UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

KEEP NO SILENCE

1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51

Jeff Davidson

 

Sometimes God leads us into remarkable moments of serendipity, moments of happy coincidence. Early Wednesday morning I sent Care my sermon title and the two scripture texts we just read. On Thursday, President Trump made his infamous racist and vulgar remarks about not accepting immigrants from certain countries or continents.

The reason that is serendipitous is that in our reading from John, Nathaniel says essentially the same thing as President Trump. John 1:46 – “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.”

That’s just a boring regular translation. It’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Revised Presidential Version of Nathaniel’s question is, “Can anything good come out of that s-hole Nazareth?”

The interesting thing to me about this is that the Revised Presidential Version of that verse is probably closer to what Nathaniel meant, and maybe even what he actually said. People in the Bible were real people, with real strengths and weaknesses. They were sometimes rude, sometimes kind, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet, and sometimes inappropriate, just as we all are. The dismissal in Nathaniel’s question is a dismissal not just of Jesus, but of an entire group of people, and it’s rude, it’s judgmental, it’s racist or classist in the same sense that calling someone a redneck is or making fun of people from some other city or state is, and it’s wrong.

The hopeful thing from Nathaniel’s story, and we should hope and pray the same for President Trump, is that he grew to see the error of his ways. He started to view Jesus on his own merits, and not judge Jesus because of where he came from or how he spoke or what his educational level was. He learned that good things can come from Nazareth, just as they can come from Haiti or Africa or anywhere else. He came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, as his Lord and Savior.

What got me to thinking about the scriptures that I shared this morning was a remembrance by a man named Bob Stuhlmann. I don’t know anything about Stuhlmann besides the fact that he has a blog that hasn’t been updated in a year or two. I ran across this blog entry called “Remembering Martin” from January of 2014, and it struck a chord with me. Let me share some of it with you.

Martin was working on his sermon when I entered the sacristy. I had come to meet the great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from his text.

He died a year later. His sermon that day…began, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Those words rang out for me and our generation as surely as the words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial four years before…

Martin broke his silence about the war in Vietnam that day. What silences do we keep in the face and memory of injustice, abuse, brutality?”

Some family systems harbored a code of silence. That loyalty to the family perpetuated emotional illness. I believe much of our addictive society is because we have nowhere to go to talk with some wise other about how this code of secrecy has affected us…

Our secrets are some of those crosses from which we need to get down. So look at the news, our history, your history. Sometimes silence is betrayal. What silences do you keep that prevent your painful and necessary healing? What do you and I have to look in the eye in order to fully live again, sing, and rise on wings?”

https://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/remembering-martin-january-152014/

It’s hard for me to hear that in some ways. I want to speak truth to power. I want to be prophetic. I want to rail against the principalities and the powers of this world. I do not want to keep silent against injustice and evil wherever I may believe that I find it. I want to proclaim release to the captives and good news to the poor.

But before I can do that I need to be aware of the words that I need to speak to myself. I need to know and name the places where I am broken, the places where my wounds hold me back or make me weak. I need to hold myself to the same standard that I wish to hold other people to. I need to speak to myself and let God speak to me about the pain and brokenness within me.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares the following thoughts.

A Rabbi asked Elijah, ‘When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

The Messiah is sitting among the poor, binding His wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when He will be needed. So it is with us. Since it is His task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, He must bind His own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when He will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after His own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

Because He binds His own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else. He would be ready to help. Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making His own broken body the way to health, to liberation, and new life.

Proclaiming justice, speaking truth to power, all the brave and bold things that I want to do, have their root in the interior life of prayer, confession, and self-awareness. We must listen for and look for God’s leading in our hearts, and always be working to stay ready to follow that leading when it comes to us.

God’s word came to Samuel, but Samuel didn’t recognize it. Samuel was just a boy. He was learning the trappings of faith, the exterior parts of faith, but when the word of God came to him he wasn’t prepared to act on it at first. He didn’t know what it was he was hearing. It took the wise counsel of Eli to allow Samuel to understand that it was in fact God who was speaking to him, and that it was God who was giving him a message that he needed to share.

Even then, though, Samuel was scared. He knew that God had given him a message, but he kept silence about it because he was afraid that it would hurt or anger his mentor Eli. 

And what was the message that God sent through Samuel? That Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t have. That Eli was aware of the sins and the blasphemies of his sons, and had not said anything. It’s fascinating to me that Eli was wise enough and spiritually mature enough to know that God was sharing a message with Samuel. Eli was insightful enough to know that Samuel did not want to share the message with him, and so Eli was probably smart enough to know that it was a negative message of some sort. Despite his wisdom and his insight, though, Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t. He had let his sons go on unchallenged, and had not spoken out when he should have. And Eli’s family suffered horribly because of Eli’s silence.

I am not saying that you should just speak whatever it is you believe you should speak whenever you think you should speak it. That’s why the interior work, the self-examination and self-care that Stuhlmann and Nouwen talk about is so important. Eli’s sin wasn’t just that he kept silence; it’s that he kept silence when he should have spoken. He kept silence when God had led him to speak. The Old Testament is littered with the names of so-called prophets and priests who committed exactly the opposite sin – they spoke when God had not given them anything to say.

The words that God gives us to speak are not always brave words. They aren’t always words of judgment. Sometimes they are words of invitation. In our reading from John Jesus calls Phillip to follow him. Phillip does, and then calls Nathaniel, and Nathaniel responds initially with the words we started off with from John 1:46.

 Philip invited Nathaniel to follow not on a whim, not because it was trendy to follow Jesus. Philip invited Nathaniel because Jesus had spoken to something deep inside Philip, and because Philip was self-aware enough to recognize that and brave enough to act on it.

It takes bravery to speak out as Martin Luther King, Jr. did but it also takes bravery to speak out in other ways. You don’t need to respond, but how many of you have invited someone to church? How many of you know somebody who is interested in justice, interested in peace, interested in what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the seamless garment of being pro-life, including everyone from the unborn to the poor to soldiers to all people near and far, young and old? 

I know some people like that. Have I invited them to church? Have I talked to them about what this group of people mean in my life? Have I shared with them what Jesus means to me and how Jesus’ teachings influence my life? Obviously we don’t always do that with words. The best witness to what Jesus means to you is to live as Jesus lived. But even if we live as Christ-like a life as possible, do other people know that our life is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ? How would they know that if we do not at some point tell them?

I know some people like those I described. I have not always told them. It’s hard. It takes courage. It takes faith. It takes an awareness of our interior strengths and weaknesses. It takes sensitivity to others and to the leading of God in our own lives.

It doesn’t take any bravery for me to stand here this morning and denounce President Trump’s remarks as wrong and divisive and racist. Lots of people are doing that. I run no risk by doing so. In fact, I would probably run more risk if I kept silent about those remarks.

It does take courage to look inside myself and deal honestly with what I find there. It does take courage to share my faith with others. It does take courage to speak to other people about the things that are the most important and the most deeply ingrained within me, because in doing so I risk rejection and damage to my feelings. I risk losing a relationship.

Look inside yourself and listen to what God is telling you. Keep no silence as you speak with yourself about what needs to change in your interior life, what needs to be healed, what needs to be discarded, what needs to be forgiven. Keep no silence as you speak to God in prayer about how you are being led and what you are being called to do.

When you hear what God is calling you to share, keep no silence. Rather, speak the words that God gives you to speak. Speak them certainly with your actions, but speak them also with your mouth when that is what God is calling you to do.

When you see someone else in need of aid or comfort, keep no silence. Speak the words that God has put in your heart, words of compassion and love, words of faith and forgiveness.

When you know another person is in need of right relationship with God, keep no silence. Speak to them of your faith with the way you live your life. Listen for when God leads you speak to them with words of invitation, both to this community of faith and into a deeper relationship with the risen Christ.

When you see injustice and wrong, whether on an individual or a global scale or anywhere in between, keep no silence. Speak as God leads. Be prophetic. Be bold. Be brave. And be compassionate, for you are speaking of real people with real feelings. Like Samuel, you may in some way be proclaiming God’s judgment on them.

When God leads you to speak, keep no silence. Amen.

IT’S COSMIC! – EPIPHANY

Isaiah 60:1-6,  Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Nate Hosler

I am not a cosmonaut nor even an average person with a solid grasp of space lore. I did, however, watch the new Star Wars two times already. Given my lack of expertise in this area, and the clear need for space knowledge in this sermon I decided to ask around. Saturday morning, like all good neighbors who don’t want to go outside when it is shockingly cold, I texted my neighbor. Since our houses have a connected crawl space and I could hear them cutting through their pipes in an attempt to remedy a frozen drain line, I could have visited them without quite going outside. Despite this option, I texted—“As my nearest space expert, other than old timey ship navigation, how common is it to be given directions by a star?” I figured that since she works for NASA (specifically she makes videos for NASA) that she would have heard of such events. Her answer, received several hours later, was very practical but didn’t quite address today’s strangely acting star. It was also much different from one theologian’s answer to this question. “The cosmic signs heralding this birth should not be surprising, given that the love born in this humble place is the love that moves the sun and the stars. It is the same love that Jesus will use later to calm the winds and the sea” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 39). Likely neither of these answers is quite what we might expect or produce.

In our text we meet star following travelers. Though Matthew calls the travelers “Magi,” we often hear of them as the three kings or wise men. Because of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, there grew a tradition of understanding these visitors as “kings.” Magi are a much different thing than kings. “Magi… astrologers…. were a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in occult arts such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.”(Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 16) Though many nativity scenes show the shepherds and the kings in the same scene there was likely not only minutes but perhaps years between the quick arriving shepherds from the nearby hills and these long distance seekers of Jesus.

From later in the text we can imagine it was about two years. Now, I know that the kings were going far and also traveling by some form non-motorized transportation, but two years seems like a long time. I thought about Google mapping directions from Tehran to Bethlehem but thought that it might get me on some FBI list that might make my travels unnecessarily complicated. I then realized that even if these folks were indeed wise, that getting directions from a star may be a feat that lends itself to wrong turns. So regardless of the point-to-point distance perhaps their path was more wiggly.

The travelers arrive and go to Jerusalem—which would makes sense as a place to find a king. In fact, they go to the present king inquiring about the birth of a new king. King Herod consults his panel of experts and they quickly tell him where the king, the messiah, is to be born. Which raises the question: Why could the scribes so quickly figure out details of the messiah’s birth but miss the coming? One commentator notes that this could be the later writer reading a rejection by Jewish leaders of Jesus back into the text. Is this irony that the leaders in Jerusalem know so much but yet miss the big event? (In False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East—published by Council of Foreign Relations which is considered by many as the leading international affairs shop—recounts how up until the beginning of “Arab Spring”, which rocked the Middle East, almost all the experts assumed that stability was going to continue.) Producing an explanation of an event after the fact is much easier than predicting it. So perhaps we should not be too hard on them.

The traveling kings who were magicians arrive with this dramatic claim. And not only was the location confirmed but the king and “all of Jerusalem” were afraid. Why was “all of Jerusalem” afraid? Wasn’t this what they were waiting for? It could be that it was the king and his court folk who were afraid. They, of course, were doing pretty well in the present arrangement and would be nervous of a change. If this is the case it would be that “all” means those who have their opinions recorded (which continues to be the standard practice—the loudest or most prominent get recorded as the “all).

One commentator notes, that “this Herod was a puppet ‘king’ of Judea at the pleasure of Rome.” (15-16). As such a king he must instill fear to ensure stability through the maintenance of fear. If this were the case, then the “all” being afraid would be because they recognize that with a threatened king it all might hit the fan. The relatively stable, if oppressive, status quo might unravel. Which is in fact what happens a few verses later with the massacre of the innocents.

The king and his panel of experts give directions and send them on their way for the last leg of their epic journey. And they find the holy family. The Magi are overwhelmed with joy. This wasn’t their king nor their deliverer but yet they experience joy. They give their slightly delayed and rather atypical baby gifts and head on home. It is not even clear if they can or do even speak with Mary and Joseph.

Epiphany part 2:

Epiphany of the Magi always occurs on the 6th of January. Today’s passages include the baptism of Jesus which is in some traditions also included in Epiphany. In the passage on the baptism of Jesus a voice speaks from heaven. This cosmic sign allows for greater linguistic articulation. It is like moving from having no words and a few gestures—Say baby Francis who not all that long ago began to smile as a gesture of happiness and recognition—to Micah preaching a sermon last week or Faith being a librarian in a library system that has more than 7 books (according to her via text yesterday) In 2012 at least there were 1,466,010 physical books (https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13123179/how-did-d-c-s-public-libraries-lose-1-5-million-books

Epiphany, whether the Magi + baptism of Jesus or just the wise folks, point to Jesus. In Ephesians 3:1-12 the process of revelation to Saul—which made him Apostle Paul—is laid out. These 12 verses are a bit of a digression into Paul’s credentials to his work of proclaiming the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ but also includes a notable shift. In both The Star to the sky watchers and The Voice at Jesus’ baptism the communication is cosmic. In Ephesians Paul is made an Apostle by cosmic revelation but then becomes an agent of proclamation. More notably for us, the church then becomes this agent of making known the “wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see[c] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.[e] 13 I pray therefore that you[f] may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known

Cosmic communication would seem to engender confidence. Certainly, signs from the heavens, whether a ball of gas acting strangely or the voice of God, would seem to do much to bolster our oft shaky faith. In the absence of such cosmic signs, however, what are we to do? Kierkegaard addresses this need for certainty—what he calls objectivity,

“The years pass, but the situation remains unchanged. One generation after another departs from the scene, new difficulties arise and are overcome, and new difficulties again arise. Each generation inherits from its predecessor the illusion that the method is quite impeccable, but the learned scholars have not yet succeeded…and so forth. All of them seem to find themselves becoming more and more objective. The infinite personal interest in the subject (which is, in the first instance, the potentiality of faith, and in the next, faith itself, as the form for an eternal happiness, and thereupon an eternal happiness itself) vanishes more and more, because the decision is postponed, and postponed as following directly upon the result of the learned inquiry. That is to say, the problem does not arise; we have become so objective so no longer have eternal happiness” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 28).

I texted Faith, I texted our neighbor—communication which was generally just being a bit silly. It then occurred to me, that this is a (non-serious and abbreviated) version of how we manage the problem of objectivity in Kierkegaard and the absence of the experience of cosmic revelation. The gathered body of Christ joins in the process of discerning the will of God and proclaiming the coming of Jesus—continues the work of listening to the Spirit together through prayer and reflection.

This is not simply an odd form of democracy where we take a vote and seek to sway the other opinion. We join in the “cloud of witnesses” of those who have gone before and those who gather like us on this Sunday after Epiphany. This is serious work, remember the words of Paul, … this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places

A cosmic task for which we have been equipped and empowered to join with the proclamation in word and action the “news of the boundless riches in Christ.”

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

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

Jennifer Hosler

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

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

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

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

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

Hear, Touch, and Smell

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

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

Tangible Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oily Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

LISTEN TO HIM!

 

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.