Reflections by Members of the Congregation

James 4:1-12, Colossians 3:12-17

This is the seventh sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/reflections-november-5-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Will Morris
This passage has particular resonance with me because it speaks to an on-going, interior
argument of sorts that constantly goes through my head, where I try to reconcile the Christian humility discussed in the passage with my life here in our power and material obsessed society. The writer speaks of submission to God and opposing ‘friendship with the world.’ I take ‘friendship with the world’ to mean adopting values where we prioritize our own security and comfort over others’ well being, where we justify our own excess on the meritocratic grounds that we earned and deserve all that we have, and further, though we might not admit it to ourselves in these terms, that one’s worth is determined by the wealth we display and positions of power that we hold. We are called instead to submit with humility, to God and one another, to temper our individual ambitions and build the kind of community that raises up “the spirit made to dwell in us.”

The question I often wrestle with is how to submit when I spend so much of my time
trying to figure out how to get ahead in my career and improve my family’s economic position. After all, is it wrong for us to want to get out of debt now, avoid being a burden on others when we’re old enough to retire, and have enough when the time comes to give our hypothetical children as much opportunity as possible? Is it wrong to have a lifestyle that supports flying across two continents regularly to visit family? I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I am wary of how I can use those questions to justify unhealthy ambition in my career. I feel like the world around me is telling me that I should be “killing it” all the time, that it’s up or out, that I should be full of pride (or walk with ‘swagger’ as the company emails put it) and that my number one purpose is satisfying my client – even when my client’s goals conflict with my own core values. Having friendship with the world is being successful in the sense of the wealth I
accrue for myself and my firm’s partners. It’s hard to submit to God and seek humility when I’m looking for approval from the people and institutions around me in that context.

The thing is, I can sense how self-destructive it is to get caught up in all of that even as it
occurs. It’s impossible to find personal satisfaction in those things, and it’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with others when I view them as my competition and rivals. I want to draw near to God and build meaningful relationships with those around me, and to an extent I’m able to when I stop worrying about my performance metrics and stop angling for position. I’m constantly re-learning that our society is structured to reward the proud and gain from conflict, which goes against the Jesus way.

Turning from the world isn’t easy though – the passage even says “let your laughter be
turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” in verse 9 before the promise that God will exalt you. I know ultimately there is greater joy in closeness to God and neighbor that can only be realized through submission to him. I’ll keep trying to figure it all out day-to-day, but being humble with others, recognizing that we’re all beloved of God and equally in need of his grace, is a good first step.

Jennifer Hosler

Full on Zombie Mode (the war within you)

Being in a PhD program, my intellectual oomph gets maxed out with school, so I don’t have the mental energy to read literature. After a very think-y type day, what I like to do is watch something entertaining. One of the shows I’ve watched involves zombies, but not in the gory horror movie sense. In one show, there’s a main character who just happens to be both a medical examiner and a zombie.

Her job as a medical examiner gives her access to the ethically-sourced brains that she needs to remain like a normal person, and not go staggering around, gasping for brains from peoples’ skulls. The morgue brains give her visions as a side effect, which are helpful in solving crimes with a police detective. A mix of a zombie, comedy, and crime show.  One catch is, if her life is threatened (as can happen solving crimes), her eyes turn red and she enters what she calls “full on zombie mode.” An inner zombie rage comes out. It is difficult to manage, because her red eyes and enormous strength will give away her secret that she’s actually undead.

James writes about a war within us, with forces and cravings that lead us to do rather despicable things. While none of us go into full-on zombie mode, there are times when our impulses lead us to do things that we are not proud of. Seething with anger or frustration, our inner animal can be ready to verbally abuse, ridicule, put down or put someone in “their place” with our sarcasm and biting “wit.” Or maybe we don’t wield words, but we wield guilt, using it as an emotional tool to achieve the ends that we seek.

James says that this war within ourselves even leads us to murder. But none of us have gone that far… or have we, if James is referencing Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus says, you think murder is wrong, but hating someone in your heart will equally make you susceptible to judgement.

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just really crave to hurt them? Physical pain isn’t usually what I’m tempted to partake in, but to verbally wound someone, to hurt them deeply, to say the words that seem so perfectly suited to shut that person down and put them in “their place.”

Last week, I spoke about the fruit of the Spirit and the gentleness and pure-hearted mercy that characterizes wisdom from above. The fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James describes – these all seem to build on one another, in ways that complement each other. Gentleness, it seems, is linked to self-control. Peace—working through conflict in a constructive way—is linked to these too, as well as love and kindness. While these fruit, this wisdom from above, are what we are aiming for as Christians, we must be realistic and even blunt in acknowledging that sometimes, we just want to tear someone’s head off and eat their brains.

In the zombie show, there are moments when the main character is in “full-on zombie mode,” in the heat of the moment responding to some type of life-threatening situation, that she seems so close to continuing down the zombie path to attacking and eating her friends. In her zombie rage, somehow her human remnant needs to find a way to take back control and live out her human morals of not eating living people. Somehow, a spark of humanity awakens her back to the way she truly wants to live. Her human-self triumphs over her zombie-self.  

There are times when I’ve been in arguments or frustrated situations where I am thisclose to tearing someone apart, or saying something that I might regret for a long-time, maybe even forever. And this small, creeping thought, whispers that I’m entering a danger zone. This momentary Spirit-whisper provides an opening to resist, to I remember what I am, or to remember whose I am – a child of God, redeemed and reconciled, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

This moment allows me to pivot and turn back from the relationship-damaging brink. The Hebrew word for repentance means literally “to turn.”  In that whisper, there’s a softness, a turning or pivoting, which allows me to submit to the wisdom of Jesus. It’s a wisdom that steps away, cools down, recognizes wrong, apologizes, reframes, and tries again at a better way.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (vv. 7-8).

What is the war that happens within you? Is it responding wrongly in anger and verbally beating someone to a pulp? Is it a temptation to actually use physical force? Maybe your war is different. The monster raging can involve many things. Maybe it involves sexual fantasies about someone who is not your partner, getting too close with someone who is not your partner, watching pornography, crossing proper boundaries on social media or in person that constitute sexual harassment, maybe it is lifting things from the office, or cheating figures in your finances. Or some other monster. There are monsters that lurk within us, sisters and brothers, and temptation is real. What is yours?

In the midst of temptation, there will always be a moment where – if we can hear it – the Spirit whispers for us to resist, to turn back, and gives us an opening (maybe momentary) to choose a way that better reflects the wisdom of Jesus. James says that if you take this moment and remember whose you are, God will draw near to you and bring you out of that temptation. If you’ve already gone there before, you don’t have to keep falling into the same trap. Repentance and confession are just as real as temptation; God is gracious. God is jealous for you (in the good way), that is, God earnestly seeks you. God wants you to live in the wisdom of Jesus as a redeemed and forgiven child of God.

Jerry O’Donnell

Everyone could use a healthy dose of humility. Some people could probably use a few.

Do any of you have a friend or know someone who always “wins” or always has the highest score in whatever they do? Well this was me as a kid, as I, believe it or not, struggled with humility.

I’m chalking it up more to immaturity, though, not so much a desire to disobey God. Finishing first and winning was everything to me, and in the unlikely event I fell short—I’m kidding, it happened a lot—I refused to accept it. As a preschooler or even into my early elementary years, I would get physically upset when I didn’t win. Probably worse was how I reacted when I did win.

I didn’t care about sportsmanship at all. I had no compassion for whom I may have just defeated or how they might have been feeling. All I cared about was how good winning made me feel and how I must have looked to others around me. Again, as a little guy obsessed with winning games, sporting events, academic competitions, what have you, my drive was not to displease God and exalt myself, but I was clearly seeking the ways of the world.

Our passage in James talks about how being a friend of the world, choosing worldly desires, makes us an enemy of God. James goes on to say God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I don’t know if I first received this lesson in humility in James or whether it was Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

What I do know is that as I matured, I began to understand the importance of humility—both how one appears to others and also how one feels about oneself. I could feel the change within me as I cared more about the people I interacted with in areas of competition. No matter what the end result was, I felt a sense of joy because of the fellowship/companionship with all. In the same way, other people have affirmed this change, as it has been outward as well. Now many people will say things to me like, you’re such a good sport, or wow, you don’t care who gets credit? To which I reply, hah! Look how good I am at not caring who wins! Just kidding.

It’s a daily challenge, as humility continues to be undervalued in a world of exploitation of so many for the gain of so few. I will continue to do my part in my life in this church, in my place of work, and in my circles of family and friends to promote teamwork, and doing things together to make sure everyone is loved and respected. I hope you will join me in drawing near to God in this endeavor so God will draw near to us.

Carolyn “Care” Nestman

Have any of you ever done something that you felt God specifically told you not to do? I have! When I was 17 I dated my high school’s “golden boy”. You know the guy. The one who gets straight A’s and is the drum major of the marching band, but is still super cool. We actually had a teacher say that she wished her daughters would have dated my high school boyfriend. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, when we started dating, I felt God telling me that this was a terrible idea. It got to the point where I had a prophetic dream about how I should not be with this person, but I refused to listen. I was 17, I obviously knew better than God. To make an EXTREMELY long story short, in the 4 years that we dated we managed to plan a wedding, and I lost myself. The happy peppy person that stands before you didn’t exist when I was in this dysfunctional and controlling relationship. During this time I had also stopped going to church and spending time in the word.

After I broke up with him, I felt like this huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer bogged down by my disobedience, I had this joy that I didn’t realize was missing. I spent more time in church, and eventually started doing my daily devotionals again. And I’ve been much better at listening to the voice of God as the Spirit continues to direct my path.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t completely over, and I’m not magically fixed now that I’m spending time with God again. 5 years later, I’m still healing. I was visiting the city where he lives, this past weekend, and I realized that I am still REALLY ANGRY. But even in this, there is something so utterly comforting knowing that I can turn to God in my anger, and say “I made a huge mistake, and I need help to fix the brokenness.” And as I draw nearer to God, I can feel and see the Holy Spirit continue to work in my life and continually wraps me life in her joy and love.

BLUE, PURPLE, AND CRIMSON YARNS

Exodus 35:4-34

Monica McFadden

In my first ever art history class in college (World Art I), my wild professor, Scott Montgomery (who looked exactly like you want your art professor to look—long white Dumbledore hair and beard, barefoot but wearing a suit), introduced the class to the very beginnings of Christian art. Back when Christianity was still an underground, secret group of believers going against the cultural and religious norm in Rome, meeting in catacombs and people’s homes.

The thing is, I really wasn’t that interested in early Christian art, or most Christian art for that matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the traditional iconography, frescoes, biblical characters who all look the same, strange muscle-y baby Jesuses, Medieval and Renaissance paintings that are too easy to mix up. I was much more interested in the free-flowing forms of post-Impressionism, modern and contemporary art that was stirring things up, non-Western art. And it didn’t help that the Brethren tend to lean away from the ostentatious art traditions of other Christian groups; I was fairly critical of all the relics and dramatic, gilded altarpieces. But the thing about Scott is he’s so genuinely excited about everything he teaches that you can’t help but get excited as well.

Once, when he was lecturing about early church buildings in class, he told a story. He (along with, I believe, a group of other art scholars) was visiting the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. It’s a small, old building from 425 B.C.E.; relatively simple-looking brick from the outside, but dripping in rich, vivid Byzantine mosaics on the inside. A deep indigo covers the ceiling and walls, with swirls of olive green and gold stars, florets, and vines reaching every corner. Little concentric circles of light blue and silvery gold form snowflake-like patterns on one dome, and various images and scenes play out in arches: Christ as the Good Shepherd, stoic animals, saints and angels, all surrounded by detailed borders of jewel-toned tiles.

Now, when tours are given at the museum, the mosaics are lit with typical electric lights. But my professor’s group was made up of indignant art scholars who insisted they be allowed to see the interior of the building as it would have been viewed centuries ago, lit with just a few candles. They proved to be convincing, and the small space was soon filled with the warm light of the candles, little flames flickering back and forth and casting their glow onto the mosaic tiles.

If you look closely at old mosaics, they first appear as though they were carelessly laid, with tiles all at slightly different angles, rippling across the walls and looking rather hand-done; you’d think it would look better if they were aligned properly. But this was done very intentionally, because if you view mosaics in candlelight, the dancing light of the flames reflecting off the tiles all laid a little askew, the mosaics look as if they’re magically glittering and flickering, and every part of the image is aglow. The stars and saints and vines all pulse with life. Suddenly, my professor said, these simple materials are awash with holy light.

In the scripture text in Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to make every part of the tabernacle and bring offerings to the Lord. This tabernacle, with its finely crafted altar and oil stands and all the gold, silver, and bronze, can feel a little foreign to those with humble Brethren roots. Brethren have come a long way in terms of opinions about art. The Brethren Encyclopedia notes that “It could be said of these Brethren, as it was of the Society of Friends, that they had no time for art and no place for it in their priorities. Their understanding of humility and nonconformity placed emphasis on simplicity and plainness.”[1] One paragraph is somewhat amusing to me in summing up Brethren aesthetics: “Obviously Brethren did share to a degree in the folk culture of German-speaking farmers and artisans. Except for an occasional illustration (one art book pictures wrought-iron hinges on the door of the Blooming Grove Brethren Meetinghouse) there is little tangible evidence of Brethren artistic interest. Yet Brethren, like their neighbors, used favorite patterns and designs in quilts and coverlets, on butter molds, clocks, chests, and other household implements. Many of their meetinghouses had a good sense of proportion in their simple, utilitarian lines.”[2] “A good sense of proportion” is fairly indicative of where Brethren stood on artistic flair. It seems much of Brethren involvement in art was connected to publications and embellishment of manuscripts, documents, and books.

However, there are still a number of interesting Brethren connections to art, and over the years as reception to art grew more favorable, Brethren artists emerged. Interestingly, in 1880, Howard Pyle (who was not Brethren and went on to become a recognized American artist) visited the Pennsylvania Germans to write an article for Harper’s Magazine, and became fascinated with the Brethren and their way of life. His article, titled “A Peculiar People,” is rather wonderful and well worth a read for an outsider’s view on the Brethren in the late 19th century. Pyle carefully describes the buildings and dress in the community, and takes the readers through the ordinances of the church, including Love Feast, anointing, and baptism. He is clearly charmed by the Brethren, and made a series of etchings documenting his time and illustrating his article. One passage reads, with an accompanying image to illustrate:

“The first visit we ever made to a Dunker meeting was on a cold day in the latter part of November. The wind piped across the snow-clad hills and over the level white valleys, nipping the nose and making the cheeks feel stiff like leather. As we neared the straggling, old-fashioned-looking town we passed an old farmer of the neighborhood and his wife trudging toward the meeting-house, the long gray beard of the former tangling in the wind or wrapping itself around the neck and breast, and further on a young couple in the quaint costume of the people, picturesque figures against the white of the broad-stretching road.”[3]

This Brethren way of life looks very different from the typical Brethren way of life now, and yet there’s something in reading Pyle’s article that feels like home. The whitewashed walls, long beards, the “matronly faces stamped with humility and gentleness” as he describes—they all feel very familiar. Pyle’s etchings accurately represent the simplicity of the buildings and people, but also highlight a certain beauty it all—the pure white of the snow and whitewashed walls, light coming in through a window and onto the wood furniture of a plain bedroom, the old-fashioned houses with brick and white shutters. Sometimes, having an artist look in helps bring to light the subtle elements that make a tradition lovely.

One of the few art forms that was prevalent in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities was a style called Fraktur, which was a type of manuscript illumination used for certificates, house blessings, and other lettered objects. Pyle noted these hanging on the walls of the Sisters’ House in the Cloister:

“Around the walls were a number of curious antique-looking cards about three feet square, bearing mottoes and texts, all printed by hand, with a beauty of design and delicacy of execution that might rank among them with the lost art of vellum manuscript printing. Some of the designs were very unique, and all of them were aged, even medieval looking.”[4]

Artistic ability is clearly a wonderful gift from God, but Christian art is more than that as well—there’s a sort of magic in many people, over centuries and from all different parts of the world, creating art that is some kind of visual response or interpretation of the many stories and passages enclosed in the Bible. This is not to be confused with creating idols and worshipping images, but rather it’s this incredibly human need to take sacred words and stories that they love and create something new, imbued with the beauty they see in God’s creation surrounding them. As the Brethren Encyclopedia says of the Pennsylvania Dutch, “students of this unique culture, who continue to publish lavishly illustrated books detailing its artifacts, insist that in rejecting the fashions and frivolities of European and American society, plain people did not reject the natural world, that they loved color and design, and that they developed a symbolic art that found its vivid imagery in their pietistic hymns.”[5]

Art is an inherently human way to process truth, and when God asked the Israelites to craft the adornments for the tabernacle, the tent, the altar, the hangings, the vestments; and to bring offerings of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems,” what he asked for was the word of God as seen through the skilled craftsmanship of God’s people.

It is also a notably egalitarian call. Verse 22 says that “they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” Craft art was a skill that could be developed by men and women alike, and it’s only been much more recently, when art forms like painting and sculpture with artists’ names attached became more highly valued, that these skills were left unrecognized. But in the Kingdom of God, beauty is for all people, and gifts are given in abundance.

Whether it’s the awe-inspiring mosaics of early Christianity or the clean architecture of the humble Brethren, aesthetics and art are vital parts of experiencing life. If God gives us the ability to make beautiful things “in blue, purple, and crimson yarns,” we should seek to create as much as possible, for it gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as it lives here on Earth.

[1] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 59.

[2] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 61.

[3] Howard Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 778-9.

[4] Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” p. 783-4.

[5]  Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 60.

SEEDS, TREES, AND THE UNEXPECTED

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Jennifer Hosler

As most of you know, this congregation has been going through a visioning process. Why did we start a visioning process? We recognized that the church had gone through transition and that it was moving away from uncertainty toward wholeness, healthy relationships, and vitality. During our visioning conversations, we thought about our past, present, and future strengths: who we are now and who we want to be in the future. During this process, we’ve discerned that we want to be an “inviting church.” We want others to feel welcomed and drawn in. We also want to actively invite people to get to know who we are and who Jesus is. We want to invite people into God’s story: a story of grace, of community, of simplicity, of peace, and of love.

Last week, we held a recap session where we asked, “What’s next?” How do we move forward in our visioning? One step is crafting a tagline—a description kind of like a mission statement that can illuminate who we are as a church. Beyond a tagline, we thought the Ministry Team could assist the visioning process by preaching through the themes raised in our visioning conversations. Two weeks ago, I spoke about love and arrogance—topics important to consider when shaping the ethos and values of our community. Last week, Jeff preached about simplicity and caring for God’s creation.

Today, I’m going to lead us through a few vignettes related to inviting. They may not seem connected at first, but trust me—we’ll get there. Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God calls His followers to be a part of a big Story, God’s story. In our 1st Samuel passage, we see that being part of God’s story can sometimes be terrifying—but we also see God providing enough strength and courage to see His people through.

In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations. Finally, in our 2 Corinthians text, the apostle Paul teaches that the hope we have in the Gospel is what compels us to share the Good News with others. Having become a part of God’s Story, we invite others to join in and experience the same grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love.

Fear and the Scariness of Being Part of God’s Story

When Nate and I were working in northern Nigeria, our supervisor encouraged us to take a vacation in northern Cameroon, the border of which was only 10 to 20 miles away. A big highlight was our stay at Waza National Park, a wildlife refuge that hosted giraffes, water buffalo, lions, jackals, and elephants. One afternoon, we weren’t able to go on a safari because of the heat, so we explored the area around Waza. Waza had these big rounded mountains that looked like someone dropped half of a moon on the open savannah. Big rocky circles rose up out of the flat lands. Since the mountains looked like an interesting adventure, Nate and I set out to climb one to the top.

One particular thing to note about this mountain is that there was no specific path up: the mountain was pretty much solid rock. Rounded rock, not sheer or cliff-like, but rock nonetheless. Another important piece of the story is that I sometimes have issues with heights. I was a clumsy kid growing up and I think my body learned to tell me, in the interest of self-preservation, “you shouldn’t be here because you’re going to fall and we’re going to die.” While I grew out of the clumsiness, I can still get pretty wobbly when I’m high up.

Climbing up the mountain went well at first—until it started to get steeper and it was still just all rock. No trees to grab onto. No railings. No ropes. Just smooth, rounded rock getting steeper and steeper. I froze up, way too afraid to go further. Seeing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, Nate took my hand to give me stability and we continued our way to the top. From the top, the view of the Cameroonian savannah was spectacular. It had been scary—but it was definitely worth it.

Fear can often be a barrier. It can be a barrier to beautiful views and exciting adventures. Fear can stop people from making new friends or committing to relationships. Fear can also be a barrier to faithfulness. There are times when we may feel God’s calling on our lives and fear causes us to withdraw and play it safe in our comfort zones—missing out on extending God’s love or building God’s Kingdom.

Fear is a very common human experience. We see people wrestle with fear in scripture. Numerous characters in the Bible struggled with fear and were almost overcome by it. Fear was a barrier for Moses—Moses, of all people. Moses saw a burning bush and heard the voice of the LORD. The LORD gave him a calling, “Go down and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!” Yet Moses was afraid to fulfill the task that the LORD gave him, to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the LORD.

Another Israelite leader, Samuel, whom we’ve talked about these past few weeks, was also afraid to fulfill God’s call. Samuel had already had a significant part in God’s story. His mom had been childless and the Lord answered her prayer, allowing Samuel to be conceived. Samuel had heard God’s voice at an early age, had spoken on behalf of the Lord, and even anointed Israel’s first king. Yet after all that, he was scared to fulfill a task that the LORD had given him.

Let’s set the context of 1 Samuel 15 and 16. Israel’s first King, Saul, made a bunch of bad decisions and the LORD regretted that he chose Saul as King over the Israelites. The LORD announces to Samuel that a new king needs to be chosen to replace Saul, a king who will be devoted to the LORD. Samuel, who had been close to Saul and knew that Saul had some violent tendencies, is terrified. Samuel says, “I can’t do what you’re saying, Lord. Saul is going to find out and it will be horrible. He’ll probably kill me.” The LORD convinces Samuel that he can indeed fulfill the task. “Samuel, I’ll work with you. This is what you should say.” Samuel is instructed to go to Jesse’s house and to sacrifice an offering with them.

Samuel meets with Jesse and his sons. One by one they come and Samuel sees handsome, tall sons and thinks, “This is it! This is the new king of Israel.” But the Lord says, “No. It isn’t who you would expect.” They all pass by but none of them are chosen and Samuel asks, “Uh, Jesse, got any more sons?” Jesse does have one more son – apparently not important enough to include when you’re introducing “all of my sons.”

Jesse calls for the youngest, a shepherd named David, who arrives in from the fields, probably stinky, yet noted as handsome. He’s somewhat “ruddy” or weathered from all his time in the sun. Though David is the last one who was expected, he is anointed king over Israel. With God’s guidance, Samuel worked through his fear—and it led to a new and unexpected chapter in God’s story. David becomes the most famous of all Israel’s kings. Being a part of God’s Story can sometimes be scary and terrifying but God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see His people through.

 Faithfully Planted Seeds Grow Beyond Our Control and Expectations

Our gospel passage this morning takes a different direction than our Old Testament passage. In Mark 4, we meet Jesus by the sea. He is telling parables to his disciples and there are crowds gathered around them. Parables in Jesus’ day were commonly used by religious teachers as both illustrations, riddles, and metaphors. Jesus told stories in order to get his message across, especially to his disciples. He wanted them to think so he used parables to paint image pictures of God’s Kingdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches about how the Kingdom of God plays out in ways we wouldn’t expect, things like the last will be first, the poor will be rich, or the small will be made mighty.

In Mark 4, Jesus tells several parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his listeners that the Kingdom of God is like sown seed. A farmer sows seed on a field.  The farmer rises and goes to sleep but really doesn’t do much besides watching the grain grow. The sower sows the seed – but there is an unseen force and process in nature that causes the growth, the maturity, and brings the grain ripe for the harvest.

Jesus tells another parable, still about seeds – but a specific type of seed this time. Jesus tells his hearers that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all the seeds (at least known to them during that time), it grows into the biggest plant in the garden – so big it is almost like a tree – and all types of birds can make their nest in there.

It is pretty astounding: a tiny seed, just two millimeters big, can produce a huge, tree-like shrub. Let’s put Jesus’ parable another way, the Kingdom of God is a place where the tiniest acts of faithfulness can lead to unexpected and marvelous growth. In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Being Part of the Story Prompts Us to Bring Others In

Numerous companies know that free advertising is the best advertising. I sometimes see companies trying to gauge my opinion and encourage me to spread the word about them. On our anniversary vacation last month, Nate and I stayed at an Airbnb rental. As you may know, Airbnb is a website where people can rent out rooms or homes or other types of accommodations, booking them solely online. Guests rate hosts and hosts rate guests—and that helps everyone to know whether someone is creepy or gross.

After our vacation, I filled out a review on several aspects of our stay and, at the end, Airbnb asked me how likely I was to recommend them to my friends and family, on a scale of 1 to 10. Airbnb does this because they know an important truth: if you have had an amazing experience, you are probably going to tell someone about it. If you loved your stay or the process of booking or something else about Airbnb, you are going to recommend the company to others.

We see something similar in our 2nd Corinthians passage today. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 (and I’m paraphrasing), “Because we know who the Lord Jesus is, because we are a part of God’s story, we try to persuade others. We don’t want to make it about ourselves—it’s not about Paul being awesome. But the love of Christ is what urges us on and we’re convinced about the gospel of Jesus! The message is that God became flesh, that Jesus died and was raised that everyone might die to sin and brokenness and be raised again to new life.”

“Jesus died and was raised for everybody,” Paul says, “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but live to be a part of God’s great story” (paraphrased, 2 Cor. 5:11-15). Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope prompts us to invite other people into God’s story of grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love. This inviting should happen at multiple levels—we invite as individuals, as families, and as a congregation.

During our visioning process, we tried to define what we mean by inviting. We want to invite people to get to know us as a congregation (who we are), and we want to do this through hospitality, events, and worship. We want to invite people to learn about God’s great story, of what it means to experience community, grace, simple living, and love. We want to invite people to become part of our covenant community, a group of Jesus followers bound together by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Friends, these vignettes of scriptures give us three lessons for today. First, becoming an inviting church, becoming inviting people, will probably not be easy and it may likely be scary.  It might mean that we share more of our lives with others, make new friends, or explore new ways to serve and minister. Being a part of God’s Story can be scary and terrifying. Yet God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see us through.

Second, you might be discouraged that you don’t have a lot to give to God. You may not know how or what you can do for the church or God’s Kingdom, but God is willing and able to bless and make fruitful what you offer.  We learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Third, God has called us to be a part of His great Story. In order to be “an inviting church,” we need to reflect on how God’s Story gives us hope, joy, peace, reconciliation, rest from weariness and busyness, and provides us with community and love. Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope should prompt us to invite other people into God’s great story.  Sisters and brothers, let us be filled with God’s courage for the sometimes scary journey of becoming an inviting church. Let us remember that we serve a Living God whose Kingdom takes small seeds planted in faith and makes them into trees. Let us live into God’s great Story and work to welcome others in. AMEN.

Barns, Birds, and Urban Homesteading

Barns, Birds, and Urban Homesteading – August 4, 2013

Jennifer Hosler

          When we consider the denominational tagline of the Church of the Brethren, “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully. Simply. Together”, we see that “simple living” is, apparently, an important part of who we are.  But since we moved away from plain dress, it has been difficult to know what it means to live simply. What does simple mean if zippers and ties are involved?  Can one be simple while wearing green and white polka dots and yellow tights?

Scripture provides principles that teach us how to think about God, the world, possessions, money, and how we relate to them.  Biblical understandings of success often do not mirror the values that our North American society teaches. In many ways, biblical teachings on money and possessions are subversive—they undermine turning the expectations and values of our day.  It could seem a little unsettling to want to be subversive yet Jesus Himself consistently was so.  He defied what the Pharisees thought a religious person should do; he refused the zealots’ ideals of taking up the sword to usher in an earthly kingdom.  In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul taught the early church to question the values of their Roman society.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We are called as the church—as the body of Jesus followers—to discern together about the world’s values and activities to ensure that our lives and actions reflect our primary identity as Jesus followers.

What does it mean to be followers of Jesus and also earn incomes, buy goods, own possessions, buy houses, and save for retirement? The teachings of Jesus in today’s passage give us values and frameworks to begin thinking about this.  Three illustrations will frame our discussion on money and material possessions: a parable about barns, a reminder about birds, and an anecdote about urban homesteading.  These images—barns, birds, and urban homesteading—provide us with guidance on wealth, possessions, simplicity, and the Kingdom of God.

Barns

I love driving through the countryside and seeing the fertile land, beautiful farm animals, and barns in varying states of upkeep and decay.  Many times barns look well-used—not falling down but certainly not spotless.  Much like an old church building, big barns are laborious and costly to maintain. Driving to Pennsylvania or Canada, we often see the outcome of costly maintenance and the decline of small holder farming: barns that look like skeletons, see through and holey, barns which appear to be wooden avalanches, a jumble of weather-worn wood and roofing materials. Barns visually illustrate that farming involves investment. In order to adequately store your crops, animals, and equipment, barns need to be built.

In Jesus’ parable in Luke 12, a rich man decides that he needs to build a barn. The scene in vs. 13 starts with Jesus, the disciples, and the crowds around them.  In v. 13, a person in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene in the family inheritance.  I assume that Jesus declines to get involved because a lot more was going on.  Instead of wading into the man’s situation, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach.  He says, “Who am I to get involved in this?” and then declares to the crowds, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15). Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable to teach about abundance and possessions.

A certain man was rich and his land produced abundantly. The man thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” (v. 17, NIV).  The answer comes to him easily, “‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire.  Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ Just then God show[s] up and says, ‘Fool! Tonight you die.  And your barnful of goods—who gets [them]?’” (vv. 16-19, the Msg). Jesus sums up the moral of the story, saying, “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v. 21, NIV).

Why does Jesus call this man a fool? One commentator says that the rich man, “is in fact a model of cultural success” in his era (Boring & Craddock, p. 228). This man would probably be commendable in our culture. Your business is doing well, you have a lot of money; store up what you have and make way for more money.  Invest so that you can get all you can! Yet Jesus does indeed call the Rich Man a fool and we must figure out God’s wisdom in this situation.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God.  In all of the gospels, Jesus talks about the use of money.  Luke’s gospel “has a particular focus on the right use of wealth.  Several of the parables unique to him discuss this theme” (Snodgrass, 1992, p. 600). This parable of the rich fool is only found in Luke.

It is helpful to understand that the term fool does not mean stupid.  Jesus is using the word fool as it used in the Old Testament: a fool is someone who misses the point, who doesn’t understand truth or what is good in life, and someone who fails to acknowledge God.  The rich man in this parable is a fool for several reasons.  First, the rich man does not recognize God as the source and owner of his resources.  Second, in all his considerations of what to do, the rich man is only focused on himself. Third, he seems to think that a good life is defined by one’s amount of wealth.

The man assumed that he needed to stock up for the life ahead of him.  Little did he know, he was going to die that very evening.  The underlying value that Jesus teaches here is that all we have is a gift from God—and we should acknowledge it with thanks and a willingness to share.  When we understand all we have comes from God, we ask ourselves about how it can be used for God’s purposes, to build up the Kingdom of God.  God’s desire is that we think not only of ourselves but about the needs of others. While Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly (the point of parables is to make you think about the deeper meanings), the rich fool should have thought, “I have much more than I can fit in my barns and much more than I need.  How can I honor God with what I have received?  Who is in need right now?  How can my abundance meet someone else’s scarcity?”

Jesus told his disciples in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life and life to the fullest.”  Having this full life involves radically redefining our values from those of our culture, particularly when it comes to material possessions. When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed from clinging to them.  When we understand that a good life is not defined by material possessions, we are freed to put more energy and resources into the things that do define a good life—loving God and loving our neighbors.

From the parable of the rich fool, we learn that the wise recognize God’s ownership of our resources, the wise think about the needs of others while assessing their resources, and the wise define the good life by the amount of love they give and receive.

          Birds

While we learn about the role of possessions in our lives by considering Jesus’ parable about barns, we also have much to learn from Jesus’ teaching on birds.

Yesterday, the Youth Peace Travel Team, Nate and I went to the National Zoo.  There is joy in watching and observing animals.  Animals delight us for their beauty and also, in some ways, for their sense of peacefulness.  Anxiety is not an affliction of wild animals.  They eat the food that exists in their environment, they utilize caves or holes or brush to sleep in.  Animals do not spend time anxiously wondering how they will be provided for.  Somehow, in their hardwired instincts, they trust that food chains and environmental factors will all work out.  They don’t have a scarcity mindset where they squirrel away as much food as they can get.  Except for, of course, squirrels (But they don’t count because they end up forgetting where they put most of their food).

In the second part of our gospel passage, Jesus teaches his disciples with an illustration about birds. Jesus says, “Don’t worry about money—or your life, what you will eat, your body, or what you will wear.  God made the ravens and cares for them.  They don’t worry and store up food.  They trust that God will feed them.  Aren’t you more valuable than birds?”  Jesus continues, mentioning that the earth—from animals to flowers—demonstrates God’s hand of care.  “If we see God caring for the earth, don’t you think that God will care for you? Stop worrying.  Seek God first and things will order themselves. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If we acknowledge that all we have comes from God, if we give freely to others and trust that God will continue to provide for our needs, then we are not burdened with anxiety.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for the future in some way.  Rather, it means that our financial decisions are influenced by our actual needs (versus our wants) and the needs of others. We trust that, if we follow God in caring for our sisters and brothers, God will also use them to provide for us if we would also have a need.

Jesus’ lessons on barns and birds provide truths which guide us on path to simple living.  Simple living, or simplicity, can be understood as attitudes of the heart and actions in our lives. God as source. Generosity and sharing of abundance. Trust. Freedom from anxiety. A good life defined by love.  These ideas frame Jesus’ message to his followers about wealth and material possessions.  These thoughts form the basis of how we, today in 2013, can start thinking about how to live… peacefully, simply, together.

Urban Homesteading

So how do we start thinking about what this looks like practically?  My answer to that lies in urban homesteading.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the United States Department of Agriculture, or the USDA (1999, WGBH).  Lincoln called it “the people’s department” for good reason: “90 percent of Americans at the time were farmers” (1999, WGBH).  Today, less than 2% of Americans farm for a living (USDA, 2011).  Over the past century, the US population has shifted from rural to urban settings.  Farming has also changed over time. It went from something everyone did, to something very few people did.  Gardens were in everyone’s backyard and then in almost no one’s backyard.

In the 1970s, with cities decaying, people struggling to make ends meet, empty lots blighting city neighborhoods, and poor access to healthy foods, people began to rethink what farming looked like. At the time, farms were big, involved machinery, and were commercial enterprises.  Slowly, community gardens began to spring up on empty lots in cities.  People started to tear up parts or all of their lawns so that they could grow food right in their backyards (or front yards).  Farming no longer needed to look like acres and tractors.  Farming was reimagined: it could happen in small spaces and could allow all sorts of homes to explore sustainability, growing their own food, adding to the local food chain, and tending the earth.

People were detached from the land and—valuing what farming had to offer—reinterpreted what farming could look like.  The urban homestead was born.

At times, we as Brethren have thought that simple living involves plain dress and we’ve written off the values as something outdated that no one does anymore. Yet we see in Scripture that Jesus calls us to live simply and share our wealth abundantly.  Let us therefore re-imagine, let us make an “urban homestead” version of simple living, finding creative ways to counter our culture’s materialism and share freely.  This, sisters and brothers, takes work.  One theologian, Richard Foster, suggests that “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject.  The reason is simple: this discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent lifestyle” (Foster, 1999, p. 184). We are called to the difficult task of trying to spend less and give more, to talk about money and greed in a society that glorifies excess and conspicuous consumption.

May we work together, wrestle together, talk together, about what it means to live our lives today as followers of Jesus in a culture that says we should get all we can.  Let us not be like the rich fool, who misses the point.  Let we give thanks to God, from our blessings flow.  Let us prioritize the needs of others alongside our own.  Let us share freely in love and in all that God has given us.