EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Mark 1:9-15, Luke 18:9-14

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

Last week, I was talking with someone about the plants I have in my garden. I mentioned the different herbs that I grow and how my bay leaf tree has survived several years, even though it is not technically zoned for our city. According to the USDA Hardiness Zones (which provide a planting and climate guide for gardeners), most of the District is Zone 7A and Bay Laurel shrubs are technically rated as hardy at Zone 8. This friend was really surprised that I knew this; he had no idea that such zones existed.

While I’m not an expert (nor do I have my degree in horticulture, like someone else in the room), I suppose I have a basic gardening literacy. I can converse about annuals and perennials that can grow in our region and I know a little bit about shrubs and trees. This literacy allows me to make informed choices about what plants to grow and where to put them in my garden. I could spend my whole life gardening and not get to the full depth of all knowledge on the subject. However, I have the tools that I need to function and flourish, producing food and beauty while learning a little more each year.

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

Like with gardening, the Bible is an area where there is an unlimited amount to know and learn. There are obscure references and details that pastors or seminary students can joke about or spend hours discussing the nuances or arguments around. While some of us can geek out about the Bible, we don’t all need to know Greek or Hebrew or be able to discourse on ancient near eastern creation stories. You don’t have to be an expert or go to seminary to have functional bible literacy.

Pastors and teachers can highlight the main points and contexts of different books so that we can all be conversationally fluent in church and when doing study on our own. Biblical literacy gives us tools to encounter scripture: to understand a bit about a book’s culture and circumstances, determine the applications to the original audience, and then apply the text to our own journeys following Jesus. The goals of our sermons at Washington City COB are to encourage and challenge each other, while also equipping everyone with skills and tools for working with the Bible on their own.

As part of that, I have both a survey and a confession (since it’s Lent, confessions are appropriate). Let’s start with the survey. Don’t raise your hand physically but, in your head, raise your hand if you’re ever read the whole book of Joel. If you have read Joel, do you think you could give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? I openly confess that I would not have been able to do so before my sermon preparation this week.  In some ways, it’s surprising, since I’ve read it several times, was a Hebrew major, and have taken an Old Testament survey class—where I was required to memorize at least one distinctive word or phrase about every book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I couldn’t remember the keyword on my own in 2018, so I dug out our old textbook. Joel’s keyword is locusts. But, while locusts are certainly distinctive, that doesn’t really tell you much about the prophet’s message.

Joel is a short book, with only three chapters. It’s a little strange, but with important prophetic calls and precious promises that extended from Joel’s time to the future. Our passage in Joel was an alternative Ash Wednesday reading and it’s fitting both to think about Lent (which started on Wednesday) and to provide some guidance for our community discernment process. As you heard during the announcements, we are continuing our post-Brethren Nutrition Program discernment, talking about covenant community, membership, ministry, church roles, and spiritual gifts.

My sermon title today is, Everyone, Come to the Fasting Party! This could be bias, but I think my title is more helpful to remember the context of Joel than just “locusts.” In a pivotal and crucial time for the people of Judah, Joel calls the entire community of faith to join in communal repentance and fasting. Joel speaks on behalf of Yahweh, connecting the hope of community renewal and restoration with an intentional reorientation toward the LORD. In a time of crisis, the people’s hope hinges on the nature of Yahweh and of the promise that Yahweh is not finished working, revealing, and transforming.

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

While I may think “Everyone, come to the fasting party!” is a better summary description of Joel, there are certainly locusts in the book of Joel. They are nasty locusts, not fun, chirpy cicadas or 17-year slumberers. Chapter 1 starts out saying, “Pass this story on to your children! Has anything like this happened before? Locusts came and ate everything we had.” Joel recounts the devastation and the mourning of both people and animals. The people are in crisis, with their survival threatened. While Joel doesn’t say explicitly that sin is the cause of all this ecological devastation, it would have been clear to the prophet’s audience.

In the Law given through Moses (commands written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), ecological devastation is presented as a consequence of the people’s sins (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living includes both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. The Covenant was an agreement between the people and Yahweh and there were serious implications for breaking the Covenant. In other prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die.

Here in Joel, locusts devour, “animals groan,” “herds of cattle wander” aimlessly without food, and “even flocks of sheep are dazed” (v. 18). The last verse in chapter 1 says, “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (v. 20). Amid this devastation, it is clear to the prophet Joel what action is required to rescue to community from the brink.

Blow the Trumpet

If this were a play, there would be a cue for the sound of a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used in Jewish rituals, especially the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Inspired by my father-in-law’s occasional use of props during sermons, I had Nate bring in my Kudu Antelope horn from Kenya. [trumpet sound] The trumpet in our text likely would have been a ram’s horn or the horn from another animal, made into an instrument that could send a signal to the people. People groups in Kenya like the Njemp or Maasai have traditionally used this horn to communicate between villages in the Great Rift Valley. Our passage begins with the LORD saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (v. 1). The LORD gives a message that everyone in Judah needs to wake up—to tremble even—and the day of the LORD is at hand.

The Day of the LORD is a motif used throughout the prophets, used to describe when Yahweh is breaking into history to either bring judgment or deliverance against the people of Israel and Judah or other nations. The Day is not like one temporal day (evening and morning), but a cosmic event in salvation history. The Day of the LORD is God at work, making things right through judgment (since people were judged for injustice and idolatry) or making things new through a promise of transformation and wholeness.

The prophet Joel receives the word to sound the horn, the day of the LORD is near. While an impending day of darkness and gloom—not to mention the preexisting locust devastation—sounds harsh and terrorizing, Yahweh really has the people’s interests at heart and wants to keep the Covenant, no mater how many times the people try to abandon it.

The LORD, Yahweh, desires that the people come back with open hearts. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12). God wants relationships with humans. “Return to me, come back to me, come home,” God beckons. Joel calls the people to turn to God, not just with some outward expression, but with true inward repentance and transformation—a genuine reorienting of their lives to Yahweh.

The God that awaits the people is neither a tyrant nor an apathetic or impassive divine being but the “I Am”—the One who has consistently self-revealed as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13; cf. Exodus 34:6). These words to describe Yahweh are the same as those revealed to Moses in Exodus and then used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In this call to return, God demonstrates proactive love by reaching out, despite the people’s obstinance and attempts at life without God. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12).

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

Fasting is mentioned again in verse 15: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, gather the people. Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The trumpets are blown, the people are on high alert, and everyone is called to partake in what could be called a communal, spiritual detox program. A healthy detox eating program might eliminate fast food, junk food, chips, soda, and other empty calories that aren’t good for you and replace them with fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options. In this biblical, spiritual detox, the people stop everything that they are doing to focus on Yahweh.

It’s a time to assess where the people have been self-indulgent, self-sufficient, and have worshipped that which is not God. It’s a time to repent of how they have worshipped things, placed profits, personal comfort, or material possessions over people. It’s a time to recognize and confessing of having lived as though they had no need for God. For our individualistic culture, fasting, repenting, and mourning over sin are things that we are generally inclined to do privately. We don’t say, “Hey, let’s everybody come to the fasting party!” partly because our culture assumes that our own lives and decisions are independent from those around us. “You do you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone directly.”  But for the people of Israel, the individual’s relationship with God is linked to the community’s relationship with God.

Individual repentance is linked to the corporate or communal repentance; individual well-being is inseparable from the community’s well-being. The call to return to God goes out to everyone: young, old, men and women. It’s not just the priests, not just the prophets or leader, not just adults—everyone’s faith matters. The whole community is called to “declare a holy fast” (v. 15). The elderly, the children, “even infants at the breast” and newlyweds on their honeymoon: the crisis facing the community required that everyone partake in the communal fasting and repentance.

Looking at the rest of Joel, we see that Yahweh promises deliverance and renewal, a restoration of the land. Beyond that, the people are given hope of a new Day of the LORD, an era where the Spirit of God will fill and inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). The Apostle Peter cites Joel’s prophesy in Acts 2, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills and dwells the Jesus-followers.

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant, the blessings and curses and the connection between sin and the fertility of the land of Israel, those don’t apply to the new covenant in Jesus. Yet, there are certainly other relevant thoughts and questions that this passage raises for the church today. One question is this: how does our own faith affect the faith of the community? How are the health and well-being of our individual relationships with God—our individual Jesus-following—linked to the health and well-being of a congregation? In other words, when I’m not prioritizing my relationship with God, it makes sense that it would hurt me. But does it hurt others?

When I’m distant or aloof from God, it likely affects how I relate to my spouse, my broader family, and also to my church. I imagine that I’m not able to fully be the blessing that God has designed me to be, via my spiritual gifts and talents, if God is not the center of my life. I think for a time of community discernment—like what we’re trying to engage in at Washington City—it’s important to recognize the synergy between our individual spirituality and the state of our community. We need all levels of our lives to be syncing together and seeking after the Spirit.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time that Christians have used for centuries to prepare their hearts for Easter, to detox from the things that distract from our Creator, and to repent and seek God’s renewing presence. Fasting is an ancient practice and an important tool to be used, whether you are fasting from lunch, chocolate, Facebook or something else. Fasting helps us reorient our lives towards God, creating a reminder or an absence that compels us towards God. Some people don’t cut out things but add a spiritual practice for Lent: they read a Lenten devotional, commit to reading one of the gospels, they add times of prayer to their daily routine, or commit to doing a specific service.

If you want ideas or resources for fasting or spiritual practices during Lent, Nate and I are available to talk through it with you. We’re past Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to start something. Our journey towards renewal, toward community discernment, toward the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb all lay ahead.

The call to return, to draw near to God, rang out for the people of Israel and it also echoes to us today in 2018. God is still saying, “Return to me with all your heart.” It’s easy to turn God into an abstraction, an impassive deity. Yet, we see here in Joel and in many other parts of scripture—in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Jesus’ general interactions with everyone—that the Creator of the Universe lovingly calls each of us to God’s self.

Where do we find our hope during personal crisis or as a congregation in transition? We find hope in knowing God and being known intimately and deeply by God, in experiencing abundant love, mercy, and God’s purpose for our lives. Sisters and brothers, is God calling you to return, to draw near? What can you do this Lent to prepare your heart for Easter, and to get in sync with God’s Spirit that is moving in our lives, in this church, and in this world? Everyone, come to the fasting party and let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus. Turn, return to God—for God is where wholeness and completeness, steadfast love, fulfillment and blessing will be found. AMEN.

JESUS, MEAT, AND VEGGIES

Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28; 1 Cor. 8:1-13

Jennifer Hosler

How do we show love? Sometimes, it’s by holding back on the meat. Across the US, traditionally, meat and potatoes or meat and some other starch, are ubiquitous on the table. Many of our folks in this congregation come from places like Missouri or central Pennsylvania—traditionally meaty places. We also have several people in our congregation who are vegetarian or vegan. If you are or have been vegetarian (or have close family members who are), you’re aware that it can be an adjustment for some folks to recognize and understand your dietary restrictions.

For some cultures in the US or around the world, it’s unfathomable that a person would not eat meat. Here in the US, I’ve been to family gatherings and formal church conferences where the vegetarian “options” were just a pile of cooked vegetables, without a single source of complete protein. “Oh, they can eat the salad!” is a common refrain. When Nate and I lived in Nigeria, one of our colleagues from the US was a raw food vegan. She typically didn’t tell Nigerians this and just stuck with, “I don’t eat meat.” She kept it simple because that itself was astounding: “but what about chicken?” was one response I heard.

My sister-in-law eats vegetarian and it has been an adjustment for some of our Hosler family. This situation allows for love to be shown in a somewhat unique way: by trading ham loaf for an acorn-squash-quinoa-and-cranberry dish and by making sure that our camping food options include black bean burgers along with the hot dogs and bacon. Considering someone’s needs and conscience is a part of love.

Our main text this morning (1 Cor 8:1-13) talks about food, but it has a very foreign context from our own dietary concerns of today. Today, people who decline meat likely have other reasons than that the meat was used as part of ritual idol worship.

While we don’t have the same context, by exploring how and what Paul taught the Corinthians, we can learn how to handle difficult and controversial issues in the church. Three themes come out of our texts today: 1) Following Jesus involves wading through grey water; 2) To quote Paul directly, “knowledge puffs up, love builds up;” 3) Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Following Jesus involves wading through grey water.

We read three texts this morning. While I’m going to spend most of our time on 1 Corinthians 8, I think the texts together help us to understand various perspectives on discerning God’s truth throughout history. In Deuteronomy, we arrive at a very specific time point for the Israelites: Moses is about to die, and the people of Israel are finally going to enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the Sinai desert. The risks for the community are high. The people of Israel have seen Yahweh do great things in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, but they’ve also seen the destruction that happened when they were tempted to tame Yahweh into a golden calf. With a recently delivered Mosaic law and the people’s faith being so new, Moses commands the people that speaking for God is not to be trifled with. Interpreting the Law and leading the people’s faith was to come from a clear leader, a prophet, who would follow in Moses’ steps.

Our passage in Mark is set more than a thousand years later. After experiencing kings, priests, prophets, exile, and return to the Land, Jewish interpretation of scripture had moved to local community settings, to synagogues. People could follow rabbis as they traveled or spend time in the synagogues, doing readings from the scrolls that held the Torah, Prophets, or the Writings, and hear scholars interpret the text. In our Mark passage, Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum at the start of his ministry. He teaches and is interrupted by a person “with an unclean spirit.” Jesus releases that person from the unclean spirit and the congregation astounded. The people murmur, “A new teaching—and with authority!” Jesus is not necessarily teaching new content; rather, he is interpreting the Hebrew scriptures in light of a new era in God’s history of salvation. The demonstration of God’s power in healing serves to authenticate Jesus’ message. Seeing God working underlines Jesus’ teaching as being from God.

In 1 Corinthians 8, we see another perspective on discerning truth and interpreting scripture. We’re reading someone else’s mail (as one commentator describes it) and entering this pastoral application and extrapolation of biblical truths to various ethical dilemmas. What I find very profound in the lectionary pairing of these texts is how the arc of salvation history also brings with it a transition of biblical interpretation. We go from interpretation being in the hands of prophets like Moses or his prophetic descendants, to Jesus doing midrash and interpreting texts in new ways in the synagogues, and now to a spiritual leader like Paul saying, “ya’ll—it’s not about just eating or not eating.”

What’s striking about this is that church leaders in Jerusalem have already prohibited eating idol meat (Acts 15:28-29). In Acts, when Gentiles, with all their questionable eating habits, get welcomed in by Jewish Christians, the Jewish church leaders draw a strong line next to idol meat. Yet not much later, here to the church in Corinth, in the context of church life and muddling through on how to follow Jesus together, it’s not so black and white. Paul indicates that things are grey.

Now that the truths of who Yahweh is, who Jesus is, have solidified (generally speaking)—the early church starts wading through the grey water of how to apply Jesus’ teachings in their everyday lives. It’s murky and complicated. This, sisters and brothers, is the place where we are. Following Jesus involves wading through grey water. It’s not clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love.

Knowledge Puffs Up; Love Builds Up.

Before we get to love, we need to talk about arrogance. Arrogance is everywhere: it is in our homes, in our churches, in our work places, on social media, and most certainly in our political discourse. While it is a given that people—we all—should have convictions and beliefs and even want to share or discuss them with others, the common tendency of today is to speak arrogantly. We state things so forcefully and derisively, just off the bat. We speak in ways that assume (even if we don’t say it aloud) that those who disagree with us are idiots. We also denounce the intentions of those who disagree with us without actually having a face-to-face conversation. Most of us (all of us) could admit to “knowing” that we are right and to stating things so definitively that there is not even room for a conversation. Have you done that recently? With your partner, with a friend or colleague, within this church, on facebook or some other social media?

The apostle Paul, brother Paul, is writing to a church that is having issues with arrogance. Paul has heard word from some church members that there is a lot of conflict. The Corinthian church themselves have also written a letter to Paul with some theological questions that are tearing their church apart. 1 Corinthians is Paul’s way to pastorally address these issues from a distance.

In chapter 8, Paul deals with the hot topic of food sacrificed to idols. He knows that everyone has an opinion. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’” or, we “know that we know that we know.” I imagine Paul dictating this letter and using the Greek equivalent of finger-quotes around “knowledge.” We know that all of us possess “knowledge” – but let’s face it, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.

One of my favorite lines in a mewithoutYou song sounds like verse 2: “those who really know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know.”  Paul says, “Ya’ll who think you know something really don’t know; you’re missing the point of all this (sweep around, indicating church). While you’re going to have different consciences on this issue, what is most important is that love is clothing all your conversations and how you treat one another, in light of your convictions. What’s important is us loving God and being known deeply by God, to the core of our intentions.”

Paul then goes further into the idol discussion and to understand what he’s saying, it’s helpful to have more background context. The church in Corinth was mostly Gentile, with some Jewish Christians who had initially started the church. Class and social status were a big problem for the congregation, which is something that comes out later in 1 Corinthians when talking about the Lord’s Supper. According to one commentator, the mix of social and economic classes found within the church was something unusual for their time (not found in other settings) and even probably for ours (Hays, 1997).

A common cultural practice was to host meals in Roman temples. Meat would be sacrificed within the temple and served at the meal. Though the ritual and the meal were not necessarily together, these were social events in places that also had religious connotations. Apparently, the Christians with “knowledge” were taking part in these meals and the “weak” Christians believed that it went against the conscience of their devotion and worship of God alone. Paul says that the important thing here is not whether one eats or doesn’t eat, but whether the knowledge about faith is building up the community in love. 

Paul explains that yes, the “knowledge” people are right, in that while there are many “gods,” but for Christians, there is only one. He says, “for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6). Paul explains that while this is the case, people within the church are coming from different backgrounds.

Some have been used to worshipping idols, so eating the meat is hard to separate from the religious practice. It makes them feel like they are betraying God by eating; forcing them to eat goes against their conscience. Paul is worried that the “freedom” or “liberty” of some will lead others down a path away from allegiance to Jesus. Paul says that he himself would not eat meat if he knew that it could lead a sister or brother down the wrong path. It’s not about being right or wrong here, but about loving those in the community and walking together. Paul asks, this “freedom” that you have—what does it do to the community? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Even though we don’t have to deal with this specific issue of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, there are several secondary applications that are relevant for us today. The first and loudest message from this passage is that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Paul tells the early Christians that their actions and discourse can negatively affect the church community.

I’m not on facebook much, but I recently saw a fellow COB brother in another state write this, “I’ve drafted three political posts today and decided to delete them each time.” Our culture is rife with arrogance, know-it-all-ness, and the need to proclaim our “knowledge.” But even if we “know,” do we really? Is it really building up? It’s likely that some or a lot of what we say or what we post (or want to post) do not align with the values of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words.

Sisters and brothers, are we wasting too much time displaying our “knowledge,” whether interpersonally or online? How have we—each of us—been puffed up in ways that harm the church community, or other relationships? How have I? How have you?

Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Another principle that I think we can draw out from this text is that wrestling is an important part of Christian community. I don’t mean leg wrestling or thumb wrestling, though those could certainly be added to our community life and be beneficial in some ways. What I mean, of course, is wrestling with murky, grey, ethical issues like eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. The church in Corinth needed to talk about issues of conscience, discipleship, and faithfulness in relation to a practice so everyday like eating! Basic living in their society and in ours have serious implications for where our allegiance lies. The question for them was, “can I eat this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” What are our questions, our “can I do this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” The church today should be a place to examine what else might constitute idolatry. We need to be able to wrestle with ethical conundrums about power, status, wealth, arrogance in speech, and more. 

Doing this well requires relationship, requires gentleness, requires an abundance of love, authenticity, and transparency. Having conversations about money and power and status can keep us from slipping into worship of that which is not God. The fall bible study was one place to have some of these conversations and, in the past, Sunday school potlucks and the young adult gatherings also provided safe and authentic spaces where we could wrestle together. How can we continue to make these spaces and build these relationships in our community? What leadership can you give to help schedule or facilitate or host a gathering where we can wade through the grey water together, clothe ourselves with love, and wrestle with the ethical issues of 21st century life? What leadership can you give to foster these settings?

Sisters and brothers, following Jesus involves wading through grey water; it’s not always clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love. Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words. Love is what guides us and should cover us as we wrestle together about how to ensure our allegiance is to Christ alone. 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.”

JOY

Psalm 126   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Jeff Davidson

The third Sunday in Advent

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What, you didn’t know this was Gaudete Sunday? Nobody told you? You may even ask, “What is Gaudete Sunday anyway?”

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent. The word “Gaudete” is from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Traditionally we spend most of the Advent season thinking about preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s about repentance and fasting. Advent is in some ways a Christmas version of Lent, where we examine ourselves and our lives and clear away the peaks and valleys of sin and make straight the path of the Lord. At one time Advent was a period of fasting and penitence. 

Gaudete Sunday gives us kind of a break in the midst of those things. It’s a time to rejoice, to embrace the good news that is coming, to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives and the opportunity that we have to share them with others. Gaudete Sunday is why the third candle in the Advent wreath is pink. The other three are purple, but the joy of Gaudete Sunday is so great and so important that the Sunday gets it’s own special Advent candle.

So, real quick, what are some of the things that bring you joy this time of year? For me, some of it is the music. Sunday afternoons growing up we would listen to Christmas songs at home by Johnny Mathis or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians or Bing Crosby. We’d sing songs at church that we really only got to sing once or maybe twice a year. There was Christmas caroling, where the kids and their parents would visit the homes of shut-ins and the elderly and sick in the congregation to sing. There was a special Christmas Eve service, usually mostly music. Every couple of years Dad would sing “O Holy Night” and I would accompany him on the piano. There are a lot of good memories attached to the music, a lot of fun and a lot of happiness.

Sometimes, though, I pause a bit about all the Christmas music this time of year. One of our radio stations in the car is set to 97.1 WASH-FM. Most of the year they play upbeat music from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the last couple of years. Not rock, or at least not hard rock, but Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams. It’s a station that aims at people my age or maybe 10-15 years younger, probably skewing a little towards women.

But after Thanksgiving, WASH-FM declares itself Washington DC’s official Christmas music station, and it’s all Christmas music all the time. I’m not sure how “official” that really is; I don’t think it requires a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The Christmas music has no rhyme or reason to the selection – you may hear something secular like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed by a traditional arrangement of “O Holy Night” followed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to wrap it all up. Some instrumentals, some vocals. Some old recordings from the 1950s by folks who died twenty or thirty years ago, some re-makes of classics by contemporary artists. It is a very, very mixed bag of music.

The other day I was in the car going to work, and a 1960s version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Johnny Mathis came on, and I got a warm feeling inside and sang along. Then “O Holy Night” by Josh Groban – the arrangement I used to play to accompany my dad. That music really made me feel good.

And then I thought about Kelly. Kelly isn’t the real name. Kelly is a Jewish friend of mine at work. Kelly really doesn’t like all the holiday stuff we put up at work. We have trees, and silver garland, and ornaments of various kinds. We have some big cardboard candy canes and stocking and things like that. There’s nothing overtly religious, and we are as clear as we can be with our language at least that it is a holiday time and not a Christmas time, since we are a government agency, but Kelly doesn’t buy it. We can talk about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and New Years all we want, but Kelly’s not fooled. The holiday we are celebrating is Christmas.

Kelly and I have talked about this a couple of times. I’ve tried to say that from my perspective there’s the cultural Christmas, the secular Christmas if you will, and the sacred or the religious Christmas. There’s the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” kind of Christmas song, which has nothing to do with Jesus or faith, as opposed to the “Silent Night” kind of song, which is explicitly about Jesus as the savior of the world.

Kelly’s not buying it. For Kelly, the whole thing is Christmas. The whole thing is about Jesus’s birth. Rudolph and Santa are just as Christian as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and directed them to the manger. I look at it from within the Christian faith and see distinctions between sacred and secular. Kelly looks at it from the outside, and sees is a Christian celebration of a Christian savior in whose name some of her ancestors were persecuted. A savior in whose name some Arab Christians are happy to participate in bombings and missile attacks on her spiritual family in Israel.

I don’t know what radio stations Kelly listens to, but she’s at least ten years younger than I am and she is the target demographic for WASH-FM. That station is designed for people like Kelly. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be Kelly or someone like her, and for 11 months of the year you enjoy a particular radio station and you relax with particular on-air personalities and you become accustomed to the timing of the weather and the traffic reports, and then come Thanksgiving they take it all away from you. I wonder what it’s like feel that something you rely on and trust and enjoy for 11 months of the year all of a sudden turns into something that celebrates what you perceive as oppression and anti-Semitism. 

I thought of that when I heard those two explicitly Christian hymns played in a row, and how I would feel is I was a minority in a place where my favorite radio station played music praising Mohammad, or the Buddha, or the leader of the dictatorship in which I lived. And I had to pause.

Our Old Testament readings both talk about joy. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 126, talks about our tongues being filled with shouts of joy and of returning from the harvest carrying sheaves and shouting for joy. And what is the cause of this joy? What starts the joy? Verse 1 – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

The joy that the Psalmist sings of, the joy that the worshippers feel, is as a result of God’s action. In this case it’s the restoration of the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem) but the important part isn’t what specific act of God causes joy. It’s that joy is caused by the Lord.

The same thing is true in our reading from Isaiah. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “I will rejoice in the Lord” but everything that comes before and after is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Those who mourn receive a garland instead of ashes. They receive gladness instead of mourning. All sorts of good things happen: good news is proclaimed, the captives and the prisoners are freed, the broken-hearted are healed. No wonder Isaiah rejoices in the Lord!

And what causes all of this? The Spirit of the Lord being upon Isaiah. God’s word welling up within him and pouring forth from his lips. The love of justice is a gift of God. The hatred of robbery and wrongdoing is a gift of God. Joy comes because of God’s action and God’s anointing, and in the end, just as the earth brings forth it’s shoots and a garden causes what is in it to spring up, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Even the examples that Isaiah chooses show that it is the Lord that causes the joy, for who is it that made the earth to bring forth it’s shoots? Who is it that made gardens which have plants that spring up? It was God. The joy that Isaiah speaks of is joy that comes from the Spirit of the Lord within us. That joy is a gift of God.

And of course our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the admonition to “Rejoice always.” How is it that we are able to rejoice always? The last verse of our reading tells us: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. God will do this.

As I was putting this sermon together I read something that I liked. I couldn’t find it again so I can’t tell you who said it, but it was essentially that happiness is something that comes from the outside and that joy is something that comes from the inside. Peanuts says that happiness is a warm puppy, and The Beatles say that “happiness is a warm gun.” I tend to lean towards one of those more than the other, but they are both externals. They are both things that come to us from the outside.

It is possible that a kitten or a puppy or a piece of music can create joy, but not on their own. There has to be something inside that responds to that external stimulus. A love of puppies has to already be in you for a warm puppy to lead to feelings of joy. I can lose myself in a piece of music and feel joyful, but only if God has given me the gift of appreciation for music. I can lose myself in a movie and identify so strongly with one character or another that I feel joy when they succeed or survive, but I can only do that if I have the gift of empathy that has been given to me by God.

So I had to think about whether when I heard “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” back to back on the radio if I really felt joy, especially in light of how my friend Kelly and probably millions of others like her feel.

And after I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t feeling joyful because of those songs. I was feeling joyful because of the gifts inside me that various things trigger. Maybe it was those songs on that day, but on another day something else could have triggered the same things. I’m joyful because God gave me the gift of adoption at my birth by a family who loved me. I’m joyful because God provided me a family that loved music and shared that love with me. I’m joyful because God allowed me to have opportunities to develop my talents of music, limited though they may be, and to share them with others. 

And those songs triggered one more thing for which I am joyful. I’m joyful for God’s gift of empathy, which reminds me of people like Kelly, and hopefully makes me humble and makes me sensitive to the things that I do or say or take for granted that cause them pain or hurt or worry.

So happy Gaudete Sunday. Take note of the things around you. Let them stimulate the gifts of God that are within you, and let those gifts bring forth joy. Let them cause you to consider others who may not have the same reaction, and let them lead you to consider what it is you can do to help bring joy to them, to help proclaim, release to the captives and to bind up the broken-hearted, to help those who sow in tears to reap in joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

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.

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.

ROOTS

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Monica McFadden

While I was studying abroad in London this past year, I got completely hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown.” If you haven’t heard of it, the show follows the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II and her experience acclimating to her role as Queen, including the many struggles involved with politics, the royal family, her marriage, and the country as a whole. Watching it as an American, someone coming from a background where the idea of a monarchy seems so foreign, a concept that goes against the very nature of the founding of our country, was pretty fascinating. The series touches on many aspects of the monarchy that aren’t often discussed, one of the most intriguing for me being the relationship between the Sovereign, or the reigning monarch, and Parliament. The Queen and Churchill would have conversations where he would reference her duties as the Sovereign and how she was appointed by God to her position. The viewers can see the weight of this responsibility in her wide-eyed gaze.

Of course I, being extremely curious about all of this, turned to my flatmates, classmates, any native Brits I could, and asked them about their thoughts on the monarchy. I got a variety of answers, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from “no one cares about the monarchy” to “I absolutely love the royal family.” Most people in my generation in the United Kingdom seem to fall somewhere in between—they kind of see the cultural significance, but for the most part, it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives, and it feels a little outdated and pointless. However, one person I asked had a different opinion. Partly, perhaps, because he held some more traditional beliefs about these types of things, but he had a deep respect for the Queen, somewhat mirroring that of the older generation.

Basically what he said was this: the reason the Queen means so much is that she, a woman who has been raised to be an expert in her role, has seen the fluctuations throughout multiple eras of political turmoil, from the aftermath of WWII through Thatcher, and even Brexit; she’s the constant through all of it. When I asked if he believed she was appointed by God he said, after a moment of thinking, that no, he didn’t, namely because he didn’t believe in God, but that she may as well have been. Because she has a incredible wealth of knowledge, and although she has seen political waves come and go, she must remain unbiased and solid.

There was something mesmerizing about hearing it described this way. The American tradition has nothing like this, which makes the monarchy feel like living relics bearing the shiny worth of an ancient history.  The United States has somewhat of a fascination with the British monarchy and the royal family; millions of people tuned into William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I think this fascination has a lot to do with the lack of a type of sacred history in many American traditions—the thing that makes the monarchy so enchanting is its promise that it’s something bigger, connected to God, these people tap into a larger knowledge, they’ve been trained for this since birth, they’re mysterious. It can feel like a massive, sacred thing, even if, in reality, it’s mostly political and carefully crafted.

In many ways, I think our generation and our country has lost touch with the sacred. But people seem to be searching for it, grasping at experiences and traditions of other peoples to get back to some sort of root, something to reach out into the earth and connect with our past and with others.

Many people have taken to using the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe their faith. Scholars and theologians have spoken about why this concept is inadequate, and I agree with many of these arguments, but it’s understandable why people feel more comfortable with this phrase at times. Being frustrated with the church, being frustrated with God, isn’t just normal, it’s basically required for being part of the church—frustration is laced throughout the Bible, and sometimes just identifying as “spiritual” is easier, less of a commitment to a specific history that you may or may not agree with.

In this passage from Jeremiah that was read this morning, the prophet’s lament can feel quite familiar. Not because of any similarity in circumstance—I’m not exactly overwhelmed with the word of God “like a burning fire shut up in my bones” attempting to warn people about violence and destruction—but instead, it feels familiar because he’s upset with God, which is quite relatable.

My relationship with religion and with the church is largely characterized by doubt, frustration, or confusion. I spent the majority of my teenage years identifying as agnostic, something I often still relate to. But after a few years, I realized that, growing up in the church, regardless of my wavering beliefs, I still had a home and a community there; I still felt very Brethren. The sacred things I grew up with were still sacred.

There is a deep comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in my faith journey, anointing will still be there to bless me at important times, the hymns will still be there to offer words of courage and beauty, Love Feast will still be there to surround me with a strong community. These things don’t change, and that’s what the church is about. Providing roots, sacredness, a history, to a spirituality that is ever-fluctuating. It requires a community to support you and hold you accountable, to be challenged, part of something larger than just you.

Hearing my friend talk about the monarchy felt like reaching for something like this—it’s bigger than you, older than you, has seen more of the world than you, generations upon generations, and has withstood the test of time. There aren’t many histories like that in America anymore, and people are desperate to find one. Some look to the monarchy, some look to other cultures and religions, many end up with Frankenstein practices stolen from a variety of places: “I have the ohm symbol tattooed on my wrist, I’m really into crystal healing, I have a Buddha head on my shelf…” None of these practices are wrong on their own, but it becomes clear that many are missing a deeper connection, a true recognition that each of these have sacred beginnings.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in this—go to Urban Outfitters and buy yourself a sacred starter kit, if you will. Especially when we’re disillusioned with the church or with God.

Jeremiah’s lament to God eventually evolves into praising him, as he works through his frustrations. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers,” he says at the end of the passage. I may not be very good at this part, I’ll admit. I don’t work through my doubts very quickly, and often times “singing praises” can feel very foreign to me. I tend to quietly mull things over, notice the sacred begin to creep in again.

Last year at Annual Conference, a place that can be too often filled with anxiety and anger, there was a moment during worship when a video played, mostly overlaid with a pretty, anonymous piano song. In the middle of the stock music, the song transitioned into a few verses of the old hymn “It is well with my soul,” and slowly, quietly rising out of the congregation, people began to hum and sing along. It happened naturally and spontaneously, and soon the whole room was singing. We, who had spent business sessions frustrated and speaking across a chasm, were reminded of what we had in common; why we were really there together.

Sometimes, this is what sacred means. Sometimes, this is what it means to have the same roots.

Sometimes, it means rediscovering old traditions and old tales in new ways.

And so I leave you with this: a reimagining of a familiar story, something I wrote my senior year of high school, a reminder of our sacred roots together.

Beginning

The darkness, the great wind, surrounded her in the open air. Her hands were vast and set the sun, tweaking out the rays and coaxing the hydrogen into helium; her hands were delicate and stenciled in the constellations. She slowly crafted planets, small and cold, gargantuan and swirling with gases. She painted nebulas onto black velvet, the blueprints captured from her eyes.

A light breath rolled back seas, revealing a rich black earth beneath, laced with the seeping aroma of a musty rain hanging in the atmosphere as a simple vapor. Her baton flicked swirling symphonies of emerald, magenta, and gold, the deep bass notes crawling in as indigo and sienna. Fluttery mint and whispering ivory petals burst along the ground in a smattering of marimba strokes, the lowest spreading ivy up timber fortresses.

The tiny, intricate beings of the waters grew before her eyes as millennia passed. They emerged onto the land as new creatures admiring each other’s gleaming limbs. They threw out newfound feathers and bones of air and leapt onto eddies of passing wind. From an alto melody of her lips sprang legions of lithe, galloping beings.

Many of her creations fell back to the soil. New ones took their place.

She had not created anything that had the same stars fueling her being as she did. None to search the azure above for her and to sing back her arias. She tried many times to assemble these new creatures, basing them from the ones that already graced the earth. She became frustrated and sailed to neighboring galaxies. She gathered dust and particles from the dying stars and from the newest stars and with the same elements formed the wise, with skin like the earth they tread on. They spoke to her among the trees and dreamt of her in the wind. They saw everything on the earth for its origins and its future; every particle.

They took control of the flames that flowed through volcanoes and forests. They painted as she had before, preserving all her work. They taught her new things she had not predicted; stories sewn together as she had never known before. She had formed the mind for thought, but emotion came where she had not foreseen. Their veins pumped their hearts with roots, tying them to one another.

Slowly, one followed by another, roots were torn out, some with vigor and others accidentally cut away in pruning. For the first time, she saw stars go out of their eyes, the first thing in her universe that felt truly dark. They began to tend to these roots very carefully, adjusting their footing, and gave the soil sweet river water to drink. Those with too-dark eyes sometimes disrupted these delicate ecosystems but, if one opened them up, they’d find equally mangled roots threaded into their veins. If these roots were untangled and cared for, the stars crept back into their irises, softly blinking in violets and blues. 

Prayer

Please pray with me.

God, who crafted the deepest parts of the Earth and the furthest reaches of the stars,

Help us to come to you with our frustrations and anger, sifting through our everyday lives to see your sacred, holy touch.

Roots, hold us close, show us our shared histories and our shared futures together.

Amen.

Benediction

May you see God’s ancient roots in traditions old and new.

Go in peace.