In A.D. 46 followers of Jesus were a persecuted minority in Jerusalem, forced underground and became a nearly invisible community of faith. Many fled, as immigrant refugees, to other places throughout the Roman world. James, arguably the brother of Jesus and acknowledged head of the Jerusalem Church, wrote a general letter to these scattered believers. Regardless of tradition relegating the Letter of James to a place near the end of the New Testament, it having evidently been written before the first Jerusalem Council, it seems highly likely that it was the first of the New Testament books written. It is our best source for understanding the substance of the faith of followers of Jesus before the Apostle Paul.

That Jame’s letter has been included in the canon of the New Testament has been a matter of contention for hundreds of years principally because it so clearly contradicts the primary assertion of the Apostle Paul and much of the Christian Church which appropriated a theology of salvation by faith alone. It is a perspective most of us have grown up with and never challenged. It is typically articulated that when a person “accepts the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.” This is the theory of substitutionary atonement. Though it is by far the theory that is most familiar, it’s not found in James and we don’t find it in the Gospels. What is found in James (1:12) is “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”. Along with the Gospels and the whole of the Old Testament, James evidently doesn’t embrace the notion of universal human depravity, an essential element in a substitutionary atonement.

Jewish scholarship attests that prior to the Jews return to Palestine from their forced detention in Babylonia, which occurred in 538 BC there was no basis in Jewish tradition for a belief in retribution for the soul after death; this was supplied to the Jews by the Babylonians and Persians and received its Jewish coloring from the word “Gehinnom” (the valley of Hinnom), made detestable by the fires of the Moloch sacrifices practiced by the evil Kings Ahaz and Manasseh,the latter of whom made a burnt offering of his own son. According to one tradition it is in this place that the smoke from subterranean fires come up through the earth. Enoch said of the place that “there are cast the spirits of sinners and blasphemers and of those who work wickedness and pervert the words of the Prophets.”

The place serves a double purpose, annihilation and eternal pain and we find that it has seven names: “Sheol,” “Abbadon,” “Pit of Corruption,” “Horrible Pit,” “Mire of Clay,” “Shadow of Death,” and “Nether Parts of the Earth.” It has seven departments, stacked one beneath the other. There are seven kinds of pains. According to rabbinical tradition, thieves are condemned to fill an unfillable tank; the impure sink into a quagmire; those that sinned with their tongue are suspended by it; some are suspended by the feet, hair, or eyelids; others eat hot coals and sand; others are devoured by worms, or placed alternately in snow and fire. The punishment of those who led others into heresy or dealt treacherously against the Law will never cease. This is the punishment to which Paul refers in his statement that when we “accept the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.”

You can see how effective such a tool this threat would have been to Ezra and Nehemiah as they struggled to restore Temple worship and community compliance with the Jewish law when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile.

We’ve been told that it was at Antioch, one of those far flung places to which first century converted Jews fled, that believers in Jesus were first called Christians. And like Antioch, the places to which these people fled, and to which James is addressed, were not conducive to righteous living. It can have rich meaning for us as we are reminded that genuine faith transforms lives. James encouraged his readers, and that includes you and me, not so much as to put our faith into action but to live out of the faith that is within us. It is easy to protest that we have faith, but true faith, especially in communities that are resistant the message of the Gospel, results in loving actions towards others.

James wants us to make sure our faith is more than just a statement of belief – it is about action. Matthew, Mark and Luke all find it important to present Jesus articulating a special commandment that came from the heart of Judaism: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. It is in keeping the law of love that our faith is vital and real.

James also wants us to know that while we encounter trials and temptations in the Christian life God will supply all that we need to face persecution or adversity. Overcoming these challenges produces maturity and strong character. James insists that God will give you patience and keep you strong in times of trial.

James reminds us that we are responsible for the destructive results of what we say. Your words are to convey true humility and lead to peace. While we are cautioned to think before we speak the bigger challenge and the promise is that God will give you self-control.

He says we should not show partiality to the wealthy or be prejudiced against the poor. We are accountable for how we use what we have. We should not hoard wealth but rather be generous toward others. Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere service.

James writes: 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. In 2:14 we read: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

After five chapters of guidance, challenging his readers about their judgment of others, how they speak of others, how they do are do not respond to the need of others – in 5:7 he says: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent are Love, Joy, Peace and Faith and the underlying purpose is to prepare Christians not for the birth of Jesus, but for a long awaited second coming of the Messiah, similar to the Jews, while rejecting Jesus, continue to wait for the Messiah to come. James simply picks up on another theme: Patience.

But this patience isn’t focused on a Messiah who is yet to come in some future. It is having patience with ourselves as we respond to Christ living within us. He says that the coming of the Lord is near, that the judge is standing at the door. Our challenge is to open that door, as did the obedient prophets, and live fully as Christ calls us to live. That is good news to me. James recognizes that becoming the person Christ intends for us to be isn’t at a flip of a switch. Hearing and obeying Christ is a process of learning to let God rule our hearts, our tongues and even our bank accounts. And it isn’t premised on a fear of punishment rather on delighting in living in relationship with Christ himself.

Jame’s advice is to be patient, until the coming of the Lord. For us, that doesn’t speak of an end of the world, but of Christ’s spirit invading our life. The Holy Spirit’s first task on being received is to examine our lives and show us the trash we’ve accumulated that needs to be discarded – and that can be painful indeed, especially when some of our grumbling and judging others is connected to our limited understanding of what it means to be a good person, a good Christian. “You must be patient” and I take that to mean both with our selves and with others.

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Eighteenth Century Quaker Testimonies

Whenever Randy visits England, he visits as many second-hand bookstores as he can find in search of early Quaker literature.  On one such trip he found a small book whose cover was so worn the title was not visible.  The title page was also missing, so the only information we have is that it was published in “London, the 8th of the Fifth Month 1774” and the author’s initials “T. W.” at the end of the Preface.  It appears to be the eighth volume of Memorials to persons who had “finished their course well” in the hopes that “others might be excited and encouraged to follow them as they followed Christ.”  Randy picked out five such testimonies to share with us.  Although some “weighty Quakers” are included in this volume (e.g., John Woolman), Randy chose the Memorials of more ordinary Quakers, such as those we might find in our own Meetings today.

[The transcript belows follows the book’s custom of of capitalizing nouns and retains the old spellings, grammar, abbreviations, and punctuation therein, in hopes of sharing some of the charm of the original.]

John Butcher, of the City of London, was born of religious Parents in the Seventh Month 1666, about two Weeks after the dreadful Conflagration; his Father lived to a great Age, dying about his eighty-eighth Year, and his Mother about her sixty-eighth Year; both leaving a sweet Memorial behind them.

He, the said John, was by them religiously educated in the Way of Truth, and through the Grace of God, early receiving it in the Love thereof, it pleased the Lord to endue him with a Degree of the Gospel Ministry, and to open his Mouth about the fifteenth Year of his Age, in a publick Testimony to the true Light Christ Jesus, not only in his outward, but also and more especially, in his inward Appearance by his Grace and Holy Spirit; and he gradually grew therein, and became an able Minister, not of the Letter, but of the Spirit.

He travelled into diverse Parts of this Nation, being well accepted therein, laboring for the Prosperity of Truth, a Love of Peace, Unity and  Concord; and being endued with a large Portion of Wisdom and Understanding in the Things of God, was enabled to speak to the States and Conditions of many.  He was a Peace-maker, endeavouring to heal Breaches and reconcile Differences among Brethren.

He retained unfeigned Love to his Brethren to the End of his Days, altho’ afflicted with great Weakness for some Time before his Death, which impaired his Memory; yet that True Love continued in him, was evident by his cheerful Countenance, friendly and courteous Deportment.  In a Visit of some Friends about a Year before his Decease, he expressed himself very sensibly, with respect to the Lord’s tender Dealings with him all along, and the Hope he had of Happiness through Christ.

George Whitehead and Gilbert Molleson, visiting him, he expressed his kind Acceptance thereof, and took it as a Token of the Love and Mercy of God to him; and signify’d the Lord’s tender Dealing with him, and helping him since he visited him in his young Years, and that the Lord was now with him; and after remembering his dear Love to Friends, as apprehensive his End drew near, he said, His Way was bright and clear before him, and that he was truly resigned to the Will of the Lord.

He died at Palmer’s Green near Edmondton, in Middlefox, the 16th of the Ninth Month 1721, and was buried on the 21st of the same in Friends Burial-ground near Bunhill-fields, after a Meeting at the Bull and Mouth Meeting-house, attended by a numerous Company of Friends and friendly People.  Aged about fifty-five Years.

 

Alice Hall, Wife of Isaac Hall, of Little Broughton in Cumberland, was born the 30th of the Eleventh Month 1708, at Blackhouse in Allendale in Northumberland, and Daughter of John and Isabella Fetherstone, who being religious Friends, carefully educated their Children in the Principles of Truth; she was early favoured with divine Visitations, and being obedient thereto, grew in religious Experience to a good Degree of Stability and Settlement therein; and having received a Gift in the Ministry, through an humble Attention to the Leading of the good Shepherd, she became skilful and serviceable in the Church, and freely gave up to that Service as she found her Mind engaged and drawn thereto.

In her unmarried State she was concerned to visit Friends twice in Ireland, most Parts of England, Wales and Scotland; was both a good Example in private Life, and in her publick Ministry, abiding under the seasoning Virtue, which rendred her Conversation edifying and agreeable.  After her Marriage, which was in the Year 1743, she remained zealous for the Cause of Truth, and was often concerned to travel in the Service thereof, visiting several Parts of her native Land, and Ireland a third Time.

In the Year 1760 she found an Engagement to visit the Churches in America, which proved a very close Trial, in parting from her Husband and Children; but after recommending them to the Protection of that Hand which is for ever sufficient, she proceeded on her Voyage, and landed in America in the Tenth Month 1761, and diligently set about her Services, visiting the Provinces generally, altho’ weak in Body, in Company of a Friend of Pennsylvania, named Ann Newland; and her Labours of Love through the different Provinces were to the general Satisfaction of Friends, as appears by divers Certificates transmitted from thence.

She was also enabled to visit many meetings in the Provinces of Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, altho’ under great bodily Weakness and great Exercise of Spirit; yet her meek, lowly and innocent Deportment, together with her lively and edifying Ministry, made lasting Impressions on many Minds, and rendred her Company very acceptable.

In the Course of her Visit, she was an Example of great Patience and Humility, steady in Attention to her own Business, and prudent in Conversation, discharging her Duty faithfully in her weighty Undertaking.

A little before she was confined by Illness, she expressed to some Friends after the last publick Meeting she was able to attend, which was at Chester in New Jersey, That she was clear; and altho’ the Yearly-meeting at Philadelphia was then to be held in a few Days, she said, She could not see she should be at it.

She got to her Lodging at Isaac Zane’s in Philadelphia, the 22 of the Ninth Month 1762, and her Distemper increasing, not withstanding all the tender Care Affection could dictate, she expired the 5th of the Tenth Month following.  She endured her last Illness, which was very sharp, without any Signs of murmuring, but in Lamb-like Patience expressed an entire Resignation in the divine Will, whether to live or die.

Her Body was carried to one of the Meeting-houses in Philadelphia, and after a large and solemn Meeting was decently interred in Friends Burial ground in that City, the 8th of the Tenth Month 1762.

 

Sarah Marsden, Wife of Caleb Marsden, of Highflatts, within the Compass of Pontefract Monthly-meeting, was born in the Year 1706, and being favoured with a religious Education, and the Visitations of Truth in her young Years, by yielding Obedience thereto she become a sober, grave, discreet young Woman, a diligent Attender of Meetings, and honestly labouring to improve her Time therein.

About the Year 1749, it pleased the Lord to call her into the Work of the Ministry, which she in great Fear and Tenderness gave up to, and altho’ never large in Testimony, yet she was plain, sound and edifying, rather backward in her publick Appearances, and afraid (as she said) to awake her Beloved till he pleased; but when she felt the holy Fire burn, then she offered her Gift, and was careful when that abated to sit down in Meetings, where too many are intent on Words; she was a diligent Labourer in Spirit, her very Countenance being awful and affecting, and like the worthy Elders and Nobles of the People, Numb. xxi.18, digging as with the Staff the Lord had given her, and sometimes broke forth in solemn Supplication to the great Law-giver, that the Well of Life might spring up, which at Times she was the happy Instrument of effecting to the Consolation of the Right-minded.

She was naturally of an affable, peaceable Disposition, an affectionate Wife, a tender Mother, and weightily concerned to train up her Children in the Nurture and Admonition of the Lord; kind to her Friends, charitable to the Poor, and an Example of Humility, Self-denial and Resignation to the divine Will, and also of Industry and a prudent Management of the Affairs of this Life.

Her last Illness was long and tedious, which she enduring with much Patience and Resignation; saying, My Body is full of Pain, yea, more than I can well bear; O the sad State of those in my weak Condition, who want Peace of Mind! But for ever blessed be my God, who now on my sick Bed answers the Desire of my Mind, in giving me an Evidence of my Peace with him, having nothing to do but to bear with Patience the painful Afflictions that are permitted to attend me…

At another Time, being very weak, she said to her Husband and Children, At the Time of my Departure be as still as you can, and feel for yourselves, and do not mourn to excess, for all will be well; Do not mourn for me; but rather rejoice when I am delivered from these Pains, for my Change will be a happy one.

One Evening lying very still, those that attended her thought she had been going to depart; but after some Time she opened her Eyes, and seeing her Relations standing by her, she raised her Voice in a surprizing Manner, and said, I am entirely sensible, and behold you every one, and glad I am to depart in Peace; and took her solemn Farewel of all present, in a very loving, affecting and cheerful Manner …

She died the 9th of the Eighth Month 1762, and was interred in Friends Burial-ground in High-flatts, the 11th of the same.  Aged fifty-six Years.

Joseph Milthrop, a Member of Parliament of Pontefract Monthly-meeting in Yorkshire, was educated in the Principles of the Church of England; but as he advanced towards Man’s Estate, being of a thoughtful Disposition, and unsatisfied with the Principles of his Education, he, after various Researches among the different Modes of Profession, join’d himself to the Romish Church, and for divers Years constantly attended their Worship, and strictly observed their ceremonial Institutions, for some Time firmly believing Christ Jesus to be the Author thereof; tho’ at Times he was led to believe there was a subduing of the Passions and a Renovation of Heart, which the truly Righteous experienced; also a Fruition of inward Peace, which they at Times possessed:  To all which he found himself, in great measure, a Stranger, which caused him many Times secretly to mourn and pour forth earnest Prayers to the Father of Mercies, that he might become a Partaker of the same happy Experience.

While he was thus exercised it came to his Mind to go to a Meeting of the People called Quakers, for an Account of which take his own Words, in a Letter, viz.

“I sat at Ease a long Time, yet earnestly desired that if the Lord had any particular Regard to that People, or approved of their Manner of Worship, that he would make me sensible of it; and being thus set and grown weary of silent Waiting, divine Power seized upon my Body, Soul and Spirit, which caused me to break out into abundance of Tears, and my Body greatly to tremble, then said I, O Lord! Why am I thus?  To which inward Cry of mine, something which till then I knew not (tho’ I had often felt a Measure of the same Power, tho’ never to that Degree) answer’d,  If thou did but Love the Lord thy God with all thy Heart, Mind and Soul, that Love would be so prevalent over thee, that it would teach thee what to do and what to eschew:  O the surprising State I then found myself in!  How was my Heart then filled with Love, Peace and Joy unspeakable and full of Glory!  Soon after an honest Friend stood up in Tears and much Trembling, and said, It is an excellent Thing, if we can say of a Truth, Jesus Christ lives in us:  These Words reached my State, I then bowed in my Mind, adoring the divine Power that then influenced me, and said, Dear Lord! if thou art be that I have long fought and mourn’d for, tell me, O thou that has ravished my Heart! what I should do to be saved, or to continue in thy Favour?  Upon which the humble Jesus, the divine Bridegroom of my Soul, affectionately answered, I require no Rite or ceremonial Worship of thee, but that thou give up thy Heart; it’s there I would reign, it’s there I would rule, and there, I would be worship’d in Spirit and Truth”

 

It was some Time before he could get from under the Prejudices he had in Favour of the Roman Church, but continued to frequent both the Mass House and Friends Meetings, until through a further Visitation by an instrumental Means, he was effectually reach’d, became a valuable and useful Member, exemplary in Conduct, careful to have the Discipline maintained, and at Times was concern’d in a short Testimony, which was very acceptable; a peaceable Neighbor, and being of extensive Knowledge, was capable of advising in many Cases, which he was always ready to do, demonstrating that the living divine Principle he had embraced, let him to the Exercise of every Christian Virtue.
For divers Years before his Death he was, at Times, sorely afflicted with the Stone and Gravel, the Acuteness of which he bore with exemplary Patience.  His last Ilness was short, and apparently attended with no Symptoms of Death till near the Time of his Departure, and though he was suddenly called, yet not unprepared, for being asked, a little before his Death, how he was, he expressed himself thus:  I am pretty easy, tho’ not without some bodily Pain, yet inward Comfort helps greatly: and added, I am weary, weary, of the World, if it would please Providence to take me to himself, O how acceptable it would be!

 

He departed this Life the 3d, and was interred the 5th of the Seventh Month 1766, in Friends Burial-ground at Burton.  Aged about fifty Years.

 

 

Elizabeth Atkinson, of Milden-Hall in Suffolk, was the Daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Peachy, of the same Place, Friends well esteemed, who gave this their Daughter a religious Education; and while very young she was favoured with a divine Visitation, and yielding Obedience to the heavenly Vision, she became qualified for her Master’s Use, and received a Gift in the Ministry about the twenty-second Year of her Age.  She was faithfully concerned to yield Obedience to the Manifestations of Duty, in which she experienced Peace.

 

When about thirty she joined in Marriage with Samuel Atkinson, a Friend of the same Meeting, and some few Years after it pleased the Lord to try her in a close Manner, by dissolving this very near and dear Connexion:  Thus being left a Widow with six young Children and in low Circumstances:  This Dispensation of Heaven was attended with Baptisms and Exercises on many Accounts, her Situation being such that she found it necessary to use unwearied Diligence for the Support of her Family, not willing to be burdensome, but having a few Things, was therewith content. It does not seem her Family, whose Necessity she ever appeared to have due Regard to, hindred her in her Gospel-Labours; but she was obedient to the Requirings and Manifestations of Duty, faithfully giving up to go on the Lord’s Errands.

 

At the awful Approach of the undeniable Messenger of Death, she possessed a quiet Composure of Soul, often wishing To be dissolved, to be with Christ; yet humbly waiting the Lord’s Time for the Accomplishment of his Will, and being full of Days and full of Peace, she was greatly favoured to very near the End of her Time, sensible and lively, and was frequently engaged to express, The Lord’s Goodness to her had been great and wonderful; earnestly recommending to those who visited her, To serve him faithfully, and in an especial Manner to the Youth, To dedicate the Bud and Blossom of their Days to him, for that they could not serve a better Master.

 

A short Time before her Death, finding her Mind very low, was fearful she had offended; earnest were her Cries unto the Lord, That she might not depart under a Cloud, which he graciously answered by the renewing of his Love, and lifting up of his glorious Countenance, so that she broke forth in the following Words, Glory, Honour and high Renown be given to him who wears the heavenly Crown.  The Lord is my Reward, and at his Right-hand are Rivers of Pleasure, and that for evermore.

She departed this Life the 3d of the Seventh Month 1770, and was buried in Friends Burial-ground at Milden Hall the 8th of the same.  Aged eighty-eight, a Minister sixty-six Years.

 

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Rebooting

This morning when I sat down at my computer to finish preparing my thoughts, my computer gave me a blank gray screen. It was time for a reboot. Its little computer brain had been muddled by all of the information coming in; yesterday’s update had been the last straw.

I feel that way sometimes, the need to reboot. Start over. Start clean. But it’s not that easy for us to do that sort of cleanse because it requires some sort of a complete stop, almost a death. I much prefer the making necessary changes gradually — giving myself time to adjust to a new diet or an exercise regimen.

Surprisingly often, life does not allow for those gentle changes, and we find ourselves in a new town, a new job, welcoming a new baby (or two), starkly facing the loss of an old friend, a relationship, or a needed support. You can fill in the blank on the sudden changes you have had.

It seems that Jesus proposed that sort of clean sweep to individuals who wanted to know how to best serve God. Jesus was born into a culture and a religion that had been developing its relationship with God for centuries. They had writings and traditions. They had learned scholars. They had correct ways of doing things. All of these systems and beliefs were likely based on the best thinking and intent. They were based on their understanding of what God had told them to do. It was the best they could do.

Jesus called his followers to a different sort of relationship with God and with each other. A relationship not based on their culture, laws or traditions, but based on having a new heart. Obedience to cultural norms and expectations can be done thoughtlessly – or mindfully  – by individuals who can conform to the specific cultural requirements. One down side of obedience is that it is an external conformity. In other words, “I may be sitting on the outside but I am standing on the inside.”

Obedience can come from habit, respect, or fear. It can also come from love. But obedience is basically a servant’s or child’s approach to life, while the follower of Jesus is invited to grow up into Christ (Eph 4:15), to be friends of Jesus (John 15:15). Rules and standards are crucial for children to learn. Rules like “stay out of the street” keep children alive. But adults need to know how to safely and effectively go into the street and interact with the challenges the street presents.

Richar Rohr, Franciscan priest and teacher writes in a recent meditation:

…there is no reason to be religious or to “serve” God except “to love greatly the One who has loved us greatly,” as Saint Francis said. [1] Religion is not about heroic will power or winning or being right. This has been a counterfeit for holiness in much of Christian history. True growth in holiness is a growth in willingness to love and be loved and a surrendering of willfulness, even holy willfulness (which is still “all about me”).

Obedience to the Ten Commandments does give us the necessary impulse control and containment we need to get started, which is foundational to the first half of life. “I have kept all these from my youth,” the rich young man says, before he then refuses to go further (Mark 10:22).  https://cac.org/a-spirituality-of-the-beatitudes-2017-06-22/

In a recent email our Johan Mauer, reviews Brian Zahnd’s book, A Farewell to Mars. Here are a few selections he provided as teasers…

Isn’t it time we abandoned our de facto agreement with Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and their worn-out, death-dealing ideas? Isn’t it time we took seriously the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of Jesus — the one whom God raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn’t it time we were converted and became as children, having the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? … At the very least, we ought to take a fresh look and evaluate with new eyes what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught about the dark foundations of human civilization and the alternative he offers in the kingdom of God. (from Chapter 1, “That Preacher of Peace.”)

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic “heaven” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon. But this is an evangelism that bears no resemblance to the apostolic gospel proclaimed in the book of Acts. Christianity’s first apostles evangelized, not by trying to sign people up for an apocalyptic evacuation, but by announcing the arrival of a new world order. The apostles understood the kingdom of God as a new arrangement of human society where Jesus is the world’s true King. (from Chapter 2, Repairing the World.)

We believe in Jesus theologically, religiously, spiritually, sentimentally … but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don’t really believe he was a competent political theologian. If we were tasked with framing a political theology drawn only from Jesus’s words, what would it look like? Why? Because when it comes to political models for running the world, we find it hard to believe in Jesus. (Chapter 4, It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus.)

The road of nonviolent peacemaking is not an easy road, it’s not a popular road, and it’s certainly not a road for cowards. The road of “God is on our side, and he shall surely smite our enemies” is a wide road. A lot of parades have gone down that road. It doesn’t take much courage to travel that road; just fall in step and follow the crowd. A marching band is usually playing. But it’s also the road that leads to burned villages, bombed cities, and solemn processions of flag-draped coffins. Until the self-professed followers of Jesus are willing to forsake the wide road for the narrow way, the popular sentiment for the unpopular conviction, the easy assumptions for the hard alternatives — Jesus will continue to weep while his disciples shout hosanna. (Chapter 6, The Things that Make for Peace.)

Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place. (Chapter 7, Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come.)

What lessons and priorities might Friends take from Brian Zahnd’s message? There’s theoretically great congruity between what he says and what we Quakers believe.

We do know what it’s like to be treated as admirable eccentrics, nice but marginal. We also have our own ways to avoid implementing the implications of our faith:

  • drawing on the vast resources of Friends piety to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs while avoiding the surrender and self-abandonment of full conversion
  • making it hard for seekers and newcomers to access our community (folkways, in-group language) so we can keep feeling both modest and special
  • marginalizing Jesus by making him a figurehead or metaphor (some liberals) or a tribal chieftain in charge of our camp (some evangelicals) instead of seeing him at the very center of our meetings
  • trivializing our peace testimony by leaching out its cross-shaped spiritual power in favor of “the cult of middle-class pacifism
  • weakening our fellowship with doctrinal controversies and bibliolatry (often with the stern language of pseudo-heroism), undermining each other rather than conducting our conflicts based on a prior commitment to each other’s well-being.

Happily, none of these flaws are fatal; they can all be addressed. Let’s do it, let’s be a laboratory of love for the whole Christian world and beyond.

When I wandered into an elders meeting a week ago and was asked to bring a message this Sunday, I asked what I should talk about and was told to share what was on my heart. I have a lot on my heart these days related to personal and political changes, but it seemed that the most relevant subject for me to address was related to the decision by Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM) to release several churches to form a new yearly meeting.

When the administrative board decided to release the five, now six meetings from NWYM, that was a sort of death — a death that as a representative of Spokane Friends to the Yearly Meetings, I felt many were hoping to avoid. Many representatives expressed hopes that NWYM could gradually change to be more open and inclusive. I suspect others in the Yearly Meeting were afraid of any such gradual change and felt the need to draw a line releasing any meeting that did not agree with the Faith and Practice of the NWYM. There are currently six meetings that have been formally recognized as released, and participants from many more meetings are exploring together with these six meetings what sort of way forward there might be. Perhaps this group will find the “reboot” to be a positive thing as they move into their calling.

I encourage you to sign up for the email distribution list of this group currently identified as “Our New Thing.” (www.ournewthing.com) Minutes are available from the past meetings of representatives, as is a tentative agenda for Our New Thing sessions at Yearly Meeting this summer.

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You are Enough

Bruce and I have experienced many changes since we last worshipped with you. Some of the changes have been welcome and joyful. Others have felt dark and difficult. There are many places of darkness around us personally, in our local communities, our nation, and on our planet. It is easy to despair. Jesus did not shy away from naming and addressing this aspect of our human condition.

Mark 13 NLT

Jesus replied, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’[a] They will deceive many.And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately.Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in many parts of the world, as well as famines. But this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.

We have seen the realities spoken of here lived out across our globe since Jesus spoke these words. I found a lament in the book of Job that puts words to my reactions to the deception, warfare, and environmental distress of our times.

Job  30

25 “And did I not weep for those in trouble? Wasn’t I deeply grieved for the needy? 26 I therefore looked for good to come. Evil came instead. I waited for the light. Darkness came. 27 My heart is troubled and restless. 

And yet, as Jesus continues to speak, there is hope to be found.

Mark 13 NLT

 “When these things begin to happen, watch out! You will be handed over to the local councils and beaten in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me.10 For the Good News must first be preached to all nations.[c] 11 But when you are arrested and stand trial, don’t worry in advance about what to say. Just say what God tells you at that time, for it is not you who will be speaking but the Holy Spirit.

From these words I hear two truths that bring hope in darkness:

WITH GREAT DARKNESS COMES GREAT OPPORTUNITY

IN THE OPPORTUNITY GOD WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED

 

I found a psalm of David hidden in the book of second Samuel that gives further encouragement.

2  Sam 22

26 “To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
27 to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.
28 You save the humble,
    but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low.
29 You, Lord, are my lamp;
    the Lord turns my darkness into light.
30 With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.

I find I am not always faithful, never blameless, and rarely pure, but as long as I admit my broken and weak condition God is there to save the humble. I can trust God to see and deal with the deviousness and haughtiness characteristic of my times as David did in his. Further, in dark times I can trust God to reveal the way forward and enable me to take it.

WHATEVER THE NEXT STEP, GOD WILL ENABLE YOU TO TAKE IT

Jesus gave instructions to his disciples in Luke 9 that speak to me as well.

 

Luke 9 New Living Translation (NLT)

 

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. “Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”

So they began their circuit of the villages, preaching the Good News and healing the sick.

The instructions to take nothing on the journey of ministry is perplexing at first. Upon deeper reflection I believe the message is:

WHAT YOU HAVE IS WHAT YOU NEED FOR THE WORK GOD HAS FOR YOU.

Later in the same chapter we are given an example of this lived out.

Jesus Feeds Five Thousand

10 When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he slipped quietly away with them toward the town of Bethsaida. 11 But the crowds found out where he was going, and they followed him. He welcomed them and taught them about the Kingdom of God, and he healed those who were sick.

12 Late in the afternoon the twelve disciples came to him and said, “Send the crowds away to the nearby villages and farms, so they can find food and lodging for the night. There is nothing to eat here in this remote place.”

13 But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Or are you expecting us to go and buy enough food for this whole crowd?” 14 For there were about 5,000 men there.

Jesus replied, “Tell them to sit down in groups of about fifty each.”15 So the people all sat down. 16 Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread and fish to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. 17 They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers!

WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE IS ALL THAT YOU NEED TO DO THE WORK GOD HAS FOR YOU.

A final passage we will look at speaks to priorities in our work with and for God.

In this translation the word government is used where “ministry” appears in many other translations. Government = Greek diakonia (the organization or system of deacons or ministers to meet the needs of the people). It is closest in English to the word administration which we use to refer to our government under a particular leader.

2 Corinthians 3 The Message (MSG)

1-3 Does it sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our credentials, asserting our authority? Well, we’re not. Neither do we need letters of endorsement, either to you or from you. You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.

4-6 We couldn’t be more sure of ourselves in this—that you, written by Christ himself for God, are our letter of recommendation. We wouldn’t think of writing this kind of letter about ourselves. Only God can write such a letter. His letter authorizes us to help carry out this new plan of action. The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!

Lifting the Veil

7-8 The Government of Death, its constitution chiseled on stone tablets, had a dazzling inaugural. Moses’ face as he delivered the tablets was so bright that day (even though it would fade soon enough) that the people of Israel could no more look right at him than stare into the sun. How much more dazzling, then, the Government of Living Spirit?

9-11 If the Government of Condemnation was impressive, how about this Government of Affirmation? Bright as that old government was, it would look downright dull alongside this new one. If that makeshift arrangement impressed us, how much more this brightly shining government installed for eternity?

12-15 With that kind of hope to excite us, nothing holds us back. Unlike Moses, we have nothing to hide. Everything is out in the open with us. He wore a veil so the children of Israel wouldn’t notice that the glory was fading away—and they didn’t notice. They didn’t notice it then and they don’t notice it now, don’t notice that there’s nothing left behind that veil. Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can’t see through it. Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there.

16-18 Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

From this passage I understand:

IT’S NOT SO MUCH WHAT WE DO AS MINISTERS THAT MATTERS, BUT IT’S WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE DO OUR WORK THAT SHINES LIGHT INTO DARKNESS.

God’s letter to this world is written by the Spirit in us as our hearts and lives are transformed and we become like Christ.

TO REVIEW:

WITH THIS GREAT DARKNESS COMES GREAT OPPORTUNITY.

IN THIS OPPORTUNITY GOD WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED.

WHATEVER THE NEXT STEP, GOD WILL ENABLE YOU TO TAKE IT.

WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE IS ALL THAT YOU NEED TO DO THE WORK GOD HAS FOR YOU TO DO.

IT’S NOT SO MUCH WHAT WE DO AS MINISTERS THAT MATTERS, BUT IT’S WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE DO OUR WORK THAT SHINES LIGHT INTO DARKNESS.

I was a teacher for far longer than I have been anything else in my life, so I am giving you homework.

Who are you and what do you have?

I believe the place to start in figuring out what God is calling you to do is to figure out who you are and what you already have.

Who are you? What brings you life? What excites you? What are the things that upset you or distress you? Where do you find passion? Collectively what calls you, unites you, invites you?

What do you have? Not your stuff, but your real assets, the gifts and talents, knowledge and training, experience and desires that all make up who you are is what God will use to bring light in this darkness.

As a next step: consider What do you do for fun? When you get to choose how you spend your time, what do you do and why? What is it that brings you life in those activities? The answers to these questions will point to your gifting. The understanding of you gifting will help clarify your call. In understanding your call you will find the next step. God be with you in every question leading to the next steps for you as individuals and a faith community.

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Every Day Grace

I loved Kathleen Norris’s book Amazing Grace, Vocabulary of Faith.  It is a collection of essays about her life, worshipping in a small rural church, being a Benedictine oblate,  and how God’s grace is evident in all aspects of her life.  But I also loved her book Quotidian Mysteries which explores how our everyday life and daily practices and chores become a living way to communicate to us that there can be a heavenly value to all the mundane things we have to do in this mortal life, which applied with love, can lead us to be the person we’d like to be.  In my mind she is talking in these books about how we too can find moments in our daily lives where God’s grace moves through us and into the world.

The concept of how God’s grace touches my life and the lives of those around me has been a source of interest and contemplation for quite a while.  The idea that the immense grace that God has showed us by forgiving and redeeming us is almost beyond human comprehension,  but when I think about how that grace has manifested itself to me through others,  it becomes a touchstone and a cornerstone of my spiritual life.  Today I would like to talk about how we can become more fully aware of God’s grace in our lives and also what that means for those we interact with on daily basis.

As you may or may not know,  I work at Gonzaga University which is a Catholic and Jesuit institution,  and during my time there I was fortunate to be able to do a nine-month spiritual program called Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life.  The spiritual exercises were developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits,  to help prepare them for their calling as men of God.  So I got a good-sized dose of Catholic thinking and a quote by St. Augustine that says that Grace must be received.   St.  Augustine says  “ God gives where he finds empty hands;  A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift”.  This echoes the final prayer of the Spiritual Exercises where it says “take and receive”:  we must be willing to give up in order to receive and be empty enough to receive.   If our lives are too full of work, hobbies, emotional turmoil, and all the physical and emotional aspects of our lives, do we have the time or ability to receive the grace that God can give us? Or are our hands too full of what we think our lives should be to receive and accept the grace that God has to offer us?  One of the many things that Friends worship can offer is this time on Sundays to sit with others and ourselves in silence to be open to the grace that God has to offer.

A quote by George Fox states,

 “I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any.   People had no need of any teacher but the Light that was in all men and women and if people would be silent, waiting on God, the Light would teach them how to conduct their lives, teach them about Christ, show them the condition of their hearts”

 So the history of the Friends is one in which preparing ourselves to see God’s grace is key to both worship and to life.  But at least for myself,  all too often in the reality of work and life and relationships, most days I find myself juggling the parcels of my daily life, and the grace I probably so desperately need I am unable to hold onto and let it sustain me.  So the question remains how do we allow ourselves to open our hearts and lives on a daily basis to receive the grace we need to be the representatives of God’s grace here on earth?

I think one way might be more intentional in looking at our lives and our days and asking God for specific aspects of his grace.  Perhaps we know that a day will require additional patience; maybe if we know we will be called on to listen more deeply, to be more empathic, to be more courageous, to seek to cultivate peace, we can ask God for a specific aspect of his grace to face the situations that the day may bring.

One of my favorite New Testament passages is from Matthew 10:46-52:

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

What I like about this passage is verse 51 where Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” I think for most of us it wouldn’t even enter our minds to ask that question — obviously the blind man wanted to see,  but Jesus didn’t make that assumption, he asked the question “What do you want me to do?”   The man did ask for his sight,  but he was asked to state and own what he wanted from Jesus.  I think that too often I am not aware enough of what I need to be able to ask God for that grace.  I, like many Protestants,  was raised to do a great job of intercessional prayer.  We had lists of people we prayed for,  and we didn’t hesitate to ask God to touch others and show his grace to those we knew and those we didn’t.  But I don’t recall that with the exception of prayers of supplication (like please let me pass this test, or please let the wonderful boy call me)  that I never  intentionally thougt  to ask God to be filled with his grace and to go into my day looking for signs of his grace and ways in which I could offer that grace to others.  St. Ignatius believed it is important to “be aware of the grace you are seeking”, that is, the spiritual gift or virtue (grace) you need or want at the moment.  And he began his prayers with “I begin my prayer by asking God our Father for the grace I am seeking”
So while we may begin our day asking for God’s grace, often we don’t take the time to reflect on whether  it has been given.  Sometimes there are huge moments that blink as if in neon saying “God at work”, “God at work” but more likely we might find ourselves missing those small moments when God’s grace has entered our lives.  So perhaps the other  bookend  to our being aware of God’s presence in our lives is taking the time to reflect and see where God’s grace has been given.  One of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality is the Examen.  The Examen is done daily, and it is the time where the individual reflects on their day, the good the bad,  and also intentionally looks for where God may have been working that we may have missed.   It is also a time where we can be honest with ourselves, see those times during the day where we did not show God’s grace to another and ask forgiveness for those shortcomings.

One of the joys in my life is helping people be able to see where God’s grace may have touched their lives.  A few years ago after experiencing spiritual direction during the Spiritual Exercises program,  I felt called to train to be a spiritual director and undertook a two-year program at North Park Seminary in Chicago to be certified as a Spiritual Director.  A spiritual director meets with individuals who are seeking to discover, deepen or renew their spiritual lives.  Spiritual direction involves for the most part listening to the directee  and helping them see where God might be working in their life and leading them.  It gives  individuals a time of reflection and a  chance to tell their story and hopefully better see God at work in their life and perhaps determine what they can do to strengthen their spiritual life.  The core if this work is allowing time and space for God’s grace and goodness to be seen and become known.

So as we live our lives full of the packages we hold and the responsivities we juggle,  my prayer and hope is that this week you will take the time to lay down those packages and pick up the gift that is God’s never ending grace, be able to ask for the specific graces that you need, and then reflect and thank God for the ways his love and grace has touched your life.

 

 

 

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Authentication

March 5

Matthew 4 tells us a story which finds its source in the wilderness testing of Israel. His forty days fast in the wilderness mirrors Israel’s forty years journey. While his test is similar to the challenge that the people of Israel faced, unlike Israel, Jesus does not fail.

Matthew 4:1-11

4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

To start with, it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to fast for forty days and forty nights so that when Jesus was at his weakest the Devil comes to tempt him. At the end of the fast Jesus is weak and hungry. Some would argue that Jesus, as the Son of God, could have used his special powers to miraculously provide food for himself. But another reading suggests that Jesus, as Son of Man, a title he used from himself, would have set such powers aside. In the context of the wilderness the question is: will God supply the needs of one of his children during a difficult spiritual journey? Life, in its fullest sense, comes by relying on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Unlike the children of Israel, who constantly failed the test of faith Jesus relies on God’s promise to sustain him through his wilderness journey. It is a safe thing to assume that when we’re at our weakest and in that part of our lives in which we are most vulnerable we will face the greatest challenges in our spiritual life.

The tempter takes Jesus to a projecting part of the temple. “I tell you what I’m gonna do…” the tempter tells Jesus. “We’ve this promise that He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up“. Do you really believe that? If so, If you are the Son of God, take the big leap and throw yourself down. The devil’s test is that Israel’s acceptance of the Jesus as messiah can be guaranteed by a powerful sign. But for the messiah to rest on signs and wonders is to question God’s way. Jesus response was Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” In the wilderness (Num.20) the people of Israel failed the test both trust and of testing God. But Jesus does not fail.

Deuteronomy 34 describes how Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the load of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. That’s like the view Jesus sees, the world laid out before him, over which Satan offers Jesus dominion, but on Satan’s terms. All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Israel had long ago compromised their faith and looked to the Golden Calf and their own devices to help attain the promised land. Was this an offer too good to refuse? In recent weeks some have expressed the belief that much of the Christian church inked such a contract with the tempter to ensure access to high government officials. Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus did not fail this test, but rather, he chose the way of faith rather than rely on expedience and capitulation.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Surviving the tests the aid that Jesus was unwilling to ask for himself was then provided by attending angels.

Does the Lord support his servants as promised, or is self-help necessary? The people of Israel weren’t all that different than us and like any modern day congregation they grumbled and doubted their way from Egypt to the promised land. The Lord had promised to provide all their needs for the journey, yet time and again they doubted. Unlike them, Jesus did not doubt, rather he rested totally on God’s provision for his vocation.

We modern day wilderness sojourners have our calling and we are bound to rely on the provision of the Lord. For example, Jesus asks us to communicate the gospel to our broken world. His word tells us that this gospel is the “power of God unto salvation for all who believe.” So, we don’t have to rely on selling techniques, psychological manipulation or group dynamics, to achieve results. Doubting God’s promise is to court disaster.

Is the Lord’s mission self-authenticating, or does it need promoting? Other than Christ, Moses was probably the greatest of the leaders of faith but even he felt the need to authenticate both God’s plan and his place in it. The sign of water from the rock was his downfall. Jesus faced a similar test, but did not fail. The need to authenticate the church is with us today, as it was all those years ago. There are those who look to miraculous signs and there are those who look to a more subtle authentication. We put the Lord to the test when we forget that God’s program when it is actualized, is self-authenticating.

In a recent conversation with some folks from Boundary County I learned that while the community was struggling with the threat of snow collapsing the roofs of schools and public buildings thirty Mennonites had come up to quietly provide assistance. You have to look no further than our foyer three days a week and see volunteers from local churches, most from Assumption Parish – they are not there to authenticate the church – they are at work because Christ’s Spirit is at work within them. But, in their obedience provide the very authentication that seems important.

One thing to take away from this passage is that, like the tempter, sincere people can quote scripture to support in a way that supports their distorted point of view. In this instance Satan was not entitled to his own interpretation. It was wrong; it was not an alternative truth.

Temptations appeal to natural human desires. Nothing wrong with desire in itself… no sin in having desires. But to twist into an recognizable form God’s way for humans to treat humans is sin. Satan could not create within Jesus the willingness to even consider violating what he knew to be God’s will in order to satisfy his desires. Why did Satan fail? Because of Jesus’ perfect moral excellence… there was no darkness in Him… not even a momentary confusion about whether He would violate God’s command or not (1 John 1:5; John 1:1-4,9). The nearer we get to that same perfect moral excellence, the more successful we will be.

Jesus possessed great power, but did not use it improperly. Just because one has the ability, opportunity or power to do a thing does not make it the right thing to do. Jesus understood this, but many, like Herod, Judas or Pilate; do not. Just like us, Jesus was tempted in all things.

Is the victory the Lord’s, or does he need help? Israel sensed their vulnerability and were quick to look nostalgically to the symbol of Egypt and its might, the Golden Calf. Jesus faced the same test. Rather than submission and sacrifice, the kingdom could be his if only he would submit to dark powers. We are most clearly faced with a similar temptation today as individuals and as the church.

The Christian church has often feared for its very survival so there is nothing new in the withering away of visible aspects of contemporary Christianity. Yet, to build our security on the systems of this age, on structure rather than substance, or relevance rather than reality, is a disaster. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Ps.127:1

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Let Our Song Be Heard

LET OUR SONG BE HEARD-ROMANS 6:1-14, sermon by Jon Maroni

Spokane Friends Church February 17th 2017.

 

Good morning, once again I am thankful to be preaching this morning. Many of you know that it doesn’t take very much for me to get excited about something, and preaching is certainly one of those things.

Preaching is more than just something I get excited about. I consider it a true honor and a humbling opportunity that I’m able to open God’s word with you this morning. Recently I’ve been thankful for so many of you, how you have offered Krista and I your advice, wisdom encouragement, and above all else your friendship. Something I have learned about our community here at Spokane Friends is that it is a place where you can be truly known, and welcomed. I have loved sharing with our friends here in Spokane how awesome it is to have found a church home. I just feel like I can be me when I’m here, and that is a difficult thing to find.

 

By that I mean that this is a place where you can feel safe allowing people to see who you really are. Here we have grasped the reality that Christ calls all people to himself, that everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God. This is something we should celebrate about our church community. When people ask me about my church one of the first things I tell them is that at Spokane Friends you don’t have to put on your Sunday best. For people who have been a part of a church they immediately understand what I mean. For those who haven’t, I usually explain it like this “at my church you can allow the person that you are on the inside to show on the outside, you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.” I don’t feel the need to act a certain way here and I’m so thankful for that. Genuineness is something that we do very well here, it is one of our strengths and something that we should celebrate. That is what my sermon is about this morning, celebrating our relationship with Christ, celebrating our communal life together and letting our song of faith be heard in the places we work, go to school, and in our neighborhoods.

One of my favorite professors from my time as a student at George Fox is a man named Irv Brendlinger.. He is perhaps best known for driving an old diesel Mercedes which he runs off of used veggie oil. If you have ever ridden behind a car like that you have experienced the odd sensation of driving behind  a car that smells distinctly like French fries and Fritos.

We all have people in our lives that have helped form us into who we are today, and Irv is certainly one of those people for me. If there is something that I have learned from Irv it is that our best friends are also the people who challenge and push us most, and it is important to cultivate those honest relationships. Irv also has the interesting tendency to refer to some of his favorite authors as friends. If you didn’t know Irv you would assume that he has lived for hundreds of years. He will talk about getting to know people like Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis, as if he hung out with them on Sunday’s after church. What he means is that he has gotten to know them by reading their written works. Irv introduced me to many new friends during my time as his student. This morning I want to introduce you to one of my very good friends, his name is Calvin Miller.

 

Calvin Miller is best remembered for writing The Singer. This book retells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a distinctly musical focus. In Miller’s stories Jesus is known as the Troubadour and the Singer, a great travelling minstrel who sings wherever he goes. His song is the star song, the gospel. When he sings his star song there is healing, wholeness, and salvation, it is a song which he teaches to others, and invites them to sing themselves. The star song heals the sick, raises the dead, brings forgiveness for sin and frees the oppressed. God the Father is known as Earth Maker, the one who formed the world and who first called Jesus as the Troubadour to sing his star song, the song of the gospel that brings freedom to the world. Satan is known as World Hater, he plays a silver pipe and plays a song of hate wherever he goes. His song brings agony, torment, oppression and anguish. It is this star song, the gospel, which our great Troubadour Jesus wants us to sing. The truth that Jesus as the son of God, came and lived among us as a human, he was crucified, buried and resurrected on the third day in order for us to have forgiveness from our sins and a restored relationship with God. If that isn’t something worth singing about I don’t know what is. This is the song that Jesus taught each of us when we chose to commit our lives to Him. Each of us brings to it a unique note, melody, or timbre, and the one you bring is essential. It is the song that we sing where there is darkness, anger, fear, prejudice and hate. It is this song which we must sing to the world, this song which must be heard. Now more than ever, this song must be heard.

I want to share with you one of my favorite passages from The Singer:

 

The Singer stopped. Beside the road he saw a brown eyed child. Her mouth was drawn in hard firm lines that could not bend to either smile or frown. Her sickness ate her spirit, devouring all the sparkle in her eyes.

 

Her legs misshapen as they were lay useless underneath the coarsest sort of cloth. The Singer knelt beside her in the dust and touched her limpid hand and cried. He drew the cloth away that hid her legs. He reached his calloused hand and touched the small misshapen foot.

“I too was born with scarred feet. See mine!” he said, drawing back the hem of his own robe. She seemed about to speak when the music of a silver pipe broke in the air around them. He had heard the pipe before.

 

Above them towered the World Hater. “I knew you’d come,” he said. “You will, of course, make straight her twisted limbs?”

“I will, World Hater… but can you have no mercy? She’s but a child. Can her wholeness menace you in any way? Would it so embarrass you to see her skipping in the sun? Why hate such little, suffering life?

“Why chide me, Singer? She’s Earthmaker’s awful error. Tell your Father-Spirit he should take more time when he creates.”

“No it is love which brings a thousand children into life in health. It is hate that cripples each exception to eternal joy. But why must you forever toy with nature to make yourself such ugly pastimes of delight?”

 

Switch to Slide #5

“I hate all the Father-Spirit loves. If he would only hate the world with me, I’d find no joy in it again. You sing. The only music that I know is the cacophony of agony that grows from roadside wretches such as these.”

The child between them lay bewildered by their conversation. The Singer spoke again: “I’ll bring my song against your hate, against the bonds of human sins. And human tears will all subside when the Ancient Star-Song wins.”

The Hater raged and screamed above his crippled joy:

“Sing health! If you must. Sing everybody’s but your own. I soon will have your song, likewise your life. Your great Star-Song is doomed to fall. You’ll groan to my kind of music. When I meet you at the wall.”

Switch to Slide #6

The Singer scooped the frightened child into his arms. He sang and set her in the sunny fields and thrilled to watch her run. The world was hers in a way she’d never known. The butterfly-filled meadows danced her eyes alive and drew her scurrying away.

And others came!

Untouchables with bandages heard the healing song and came to health: The crippled and the blind. Sick of soul, Sick of heart, Sick of mind. Everywhere the music went, full health came.

I love the interaction between Jesus and Satan in this section, especially where it says “I’ll bring my song against your hate, against the bonds of human sins. And human tears will all subside when the Ancient Star-Song wins.”

This is the song that must be sung in our time. The reality that Jesus Christ came as a human was crucified and on the third day rose again offering all of us the chance to have a relationship with Him and in doing so conquering death and the power of sin over us. How awesome is that? Can I get a come on? All throughout the year, we participate in singing this song, in sharing our faith and relationship with Christ with others. Christ is changing and transforming us and we need to let our lives show that to the people around us. The work of God within us should be evident to others. The gospel is a song worth singing, and a song that needs to be heard. Our world is in desperate need of our song. We must sing it to those in power who will not protect the vulnerable. We must sing it to those who wish to divide the community of faith.

 

The book of Romans builds a wonderful metaphor for how we are to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness who sing and play out God’s presence in our world. Romans 6:1-14 from the NIV reads:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

 

2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

 

The apostle Paul exhorts us to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness, because we have been made alive in Christ, and because we are free. That is something worth celebrating, and worth showing others. All of you are instruments of God’s righteousness, who participate in playing the song of the gospel in our world. Now some of you may say, Jon how can I be an instrument of righteousness? if I’m an instrument I’m one who has quite a few dents and dings, I’ve been through so much hardship how can God play his song through me? I miss notes, how can I be worthy of allowing Christ to work through me? To all of us I would say, God isn’t looking for perfect instruments, God is looking for you exactly as you are. Christ needs you to sing the song of the gospel, even if your voice cracks, or if you forget a note, or sometimes sing out of key. In the body of Christ there are no perfect members, everyone belongs and brings their own sound to the song. We at Spokane Friends know this better than most!

We sing this song when we choose to serve one of our neighbors, who we know needs a helping hand. We sing this song when we share with another person how Christ has made a difference in our life. We sing this song when we allow our actions to reflect our faith in Christ. We sing this song when we choose to see our work as ministry, rather than just a place we collect a paycheck. We sing this song when we allow our relationship with Christ to permeate all aspects of our being, and others see and witness it.

As I was preparing for this Sunday I began to think of the people who first introduced me to Jesus, and who taught me how to sing this song of the gospel. The person who taught me most about being a follower of Christ was my high school soccer coach Mr. Marshall. Mr. Marshall was a person whose faith was so evident in everything he did. His whole life seemed to sing “Jesus cares about you.” He saw me as Jesus saw me, a person who was made by God, a person who had value, meaning, and purpose. His faith was evident in his work as a middle school P.E. teacher, it was evident in his work as a soccer coach, and it was evident in his role as a mentor for so many young people like me. I’ve shared this before but I was never the most gifted athlete. But he saw something within me, the potential that could be. I owe much of who I am today to him.

 

I wonder, for each of you who is the person who first noticed that potential in you? Who first noticed that you were not just a dinged up instrument.

 

Friends, as we journey through these challenging times, I want to ask each of you who do you know who needs to hear the song of the gospel? Will you choose to be the person to sing it to them? There was someone who at some point in your life shared this song of the gospel with you; will you choose to follow their example? Will you sing about your relationship with Jesus only on Sunday mornings or will you take the truths that we sing about here into your week, sharing them with people around you who desperately need to hear them? Will you let your life cry out “I belong to Jesus, come and experience the freedom that is found within him!” When we declare this we do not condemn others, we liberate them.

Who may Christ be asking you to extend a simple invitation “would you like to come to church with me?” For some of you your relationship with Jesus began with that invitation. Let us go forth this week in boldness sharing Christ with our world, letting our light shine before all people and letting our song be heard.

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JtB – Your Still The One

I think we need to start were we left off last Sunday, at Luke 7:14 where it says that Jesus “… came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him (Jesus) spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

So after Jesus healed the centurion’s slave and restored the life of the widow’s son, the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding area. No Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. No Spokesman Review, Twitter or Facebook. Strictly word of mouth, people telling people, the news about Jesus and what he was doing became a hot topic.

 

As you recall, Luke told us back in the third chapter of his Gospel, John the Baptist was in prison. We read that “…Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him (John the Baptist) because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that John the Baptist was imprisoned in the palace of Macherus and was there put to death. The castle was located about 15 miles southeast of where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, almost 200 miles from Capernaum.

Yet the news about Jesus’ miracles reached John’s ears. It disturbed him. From his earliest childhood John was aware of the relationship his mother had with Jesus’ mother and believed Jesus to be the Messiah and beyond that he considered Jesus divine. He said, “He existed before me.” John would not have declared that Jesus was “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” if he was not convinced that Jesus was on a divine mission. But after hearing about the miracles that Jesus was performing John was apparently either more confused or had real doubts. Is Jesus the Messiah that was expected? The Biblical texts we have to rely on set out a “job description” of sorts for the Messiah — and Jesus fails the test, horribly. Jesus fails to free his people from the Roman yoke. He fails to setup a new kingdom like that of David and Solomon. As one in prison, it was clear to John that he certainly hadn’t set the prisoners free. Those things didn’t seem to appear on his to-do list. John seems to have expected an active and vigorous cleansing, more repentance and sin stuff. Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that either.

Remember, John proclaimed that another was coming, one who would be greater than John, one who will change the world. John must have started wondering if he had made a mistake. As many of us do when things do not go as we expected, he may have started having “second thoughts.” He must have thought, “Why am I still in prison?” “When is Jesus going to start the kingdom?” “When will I be released from my prison?” “How does the forgiveness of our sins fit into Jesus’ plan?” “Why isn’t something important happening?” “Is Jesus really the Messiah?”

Luke tells us that the disciples of John reported all these things to him. But being in prison he has no first-hand knowledge? So he sends two of his disciples to Jesus in order to discover the answer to his burning question: “Are you the one I was waiting for?”

When the men arrived to where Jesus was working they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

On the face of it it is a straight yes/no question. However Jesus does not answer the question directly. Instead he puts it back on the questioners “Tell John what you have seen”. He tells them to witness to God at work. He challenges them, and John to whom they will (presumably) report, to see things differently. The answer to John’s question is going, in the end, to depend on John. Can John overcome his very specific expectation and his disappointment to see that Jesus is the one, just in a way different than he had imagined?

Can we?

Any of us can become prisoners to our expectations of how God is at work in the world. Are there times we miss what God is doing because it is different from what we hoped for and what we had expected? Are we like John, desperately hoping to see one thing, hearing about something wonderful, and wondering what to make of it?

Or maybe we are like the messengers sent by John. Are there people in our lives asking what God is doing, if Christ is present somewhere and the only answer we can give is to tell them what we see, we what hear, what we experience? It is often true that we see Jesus, we see Christ, we see God more clearly when we are open to see something other than what we expect. Sometimes that is based on what we experience, sometimes it is based on what we hear from others. But rarely is it actually a straight-forward yes/no question.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how we set limits on Grace because we’re convinced that someone is outside the embrace of their creator?

The music group Orleans, in 1976, released a song with these words:

You’re still the one — that makes me strong
Still the one — I want to take along
We’re still having fun, and you’re still the one…

With John the Baptist, and with us, the message Luke has for us is Jesus is still the one.

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Only In A Boat

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11

I love the idea that Jesus, desperate for a little space from which to speak to the crowds pressing upon him, simply commandeered Peter’s boat. And I love that Peter just lets him do it. I mean, Peter had been fishing all night and probably wanted to finish cleaning up and get home to bed. But he takes Jesus out anyway. He was just that kind of a guy, the kind of guy who would push out from shore even though he was dead tired just because you asked. He just does it. And I love that.

I love that when Jesus is all done teaching he isn’t actually all done. And that Peter again does something that doesn’t make sense, letting down his nets after he’d been fishing all night and caught nothing. And I love to imagine the expression on the fishermen’s faces as they struggled to haul in this catch, and called their friends to help, and barely get their nets to shore.

And I love what Jesus says to Peter: “Do not be afraid.” It’s the hallmark of Luke’s gospel; maybe the hallmark of the gospel. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore. I love that. And then Jesus gives Peter something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. And I love that, too.

Of course, the story’s not quite done. Because after these words, the fishermen give everything up – their professions, their livelihood, their family and friends, everything – in order to follow Jesus. And, quite frankly, I can’t say I love that. I’m not sure, to be honest, how I feel about that. For what would I give up everything? Would I do it for this? Would I do it for Jesus?

In our text for today we find the metaphor “fishing for people.” For some this has to be one of the Bible’s worst metaphors! Imagine a fish, happy and swimming free in its natural and nurturing environment being unwillingly emancipated from it’s watery environment to one in which she can’t breath and then, usually, becoming someone’s supper. From that point to view a caught fish is a dead fish. Obviously, when Jesus says we’re gonna catch people, he doesn’t mean that they’d be cut up and put sauteed in a nice white wine sauce. But, being caught by Jesus, some would argue, suggests that something dies, right? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But we need to be reminded that metaphors serve a contextualized rhetorical point.

In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul makes a great deal of this metaphor. He asks: 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Then he says: 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. And he then ends the passage saying: 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, penned: “The fact that you are not yet dead is not sufficient proof that you are alive. It takes more than that. It takes courage–above all, the courage to face death. Only one who is alive can die. Aliveness is measured by the ability to die.” And then he adds: “It is fear of death that prevents us from coming fully alive.”

A dozen pages into Isaac Penington’s “The Holy Truth and People Defended,” a polemic written from Reading Jail in 1672. Penington’s anonymous detractor claims that we may sit down in Christ “in a state of rest and reconciliation, heavenly and divine, before and without the consideration of any works of righteousness which we have wrought…” but Penington rebuts this as “directly contrary to scripture,” which teaches in various places “that persons do not sit down in eternal blessedness in Christ, before or without consideration of any works wrought by them.” Prior to this sitting down comes a state of discipleship, in which none can dwell and abide in Christ, “but he that can dwell with devouring fire and everlasting burnings: for the pure word of life is a fire, and he that sits down in the heavenly place in him, must sit down in that fire.”

Quakers have held that the Refiner’s Fire is a difficult and usually painful element of one’s spiritual journey. It was used by many early Friends to describe the process by which the Light of Christ reveals and melts everything within that resists God and God’s ways. Gradually sin, temptation, and disbelief are cleansed away, as well as overriding cravings for comfort, pleasure, and social status.

They are not intended to be taken literally or pressed beyond the rhetorical point. And the reality is that, in this context the Greek verb that is used in the text means to catch alive, not to kill. Net fishing is quite different than fishing with hook and line. Net fishing is indiscriminate in that it hauls in everything within its take. It’s not selective, at least in the initial haul. I like that part of the image. As a child I remember laying out a long net from a row boat on the beach at Galveston and then pulling it to shore. Caught in it were sea creatures of all sorts from croakers to dog fish.

Of course it wouldn’t have happened had the fishermen not demonstrated a faith that freed them to move from the shallows to the deeper water, where the catch is abundant and Jesus is realized.

Something is disclosed in Simon Peter’s reaction to the stunning catch of fish, that moment as he witnesses the dramatic reversal of his experience of fishing all night with nothing to show for it. It becomes immediately clear to him that Jesus is the one who can create abundance from scarcity. The one who can turn failure into success. The one who can, ultimately, create something out of nothing.

And that recognition makes Peter…what, exactly? Aware of his shortcomings, of his inadequacies, of his failure? In some measure, perhaps. But I think it’s even more that Peter realizes he is in the presence of the holy and eternal and he, Peter, knows just how far he is from that. “Sinner,” in this sense, doesn’t simply designate Peter as a moral failure; rather, it signifies his new born awareness of not yet being what God created him to be and the One who is precisely and fully what God created him to be.

At heart, the word “sin” itself is a metaphor which means “missing the mark,” not necessarily a moral wretch and certainly not one despised of God or all of the other things we sometimes think “sin” designates. So I think that what Peter is most keenly aware of in this moment is that he has missed the mark. His life is not what it could be, not what it should be, not what God hopes and intends it to be. To use Quaker imagery, he finds him self sitting in the fire.

Framing “sin” in this way is valuable because it helps us to imagine God as more than a cosmic judge and eternal rule-enforcer. Rather, God is the one who loves God’s creation and people, even when we miss the mark. God wants the best for us. God wants us to know that we are loved, that we enjoy God’s favor, and God wants us to live into that identity and future.

That’s why, I think, after Peter’s exclamation Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “Your sins are forgiven.” But at this moment Jesus responds to Peter’s confession not with forgiveness but with comfort and with purpose. “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t judgment, it’s mercy. And, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus doesn’t deny what Peter is – a fisherman – he enlarges it, meeting Peter where he is and, rather than condemning him, expanding his vision, drawing him into God’s kingdom vision of who and what Peter might be.

And guess what? Jesus is doing the same with us. Wherever you are right now, at this moment, you also have missed the mark. But rather than hear that as a word of condemnation, hear it instead as a word of love and invitation: Do not be afraid. From now on you will be drawn into a mission and purpose larger than you can imagine.

But we can’t leave this passage without recalling the import of verse 7 which says, “So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.” Ministry is not a solitary journey it is always corporate. Later Luke will tell us that when Jesus sent some seventy two disciples into ministry none went alone. Solitary can be defined as individually alone, congregationaly alone, or denominationally alone. We are not called to do ministry alone. We have to embrace our partners in faith to work together to meet the needs of our communities, our nation and our world. Yes, we need to answer the call to follow Christ individually, but as we do we become part of a much larger community, that is ‘The Body of Christ.”

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Inauguration Message

Inaugural addresses are important. Typically a new President announces the priorities of their administration. But of course it’s more than priorities, it’s also a vision, a vision for what the country can and should be. President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.

Luke treats us with the first recorded words of Jesus. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Jesus’ sermon offered from the desk in the synagogue in Nazareth which we find in Luke 4:14 and following. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke’s rendition has this as the first explicit public event of Jesus’ ministry. What makes this scene very important to understanding who Jesus is and what he is up to is that this is Jesus’ inaugural address. Here Jesus launches his ministry from his hometown synagogue.

Our text today is often called, “The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth.”  The remarkable thing is that in the first half of the story there is no indication of rejection.  At the outset we hear that Jesus is returning from his wilderness sparring with the devil “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” and that he is “praised by everyone.”  It reports that his listeners “all speak well of him and were amazed at his gracious words.”  Rejection?  Hardly, at least not in this first half of the story.

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

We Christians love how Jesus combined passages from Isaiah 61 and 58 and then proclaimed that the scripture is fulfilled at that moment. And why wouldn’t we, given that it is an announcement of the year of Jubilee that arrives with Jesus, the time in which we will see the hungry fed, the imprisoned released, the blind healed, and the oppressed lifted? Jesus’ hometown audience loved the quote and the sermon, too … at first.

So what kind of vision do we hear in Jesus’ address? It is an announcement of his mission. It is a description of the kingdom of God. It is a promise of God’s aid and presence. And all of this and more is summarized by the words good news. But it is not “good news” in general. If we listen closely we will hear that this good news is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. It is good news for the poor. It is not just release, but release to those who are captive, sight to those who are blind, freedom to those who are oppressed. Jesus’ words challenge us to choose to hear that he has not come simply to save us individually, apart from one another, or privately, through our personal belief, but he comes for us all, and is revealed in us and through us, as we reach out to embrace one another’s needs.

Reaching out to embrace the needs of others — that’s where things turned ugly. With the balance of Luke’s story the adulation evaporates.

23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

After the crowd praises Jesus, he, in a sense, tells them, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean you. The day of Jubilee isn’t for you.” For Luke, salvation is understood primarily in social and not individualistic terms. To be more specific, for Luke that salvation is a reversal of the social order. Thus, for example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus not only pronounces blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated, he also pronounces woes on the rich, the filled, the laughing, and the respected (Luke 6:20-26). Those on the bottom of society experience this salvation with rejoicing while those on top experience it in the form of God’s judgment and justice.

In the second half of the story Jesus challenges the hometown crowd’s view about who is on bottom of society and who is on top. He reminds the crowd that even when there had been great need in Israel, God sent the prophet Elijah to the Gentile widow in Zarephath and the prophet Elisha to the Gentile leper, Naaman. By implication, the prophet Jesus is not sent to the synagogue in Nazareth but is sent from there to Gentiles. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus changes so rapidly and so radically it almost makes our head swim.

Not unlike Jesus’ hometown crowd, we too want to claim Jesus as our own. We profess faith in Jesus as the Christ and strive to follow Christ in our individual and corporate lives. But this text pushes us to expand our view and push us out of our comfort zone in claiming Jesus’ allegiance to us over against others. Jesus doesn’t accuse the synagogue of such. He does not imply that he turns to the Gentiles because those in Nazareth reject him. They reject him because he turns to the Gentiles.

Can we learn from the ancient crowd in the text and embrace Christ in this turn to those outside the usual boundaries of the sacred community? Indeed, the church can follow Christ into contemporary “Gentile” territory offering aid and acceptance to the widows and lepers of the world. In other words, as this text delineates Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ mission, it can also serve as our own inaugural statement defining the mission of the church today.

Never before have we as a nation been as deeply divided as we are in our responses to refugees, the poor, and minorities. Ancient as Jesus’ words are, and belonging as they do to a culture almost completely unfamiliar in our world, we still hear in those words a ring of truth, that these are the priorities we too must embrace, and the Holy Spirit of Christ anoints us all to this ministry.

Douglas Wood wrote a wonderful story called, Old Turtle and the Broken Truth.

One night truth fells from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground. And then one day a man stumbled upon the gravity-drawn piece and found that engraved on it were the words, “You are loved.” It made him feel good, so he kept it and shared it with the people of his tribe and it made them feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”

Over time those who had the truth grew afraid of those who didn’t, those who were different from them. And those who didn’t have it coveted it. Soon people are fighting wars over The Truth, trying to capture it for themselves.

A little girl who was troubled by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—to speak with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece, the piece that shot off into the night sky so long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it the little girl puts the jagged piece of truth in her pocket and returned to her people. She tried to explain it but no one would listen or understand. Finally a raven flew the shard of broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece had been ensconced for safety, and the rejoined pieces shined their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people begin to comprehend. And the earth began to heal.

 

 

 

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Luke’s take on Jesus’ Baptism

Among the four canonical gospels, John doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s Gospel actually begins with a very brief description of the event. Matthew summarizes the event in four verses. Jesus comes to John who demurs then consents. Once Jesus is out of the water the heavens open, the spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Luke takes over twenty verses, sets the stage with dates, people and places. But let me read it. Luke 3:1-22

3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

What John says next to the gathered is truly important:

8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

That’s a most interesting question. “What then should we do?” Is there some ritual we should perform, some sacrifice to prepare and offer, some special set of words to repeat, some belief to be pronounced? Listen to John’s reply:

11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

It’s an interesting collection of people: those who had clothing and food beyond their own needs but also Soldiers and Tax collectors – most hated among the population and all had come from the same river, the same river from which Jesus will soon reportedly come.

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

That’s been a pretty important verse in Quaker history – the strongly held position that the Baptism of Christ is that of the Holy Spirit whose fire will burn away the chaff of our lives. That Quakers have not employed water baptism has been cause for some to deny that we are Christian.

17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That sounds like a conclusion but then comes two sentences that seems out of sequence with how we understand things to have played out.

19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

And then Luke goes back to his narrative:

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,

Matthew is clear that Jesus was out of the river before the divine proclamation of God’s being pleased with Jesus is heard but Luke intimates that it was long after – after all the people and Jesus had been baptized and John was locked up in Herod’s jail – while Jesus was praying the Holy Spirit, descended on him in bodily dovelike form and the voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

John made real political enemies, especially irritating Herod’s second wife, Herodias, (Luke 3:20). He called Herod’s marriage to his half brother Phillip’s wife an abomination. This priest-prophet baptizer took the Torah seriously: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). Because of John’s condemnation of Herod he was imprisoned, effectively removing him from public life. We don’t hear about John’s execution until much later in Luke’s narrative (see also Luke 9:9).

Luke interpreted John’s baptizing mission in light of Isaiah’s image of “a voice” who prepares “the way of the Lord.” Indeed, John enters the story as any Israelite prophet would: “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” We see the same pattern with Jeremiah 1:4; 33:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Jonah 1:1. This priest’s son grew up in the wilderness and entered public life as a prophet. Furthermore, as a prophet he scolded those who came calling them: “You brood of vipers!” (John 3:7). John challenged the special “covenant” Israel had because of Abraham, as if that spiritual heritage was all that mattered (3:8-9). John questioned what people did. Jesus, too, will provide a prophetic voice and action, as he baptizes “by fire,” which will be utilized for the removal of the “chaff” (3:17).

Repentance isn’t associated with religious ritual or belief, it is associated with “acts” of repentance: specifically, John told the crowds to share their goods (Luke 3:11; see also Acts 2) and be fair in one’s profession (3:12-14). Unlike his Gospel counterparts, Luke names “tax-collectors” and “soldiers” as people who received John’s baptism . The Baptist did not tell “soldiers” to lay down their weapons; he highlighted theirs as well as the tax collectors’ desire for greed.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia John’s baptism is to result in holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. This thought is expressed in the well-known passage in Josephus in which he speaks of John the Baptist: “The washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” John symbolized the call to repentance by Baptism in the Jordan; and the same measure for attaining holiness was employed by the Essenes, whose ways of life John also observed. Josephus says of his instructor Banus, an Essene, that he “bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day”, and that the same practice was observed by all the Essenes.

Despite imagining John waste deep in the river he declares that the one who would come after him would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Ghost. A semblance of that notion is expressed in the Talmud that the Holy Spirit could be drawn upon as water is drawn from a well (based upon Isa.12: 3). And there is a somewhat Jewish tinge even to the prophecy of the evangelists Matthew (3: 11) and Luke (3:16), who declare that Jesus will baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Ghost; for, according to Rabbi Abbahu, true Baptism is performed with fire. According to the Christian writer Justin, the expression that the person baptized is illuminated has the same significance as is implied in telling a proselyte to Judaism, after his bath, that he now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God.

While the balance of the chapter is on John’s mission, the climax is still Jesus’ baptism. And God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity (as “God’s son”) was the significant event of the event, the identity the angel had claimed in Luke 1:35. And then, for some reason, Luke doesn’t place “John” at the scene. In Luke’s telling the story he names no baptizer. In the narrative story-line, just before Jesus’ baptism, Luke described Herod’s imprisonment of John. In narrative time John’s imprisonment seems to occur before Jesus came to be baptized. It is an unusual set-up.

For Luke, By the time of Jesus’ baptism, John’s voice in the wilderness (3:4) was replaced by a heavenly voice (3:22) and John’s body was replaced by the Spirit’s “body” in the form of a dove. John’s absence from the baptism scene emphasizes the Spirit’s “baptism” or empowerment of Jesus and God’s acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (3:21-22).

As Isaiah announces, the coming Messiah will reveal the “salvation of God”. Many contemporary readers of the Gospel narratives usually associate the story of “salvation” with the coming and dying of Jesus. But the language of “salvation” meant much more for first century Jews when we recall Simeon seeing God’s “salvation” in the baby Jesus (2:30). For ancient Jews, Zechariah’s words are representative: “(God) has raised up a mighty savior for us … that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:69, 71). (1:74). Let’s hear that again: The Messiah’s salvation would affect their political realities so that their religious ones would also be unhindered, “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear”

Jesus’ public mission initiates a new stage in God’s plan of dealing with humankind. Repentance implies a preparation of one’s heart, mind, and entire attitude that God desires to engage God’s creation. Then, the Spirit will also prepare the way of the Lord!

As we begin this new year with new challenges and as the Holy Spirit comes first to burn away the accumulated chaff of our lives we too ask with those baptized by John: “What then should we do?” John’s reply is: Bear fruits worthy of repentance.

Heavenly Father, With joy and awe we praise you for claiming us as your sons and daughters, and for pouring your Holy Spirit upon us. Help us to prepare this earth for your glory, and shine your light on all your faithful children, for the sake of the one whose birth and baptism brought renewal and transformation to this world, Jesus Christ. Amen

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