WHO ARE “ALL”?

Matthew 25:37-40, Acts 2:42-47

Faith Westdorp

In today’s reading we see the beginnings of the first church.

Matt Skinner writes that this passage “describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”

Working for BNP and for a church is pretty amazing. One of the biggest surprises to me when I started and over the course of the past six months has been how God shows up at Brethren Nutrition Program. It is astounding. Items that we need seem to appear out of thin air, volunteers come through at the last minute with donations of materials and their time. We feel God’s presence in other ways too, in the gratefulness of our guests, in the simple way that things work out day in and day out, even when they shouldn’t. These are, I believe, “signs of the Spirit within this community of volunteers and guests who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity”.

The community described in Acts 2:42-47 consisted of God-fearing Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem after hearing of Jesus’ resurrection. Together, they witnessed the wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when a wind blew and suddenly people who spoke different languages could understand one another. The first church consisted of people from vastly different places, cultures, and backgrounds who were united in faith.

These people sold their possessions and pooled their resources in order to better care for one another. Isn’t that beautiful?

Do you think that there were forms to be filled out in order to confirm and establish that Sarah really needs that loaf of bread, or that David needs a new shirt? I know some of y’all are sitting there like “Wellll these people were prob illiterate so… no there weren’t any forms because no one could read”.  That’s not my point. The point is that this passage illustrates needs being met, no questions asked.

 Why then is it so much more comfortable for us to create processes and systems for helping others? Why do we create systems and bureaus for interacting with the needy instead of connecting with each other, and folding everyone in?

Raise your hand if you remember the first time a stranger asked you for money. I do. I was six.

A year later when I was in first grade my family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. My mom commuted into DC and would take my brother and I in with her on days that we had off from school so that we could stuff and seal envelopes at her office. The highlight of working in my mom’s office for my brother was always competing with himself for how many envelopes he could label in a set amount of time. For me, it was a trip to the Chipotle of the ‘90s, Baja Fresh (they had BLUE Hi-C in their soda fountain). On our way to DuPont Circle from my mom’s office a man sitting on a stoop asked us for change and my mom ignored him, or maybe didn’t hear him, or more likely was so accustomed to these requests that she didn’t even register it. But at 6 years old I heard him and saw him in full, and I stopped to open my red, heart-shaped purse to give him my dollar bill. My mom quickly came over when she saw what I was doing and gave me a “stranger-danger” lecture as we walked away. I felt like I had done something wrong by helping someone in need.

My mom isn’t a bad person, and she definitely had a strong influence on my path to BNP. A year before this, she had encouraged me to run a penny drive at our church to benefit a children’s charity. She obviously took on a lot of the associated work because I was 5 and mostly remember being annoyed that people had contributed silver coins to our PENNY drive.

These two experiences have stuck with me because they are reminders that we are all taught who to help, and how. Through my Psychology coursework, I was introduced to a slew of psycho-social phenomena that are useful when analyzing how and why we’re taught to help some people, and not others. One theory that’s applicable when thinking about why and how we help or don’t help people in need is in-group/ out-group theory. An ingroup is defined as a social group to which we think we belong, and an outgroup is a social group that you do not think you belong to. The strength of our attachments to our multiple personal “ingroups” varies. For example, my sense of belonging to “women” as a group is much stronger than my sense of belonging to “soup kitchen managers” as a group.

Social scientists have shown that we feel more positively towards people we perceive as members of our ingroup. On the surface, this is another classic example of psychology confirming something we already know to be true: we like people we can relate to, who are like us.

The unfortunate outcome of our tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us, is what it does to how we think of people who are not like us, AKA members of our various outgroups. An outgroup that social scientists have found to be among the most likely to be thought negatively about and discriminated against are people experiencing homelessness.

One study using MRI/ fMRI scans to map people’s brain activity as they were exposed to different pictures of people and things drives home this point. In one picture, a study participant sees a chair. And in the next, they see a picture of someone belonging to their ingroup. In the last picture, they see a picture of someone experiencing homelessness. Participants’ brains’ responses to pictures of people experiencing homelessness are closer to how they perceive a chair than how they perceive a member of their ingroup. Essentially, when we see people experiencing homelessness we process them as furniture instead of as people. This process is referred to by psychologists as “dehumanization” and is the nasty mechanism behind some of humanity’s greatest atrocities, like the Holocaust. 

The practical implication of this is that we don’t notice and don’t see people who are members of outgroups. People who are homeless. Our brains override our view of them. In other studies, social scientists have shown that we perceive the pain of people belonging to outgroups as being less severe than our own (which, as an aside, has been used to explain why doctors under prescribe women’s pain meds). Dehumanization causes us to literally not see people in need, just like my mom walking by the man on the stoop.

There’s a big advantage to not seeing the suffering of people who are different from us. It allows us to focus our mental and emotional energy on our ingroup, a pool of people who presumably share more genetic information with us than members of our outgroup do. Positive affect or “feelings” for people who are like us aids in group cohesion, which in turn strengthens familial bonds that support the propagation of our own genetic lines. Beyond that, city and close-quarter living would be unbearable if our brains processed every person we see the same way we process our loved ones. Can you imagine the exhaustion that would ensue if we greeted every person we saw like they were our best friend?

But Jesus DID see each and every person as if they were one of his best friends, his loved ones. He is and was perfect, saw society’s castaways and tended to them with compassion. A life modeled after Christ must include compassion and love for those who are vastly different from us.

My favorite bible quote is found in Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The ways in which we come to view others, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”, “stranger” and “friend” are all learned.  If the first Christians, through the power of the holy spirit were able to overcome lack of a common language in order to “give to one another” then we have the power to open our hearts wider, to love deeper, to widen our circles to include people we haven’t before. We can break bread with more people, and we can strengthen the bonds that we have and bring more people in.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

GLORIFYING THE STRENGTHS GIVEN BY GOD, FOR GOD

Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Emmy Goering

I’ve just returned to D.C. after spending the last week in the Chicago area at the Brethren Volunteer Service retreat. There, I was able to get some much needed rest and was able to connect with the friends who I’d bonded with at our orientation. While we shared stories about our service experience, this sermon loomed in the back of my mind. As we were giggling and groaning, crying and commiserating, lamenting and laughing with our fellow BVS’ers, this sermon taunted me throughout the whole retreat. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be good enough? Would I have anything worth speaking to you about?

 Don’t get me wrong–I accepted this task willingly, and I am very glad to be here speaking to you today. But as you can tell, I’ve also been more than a little bit nervous about today’s sermon.

My mom says that sometimes I’m an “over-thinker”, a worry wart, a nervous Nellie–and, she jokes, that she’s worried that I get that from her. But seriously, no matter how much I want to do something, I sometimes over-think it. I used to get so caught up in the “what ifs” that I was almost frozen with fear. Luckily, the more that I step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, the easier it gets. As I shared during my first address of this congregation at the beginning of my BVS term, I have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from my hometown of McPherson, Kansas to my transplanted home here in D.C.  

But let’s get back to my recount of the retreat. Mid-week, we had a session with Dana Cassel. She introduced the idea of discerning our vocation. After conversing together in a circle about this topic, we turned to a screen that reflected the well-known “Ted” logo, signifying that we were all in for a treat. If you don’t know what Ted talks are, they are about a 15 minute speech given by anyone with an idea worth sharing.

 As long as that person has some sort of “innovative” idea, the talk can literally be about anything. The speaker who we watched was Elizabeth Gilbert, the #1 best-selling New York Times author of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” As I watched Ms. Gilbert projected on the big screen, surrounded by fellow BVS’ers, I was inspired by her story.

Her very first book was an amazingly successful bestseller. As many of you can imagine, she felt pressure to follow up with ANOTHER amazingly successful book. At the beginning of her Ted Talk, she shared the comments that she received from friends and strangers alike about her creative future. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about…at all…ever…again?”

When faced with these negative expectations, Elizabeth Gilbert remembered that she’d   heard similar gloomy comments when she’d first shared her dreams of being a writer as a teenager. Now, this was the part of Ms. Gilbert’s Ted Talk that really sparked my interest.

I related to the same gloomy comments that she’d heard as a teen. When I first shared my dream of travelling the world to serve others, some people weren’t very receptive. Most thought that my plans were just a phase; others guessed that I’d give up when things got tough. None of them specifically set out to crush my hopes and ambitions. They were just worried about me.

 For example, when I was 15 years old, I told my parents that I was going to go to BVS after high school. They’d always encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, so they were happy to hear of my plans. But when I went on to say that I also had the rest of my life planned out already, they were a bit concerned.

 I explained that there was no need to worry. I’d buy a van with my then-hypothetical  BVS best friends so we could travel the world for the rest of our days, serving others… {pause} until they reminded me that life doesn’t always work out the way that you plan. How would we support ourselves, they asked. Why, I answered, donations of food and gas money, of course. They then went on to point out that global service wouldn’t be an option if a van was our only means of transportation. Geography may not be my strong suit, but I am definitely passionate, and creative, about service! Just like the people in Gilbert’s life who questioned her ability to weather the demands of her intended career, people in my life were worried about my ability to withstand the tolls of service.

After hearing so many gloomy predictions, Gilbert began to wonder why people regarded anyone with creativity-based aspirations as doomed to fail. Gilbert questioned, why should anyone be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel driven to do?

She decided to do some digging on this tremendous burden placed upon creative people throughout history. She found something, that I believe to be, quite interesting.

She looked across time and at other societies for ways they helped people manage the emotional toll that’s often tied to creativity. Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and ancient Roman societies, people believed that creativity was a “divine attendant spirit from a distant source that came to people for some distant and unknowable reason.” Greeks called these spirits Damons. The Romans called this disembodied spirit a Genius. They believed that while someone was working creatively, a genius sat hiding in the corner waiting to give some inspiration and shape the outcome of the work. In this way, the ancient artist was protected. If their work was great, they were isolated from too much narcissism; if their work was a flop, they were isolated from the failure.

I think the idea of these genius spirits isn’t all that absurd of a conclusion. That genius, that creativity, was and is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. That being is there to guide you.

 God gave us all of these incredible gifts, and we are here to use them for God. As Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

For me, as a young Christian woman trying to find my way to serve in this world, this scripture has lifted a lot of weight off my own shoulders. However, in my desire to make a big, life-changing difference right now, to want to plan out my calling years in advance, it’s something that I am constantly needed to be reminded of. Our gifts are God’s gifts. I’m here to use God’s gifts for His Glory, but on His timeline and in His way, not mine. {pause}

I was surrounded by incredible people this last week at the BVS retreat. All of them are following their calling by using their gifts and talents given by God. Finding what these gifts are and exactly how we are to use them, however, can come a lot easier for some than others. Learning to use these gifts to glorify God can be even more of a challenge. How do we glorify this almighty Creator who gave us life and love?

 As Christians, we can look to the scripture for guidance. Psalm 95 Says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Recently, I saw the Disney movie, Moana, and it reminded me of this idea of serving the Lord on His timeline and according to His plans. The main character, Moana, is a young Polynesian princess whose island paradise is slowly deteriorating. Although Moana’s father expects her to remain on the island and lead their people as he has done, Moana believes that it is her unique calling to leave the island to fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors and save their people. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. The ocean-based animation is breathtaking, the songs are amazing, and Moana’s silly little chicken sidekick named Hei-Hei is hilarious.

While Moana isn’t a Christian movie, I did find some interesting spiritual analysis by Christian movie reviewer Kevin Ott on the website Rockin’ God’s House. Mr. Ott spoke with Mark Hett, one of Disney’s main animators on the film, about Moana’s spiritual connections. Mr. Hett is also a Christian, and he says that although Moana is based on the Oceana/Polynesian mythology of their world and their culture, the film provides a lot to discuss in regard to a call that is from outside one’s self. To quote Mr. Hett, “I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film…that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in.”

  Let’s think about that for a minute. We’re in the world but we’re not of the world. That is a major struggle for most Christians. How do we do God’s work in this world?

Much like the struggle that Moana faces when she challenges her village’s expectations for her life, we often struggle with our interpretation of what others expect of us.

 Elizabeth Gilbert faced criticism when she voiced her plans to become a writer. My choice to spend my first year out of high school in BVS rather than going straight to college was met with skepticism and misunderstanding by some.

 But just as Moana follows the call of the ocean, which is always there to support her along her journey, we must choose to follow our calling from God, who is always there to support us in our journey.

 Our path may not be normal, or easy. Our calling may not be typical, but it may not necessarily be earth-shattering, either. We may hear from naysayers who are simply concerned with our ability to withstand the challenges that we’ll face along the way. But as Christians, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. As we read in Psalm 95, we must sing for joy to the Lord; we must kneel down before the Lord our Maker.

 As we’re instructed by Romans 5, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

 At the BVS retreat this past week, I was blessed to see the work of God through my fellow BVS’ers. I challenge you to see God through others–through their work, through the passions they bring, through their service to others, even if it’s not the typical path or the easy choice. The Spirit of Christ is within each of us.  Amen.

Love is the Qualification

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Jennifer Hosler

Have you ever felt like a fraud? Like you were inadequate and that it was only a matter of time before people found out that you really weren’t qualified? These feelings are apparently very common for people in graduate school. Lingering in many students’ minds are thoughts like, “I’m not smart enough, not eloquent enough; I’m lacking in critical thinking. I don’t know how they let me in but, clearly, they made a mistake and everyone else is at a different level than me.” These thoughts and tendencies have been called “imposter syndrome” and they’re common in academia, as well as in the visual and performing arts, and in teaching. Imposter syndrome occurs when high achieving people are unable “to internalize past and current success. [It’s when] Being successful does not alter how you feel about yourself and does not alleviate feelings of inadequacy” (Caltech Counseling Center, n.d.).

A place like Washington, DC, must be rife with imposter syndrome: it’s filled with ambitious people trying hard to make a difference or to achieve their agenda, to gain power, or win the public’s heart. But I imagine that a form of imposter syndrome is also common in the church, self-doubt about whether we’re really worthy enough to do anything for God. “I’m really not spiritual enough, I’m good enough or holy enough. I really don’t know the Bible enough to teach Sunday school, to lead a Bible study. I’m not pure enough or qualified enough to do x, y, or z in the church.”

The Bible has many stories of people who are given opportunities to serve God and their reaction is, “God, I’m really not qualified for this!” Well, what does make a person qualified to be used by God? Several of our texts converge today, in different ways, to answer this question. In Jeremiah, a Psalm, and in 1 Corinthians, we can see that anyone made by God is called, qualified, and ordained to do God’s work. We are all made by God, loved by God, and gifted with skills and purpose: the only qualification we need is love—God’s love for us and our love for others.

Formed, Known, Set Apart, Appointed

Our first text this morning is in the book of Jeremiah. The first few verses of the book (which we didn’t read) explain the context of what era Jeremiah’s ministry occurred, during the reigns of the last few kings of Judah before the Babylonian exile. We learn that Jeremiah came from a family of priests, though it isn’t clear whether he was working as a priest at that time. After these few introductory verses, the book begins with Jeremiah’s call to ministry. Biblical commentaries note that there are a lot of similarities with the calls of other prophets, such as Moses and Isaiah (House, 1998).

The word of LORD comes to Jeremiah, saying, “Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations—that’s what I had in mind for you” (Jer. 1:5, The Message). Imagine hearing a word from God—that God formed you, knows you, has set you apart, and is appointing you to an important and daunting task. Prophets had been around before Jeremiah (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Jonah, and more), so Jeremiah knew what this “being a prophet” might entail.

Right away, Jeremiah says, “Sorry God, you don’t really know me. I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to speak, and I am way too young for this” (paraphrase, v. 6). Put another way, God says, “I know everything about you, I made you, and equipped you for this.” And Jeremiah says, “Umm… I don’t really think you know what you’re doing, asking me.”

The LORD responds to Jeremiah, “Don’t say that you’re too young! I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be with you and I will rescue you” (vv. 7-8, adapted from the Message). Then the LORD reaches out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth (in a vision, or in a manifestation of God, it isn’t clear), and says, “Now I’ve put my words in your mouth, and you’ll be able to do what I’m asking you. You’ll call nations to repentance and judgment; you’ll bring them hope and healing again” (vv.9-10, paraphrase).

After the LORD says this, Jeremiah takes up the call—receiving God’s visions of judgment, calling for justice and repentance, and speaking forth a future hope where Israel would be given a new covenant (Jer. 33).

I think it’s important for us to learn from Jeremiah’s call: God began by telling Jeremiah that he was formed by God, known by God, set apart by God, and appointed to serve God. When Jeremiah protests that he isn’t adequate, the LORD says, “I am making you adequate. I’m equipping you with all that you need to follow me in faith and proclaim my message.”

God’s words to Jeremiah reminded me of Psalm 139, which we used part of Psalm 139 for our call to worship:

One:    O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
All:      You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
One:    You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
All:      Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, Lord.
One:    You hem me in, behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
All:      Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
One:    For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
All:      I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful—I know that full well.
One:    My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
All:      All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
One:    How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them.
All:   Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

Just as Jeremiah was formed, known, set apart, and appointed by God, so too are each of us made and known intimately by God, loved by God, and set apart with gifts and purpose. Have you ever felt called by God and thought you weren’t qualified? Perhaps you’ve thought about new ways to serve or new ministries to start, but you’ve doubted yourself, saying, “I’m not the right person. I don’t have enough time, enough skill, enough faith. I don’t read my Bible enough. I don’t pray enough.”

Sisters and brothers, God made you, knows you, has a plan for you and calls you to be a part of God’s work. You may not feel qualified, but you are—because the Creator of the Universe made you, knows you, loves you, and will walk with you every step of the way, just as the LORD did with Jeremiah.

Discerning our Gifts

You might be saying, “I haven’t exactly heard God’s voice like Jeremiah, so how do I know what God is calling me to do?” How do we know how we are to serve? How do we know what our gifts are? In the Church of the Brethren, with our Anabaptist and Pietist background, I understand there to be two ways to answer this. First, we learn about our gifts by considering our own interests, desires, and natural talents. If you want to learn what your gifts are, start by asking, what interests you? What are you good at?

Second, we also learn what our gifts are through the calling of our community. This is when sisters and brothers speak to us that we should try this or that role and they affirm us and encourage us when we do serve, sharing that they see the Spirit working in us and gifting us in this way. We also rely on the Spirit’s work in the community to have people say, “I think your gifts might be better used elsewhere.” From our Pietist heritage, we emphasize the Spirit’s voice to the individual, and from our Anabaptist heritage, we stress community discernment and the priesthood of all believers.

Both of these aspects of gift discernment require intentionality. As individuals, we need to think about our talents and our interests: how can they be put to good use for the church? It also means that we need to try things out, get our feet wet in service. As a community of Jesus followers, it means that we intentionally encourage everyone to find a way to serve in the church, whether big or small. It means that we get to know one another and intentionally learn about each other’s strengths—what we each can add to the body of Christ.

Preaching was never something that I imagined I would do. I knew I wanted to serve God, to build up the body of Christ, to work to extend God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. I pictured that happening a lot of ways, but somehow, not through preaching. Though I had done well in public speaking during middle school and high school, no one had ever encouraged me to try preaching. While I was training for ministry in my undergraduate studies, we had to take both an intro speech class and an advanced communication class. A preaching class was my advanced communication class. While I did well and several people found my messages encouraging, it ended there. Several years later, I preached a few times in Nigeria, both by myself and jointly with Nate. We began preaching and speaking more together in the U.S., sharing about our peace work in Nigeria.  Opportunities began to open up and the church began to call out my gift.

In April 2012, I preached my first sermon at Washington City, just two months after we moved to DC. After I finished, someone said to me, “Are you sure you haven’t missed your calling?” I laughed, but when, hmm. Shortly after, another person encouraged me to explore pastoral ministry—an unexpected prompting to be sure. Not long later, I was called as Community Outreach Coordinator and part of that work involved filling the pulpit here once a month. Within a year, Jeff, Nate, and I were called as the ministry team. The community of Jesus followers again affirmed this gift in me. I started by trying something out, explored my interest (eventually), and the church encouraged and affirmed my gift.

Love is the Qualification

Preaching is just one type of gift (often defined as teaching or prophecy) and there are many other types. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, caregiving, discernment, service, administration: these are just some of the gifts described in the New Testament. Some gifts are upfront and a bit flashier, others are quiet and behind the scenes. Scripture says that all are crucial and needed for the body of Christ and the work of the church. One of our other passages this morning was the beautiful section in 1 Corinthians 13. While the scripture is often used at weddings, the context in Corinthians is actually about spiritual gifts. Paul has several chapters in a row, and this is in the middle. It’s about love being the qualification for all gifts and service to God.

The Corinthian church had issues with certain gifts being prioritized over one another; they also had issues with people lording power and status over each other. Paul uses chapter 13 to ground the discussion about spiritual gifts in the context of love. He writes, “If I speak in tongues and if I prophesy, but don’t love, all I do is meaningless noise. I’m just a gong or a cymbal. It clatters and dissipates.  If I teach and can explain every theological mystery, and even have faith that God can do marvelous things, but don’t have love, I am nothing. I am nothing. If I rid myself of all my possessions, if I make every sacrifice in service to people who are poor and in need, if I even sacrifice my own life—but don’t have love, I gain nothing. It is meaningless in God’s sight” (paraphrase, 1 Cor. 13:1-3).

Paul then goes on to explain about what love looks like, just in case the church in Corinth thought that love was only warm fuzzies and sentimentality, rather than patience and kindness, trust, hope, perseverance, and more.

We see in God’s word to Jeremiah, that we are made by God, known by God, loved by God—that is what makes us qualified to begin God’s service. God also makes sure that we all have gifts to put to use. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “To each [follower of Christ] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The only qualification on our end, holding up our part of the bargain (or covenant, really), is that we focus on love. In our singing, our distributing of the offering plate, in our administrative meetings, our answering the phone, our chopping vegetables, in our giving mail to people who are homeless, in our office work, in our preaching or guitar playing, we are to exude the love and kindness of Christ. We are called to put on love as a garment, as the uniform that we need to preach or usher or do administration or weed the garden or serve the meal or play the guitar. Love is the qualification we need to serve God.

I’m not saying there aren’t skills or techniques we need to learn for different roles; I’m not saying we are automatically fully prepared. But in terms of qualifications, all you need to get started is love—a willingness to walk in faith and love.

Sisters and brothers, anyone made by God is called, qualified, and ordained to do God’s work. We are all made by God, loved by God, and gifted with skills and purpose: the only qualification we need is love—God’s love for us and our love for others. AMEN.

 

 

References

Caltech Counseling Center. (n.d.). The imposter syndrome. Retrieved from https:// counseling.caltech.edu/general/InfoandResources/Impostor
House, P. (1998). Old Testament biblical theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

 

 

 

 

SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE

Ephesians 4:1-16

Jeff Davidson

(note – BVS refers to Brethren Volunteer Service, a program where volunteers serve in a variety of assignments around the world for 1-2 years.  In today’s service a BVS orientation unit and a Senior High work camp were in attendance.)

For those of you who don’t know me, I work at a 9-1-1 center outside of DC. It’s shift work, for me from 6 pm to 7 in the morning. It’s a mix of days on and days off, and it’s a job where you often hear people at their worst. People don’t call 9-1-1 because they’re having a good day. They don’t call 9-1-1 because everything is fine and they are totally in control of the situation. People call 9-1-1 because the situation is beyond their control and they need help, because they have screwed up big time and they need help, because someone else has screwed up big time and they need help… you get the idea. People call 9-1-1 when things are not going well.

This means that people who call us are often rude, or impatient, or upset. They yell at us, curse at us, and they refuse to answer our questions because they don’t understand why we’re asking them. Not everybody, of course, and not even most people, I don’t want to make it sound worse than it is, but it only takes one or two of those kinds of folks to ruin your attitude for the night.

We can’t talk back to those folks, because it’s not professional, it’s not helpful, and it’s not the right thing to do. So sometimes we take that frustration and that anger that we feel out on each other. That’s the nature of the job, and everyone knows it, it happens to all of us at work at one time or another. We try to understand it and accept it and work through it with one another, because we are there for a particular purpose.

We are there to help figure out what kind of help the caller needs and to get them that help. We are there to try to keep the caller safe and to keep the responding units safe, whether it’s police or fire or medical services. We are there to provide a public service. And when we are focused on what we are doing, when we keep our minds on what we are there for, it is easier for us to move past the hurts and the tensions and the stresses that always will come up in a workplace like ours. When we all have the same goals, we can deal with the conflicts.

As a pastor, I have been through a lot of conflicts in congregations. Sometimes it’s been the congregation where I was serving, sometimes it’s been a neighboring congregation. Sometimes people have been able to work through their problems, and sometimes they have not. When they have not, it means that maybe the pastor leaves, or a number of people leave and the congregation is weakened and smaller. I have been the pastor that has left in those settings sometimes. Other times I have been the pastor that came in to try to help clean up the mess.

In my experience, the congregations that have worked through their conflicts successfully, the congregations that have learned and grown and come out on the other side stronger, are the ones that have been focused on their mission. They are the congregations that are united in knowing what it is they are trying to do and how they are trying to go about it. They are the ones that are trying to be servants of Christ and speaking God’s truth.

Paul talks about that unity throughout this passage. One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. We are bound together. Later Paul talks about us as a body being joined and knit together by every ligament with which we are equipped.

That image of ligaments is a powerful one here in DC. Even people around here who aren’t football fans have heard all about Washington’s quarterback Robert Griffin III, and even some of us who are fans are really tired of hearing about him. Real quick summary – Griffin started playing here in 2012, and he was fantastic. He hurt his knee twice in 2012, and he has not been the same since. There’s other stuff going on too, but really the injuries to his knee are what derailed Griffin’s career and have caused difficulties in figuring out how best to use him as a player.

The knee injury wasn’t a broken knee, it wasn’t a shattered bone or anything like that. The knee injury that took away some of Griffin’s physical gifts was an injury to his knee ligaments, an injury to the structures that connect bones to other bones. That kind of an injury happens when the knee is twisted, when the ligaments are not moving together in the direction that they are supposed to move. That’s an injury that happens when the ligaments are not in harmony, in unity in their movement and purpose.

We all have different gifts, Paul says, and we are to use those gifts to grow in the unity of Christ, and one of the ways we do that is by speaking the truth in love. In his book Wishful Thinking Frederick Buechner writes, “God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.”

That’s what these brothers and sisters in town for the work camp are doing. That’s what these BVSers are doing. That’s what Estella has been doing with us and will be doing in Germany. That’s what Bryan did with the Office of Public Witness.  That’s what Katie’s doing with Going to the Garden. That’s what Care and Mary O. do. That’s what each of us are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to be going someplace and being Christ in that place. We are supposed to speak the truth in love.

The truth is that God wants peace. The truth is that God wants justice. The truth is that God wants abundance, and health, and wholeness. The truth is that God loves everybody. That’s the truth that we speak. Love is that attitude that we speak it with. Service is one of the languages with which we speak it. Growth in the unity of Christ is what happens when we speak it faithfully. Dissension and division are what happens when we forget that unity of purpose and that unity of service and that unity of love.

I said earlier that I admire each of you who are a part of BVS, willing to give a part of your lives to service, to speaking the truth in love. I admire each of you who are wrapping up your service with the work camp. I hope it’s just another of the ways in which you will continue to speak the truth in love. I admire each of you who look at their lives and try to name and develop your gifts, wherever you are in your life’s journey, and try to use those gifts to speak the truth in love.

God wants peace. God wants justice. God loves everybody. That is the truth that we speak when we serve God. That is the truth that binds us together. Amen.

Victor, King, Servant?

Victor, King, Servant? – Jennifer Hosler

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is the name that the church has given to mark the events in Scripture which are referred to as the Triumphal Entry.  The Triumphal Entry, which we just read, involves palm branches waving and coats flying and people shouting, “Hosanna!” Something big is going on with what Jesus is doing: the people around him realize it and rejoice.

What is the Triumphal Entry, besides a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration? What does it tell us about who Jesus is? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?

I spent a few moments this past week musing on the word triumph. When we use a word or phrase phrase regularly, we can forget the meaning within. Triumph—the word indicates victory, glory, overcoming, winning. “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance into a crowd or a setting or place.

What is a modern example of a triumphal entry? The first one I thought of involved sports teams, athletes coming home after winning a national championship.  It is usually a very big deal when the winning baseball or hockey team comes home: there are parades of victory throughout the streets.  The streets are decorated, signs go up. Everyone gets talking about the victory. Everyone is celebrating the glory of the team and of the city.  While this isn’t something that DC knows much about in recent years, we can all picture the excitement there would be if the Nats won the World Series or the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

While DC might not be too familiar with sports team glory in recent years, DC does know another modern form of a triumphal entry. Every four years, the city rolls out an impressive extravaganza for the Presidential Inauguration. After battles in primaries and in the general election, the electoral victor is finally sworn in at the US Capitol building, surrounded by crowds and dignitaries. There is then a processional march from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands and thousands cheer and celebrate and strain their necks for a glimpse at the new President of the United States.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format each entry took: there was victory; the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage; the crowds welcomed and rejoiced; the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering up to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). Small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.

For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but also eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The words of the psalmist (Ps. 13) rang true for many, “How long, O LORD, will you forget us forever?” Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem was teeming with people. Thousands and thousands were making their way into the city from all over the country, in order to head to the temple for Passover. As DC tourist season is once again in full swing, you can picture what it means for a city to be teeming with people (especially if you walked along the tidal basin this past week). The temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover marks YHWH’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ request of his disciples in Matthew 21 seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.” Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures (as do the crowds, apparently) and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a colt (a young donkey). In the passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King.

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David.

We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey. The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act. They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens.”

It is clear that the celebrating crowds were only a portion of Jerusalem. They may have primarily been people from Galilee, Jesus’ northern region that was not of the highest esteem. Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” There was a commotion in the city. Not everyone knew who Jesus was but word spread quickly, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mt. 21:10-11)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not always verbally open as to who he was. Jesus would heal the sick and raise the dead—but often stopped short of saying who he really was. With the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is openly declaring that he is the Messiah—but is also relying on people to make the symbolic connections from Scripture. The Triumphal Entry is a picture to illustrate that Jesus is the One whom the prophets foretold, come to deliver God’s people and to usher in the Kingdom of God’s reign.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also important because it shows us what type of King He is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king.

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has enthralled the world and media over his first year. He has chosen modest housing accommodations over a palace, simple garments over lace and gold and handmade shoes, and a twenty-year old used car over new, luxury models. These steps have been a welcome change by many who saw the Vatican as overflowing with wealth.

Yet perhaps the most meaningful actions by Pope Francis have been ones that diminish the distance between the everyday person and the Pope. Personal phone calls, unannounced visits, refusing to be encased in the Popemobile bubble, footwashing of prisoners, embracing a disfigured man: Pope Francis clearly tries to be a humble servant. Humble servants are not in large supply in this world and we are used to people using their power and privilege to support themselves and their own comfort. Pope Francis is a contrast to our dominant culture and values. People around the world are moved by his actions, by a person in power, with great means, who chooses humility, simplicity, and service.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege, but to serve and deliver others. Jesus’ ethic of service and humility can be seen throughout the book of Matthew, particularly in passages close to the Triumphal Entry and the Cross.

In Matthew 20, the chapter prior to today’s text, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus with a request. Basically, “Give my sons glorious positions of power when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus says no and the other disciples, when they hear about it, are furious. Jesus takes it as a teaching opportunity, “Rulers and kings lord their power over their subjects. But not so with you. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant” (paraphrased, Mt. 20:25-26). Commentary author R.T. France states that, “Not so with you well sums up the theme of this whole section of the gospel; the kingdom of heaven creates an alternative society which challenges conventional values” (1994, p. 930). Jesus’ Kingdom is defined by service, not privilege or power.

Another passage in Matthew 20 reminds me of Francis’ acts of caring for the sick (or rather, I should say that Francis reminds me of Jesus). On the way to Jerusalem (but before the donkey), the crowds are following Jesus and two blind men on the side of the road hear who is coming. The two men cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The blind men realize who Jesus is. Yet the crowds shout them down: Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with you, blind beggars on the side of the road, literally on the margins. But Jesus doesn’t look at outward appearances and everyone is worthy of his care, his healing, his grace. The blind men are healed and begin to follow Jesus.

After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple. He looks around and sees that the temple area (about 30 acres) was filled with money changers and animals for sale. These commercial activities were crowding out the main purpose of the area—worship, prayer—and were probably exploitative. Jesus clears out the money changers and merchants and, soon after, “the blind and lame” come to him there and he cures them (21:14). Jesus’ acts illustrate that he is a servant king, using his authority to bring justice and grace.

From the Triumphal Entry and the clearing of the temple, we move forward to the Upper Room on Thursday. Just a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus the Servant King holds a Passover meal with his disciples. In the book of John, we read that Jesus, knowing that he would be put to death, took the last opportunity to teach his disciples by choosing to humbly serve them.

In New Testament times, people would have their feet washed upon entering a room, probably by a servant. The disciples and Jesus didn’t come with servants and no one had apparently been moved to be the one to serve. So the teacher Jesus girds himself with a towel, bends down, and washes his disciples’ feet.

After he is done washing, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you not know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out Jesus’ example of service. Our lives are meant to be defined by gratitude, simplicity, humility, and service, rather than clutching onto status or privilege or some authority that we might have. We are called to live our lives by Jesus’ ethic of service—and also to model his act together. This week, we worship together on Thursday for Love Feast, where we, like Jesus and the disciples, partake of the bread and cup, share a meal together, and wash one another’s feet. As we go through this week and as we join for Love Feast, may we meditate on Jesus our model, the Servant King. AMEN.

 

 

References

France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Waiting for the Bulb to Flower

Waiting for the Bulb to Flower

Jennifer Hosler

Deut. 30:15-20; Ps. 119: 1-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9

Last Sunday was a big step for us as a congregation. While we had made the decision to proceed with the new ministry model at the end of July, this was, finally, its official implementation. As we all know, Washington City had been without official leadership for quite a few years. This hasn’t been easy—and it hasn’t helped us grow.

I remember one moment during the first year that Nate and I were a part of this community. An older couple visited while I was preaching and I happened to talk with them while walking up our front steps. They had just moved to Capitol Hill, they had an Anabaptist background, they had served abroad with Mennonite Central Committee. As we were standing outside, I got the impression that they were truly interested. Then, realizing that I was the Jenn listed as preacher on the sign, they asked, “Are you the pastor?” I said, “No” – and tried to make it sound okay that we didn’t have official church leadership since we were “searching”. I saw by their faces that a church without leadership was undesirable. Unfortunately, they never returned.

Thankfully, we don’t have to have those awkward moments any more. Yes, we are currently a small congregation but, yes, we do have official leadership. We’re trying something new, things are looking up, and people (at least others looking in from around the denomination) are excited about what is happening at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We’ve made progress and the ship doesn’t seem like it is sinking any more. To change metaphors, while the road ahead might still be rocky, our feet are on solid ground. The roads ahead are unknown but potentially ripe with opportunity and adventure.

Our passage in Deuteronomy this morning finds the people of Israel also at a significant point in their journey, with boundless opportunity lying ahead. We can learn from the Israelites, from Moses’ words to them, and also from Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians. Opportunity lies ahead for Washington City. But the shape of whatever lies ahead is, in many ways, contingent on us—all of us. In Scripture, we see that a congregation’s well-being is contingent on their love for and faithfulness to God. The health of our community and its future depend on the faithfulness and work of all of us. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, we know that God has promised to be faithful, to work through us, and to be with us on the journey.

When thinking about journeys, about roads and unknowns, I couldn’t help but consider a seemingly unremarkable hobbit named Bilbo. Hobbits, if you don’t know, are small people-like creatures in Tolkien’s Middle Earth world of humans, dwarves, elves, and goblin-like orcs. At the beginning fot he Hobbit, Bilbo lives a quiet Hobbit life—until he has an encounter with Gandalf the wizard. This leads to Bilbo’s house being overrun with dwarves and Bilbo receives an invitation to go on an unexpected journey over the mountains towards a dragon. There is first disbelief and refusal, then fear and apprehension. These emotions, however, are overtaken by a yearning for adventure. Bilbo doesn’t know what is next—and it isn’t guaranteed to be safe or easy—but he sets out in hope of the adventures that await.

Our passage today is at the climax of Deuteronomy: the Israelites are just about to enter the Promised Land. In Deut. 30, we meet the people of Israel when they’ve been camping out in the desert for 40 years. While one week of camping sounds like vacation, forty years sounds horrible.

What is the back-story to this camping? The books of Exodus and Numbers teach that, despite experiencing God’s great deeds freeing them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had a tendency to doubt and disobey. YHWH gave them a law and made a covenant with them and they turned away from Him, worshiping idols instead. YHWH told the Israelites that He would protect them in the Promised Land and He had been faithful to Israel before.

Yet when a group of Israelite scouts went ahead to examine the new land, they saw the existing inhabitants, feared, and doubted that YHWH’s power was great enough to see them through. The scouts reported back and the people of Israel doubted that God would really be with them in the next step of their journey. As a result, YHWH said, “You don’t trust me? Fine. Wait around here a little longer and learn to trust me.” The forty years “in the wilderness” was a time to draw people back to faith and trust in YHWH.

When we come to our current passage, it is a very important time. After promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, after bondage and deliverance in Egypt and forty years of desert wandering, something new lies ahead: an opportunity to follow God in faith, a chance to demonstrate their faithfulness to Him, and the prospect of God’s blessing on their people.

A commentary writer, T. D. Alexander, describes the scene this way: “Following the death of the first generation of adults who came out of Egypt, the next generation of Israelites is at a decisive point in its relationship with God. Will they, like their parents, fall at the hurdle before them, or will they through faith in the LORD cross the Jordan and possess the promised land?” (Alexander, 2002, p. 253).

We meet Moses in v. 15 as he lays out the critical role that the Israelites’ actions play in their community’s future well-being. Speaking shortly before his own death and the Israelites’ journey into the land, Moses instructs the people that the health of their faith community depends on their faithfulness and love for YHWH.

Moses says, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deut. 30:15-16, NIV). The well-being of their community of faith rests on their love and faithfulness to YHWH: following God’s ways, being devoted to His service, loving God and his commandments (Scripture).

Like the Israelites, Washington City COB is at a decisive point in its journey. Opportunity for life and growth are set before us—and as for the Israelites, life and growth are not guaranteed. It depends on each of us serving, each of us learning about God, each of us growing in faith, in knowledge of God’s word, in love for God and for other people.

We might think that, since we have leadership finally in place, things are set and we have nowhere to go but up. It could be easy to think that—now that we have a ministry team, now that we can say, “We have a pastor! Three, even!”—that everyone can kind of rest, sit back in the pew, and wait for the church to grow. Yet Scripture shows that the church is a body, made up of many parts. The body thrives when each part does what it can do best in the community. To use another metaphor, a ship might be directed by a captain who sets the course, but a ship requires the efforts of numerous people to get it to sail—and sail straight.

Having good leadership isn’t a magic wand for community well-being—we see this with the Israelites. Think of Moses and Aaron. These were good strong leaders. The Israelites had Moses! He was the Israelite equivalent of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington combined, and then some. Yet they still struggled.

While leaders can provide guidance and vision, they can equip and strengthen, individual people have a choice in whether to live out the vision or not. Moses couldn’t force the Israelites to obey God, to love God, to make them recognize that YHWH delivered them from the Egyptians and He would continue to be their great deliverer. The well-being of the Israelite community required the faithfulness of the individuals together as a group. It required all of them to love YHWH, to know his teachings, to follow YHWH by loving others and being a community of justice and mercy. Likewise, we at Washington City are all called to grow in love for God, to walk in his ways, to study his word, to serve the church.

Last week, when Nate, Jeff, and I were being installed, Gene Hagenberger began by reminding us that all believers who are baptized are baptized into ministry in the church. He then outlined vows of faithfulness—both for the ministers and for the congregation members.

In some ways, last week reminded me of a marriage ceremony because it involved covenanting—saying we are joining together and committing to be with one another in love, for each other’s good. Gene asked the ministers for our vows and charged us with responsibility to teach, to nurture the church and to care for our own spiritual walks. He then asked the congregation a question, “Renewing your allegiance to Christ and the church, will you covenant to work together with your pastors to extend the work of the church in this community and throughout the world? Will you pledge your support to these pastors according to your abilities and opportunities?”

How are you covenanting together with us, working with Jeff, Nate and I to extend the work of this church in the community and world? We believe that all followers of Jesus are ministers, are priests. Do you see yourself as a fellow minister in Christ? How can you see yourself as a fellow minister alongside us? Are you a minister who specializes in music, in caring for the sick and lonely, a minister who can cook soup and make salads or cookies for the hungry, a minister who teaches children about God’s great love for us, a minister who cares for administration and budgets and finances, a minister who makes sure that the lights turn on and the doors are open, when they need to be? God works in and through all of us to build up the community of faith. We need all of us.

As Paul taught the Corinthians (who were obsessed with leaders as superstars competing with one another): it isn’t about whom has what title or does what role. “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his or her task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service” (1 Cor. 3:5-9a, NIV). It isn’t about the work of one person: God works through all of us to grow His church.

Spring, though it might be hard to believe, is actually just around the corner. I am looking eagerly to spring—not because I don’t like cold or hate snow (I like the cold and the snow)—but because of the opportunity for plants to grow. As many of you know, I love to plant and garden. This year, I’ve planted bulbs for the first time—tulips, daffodils, and narcissus—and I am excited to see them pop up in places where I expect (and where I don’t).

Gardening and planting in general is, in some ways, about trust and hope. You trust that the ugly brown bulb will be a flower; you provide what makes for life and hope that the seed takes, that a combination of soil and seeds and sunlight will make a plant. Yet there are times when things don’t turn out the way that we expect. A seed doesn’t germinate or a bulb pops up in a place that seems very different from where you put it.

God blesses His church abundantly. Love, reconciliation, resurrection: these are gifts of grace freely given by God, not from our own work. Unlike with God’s covenant to the Israelites that was connected to the land, there are no specific tangible blessings promised to the church for its faithfulness. God didn’t promise that faithful members will lead to a megachurch or even to a church of 50 people. We don’t know what the church will look like in 5, 10, or even 1 year. Yet God calls us to have courage and to be faithful.

I heard a profound quote attributed to Mother Teresa last week which gives insight into this: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” God promises that He be faithful, that He will work through us, and that He will see us through wherever the journey may lead.

We don’t know what lies ahead on the road or what flowers might come out of the bulb we place in the ground. We can’t always see what God does with our faithfulness and the fruit of our labor doesn’t always look like what we expect. But God has promised that He will see us through. Jesus’ last words to his disciples (in Matt. 28) were this: “[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God has promised to work through us and Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to continue His work in this world. My prayer for the church is that of Paul’s to the Ephesians:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph. 3:17-21).  

The well-being of our congregation is connected with the faithfulness of all of us. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, we know that God has promised to be faithful, to work through us, and to be with us on the journey. Sisters and brothers, let us strive together to build up this church, by the power of the Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. AMEN.

References

Alexander, T.D. (2002). From Paradise to the Promised Land. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.