can be appropriate we should not be too quick to assume that it is always appropriate or all manners are appropriate. Really, if we take this passage seriously we must allow that it may not be appropriate. Just because a church has a particular Office of Public Witness (of which I happen to be the director) does not necessarily  make it A-Ok.

Rather than dive into a presentation of organizing strategy in the steam of King and Gandhi and civil society mobilization—however useful that would be—I will consider this particular passage, which is the third installment of a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and see where that leads us.

In the first sermon of the series, Jenn got us ready for the whole sermon on The Mount and suggested that the beatitudes (The Blessed are’s…) as the churches constitution. Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted, is more a description of the kingdom of God than a set of instructions. Jeff continued on with a string of “You’ve heard it said’s…). Jeff observed that learning to live by the difficult commands is similar to running an ultramarathon. Not only do you need to start at a short distance before going super long, but along the way, while super tired, you just need to take one more step.

Last week our verses challenged our bad stuff—don’t murder-don’t speak badly-don’t be angry. This week we get challenged on our good stuff. Pray rightly. Fast rightly. Do acts of justice rightly.

Essentially, don’t do these things publicly for “piety points” pray like you mean it but don’t make a show. On giving, don’t even let you left hand know what your right hand is doing—secret to the point of absurdity—since our left and right hands are connected in the middle by a brain.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

When we read this again we see that it is slightly more complicated than just “be secretive” or “don’t show off.” The doing this publicly or privately seems to be directly related to reward. If public, you are rewarded by the public. If privately you will be rewarded by God.

However, public actions leading to rewards only happen if you are doing it in a place where such an action is rewarded. Sometimes such prayer would be mocked. At other times acts of justice or righteousness leads to attack. Thinking back to the beginning of the Sermon we read, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”

 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Now of course those who disagree with the particular public forms of praying will likely call the others hypocrites. When I was in high school there was the yearly prayer around the flagpole. The point, I believe, to encourage others to seek God. In retrospect, I imagine this also had layers of God and country theology that I now would find concerning. These days most public praying I do is of a different sort aimed at challenging a particular public policy or demonstrating solidarity with other religions. This passage challenges both of these to consider how one’s self is acting hypocritically and has implications between me and God.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

One commentator notes that this points to the practice of trying to impress the deity with elaborate rhetoric (Boring and Craddock).

This challenge to wordiness is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”

Of course, wordiness is rather relative—compared to the Quaker waiting worship we got a taste of earlier, typical Brethren prayer is wordy but compared to the Episcopal liturgy it is rather simple. But compared to monastic orders that take vows of silence even Quakers just can’t be quiet.

Fortunately, we are provided with an example (which of course does not readily solve this question). The prayer Jesus models essentially functions like a YouTube video of instruction. You can Youtube nearly everything—Jenn recently both brushed up on a certain type of statistical analysis as well as learned how to fix our blinds via YouTube (she may have said that her fixing the blinds rather than just throwing them away and buying new ones was an act of political resistance). I started typing “how to…” into YouTube. The first entry was…any guesses? How to make slime (which may or may not have been useful preparing for the potluck after church). Not far down the list was the slightly less useful how to tie a tie and then bake a cake.

So, after a few instructions like don’t be wordy or be like a hypocrite standing in front of others to receive praise while praying we get a demo prayer.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial.
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I would like to go back to Jeff’s illustration of the ultramarathon from last week. He rightly noted that in training and completion the runner of such a race must persist in pushing forward—making small progress toward what may seem like an unattainable distance (at 4 hours into a race one starts to get tired so how do you think about another 8 hours?) You can’t think about it like that but in smaller more manageable bits. So, I affirm Jeff’s illustration but while musing on this (appropriately while running hills on Wednesday morning) I noted one risk. At least some of us—perhaps it is a particularly American or privileged person’s risk—the risk of this illustration is that we have a tendency to assume that if we just put our minds and backs into it we can succeed. This over-confidence (arrogance?), while it may lead us to push to succeed, also may push us to hurt our families by overcommitting or blame the victim or the unsuccessful or be devastated when things don’t work out the way we want. At the finish line of my first big race there was a woman with a full leg brace. She had apparently run through what I presume was at least a little pain to finish a 70 mile trail race. At the end she collapsed. She had fractured her femur. A recent issue of Trail Runner Magazine tells of a guy who in his first in his first 100 mile race had a 1 hour lead. Now this is a long race and not 100 meter dash, so leads are not usually merely fractions of seconds but a 1 hour lead is still huge. Not only was he in the lead but was on track to set the course record. However, at mile 990 he took a wrong turn. Coming out within view of an aid station but needed to back track and ended up not even having a top ten finish much less a record win.

This section not only challenges our motives in giving and piety but the example prayer makes abundantly clear that we not only need God but must acknowledge this in prayer. It is both audacious—“Our? Father?, the Creator, the divine—as well as pointing to our utter dependence. It asks boldly for sustenance but only for bread and only daily—enough to survive. Rescue us! Forgive us! Save us from a time of trial!  It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.

This week revealed this need for reliance. A child of this congregation found that his cancer treatment hasn’t worked. A spouse’s possibility of returning to this country was put in jeopardy because of policy that targets the Middle East and Muslims. Work was overwhelming. A body kept being sick. And the unopened emails in my inbox passed 15,000.

It is not always enough to take one more step toward a difficult goal but we must also acknowledge our reliance on God.

After the prayer, Jesus returns to the formula. The prayer teaches reliance on God. Maybe he imagines the disciples thinking—ah! We have a spiritual practice that demonstrates reliance—fasting. (which would make sense). But…the old tendency remains to make too much of this for the sake of being seen and making much of this enacted dependence by looking the part—in this case, dismal.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This week I felt dismal. This week many people experienced deep difficulties. As we go out this week may this prayer that we were taught to pray remind us to turn to God in reliance. While I find the illustration of the long race helpful for the challenging teachings of chapter 5, we are reminded that it is not always enough to take one more step. It is not always enough to take just one more step—we must turn to God.

O BETHLEHEM

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Nathan Hosler

Advent is a time of light and darkness, hope and exile and welcome. A baby will be welcomed that brings hope but under the occupation of the Roman Empire and soon the holy family will flee into exile.

There is much talk about refugees these days—frankly much of what is heard is quite upsetting. Whether it is news about the conditions that drive communities and families from homes to the conditions of travel to the struggle to find a welcoming place to settle to the ways that many politicians talk about our policies towards accepting refugees—much of what we hear is troubling.

In addition to 3 million Syrian refugees there are thought to be 60 million refugees in the world. Refugee is a legal status of someone who been forced to leave their country to flee war, persecution, or natural disaster. This being the case many Brethren in Nigeria’s displaced for similar reasons are not refugees but IPDs—internally displaced persons (in Syria the internally displaced are 6.5 million). So the number of displaced persons—whether across international borders or internally—is much higher than the number of refugees.

Today I am going to read our scriptures—particularly the Luke passage—alongside considering the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you have paid attention to the so called “peace process” to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will know that the “return of refugees” is one of the ongoing contentious components. A few weeks ago I visited Bethlehem. I was in Palestine and Israel with Warren Clark, the head of Churches for Middle East Peace—of which the Church of the Brethren is a member. We were taken around Bethlehem by a refugee. He was a Palestinian Christian and, quite honestly, did not look like what one might expect a refugee to look like.  He was, however, legally a refugee—his grandparents lost their land and had to flee during the nakba “the catastrophe” in 1948. What was a celebrated event by one community is considered the catastrophe by another. Our guide was probably about my age, his grandparents lost their home during the 1948 war. While many families remained in camps for generations his grandparents had the resources to buy a house in or near Bethlehem. So while still living in the under the military rule of occupation this family is in a better position than many of the 5 million that have this statues—1.5  million of which are live in refugee camps.

While many of our meetings during this trip were more formal in nature—with activists or political, business, and religious leaders—we had hired this fellow as a guide. He took us to the wall (which many tours to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity strategically avoid—an enormous wall that looks like a high security prison isn’t good for business). The wall is ostensibly for security but is highly disruptive to life for Palestinians and often is used to separate people from the land and livelihoods. Our guide showed prominent graffiti from Banksy and others, much of which expressed the hope that the wall would come down. One read “1989 Berlin Wall, 2010 this Wall”. Another read “Make hummus not walls.” We also witnessed one of the regular protests with Palestinian youth throwing rocks and flinging marbles and tear gas being used to try to deter this next to a refugee camp near a military base.

Last year at Annual Conference (the big yearly gathering of the Church of the Brethren in which churches send delegates to discuss and make decisions guiding the life of the denomination) there was a “Resolution on Christian Minority Communities.” While it was officially brought from the Mission and Ministry Board, I had written an early draft and suggested this as a possible resolution. The idea emerged for me during a board meeting for Churches for Middle East Peace at the Franciscan Monastery in the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast DC. Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Church expressed great distress at the rapidly diminishing churches in the Middle East, the places of the earliest churches—particularly in Iraq and Palestine. In these places the percentage of the population has decreased but overall numbers have also decreased because of people moving away because of the difficulty of living under occupation or in the midst of conflict. The statement which was accepted at Annual Conference reads in part.

“As members of the global body of Christ we are concerned with the destruction of Christian communities in regions where Christians are targeted as religious minorities. While we are deeply concerned about the persecution of religious minorities regardless of religion or tradition, we feel a distinct call to speak out on behalf of those who are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).”…

It continues,

“We also are alarmed by the rapidly diminishing Christian communities in places such as Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. The elimination of these ancient yet still vital Christian communities would not only be a human rights disaster and a loss for the peoples of the region, but also a tragic loss of historic Christian witness in the land where the church first took root.”

John—a prophet –judgment as good news?

In Luke 3:7-18 we see John the Baptizer doing his thing. Last Sunday Jeff preached on the first half of this chapter. It starts with a list of rulers—people in charge—Jeff noted that the word of God came from a wild eyed preacher living in the desert rather than any of these allegedly powerful people. He noted that the Spirit still speaks through us and we hear God speaking through one another—particularly as we gather here. John the Baptizer was this preacher—in last week’s text we read—“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,”

It then continues to give him context within the biblical and prophetic tradition by quoting from Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

This takes us to our passage. These verses start out sounding rather harsh—for example John begins by calling them a “brood of vipers”—though it sounds pretty judgmental the passage concludes saying–

18 “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

He starts, saying, 8 “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This is the good news. Though people stand under judgment they can turn.

“ Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Being the children of Abraham is not enough. Family connections and ancestry don’t save you. This is not saying “be a self-made person without history or heritage” but it is saying this doesn’t save you. This was part of the point—perhaps the main point—when the first brethren baptized themselves in the Eder River. They believed that being reconciled to God—joining the way of Jesus—was something that an adult needed to decide, and they re-baptized themselves.

In his preaching John poses what he takes to be a standard reply when calling people to repentance—Abraham is our father—and says God can make ancestors of Abraham for these rocks. He says if you are truly repenting you will prove it by the “fruits.” If you say you turn to God then particular things will happen. He gives very practical advice to those around him.

 “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

In response to repentance and the question of what to do, John suggests seemingly simple acts of justice. These are not elaborate system overturning things. They do not appear to be system altering acts. I kind of would like him to provide what I would think is the more substantial challenge to justice. How about challenging the system of the Roman Empire’s military occupation? How about radically altering the things taxes are used for in the vein of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund–which would allow those opposed to war not to pay for war but for peacebuilding efforts?

The first few days of our trip we met with people and organizations working toward a resolution to this conflict—toward justice and peace for all wrapped up in the system. We met with the head of a bank, a chief negotiator, a head of a church in Jerusalem. We also met with former soldiers telling the story of their change and an activist who has documented the expansion of settlements for many years, all of which were discouraging, and really didn’t give me much idea how my little office could be involved.

My final meeting was with Omar at Sabeel. I was to meet Omar at the offices of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center at 2:00 on Monday. Since I was no longer traveling with Churches for Middle East Peace I decided to utilize the bus system rather than a taxi to get there. After boarding and figuring out the number of shekels needed to pay for the trip I waited to get to the stop that might be nearest to Sabeel.

At Sabeel I met Omar. We sat and discussed their work, the situation, and theology. He told me he had met a group of students from a Brethren college recently and that they “couldn’t even see him” because he was Palestinian. He said that in the face of this great disappointment my simple email asking to meet him was something—I forget his exact words—I believe the gist was that it was a sign that in spite of disappointments by Christians in America who cannot see Christians in Palestine—that the Spirit is still at work and that there is yet hope.

Though there is much more to say I would like to highlight three practical (and by practical I mean spiritual and theological) points from these comments on a visit to the Holy Land and an Advent reading.

#1  There are social consequences of reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is not a spiritual practice detached from our lives, social context, or the world. The work of Sabeel is to read the Bible as Palestinian Christians in the context of living under military occupation. The context is not irrelevant for the work of the Spirit in the reading of our text. The Brethren are a community that is reading community and a praying community. In doing this we will be changed. There is proposed a  Bible study in the new year. Do we think we are ready for it? As Sabeel reads John the Baptizer and Jesus proclaiming the good news they realize that the occupation is not  only not good news for them it is not good news for anyone.

Let us read together.

#2. In our reading in Luke we see John give guidance on means of repentance. These are relatively simple acts of justice and compassion. Here is I will be very transparent—I have the privilege of getting a salary to work on this type of things. This means I get to spend all my time on big problems and conflicts and, and, and—truthfully even though I get to spend all my time on this I still feel overwhelmed and tired and powerless and inadequate. One evening during my trip while texting Jenn I had to say–“it’s been a rough day.” In the face of seemingly countless and insurmountable injustice John’s word’s commending [relatively] simple acts of justice and compassion are indeed good news. We are called to act but not to control history. For me this is good news.

Let us do simple acts of justice together.

#3. While meeting with Omar he asked that we remember the Christians of Palestine and pray for them. This is a man who is acutely aware of the political, social, and religious challenges. He said on several occasions he has counted the guns aimed at him while walking from his office to near where I was staying just outside the Damascus Gate in the Old City Jerusalem (which was a distance of about 2 miles)—the number was around 40.  He is not unaware but what he asked for was prayer. He asked that we pray.

Let us pray together.

REFLECTIONS ON PARIS

Matthew 23:23-36

Jesse Winter

When I was asked to preach today, Nate wanted me to talk about mass incarceration. Criminal justice reform is a major focus of my work in the Office of Public Witness, and over the past few months I have learned how complex that issue is. It involves everything from politics, money, and race to power, privilege, and fear. But even though this issue is important and needs to be discussed, as I read through my sermon last night, my words felt hollow. Given the recent events in Paris, I felt called to table that discussion for another day to talk about the equally complex and important issue of religious violence around the world. With Paris weighing on the hearts of people everywhere, this conversation is necessary and prudent – even if it means rewriting a sermon late into the night.

The support for those suffering in Paris on the news and in social media has been tremendous. At least so far, the outpouring of love and support has overshadowed any bigotry and fear mongering, of which I have seen very little. This response is heartening. The human spirit comes to fruition in community, and the people of the world – even those with their noses stuck in an iPhone – have banded together to kindle the fires of hope and comfort. I was shocked on Friday when I watched the news, hearing about shootings and hostage situations turning into mass killings. Eventually had to go away and distract myself. Technology has made this conflict real for us.

But as we mourn those in Paris with the rest of the world, we have to remember that such events are just a small part of a global equation that includes all those issues – politics, money, race, class, power, and fear. Paris is just a part of a bigger issue. The rise of religious violence around the world is fast becoming the hallmark of the 21st century.

I went to a talk at the Brookings Institution earlier this week that could not be timelier. Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, philosopher, scholar, and recipient of over 16 honorary degrees, spoke about the his new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Sacks argues that the secularization of western culture has created a West that lacks the mindset and language necessary to tackle an increasingly radically religious world. He argues that the growth of radical groups like the Islamic State is more than just a response to Western decadence. It is a battle of ideas that goes to the core of the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Like Cain and Abel, the three faiths are locked in a sibling rivalry for the favor of their Abrahamic Parent, a fight that we all know ends in death. Religious radicalization and subsequent religious violence is about identity. The three faiths share many similarities, but they each are distinct, and it is that unique identity which can lead to zealotry and violence. The harder you hold on to an egg, the more likely you will have a mess.

This picture may be correct, but even more important is Sacks’ proposed response to this picture. While preserving identity is important, – crucial, in fact – religious, social, and cultural identities cannot overshadow a fundamental human identity. We are all children of God. On that scale, other differences are superficial. Our disproportional attention to Paris, if we are honest, comes out of our shared identities as wealthy, majority white, western nations. Our response, however, needs foresight and breadth that allows us to see the strings that tie those in Paris, to those in Syria, to those in Nigeria, to those in China, Romania, Nicaragua, Russia, Texas, Washington, DC.

One of the many posts I found on Facebook about Paris comes from my friend Mark. Mark has been a friend and mentor since my first year at Bridgewater College, and though he graduated that year, his thoughtfulness and wisdom are two qualities that have sustained our friendship over the years. Here is what Mark has to say:

“On November 1st, a terrorist group named Al-Shabaab killed 12 in Mogadishu, Somalia. A suicide bomber killed 5 in Lebanon on November 5th. An expected ISIS-related bombing killed 12 in Baghdad, Iraq (injuring 15) on November 7th. Boko Haram kills 3 in a suicide bombing in Chad on November 9th. In Cameroon, November 9th, a 14 year old girl acted as a suicide bomber killing 4 persons. 43 die and 240 are injured on November 12th by ISIL suicide bombers in Beirut, Lebanon. In Baghdad, Iraq, again, on November 13th, 19 are injured and 33 are killed by ISIS.

Last month, ISIL killed 244 people in Sinai, Egypt on October 31st. Bombings killed 27 and injured 96 on October 23rd in Yola, Nigeria and on October 14th, 42 were killed by suicide bombers in Maiduguri, Nigeria. On October 10th, Boko Haram kills 38 in Chad. 102 die and 508 are injured due to suicide bombings in Ankara, Turkey due to ISIL. Car bombings kill 57 in Baghdad, Iraq on October 5th due to the Islamic State. In Abuja, Nigeria, Boko Haram kills 18 on October 2nd.

I could keep going and mention the 145 that died and 150 that were injured in Maiduguri, Nigeria on September 20th due to Boko Haram, and so forth and so forth.

And yesterday, 129 (so far) people died in Paris, France. I have changed my profile picture, read the news about these attacks diligently, found relief that Facebook notifies that people are marked safe by these attacks, gotten into lengthy discussions on how to solve this problem, etc.

And yet. I have done absolutely none of that when persons died in Turkey, Nigeria, Iraq, Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Syria, etc. Why not? That might be the most important question to come out of this whole thing.

Peace and hope to the people in France, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, Syria, Cameroon, and the countless other places that live in constant terror.”

Our eyes glaze over at such numbers. We are conditioned to not pay attention. Mark’s question is right. Why, only now, are we really paying attention? Racism, xenophobia, and lack of a shared identity inhibit our ability to connect with those outside of the American suburbs. Again this is an unfortunate side effect of our conditioning and media bias and blah blah blah – but we have to own it. Jesus rails on the Pharisees for being hypocrites. While I don’t accuse anybody here as individuals, our nation as a whole is blind. We need to recognize our blindness, and even more, we need to make sure that Paris – in all of its horror, spectacle, and sadness – becomes the mud Jesus spat in to give us new sight. While it may have taken a bomb in a Paris coffee shop to unite the world, we need to remember the drowned Syrian boy who washed up on the Mediterranean, the Chibok girls taken hostage in Nigeria, those dead in a Yemini hospital. We need to remember a world with seemingly too many wounds to heal.

The Church of the Brethren has been faithful in its commitment to peace and stability in many of those forgotten places – especially Nigeria. The Church should be proud of its work, but we need to know there are still many places left untouched by a helpful hand.

The last part of the scripture is about humility. The Pharisees laud the heroes of the past and distance themselves from those who murdered the prophets. Jesus bursts that prideful bubble and tells them to own both the failures and successes of their ancestors.

Paris, too, I think has broken the West’s pride. There is a sense that the West is insulated from the problems of the rest of the world. The wars we fight are overseas – not at home. The events in Paris show that the bubble is broken. We stagger in disbelief: “This doesn’t happen here!” Our pride is our ignorance, and we need to admit that, through a series of unfortunate events, we played a role in this tragedy. As we move forward, we need to do so with humility. A recent international poll says that the US – not Russia, Iran, or North Korea – is the greatest threat to world peace. Even when acting with good intentions, this country has been both a direct and indirect cause of suffering in the world. How we move forward matters.

We also need to watch where we go after the initial shock of Paris goes away. Paris is fast becoming a symbol, and while support rains down now, where will that energy go? Will we be a shield that protects human dignity, or a sword that severs people from it? If we take the second option, are we forfeiting our own humanity? Jesus tells the Pharisees they have ignored the higher duties of justice, mercy, and faith. He told us to love our enemies. In a time where the world is so emotionally invested, I think the greatest challenge will be forestalling the call to vengeance, tempering our justice with mercy, walking forward in faith, loving our enemies. Our world needs this more than ever.

I don’t offer any concrete course of action, 1) because I don’t have a clue where to begin and 2) because I don’t think it is time. Emotions are high. Action is important, but any step forward needs to be done with a level head.  In these troubling times, the world needs to hear our prayers for peace. Jesus’ story promises redemption. May we redeem this world by remembering our kinship to all persons, especially those who commit violence out of hate. May we climb this mountain with humility, sending our loving voices down through the valley. May we take to heart the words of a true disciple: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” All this falls upon our generation. In God’s peace, amen.

Benediction:

God, we come to you in the need of prayer. We ache and mourn for those in Paris. We hear their cries. But we know their cries are but an echo, for all over, fear and terror and violence rule the lives of so many. God, send your love to the people of this world. May it heal those who hurt and transform those who hate. Be there in the midst of suffering. Be there with policy makers as they discern the fates of nations. Be here with us as we struggle to find our place amid madness. We pray for peace and we pray for your light in the weeks ahead. Amen

Learning from Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Peace between Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Backward to Press Forward

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

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

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

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

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

Make me an Instrument of Your Peace

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

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

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

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light,

where there is sadness, joy.

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

to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

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

Keep on Keeping On

My sermon title didn’t make it into the bulletin today, because it took me too long to collect my thoughts about this passage.  For those of you who are curious…I’ve entitled it “Keep On Keeping On.”

by Mandy North

In 2010, Danny Bradfield of Long Beach, California preached a sermon based on this text in Luke and he began it this way:

[quote] “ It’s nice to have a scripture to preach on which tells you upfront what it’s about. That’s not always the case with scripture. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell just what the scripture is about. Sometimes, the meaning of Jesus’ parables isn’t obvious at first glance. Sometimes, Jesus would tell a story, and when he would finish, the disciples would just stand there in silence, scratching their heads, until one of them would blurt out, “What are you talking about?” And then Jesus would explain it to them, or, in some cases, just shake his head and say, “Oh, ye of little faith….”

The parable of the unjust judge is not like that. The introductory sentence explains very clearly what this story is about – or, at least, what the gospel writer Luke thought this story was about. It says that this is a parable about the need to pray always and to not lose heart.

And since Jesus told a parable about the need to pray always and to not lose heart, it seems that the disciples, despite their commitment to following Jesus, did, at times, lose heart, and that they also, at times, gave up – or were tempted to give up – on prayer.

They’re not alone.

A lot of people have given up on prayer. They’ve given up, because they prayed for a loved one’s miraculous healing, but death came anyway. They’ve given up, because they prayed to an end to their struggles, but the struggles just kept on coming. They’ve given up, because they prayed for an end to the sadness within them, but the sadness remains. They’ve given up, because they prayed for their family, and yet they’re forced to watch as sons and daughters continue to make one bad choice after another. They’ve given up, because they don’t see the point of prayer. What’s the use? Too often, it feels like talking to a wall.” [end quote]

I think that we too feel the same way sometimes. Right now, at the Manassas Church of the Brethren, we are in the midst of transition. Our long time pastor, Jeff Carter, received a new call to become the president at Bethany Theological Seminary that began in July. We are in the process right now of discerning who we are as a congregation and assessing the needs of the local community, so we can move forward in calling a new pastor that is the right fit for us.  When this discernment process began in September, we challenged the congregation to participate in a 6-week long small group bible study time. When we would all enter into this shared, common spiritual journey to center ourselves for the task at hand. I chair this discernment team, and I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned members of our congregation asked why we would start this process with a bible study. Not that anyone to my knowledge actually said it, but there was an underlying thought “Isn’t that a waste of time?”  “Why are we dilly-dallying with a bible study?  We need to hire a pastor.  In fact, I can give you a name or two of people that I think would be a good fit.”

What we have found, though,  since starting the bible study is that we are engaging in deep, meaningful conversations with members of our congregation in ways that we have never done before.  We have provided the space and opportunity for the Spirit to be present in our process and for us to open ourselves to God’s leading.

I think our prayer life can be that way sometimes.  Why should I waste time praying?  I really just need to do something to make the situation better.  Does God even hear me anyways?  I can totally relate to this way of thinking.  I am a do-er….I see things that need to get done and I do it….I am not so much a thinker….I don’t want to take time to sit around and contemplate what could or should be done….I just want to do it.

So this parable this morning is particularly meaningful to me in that it reminds me about the importance of prayer.  God does hear our prayers and will quickly grant justice.  But like the persistent widow in our passage this morning or like Jacob from our old testament reading….we can’t give up.

But who am I to preach to you this morning about not giving up when this congregation could probably teach me a thing or two about persistence?

I have a confession to make….I was stalking you all on Facebook this past week….well actually not all of you as individuals, just your congregation….and I saw a congregation full of hope and vitality.

Even this morning, I have been blessed by some very beautiful music.

I saw a congregation that celebrated the International Day of Prayer for Peace with a candlelight vigil.

I saw a congregation that has installed a rain barrel to keep 50,000 gallons of stormwater from carrying pollution into the local river.

I saw a congregation that has welcomed volunteers from near and far to serve with the Nutrition Program which just reopened to feed the hungry in our nation’s capital.

I saw a congregation that opened its minds and hearts to a new ministry model with not just one pastor, but three fully-committed free ministers.

You all are blessed, and you have been called to be a blessing to others.  And I know that this journey for you hasn’t come with some hard work, sweat, and tears.  But you all have persevered….you didn’t lose heart, you didn’t give up.

My guess though is that you aren’t done yet.  I bet there are many of you in the congregation that still have a vision for the ways that it can continue to grow and continue to serve this community.  My word to you this morning…is keep on keeping on.  Pray always and don’t lose heart.

For some of you the idea of praying always sounds like something else to add to your “to-do” list.  When will I find time to pray?  What should I pray for?  What words should I use?

In the Bible Study series that we are using at Manassas, we close each session with a simple prayer, where we thank God for something, ask God for something and then close with the Lord’s Prayer, which you probably don’t even need to see the words written down to pray that one; most of you know it by heart.

Thank God for something and ask God for something….a simple prayer that you can offer wherever you are: before a meal, while drinking your morning coffee, during your commute to or from work or school, as you lay in bed at night.  But day after day, week after week offer your prayers to God. Even if you are consistent and persistent, it’s possible that it still might be a long time before you notice anything. But I bet that if you continue in prayer, day after day, week after week, the day will come when you will realize that something has changed. And when that day comes, you will know, without a doubt, that God has heard your prayer.  Maybe a new visitor comes to worship on a Sunday morning, a new ministry program begins within this congregation, a new need in the community is met with donations from this church, or an old member returns after years of being away….whatever it is for this congregation…know that it is God moving in your midst.

So pray always, don’t give up and keep on keeping on.  Amen.