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Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Peace

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“Swords into Plowshares and a Future of Hope” (Isaiah 2:1-5; Luke 1:46-55)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
November 25, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It seems like there will always be wars and rumors of wars.1 And I often worry about the world that we have brought our daughter into. One merely has to glance at the news headlines to feel this sense of hopelessness at the violence, destruction, and pain that is the reality for the world we live in. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic, random, senseless acts of gun violence, including the Aurora, CO movie theater massacre and the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East coast killing over 100 people and causing destruction to homes, hospitals, nursing homes, transportation systems, places of business, and felling 1000s of trees. Sex abuse scandals abound. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. Tanzania has reported an increase in recent months of elephants who are being slaughtered and left to rot all for the sake of their ivory tusks. Schools continue to need to cut spending and yet the global military spending was over $1.7 trillion dollars this past year alone. We continue to come up with more creative ways to kill others and to inflict pain and suffering on others through the art of war and yet children continue to go to bed hungry. Plowshares continue to be beaten into swords.

Isaiah paints a beautiful image of Jerusalem as a place of peace streaming out into the rest of the world from the mountain of the Lord. Yet the reality of what is taking place in Jerusalem and the surrounding land these days is so far removed from this peaceful vision. Tony Campolo observes that to call it the “holy land” “is a misnomer when what goes on there is so unholy.”2 It was sobering to see firsthand some of the atrocities being committed against fellow human beings and to hear the stories of how many people have experienced injustice and how much pain has been endured. We visited with a family whose home had been bulldozed 4 times, which has recently been destroyed again since our visit. We heard the story of a man whose 14 year old daughter was killed by a suicide bomb. And just this month the violence has escalated with the fighting near Gaza which has been the bloodiest exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas in 4 years. This recent violence claimed the lives of 172 people, which included 34 children. One devastating picture showed a father weeping over the body of his 11 month old son who had been killed in the fighting. After seeing that image, I have needed to hold Sophia more often knowing that these parents will not be able to hold their own child again. Such terrible pain, all hopes and dreams for the future shattered in one horrific instant.

Where is the hope for the future in the midst of such hateful violence and desecration? Where is the hope when the powers at work in the world are so far from God’s will? Where are the songs of joy amidst the wailing laments? Creation is groaning with the pain of violence, hunger, fear, illness, and destruction that are inflicted upon the world. We cry with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord? How long shall the wicked be jubilant?3 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?4 How long must we bear pain in our souls and have sorrow in our hearts?5 How long before those who mourn are comforted?”

It often seems as though the world is beyond hope, that those working in opposition to God’s will seem to triumph and that violence, destruction and greed rule the day. Yet we are those who hope in what is not seen, even when the present state of the world seems hopeless. This beautiful vision that Isaiah paints for us is God’s future for the world; creation will be restored, all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house and will walk in the ways of God’s peace.

It is as Paul assured the congregations in Rome,

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for the … redemption of our bodies. … Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But … we hope for what we do not see…”6

And we continue to hope. God’s future is certain. Things will not stay as they are. God will set things right. God’s kingdom will come. Even when plowshares continue to be beaten into swords, God’s kingdom will come. Even when violence begets violence and greed begets greed, God’s kingdom will come. Even when children continue to suffer at the hands of others, God’s kingdom will come. Even when things look hopeless, God’s kingdom will come.

And all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord and all will walk in the ways of God’s peace. And then God will settle things fairly between nations and will make things right. Then swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Never again will nation lift up sword against nation, never again will a person lift up a hand in violence towards another, never again will the ways of violence prevail.

In God’s future, people will willingly disarm and destroy their weapons to be repurposed for tools that will bring hope for the world and nourishment for the nations. Weapons will be used instead to cultivate food so that the harvest will be plentiful and every mouth will be fed. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Tanks will be transformed into tractors and guns into gardening tools. Everything that had once been used to inflict pain will be converted for God’s good purposes. When weapons are willingly being converted into instruments of agriculture we know that in God’s future even long-feuding and ancient enemies will be reconciled: family members who have long since parted ways, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians, even Jayhawks and Wildcats. We will all be one new humanity instead of two; the hostility between enemies will be no more.

God’s future is one of peace, of hope, where every person will have enough to eat. Creation itself will be restored and set right. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard; the pain, chaos, and suffering of the past will be forgotten. No more will an infant live only a few days; everyone will live out their lifetime. Houses will be inhabited by those whose hands have built them; the harvest will be eaten by those whose hands have cultivated, tended, and planted it. The lion and the lamb shall lie down together and no one, neither animal nor human, shall hurt or kill when God’s kingdom comes and creation is restored.7

God’s future of hope is certain, and we who hope for what is yet to come wait expectantly for the day when all creation will be restored. And as the people of God we do not sit idly by while we wait for this day to come. If faith is believing in what we don’t yet see, if we truly believe that God’s kingdom is coming that that God will ultimately set things right, then that will affect the way we live now. We know how the story is going to end, “so we start living it into being.”8 It’s like a child who on Christmas Eve puts out cookies and milk and sleeps on the couch in anticipation of the excitement of what is yet to come.

“And so it is for us. If we know that the story ends with [people] beating swords into [plowshares], we start now. And we … don’t keep building more swords. When we know that the earth is going to be healed, then we don’t want to keep creating new wounds. … We don’t have to wait.” We can begin living as though the kingdom is already come.9

We do this by following God’s Word so that we might learn and walk in God’s ways. We engage in worship and prayer, by loving our enemies as ourselves and praying for those who persecute us. We participate in God’s future by practicing reconciliation, by feeding those around us who are hungry for bread and by feeding and nourishing those who are hungry for the Living Bread. We seek shalom in our lives and pursue it for ourselves and our neighbors and for the creation. We proclaim God’s future in a world so desperately in need of hope.

For there are times when things often feel hopeless, and even we who hope for what is yet to come will experience times of discouragement. There will be days when we will ask ourselves how we will be able to go on in a world so far removed from God’s good purposes, a world so full of greed and hate and violence. I certainly have days when I worry about tomorrow, of the world we are leaving for our children, of whether I will be able to keep my daughter safe in a violent world. I have days of despair and doubt and there are times when I admit that things seem hopeless.

Yet I am reminded of a young girl who found herself in a situation that seemed hopeless. She was single and she found herself pregnant. Her fiance was planning to leave her because he knew that the child was not his own. Her life was at stake because it was within the laws of her community to execute her for becoming pregnant without being married. And yet even within this seemingly hopeless situation, this young mother was still able to sing a song of God’s great triumph that the world would be set right. She sang of God’s great mercy, of the proud being scattered and the lowly being lifted up, the powerful being thrown down from their thrones and the hungry poor being filled with good things. She knew that God has the final victory. And she knew that the child who was being formed within her womb would be the One who would make all this possible. Mary sang a song of hope of a new creation that was coming into the world through the birth of her son.

In their book “Red Letter Revolution” Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne tell the story of a Christian family who lives in the West Bank. They write,

“[They] have lived simple lives off the land for generations, until recently. Israeli settlements have been built around them, and the Israeli government tried to take their land. Unlike most families, … they actually have deeds going back over 100 years that prove they own their land which made things tricky for the Israeli government.

As [they] continued living on their land, a new strategy evolved – harassment. Olive trees were uprooted. Piles of boulders were dumped on the road leading to their home, so they couldn’t get any vehicles in and out. Even though they owned the land, they were refused permits for electricity and water. So they went off the grid and used solar and rain-water collection. When they were refused building structure permits for their home, they started building underground …

At the front of their property is a sign that reads, ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ After their olive trees were uprooted, a Jewish group caught wind of it and came and helped them replant them all. One story after another of reconciliation. … They continue to live there and have gotten to know their neighbors. At one point they invited one of the Israeli settlers to dinner. When she came into their house, she started weeping, and said, ‘You have no water, and we have swimming pools. Something is wrong.’ And when asked how they retain hope in the midst of such injustice, [they smile and simply say] ‘Jesus.’”10

For he is our hope. He is the one whose life, death, and resurrection make reconciliation between enemies possible. He is the one who will scatter the proud-hearted and lift up the lowly. He is the one who will fill the hungry with good things. He is the one who inspires swords to be beaten into plowshares. He is the reason that we follow God’s ways and seek God’s shalom and pursue it in our lives. He is our hope in a world full of seemingly hopeless situations. He is the one who has promised to return and to set things right. He is the one who has proclaimed ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Alleluia! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!11

Notes:
1. Matt. 24:6//Mark 13:7
2. Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo
3. Psalm 94:3
4. Psalm 89:46
5. Psalm 13:2
6. Romans 8:18-25 abridged
7. Isaiah 65:17ff paraphrased
8. Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
9. Ideas for this paragraph from Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution
10. Claiborne and Campolo, Red Letter Revolution, pages 216-217
11. Revelation 22:20

A Dwelling Place for God

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“A Dwelling Place for God” (Ephesians 2:11-22)
by Pastors Katherine and Peter Goerzen
October 7, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Reader 1: A first-century Jewish Christian living in Asia Minor.

Reader 2: For generations my family has lived in the diaspora. Separated from our homeland Israel, we have lived, worked, and even prospered to some extent among peoples of other faiths from other homelands. Even so, these Gentiles often remain strangers to us, and it is difficult.

Many of us – Jews and Gentiles alike – have received the gospel of Christ, experienced God’s grace, and joined in worship, service, and new life in Christ our Lord, and yet it has been a painful challenge to receive Gentiles as part of God’s people and fellow heirs to the covenants of promise. I sometimes wonder why I find it so difficult. It as if there is a spirit of distrust surrounding our fellowship and driving us apart. We are different, yes – different ancestry, different traditions, born into different faiths, but we know each other well enough and hold enough in common.

There is always something more, something unspoken, something we rarely share with one-another.

Reader 2: A twenty-first century middle-aged Christian somewhere in the United States

Reader 1: It was always important for me to raise my children in the church, for when I was growing up, the church was always at the center of our routine, the heart of our existence. There was never a question of where we would be on Sunday morning. But now that my children have grown and have their own families, the church has faded into the background. I don’t feel the same motivation to attend that I once did when they were young, when I felt it important to give them a chance to grow in the church as I did.

Reader 2: My people’s story is a long one. My people, the people of Israel, are no strangers to hostility and we know the sting of loneliness. I recall my grandfather telling me how, centuries ago, our ancestors’ village in Judah received refugees from the north, whose tribes had been conquered, scattered and assimilated by the Assyrian army. With the exception of very few, their identity was lost forever.

Several generations later, my ancestors’ village itself was carried off into exile in Babylon. We were estranged from the covenants and promises of God. King David’s heir, promised to reign on Jerusalem’s throne for all time had been deposed.

Years later, warring generals in Egypt and Syria trouped back and forth across the land of Israel, devastating my people yet again. The faith of my ancestors was outlawed. My family fled north as the Greeks set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple and offered a profane sacrifice, an abomination that causes desolation. We were strangers in a foreign land and foreigners in our own land. It was long ago, and generations have come and gone, but we remember. Someone always remembers, and it affects my ability to see God in others.

Reader 1: I keep hearing more and more these days about how the church is losing its place in society. The headlines grip me, “The coming evangelical collapse” and “The End of Christian America.” In a way, these headlines sadden me, because the church was always constant. It is a kind of nostalgic loss, a loss of innocence, a loss of the familiar, and yet, to a certain extent I am not surprised that this is happening. I must admit that even though it saddens me to read things like this, the church is not the center of my life anymore like it once was. Work isn’t either. I enjoy what I do, and my co-workers are great, but sitting at a desk all day doesn’t give my life a lot of meaning. With the kids gone and work occupying most of my day, my family isn’t the center of my life either. I guess I don’t really have a center. I’m searching for who I am and where I belong.

Reader 2: It is hard to see the conflict about circumcision dividing the church, but the tradition of my ancestors is important to me. We have lost the language of Israel, and with no king and being estranged from the Temple, this is our source of identity, it’s how we know who we are, it’s what makes us unique as God’s people.

I know the ancient vision of God’s in-gathering of all peoples streaming toward the mountain of God, yet I can’t help the negative feelings towards my gentile brothers and sisters; it seems as though they’ve slipped in and taken control without regard for the past, for what was, for the story behind our Lord. I know this isn’t what they’re trying to do, and I know its significance is lost compared to the grace of Christ, but without the traditional structures and practices I feel disconnected.

Reader 1: The church does not hold the same relevance for my life that it once did, and yet I still find myself longing to be a part of it. It’s been a part of my life for so long, that I cannot simply dismiss the faith of my childhood. I have been trying to attend at least a couple times a month. Sometimes I do find myself to be spiritually refreshed, but other times tend to leave me empty or frustrated to a certain extent.

There’s a spirit of anxiety lurking in the sanctuary, I can see the tension written in the faces of the other members. It’s curious what the issues are that divide us. The color of church carpet doesn’t come up at all in the Gospels, and yet it’s amazing how divided and hostile our congregation has become over something so petty and insignificant. I can’t for the life of me figure out why this seemingly simple issue has created this sort of a reaction in our church, and yet sometimes I even find myself caught up in this debate. It bothers me to see myself reacting in such a defensive way; I hate conflict. It makes me uncomfortable to see this in myself, but it also makes me uncomfortable to see this in members of the church, the people who are supposed to mirror God in how they live.

Reader 2: God did a new thing. It’s hard to say exactly what happened. In fact, Paul calls it a mystery. I had been waiting for God to act in power and majesty and God did, but it wasn’t in a rush of cavalry. God was present with us as we passed the bread and the cup. I received the cup from a gentile who had been as passionate about freeing our fellowship from the torah laws as I had been about keeping them.

The apostles had taught us how when Jesus ate with people, their lives were changed and new relationships emerged. It took some courage and even faith to accept the cup, as I’m sure it did to offer it, and as we gathered around the table in the name of Christ and participated in his ongoing life, I saw God’s people in a new way. I found my identity as a follower of the way, as a member of the peculiar body of Christ.

Reader 1: Something happened just a few Sundays ago as we participated together in the Lord’s Supper. One of the members of our congregation who had been one of the most disruptive in the decision-making process stood up, walked across the sanctuary and offered the bread and the cup to one of the people who had first proposed the idea for new carpet.

I don’t know what prompted him to do it, but it took courage to respond in grace to the spirit’s prompting, for what else could have led to such an action but the presence of God moving in our midst. God is doing a new thing in the church, and even though I don’t fully understand it, that Sunday I saw a small part of what God’s kingdom must be like, and knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of. I had caught a glimpse of what I had been longing for all of this time.

Reader 2: Christ has already broken down the dividing wall

Reader 1: Will we have the courage and faith to walk through and enter God’s new creation?

Reader 2: Christ has proclaimed peace to those who were far off, and peace to those who were near

Reader 1: In Christ the whole household of God is joined together and grows into a holy temple,

Both: A dwelling-place for God.

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Minding the Faith

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Minding the Faith” (Romans 12:1-2, 9-21; Matthew 16:13-21)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 30, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Worship: our logical response to God’s grace
For the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul has been composing a great masterwork, a magnum opus, an epic symphony sounding the grand fanfare of God’s righteousness and the soaring melodies of God’s faithfulness to the promises of old, to usher in the redemption of creation, through the people of the promise, for the whole world! And as the anthem builds to a great crescendo, finally at the end of chapter 11, Paul himself is overcome by the majesty of God’s righteousness, faithfulness, mercy, and grace in Christ, and he breaks into praise.

Indeed, what else can we do but rise in standing ovation of praise to God when we are washed over by the grand symphony of God’s righteousness, faithfulness, mercy, and grace, whose is the glory forever and ever, Amen?

And what is the best way to praise God?

Therefore, Paul says, because of God’s amazing mercies (of which the previous eleven chapters have only begun to tell), the only kind of worship that makes sense – literally the logical worship – is to “offer our very lives, our bodies – our physical being, or imagination, our skills, our possessions – as a ‘living sacrifice.’”1 It is simply the only thing to do that makes sense.

It is the logical thing to do. When you hear the overtures of God’s beauty and creation; when the fanfare of God’s mercy tugs at your heart; when the crescendo of God’s righteous and justice and peace and shalom wash over you, you don’t just sit there with your arms folded. The only thing to do that makes sense is to rise in ovation to God and say, “Here I am, and all that I am – my skills, my passions, my voice, my possessions, my heart, soul, mind and strength – it’s all yours to weave into your grand symphony.”

Living the worshipful life: basic, common-sense stuff
You see, we can offer ourselves to a way of life that is consistent with God’s mercy – a way of life that is good and pleasing and complete. Paul goes on to describe it as a life of generosity, hospitality, humbleness, harmony, and radical acts of mercy. He describes it in more detail than that, but you get the picture. It makes sense. We experience God’s mercy and generosity and we live in ways that are consistent with that. It’s logical.

I mean, it’s pretty much no-brainer stuff. Don’t be hypocritical. Flee evil and cling to what is good. Don’t be arrogant, but love one another. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, and practice hospitality. Don’t get caught up in battles that never end, but take the high road and bless those who persecute you. Live in harmony. Seek the common good. Confront enemies with God’s judgment by dealing out the same mercy you’ve experienced.

It’s kinda like the basic things you teach little children: Be kind. Share your toys. Say please and thank-you and I’m sorry and I forgive you and I love you. It’s no-brainer stuff. It’s logical, rational, makes sense.

So why, oh why does it so often elude us? I mean, why is it that it’s so very difficult to live in harmony with one another, as Paul urges. Why do parents and their children refuse to talk to each other? Why do siblings get estranged from one another? Why does nasty gossip and misunderstanding spread so rapidly? Why is there strife and enmity even within the people of God? Why do nations make war upon other nations? Why do we get so mad when our pride gets wounded? Why do we think we have to dominate others in order to feel good about ourselves? Why do people get so obsessed with hoarding instead of with giving? Why do people feel a need to spread hatred, fear, and intolerance all around the globe? And why do others think it makes sense to respond with more hatred, fear, and intolerance? Why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong?

It doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, isn’t it logical that the world, that our lives, families, churches, would be better off without all this nonsensical stuff? After all, it doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult to live in ways that are consistent with God’s mercies. In fact, it would seem to be the most logical thing to do. But wars persist. Children are abused. Families and marriages are rent apart. Peoples deal insult and violence to each other. The weak and innocent suffer while the powerful remain restless in their plenty.

And it makes no sense.

Renewed mind: Reprogrammed according to the mercies of God
Paul realized that unless we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will always be captive to these senseless ways of the present age. We often talk about the condition of the heart, and rightly so, but Paul realized that our minds are important too, and he spoke often of it. Paul noticed that our minds can be blinded or led astray. The mind can be shaped by the value system of the flesh, or of earthly things. It can become incapable of distinguishing and become futile, senseless, illogical.

If we are going to praise God in ways that make sense – offering our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s mercies, then, Paul says, not only do we need pure hearts – hearts that are compassionate, filled with the love of God – we also need renewed minds. Minds, Paul said, that are shaped by the Spirit (Rom. 8:5), by things above (Col. 3:2), by the mercies of God (Rom. 12:1).

In fact, the rest of the chapter; indeed, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans could be thought of as a sort of pep talk to get the church thinking reasonably about living faithfully according to God’s mercies. Paul sketches out several ways that thoughtful Christians can distinguish God’s will from their own desires, fears, worldly ways that surround them – practicing generosity, peaceful living, humbleness in relationships, overcoming evil with good instead of responding in kind. Paul has several chapters worth of ways that he hopes the renewed mind will be playing itself out in the life of the church.

But Paul’s goal isn’t so much to give the church a big ol’ list of do’s and don’ts for faithful living. No doubt Paul could have gone on and on and on with what to do and what not to do, but the path to a transformed mind doesn’t lie in memorizing long lists of do’s and dont’s (though it can get you thinking in the right direction about some fundamental concepts like humbleness and peaceable living).

But it’s kind of like when I was a software developer and there were lots of problems where you could either write a separate routine for every case, or you could write a general routine that could figure out what to do with any case. So you could write a routine to draw a triangle or a square or a pentagon or some other shape, or you could write a generic routine to draw a shape (since all shapes have some similar properties and you draw them in similar ways), and then make it smart enough to figure out what to do with any particular shape.

Paul is interested in transformed minds that can begin to distinguish God’s will and ways in any particular situation. Paul doesn’t want robot Christians. He is interested in thoughtful Christians. Now it’s not like Paul thinks we all need to go and get advanced degrees in philosophy or theology or any other kind of ology in order to live lives that rightly praise God. It’s as if our actual thought patterns are supposed to be reprogrammed according to the mercies of God.

A humble mind
Paul perceived that those who do not have renewed minds cannot distinguish the will of God from their own desires, their own fears, or the world’s ways that surround them. And it makes sense. Well, Paul believes that one of the major problems we have with our minds is that we are conceited and arrogant in our thinking, considering ourselves wiser than we are. The place to begin with the reprogramming – with the renewal of one’s mind – is by humbling our minds.

Paul cautions, “don’t think too highly of yourself, but think soundly.”

Well, it was Paul who said that we see through a glass dimly. Our perception is not perfect. So often we see only the dim reflection of our own fears, worries, wounds, and anxieties in others, and even in the will of God. So often we delude ourselves into thinking that we are wiser than we are, and it creates all kind of mischief.

How many assumptions about other people do we make every day? How much time do we spend over-analyzing something another person said, or a mere gesture or the tone of a statement, or a single word? How often do people stay up at night turning over and over something a friend, or coworker or family member said? How often do we say to ourselves, “Well, what he said was. . . but you know what he really meant was. . .”

Assumptions, misunderstanding, and miscommunication are the bedrock of much conflict that we experience in our lives. Think about a conflict you have with someone – a family member, a coworker, a classmate, a friend. How many assumptions are you making about that person?

When I worked as a software developer and computer systems administrator, security was one of my department’s top concerns. System administrators are often paranoid about security, always worried about some piece of malicious software or computer virus finding its way onto a system and spreading like wildfire. And since system administrators tend to be so paranoid, there’s a little saying that sys admins often quote, “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” As in, if there’s a failure on the system, it’s more likely that there was a bug in a program or configuration (which may have been your own dumb fault to begin with) than that someone was trying to bring down the network.

Well, I prefer a less crude and abrasive version of that for human relationships: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by misunderstanding. As in, cut each other some slack, give someone the benefit of the doubt instead of thinking too highly of yourself and pretending that you can perceive another person’s motivations, reasoning, or hidden agenda if one even exists. Don’t pretend to be wiser than you are. It only leads to trouble.

We see in a mirror only dimly. So often we see only the dim reflection of our own fears, worries, wounds, and anxieties in others – even in God – instead of seeing face-to-face. Our minds cannot be renewed unless we acknowledge our own nearsightedness first. We need to be honest about ourselves so we can be honest about one another.

Identifying with the lowly
What’s the best way to tame the arrogance of the mind? Identify with the lowly, the shamed, Paul says. Give up power and status and become one with the lowly. Give priority to the needs and well-being of others. You’ll find that others’ lives are infinitely more complex than you could ever imagine. The mind will begin to be transformed, reprogrammed in a more humble way, a way that reflects the mercies of God and can perceive God more clearly.

When Paul talks about the mind, he uses a word that his the connotation of perceiving by smelling – an ability to perceive what can’t be seen. In terms of faith, then, having a renewed mind means an ability to perceive God, who can’t be seen. It sounds tricky, but Jesus once said, “If you have seen me, then you have perceived the Father” (John 14:9).

So Paul talks a lot elsewhere about having the mind of Christ as a correction to selfish ambition or conceit, and he quotes an early hymn to describe the shape of Christ’s mind,

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

That’s what our minds are supposed to look like too, and in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that when we are taught by God’s Spirit, we have the mind of Christ2:13-16)! And when we have the mind of Christ, we can begin to perceive God.

You see, if our approach to thinking about theology, faith, worship, living, Scripture, lacks a guiding center, we will inevitably turn it into a mirror game in which we see only the dim reflection of our own fears, our own worries, our own wounds, our own anxieties, our own ambitions, our own desire.

In our gospel story for this morning, Peter has found the center. The other disciples answer Jesus’ question “Who am I?” by parroting back what they’ve heard other people say. But Peter speaks from a renewed mind, able to perceive new things: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

If you want to keep your mind on the center, if you want to have the mind of Christ, then immerse yourselves in the story of Jesus. Imagine talking to Jesus throughout the day. Imagine Jesus with you throughout the day. Imagine following him around, hanging out with the people he hangs out with, going where he goes, doing what he does.

Our logical worship
As our minds are renewed more and more in Christ by the Holy Spirit, the way of life that is consistent with God’s mercies becomes clearer and clearer. Dim reflections of ourselves fade, and we begin to see face-to-face the good, pleasing, and complete will of God, and our way of life reflects Christ’s mind and God’s mercies: humble, looking to others before ourselves, generously offering mercy even to enemies..

What else can we do in response to God’s grand symphony of creation, redemption, restoration, hope, righteousness, and peace? Only stand in ovation and praise God by offering ourselves to a way of life that serves God and is consistent with God’s goodness and mercy. It’s what’s logical. Praise God. It makes sense.

Notes:
1. Thomas Yoder Neufeld, “Sacrificial worship” in Christian Century (Aug. 26, 2008).

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Hospatility, Healing, and Hope

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Hospitality, Healing, and Hope” (James 2:1-17; Hebrews 12:28-13:2)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 23, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Faithfulness of Christ: Fruits that look like Christ
Well, as you may be able to tell from these thirteen verses, the book of James, much like the Sermon on the Mount (from which we heard last week) is really quite concerned with the practical outworkings of faith. That is, authentic faith bears good, visible fruits in our lives.

Now to you and me that all seems pretty obvious, and yet so often the faith that we confess and profess and the deeds that we do, well they don’t quite line up. The walk doesn’t match the talk. The fruits fall far from the roots.

Well, James begins this second chapter by giving us a sort of idiom, a phrase, or mantra, or brain teaser for understanding this important Truth, that authentic faith bears good fruit. It’s actually quite common in the New Testament.

James says, “Don’t hold faith in Christ with favoritism.” And that phrase, “faith in Christ,” is very important in the New Testament. And, amongst Bible Scholars, its meaning is very hotly debated. Because, you see, it can be translated either as “faith in Christ,” as in “Christian faith, Christian belief, trust in Christ” that which we all have. Or it could be translated “faith of Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ,” as in Christ’s faith or faithfulness or obedience.

And so there have been articles and whole books written on the matter because sometimes the distinction is fairly significant. But if you hear both at the same time, well, you have a pretty good picture of faith. Faith in Christ means the faithfulness of Christ.

That is to say, Christian faith – faith in Christ – should look like, well, Christ. It has fruits that look like Christ.

A Parable of Favoritism
And so James goes on to tell a sort of story – may or may not have actually happened in one of the congregations – but it’s true. It’s like a parable, or maybe more like a satire of the sort you might see on a late-nite sketch comedy show of a congregation whose faith, tragically and ironically, does not look like Christ.

Suppose two people come into worship – one rich, decked with rings, designer shoes, Armani suit, silk tie; the other possibly homeless, wearing a faded t-shirt, worn tennis shoes, and pants that don’t quite fit. And to the rich one, you say “Ah, welcome! What a privilege to worship with you!” Why you would offer him to sit at the very right hand of Christ if it was yours to give, but failing that, at least the best seat in the house.

But the poor man you greet with an awkward sideways and skeptical glance, wondering inwardly if he showered this morning, and you herd him in the direction of a seat closest to the door so that he can make in unobtrusive exit when he discovers that well, maybe this place isn’t quite for him.

And on a most fundamental level, according to James, such favoritisms, or acts of partiality, or more literally, face values and Christ simply don’t mix. You can’t hold them together. They are like to each other as oil and water, Chiefs and Broncos, Wildcats and Jayhawks.

If you if you try to do that, James says, haven’t you made divisions among yourselves? You’re trying to mix faith with favoritism, and it doesn’t work. It always ends in up divided. Aren’t you divided in mind? Why you’re as bad as those unjust judges who trade in God’s standard which sees beyond mere face value and finds all people to have equal standing in God’s justice, for some culturally accepted standard based on appearances and affluence – divided between faith(fulness) and favoritism!

Faith and face values: a problem for today
Well, sadly, this little parable is far too descriptive of reality to be labeled as mere satire. In fact, the apostle Paul was once scandalized to hear that at the church at Corinth, when the congregation would gather for the Lord’s Supper, the wealthier members were arriving first and partaking the supper before the poorer folks could get there, and there wasn’t anything left for the poor, who went hungry while the wealthy got drunk! You don’t need clever satire writers when the reality is already its own satire.

It’s real not just in the Mediterranean regions some 2000 years ago. It’s real in the U.S. too – even in Kansas, even in our own community. One of the local ministries that our congregation supports has been in the news lately. The homeless shelter in Newton is making plans to build its own facility. And praise God for all the support that there’s been! And yet, there are also those judgments based on face value, appearances, stereotypes. “You can’t trust those people.” “They’re lazy.” And yet, as I’ve lamented that such attitudes exist, I’ve wondered to myself, “Haven’t I also said the same thing in my heart about people from time to time?” A person looking for a lift I justified leaving behind. A beggar I justified passing by.

Faith and favoritism – faith and face value judgments don’t mix, but oh how we try.

And as a matter of fact, it has been somewhat in vogue over the past several decades for congregations to re-enact this satire by asking someone to dress up as a homeless person, walk into church, note their experience – the staring and the wayward glances, the feeling of being ignored, except for the barely-audible conversations, “Do you know who that is? Why is she here?”

Ya know, instead of actually going and talking to the person, “Welcome, friend! My name is Peter. What is your name? To what do we owe the joy of worshiping with you today?” And then, during sharing time, or during the sermon, or whatever, this person would remove the wig and makeup and reveal his or her true identity, the satire would be laid bare, and the congregation would be amazed, embarrassed, and ashamed.

Faith and Fairness?
Now what many congregations learn from all this, what many believers – especially those who us who think ourselves well-informed and sufficiently sensitized to the problem of discrimination and prejudice – “What James is saying to us,” believers will say, “is that we need to always treat all people fairly and equally because all people are created equal in the sight of God.”

Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. I mean, fairness – even-handedness is good. It’s a pretty basic human value. Heidi Neumark was a pastor in the Bronx, and she would often juggle her children with her role on Sunday morning. Well, one Sunday as she was serving communion, her two-year-old daughter was by her side. And people kept coming forward, and Heidi kept serving them. Soon her daughter started tugging on her dress, and getting more insistent, as she saw everyone else go by and receive communion, but she was passed up. And finally she called out, “Mommy, share!”

We learn about fairness from a young age, and that’s good. I mean, think of how much people’s lives are improved when a society pays attention to the basic application of the value of fairness, even-handedness.

Our culture’s symbol for justice is a blindfolded woman holding the balance scales of justice. “Justice is blind,” we say, not seeing face appearances. Except that God is not blind. God sees completely, beyond outward appearances, and God sets things right. Nor is God completely impartial; in fact, God has chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom, James says. You see, the value James has in mind isn’t so much blind fairness, as eyes-wide-open hospitality that looks, in the revealing light of Christ, beyond outward appearances to see a neighbor alone and rejected as a neighbor especially chosen and loved and valued by God.

You see, that’s simply the sort of faith in Christ that looks like Christ. It looks like Jesus. If you read through the gospels (and I hope you do), you’ll find story after story of Jesus extending hospitality, love, grace, to folks that appeared to be worth little – lepers, demoniacs, paralytics, the blind and deaf, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, insurrectionists – and instructing his followers to do the same.

Jesus and an outsider
Well, one of my favorite stories of Jesus and hospitality is actually one of the most perplexing in the gospels. And personally, I enjoy the perplexing stories the most because they make me think the hardest, sometimes to the point where my mind breaks open and I can finally hear the gospel.

Now I’ve enjoyed reading what others say about this story, and there are a number of good ways to tell this story that capture the truth of it. And I’m going to tell it one way for this morning. Listen to this remarkable story about hospitality.1

So one day Jesus went up north of Galilee to the region of Tyre and Sidon along the Mediterranean coast in present-day Lebanon. And there a Canaanite woman came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Now that much in itself wasn’t anything terribly new. People came to Jesus all the time seeking healing and hope. Demoniacs, the blind, a centurion, lepers, and many more. This time it’s a Canaanite woman. A Gentile.

Well, Jesus didn’t answer her either way (he often did things like that), and so she kept on shouting.

And his disciples urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And that wasn’t really anything new either. The disciples often get caught trying to protect Jesus from the local leaches, you know, like mothers wanting their children blessed, blind men seeking mercy, and so forth.

This woman is a nuisance. She keeps pestering them and getting in the way of their important, meaningful ministry! Now ordinarily Jesus either ignores or chides his disciples for their double-mindedness, their division of heart. “No, no, bring them to me; let them come.” And he cures the affliction and people glorify God, and Jesus goes on to the next town.

But Jesus replied to the disciples, echoing their own thoughts back to them, “I was not sent, if not to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Apparently Jesus agrees with the disciples this time! Okay, yes, she’s a Gentile, not a member of our flock, our congregation, our denomination. Let’s send her away so we can get on with things.

Isn’t it amazing how casually we make such distinctions – or divisions, as James calls them. We kind of settle in to our own little groups pretty naturally, don’t we – school, profession, age, interest, hobby, etc.? Katherine and I attended a wedding for one of our high school classmates, and as we filed into the reception hall, it may as well have been the high school cafeteria all over again. People saving seats for their good friends, while others had to decide, “Oh dear oh dear, where shall I sit?”

Churchgoers can be prone to that too, can’t we? Hang out with our friends, or our families, or the folks we have the most in common with instead of seeking out the stranger, the lonely in our midst? It’s kinda uncomfortable, and maybe a little scary even, to go and sit with someone we don’t really know. That seems too insignificant to be a part of our mission really. We’re all already church after all. And we’re here for fellowship and to be filled, not to be drained by the exhausting process of meeting new people. And even in churches, people can get ignored and left alone.

“I was not sent, if not to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” To do more is too difficult, asking too much. Yes, this is one woman to be sent away, ignored, left alone.

Except that Jesus does not send her away. Will any of his disciples remember that Jesus had already received a Gentile, healing a centurion’s servant? Will any remember Jesus words, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith!” Will any remember that many will come from north and south and east and west and eat in the kingdom?2

No, none do. Only to the lost sheep of Israel. Send her away. The satire deepens.

And then, the woman draws near. And she bows down before Jesus in a posture of worship and says, “Lord, please, help me.” She knows who Jesus is. Unlike so many of the lost sheep of Israel, she knows he is Israel’s Messiah, the Son of David. Even this pagan, Gentile, Canaanite woman has learned that Jesus is Lord, worthy of worship and mighty to heal. Yet still the disciples remain silent. So Jesus pushes the irony a little further still.

And Jesus said, perhaps still looking at the disciples, “It is not good,” – or it could be translated, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.” You know, if you turn back one verse in James from our passage this morning, James says, “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.”

Here is a woman – most likely a widow or her husband would have approached these men – a widow in distress. Still the disciples make no reply. They have made their divisions.

It is the widow who replies, cleverly, perceptively, “Yes, Lord, yet even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And Jesus answered her, perhaps with a look to his disciples, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.” The mask comes off. The satire is laid bare.

The disciples look on, astonished, embarrassed, and ashamed yet again. They had made their divisions, mixing appearance, face values, favoritism, with faith in Jesus. But the two fundamentally cannot be held together. And this Canaanite’s daughter was healed that very hour.

God’s mercy and grace overrule divisions
It isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about God’s mercy and grace that overrule divisions and overflow what is fair and good with what is great, with hospitality, with healing, with hope.

We’re not called to divisions and distinctions of face value and appearance, or even to fairness, but instead to “let the light of Christ [reveal] genuine worth.”3

I think God gives us all many opportunities every day to practice hospitality. How often do you see someone sitting alone, eating alone, standing alone? Even at church? All it takes is a little sensitivity to notice and a small measure of courage to say, “Hello, friend. Join us here. Come share our crumbs.” And then, the wash of God’s mercy overflows it all.

It’s the law of love, the law of freedom, the royal law. It’s what Christ looks like. It’s what undivided faith in Christ looks like. May it be what we look like, a community of warmth, of love, of mercy, of hospitality, healing, and hope. Amen.

Notes:
1. Paraphrased from Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30.
2. Matthew 8:5-11.
3. Thomas Long, “God is partial,” Christian Century (Aug. 31, 2009).

Blessings for the Upside Down

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Blessings for the Upside Down” (Matthew 5:1-12)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 16, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

No transcript is available for this sermon. The audio is available here.

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Where two or three are gathered

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:15-22)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
September 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

One of my favorite promises of Jesus is his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I love writing this promise into prayers and worship services, for what a holy thing to know that when we gather together for Jesus’ sake, he is present with us, moving, comforting, transforming. It is an assurance to remember that even if only two show up for worship, it is still a holy thing to gather in the name of Jesus. I am reminded of this promise whenever the youth group meets, or a council meeting is held, or I meet with friends, that Jesus does not need to be invited to come and be present with us, for he is already there, moving, comforting, transforming.

Now this is a well-known promise. Yet often, the context is not remembered when this promise is spoken (although the contextual passage is well-known also). The context of these well-known words is the Rule of Christ which begins, “If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus promises that when there is conflict and two or three gather together to address the conflict, there he is present also.

Hear again these words from Jesus: [Matt. 18:15-20]. Now often when Jesus spoke to the crowds, he spoke in stories, in parables with open-ended interpretations. Yet here we have perhaps the most explicit, and straight-forward teaching of our Lord and Savior that is recorded in the gospels. He gives very specific, step by step instructions for how we are called to deal with conflict.

Yet I wonder whether some in the crowds who heard him speak these instructions (or whether some who have read these words in the Bible in the centuries since then) questioned whether this course of action was even possible or feasible, or that it was a “nice thought, but advice that wouldn’t actually work in my present situation”, or perhaps some even went away grieving like the rich young man who had many possessions and was encouraged to give them to the poor. Perhaps they heard these words and went away shaking their heads for they recognized that they had conflicts in their life that they believed couldn’t ever be solved.

So yes, Jesus’ words here in Matthew 18 are well known, and yes they are very specific and straight-forward, but they are perhaps some of the least practiced in all the gospels. For though it is perhaps easy to think of others who we believe needs to engage in this practice, it is so difficult to think of following these instructions ourselves. And often we end up doing almost the opposite of what Jesus suggests we do when we find ourselves in conflict with someone else.

John Paul Lederach, in his book The Journey Toward Reconciliation gives a humorous (funny because it’s true) retelling of Jesus’ words based upon what people actually practice:

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

This is what is much more comfortable, isn’t it? Instead of going and talking to the person we’re in conflict with, we go and find someone who will agree with us and tell it to them. We may and go speak to others in the church about this problem, but rarely do we go and actually go and speak with the person who Jesus instructed us to speak with.

Or, if we do want to speak with them directly, it’s much easier to leave an anonymous note. One pastor recounted the story of a woman who found a bottle of nail polish remover in her mailbox as a commentary on her bright red toenails. And other pastors have talked with me about how they have found anonymous notes in the offering plate when someone is unhappy with the way things are done in worship, or they have found anonymous letters in their mailboxes when members of the congregation disagree with them.

Or, instead of following Jesus’ instructions to us, there’s always the response to conflict that seems to be used perhaps the most often: we choose to ignore it and pray that it will go away. Although, I have found that when I try this method, my anger over the conflict often festers and increases rather than going away.

But when any of these methods are used, it just seems to escalate the conflict. None of the above methods we usually try make things better. They lead to hurt feelings and anger and are not only harmful to the people we are angry at, but they are harmful to us and those we love when we let our anger continue to grow instead of finding situations where we can talk it out with the person who has wronged us.

And so, perhaps we should assume that Jesus did in fact know what he was talking about, that his words weren’t just “a nice thought, yet wouldn’t work in our situation,” but that they are the most constructive way to deal with conflict when it arises.

I would like to now go through the directions that Jesus gives to us and speak about the implications that they have for our lives. But before I do, I want you to know that I am not seeking only to preach to you. I need to hear these words just as much myself (although that’s true of any sermon that I preach). I often don’t follow Jesus’ words when conflicts arise in my own life, and I am writing this sermon aimed towards me because they are words that I need to hear.

I am praying and seeking to come to a place where I can speak with those who hurt me and my loved ones with the love of Christ in what I say and how I react. But I am not there yet. I pray that I would have the heart to trust that Jesus is already present in these situation, moving, comforting, transforming, wherever two or three are gathering together to speak.

Jesus’ first instructions to us are: “If your brother or sister sins (against you) go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Jesus is assuming that conflict will happen. He does not expect the church to be a perfect place (yet even though these words of Jesus are directed specifically towards conflict that happens within the church, I believe that the Rule of Christ is a pattern to follow with any conflict that arises within our lives, with coworkers, schoolmates, family members, or other situations). Each of us were given freewill and minds to think and reason, and though we each seek to follow after Jesus, we sometimes come to different conclusions of what it means to be faithful; thus conflict is inevitable and expected to happen.

So when conflict happens, we are called to go and talk with the person who has wronged us. But I would advise everyone to be very careful about the spirit with which we approach them. If we go in our anger, very little will be accomplished; everyone will be on the defensive, and when that happens, we tend to speak past each other. If we go seeking only to convince the other person that we are in the right (even in situations where that may be the case), the other person will feel attacked and will not be able to hear clearly because of our accusatory and perhaps even self-righteous tone. At least I have a hard time hearing the other person when they accuse me of being wrong, nor do their words often inspire me to change.

I believe that the only way we can approach the other person is in the spirit of Christ, remembering that this is another person created in the divine image and who is a beloved child of God. And it may take some time before we are able to approach them in this manner. It will most likely take vulnerability, prayer, and self-reflection on our part. We will need to ask ourselves: Why does this situation cause me so much anger? What is at stake for me in this situation? Why do I feel such anxiety when I think about this person? How would Christ approach this person? How is Christ calling me to speak to this person? It may take a lot of careful and prayerful work on our part before we even reach a point where we are able to speak with the person who has wronged us. But we trust that Christ is already present in this situation, moving, comforting, transforming. And that is no small thing.

And once we reach a point where we can approach this person with the love and mind of Christ, then may we go to him or her seeking first to hear and to understand, not seeking first to be heard or to be understood. And may our words and actions towards this person reflect the love of our Savior who died for us while we were yet sinners.

And if, after we go and talk with this person reconciliation is achieved and we go away having both been heard and both being understood, then thanks be to God. Jesus has kept his promise and has been present with us all along.

I would love to say that this will work every time, that reconciliation will always be possible when this happens. Yet there will be situations when the other will not choose to speak with us or hear us, even if we approach them with the love of Christ. Or there are situations when we have been wronged when it simply will not be possible to approach the person who has wronged us, such as in situations of abuse or in situations where there is an imbalance of power. Yet Jesus has provided us with another step to follow when this happens.

“If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” To bring in one or two others allows for accountability, that the truth can be told and and mutual submission practiced. Again, this should be done in the spirit of Christ’s love. If the person feels as though he or she is being ganged up on, what hope do we have that reconciliation will occur? The witnesses should seek to be present and understanding of both people in the conflict. I would hope that they would help create a holy and prayerful space where reflection, listening, and understanding can emerge. And though the witnesses can help fill the role of mediator between the two, the primary responsibility lies with those who are in conflict with each other. And again, in this step of the process where three have gathered, we trust that Jesus is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But if not, Jesus offers another step to follow. “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” This should not be done with the purpose of humiliating the person who has fallen short of God’s good intentions, as has sometimes been practiced in the past, for where is the hope of reconciliation? But for Jesus to tell us to bring the conflict before the church is to assume that the church is the place where we can discuss and prayerfully work with conflict, and is not a place where we will be free from conflict (and when there is conflict, it doesn’t mean that we have failed, for Jesus assumes that conflict will happen). We also know that reconciliation is the mission of the church, for Paul proclaims that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, for we were first reconciled to God’s own self through the work of Christ. What better way to seek for reconciliation in the midst of conflict before a group of believers who can uphold us in prayer and guide us along the path of peace? For again, we trust that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

But “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” How would those who heard Jesus speak these words have understood this? They knew how Gentiles and tax-collectors were treated; they were to be avoided as the sinners they saw them as. And that is indeed how the church has often interpreted this. Many have been shunned, excommunicated, or even killed. And schisms have rent the church asunder because of differing beliefs on how best to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And the Anabaptist church has a long history of divisions over such issues “buttons, bonnets, and buggies”1 When we see sin in our midst, our first instinct is to separate ourselves from it, less we or our family be contaminated.

This seems to be the thing to do until we remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. He didn’t avoid them at all costs. He didn’t angrily accuse them of sin and then sever all ties with them. He didn’t speak about them behind their backs with those who agreed with him.

He ate with them. Our gospels are filled with stories of Jesus seeking them out and eating with them. And when this happened, lives were changed.

There is something intimate about eating with another person. It implies a relationship and speaks of hospitality.

So when we experience conflict, may we seek to eat with those who have wronged us, trusting that Christ is already present, moving, comforting, transforming. And if reconciliation is achieved, then thanks be to God.

The whole goal of this process is reconciliation. Every step moves us towards reconciliation. If we have any other goal in mind, then I believe we are missing the point of Christ’s instructions to us. And yes, I guarantee it there will be times when reconciliation is difficult and seems impossible; and it requires much of us (vulnerability, prayer, self-reflection, love for those who have hurt us). But God’s shalom calls us to seek right-relationships with those in our congregation, in our families, and with those around us. If God’s shalom is life as it was intended to be, why would we possibly settle for less if we have the power to do something about it? And remember, Jesus is already present where two or three gather together when there is conflict, moving, comforting, transforming. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation

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Receiving Christ’s Shalom

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Receiving Christ’s Shalom” (Romans 5:1-11; Mark 12:28-34)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 2, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Shalom depends on God and God’s ways
So these past several weeks, we have been talking about the Old Testament word Shalom, which basically means life as God intends life to be – health and well-being, good relationships in family and community, justice and mercy for the vulnerable, reconciliation between enemies, and much more.

And we’ve been telling stories about seeking this shalom by practicing abundance in relating to our neighbors, practicing justice and mercy for the vulnerable, practicing humility, and practicing peacemaking with enemies. So we’ve told about Isaac making sharing abundance with his neighbors, and Moses prescribing God’s mercy in the case of five orphaned daughters, and Abigail humbling herself in a fool’s story, and last week Elisha making peace with the Aramean army.

And in each one of these amazing stories, people in trouble end up experiencing a taste of God’s shalom. But never does shalom just happen. Never in these stories do people wake up one morning and find that their troubles have magically just worked themselves out over night and they can experience shalom.

No, in each one of these stories, there is at least one person who takes an action that somehow makes space for God’s shalom to emerge. Shalom doesn’t just happen. But there’s also something partly hidden, something more to each story.

I mean, it’s not like Elisha, Abigail, Moses, and the rest got together in a lab to invent the perfect equation for shalom: 3 parts humility, 2 parts forgiveness, and an excess of love.

Shalom doesn’t just happen, but even more basic than that, you will find that in every story, these people are taking action that in some way connects with God and with God’s ways that so often operate just underneath what seems obvious.

The prophet Isaiah once lamented that God’s people were not experiencing shalom because they ignored God’s ways: “O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your shalom would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea!”

And he later dreamed of God’s shalom renewing the people as they learn God’s ways: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the shalom of your children.”

In these stories we have been telling, people are able to open situations up to God’s shalom precisely because they open themselves up to God’s ways. There are amazing heroes in these stories, but shalom is always a gift that comes first from God.

In fact, in these stories, shalom is unimaginable apart from God. Imagine Elisha trying to disarm the Aramean army apart from the surprising, dazzling, transforming, reconciling power of Almighty God. Those who choose God and God’s ways open themselves and their situations up to God’s shalom. Those who turn away from God bring a diminished life upon themselves, their households, and their neighbors.

God is the giver and the foundation of shalom. Shalom, or life as God intends it, includes a close connection, a relationship with God. This is what God desires for life and passionately desires for all of us, that we may experience shalom.

Created for relationship with God
And really, when you step back far enough as if to be able to see the whole of Scripture at once, you find that from beginning to the end, from the garden in Genesis to the restored heaven and earth of Revelation, God is constantly seeking a relationship with us “odd, wayward creatures molded from the dust of the earth.”1

God created us in the divine image for relationship with each other and with God, and gave us minds and wills of our own because a true relationship must be freely chosen. Steadfast love isn’t something you can force or make obligatory. It must be chosen voluntarily.

And even when humans have turned away from relationship with God and brought incredible amounts of destruction upon themselves and their neighbors, still God has spent ages loving them, courting, them, seeking their love, that creation may once again be restored to shalom, to God’s good intention for life.

And so God called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants into a covenant to be a blessing to the world, to help in God’s plans to bring people into a relationship with God that the world might experience shalom. When this family, when this people called Israel also turned away from their distinctive calling and mission and instead wanted to be like their neighbors, God promised to send a savior, a servant, a Messiah who would fulfill what this family, this people was always meant to be, who would restore the people of God and create a world-wide family of shalom.

Paul explained to the church at Rome that God loves us so much that the Messiah, Jesus, even died for us, even while we were yet enemies, estranged, in order to restore us to a relationship with God so we can experience shalom.

Finding God: Believing in Jesus
Sometimes it’s difficult even to imagine what a relationship with God looks like. God is Spirit, after all, not visible. You can’t really reach out and touch God. God is so vast, having created the enormity of the universe, much of which continues to remain a great mystery to us. You can talk to God, but you can’t have the same sort of conversation that you and I can. What does a relationship with God look like? How do you know when you’re experiencing God and not something else? It can all get pretty mind-boggling pretty quickly, at least to my mind.

Well, if you’ve ever wondered about that, you’re definitely not the first. Philip once pleaded with Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father!” (John 14:8).

And Jesus replied to him, saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

It turns out that having a relationship with Jesus, really with God, isn’t too terribly complicated. You don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to study under any great sage. Anybody can have a relationship with God. It doesn’t depend on sophistication or popularity or intelligence or finances or parentage or even past choices. Absolutely anyone can have a relationship with God. It’s even more democratic than democracy is!2

Believing in Jesus, changing our allegiances so God is first in our lives, isn’t really that hard to understand. And actually, if you read through Luke’s Gospel (and I highly recommend that you do!), you will find that throughout the narrative, there are seven quest stories – ordinary people on the search for healing, for wholeness, for shalom – for God – who feel mysteriously, unrelentingly drawn to Jesus.

Zacchaeus: A Quester after Jesus
You’ll have to read through Luke to see if you can find them all, but I’ll tell you about one of these questers, probably the most famous, whose name was Zacchaeus. Now Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was quite wealthy. Now I don’t know any IRS agents personally, but I don’t think they tend to be overly wealthy. Somehow this tax collector Zacchaeus got wealthy, and I’m kind of thinking he was skimming a good bit off the top of the taxes. Let’s just say that in Jesus’ day, tax collectors weren’t the type of folks you’d see in the synagogue for worship every week. Nor were they wanted there. Not a stellar relationship with God.

Well, Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through his city, and we don’t know why, but for some reason, he really, really wanted to see Jesus. Zacchaeus is said to have been a short man, unable to see over a crowd (and I’ve often said I can relate to him in more than one way), and so this adult man goes and climbs a tree like a child just to see Jesus!

Like Zacchaeus, we have that sort of longing, that passion. Sometimes it gets buried deep underneath other ultimately less-satisfying longings and passions. But that longing for God, for meaning, for purpose, for shalom, is just something that is part of being human, created in God’s image. Sometimes that glimmer, that longing for God involves comes as we experience pain and know that we’re in need of a greater power. Sometimes it comes as we acknowledge wrestlessness or dissatisfaction with our lives and the ways we’ve chosen to live them. Or maybe it’s just that we want to be closer to God, to have the sort of closeness and shalom that we see in a friend.3

And when we confess our longing for God, we discover God’s unimaginably greater longing for each of us. Whatever longing it was that had Zacchaeus treed that day was ultimately confronted by Jesus’ infinitely greater longing for this sketchy tax collector. God’s longing and passion for humankind throughout the ages has come to focus in Jesus – in his incarnation, life and ministry, death and resurrection.

Most relationships begin with a sort of longing – longing for companionship, for friendship, for love and support. But often in our human relationships, we start by trying to make a good first impression. We dress up, put on smiles, pretend to be more competent and confident than we probably are. I mean, let’s be realistic. If you put it all out there on the table on the first date, chances are it will also be the last date. But if the relationship goes somewhere, we gradually start dropping the pretense to reveal who we really are, and if the relationship is strong enough, it can handle it.

But God already knows precisely who we are and still loves us and still wants a relationship with us. Jesus saw right through Zacchaeus. And said, “Zacchaeus, get down, I’m coming to your place.”

Committing to Jesus
When we turn toward Jesus (and the technical term for this is repentance), we can drop all the pretense and just come. Jesus offers us forgiveness and healing for all the baggage we bring to all our relationships. No sin or crazy choice or defect or past history or past wrongs or anything has to stand between us and Jesus and the new life he offers. He even died for his enemies.

So starting up a relationship with Jesus is actually pretty easy. Maybe easier than starting any other kind of relationship. Jesus always says yes! Anyone can invite Jesus over. Anyone can invite Jesus into their open heart. It’s kind of like signing up for the basketball team or for the orchestra or walking down the aisle and saying “I do.” Anyone can do it. It’s really easy, but you can’t be on the team unless your name is on the roster.

But if you’ve ever been an athlete, or a musician, or a spouse, you know that if you want to excel on the court, or if you want to produce a stunning concert, or if you want to build a marriage that lasts a lifetime through joy and through trial, it takes some hard work. It takes sacrifice. It takes a lot of dedication. It’s a pretty big decision. It takes commitment.

The church talks about baptism as being the sign of dedication and commitment to Jesus, like a wedding is the sign of a commitment to a spouse.

Like any relationship, it takes paying attention, taking time, careful communication especially when it’s not easy, partnership, steadfast love, receiving forgiveness, and caring. Zacchaeus paid attention. He knew exactly where Jesus was going to be that day in Jericho. And he made the effort to get himself to where Jesus was, even to climb a tree.

We’ve also got some pretty reliable information as to where we can find Jesus. We have some promises. One of those promises is that you’ll find Jesus wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Even though we each have to make our own decision to come to Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus isn’t actually an individual matter. Shalom with Jesus is a team sport. And when you’re a part of a team, being there at the gatherings of Jesus’ friends is just as important as showing up to practice. Sure, there are some things you can practice by yourself, but you don’t learn the game unless you have a team.

So too those who want a relationship with Jesus need a congregation. The church talks about Communion as a sign that we’re in this together, as a team, and also that Jesus really is here with us when we gather in his name.

Another promise we have is that Jesus is present with the least, the last, and the lost – those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or in prison. God’s ear is inclined to the poor, the alien, the orphan, the widow. Jesus has mercy on those who are vulnerable. Just like it makes sense to practice with the orchestra if you want to be a part of the concert, so also it makes sense to hang out with the folks and build lasting friendships where God happens to be listening with a particular interest, with the last, the lost, and the least.

We can also find Jesus in Scripture, which tells the story of Jesus. As we pay attention to Jesus in the Scriptures, we begin to experience him as present not only in the letter, but also in our lives.

Practicing for the team or for the orchestra has very little payoff unless you go regularly, whether or not you really feel like it on a particular day.

We don’t know exactly what will happen to us when we start up a relationship with Jesus. Zacchaeus didn’t expect Jesus to come to his place when he climbed up in the tree. We can expect that we’ll be transformed, though. Zacchaeus decided to give half his money to the poor, and just about the other half to repaying those whom he had cheated. Jesus gave him an incredible joy that turned him so generous most of us would call him a fool!

As we acknowledge our sins, our hurts, shortcomings, nearsightedness and ask for forgiveness, healing and wholeness, transformation happens in the places where we find Jesus – “where two or three are gathered in his name, in the forgotten places of empire where dwell the last, the least, and the lost, in the ancient stories and teaching of the Bible.”4

Having a relationship with Jesus means loving God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, loving God so much that it makes a difference—in the way we spend our time; the way we relate to family, friends, strangers, and enemies; the way we live every part of life. It makes a difference in who we are—humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love, kind, compassionate, forgiving, submitting to one another, and other qualities of character. And it makes a difference in whose we are—we are children of God, a part of God’s family of shalom, and we belong together with all those who follow Jesus. I love the way April Yamasaki puts it:

Following Jesus means loving our neighbors as ourselves—to want the best for them and to look out for their well-being as we look out for our own. Loving our neighbors includes the homeless panhandler asking for spare change, the well-dressed couple who cross the street to avoid him, the neighbor next door with the yappy dog, the child in a refugee camp halfway around the world, the people on every continent. Following Jesus means loving our neighbors even when—maybe especially when—they are very different from us in personality, language, culture, class, or religion, even when our neighbors treat us as enemies. To love God and neighbor in such a profound and ongoing way takes more than a moment. It takes more than a lifetime to follow Jesus, and more than a lifetime to receive the great prize that it offers.5

When Jesus saw Zacchaeus’s faith, he said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Zacchaeus sought out Jesus and he found shalom with him. Zacchaeus got to become a part of God’s family of shalom, and he got to share that shalom with others. It all begins with God, with Christ, who has reconciled us to right relationship with God in his faithful death and poured that same incredible love into the hearts of those who identify with him.

So today, this week, will you seek out Christ who is already seeking you, climb the tree, and receive him into your home and into your heart? It makes all the difference in this world that God has created for shalom.

Notes:
1. Mary H. Schertz, et al, “Jesus Our Salvation” in Jesus Matters, 157. A number of ideas in this sermon come from this fantastic chapter.
2. Paraphrased from Schertz, 158.
3. Paraphrased from Schertz, 160.
4. Schertz, 167.
5. April Yamasaki with Peter Sensenig, “Jesus Calls: Believe in Me and Follow,” in Jesus Matters, 28.

The Dazzling and Disarming Power of Almighty God

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“The Dazzling and Disarming Power of Almighty God” (2 Kings 6:8-23)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 26, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A fairy tale ending?
“And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.”

What a great ending. A perfect ending. A fairy tale ending if I ever heard. The king prepares a great feast for the enemies that have been delivered into his hand. They eat. They drink. He sends them on their way. They go back home and report what happened. . .

“And the Arameans no lnoger came raiding into the land of Israel.”

Cue the closing credits to yet another classic Disney film that always ends just too perfectly to be true. If there were ever an ending to a story that’s too good to be true, it sure seems like this would just about have to be it. Well, in fact, if you read the very next verse, you will discover that several years later, the Arameans have beseiged Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Well, this story begins really quite believably. The king of Aram is at war with Israel – nothing new there. The history of Israel is filled with its share of wars, and Aram shows up often enough in those stories. Now Elisha has gotten under the Aramean king’s skin, because he’s always one step ahead of the Aramean army.

Time and again, the king plots a trap for Israel’s army, and time and again, Elisha frustrates the king’s schemes by warning Israel’s king of the plans. In fact it’s so bad that it’s like Elisha has the Aramean King’s very bedroom bugged, and the enraged king suspects high treason from his own midst.

But there is no treason, he discovers, just this pesky prophet Elisha and his supernatural intelligence information. Well, there’s a fairly straightforward solution to that frustrating little problem. So the king plans to eliminate Elisha and sets a trap for him, and he sends his army to totally surround Elisha’s city on the hill of Dothan.

A heavenly army
Well, next morning, one of Elisha’s servants is out for a nice early morning stroll, and he nearly chokes on his coffee when he sees the massive Aramean army surrounding the city! “Oh, what do we do? What do we do?!”

Well, I’ll tell you what you do – you go and hide is what you do. You grab your best disguise and move in with the neighbors or find yourself the deepest cave or dig a hole in the ground.

What do you do when your adversary is upon you? What do you do when you find yourself cornered and vastly overpowered? Why, your instinct kicks in and you run and hide, especially if you happen to have an entire army after you. When your adversary is upon you, if you are in physical danger, you run like the wind; or, if your adversary is an enemy of words and scheming instead of physical violence, you shutdown and retreat – perhaps into the safe places of your mind where you can pretend that you have no real conflict. Or you cut yourself off from that powerful adversary. Or you simply submit and surrender. It’s the sensible thing to do!

That’s what you do when you’ve got an army after you. You run! You hide!

But not Elisha. He prays, and his frightened servant sees that the odds are in fact not as they seem. Rather, the entire mountain is filled with horses and chariots of fire, awaiting Elisha’s command.

Well, now the situation is different! Now Elisha has got an army of his own! Now he’s on equal or better footing. He’s got the latest and greatest – no longer just plain old chariots, but now chariots of fire. Now he may stand and fight.

He can finally route these pesky Arameans, decimate their army, take vengeance on all the wrongs and violent deeds the Arameans have wrought upon the land and people of Israel, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Retaliation is his, vengeance is in his hands, the path to victory is clear!

Because that is, after all, your other option when your adversary is upon you. You can dig in your heels, stand your ground, defend your position, return blow for blow, anger for anger, he-said for she-said, insult for insult, until you don’t even remember who started it and it doesn’t really matter; all that matters is that you’re up to your neck in the latest war to end all wars.

Dazzled by God
Later when Elisha had delivered the army over to the King of Israel, the king assumed that it was business as usual. “Shall I kill them?” Again, “Shall I kill them?” he asked. Here was the opportunity they’d all been waiting for, but Elisha said no. He had other plans in mind, plans that tap into a greater power than swords and arrows.

And so when that army has Elisha cornered, surrounded, and when Elisha’s hidden heavenly host is awaiting his command, he prays, not that the chariots of fire would decimate the Aramean army, not that valley would run with their blood, that they would be struck with the sword and that they would be conquered. Rather, he prays that they would be struck with blindness.

Now blindness may not be the best word for it. They can still see, but their vision is somehow confused. Dazzled might be the best word for it. They are mesmerized, dazzled. They can’t see things as they really are, and they unwittingly follow Elisha into the stronghold of Samaria, where their eyes are opened, and they discover that they are hopelessly trapped.

Those who once had Elisha totally surrounded are now themselves disarmed and surrounded.

Gordon Allaby is a Mennonite pastor in Canada.1 During the 1960s when he was a college student in the U.S. Well, unfamiliar with U.S. culture and social realities of the era, Gordon unwittingly severely offended one of his hallmates with something he said in front of that student’s friends. And in spite of Gordon’s profuse apologies, this other student, whose name was George, began to attack Gordon. And George was an incredibly large man, and he soon had Gordon folded in half, bouncing on his body.

Well, fortunately, some other people arrived to restrain George before he could do too much harm to Gordon. Gordon again tried to offer his apologies, but George said, “I’ll get you” as he walked away.

George continued to threaten and intimidate Gordon over the next few weeks, and each time, Gordon would respond, “Come on, let’s work this out.” One on occasion, he was playing pool, and George came sneaking up behind him as he was aiming for a shot, and broke a cue stick over his back.

Well, not long after that, Gordon was in the dorm bathroom one afternoon, and he heard a booming voice say, “Whoever is there, get out of here now!” Low and behold, it was George, all alone, and very occupied in one of the stalls. It turns out George had a personal phobia about using the toilet in public. He liked his privacy.

Well, Gordon knew that George’s temporary weakness was his chance, and he walked up to the door of the stall occupied by this very large, very angry man who very much didn’t like him, and he said, “George, it’s me, Gordon, and I want to be your friend.”

Well, George’s response isn’t suitable for polite discussion, but Gordon was insistent and said he wouldn’t leave until they were friends. Well it went on like that for a couple of minutes, Gordon insisting that they should be friends, and George filling the bathroom with colorful vocabulary and bellowing various threats in response. But Gordon just would not leave this fellow alone. And finally, George asked, in a very quiet voice, “Why do you want to be my friend?”

Gordon answered, “I was taught that God wants us to love everybody, and I’m trying to; I want to; I want to be your friend.” Again, in a small, mesmerized voice, George replied, “Will you leave, if I promise to be your friend.”

“The bathroom is yours,” Gordon said, and they became good friends. Chariots of fire were in that bathroom that day.

Another unlikely story.

When Elisha is surrounded by the Aramean army, he prays, not for protection, not for a quick place to hide, not for a secret tunnel, but for sight, for vision, for a truer and deeper understanding of reality, for the ability to see the dazzling power of Almighty God that lies just beneath what seems so obvious, the true power on which the world ultimately turns.

Nearly any army, nearly any enemy, nearly any adversary is prepared either to track you down or to stand and fight. No adversary is prepared to be dazzled, surprised, mesmerized by an unexpected action.

Not a fairy tale but the power of God
When Elisha has Israel’s king prepare a grand feast for the Aramean army, they are dazzled again, mesmerized, and this time they see that the people whom they had been taught to maim, beseige, hate, and kill, were in fact people, sometimes afraid, not perfect, but with generous hearts. How can you return to kill your enemy when you see your own face beneath your enemy’s helm? And Israel’s king sees the same thing as well. Both the Arameans and the Israelites are spared, and the Arameans to longer came raiding in the land of Israel. Shalom.

Paul once said, most likely quoting Jesus himself, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, to do good to those who hate you, to bless those who curse you and pray for those who abuse you, and when he himself put it into practice, he wasn’t talking about fairy tale endings.

He was talking about the dazzling power of Almighty God. He was talking about the chariots of fire, the power of God that lies just beneath what appears to be so obvious, practical, and effective.

Following the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Under the rules of this commission, if a white policeman or soldier voluntarily came before his victims, confessed his crime, and acknowledged his guilt, he would not be punished for the crime. While the system was by no means perfect, it helped to prevent the cycle of violence from perpetuating, as it so often does in struggles for liberation.

Stanley Greene, a native South African and now executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, told of one such hearing.2 A policeman named van de Broek confessed how he and other officers shot and killed an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body to destroy the evidence. Eight years later they returned, seized the boy’s father, and forced the wife to watch while he was incinerated.

Following van de Broek’s confession, a commissioner asked this now-elderly woman, who had lost both her son and her husband, what she wanted. “First,” she said, “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body so that I can gather up the dust and give my husband’s body a decent burial.”

“Second, Mr. van de Broek too all my family away from me and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.”

“Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would like someone to lead me to where he is seated, so I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real. As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom, van de Broek fainted, overcome, dazzled. Someone began singing “Amazing Grace.” Gradually everyone joined in.

Chariots of fire were there.

The best ending
When your eyes are really opened, you see that most profound meaning of life, the greatest substance of history, even of unspeakable pain, is not determined by horrendous violence; not by abuses of power; not by greed or gossip or lies or spiteful words or anything else that distorts shalom and demeans life as God intends it. Rather, it is found in the dazzling power of Almighty God.

Christ dazzled us, died for us while we were yet enemies, proving God’s love, the same love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Will this always work? Well, that depends on what you mean. Do you mean, “Will I always survive if I live this way?” or “Will I always prosper if I live this way,” or “Will I always avert suffering for myself or others whom I care about if I live this way?” Will you always get the fairy tale ending? Obviously not.

Studies indicate that living this way gives you better odds than other alternatives,3 but it’s still far too good to be true all the time. In fact, in our library is a book called The Martyr’s Mirror, which catalogs hundreds of cases when there was no fairy tale ending. Why, Jesus himself lived that way and ended up getting killed. No, it doesn’t work. It isn’t realistic.

But if you mean, “Will this let a little of God’s shalom, God’s peace, God’s grace, God’s steadfast love into the world,” or “Will this open the door to God’s transformation and reconciliation and hope,” or “Will this set a little light in the darkness,” or “Will this become an abiding testimony,” or “Will this line up with God’s redemptive action in the world,” or “Will this way ultimately win?” Why then, I think the answer is a resounding yes! No, it doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering, but a light appears the brightest in the deepest darkness.

You see, we followers of Jesus are in the business of telling unlikely stories. In fact, our most treasured story may just be the least likely ever told. We have the audacity to claim that behind the terrible story of Jesus’ suffering and death, which looked like utter, shameful, senseless, foolish failure and which could have been averted at his command – behind that story was and is the dazzling power of Almighty God.

We proclaim that actually, if your eyes are truly open, you see that Jesus died, yes, but that he still succeeded and overcame death at the same time. We proclaim even that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead! Did Jesus’ way work? Praise God, yes it did.

Who is your enemy? How have they hurt you? How are they even now upon you? Are your eyes opened to the power of Almighty God that is even now surrounding you with chariots of fire? How can you dazzle and disarm your enemies with the power of God’s love? Who’s coming to your place for dinner today? The dazzling power of Almighty God will be there, hidden just beneath the what seems obvious or probably, ready to take action, to mesmerize, and to establish shalom. Our story has an amazing ending. The best ending. Praise God!

Notes:
1. Adapted and paraphrased from Gordon Allaby, “A Premise for Peace,” at Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre, http://resources.mennonitechurch.ca/FileDownload/2304/Allaby-Gordon-A_Premise_for_Peace.pdf.
2. Canadian Mennonite, September 2000.
3. E.g. recent work by Erica Chenoweth, available http://echenoweth.faculty.wesleyan.edu/wcrw/ and http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/images/stories/pdfs/wcrw-erica-chenoweth.

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The Wisdom of a Humbled Mind

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“The Wisdom of a Humbled Mind” (1 Samuel 25:1-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 19, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A fool’s tale
Now if you read on a little further in this story of Nabal and Abigail and David, you will find that when Abigail returns to Nabal, she finds him completely drunk from a huge party that he had thrown. So Abigail waits until the next day to tell Nabal of what happened.

Now leading such a life of hatred and anger and scheming and hoarding and debauchery tends to take a toll on a person’s body, and when Nabal hears of how this backlands outlaw David received enough food from him quite literally to feed an entire army, he has a heart attack, lies in a coma for ten days, and then dies, his whole life having collapsed in on him, leaving only a fool’s corpse.

Well, this story of Nabal, Abigail, and David is indeed a fool’s tale if there ever was one. Nabal has a fool’s name, meaning, namely, “fool.” Now in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are a number of different kinds of fools. There are the sort of fools who are a bit dimwitted, but not altogether malicious.

For example, those fools simply lacking in prudence or common sense (Prov. 26:11). It’s like how when I was in college, some of my friends and I thought it would be a good idea to make a Druber’s run at 3am the night before our oral Bible finals.

And there are those fools who believe everything they hear (Prov. 14:15; 17:18), and who follow worthless pursuits and end up bringing their fields and vineyards to ruin (Prov. 12:11; 24:30-31). There are those fools who talk too much and don’t realize that people might think them intelligent if they’d shut their mouths a little bit more (Prov. 17:28). And then there are those fools who are ignorant and just downright proud of it (Prov. 13:16).

But not Nabal. He is a different kind of fool. You don’t get to being filthy rich in the wilderness without a good bit of shrewd business sense. And you don’t keep three thousand sheep and a thousand goats alive in the desert for very long at all unless you’ve got a carefully calculating mind and a good allotment of common sense and prudence. Nabal is a fool, no doubt, but he is not stupid.

David and the Wild West
David was rather used to dealing with fools. David was to become Israel’s king, and a mighty king he would be, but he wasn’t king yet, not by a long shot. David had been much too occupied fleeing from Israel’s current king, the paranoid and emotionally unstable King Saul, all over the land of Israel.

David was incredibly charismatic and mighty in battle and popular among the people, which had made the current delusional king incredibly jealous and enraged and paranoid, no doubt fearing that David was secretly plotting to usurp the throne. And so the foolish king Saul gathered three thousand men to hunt down this “single flea” (1 Sam. 24:14; 26:20) in the wilderness.

Over the course of his outlaw days in the wilderness, David had attracted quite a few people who were discontented with the current administration – some six hundred of them. And these six hundred fled with him to the region of Maon, where they encountered the shrewd and rich fool Nabal. David fled one fool, only to stumble over another out in the wilderness!

So David and his men were out in the wilderness, out beyond the reach of the rule of law (sort of like the Wild West of ancient Israel) which made the wilderness a safe haven of sorts for outlaws like David. And also for outlaws not like David – the kind who were guilty of more than just intimidating a paranoid king with their popularity – wilderness riff raff, thieves, bandits, marauders, and the like who preyed upon travelers and raided small villages and plundered flocks grazing in the hills. And apparently it was so bad that when David later left his camp to seek out Nabal, he had to leave 200 of his men behind just to guard it!

David and his men set themselves up as a vigilante wilderness police force – outlaws who kept the law. And they guarded Nabal’s flocks from bandits while they were grazing in the wilderness. So when the flocks came in for the shearing festival, David sent some of his men to ask Nabal to return the kindness out of the plenty of his flocks that David had protected. Protection money, you might call it.

A Fool’s Pride
So the men of David came to Nabal to ask this favor, saying, “Shalom, shalom, shalom! Shalom to you. Shalom to your house. Shalom to all that you have.” And they waited while Nabal glared at them. And they waited while his blood boiled. And waited for this shrewd fool’s answer to David, the son of Jesse who has become famous throughout the land.

What do you do when someone in need asks you for money or help, but you really don’t want to give it? Why, as soon as they start asking for help, you start inventing a justification or story in your mind for why you shouldn’t give it! “Ah, they’ll just spend it on alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Why he’s probably never worked a day in his life, the free-loader! You can’t trust these kind of folks. It would be dangerous for me and my family to help! I just don’t have the time. Can’t give to everyone who needs help – what would I have left?”

So finally Nabal gets his justification in order and answers the men of the famous son of Jesse, not by returning shalom, but in his surliest voice, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse who pals around with wilderness riff-raff?” Why, Nabal could be a campaign manager! “Where’s his birth certificate? Where are his tax returns? How much do we really know about him, hmmmmm?”

Nabal is shrewd. He is cunning and clever. He is a good businessman. He is wealthy and successful. But he is a fool. You see, Nabal is the worst kind of fool. He is the kind of fool who is good at turning half-truths into personal gain. He is the kind of fool whose success at the expense of others makes him appear wise. He is the kind of fool who thinks himself to be a self-made man.

“Why should I give my goods and my food that I worked hard to earn to a lazy band of shady outlaws?!”

A Psalm of David describes the sort of fool Nabal is: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).

The fool Nabal thinks he has no need of God or of God’s ways. He has made his own way. He made his own success by his own two hands by his own ways. He has worked hard, expanded his holding, dealt shrewdly, and prospered. He has earned his keep for his own self-interest. He is a rugged individual. He doesn’t need God, doesn’t need David’s protection and sees no reason to pay for it or anyone else’s help for that matter. Nabal is his own man.

And he is a fool with a fool’s pride.

And that kind of fool is perhaps the most contemptuous term in the Bible.1 It is the height of folly to live as though there is no God, and to live as though God’s ways are silly, naïve, and restrictive.

A Parable of a Rich Fool
Jesus once told a parable about a rich fool (Luke 12:13-21):

There was a certain rich man, a landowning man, a hardworking man, whose land produced abundantly. Well, this rich man, he figured he earned the increase. And he discussed with himself, saying, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Can’t sell it on the saturated markets. No room left in the storage bins.”

Well, as he continues to discuss with himself, he overlooks the hungry and hurting around him and comes to the predictable conclusion, “This is what I’ll do: I’ll pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” And so he dreams of saying to his life in days to come, “Life, you have ample goods laid up for many years; You’ve earned the good life; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night they are demanding your soul of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”2

This fool considers God to be of no consequence, and because of this, he is corrupt, unable to look beyond himself to guard the well-being of others, even with his scandalous excess. He fails to realize that his well-being, indeed, his very life, is caught up in God’s grace and in his dependence on others. A fool’s pride.

Instead, the fool seeks his life in his own plans for well-secured barns, no doubt with his own walls to keep out any thieves or hungry peasants, so that his own comfort and sense of security may remain undisturbed.

A fool’s collapse
The name Nabal, the fool’s name, comes from a word meaning collapse, or similarly, a corpse. You see, if you live as though there is no God; if you live as though God’s ways of righteousness and justice and mercy and shalom are mere foolishness, you may get rich, you may prosper, you may become popular and powerful.

But ultimately, you will find that you have built your empire, your future, your hope, your life like the foolish man who built his house upon sand, and it will all collapse and come crashing down.

The Psalmists speak of violence returning upon the heads of the violent, who fall into their own pit (7:15-16). The very sword the wicked wield to oppress the poor and righteous will enter their own heart (37:14). Their own mischief overwhelms them as burning coals fall upon them (140:9-10). It is God’s sovereign judgment that those fools who would choose darkness instead of light are free to do so, and will suffer the tragic consequences of their own folly, whether in this life or in the life to come.

Jesus once said that those who live by the sword die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Those who live by folly will, sooner or later, discover that all that folly leaves behind is a decaying corpse. Because no matter how corrupted and distorted by the power of Sin this world has become, no matter how long it permits those fools of nearsighted self-ambition to prosper, it is still fundamentally God’s world, created by God, reflecting God’s character, being redeemed by God, and ultimately, all ways other than God’s ways collapse and fade away.

Nabal is a fool, and his downfall is upon him. Pride being the hallmark of foolishness, and thinking himself the author of his own achievement and destiny, needing no man, and need to helm no man, Nabal hurls insults at David, calling him nothing but a common desert thug. He has returned evil for good.

A Tale of Two Fools
Now that’s nothing new for David. David had served his mortal enemy, Saul King of Israel, with complete faithfulness, and yet Saul has been hunting him across the wilderness to kill him, returning evil for good. But even then, David defended Saul before those who would have liked to have seen him dead because, unlike fools who say there is no God, he trusted the Lord to deal justly with Saul (1 Sam. 24:12-15).

In fact, if you flip back a chapter in the story, you will find that David quite literally caught King Saul with his pants down, and yet so full of God was he that he did not even take the perfect opportunity to kill Saul, and Saul was forced to acknowledge that David was the more righteous for repaying good for evil, and that he would be king.

So I don’t know what the deal is with David here. I don’t know why he gets all worked up over a fool’s insult. Maybe the constant wariness of the outlaw life finally boiled over and he snapped. Maybe the pressure cooker of restrained self-righteous indignation finally blew a gasket. Maybe he figured to make an example of this peon of a shepherd who would challenge the authority of the Lord’s Anointed.

And so David, who staid his own hand even against his mortal enemy, now rallies his men, calls to arms, rattles his saber, lathers himself up in the self-righteous indignation of his insulted pride, and marches for war, or, more accurately, for massacre, all because of a prideful, insolent fool’s insult. David was once full of God. Now he’s just full of himself,3 and innocent men are going to pay. The prideful marches on the proud. Nabal is not the only man who acts foolishly in this story.

Now as is the case with most battles, it is the pawns who have the least to gain and the most to lose. And somehow word spreads – and I doubt if it was by accident – from David’s camp to Nabal’s servants that David has a bloodbath in mind. And three thousand years later, you can still almost hear Abigail’s exasperated sigh, and you can almost see her rolling her eyes when she hears about these foolish men with their saber rattling and their feather ruffling and their chest puffing and hot air.

A Christly mind
So Abigail intends to put a stop to this foolish bloodbath. She gathers up enough food to feed not only David’s army, but Saul’s also, and when David sees her, he is stopped in his tracks.

And Abigail, the only sensible one of the whole lot, says, “I’m sorry.”

She who is there to prevent David from committing a bloody iniquity of hasty vengeance that could cost him the throne, grovels before his feet! Is there not an ounce of justice left in the earth?

David deserves a swift smack upside the head, but here this wise, righteous woman presents him with a festival’s worth of food, bows at his feet, and takes the guilt for her fool of a husband! Abigail, twice the victim of folly, takes the blame for one fool and apologizes to another! How many a fool has solidified his abusiveness because he managed to convince a victim that it was her fault for being victimized?

Long ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “We have all gone astray like sheep; we have all turned to our own way. And the Lord has delivered him over to our sins” (53:6)

When the first generation of believers read this in Isaiah, something clicked for them. They realized that this was precisely their experience in Christ Jesus, God’s righteous One, God’s suffering servant, who through his own humble identification with the guilt and sin and folly of humankind had laid the true ugliness of sin and rebellion and violence bare upon the cross as he suffered as a righteous man and canceled out the effects of sin for those who in turn identified with him and his way.

Paul once counseled the church in Philippi:

In humility regard others as better than yourselves. . . Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross. (Philippians 2:3-11)

“Have this same mind among you.” In God’s justice, it is not the proudhearted, but the meek, who inherit the earth.

Could it be that Abigail was a woman ahead of her time, having the mind of Christ before he was revealed?

Abigail had not spoken with the men that David sent, and she reminds David that Nabal’s folly was in fact no fault of her own, lest Nabal be free of all responsibility. She is righteous, blameless, and both she and David know it. Even so, she is willing to humble herself, regarding even two blind fools as better than herself. She will bear the folly of her husband, and of her enemy too.

God’s shalom breaks out
David looks down to see one standing in for his enemy, Nabal, but she is not Nabal. What do you do when suddenly your anger, your pride, your foolishness is redirected upon the very embodiment of innocence, humility, and wisdom? It is like looking in a mirror and seeing your true self unmasked for the very first time – both who you are, and who God meant you to be. You can either run away from it to remain a fool while your world collapses around you, or you can step up to it to be filled with God and with God’s ways. Nabal chose one way, but David simply could not remain unchanged. Suddenly his anger, his pride, his foolishness melted away. “Go up to your house in peace,” he said. And there was no bloodbath.

Abigail comes riding a humble beast, a donkey. She brings an offering for Nabal’s folly and transgression. She puts herself forward as one to bear the guilt, instead of the fool Nabal and his innocent servants. She humbly trusts the Lord. She proclaims the reign of the Lord’s Anointed. She makes peace between those who are far off, and later humbles herself to wash the feet of David’s servants. And through her humble faithfulness, God’s shalom broke out. (Sound like anyone you know?)

Who are you in this story today? Perhaps you find yourself in Abigail’s place, apparently hopelessly trapped in by hatred, foolishness, and pride, and yet you have an opportunity to follow Christ in humbling yourself, repaying even good for evil, that others may experience God’s shalom. Will you share the humble mind of Christ?

Or maybe you’re like David, sword drawn with vengeance and pride and foolishness, and you need oh so desperately for someone to stop you in your tracks, to hold up the mirror of who you are being and who God wants you to be, to lay bare and unmask the ugliness of your pride, violence, and folly, while your sword suddenly falls from your hand, your pride melts away, your folly is exposed, and your anger fades as you are filled with God. Will you look to Christ, the righteous one who humbly suffered violence for us all and exposed it for what it is, to see who God wants you to be, and let Christ fill you up?

Or maybe you are Nabal, hopelessly lost in your own folly, and you need someone to bear your guilt and rescue you and many a innocent bystander from the deadly consequences of your actions. Will you identify yourself with Christ, who identifies even with you, with me, with us, even in our folly, and be filled with the righteousness of God?

Christ Jesus is our peace. He prepares a grand festival and banquet of shalom for us before the foolishness of the world. Let us partake in humility, that even the worst kinds of fools may know God’s shalom.

Notes:
1. Eugene Peterson, First and Second Samuel, 120.
2. “They are demanding” is the literal translation.
3. Peterson, 120.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

The Weightier Matters

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“The Weightier Matters” (Numbers 27:1-11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 12, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This transcript is adapted from a multimedia presentation format. Scripture quotations are NRSV unless otherwise noted.

Last week, Pastor Katherine helped us to think of the biblical word shalom as the Bible talks about it:

Shalom has to do with our well-being, that we might live without such things as violence, oppression, fear, disease, or famine. Shalom [means] right relationships between individual people, with our neighbors, with our family, with our enemies. . . right relationships between nations [and right relationship with God]. Shalom [means] integrity, honesty, respect, and righteousness where we live without guilt or blame. Shalom comes through our own actions and through God’s actions in the world. Shalom happens when we obediently learn God’s ways and walk in them; and shalom is what God is working for and bringing about in the world. Ultimately, shalom is life as it ought to be; life as God intends for all of creation.

Today, we meet another important biblical word: “justice.” We’re going to begin with a fun little mini biblical word-study, so put on your imaginary Bible scholar caps (I like to think mine has all sorts of exotic feathers and other spectacular plumage).

Last week we saw how trust in God’s faithfulness and provision and abundance is important for shalom. Justice is also important for shalom:

You must do these things: speak the truth to one another. Judge with honesty and justice that lead to shalom in your gates. (Zech. 8:16)

Here God is talking about a day of return and restoration for Israel, and justice that leads to shalom is to be a hallmark of God’s restoration and salvation.

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

This comes before the people of Israel enter the promised land. They are not to distort justice with bribes or partiality. Failure to practice justice will bring judgment.

Well, what do you think of when you hear of justice? Do you think of those dirty thugs getting their just desserts, like our legal system does. When the bad guy goes to jail, we say, “Justice was served.”

Or maybe you think of equality or fairness or liberty or entitlement or individual rights. That’s sort of the basis of a number of self-described social justice movements of the past century.

Well, justice in the Bible is bigger and broader in its understanding of justice:

1. Learning God’s Ways and Walking in Them

Often in English translations, we find justice associated with a related term, “righteousness,” such as in Amos:

But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters,
and righteousness (tsedeqah) like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. . . I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness (tsedeqah) and justice (mishpat); so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him. (Genesis 18:18-19)

Actually, these words are synonyms, and either can be translated either way. So that means that justice includes practicing righteousness – maintaining right relationship with God and one another by learning God’s ways and walking in them. We’ll focus more on righteousness and shalom at a later time. Part of the reason for God’s covenant with Abraham was so that Abraham’s family as the people of God would establish righteousness and justice as a blessing for the nations.

2. Caring for the Poor and the Vulnerable

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. (Ex. 23:6)

They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend justice for the needy. (Jeremiah 5:28)

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

Here we find the basis for justice in the Bible. It has less to do with abstract ideals of fairness, equal rights, retribution, or entitlements, but rather, with God’s merciful character and action. The people of God are to demonstrate the same mercy and compassion that God has shown them, to bring about their well-being. We don’t practice justice because we care about fairness (though that’s a good thing to care about). We practice justice because we have experienced the merciful and compassionate character of God, and we are to imitate that character and restoring action.

Failure to practice learning about God’s just ways of compassion and mercy and following in them is a path of self-destruction:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

The judgment that results is lengthy and includes turning the feasts of the wealthy oppressors into mourning, famine not only for the land but for hearing the words of the Lord, wandering, fainting, and ultimately destruction. Practicing injustice towards the vulnerable, though often prosperous in the short-term, ultimately leads to destruction.

Injustice represents a distortion of God’s good intention for life. Justice upholds shalom, or life as God desires it, and when it is practiced, it restores life to the way God intended it. The people of God practice justice as an alternative and example to the cultures around them.

With that in mind, I’ll read a part of this morning’s OT reading again, highlighting the word for justice:

The daughters of Zelophehad said: “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their matter of justice before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. . . It shall be for the Israelites a statute of justice, as the Lord commanded Moses.

Now try to imagine this scene: these five sisters came before Moses, and the priest Eleazar, and the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tabernacle, and they presented their case before the entire congregation – thousands upon thousands of people. You would think that this would be the sort of thing that you could take down to your local tribal courthouse and file a petition for land inheritance, and in four weeks to four years, it would be settled. But here, this case comes before the entire congregation of well over 600,000.

Can you imagine having a state-wide referendum every time there’s a land or inheritance dispute? In fact, early on, Moses had gotten so exhausted having to hear every case from morning until evening with people standing in line to speak to him, that he finally took his father-in-law’s advice and set up more local authorities to deal with the minor cases, and bring the hard ones to him. But somehow these five sisters manage to come before Moses and the entire people of God with this land dispute that’s so petty.

Or was it?

Do you know what was so special about God’s chosen people Israel? They weren’t taller or smarter or more politically powerful than their neighbors. Well, early on in Genesis, we find that sin, deceit, envy, violence, wickedness, and other nasty things have entered the world and distorted God’s good creation.

God’s plan to redeem the world focused on Abraham and his descendents, the people Israel:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)

Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. . . I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness (tsedeqah) and justice (mishpat); so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him. (Genesis 18:18-19)

Through Abraham and his descendents, God intended to bless the world with righteousness and justice and set things right. God consecrated the people of Israel as a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), set apart from the other kingdoms of the world to be their priests and mediate between all the families of the earth and God.

For the people of God, therefore, practicing justice – practicing right relationship with one another and with God, practicing mercy and compassion for the weak and vulnerable, practicing restoration for those whose well-being has been jeopardized – is critically important because that is what God intends for the whole world! Justice is certainly no small matter, but what about this particular case of justice for these five sisters warrants the attention of the entire people of God?

Well, if you back up a chapter, you will find that the people of God are preparing to enter into the promised land, and a massive roll call is taken of those who are able to do battle at age 20 or above. From this census, the land was also to be apportioned. Now if you happen to follow the news from the Middle East, you know that land is a very big deal, and this hasn’t changed much over the millennia.

For the people of Israel, God’s gift of land was the source of livelihood and survival. If the land suffered, so did the people. Now in the cultures surrounding Israel, great division tended to emerge between the wealthy and powerful and the poor and powerless, as the wealthy and powerful gathered up more and more land and exploited the poor for their own benefit, which jeopardized the livelihood and survival of the poor.

But God’s character is merciful and compassionate, upholding justice for the poor and powerless who were otherwise trapped. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart, following God’s ways and practicing righteousness and justice as an alternative, model, and blessing for the nations. And so, every 50 years, according to Israel’s inheritance practices, the land was to revert back to the families to whom Moses would give it as an inheritance. This was to make Israel a model of justice, compassion, and mercy for the poor, all part of God’s plan to set the world right.

So justice and inheritance were no small matter, and when Moses takes a census of all the men aged 20 or older, these sisters discover that their family has been left out because their father has died, leaving no male heir. This meant that these sisters would have no family share in the promised land, and their livelihood and survival would be in jeopardy!

Now in the book of Genesis, we find that as a result of sin entering the world, women suffer domination by men (Gen. 3:16b). This was especially true of Israel’s neighbors, who often treated women more like property than people – people created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). For this reason, widows were often endangered, and no one would have even thought of providing for these five sisters.

But not so with God’s people. Just as God has compassion for the widows, so God has compassion and mercy for these five sisters, and establishes a statute of justice for them and for those in similar situations. They too are members of the community of God, participating in life as God intended it, not as sin, greed, domination, and violence have distorted it.

Well, the story doesn’t end here. For the rest of the story for these five sisters, you’ll have to read in Numbers 36 (!). But the story of Israel doesn’t end here either. In time, Israel also became like its neighbors, distorting justice:

Wild Grapes: A Distortion (even verbal!) of Justice

He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes (Isa. 5:2)

The Lord expected justice (mishpat)
but saw bloodshed (mispach)
righteousness (tsedeqah)
but heard a cry (tsa’aqah)

Woe, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land! (Isa. 5:7-8)

The prophet Isaiah demonstrates the distortion of justice even verbally! Mishpat is distorted to mispach, and tsedeqah is distorted to tsa’aqah! Bloodshed and weeping instead of the justice and righteousness with which God intended to bless the world through Abraham and his descendents Israel. It would seem that God’s plan to redeem the world and set it right was swept away by the sin of injustice and unrighteousness in Israel’s failure to carry out the plan.

But God had other plans and promised a Messiah who would fulfill Israel’s destiny:

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-19, 21)

Jesus called his followers to return to their calling to practice what he called the weightier matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness, while not neglecting the rest either (Matthew 23:23).

Jesus fulfilled Israel’s calling to bless the nations with justice and righteousness:

This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
And in his name the nations will hope.” (Matthew 12:17-21)

Immediately after Jesus died, Luke records that his executioner looked up and praised God saying, “Truly this man was just” (Luke 23:47). God’s saving plan through Abraham and Israel for the world is now fulfilled at last in the Messiah, Jesus (Wright).

Jesus, in living and dying a faithful, just life, has redefined the people of God. Now it is those who come to believe in him who are a part of the family of God who practice justice and righteousness that the world may know God’s shalom.

Now the church in North America, and in an election year in particular, is often tempted to focus its practice of justice on public policy and the political process. This becomes a problem when it enables us to forget that we who are in Christ are the community of justice and righteousness for the world.

Before lobbying for legislation, we are called to practice justice ourselves.

Learning about and walking in God’s ways

Bible study, Sunday School, Weds. Eve, devotions
Discipleship, service, healing, Offender Victim Ministries, reconciliation
Inviting others to relationship and transformation with God,
bringing neighbors or children to Sunday and Weds. Eve. activities

Caring for the poor and vulnerable among us

Homeless shelter, Food 4 Kids, Nursing Homes
Mutual Care, MCC, Home Repair, Et Cetera

Bearing witness to God’s justice

Living a life of justice
Witnessing to the Powers

How will you seek shalom by practicing justice?

May we all practice justice and righteousness in our lives, that the world may know God’s shalom.