Torah Justice and Ancient Israel — Deuteronomy 15:1-15

Reading:  Deuteronomy 15:1-15

Next Sunday, your Sunday school class will start discussing the book of Isaiah. The Illuminate ‘quarterly’ has a group of lessons that cover the high points of Isaiah and Jeremiah — and, I am excited about the opportunity to go through a part of the Bible that is so important to my own faith-journey. I love the prophets, and have loved them as long as I remember.

The Old Testament, in its most literal reading, is not that difficult to understand. In it’s most literal reading, the Torah, the first five books are the laws and rules of the nation, mixed with some historical and religious justification for these laws The holy history of God’s people and the great lawgiver Moses are a part of the narrative, but the core of Torah is the law of a nation. The books often called “Historical” books tells the continuing history of God’s people after they were given the law. The Prophets, in general, condemn Israel and Judah for failing to live up to the law, but instead having a corrupt government.

What is hard for us is if we follow the most literal reading, then the Old Testament is made up of obsolete legal code, the history of a failed experiment in Theocracy, some religious poetry, and Wisdom literature. If we follow the most literal reading, only the Psalms and Wisdom literature remain relevant. The law itself, in its most literal reading would become obsolete at the time of the Babylonian captivity. The history would be relevant, in the most literal reading, as primarily interesting to historians.

What happened, however was something nearly miraculous: People learned to look beyond what the law literally was. They realized that they lived in a society that cared nothing for justice, and that they had no control over the laws of the nation that they lived in. Recognizing this, they searched the Torah, studied everything they could study, asking the question: How can I become a just person in an unjust society? They also asked the question: “How can we still be a people of God, when we no longer are a Godly nation?” The way people read Torah changed to meet the new reality, and Torah took on a new meaning beyond the literal. Torah, as they started learning to interpret it in Babylon, became the standard that Jesus called people to is His preaching.

Interpreting in ways beyond what is literal does not only apply to the Jews, but also to Christians. The United States is not Israel. The Church also is not Israel, nor do those in positions of religious leadership stand in the place of Hebrew priests. God does not have the same covenant with us that God made with Israel at the time of Moses. In spite of this, we often connect with the holy stories of the Old Testament, and make them our own. We make connections between ancient Israel and ourselves, because we find that the positions are in some ways similar. Israel, at times, is a metaphor for the Church — as both are God’s people. Israel is at times a metaphor for the state, because sometimes we fail to live up to our standards of justice. Allegory and metaphor are good, because it allows us to apply an application beyond the literal facts. Unfortunately, for many, we have no understanding of the literal meaning. Today is for education. If we are going to study and discuss the prophets, we need to know a little bit about what their message meant to people of ancient Israel. Our methods of interpretation might be good methods — but, one really should not get into a discussion of metaphor and allegory without at least a little understanding of the passage meant to the first readers.

I chose this reading, because it is an example of the law that the prophets were always talking about. This section of the law is cited many times by many of the prophets: Whenever there was a prophecy against the people of Judah or Israel for not observing the Sabbath years, this was the section that was cited. This is a law saying that debts are forgiven, and indentured servants (people enslaved because of their debts) are to be freed — and paid generously at a specific time that happens every 7 years. The idea is that nobody should be destroyed, irreparably, by debt. instead there should be mercy and second chances. The United States actually feels the same way to the point that we have personal bankruptcy laws, and laws preventing becoming indentured. This is an example of how Israelites were called to be compassionate, remembering that they were once slaves in Egypt. Because they remembered what it was like to be slaves, they were to systematically forgive debts and release slaves, allowing people crushed by poverty another chance.

As this was a legal system, there was a tax code. The bulk of the taxes are called “tithes” in our Bible. Sometimes we are confused, because we think tithing is giving voluntarily to the church — and we think that it is a suggested amount of 10%. Now, ancient Israel is just like any other government. Taxes are not a suggested donation, and if you are suspected of underpaying a government official will come, audit you, and take what he thinks is right. A tithe is 10%, but, this was not the whole tax burden. There were multiple tithes to fund multiple programs: There was a tithe to fund the public celebrations and festivals that happened pretty much every month. There was another tithe to take care of the needs of the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. There was another tithe to take care of all of the government workers, and a ‘tithe of a tithe’ (1%) went to the temple. There is some debate about what the total tax burden was, but without getting into that, we can understand why, when kings added even more taxes, people were ready to revolt.

Another theme we find in the prophets is that of the tithes. Often, we think of this in terms of “we should tithe” meaning, we should give, generously and systematically. It is true, we should give generously and systematically. Old Testament tithing, however, was not talking about systematic donations to a worthy cause — it was talking about a rather heavy tax burden. The people who did things like stole the tithes were people in political power. Do you know people who refuse to pay their taxes? If I don’t pay my taxes, the IRS will have a freeze put on my bank account, I will be audited, and I will not only pay the taxes I owe, but penalties for making the collection inconvenient. Do we really believe that ancient Israel had no recourse when people refused to pay? Wherever there are governments, there will always be tax collectors.

One Biblical example of a leader stealing the tithes is found in Nehemiah 13. Eliashib stole the tithes that would have been used to support the government workers; in order to survive the whole bureaucracy became corrupt, because the Levites had no sustenance beyond their positions in the State In this corrupt system, those who depended upon government services and aid for their needs were left to starve. I am convinced when Malachi asks: “Can a man rob God”? He is thinking of a specific man, and likely that man’s name is Eliashib.
Starting next week, we will study Isaiah and Jeremiah. The adult Sunday school Bible study will go through select passages, offer some written reflections on the passages, and ask discussion questions based on the reading. I love the prophets, I loved the prophets from my youth, and I look forward to this study.

The prophets lived in a time when the law that was written, and what was actually done was different. There was corruption, and many of the people in power exploited their positions for their own gain. The prophets are also familiar to us, because they hold the hope and promise of restoration. Even in the times without justice, when the nation seemed to be falling and enemies were ready to conquer, the people had hope that God would send a Deliverer. In the Christian understanding — the prophets anticipated Christ’s coming.

I’m excited about this this opportunity to read together, to explore, and to learn both from each other and from the written thoughts of several other people. I know, many times people expect some sort of a practical application, but, I’m not going to tell you. I’m sure nobody is going to try to figure out when the Sabbath Year will next fall — nor do I think anybody really wants to live in Ancient Israel. What seems important right now is that we know the context of the as we enter the study.

For me, the point of telling you this is to remind you that there are many ways that people understand what they read. The Sabbath year is important, because, according to Daniel, the 70 years of captivity are the same as the 70 times the Sabbath year passed, and debts remained unforgiven. This law that seems so obscure to us today is central in the understanding for the reason of the captivity. We remember God promised David his line would be unbroken — but, David’s line didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. David’s line ignored the standards of Justice written into the Law. The literal meaning of the prophets is tied up in Torah, and a unbroken line of Kings who ignored Torah’s ideals of an understanding of justice built on empathy, mercy, and compassion.

The wonderful thing is, the New Testament invites us to reflect on this Holy History. We see Jesus establishing a New Kingdom. We see Jesus inviting us to live in that New Kingdom. We no longer need a Theocracy to be a Holy People, instead we are invited to live lives of mercy, compassion, and justice even as we are in a world that sometimes treats mercy as a vice. Though corrupt people failed to establish God’s kingdom on the Earth, God came to establish a kingdom in the hearts and minds of people — and as God changes us, we become a force that changes the world.

Recommendation for policy on having food delivered to meetings and events

Until yesterday, I’ve not only been a preacher (officially pulpit supply) and volunteer coordinator at a small church, but also a pizza delivery driver for one of the big 3 delivery chains.  As a delivery worker, I’ve been able to observe how businesses and churches behave, how the store operates, and how long those who work in the industry remember the behavior of customers.  If you are a church, or have a business that serves customers (especially car sales — drivers are always in the market for another car for obvious reasons), it is best to behave in a way that does not wreck your reputation.  As somebody involved in Church ministry I will offer my advice to churches, but please modify it for your group.

  1. Make sure you have your tax exempt number and information ready.
  2. Order, in advance, between 2:00 and 4:00 PM.  (In person, if convenient.)
  3. Ask for a discount
  4. Tip generously — when you tip a driver at 1/2%, the whole store will know about it.
  5. Make sure somebody is ready to meet and pay the delivery driver.
  6. Be polite

The first two rules should be fairly obvious.  Customers with large orders, especially those who are tax exempt, often require a little more time than somebody who is just ordering for dinner at home.  A large order can dominate the kitchen, noticeably delaying delivery times for other customers.  Advance orders allow the kitchen to better plan and better meet the needs of their customers (including you.)  2:00 to 4:00 PM are somewhat dead periods of time, when the staff will have time to handle the order.

Rule 3 is somewhat less obvious until you realize that if you don’t ask for a discount, you will not get it.  Most chains have discounts for businesses and non-profits.  Remembering to ask for this discount will save a significant amount.

To explain rules #4 and #5, first, you have to realize that delivery drivers are tipped workers, and thus, their minimum wage is that of a tipped worker.  In my case, my base pay, as a driver, was $4.25 an hour.  I also was compensated for mileage, but with a maximum amount that assumed that the average delivery was about 3/4 miles away.  Some of my deliveries were 5 1/2 miles away, and the average was a little under 3 miles away.  I recorded my mileage, and found that after subtracting the uncompensated expenses (using standard IRS mileage), my base pay averaged to slightly less than tips only.  It does not matter that there is a delivery charge, delivery drivers are still expected to absorb part of the company’s operating expenses, to the point of being essentially unpaid by their employer.

When figuring the tip — tipping at 15% of the amount *before* the discount is a good place to start.  The driver should not be punished, because you remembered to ask for the discount.  It would also be generous to consider adding mileage from the store and back to that 15%, but, no matter what, remember if you do not tip the driver worked without pay; nobody likes to work without pay. It is also important for the driver to finish his delivery quickly. Driver productivity is measured in number of deliveries, and the pay is effectively only tips.  Drivers literally cannot afford to wait.

These are just my recommendations, based on my experience as a driver.  If your non-profit, or business follows these, it will be good for your reputation; but, quite honestly, following any policy that respects the facts that driver pay is primarily tips, and that their time is valuable will create a lot of good will.  If you remember to ask for the discount, such a policy costs nothing.

An unshakable Kingdom — Hebrews 12:14-29

Reading: Hebrews 12:14-29

One thing that always inspires me is how Jesus talks about His Kingdom. He says that the Kingdom is at hand, and he talks about people entering God’s Kingdom. There is a real sense that God’s kingdom is so close that it can touch and change the Earth. Though earth and sky might be shaken, God’s kingdom is never shaken. God’s kingdom was here before our nation was founded, and will be here when it falls.

The fact that things fall is hard for us. We always hope that the things we do and build will last forever. Many of us hope to have some sort of legacy that will never be buried — and, yes, it is good to have a legacy, but never is far too long. Earth and Sky will be shaken, it will be removed. Any legacy we make here will be shaken. All that endures is God’s kingdom — and as the writer of Hebrews says: “We are receiving this kingdom.”

Like many times in scripture, bad news is tempered by good news. Those of us who worked hard to do good in the world, or to build a legacy cannot help but be a little sad when we realize that everything we do is going to be shaken. Sometimes we are shaken first, sometimes we see everything falling apart around us — but no matter what, it is sobering. There is so much that we can mourn.

The good news is, as we already said, “We are receiving this kingdom” that cannot be shaken. Even as we watch our legacy fall away, and even as we know that everything we knew and loved on this earth will someday fall away — we have faith that there is Something that is lasting. We have faith that there is Someone who is eternal. We believe that if we make a place for Jesus in our life in this world, Jesus will make a place for us in the next.

The writer of Hebrews gives some advice to us, because we are receiving the unshakable kingdom. When we are promised something Good, it tends to come with advice and sometimes even warnings. Before we get to the writer’s advice, I’ll offer one piece of my own: Don’t forget what is lasting. Yes, mourn those things that are important, but temporary, but remember that we are being given something greater than what we have lost — something greater than what we will lose.

First thing that the writer recomends is that we pursue peace with everybody. It is hard to pursue peace, because it is so easy to think in terms of a contest. We look at our coworkers, our neighbors, and sometimes our family as opponents — we see a need to fight for our rights, and our share, forgetting that if the world is being unfair to anybody, it isn’t us.

Another reason that it is so hard to pursue peace gets into the very definition of the next piece of advice: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble”. If we are ungracious and become bitter then that will cause trouble. Bitterness disrupts peace. We cannot very well pursue peace with others if we live in a state where we cannot have peace within ourselves.

Peace with others, and ourselves really does come from embracing Grace. By ourselves, we often don’t seem to get grace right. Last night, Gerry sent me an email which included quite a few things, but one striking thing that it included was a list of reasons that people don’t go to church. Some of these reasons were superficial things that don’t really seem to apply to us such as the productions that are put on every Sunday Morning are nothing but white noise, or falling into church jargon that nobody really understands. What really shows as failing in grace is the observations that many Churches seem to lack a vision outside of the church property. Grace sees others, it is ungracious to be blind to the world. Another thing that shows a lack of grace is the battles that the church has chosen to fight. The final reason is that for all the talk about love, the church very often sounds hateful. For all the talk about forgiveness, the church sounds judgmental — this is not grace, this is not making peace with our neighbors, it is polemic — it is taking on the attitude that we must win.

Grace is found in recognizing that God created humanity in God’s own image. Grace looks and sees God’s image. Grace knows that you cannot rightfully claim to love God, while hating those made in God’s image. A grace filled person also sees herself clearly. She know that she has been forgiven, and thus it is right to forgive others.
We must not be like Esau who sold his birthright for a single meal. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, psychologists at Stanford ran a rather simple experiment, they left a child alone in a room with a cookie or a marshmallow, and offered a second just like it if the child could resist eating the first for 15 minutes. This experiment was repeated several times throughout the children’s development — and they found that the ability to wait was an important life skill.

Esau failed this test in a big way. He had something of great value, and he sold it to have a simple bowl of soup. Hunger might be a huge motivator, but it is hard to believe that a grown man, in a family that had flocks, servants, and a farmer would not have food available. It takes time to cook, but is the time spent cooking truly worth the birthright?

We who are adopted into the name Christian have a place in the unshakable Kingdom. Our birthright is that we can assemble in the city of the Living God. The writer of Hebrews was reminding everybody that only one thing lasts forever — and what lasts forever is their birthright. In the end this is a big secret be being gracious: recognizing that there are more important things than winning. Winning purely for the sake of winning is taking the smaller reward. Even in the short term, before the unshakable kingdom, if we cheat, or ungracious, the bad behaviors will be remembered longer by those around us than our victories. May we never think so much about winning that we forget our birthright.

Hebrews 12:1-13 — Now it’s our turn

Reading: Hebrews 12:1-13

In the last chapter, we heard about all the great things that our heroes did by faith.  We were also reminded that they did these great things without having the same benefits that we have today.  This chapters starts with the words:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”  Because of what those in the past have done — this is what we should do.

The writer gives us hints about how to go forward, now that it is our turn by using two very different metaphors.  I think it is important to think about both of these, because one thing about metaphors, they are imperfect — if they are followed too strictly, we get things just as wrong as if we ignore them.

The first metaphor is that we are in a race.  We are reminded that the people in a race strip away everything that is not necessary to get to the finish line.  There is a single, marked, goal — and the whole race looks to the finish line, and nothing else.

The second metaphor is that of children.  For children, there is not a single, marked, obvious goal in the way that there is a race.  The goal is to learn, and become respectable and productive adults.  While there might be rites of passage, the exact moment that a person becomes this adult that is the goal is not clearly marked.  Not only is there no clear finish line, but the course of maturity is unmarked.  Very often, this is a period of collecting – not putting aside.

Applying these competing metaphors to a situation might have very different results — and this is not a bad thing.  What we do know is that both of these metaphors require discipline, and both can be very challenging.  So many people talk about the terrible twos — but, we forget, the child is working hard to learn a first language.  Things are not at all easy, every day is hard work — and, when mistakes are made, it is often unclear what the mistakes were.

Am I a child, trying to learn and become something more?  Am I running a race?  Am I both at the same time, or am I one at one moment and another at the other moment?  What I do know is whether the course is clearly marked, or if I am about to burst into tears because I cannot understand anything around me — by faith, I must endure.

Is it time to get rid of Yearly Meeting — a Rebuttal to Micah Bales

Recently my friend Micah Bales wrote an essay titled “Is it time to get rid of the Yearly meeting?”  In this essay, Micah observes that many people don’t get why Yearly meeting is important, and suggests that maybe they are right.  He goes on to tell about his experience forming a new network, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, and how, while they are a supportive community, they never formed a Yearly Meeting.  The suggestion is that the problem is with the model of Yearly meetings.

I believe that the observation that the models we are using are not working is important, however I think that we not only need to ask about better models, but to take a serious look at why the model which seemed to have worked for such a long time is failing now.  We shouldn’t ask so much if the model needs scrapped in favor of new kinds of associations, as whether things need re-evaluated and reorganized within the existing systems.

Micah gave a definition of Yearly Meetings as follows:

*For my non-Quaker readers: A Yearly Meeting is a regionally and theologically defined association of local congregations. It is the highest decision-making body that Quakers have, and is roughly equivalent to a diocese, district, or conference in other denominations.

The words that stand out the most to me are:  “highest decision making body.”  A yearly meeting is, as the highest decision making body, autonomous.  You cannot be the highest decision making body while you are dependent upon the decisions and works of other bodies for your existence.  A diocese or a district is not autonomous, this means to function a Yearly Meeting must be an archdiocese.

Among traditionally structured Christians, such as the Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians, in order for a national or regional church to function autonomously, there must be “Three bishops and a seminary”.  Three bishops means at least three dioceses.

The most simplistic explanation of ‘three bishops and a seminary’ is that a clergy led church needs to be able to produce more clergy.  The Seminary is required for training.  Three bishops are required, because according to the 3rd cannon of the 2nd council of Nicaea, when consecrating a new bishop all bishops in the province should be consulted, and as many as can make it, but no fewer than three, should be at the consecration of a new Bishop.  Without this minimum, the church would be dependent on an outside province to continue.

One of the pragmatic effects of the requirement that it took the whole community of leaders in the province to appoint high level administrative leadership is that it meant that a province was not completely dominated by any single Bishop.  Even when it came time to replace the metropolitan bishop, there was a community of bishops that offered a continuation for the community.  As the metropolitan Bishop did not have the power to consecrate whatever bishop he chose, leadership was not stacked in favor of one city.  There were voices, at every level of leadership throughout the province.

Herein lies the problem of Micah’s critique:  His experience, and his attempts to build a ministry that not only reaches the city he lives in, but encourages other with similar callings are not large enough to be what a yearly meeting tries to be.  I respect the ministry, and I hope that this network grows, but I do not see it as a replacement for our current structures. Micah’s challenge is that the Yearly Meetings where he’s lived and ministered: Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Friends of Jesus Community, and even Western and Indiana Yearly meetings do not currently live up to the requirements for autonomy.

In the past, Quarterly Meetings served the function of the Diocese.  With the formation of Friends United Meeting, something not unlike a national Yearly Meeting was formed.  For a brief time, there was a common discipline, and a common understanding of how to recognize ministers, and what standards ministers should be held to.  Eventually, the national unity was broken, and every yearly meeting went back to writing their own manuals — but, much of the work of the Yearly meeting has remained in FUM’s hands.  The Yearly Meetings are dependent upon each other, and on FUM for maintaining the structures necessary to continue.

In order to explain how difficult the current Yearly meeting structure is in Friends United Meeting, I merely have to point out that I live and minister within the greater Indianapolis area.  In the area dominated by this single metropolitan area, there are three FUM yearly meetings.  These three bodies do not always have a healthy relationship with on another, yet none of them meet the “three bishops and a seminary” requirement for autonomy.  All three are dependent upon FUM, and by extension, one another for leadership development.

I grew up in a Yearly Meeting that clearly meets the minimum requirements for autonomy and, while Mid-America Yearly meeting supplies ministers to other Yearly meetings, and from time to time brings in ministers from outside, this is not so much a dependency as a migration.

Mid America has churches in:  The greater Kansas City area, the greater Wichita area, the greater Oklahoma City area, and the greater Houston Area.  In addition, there are churches in locations without a clear urban center.  The 60 churches are organized into 8 quarterly meetings (and while, I think two of them should be merged into larger quarters, this has not yet been necessary.)

Continuing committees, and oversight for the various Yearly Meeting functions are appointed by the Quarterly meetings — allowing the meetings of each regional section to be represented, without the unworkable committee size of 60 members.  In theory, Quarterly meeting gives an opportunity for the larger group to be active in the works of the committees and administration of the Yearly meeting.  (In practice, this does not always happen.)

Mid America has, in its territory, Barclay College, Friends University, and a relationship with Houston graduate school of Theology.  Outside of these traditional institutions, the Yearly Meeting has set up monthly web-seminars for the training of volunteers, and continuing education for those active in the Ministry.

Mid America is not perfect, (no human organization is), but it has a structure that is able to function as a healthy autonomous Yearly Meeting.

Micah suggests that the yearly Meeting structure might need disbanded in favor of something smaller and less formal.  My counter-suggestion is that Yearly Meetings serve a necessary function, but we need to evaluate whether they are large enough to function, and consider mergers and reorganization to create fewer, healthier Yearly meetings.

The faith of our heroes — Hebrews 11

Sermon Delivered at Raysville Friends Meeting
Reading: Hebrews 11

By faith, my grandfather left his job as an Engineer at General Electric to become a pastor of a tiny rural church in South Dakota. By faith, he went from a comfortable professional position to one where the only certainty was poverty. He taught and encouraged me throughout my life.

By faith, Kansas Yearly meeting answered a call to send missionaries to East Africa during the time we call the great depression. Somehow they found the funds to open up “Friends Africa Gospel Mission” in Burundi. By faith, people such as Alfred and Ruth Miller spent their lives helping build a new church that has now outgrown its parent church in Kansas. By faith, at the time when foreigners were expelled from Burundi, they rebuilt a new work in Rwanda. By faith, Friends helped those who survived genocide and civil war. Alfred and Ruth retired to my home town of Hutchinson, and were an inspiration to me as I grew up.

By faith, some ministers in Guatemala Yearly Meeting moved to the United States in order to minister to the immigrant population here. These missionaries started Churches that served an impoverished minority population, without the support of an existing community that could partner with them. Without volunteers, stable mature members, and without adequate funding these people served and worked for years hoping to build an outpost in a land foreign to them. In Kansas, Thomas Martinez planted several churches, and has now passed the mantle of leadership to younger people. Carlos Moran has worked with Friends in California, New England, and now in Indiana to start new churches. I have seen him live out his faith as he pours his heart and resources into building a community.

By faith, ministers such as John Woolman condemned the practice of slavery, making it so that slave-holding was forbidden within the Society of Friends. By faith, Charles Osborne spoke against an economic system where even those who disagreed with slavery profited from its practice, and by faith he condemned those who made slavery economically viable by buying the cotton produced by slaves and producing textiles. By faith, Levi Coffin lead a movement to help run-away slaves escape to freedom in Canada. Both Coffin and Osborne were disowned by Indiana Yearly Meeting because the Yearly Meeting was not ready for their prophetic voice and devotion to civil disobedience — so, by faith, they formed a new Yearly Meeting headquartered at what is now Fountain City, and was devoted to living out their calling to end the evil of slavery in the United States.

By faith 19th century Friends Ministers traveled throughout the United States, and Europe preaching Christ’s power to change lives and save people from the destructive power of sin. I have found the ministry journals to be quite inspiring. I am impressed at how before the automobile or the airplane these people could influence the whole nation. I am even more amazed that they found time to make a ministry tour of Europe. By faith, some of them such as English Friend Gurney was able to travel because he was part of a wealthy banking family — but the true story of faith is the one who follows where God leads without any resources.

One of these ministers without a surplus of wealth to support him was Amos Kenworthy. Amos as a young man who grew up in Raysville Indiana. At the start of his adult life, he had to work “by the month”, for those of you who don’t know what that means — it means that he would agree to work from sun-up to sun down for a month — and he would get paid for that month of work. Eventually, he learned a skilled trade — he became a broom-maker. Amos would make brooms, then he would live off his brooms as he traveled throughout the United States in the ministry. His “Life and Works” claims that he ministered in almost every American Friends meeting (Orthodox), as well as ministered extensively in England and Ireland. What I know is that he made enough of an impression that his name is remembered in Kansas, even though his ministry there was only a few months. His funeral was at Whittier Friends, and he was remembered throughout the world.

Amos was a man of profound faith. He most often did not stay in a place very long. While he tended to be a well loved minister, he had a habit of speaking prophetically in a way that gave him powerful enemies. He believed that God gave him messages, and he delivered them, not knowing who they were for nor why. Sometimes these were prophetic messages that exposed the sinfulness of people who were about to harm the public good whether this was thief, or the angry person who had murder in his heart — and was actually carrying the knife that he intended to use. The antidotes of where the prophetic visions brought him are numerous — and like all prophets, his welcome would end when sinfulness was exposed.

If you know the history of Knightstown Friends, back in the 1877, Knightstown Friends nearly lost their meetinghouse. They were in debt, and had no way of paying off the debt. By faith, Amos sold his home, and used the money to pay off the debts of Knightstown Friends. By faith, he stayed with this struggling meeting for three years, because he believed there was a place and ministry for Friends in Knightstown Indiana.

The faith of these people inspire me. This is a faith that changes people’s lives. This is a faith that sets priorities, and causes people to do the extraordinary, without thought of what they might be sacrificing.

Too often people talk about belief or faith only in terms of what we believe. We say things such as: We believe that there is only one God. We believe that God inspired the Bible. We believe that Jesus is divine. I don’t want to discount right belief — it’s better than wrong belief, but this isn’t the faith that we are looking at.

For one thing, if you notice, these heroes of faith we find in Hebrews 11 didn’t know all the nice little details about God that we know. Many of these heroes of the faith had no scriptures at all — others had the Torah. The chapter ends by reminding us that none of these received the promise — which is Jesus Christ.

The heroes that I look up to had Someone they believed in. Yes, there is no doubt that they believed many good things about God, but the faith that led them to do these remarkable things was a belief in God. They believed in a God who brought salvation to individuals and communities. They believed in Jesus, and His kingdom. There are more heroes of faith than anyone has time to mention. I pray that God leads me, and all of us to such faith. I hope to say, with the great cloud of witnesses that comes before us: “We believe in God.”

There really is a huge difference between believing in God, and knowing about God. When I was a child, I believed in my father. I did not know anything about his childhood — as a child, it never occurred to me that he had one. The first time he shaved off his beard, my mother tells me I had no idea who he was. When I was just a toddler, my mom told me that my grandmother was with us on a trip. The car broke down, and dad coasted over to the side of the road — I told my grandmother: Don’t worry, Daddy will fix it, and we will get going again. My grandmother told me that my dad couldn’t fix everything — I assured her that he could fix anything — and, when dad grabbed his toolbox, worked a few minutes, closed the hood, put away his tools, and drove off like nothing ever was wrong, I continued to believe what I had said.

This faith meant that I had no worries about traveling, even when it seemed that things were going badly, I knew we’d soon be on our way and that we would arrive at the destination. Hebrews 11 opens by telling us that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith was knowing that we would reach the unseen destination, and that my father could get us there.

I thank God that I’m no longer a toddler. Faith comes harder than it did when I was three but there is something to be said about having more knowledge and skill. There is something to be said about being able to accomplish things with my own hands. There is something about being an adult. We are called both to have faith like a child, and we are called to grow into maturity.

John 6:24-35 — Why do we look for Jesus?

Sermon delivered at Valley Mills Friends Meeting

Reading:  John 6:24-35

When I was a student at Barclay college, I took a class on missions. In this class, one of the topics that came up was that of “Rice Christians”. Rice Christians is a term for the people who call themselves Christians because they believe that they will receive bags of rice. It is the idea that people want to become Christians so that they can get something from the missionaries.

At that time, I really didn’t understand all of the conversation. While it was clear that “Rice Christians” were not a useful addition to the fledgling church, it is hard to see what the issues are. Even after graduating, it was somewhat hard to see what the issues were. You see, I have done some work with food pantries, and with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army in my home town has a huge building that is full every day of the week, except Sunday when only its small congregation is there. When I’ve worked at a church food Pantry, the days we hand out food attract far more people than Sunday worship.

It has been hard for me to figure this out, partially, because it is outside my experience. My experience with food relief is that Christians hand out food because people are hungry — and people accept the food, because they are hungry. I’ve never noticed anybody expecting those who hungered to be church members, or even Christian. I’ve even thought from time to time that it would be nice to see them some other time, such as Sunday morning.

When I think about it though, this means that I did not really know what it meant to have people coming to church, just because they wanted the church to keep giving them bread. The Christian organizations I worked with did not expect those who received food or other aid to be there on Sunday morning, so there was no reason for rice Christians.

More recently, I’ve been in a position where I could see that there are people who are around only for what they can get out of others — I’ve seen people who attend churches as long as the Benevolence fund helps — but leave angrily when it runs out. I’ve seen people who try to assert their power and control the work of their local churches instead of seeking God’s will together. I’ve even come to realize that when people talk about networking, some of them actually do mean that the purpose of forming relationships is to promote ourselves — that we ‘win friends’ and ‘influence people’ in order to increase the sales volume — and the church becomes merely a place to make more contacts.

I find it interesting how the people who came to Jesus just came because they received bread. The bread that they received was distributed miraculously. When Jesus asked them to believe, they asked what signs he’d demonstrate so that they might believe — as if feeding 5000 people out of a boy’s lunchbox was not enough of a miracle. The feeding of the 5000 was at the start of this chapter — a crowd that could not be fed with 6 months wages, even if so much food could be bought at the last moment. This passage is literally the next day.

When Jesus preached, he preached that people should be generous to those in need, and to feed the hungry. Jesus went so far as to miraculously feed those who came to listen to him because he knew that they must be hungry.  Jesus cared about the physical needs of others, but he cared about more than just the physical.

I am amazed at the idea that the people were so focused on their stomachs that they missed the miracle that fed them. They also completely missed out on the message. Jesus told them: “I am the bread of life.” They were so focused on their hunger that they had no interest in their starving spirit.

The result of this exchange, which we see at the end of the chapter, is that the crowds left Jesus. When Jesus spoke of something other than healing the sick, and when he offered spiritual food, but did not hand out food for the body, the crowds left him. Even the bulk of Jesus’ disciples left him. In a day, Jesus went from having thousands of people following him, hoping to find healing or food to having his own disciples leaving him. When he asked the twelve: “Will you leave us too”, Peter had a rare moment of getting it, answering: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”

Jesus, in a matter of days saw his ‘congregation’ drop from several thousands of people and nearly 100 leaders to the point where he asked the twelve if they would leave him too. After the church growth movement, churches everywhere are seeing many of the people who were brought in leaving again — many churches don’t know how far this decline will go. How many wanted food, or health? How many really were not willing to go to Jerusalem and possibly die with Jesus?

Sometimes, I am pretty nervous about numbers — right now, every church I’ve been involved with seems to have fewer people than they once did, and the people who are there seem to have less time and energy for church. I remember how the church growth movement taught us that if we were not growing the church, we were failing to live up God’s calling to make disciples.

What this passage reminds me is that the crowds might not be disciples. Those who come for the services that are offered, may not have any interest in the bread of life. Those who come for fellowship might not be willing to stay if faith is no longer respectable. Those who came for connections might leave when they see that there are other ways to network. Those who seek power might leave when they realize that the church isn’t supposed to be about power and control.

Unfortunately, this kind of growth can make us forget who we are. Growth can distract us, causing us to worry so much about the logistics of all those people that we forget to make disciples. Growth can be great crowds of people who are neither disciples, nor have any idea that there should be disciples. It seems that Jesus needed to chase away the crowds, and focus on just a few people who knew he brought words of life. Jesus fed the crowds, healed the sick, preached good news to the poor — but, he needed time and space to make disciples.

Perhaps we have an opportunity to refocus, and experience personal growth as disciples, and into the name Christian. Perhaps when people talk about the need for spiritual revival, they are confused. Maybe, right now, we need to become small enough that we can rediscover a devotion to Christ. Maybe we were so distracted by having a real influence on the world around us that we put our trust in politics rather than Christ. Perhaps we have an opportunity to discover that our faith is not about winning, but about being faithful and walking with Jesus