sermon: responding to God’s insane ideas

Scripture: James 1:17-27
unedited/uncited, by J. Lavoy

It was a tremendous act of courage for Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt, and to wander for 40 years, each day, hoping to see some glimpse of the Promised Land. It was a tremendous act of courage to leave what is familiar, awful as it may be, to go on a journey to the unknown.

I remember the day I left for University. The day before was the most anxious day of my life. Though I would not consider my homelife to be anything close to that of the Israelites in Egypt, the act of going to a new, unknown place, where everything would be different, was terrifying.

As Moses and the Israelites wandered, they were in continuous discernment with God about how they should live together. Moses would interpret laws from God, and share them with the Israelites, in the form of covenant. When he had concluded his work, and they neared the Promised Land, which Moses could not enter, he told his people:

This is no vain matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.

That is from Deuteronomy 32:47. This covenant is no insignificant matter. Through it you will love long in the Promised Land.

On July 23, 1731, Count Zinzendorf – one of our spiritual forebears – returned to Herrnhut, where the Moravians had convened, after they had been scattered throughout Europe. He had paid a visit to Copenhagen, where he met a former slave named Anthony. Anthony’s family and friends were in St. Thomas, which was an especially awful place for slaves. Zinzendorf told the people of Herrnhut about his experience with Anthony, and the wretched condition of slaves in the Caribbean. The people of Herrnhut were so concerned by these stories, that Zinzendorf invited Anthony to come from Copenhagen, to speak.

Leonard Dober heard of this misery. According to his diary, he was immediately convinced that he needed to go to St. Thomas and care for these people. He did not tell anyone, but rather, prayed about it, and went to sleep. The next morning, when he awoke, he opened his Bible, and the scripture said:

This is no vain matter for you, but rather your very life; through it you may live long in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.

He shared his insight with the community, and people rallied around his idea. After a month of prayer, he and David NItschmann, who would later become a bishop, set off to St. Thomas. Anthony, the former slave, advised that white clergy would be particularly ineffective in reaching the slaves. He said, foremost, that the slaves work such long, grueling hours, that they would not be able to attend religious services. He also said that the plantation holder was so insufferable, and nervous about missionaries, that he would not permit missionaries on the island, especially for work among the slaves. Anthony suggested that Dober and Nitschmann sell themselves into slavery, so that they might work alongside the slaves, a servant leadership, and so that they would be permitted on the island. And legend has it that the money they earned from selling themselves into slavery was used to pay for their one-way ticket to St. Thomas.

This was a tremendous demonstration of courage. Two young men heard about tragedy halfway around the world and, empowered by God, they responded in the only way they knew how: they sold themselves into solidarity, that they might go and care for some of the oppressed in the world. Having heard about this tragedy, they left everything that was familiar, and found themselves as slaves. I am not sure whether, today, we would commend and support them for their courage, or reprimand them for their poor judgement.

Yet, over the next several decades, they Dober and Nitschmann paved the way for many more missionaries to come to St. Thomas, St. Johns, Antigua, Cayman, Bermuda, and Jamacia.  At every opportunity they got, the missionaries purchased the freedom of slaves, and sent them back to Africa as missionaries, to Europe, and to Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

One such former slave, Rebecca Protten, went back to Herrnhut where she herself was trained as a missionary, and went to work in what is now Guinea, west Africa, where she cultivated an immensely powerful missionary enterprise as a preacher, teacher, and nurse.

Having heard the word of the least of these, they were doers of their faith, and witnessed an immensely creative, redemptive, and holy enterprise.

Truly, I take issue with our scripture today. It seems all, too easy. Its also a confusing scripture passage. It took me many years, and a lot of contemplation, to understand a faith of belief, rather than a faith of action. We all have the capacity to do good and, indeed, most people on this planet do good. But doing good, isn’t our faith.

Do not let me mislead you. I have no trouble believing that being a Christian makes anyone more or less moral than another person, or more or less capable of good works than another person. There are beautiful, wonderful atheists, and ugly, awful supposed Christians. I’m sure everyone in this room knows people in both of these camps.

But we are not here to worship that which is civil or polite or tasteful. We are not even here to worship the abstract idea of goodness, or doing good. Though we are community and civically minded, our God is the one who subverts evil not with good acts, or good behavior, but with redemption.

Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann did not sign petitions and press for governments to change their slave laws. Both of which, by the way, would have been good and noble things to do. Instead, they went, in solidarity with the slaves, and sold themselves into slavery. These two, white Germans, of bourgeois status, became slaves, which, in its own way, subverted the system.

God is both mysterious and powerful, as systems of evil are subverted. God is one who died a treasonous death, on a cross, in order to subvert the evil empire, and defy death.

So, when we reduce our faith to being kind and doing good works, we’re saying something bland and uninteresting. All of us must be kind, and do good works, because all of us are loving human beings. That should probably be a base-line expectation of all people: be kind, and do good works.

But for those of us who accept a call to become Christian, to follow Jesus, may we be so bold as to respond to a word of faith, in the most courageous way possible. When we hear God’s word, we don’t often listen.

But the Holy Spirit planted an absolutely insane idea into the mind and heart of Leonard Dober: “sell yourself into slavery, leave everything you know, risk death and a miserable life, because my people are in need.”

And usually, at this point, I would say: “but I’m not telling you to become martyrs, or to do anything crazy.” I am concerned for your well being, after all. But this time, I am telling you: if God plants an insane idea in your mind, an idea for the care of God’s people, a creative and redemptive and holy idea — go with it!

We are a people who have gathered together in faith. We are a people who worship God whose power is subversive, whose presence is mystery, whose movement is resurrection. May we respond courageously to God’s bold demands. When we hear or tragedy in the world, may we be tools for God to provide compassion. And when we hear of joy in the world, may we be tools for God to provide laughter. In our anxiety, may we be hopeful tools for God.